This week’s parashah deals with differentiation and separation. We are experiencing an unprecedented break in the functioning of the world which is forcing terrible separations from family and from homelands. I will explore the division described in our texts and tie it in with life’s experience.
In the first half of parashah Shemini we read about the sacrifices that Moses and Aaron offered to God. In the second half of the parashah we read about which animals are kosher (acceptable for Jews to eat) and which are treif (not acceptable for Jews to eat).
Aaron and his sons had spent weeks purifying and spiritually readying themselves to perform important sacrifices. The offerings were accepted. Dramatically, God’s fire consumed the sacrificial remains, and His flames ascended to the heavens. In a moment of religious fervour Aaron’s sons, Nadav and Avihu offered their own (unholy) fire to God. In anger, God sent down flames that killed the two men. It was a shocking and tragic incident.
Following this distressing event, the Israelites were told which animals were kosher and which were non-kosher. The two narratives are united by a phrase at the end of each of the 2 sections. Aaron and his sons were tasked with being able לְהבדיל בּין הקדשׁ ובין החֹל ובין הטמה ובין הטהור – “to separate between holy and common, between impure and pure.” Later the Israelites were told what they could eat and what they could not eat. They were “to separate between the impure and the pure”, לְהבדיל בין הטמה ובין הטהור.
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 the nation of Israel in order to separate and 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 to protect themselves from wild beasts at night. And yet this protective force can suddenly, without warning, rage out of control.
Separating and differentiating, “לְהבדיל”, creates awareness. In this Torah reading, we are told to be aware of our dietary choices. The dire punishment of Nadav and Avihu reminds us to be aware 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.
The world is experiencing a time of separation. The dangers of COVID-19 and Omicron have forced us to separate from others in order to keep ourselves and others safe. Putin’s aggression against Ukraine has caused devastation and separation. This is a time to recognize our unique set of religious guidelines and use our strengths to balance the evil around us. Separation allows us time to reflect on what is necessary and what is unnecessary. Let’s use this time wisely and make our lives and the world better.
Be safe, be well, be healthy and be kind.
I created the painting for “Flames of Division” (parashat Shemini) for a collaborative exhibit called “The Women of the Book.” The fifty-four paintings in the exhibit can be seen at https://www.womenofthebook.org/artwork