Shemini 5761

by Corey Helfand

Parashat Shmini is no exception to the book of VaYikra when it comes to talking about the details of the ritual sacrifices. However, the events in Shmini change the mood of the chain of events that had happened up until this point. Shmini opens with the introduction to the priestly service. But the death of Aaron’s sons, Nadab and Abihu, drastically change the joyful mood of the ritual sacrifice to the subject of death and morning.

The Torah says that the reason for Nadab and Abihu’s death is because they brought “Esh Zarah” into the Holy of Holies. But it is difficult to say what that forbidden sacrifice was. Rambam comments that Aaron’s sons were killed because they brought a sacrifice even though they had not been commanded to do so. Sifra as well as other commentators offer that in addition to not having been told to bring the sacrifice, Aaron’s sons brought this “forbidden sacrifice” into the Holy of Holies, a place that only the Kohen Gadol could go on Yom Kippur. It is unclear as to why Nadab and Abihu acted in the manner that they did and it is also hard to understand why the death penalty was the punishment for what seems to be such a small crime.

But despite this tragic event, Aaron and Moshe are commanded by God not to show signs of mourning and to move on with leading and teaching the people of the rituals and laws. The ability of Moshe and Aaron to simply move on from the horrible and sudden death of Nadab and Abihu shows their great leadership and it brings about joy once again, in the presence of the Mishkan.

The conclusion of Parashat Shmini is a continuation of the laws of Kashrut. Back in Parashat Mishpatim, we are taught not to mix a “kid in its mothers milk.” Parashat Shmini discusses the types of animals that are allowed and those that are forbidden to eat. One of the most important laws involves eating an animal that has split hooves and chews its cud. In addition to this law, Parashat Shmini discusses how to distinguish between contaminated and pure animals, so that we as Jews know which animals we are permitted to eat.  Even though Shmini is a continuation of the laws given to the Jewish people, it is a Parsha that teaches us about sorrow and joy, and our ability to deal with mourning and listening. Nadab and Abihu did not purposely try to anger God, nor did they intend for their actions to be punishable by death. But the actions of Moshe and Aaron following their deaths, shows the kind of leaders that they were and their ability to keep the attention and order of the people of Israel, and show the people the importance of following God’s laws and commandments.

Shemini 5762

by Brad Greenspan

This parsha starts out with Aaron’s sons, Nadab and Abihu, offering a sacrifice to God that isn’t commanded. As a result, God punishes them by killing them with fire. There is a suspicion that Aaron’s sons were drunk at the time they offered the sacrifices. Moses orders the entire congregation of Israel to mourn the loss of the two sons. Moses also tells Aaron and his sons that they are not to cut their clothes or hair, nor are they to drink any alcohol. Restrictions are also put on the Kohanim, such that they are not allowed to be in contact with the dead. The next part of the parsha deals with kashrut. God starts out by telling us that the only land animals we can eat have to have split hooves and chew their cud. There are explicit instructions prohibiting the eating of animals that only do one of the two things necessary for an animal to be kosher. The Torah even goes so far as to say that we are not allowed to even touch the dead bodies of non-kosher animals. Next, fish are covered. They have to have fins and scales to be kosher. Anything else in the water is not kosher. The Torah gives a specific list of birds that are treif. These include hawks, vultures, falcons, ravens, ostriches, owls, storks, and pelicans. The Torah then says that almost all bugs are treif. The only ones that aren’t are ones that have jointed legs above their feet, all locusts, and all grasshoppers.

The final part of the parsha deals with purity. First, people who touch the carcasses of treif animals must wash their clothes, and are considered impure until the end of the day. If someone touches the person who came in contact with the treif animals, they, too become impure for the day.

Today, this parsha has relevance. It shows, first of all, that getting drunk has its consequences. It isn’t necessarily death, but it can get people into trouble, as it keeps them from thinking straight. Kashrut also has meaning today. However, with refrigeration, the ability to preserve stuff, and the advances of medicine and the cure of many animal diseases, what is the reason to still keep kashrut today? Well, for one, killing stuff in the kosher manner is the most humane way of killing animals. There is no suffering. Another reason to keep kashrut is that the habits of the animals that are kosher are cleaner than those of non kosher animals. Also, kosher animals have been raised humanely and haven’t been harmed physically. Purity today is important. We live in a society where almost everything is impure. By being pure, we keep ourselves clean, out of trouble, and put ourselves in a position to be able to do whatever we want.

