Parshat Shemini is an unexpected combination of two very different narratives. In the first half of the parsha we read about the sacrifices that Moshe and Aharon offered to HaShem. In the second half of the parsha we read about which animals are kosher and which animals are not.
Aharon and his sons had spent weeks purifying and spiritually readying themselves for these important offerings. The sacrifices were accepted. In a dramatic scene Gd’s fire consumed the sacrificial remains and the flames ascended to the heavens. Aharon’s sons Nadav and Avihu offered their own fire to Gd. In anger HaShem sent down flames that killed the two men. It was a shocking and tragic incident, especially after the powerful acceptance by HaShem towards Aharon and Moshe.
Following this shocking event B’nei Yisrael is given a list of kosher and non-kosher animals.The two narratives are very different- one is a drama the other is a list of guidelines. Yet they are united by a phrase at the end of each of the 2 sections.
After Nadav and Avihu have died Aharon and his sons are told they must be able לְהבדיל בּין הקדשׁ ובין החֹל ובין הטמה ובין הטהור -to distinguish between holy and common, between impure and pure.
Later, when B’nei Yisrael is told what it can eat and what it cannot eat, we read: לְהבדיל בין הטמה ובין הטהור. We are to separate between the impure and the pure.
The phrases of separation are obviously very important, and fire is used in Torah as a means of separation. HaShem formed a pillar of fire to light the way of b’nei Yisrael and separate them / protect them/ from their enemies as they traveled through the desert. We, ourselves, use Aish (fire) to separate Shabbat from the rest of the week. We light candles before Shabbat begins and at Havdalah when Shabbat ends. So, to restate, Aish or fire is used as a device to divide and separate.
Fire is mysterious, beautiful, and threatening. If flames come too close they are dangerous- destroying and killing what is in their path. It is a contrary force, and ambiguous one. We need fire for light, for warmth, and in historical times humans needed fire at night to protect them from wild beasts at night. And yet- it can suddenly, without warning, rage out of control.
Differentiating, “לְהבדיל”, creates awareness. That is a theme in this Torah reading. The list of acceptable and unacceptable animals make us conscious of our dietary choices. The dire punishment of Nadav and Avihu remind us of the sacredness of HaShem’s commands and words. Boundaries create awareness. Without boundaries all things are equal. With limits there is greater focus and the focus makes everything more precious.
So, Shabbat Shalom. Enjoy the distinctiveness of Shabbat. We have this one day that gives us the quiet of nature and time amidst the bustle of regular weekdays and workdays.
The painting for this parsha was part of a project called “Women of the Book”. 54 women from around the world were invited to paint an interpretation of each of the parshiot, To see these extraordinary paintings go to http://womenofthebook.org/artwork/ .
You can click on the flames at the top to see the painting enlarged.
As always, take care, and let’s pray for peace.