Eating is more than just a way of nourishing our bodies. When we consume a food, we absorb the energy contained within it and use it for our own needs and purposes. Along with the physical food, we also absorb the food’s spiritual properties. This is why the laws of kashrut are so significant.
One of the signs of a kosher animal, as described in this week’s Torah portion, is that it must have split hooves. Furthermore, the hooves must be split all the way through from top to bottom; an animal that has a hoof that is split only part way is not kosher.
Chassidic teachings explain that the signs of a kosher animal are not merely incidental ways of identifying which animals are kosher. Rather, these signs are what make the animal kosher. In other words, these signs in and of themselves have a spiritual significance, and grant the animals that possess them the status of “kosher.”
Within the natural universe, there is a hierarchy in creation: inanimate objects, plants, animals and human beings. Each level is, in turn, dependent on the level below it for life and energy. Plants need water, sunlight and soil to grow, but can provide for all their other needs on their own. Animals are dependent on the plant kingdom, and human beings make use of all other categories for survival.
Human beings are placed at the apex of this hierarchy because they alone have the intellect and ability to make choices about how to use the resources of this world. When we consume food with the intention of using the energy for good deeds, we cause an elevation not only in the food itself, but the entire food chain that preceded it. And we, in turn, become “consumed” by the Supernal Being, Who sent us on a mission here on earth and made us dependent on the chain of creation for survival.
In fulfilling our purpose here on earth, there are times that we must exhibit softness and kindness, and other times that we must act with strength and severity. Perhaps our nature tends towards one extreme or the other. However, we must set aside our personal feelings and motivations in order to perform the will of G-d.
This is represented by the “split hooves” of a kosher animal. One must be able to go outside of one’s personal inclinations and desires, to act according to one extreme or the other, according to the needs of the situation.
Furthermore, the split must be all the way through. One cannot adopt one mode of behavior superficially, while internally resisting that path. When one is called upon to act with kindness, it must permeate his entire being, and the same is true of severity.
The second sign of a kosher animal is maaleh geirah—it chews its cud. Spiritually, this refers to the process of self-examination and reflection. Even when it appears that one has transcended one’s own inclinations, one must still examine and reflect and consult with others, to ensure that one has reached this level with sincerity.
The goal of this process of refinement and perfection is birur hanitzotzot—to elevate the sparks of holiness embedded within the universe. Thanks to our accumulated efforts over the generations of exile, we have succeeded in refining the physical world and are now ready for the final revelation of Moshiach.
(Based on an address of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Likutei Sichot vol. 2, p. 375)