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Torah Commentary
Sh'mini (April 6, 2013)

Abra Lee, Coordinator of School and Family Learning

LESSONS FROM MY Italian-Catholic grandmother and Parashat Sh’mini…who knew?

This week’s Torah portion, Sh’mini, begins on the eighth day of the ceremonies consecrating the Tabernacle and the ordination of the High Priests. As part of the ordination, Moses directs Aaron in the offerings and sacrifices, and then together they enter the Tent of Meeting. When they come out, Moses and Aaron bless the people, and the Presence of God is with them. Afterward, in their zeal, Aaron’s sons, Nadab and Abihu, bring forth a burnt offering on their own, and the fire consumes them. Upon their tragic and unexpected deaths, Moses explains God’s actions and teaches the priestly responsibility to act only in the ways commanded by God. Moses instructs the removal of their bodies and cautions the people against mourning their loss. Moses gives additional explanation of the priestly duties of sacrifice to Aaron and his remaining sons, followed by God’s instructions regarding the laws of kashrut. Dietary restrictions are detailed, along with a description of the laws of ritual defilement regarding animal carcasses. Finally, the parashah closes with an affirmation of the special relationship between God and the Jewish people:

“For I am Adonai, your God… who brought you out of the land of Egypt to be your God. Thus you shall be holy because I am holy.”

Each year, as we read Parashat Sh’mini, I’m reminded of the dangers of overzealousness, of the very descriptive qualifications of what is kosher or not, and of the redemption of our people from Egyptian bondage so that we might serve God in holiness. This year, while I was re-reading Sh’mini, I recognized something familiar that I had not pondered previously: By nature of our association with our God, we are holy.

So what does Parashat Sh’mini have to do with my Italian-Catholic grandmother? Well, for sure, it’s not the dietary restrictions. She was a skillful cook, but kashrut had no place in her kitchen! As the daughter of Italian parents who were both Jews by choice and as someone married to a Chinese Atheist, I’ve spent a great deal of my adult life blending our family’s rich cultural diversity with contemporary Jewish living so that my children will have the opportunity to develop their own Jewish identities. I try to pass on the traditional Italian lessons that guided my own upbringing and make ill-fated attempts to re-create some of those kitchen masterpieces.

Not cooking lessons but something different came to mind from this year’s reading: “You shall be holy because I am holy.” This reminded me of an expression that my grandmother shared repeatedly, especially when I brought home a new friend. Loosely translated, she would tell me, “Surround yourself with the kind of people you want to be like.” Of course, as a sassy pre-adolescent, I thought she was just being overly critical of me and of my friends. But recently, as I sat with my own daughter, having an all-too familiar conversation, I heard the words of my grandmother, coming from my own mouth! “If the friends with whom you choose to associate make decisions that you might not make for yourself, then you have to ask what sort of influence these friends will have upon you,” I said to her.

(I watched as my daughter began to struggle with the fact that her friends, now pre-adolescents, were dividing and choosing different paths. Just prior to middle school, this is a common occurrence. As an educator, I see tremendous changes in our children as they approach this stage in their development. With new independence, they flex their decision-making muscles and sometimes choose the wrong path. Hopefully, the lessons are learned and the consequences are not too great. But, growing pains still are painful.)

And so, this is what I’ve learned from my grandmother and from Parashat Sh’mini: Surround yourself with the kind of people you want to be like, and be “holy” by association. Choose friends like whom you aspire to be and by association with whom you will be respected. Choose well, and rely upon our tradition to guide you toward better paths.

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