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Rabbi Yaacov Asher Sinclair with Ohr Somayach wrote a lovely piece about Parsha Shemini – our Torah portion this week.

The Rabbi writes, “The road to holiness does not start with lofty ideals or sublime thoughts. It does not begin with a mind-expanding revelation or a Close Encounter. It cannot be produced by psychotropic drugs, nor can it be experienced by climbing the Alps or the Andes. True, gazing down from Mont Blanc or Everest may fill us with awe at the Creator's handiwork. Nature can truly inspire closeness to God, but all this inspiration will vanish like a cloud of smoke if we lack the fundamental ingredients to concretize inspiration into actuality. The road to holiness starts with a few small boring steps. Like, being a decent moral person, and controlling our emotions and appetites. As Jews, we may not eat what we like when we like. On Pesach we may eat no bread. On Yom Tov we should eat meat. On Yom Kippur we may eat nothing. At all times, we may not eat the forbidden foods that are the subject of this week's Torah portion. “Lest you become contaminated....” In Hebrew this sentence is expressed as one word: V'nitmay'hem. The spelling of this word is unusual. It lacks an aleph and thus it can also be read as V'nitumtem – which means “Lest you become dulled.” In our search for holiness and meaning in this world, one of our greatest assets and aids are the laws of kashrut. Kosher food is soul food. Food for the soul. Food that feeds our spirituality and sharpens our ability to receive holiness. Food that is not kosher does the reverse. It dulls our senses. It makes us less sensitive, less receptive to holiness. A Jew who tries to seek holiness sitting on top of some mountain in the Far East living on a diet of salted pork will find it impossible to achieve his goal. The view of the Ganges, or the Himalayas may titillate his spiritual senses, but he will find no growth or nourishment reaching his core. The spiritual masters teach that if a person contaminates himself a little, he becomes contaminated a great deal. Spirituality is a delicate thing. It doesn't take much to jam the broadcast from Upstairs. On the other hand, a little bit of holiness goes a long way. As the Torah teaches us today “You shall sanctify yourselves and you shall become holy.” A little bit of sanctity generates a lot of holiness. If we sanctify ourselves down here in this lowly world with all its barriers to holiness, if we guard our mouths, our eyes and our ears, then the Torah promises us that we will be given help to lift us to lofty peaks of holiness. It all starts with one small step.”

We become holy by imbuing even the most mundane of acts – with holiness. Kashrut tells us how to do that with food. We will never know exactly why we must only eat animals that have a split hoof and chew their cud – the restriction God has placed on us is not necessarily rational or logical. It is spiritual. The world is NOT our personal banquet table. We cannot eat indiscriminately – we inject holiness into our eating habits by restricting them – in obedience and faith. We follow the law because God has asked us to.

We have been given a wonderful opportunity to rise above our own appetites – to be better than animals eating at the trough. The laws of Kashrut are a tangible way to express our holiness – to be uniquely Jewish – to have dominion over the ordinary and make it extraordinary. Far from being restrictive, the Kosher laws allow us to express our Judaism, our beliefs, our desire to emulate God in a creative, responsible and ultimately meaningful way. Kashrut is a gift, not a taboo.

Story Line:

On the eighth day of the dedication of the Mishkan, Aaron, his sons, and the entire nation bring various korbanot (offerings) as commanded by Moshe. Aaron and Moshe bless the nation. G-d allows the Jewish People to sense His Presence after they complete the Mishkan. Aaron's sons, Nadav and Avihu, bring a fire offering not commanded by G-d. A fire comes from before G-d and consumes them, stressing the need to perform the commandments only as Moshe directs. Moshe consoles Aaron, who grieves in silence. Moshe directs the kohanim as to their behavior during the mourning period, and warns them that they must not drink intoxicating beverages before serving in the Mishkan. The Torah lists the two characteristics of a kosher animal: It has split hooves, and it chews, regurgitates, and re-chews its food. The Torah specifies by name those non-kosher animals which have only one of these two signs. A kosher fish has fins and easily removable scales. All birds not included in the list of forbidden families are permitted. The Torah forbids all types of insects except for four species of locusts. Details are given of the purification process after coming in contact with ritually-impure species. B'nei Yisrael are commanded to be separate and holy — like G-d. Also in Shemini are some of the laws of ritual purity, including the purifying power of the mikvah (a pool of water meeting specified qualifications. Thus the people of Israel are enjoined to "differentiate between the impure and the pure."

