Parshat Shemini is an unexpected combination of two very different narratives. The first half of the parsha focuses on the sacrifices Aaron and the priests offered to God to make atonement for themselves and the children of Israel. Aaron and his sons had spent weeks spiritually purifying themselves for these important offerings. The second half of the reading describes which animals are kosher and which animals are not. Why would these two very different subjects be combined in the same weekly reading?
The priests (Aaron and his four sons) had been warned to follow their preparations exactly, or they would die. After seven days of isolation and purification Moses called Aaron and told him it was time to offer the sacrifices. In a dramatic scene “the glory of the Lord appeared to all the people. And there came a fire out from before the Lord…which when the people saw they they shouted and fell on their faces.” (Lev. 9: 23, 24) God’s fire consumed the sacrificial remains and the flames ascended to the heavens. In the excitement of the moment Aaron’s sons Nadav and Avihu offered their own fire to God. In anger God sent down flames that killed the two men. It was a shocking incident, especially after the powerful acceptance by God towards Aaron and Moses.
Aaron and his two remaining sons were told to continue their duties, and be an example to the children of Israel. Aaron was told, “לְהבדיל בּין הקדשׁ ובין החֹל ובין הטמה ובין הטהור” –to distinguish between holy and common, between impure and pure. Those were the tenets he was to teach the children of Israel.
Following these extraordinary events the Israelites were told about kosher and non-kosher animals. It seems strange that after an awesome display of sacrifice, flames from heaven, and the death of two priests, the people were given a list of animals. The two narratives are very different- one is a drama the other is a list of guidelines. They are united by a phrase at the end of each of the 2 sections. After the nation was told what it could and could not eat, it was told: “לְהבדיל בין הטמה ובין הטהור” to distinguish between the impure and the pure. The words are very similar to those spoken to Aaron. But why is it so important?
Differentiating, “לְהבדיל”, creates separation and awareness. That is a theme not only in this Torah reading but in all of Judaism. The list of acceptable and unacceptable animals make us conscious of our dietary choices and separates us from the eating habits of the nations around us. The dire punishment of Nadav and Avihu separated them as priests from their brothers and father who followed God’s directions. The Sabbath separates one day from the rest of the week and we behave differently on that day. Dietary rules, rules about Shabbat and instructions for different festivals separate us from the nations around us, and create limits for us.
The painting of flames above shows the accepted fire from Aaron, Elazar and Itamar reaching up to the heavens. The outer flames are duller in colour. They become blue in tone and disappear before they reach the heavens. The outer flames represent the fire offered by Nadav and Avihu, who had not learned the difficult lessons of discipline, purity and discernment.
In this week’s Torah reading God used fire to separate the holy sacrifice from the profane sacrifice, and taught the nation to separate kosher animals from non kosher ones. On Saturday night we use fire in the “havdalah” ceremony (from the word לְהבדיל in the quotation) to separate the holiness of the Sabbath from the rest of the week. So, 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.
Shabbat Shalom, Laya