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Torah Commentary
Sh'mini (April 21, 2012)

Rachel Brumberg, Assistant Director of Lifelong Learning


When I sat down to start my Torah Commentary for this week, I realized that this was not the first time that I was writing a commentary for Parashat Sh’mini. At first glance, it seemed to me that I had said all I had to say about this portion back in 2008. (Click here to see what I had to say back then.) It is not an easy section on which to comment: It starts with rules about sacrifices, includes the death of Aaron’s sons by fire, goes into detail about the laws of kashrut and ends with a discussion on cleanliness and holiness.

As I read through the text again (and again) to find something new to discuss, I did begin to notice different things: Words, phrases and ideas started to jump out at me simply because of the timing of when I was reading it. It is currently Passover. (By the time this is posted the holiday will be over.) So, I am reading through the lens of one who has just cleaned in preparation for the holiday as well as one who, by way of participating in the seder, has been recently reminded of the story of the Exodus and the decree to feel as if I myself had been freed from bondage.

With slavery and obsessive cleanliness on my mind, what did I find? Well, the first thing was an interesting (to me, at least) observation: It turns out that locusts are kosher. Why is this relevant? Certainly it has not motivated me to want to eat them any more than I did prior to knowing their status. However, locusts were also the eighth plague that God sent to make Pharaoh let the Israelites leave Egypt and clearly an integral part of the Passover story as they went from slavery to freedom. At the time of the plagues, the laws of kashrut were not yet established, so this may be just an odd coincidence to note. Still, it had me wondering about the fact that the same vehicle which God used to plague one nation in time was deemed as something appropriate for another nation to eat. That which is profane one day apparently can later become holy.

Next, I was intrigued reading the part in which cleanliness is outlined and how items are rendered unclean for different durations of time simply by being touched by another element. The verses in which we are told about impure things (often dead animals) and the length of time in which the things that they touch remain unclean I found to be at once logical and random. If a dead carcass falls into a vessel, then you are not going to want to be in contact with its contents; they clearly have been tainted and, therefore, need to be thrown away. But if a person touches the carcass, why are you only unclean until the evening? An unclean vessel must be destroyed, but an unclean person just needs time to become pure again. So, here we learn that some things which have been rendered impure or profane can in fact become holy again in good time. And again we see that holiness is a transient property.

Ultimately my reading of Parashat Sh’mini made me realize that both people and objects have the ability to change from pure to impure because of the circumstances that surround them. Humans, however, differ from inanimate objects as we have the capacity to become holy once again. When we become impure, we are not broken and discarded like a vessel. Rather, we need to take time and remember that just as God freed us from slavery in Egypt, so too did God give us the tools for us to become holy through our actions. Part of the imperative to remember the Exodus out of Egypt is to remind us that we are constantly on a journey from one state of purity to another. When we find ourselves moving away from our potential holiness, we must remember that we are meant to be free, clean and holy. And then we must take the time to ensure that we are.

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