Big Ideas:

  1. How can we rationalize the deaths of Nadav and Avihu?

  2. How can we understand Aaron’s silence?

  3. Why are some animals kosher and others are not?

  4. What is the significance of pure and impure?

Nadav and Avihu

Nadav and Avihu are sometimes regarded as terrible sinners who died because they usurped their father and desecrated the Tabernacle through improper offering. However, there are also texts that regard the brothers as righteous men whose personal sacrifice was necessary for the initiation of the sacrificial rites. The Zohar, in particular, loves Nadav and Avihu and has an extraordinary description of them "bringing atonement for the sins of Israel" (Zohar III 57b). Great stuff.

According to one approach, the problem was that the two entered the Sanctuary drunk, evidenced by the section in the Torah which follows this episode -- Aaron is warned against entering the Temple to perform service while intoxicated:

And God spoke to Aaron saying, 'Do not drink wine or strong drink, neither you nor your sons when you enter the Tent of Meeting lest you die.' (Leviticus 10:8-9)

The logic is that this is mentioned now, following the deaths of Aaron's sons, because that was their sin. Alternatively we may say that the problem was that the offering of incense was not called for, but it was the drunkenness which caused the error in judgment, resulting in the "strange fire" which was offered.

Other opinions state that it was the fact that they were unmarried, and therefore childless, which led to their deaths.

Rabbi Levi said, "They were conceited, many woman awaited them eagerly (to marry them) but what did they say? 'Our uncle is King, our other uncle is a head of a tribe, our father is High Priest, we are his two assistants. What woman is worthy of us?'" (Midrash Rabbah 20:10)

This source gives a different picture of Nadav and Avihu. They sound quite self absorbed, and it is difficult to imagine such characters being spiritual leaders.

Another source identifies their downfall with their deciding a Torah law in the presence of Moses and Aaron, without asking the opinion of their teacher. This can be seen in the text:

... they brought before God a strange fire which they had not been commanded to bring ...

Our first reading would have implied that God had not commanded them, but the Sforno explains that Moses had not commanded them to bring the offering, implying that their sin was in not asking Moses.

Perhaps most sinister of the allegations raised against them is the following passage in the Talmud:

Moses and Aaron were walking along, as Nadav and Avihu were behind them, and all of Israel behind them. Nadav said to Avihu, "When these two elders die, you and I will lead this generation." God said to them "Let's see who buries whom." (Talmud Bavli, Sanhedrin 52a)

The picture which emerges from all of these sources, is of a pair of individuals who allowed their position to get the best of them. The sources essentially agree on that, they only differ as to the specific fault.

Aaron’s Silence

In the aftermath of the tragic deaths of the two sons of Aaron the torah recounts how Moshe approached Aaron apparently in an attempt to comfort him:

"Then Moshe said to Aaron, Of this did God speak, saying, I will be sanctified through those who are nearest Me, and before the entire People I will be glorified. And Aaron held his peace."

The last phrase consists of two words in Hebrew, "VaYidom Aaron"; a literal translation might be, "Aaron was stilled". The classical commentaries differ regarding the meaning and significance of this phrase.

Modern translators have also had difficulty rendering this short phrase into English: Rabbi Arye Kaplan, in "The Living Torah" writes "remained silent", while the Artscroll translation is "Aaron fell silent" and The Jerusalem Bible prefers "And Aaron held his peace". These translators echo different approaches found in ancient and medieval sources: Ramban writes that Aaron had been crying out loud, but upon hearing the comforting words of Moshe he became silent. According to this approach, Aaron may well have continued to mourn in his heart; when he saw Moshe attempt to console him, Aaron realized that he must be silent. The change was auditory, not emotional.

The Seforno, on the other hand, stresses that Aaron's silence indicated an emotional change; indeed, Aaron was comforted.

Rashi, links the silence of Aaron with a revelation, explaining that Aaron remained silent - something which was extremely difficult to do - and was consequently rewarded for his silence:

"And Aaron was silent" - He received a reward for his silence; and what was the reward he received? That the subsequent Divine address was made to him alone and not to Moshe also for to him alone was spoken the section dealing with those who are intoxicated by wine.

According to Rashi, Aaron's silence caused the revelation. The proof for Rashi is the following section in the Torah which is addressed to Aaron exclusively:

"And the Lord spoke to Aaron, saying. Do not drink wine nor strong drink, you, nor your sons with you, when you go into the Tent of Meeting, lest you die; it shall be a statute forever throughout your generations. And that you may differentiate between holy and unholy, and between unclean and clean. And that you may teach the People of Israel all the statutes which the Lord has spoken to them by the hand of Moshe." (6) (Vayikra 10:8-11)

Aaron witnesses the horrific death of his sons; instead of rejecting God or harbouring destructive ill will toward God, Aaron accepts God's decree. As we have noted, some commentaries see his acceptance as outward, others inward; some see silence, others a silent prayer. The Rambam sees a lonely Aaron receiving a revelation as he utters praise to God, his religious conviction able to withstand any assault. Like Eliyahu in the dessert, Aaron understands that the word of God is contained in silence, in solitude. Perhaps Aaron now understood what his brother Moshe felt, alone, away from the people, but receiving the word of God.