Shemini 5769

by Becky Schisler

April 18, 2009/24 Nisan 5769

In this week’s parsha, Parashat Shemini, a very strange event occurs. The parasha begins with Aaron and his sons beginning to fulfill their roles as Kohanim. Moses instructs them in how to go about making a “sin offering” and a “burnt offering” to the Lord on the altar. Aaron, with the help of his sons, is careful to prepare these offerings in the way that is commanded. When he is completed, the “glory of the Lord” appears to all the people of Israel – a fire issues forth from God, consuming the offerings on the altar. Upon seeing this, everyone sings praises and falls on their faces with joy.

Two, however, are perhaps too ecstatic about this divine presence that has come to dwell in the Sanctuary … and this is where the very unexpected thing happens. Aaron’s two sons, Nadav and Abihu, put incense into their pans and offer a “strange fire before G-d, which He commanded them not.” Immediately a fire issues forth from the altar, and, just like the burnt offerings before them, they are consumed. Aaron’s two eldest sons, Nadav and Abihu, are dead.

This raises a number of questions. The two were just doing as the Lord had asked – certainly they had good intentions. Why did they have to die? Even stranger, after the tragic event, Aaron is totally silent; he hardly reacts. Why did this happen?

There are several explanations. According to the text, the two died because they offered frankincense in the temple – and this had not been specifically asked for by God. But is that really deserving of death?

According to Talmudic sources quoted by Rashi, their offence was aggravated by having done it without first consulting Moses, their teacher, and because they did it after having drunken too much wine. Perhaps their death was a lesson for the Israelites to never enter the Sanctuary or perform sacrifices while in such a state of mind.

According to Rashi following Ex. 29:43, however, the text means that God was actually honored by the strange offering of Nadav and Abihu – and that is why he killed them. Rashi implies that when God uses strict justice with the incredibly righteous, he is feared and honored. Moses later tries to comfort Aaron in saying that “This is what the Lord spoke, [when He said], ‘I will be sanctified through those near to Me, and before all the people I will be glorified.’ “Perhaps the Lord took the lives of Nadav and Abihu not because he was punishing him, but because they were great – greater than their fathers – and how such greatness merits death is entirely beyond our comprehension. This is an explanation that is fitting of Aaron’s silence.

There are other examples in the Torah where God has actually commanded silence as response to startling and even tragic events – this one is no different. While any of these explanations may be correct, there is no denying that the unexpected deaths of these two Kohanim are unexpected and tragic. The response of their father is not emotionless, rather fitting – sometimes, in the face of God’s great, incomprehensible ways, silence is the only appropriate response.

Shemini 5770

by Scott Greenberg

How often do you remember your half-birthday, that magical moment when you’re just as far away from the last anniversary of your birth as the next one? I know that I forget my half-birthday on a regular basis, only to remember it a couple days later.

Funny enough the Torah has a half-birthday as well – not just when the Hagbah favors the ambidextrous or when Simchat Torah is six months away. The Torah’s official half birthday actually comes in this week’s parshah, Shemini.

Many people who have read a Torah text have come across little footnotes, written in Hebrew, beneath or on the sides. Known as Masoretic notes, these are annotations of the Torah text. They come in various forms – some tell us when a letter in the Torah scroll is bigger or smaller than usual, some tell us when a word in the Torah is read differently than it is written, some tell us when a word is specially dotted, and some tell us when there is an unusual grammatical, spelling-related, or musical feature of the text. They make an excellent field of study if you’ve got some spare time.

The coolest thing that Masoretic notes do, in my opinion, is that they count. In many editions of the chumash, though not the Etz Chayim, after every parashah and book, they will provide a verse-count – how many verses were in that parashah – and a helpful mneumonic device to remember that count (usually one connected to the theme of the text being counted). In one parshah, Miketz, it even says how many words were in the parashah.

So what’s the connection to the Torah’s half birthday? These notes happen to point out not only the exact middle word of the Torah, but also the exact middle letter. Think of it! Somebody counted through all of the words and letters in that giant huge scroll to find the exact center! The Torah has 5,845 verses and 304,805 letters; it’s a huge task. Funny enough, both of these “middles” come in this week’s parashah, Shemini.

