Archive for the '3.03 Shemini' Category



Listening for Silence

Just a few days ago we celebrated our salvation at the division of the Red Sea with the concluding days of Passover. There we were witness to God’s miracles and the death of other people’s children. Our response was to sing a song. The Gemara says:

The Egyptians were drowning in the sea. At the same time, the angels wanted to sing before God, and the Lord, God, said to them: ‘My creations are drowning and you are singing before me?’ (Sanhedrin 37)

Here we see God silencing the angels for their callous behavior. By implication this Gemara is teaching us a lesson in compassion. There seems to be moments for silence, or at the least not singing. If this is true for our enemy, we can only imagine the response for a friend of a loved one.

As a parent it is hard to imagine how I would respond upon hearing the death of one of my children, let alone two of them. In Shemini, this week’s Torah portion, we read of Aaron’s response to hearing the death of two of his sons. There we read:

Then Moses said to Aaron: ‘This is it that the Lord spoke, saying: Through them that are close to Me I will be sanctified, and before all the people I will be glorified.’ And Aaron was silent. (Leviticus 10:3)

I could imagine many responses, but not one of them is silence. What can we learn from Aaron’s deafening silence?

With Yom HaShoa being commemorated this past week, I am shocked as to the tremendous amount of literature still being written about the Holocaust. All of these years later, we cannot even imagine slowing down on that topic. I am not saying we should forget or deny history for a moment. The opposite is true. There is a certain urgency now more than ever to tell the story. We are in the waning years of keeping the holy company of survivors in our community. We need them to share their stories before they are gone. The only things I wanted ask is what do they the survivors want? We want them to talk, but do they want to talk? Aaron was silent at the death of his children. Surely we are humbled by their presence. We are here to listen to anything the survivors want to tell us. We need to need to  give them that time and space, even if they like Aaron want to be quiet. We can try to drown our sorrows, but never our memories.

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.

Keeping Kosher

In Shmini, this week’s Torah portion, we read about the dietary laws. Being mindful of what you eat is challenging but it seems that there are many ways that we could and should be mindful of what we eat beyond the parameters of kashrut.  Is there any inherent value in keeping kosher?

As we read:

For I am the Lord your God; you shall therefore sanctify yourselves, and you shall be holy; for I am holy; nor shall you defile yourselves with any manner of creeping thing that creeps upon the earth. For I am the Lord that brings you out of the land of Egypt, to be your God, you shall therefore be holy, for I am holy. This is the Torah of the beasts, and of the bird, and of every living creature that moves in the waters, and of every creature that creeps upon the earth. To differentiate between the unclean and the clean, and between the beast that may be eaten and the beast that may not be eaten.  (Leviticus 11: 44- 47)

From the text, it seems that the purpose of keeping kosher is to make us holy like God. In separating the clean from the unclean we can become divine.

In the modern practice of kashrut the only thing that gets separated is Jews from non-Jews. While keeping kosher might seem noble because it demands a lot of discipline, it is very socially awkward. In many ways I experience it as a fundamental challenge to joining the world. Eating is one of the best means of social joining.

Emunah, our 7-month-old,  knows that if she cries we will respond by some combination of holding her, feeding her, and/or changing her. Already I see in Yadid and Yishama, the 6 and 3-year-old, that they are able to control their basic needs to ask me if something is Kosher before they eat it. And they will not cry if I tell them that they cannot eat something because it is not kosher.  In the very moment of my most basic desires for food I am able to add Kedusha, holiness.  In keeping kosher I realize that I am very mindful of being Jewish.

On the heels of being liberated on and from Passover, I cannot help but realize how much I need to rethink how I think about food. So like so many others I have started my New Years resolution to lose weight, but for me  Nisan is the New Year.  Somehow, you are what you eat, and in showing restraint, you become like God. I would like to become a little more Godly and a little less Avi.


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