Rashi (and Maharal) see the silence as the vehicle that elevated Aaron to this new spiritual stratum. Aaron is able to hear the voice of the Divine which one can not hear when speaking.

Aaron's heroic response to tragedy, his ability to contain himself, to resist the more human impulse to build walls and barriers, transported him beyond the noisy, physical plane. His silence allowed him to be like the Sun in the sky, like his brother Moshe, and to hear the Word of God.

The laws of permitted and forbidden species of animals (Rabbi Chaim Sunitsky) Of all the mammals, the Torah permits us to eat only those that have a split hoof and chew their cud. Obviously, this law has many reasons. According to the simple meaning, the kosher species possess a very important quality – being satisfied with what they have. The ruminating animals are constantly chewing over the same food. The Torah mentions one animal that has split hoofs and does not chew its cud – the swine, and three animals that chew their cud but do not have a split hoof. Interestingly, even after the discovery of America and Australia, no contradictions to the Torah’s rule were found. Another interesting point is that our sages compare the four animals with one kosher sign to the four nations that ruled over the world and over the Jewish people. The first three nations - the Babylon, the Persia and the Greece – correspond to the three animals that have their kosher sign on the inside. They had dominion over us when our nation was also sinful on the outside but good inside. Their dominion was limited to a foretold period of time. The fourth nation – Roman Empire – is compared to the pig. This animal has its kosher sign outside, just as our people were good only on the outside at the time of the destruction of the Second Temple. Their sins were hidden and so too the end of the exile is unknown and depends on our Teshuvah - return to the Creator. Regarding the birds, the Torah enumerates only 24 species that are not kosher. However, each of the species can include many different varieties of birds. The Talmud tells us four signs to be able to distinguish the kosher birds from the non-kosher. The non-kosher birds are generally predators eating meat or fish, while the kosher birds have a digestive system that is best equipped for seeds and grain. In practice we may only eat those birds that are known by tradition to be kosher. They include chicken, goose and turkey. Of all the fish and sea animals, the Torah allows eating those that have fins and scales. Interestingly, the Talmud mentions that all those fish that possess scales, have fins. Since the times of the Talmud, hundreds of thousands of types of fish were discovered and none are found to contradict this principle!  The Torah forbids eating any worms and insects. For this reason, we need to check fruits, vegetables, grain, flour and fish to make sure they don’t contain any worms. There are special catalogs that describe the methods of checking for each particular food. One can also buy pre-checked fruits and vegetables with rabbinical Hashgacha. Similarly, the water in certain cities including New York needs to be filtered since it contains bugs. Any product that is made from unclean species is forbidden. Thus, caviar can be eaten only from the kosher fish. The eggs have to be from a kosher bird, the milk – from a kosher cow, goat or sheep etc.

The Notion of Pure and Impure

The notion of pure and impure: Like everything in Judaism, we make holy through distinction and separation – our dietary laws (separation of milk and meat), our separation of Shabbat from the other days of the week, our separation of the gender and their individual responsibilities, etc. etc. We do all this, in order to make the ordinary extraordinary – to make the unholy holy. What does it mean to be holy, to be godlike? Partly, it means living ethically, for God is associated throughout the Torah with justice, compassion, and mercy. But holiness is more than ethical living; it involves an underlying religious attitude from which ethics and other humanistic systems are built. [That attitude, as Abraham Joshua Heschel described so eloquently, is one of awe, of an overpowering, nonrational appreciation of purity and completeness in the world and purpose and caring in all life. In strikingly ecological language, Heschel once defined awe as an "intuition for the creaturely dignity of all things and their preciousness to God." This sense paves the way for ethics.

Parsha Shemini is a difficult one – we struggle with the unanswerable, the non-rational, the baffling – why did Aaron’s two sons have to die? In the face of this terrible tragedy, how could Aaron be silent? Why can’t we eat lobster? Many, many questions to which there are no answers.

Perhaps this Parsha illustrates to us the humbling notion that we cannot always be privy to God’s workings – that some things will always remain for us a mystery. And that sometimes, we must take God’s methods on blind faith.

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