Apex in Creation

At the end of Shemini, last week’s Torah portion, the Torah went into a lot of detail regarding the laws of Kashrut. What can we eat? What we cannot eat? And why? There we read:

For I am the Lord your God; therefore sanctify yourselves, and be  holy; for I am holy; neither shall you defile yourselves with any manner of swarming thing that moves upon the earth. For I am the Lord that brought you up out of the land of Egypt, to be your God; you shall therefore be holy, for I am holy.This is the law of the beast, and of the fowl, and of every living creature that moves in the waters, and of every creature that swarms upon the earth; to make a difference between the unclean and the clean, and between the living thing that may be eaten and the living thing that may not be eaten. ( Leviticus 11:44-47)

A simple reading seems that God wants us to imitate God. But what does it mean to be holy like God? What do we make of the out-of-place reference to the Exodus from Egypt? And most importantly this week, what do we make of the transition from Shemini to Tazria, this week’s Torah portion?

At the start of Tazria we read:

Speak to the children of Israel, saying: If a woman be delivered, and bear a male child, then she shall be unclean seven days; as in the days of the impurity of her sickness shall she be unclean. (Leviticus 12:2)

On this Rashi quotes Vayikra Rabbah and comments:

Rabbi Simlai said, ” Just as the creating of man came after {the creation of ]all of the cattle, beast, and fowl in act of Creation, so this law is explained after the law of the cattle, beast, and fowl. (Rashi on Leviticus 12:2)

Rabbi Simlai, my Amoraic hero, points out the sequence of the laws of Shemini and Tazria mirrors the creation narrative. It is telling that the next large section of the Torah deals with a series of aweful dermatologic issues. Before this story of birth we learn all of these laws of Kashrut in which we are told to eat different to separate ourselves from lower creatures. After the story is the birth of children we learn how we fall a part as people. Most of life is controlling how we fend off parasites and other creatures living off your bodies, until ultimately we return to the earth. At our base we are no different from the animals we eat. Birth is the apex of the biblical imagination of creation. Is it any surprise that soon after Adam and Eve are created they eat something they are not supposed to eat and are condemned to mortality? But it is also after this act they become parents. As parents having a children represents our fulfilment of the directive to imitate God as a creator.

And so what do we make of the reference to the Exodus  from Egypt in the middle of all of this? In many ways, when we were slaves we were closest to being seen by others and seeing ourselves as animals. It was only after the Exodus from Egypt  that we became people again. The crossing of the Red Sea was our national birth. Just as Tazria is followed by issues (pun intended)that ailed us as individuals, the time in the desert was a time in which the Israelites were dealing with numerous national problems. In many ways it was our adolescence, with all of the acting out of base animal desires and even the acne. It is fitting that on Shabbat of Tazria in which we allude to a high point in becoming creators with the birth of a child we look ahead to celebrate Passover, the moment of our national birth.  So we keep kosher and remember the Exodus from Egypt to remind us of where we came from and the risk of forgetting our mission. We are all but animals, but we are vested with the infinite potential to create. Birth is just the beginning, we all have a long way to go toward realizing our divine potential.

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