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Torah Commentary
Sh'mini (March 29, 2008)

Rachel Brumberg, Assistant Director of Lifelong Learning

n the first part of this week’s Torah portion, Parashat Sh’mini (Leviticus 9-11), Moses instructs the Israelites with great detail on how to make sacrificial offerings to God. Once this ritual has been performed correctly, Aaron blesses the Israelites, and the divine presence appears before them; the Israelites respond with both jubilation and reverence. Next, when Aaron’s sons, Nadav and Abihu, perform their own offering to God instead of following Moses’ direction, they are punished by death. The final part of the parashah details the laws of kashrut and cleanliness. Rules are given to determine which land animals, water creatures, birds and bugs it is permissible to eat. Also explained here is that contact with animal carcasses will render a person or another object unclean for a period of time and, therefore, must be avoided. The portion ends with a proof-text from God as to why we must follow all of these laws: “You shall sanctify yourselves and be holy, for I am holy.” (Leviticus 11:44) In the Torah a clear connection exists between keeping the laws and being holy, but how can we relate to this idea today?

In between the laws of sacrifice and the laws of kashrut God tells Aaron that the priestly actions always should be done with a clear mind:

This is a law for all time throughout the ages, for you must distinguish between the sacred and the profane and between the unclean and the clean; and you must teach the Israelites all the laws which the Lord has imparted to them through Moses. (Leviticus 10:9-11)

Ever since the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 C.E., we no longer are able to fulfill any commandments that involve ritual sacrifices. And many Jews today do not choose to use the laws of kashrut as a literal guide for what to eat. But we all do make judgments and in our own ways — sometimes individually and sometimes as a community — make decisions on what is good and what is bad, how to give thanks without performing a ritual sacrifice, and what to eat without necessarily having anyone tell us it is “kosher.” If we are not looking at the Torah as a literary blueprint to guide our lives, then is it possible to distinguish between the sacred and profane in an attempt to be holy? Is it even necessary or relevant to make this distinction today?

In my mind, the answer to these questions is “yes.” When one goes through life without noting the highs and the lows, something is lost, and a certain numbness sets in. If special days or milestones — Shabbat, High Holy Days, birthdays, anniversaries, memorials, personal accomplishments — pass without distinction or commemoration and are treated like any other day, then we lose the sense of “specialness” or holiness associated with these occasions. Furthermore, if we never make distinctions between days, then we run the risk of losing track of time as one day blends into the next. The search for the holy or sacred within actions, people and events adds depth and meaning; finding such a spark is what distinguishes the sacred from the profane.

While we no longer can perform sacrifices to give thanks to God, new ways of expressing appreciation exist, whether it be participating in synagogue prayer services, donating money to a cause or volunteering time to tikkun olam (social service) projects. So too, many people have chosen to redefine the idea of kashrut to meet standards of socially conscious and organic farming when determining if something is “clean” or “unclean” before eating. This type of active participation in the day-to-day by questioning motives and determining their value clearly leads us to distinguish between the sacred and the profane. It also causes us to be more aware of our actions, decisions and surroundings. Perhaps it is this keen awareness and the ability to distinguish between the sacred and profane, clean and unclean, that today proves relevant and links us back to God’s admonition to be holy.

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