Parshat Shmini 2017
Here we are, breathing a sigh of relief that Pesach (with all its pleasures and its work) is behind us, and we jump smack into parshat Shmini. It is perhaps the only parsha in Vayikra where something happens – in a scant few sentences two of Aharon’s children are killed. But the parsha is noted mainly for its list of permissible and forbidden creature foods.
The juxtaposition of these two subjects – the death of Aharon’s sons and the laws of permissible and forbidden foods from the living – seems almost random. Yet the fact that they appear in one reading raises the question of –why.
To recap, Moshe has been investing Aharon and his sons as the cohanim, the priests, for seven days, and on the eighth day Aharon makes his first sacrifice as high priest: he brings his offering, and the people’s offering to the altar – and nothing happens. At this point Moshe and Aharon rush into the Tabernacle and when they emerge, fire comes down from heaven and burns the sacrifices, indicating that they have been accepted by God, and the people rejoice.
Why the delay in accepting the offerings? The Torah does not explain so the midrash fills in the blanks. Aharon, the midrash relates, was sure that he was being embarrassed and punished for his part in the golden calf caper, and Moshe was quick to reassure him that he was blameless.
According to Rabbi Ari Kahn, this delay also upset Nadav and Avihu, two of Aharon’s four sons. They felt that extreme action was needed and they quickly brought incense as an offering, to sweeten the air, as it were. When they placed it on the altar they were successful in bringing down fire. But this time it was aimed at them, and the brothers were immediately immolated.
What was their great sin? Were they drunk? Were they trying to introduce pagan rites? We don’t know. From Moshe’s actual and implied words to Aharon (again from the midrash), Nadav and Avihu were indeed righteous people, who felt great devotion to God, which raises the question: Is this the way for the righteous to be rewarded?
The answer is that they overstepped the boundaries. The official limitations. This is the essence of the religious framework, to set boundaries of what is permitted, what is forbidden, what can be done, when and how. Just think of all the injunctions pertaining to Pesach. To this day, boundaries are the bone of contention between religions and even more so between sects and streams within each religion.
From this it is an easy step to the list of living things we may or may not eat. We will never know the real reasons for the choice of animals because we are not told what they are, and when you get right down to it, does it really matter? Only to those people who must have a rational explanation for everything they do and believe.
We can of course look at the laws regarding clean and unclean living creatures as reflecting the idea that we are what we eat. Our morality is reflected in our choice of foods. We eat herbivorous animals to underscore that we honor life. We eat fish with fins – which gives them the ability to swim upstream, against the current – something we Jews have been doing for three thousand years. We don’t eat creepy-crawlies because their view of life is only of and in the earth and dirt, signifying material things.
That’s penny psychology applied to religion. But it’s still all about setting boundaries. If at a basic level we say that we are commanded to eat/not eat such and such creatures, these rules set us apart. And in many cases the actual choices reflect recognizable boundaries. Take, for example, fish. Of all the creatures of the sea, the only ones we are allowed to eat are those with specific traits that distinguish them from the others and make them recognizable as fish. Fins and scales. The animals we eat must have cloven hooves and multiple stomachs. This sets them and us apart and makes them and us into a differentiated group.
And that’s what the book of Vayikra is all about. It sets down the formulas that the priests follow to deal with all manner of sins, mistakes, physical manifestations and the “proper” – the approved – way to make the defiled pure again. All of these rules are part of the attempt to set us apart.
There’s a lot of security in this world view. You know what you can and can’t do, and if you don’t, you have someone to ask. It is not a way of life for those who have too many questions and are not ready to accept the answers they receive.
Jews in all the centuries have had to cope with these limitations. As our world has become more integrated with the world at large, these limitations often become more cumbersome, which is why Jews in each generation have tried to shed them.
We live in an era of constant change. Such an atmosphere is especially hard on those who want to preserve and maintain the traditions of old. This is another reason that some communities make such superhuman efforts to keep the modern world out.
But we all need boundaries and most of us set them, sometimes in advance and other times after we have tried to expand our boundaries as far as we can. The question is which points of reference we use and how strictly we adhere to our principles. If we don’t, we become Groucho Marxists, who follow the rebbi who said, “I have my principles. And if you don’t like them – I have others.”