There is an unexpected yet powerful lesson to be learned from this week’s Torah portion, Re’eh, about the power of positivity.
The Torah lists (for the second time) all the mammals, fish and birds suitable for Jewish consumption. One of the 24 species of birds which is not kosher is called ra’ah, the kite or Milvus. (It has two additional Hebrew names too.)
The Talmud explains that the name ra’ah comes from the verb “to see”: “Rabbi Abahu said, the ra’ah bird is the same as the ayah. Why is this bird called ra’ah?” Because it sees exceedingly well.
The Talmud continues to illustrate the ra’ah’s keen eyesight: We learn that this bird stands in Babylon and sees a carcass in the Land of Israel! If you are wondering how far that is, it is a distance of 500 miles from Babylon (present day Iraq) to Israel.
The obvious question is why the Talmud uses such a strange illustration. It could have used so many more examples of what the bird is capable of seeing and where it is capable of seeing it.
Also, one of the reasons according to Jewish tradition that some animals are not kosher is because of the negative characteristics these animals possess and how they can have a negative impact on the consumer. Perhaps this is where the saying “you are what you eat” comes from. In light of this, it would not make sense that on account of the ra’ah’s incredible eyesight it should be rendered non-kosher. Surely there can be nothing wrong with keen eyesight and perception. Why, then, is this bird not kosher?
The answer to this question becomes apparent when you take a close look at what the Talmud is really saying. The Talmud is not only illustrating the keen vision of the ra’ah; it is also explaining to us why it is not kosher: “This bird stands in Babylon, and sees a carcass in the Land of Israel!” When you gaze at the Land of Israel, you can see many things, including many positive and heartwarming things. Yet what does this bird see? Corpses! Being a carnivorous bird, which kills, devours and eats the meat of other animals, its eyes gaze at Israel but observe only one thing: the carcasses in the land.
This is what makes it a non-kosher animal — we do not want to “eat” and incorporate this type of behavior into our psyche.
The Torah here is cautioning us to distance ourselves from being negative people who only see the flaws in people, places and events. When we highlight the negativity in others, it actually causes those qualities to come to the fore. While some see the good in everybody, even in the worst situation or person, these characters manage to somehow see the evil in everybody and in everything. They can always show you how everyone has an “agenda,” and everyone is driven by ulterior motives; there are smelly carcasses everywhere.
When one falls into the mode of chronic complainer, he never stops criticizing everyone and everything. This can become a very negative and non-kosher cycle. Are such people right? They may be partially, or even completely correct. Every person has flaws. Even the greatest saint has demons; even a great man usually has some skeleton — a corpse — in his closet.
That is why we need the Torah to guide us, and that is why the Torah asks of us to never stop working on ourselves, to challenge our conventions, to scrutinize our motives, to refine our behavior, to make amends for our mistakes. But why is that the only thing you manage to observe?
If we take this Talmudic passage more literally, this insight of our sages concerning the non-kosher ra’ah bird can be applied to how we view the Land of Israel.
Is Israel a perfect country? We all know the answer. Israel has many challenges and problems. Is the government perfect? Of course not!
But there are those who look at Israel and see nothing but “corpses.” In our own day and age, with modern technology we were all blessed with the eyesight of the kite. We sit in our homes in Babylon (or the United States or Canada, or Europe, Australia, South Africa or anywhere else in the world), and with the help of biased news cameras we can see Israel. But often what is reported are only “the corpses,” the negativity.
And this is how you know how terribly biased and unfair they are. When someone criticizes Israel, that is legitimate. There is much to comment and argue about. But when one has nothing but criticism for Israel, when there is nothing good to say about Israel, when Israel is portrayed as the most racist country — then you know it has nothing to do with Israel; rather, the person spewing the hate is treif.
At the end of the day, it is all a matter of perspective. Each of us has to choose what we are going to see — in ourselves and in the world around us. PJC