The middle words of the Torah, according to the Masoretic tradition (and backed up by Kiddushin 30b in the Gemara), are darosh darash, or “inquired,” in Leviticus 10:16. They come from the story of Nadav and Avihu, two sons of Aaron who died by the hand of God after offering a “strange fire.” In the chaotic aftermath, we see Moses inquiring about what happened to all of the offerings that would have been offered if not for the tragedy (hence, “inquired”).

The middle letter of the Torah comes a chapter later, in Leviticus 11:42. The verse says, “You shall not eat, among all things that swarm upon the earth, anything that crawls on its belly, or anything that walks on fours, or anything that has many legs; for they are an abomination.” This passage comes near the end of an extensive section dealing with kashrut, or Jewish dietary law, in Leviticus 11:42. By the Masoretic tradition, the vav in the word for belly is the middle letter of the Torah; in fact, it is enlarged in the text of the scroll.

If we think of the midpoint of something as capturing its essence, then what better way to capture the essence of the Torah than these two midpoints. The first, the word “inquired,” shows the spirit of studying the Torah – asking tough questions and finding answers. As the Etz Chayim chumash puts it, “The essence of Torah is continued inquiry and study.” The middle letter of the Torah, on the other hand, comes in the middle of a section of boring laws. What can this teach us? Maybe it’s that the Torah isn’t supposed to all flash and glamour – that it’s true “middle” can be found in the nitty-gritty legalism.

All of this would be a fitting “half-birthday” for the Torah – if it were actually true. For rabbis and scholars have discovered that these words and this letter cannot actually be the midpoints of the Torah for numerical reasons. So what do we make of this? Like so much of our tradition that is self-contradictory, we Jews must try and make sense of the lessons behind it – that we must continue to inquire into the Torah’s mysteries, even if it means sorting through complicated rules and texts.

Happy half-birthday, Torah!

Tzav 5758

by Mike Kay

There is a famous poem which begins, “I never saw a purple cow.” Well, it’s true – I’ve never seen, heard, nor even read of a purple cow. However, the same cannot be said for a RED cow. This week’s special Maftir portion, termed Parashat Parah, tells of the bizarre rite, conducted by Aaron and Eliezer, which involved slaughtering a perfect red heifer and using its ashes in the Mei Nidah — the water of purification. Through this ritual, all the Israelites could be deemed pure enough to partake of the Passover sacrifice (thus the close proximity of this special reading with Pesach). These enigmatic verses invite many questions: Why must the ceremony be conducted using a red heifer? And, how can we relate Parashat Parah to the regular weekly parsha, Parashat Tzav? Here we go . . .

Parashat Tzav details the many types of sacrifices offered by the Israelites in the Tabernacle and later in the Bet Hamikdash: the burnt offering, the meal offering, the sin offering, the guilt offering, and the peace offering. The Torah spends three chapters detailing the exact protocol to be followed by the Kohanim when performing these sacrifices on behalf of the people. It is seemingly quite easy to sum up the theme of Parashat Tzav in one word: Sacrifice. However, upon further review, the issue becomes much less clear. Is it truly a sacrifice for a shepherd possessing dozens of flocks to give up one small lamb in order to attain forgiveness? Is it truly a sacrifice for a rich Israelite to slaughter one bull in order to demonstrate his love for God? The Hebrew word which is translated as sacrifice, korban, actually comes from the root “karov,” meaning “close.” The purpose of the ceremonies detailed in Parashat Tzav is not for the people to feel the sense of loss associated with “sacrifice,” but to become karov, closer to God — the same purpose for which we use prayer today.

The true example of sacrifice, in my opinion, occurs not in Parashat Tzav but in this week’s special maftir, Parashat Parah. The animal which is being slaughtered is “a red heifer without defect, in which there is no blemish, and upon which never came a yoke” (Bemidbar 19:1). Such a beast was obviously exceedingly rare. By making such a demand, God was asking the Israelites to slaughter an animal which was, in essence, perfect. It is as if, today, God would ask the owner of a mint-condition Mickey Mantle rookie card to burn his perfect possession so that the community would be pure. This action would be a true sacrifice. By slaughtering the rare, flawless red heifer, the Israelites were acknowledging that the only true perfection in the universe belongs to Hashem. No cow, regardless of its monetary worth, can equal the value of purity endowed upon the community by God.

