The “story arc” of Parashat Acharei Mot begins with the High Priest’s responsibilities during Yom Kippur. Through his sacrifices, incense, and prayers, he is to make expiation for the sins and for the tum’ah, or uncleanness, of Israel and of his own house. The laws of the Yom Kippur ritual are followed, in chapter 17, by exhortations to all Jews not to eat blood or carrion (“neveilah”)or mauled animals (treyfah). We are told to keep ourselves holy, to keep ourselves clean, by avoiding these forbidden foods.

Rashi offers an explanation as to why blood is forbidden. The Torah itself tells us that blood is the animal’s life-force. Rashi, on verse 17:11, tells us:

For the life of the flesh of every creature depends on its blood. This is why it is given on the altar to make expiation for the life of a human; life-force comes to make expiation for life-force.

As the blood of a sin offering is thrown upon the altar, that blood, which is the animal’s life-force, is brought in place of the blood of a sinning human. But no explanation is given for the Torah’s prohibiting trefyah  or neveilah.Rashi’s only comments on the laws against eating carrion are legal details.

One food prohibition has a rationale behind it, another does not. Rashi highlights the distinction between mitzvot that are comprehensible to us and those that are not; mishpat and chok, respectively.Mishpat, literally “sentence” or “justice” refers to that which appeals to our moral logic. Chokis that which is simply commanded. Rashi comments on 18:4:

You shall do my judgments (Et mishpatai ta’asu):These are the things said in the Torah in justice; things that if they were not said, should have been said.

Rashi seems to look at mishpatas common sense; things which simply shouldbe in the Torah.

And you shall keep my ordinances (…ve’et chukotaitishmoru): Things that are a matter of royal decree. These are things that the impulse to do wrong answers to them “Why should we keep them?” And the nations of the world question those laws’ logic, for example, eating pork, or wearing linen-wool blends, or purification with the water of the red heifer. Therefore, it is written “I am the Eternal,” meaning “Idecreed upon you, and you may not exempt yourself.”

Chokis the category of mitzvah that defies rationality, and for which, presumably, an observant Jew may encounter resistance and ridicule, even from within themselves. 

Kashrut, then, is a mix of rules which have rationale, like blood, and like chametz during Pesach, and the rest of the food restrictions, which defy logic.

The only answer to ridicule from others, and to one’s own questioning “Why do I do this?” is commitment to a life of mitzvah; living by rules, some of which seem, and may actually be, arbitrary, out of spiritual dedication. It is in order to be committed to God that a religious Jew follows chokwithout wavering. 

It is to this sense that Yom Kippur appeals. When we have not fully lived up to our commitments to living a holy life, Yom Kippur comes to offer us expiation. Our feelings of guilt or our feelings that we may not have lived up to our own standards may be based in fact, but often, they may be irrational. Either way, Yom Kippur offers a non-rational solution to a non-rational perception of our own behavior.

Shabbat Shalom!

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