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Shemini describes the consecration of the Mishkan (Tabernacle) and its altar, during which Aaron’s sons, Nadav and Avihu, die as a result of offering ‘strange fire’. The Torah then describes the laws of kashrut (dietary laws) and the laws of purity.

Another voice

Shemini by Alastair Falk :: 5770

Alastair Falk is the Educational Leadership Director of the UJIA. He has been a headteacher of three schools, a Jerusalem Fellow and, nearly 30 years ago, he was the originator of Limmud.

One of the common contemporary responses to the laws of kashrut described at the end of Parashat Shmini is 'how relevant are these today?' The search for 'relevance' in our religious lives is understandable. But if this means we need every law and ritual to 'make sense' in terms of what we know and understand empirically, then are we in danger of missing an enchanting metaphysical wood for some reassuringly solid looking trees? For as much as we need a hard and realistic understanding of why we do what we do, we may also still need to retain some sense of mystery and tradition, some willingness to embrace the unknowable or as yet unknown.

This may be part of the meaning behind a disturbing incident in this week's Parasha. Following the completion of an elaborate ritual to dedicate the Mishkan, the climax of which is fire descending from God to consume the sacrifices, Aaron's two sons, Nadav and Avihu decide to offer their own 'strange fire'. The response to this 'strange fire before the Lord, which He commanded them not,' is terrible and tragic. God again sends fire, but this time, it 'devoured them, and they died before the Lord'.

Jewish commentators through the ages have struggled to understand why this 'strange fire' caused such a reaction. The text is ambiguous. Were they punished for making up their own way of worship, or was it, as some suggest, because each son acted on his own, and the punishment, therefore, is a warning against sectarianism and unwillingness to communicate? For the writer Leon Wieseltier, the issue is that Aaron's sons are 'the patron saints - patron sinners, really - of Jewish impatience'. For in Judaism, he argues, 'revelation originates in detail and circulates through detail ... and the impatient Jew, for whom detail seems often like an impediment ... must ready himself to be the Jew in the wrong, at least by the terms of tradition.'

Many contemporary Jews thus find themselves 'in the wrong'. It is not that we do not want to be Jews, but we are impatient for meaning. Ancient texts, like the ancient rituals, structures and commandments, all seem to obscure what this means to me, today, in the here and now. But this, Wieseltier reminds us, is where we began. These are the texts and traditions that generations have tried to interpret, to adapt and to re-enact, in the hope, if only for a moment, of reconnecting with God, and of communicating (unlike Aaron's sons) with each other.

To be an 'impatient Jew', therefore, is both blessing and curse. Impatience drives the need to understand, to commentate, and to continue our tradition of 'arguments for the sake of heaven'. For others, it drives their passion for social action, for change and improvement, for tikun olam. But, when things are not immediately clear or when we are not immediately successful, impatience may lead in another direction, to being consumed by the 'strange fires' of meaninglessness and despair. And when we turn inwards, impatient with ourselves, then we should remember Aaron's response in the face of this still incomprehensible tragedy. 'Vayidom Aharon' says the text, 'And Aaron held his peace'. There is a balance between acceptance and action, between a temporary loss of faith and a much deeper and more terrifying loss of heart.


More by Alastair Falk

Another voice by Hannah Kaye

Hannah Kaye chaired the 2009 Limmud Chavruta project. She has studied at Orot Israel College and Nishmat and is currently living in Israel where she has an internship in the Modern Art department of the Israel Museum.

This weeks Parasha contains the laws of Kashrut, listing those animals which we may and may not eat. It concludes this list with the statement “For I the L-rd am He who brought you up from the land of Egypt to be your G-d: you shall be holy for I am holy.” ([Lev]11:45) Why does the verse refer to being brought up HaMaaleh Etchem Mi’eretz Mitzrayim rather than brought out of Egypt?

What is the connection between Kashrut and holiness?

The Parasha opens with the inaugural sacrifices brought in the Tabernacle by Aaron and his sons. They were then commanded to “Take the meal offering that is left over from the L-rd’s offerings by fire and eat it unleavened beside the alter, for it is most holy” ([Lev]10:12). The act of eating itself can therefore be a holy action of such stature that it constitutes a part of the Temple service.

Just as in the temple service Aaron is directed to “Distinguish between the sacred (kodesh) and the profane (chol), and between the unclean (tamei) and the clean (tahor).” ([Lev]10:10) so too, the animals that we are prohibited to eat are referred to as tamei – a form of spiritual impurity which is directly parallel to the temple service.

This juxtaposition and the parallels drawn between Kashrut and the Temple service teach us that, even when eating in ‘mundane’ situations, outside the context of a clearly defined act of worship, never-the-less we are commanded to treat it as a holy action.

If eating is to be a holy act, then this awareness should extend beyond the laws of what we are, or are not, allowed to eat. The practice of ritual hand-washing before eating bread is in memory of the Temple service and our tables take the place of the altar (mizbeach). Before eating, we must first ‘purify’ ourselves so that every meal is elevated to a spiritual event.

G-d sent Moses to Pharoh to demand that he “Let my people go, that they may serve me.” ([Exod]5:1) The laws of Kashrut are a way for us to ‘spiritually elevate’ our daily actions and perhaps this is why the verse underscores their importance with the statement “For I the L-rd am He who brought you up from the land of Egypt to be your G-d: you shall be holy for I am holy.” ([Lev]11:45).


More by Hannah Kaye

Other Divrei Torah on Shemini

  • 5766 (Norman Lamm)
  • 5766 (Bradley Shavit Artson)
  • 5767 (EJ Cohen)
  • 5767 (Taste of Limmud Team)
  • 5768 (Alastair Falk)
  • 5768 (Gideon Rabinowitz)
  • 5769 (Adina Judy Bernstein)
  • 5769 (Tuvit Shlomi)
  • 5771 (Yuval Keren)
  • 5771 (Taste of Chavruta Team)
  • 5773 (Deborah Blausten)
  • 5773 (Sarah Snyder)
  • 5774 (Tanya Zion-Waldoks)
  • 5774 (Taste of Chavruta)
  • 5775 (Denise Handlarski)
  • 5775 (Peter Sevitt)