There is one more interesting parallel to be drawn between Parashat Tzav and Parashat Parah. Anyone who is versed in Torah cantillation, or trope, will notice that a very rare note is used in the sixth aliyah of Tzav (Vayyikra 8:23 to be exact). The note is called a Shalshelet, and its long, drawn-out sound forces the congregation to focus intently on the word being read — in this case, vayishchat, (and he slaughtered.) A similar word, vishachat, (and he shall slaughter,) is used to describe the action to be taken on the red heifer in the Maftir. This connection implies that similar focus was given to each slaughtering. Once the red heifer was slaughtered, the ceremony was official. The community had given up its valuable, perfect, red cow in return for purity. It is ironic that only now, after this sacrifice, were the Israelites pure enough to partake of the “true” korbanot outlined in Parashat Tzav.

Tzav 5762

by Hadar Schwartz

“I want to suck your blood.” As great as the temptation is to eat the blood of an animal (yes, we all aspire to be like Dracula), the Torah specifically prohibits this practice in this week’s Torah reading, Parashat Tzav. In Chapter 7, verses 26-27 of the Book of Vayikrah, the Torah states: “And you should not eat any blood…every person that eats blood, that person will be cut off from the nation.”

This punishment may seem harsh, which it is, but it also seems validated. Jews put such a high value on life. Through this, Jews show how differently they regard life, how special life is to them. Unlike the other nations, the Israelites are now saying, “No, we will not drink blood.” Ancient peoples used to drink blood as a remedy or to give them strength. Jews were saying to the other nations, “Life means more to us than that.” The Children of Israel were also separating themselves from the animals. Animals eat what they whatever they want, whenever they want it. They don’t care if there is blood. Jews are meticulous about washing away all the blood and spilling the blood of an animal after it has been slaughtered.

Through this simple commandment, we Jews separate ourselves from other nations and elevate ourselves from the animals. Now we understand why there aren’t so many Jewish vampires.

Tzav 5764

by Anna Hutt

Can you imagine ever doing something so bad that even your family or another fellow Jew wouldn’t forgive you? Judaism is a religion that believes in second chances; is there any sin so horrible that a Jew could be cut off from his people completely?

The name of this week’s parsha is Tzav, which means command (coinicidentally found on page 613 of the Etz Hayim Chumash!). It consists almost entirely of Hashem’s instructions to Moshe regarding Aaron and the other kohanim. Tzav is full of rather graphic, detailed descriptions of all the ceremonies to be performed for various burnt offerings, grain offerings, purification offerings, reparation offerings, ordination offerings and well-being sacrifices.

While the parsha itself may be rather mind-boggling for Jews living in a world without a Beit Hamikdash (temple), there is one verse that raises a concept that all can wonder about: that of being cut off from one’s people eternally.

Leviticus 7:20 states: “But the person who, in a state of impurity, eats flesh from the Lord’s sacrifices of well-being, that person shall be cut off from his kin.”

The end of this verse, the Hebrew phrase “nich’retah hanefesh hahi me’ameha,” appears not just once or twice, but four times in the parsha (one time as a variation of this exact wording).

Contemplating this concept of karet, spiritual excision, is difficult. What does it mean to be cut off from one’s kin? Interestingly, as was discussed at Heschel Kinnus last weekend, the Torah uses the word “nefesh” to mean person; nefesh is often translated as “soul” and refers not to the physical, but the internal identity of a Jew.

Rashi writes that the punishment of karet really implies death to one’s children, thus cutting off the sinner’s line of heritage in the Jewish people for all eternity. Ramban, however, believes that the punishment of being cut off depends upon the severity of the crime and how meritorious the person is besides this one wrongdoing. He states that if a person is mostly righteous but breaks one of the commandments in Parshat Tzav, he may die young or childless but will keep his share in Olam Habah, the world to come, and thus only be cut off from the Jewish people temporarily, on earth.

This Shabbat, which is Shabbat Hagadol (immediately preceding Pesach), we look ahead to eight days of rather stringent commandments. The punishment for eating chametz on Pesach is also karet, having one’s soul cut off from the Jewish people (“nich’retah hanefesh hahi mi’yisrael” in Exodus 12:15). By considering Ramban’s interpretation, we can perhaps take the phrase as a positive reminder instead of viewing it as a warning of eternal punishment. We can see it as a reminder that if we do obey Hashem, we will remain spiritually connected to our people not only while we are living but even after death when only our souls remain. Shabbat Shalom and Chag Pesach Sameach!

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