Friday, April 16, 2021

The parsha of Shemini engenders questions. Here are a few.

Except for in a leap year, Parshat Shemini is always read after Pesach. What is the significance of this juxtaposition?

The parsha begins with Moshe calling Aharon, his sons and the elders of Israel together, but Moshe then only speaks to Aharon. Why call the others if they are not being addressed?

Shemini is the eighth day of consecrating the Mishkan. During the prior seven days, Moshe acted as the kohen gadol but the Shechina, the Divine Presence, did not descend. As Rashi notes, the people began to fear that they had still not been forgiven for the Golden Calf. Why only on the eighth day, when Aharon performed the service, did the Shechina descend? Moreover, why did it descend not after Aharon performed the service but only after he blessed the people?

After Aharon’s two eldest sons die during the dedication, Moshe instructs Aharon and his surviving sons concerning offering sacrifices and conducting the service, and Moshe accompanies Aharon in performing some of the service. Could it be that Moshe did not fully inform Aharon on how to conduct the service and was engaging in some form of “on the job training” with tragic results?

The parsha concludes by discussing the characteristics of kosher and non-kosher animals. This knowledge is not, however, essential to the laws of korbanot, as the Torah explicitly states which animal can be a korban. So why the discussion of kashrut at this juncture?

There is also the Midrash Rabba on the parsha that speaks of two great creatures: a giant fish called the Leviathan, and a giant land animal called the Behemoth. Because of their destructive power during the six days of creation, Hashem destroyed their mates to prevent their reproduction. The Midrash on Shemini states that in the future the Leviathan will use its fins to cut apart and kill the Behemoth, while the Behemoth will gore the Leviathan to death. The Midrash then relates that the righteous individuals who avoided gladiatorial games, where animals were forced to fight one another, will be able to watch the Leviathan and Behemoth battle. Moreover, these righteous ones will feast on the flesh of these animals even though such meat, from an animal that died by means other than ritual slaughter, shechita, if forbidden. Nonetheless, Hashem in this instance will make an exception. Why mention this in connection with Parshat Shemini? Shemini does not deal with slaughtering an animal, only with identifying kosher animals. How are the Midrash and our parsha linked?

The answer to these questions begins with the word Shemini. Seven represents completion while eight represents perfection. On what is today the seventh day of Pesach, the Jews crossed the Sea of Reeds and witnessed the destruction of the Egyptian army. Freedom from the Egyptians was now absolute and complete. No more was there fear of being taken back into slavery. At this point Moshe and Bnei Yisrael sing. The first word of the song is “Az,” spelled aleph-zayin. The numerical value of this word is eight. The rabbis note this in the future tense: “Az yashir Moshe u’Bnei Yisrael,” “Then will Moshe and the Children of Israel sing…” The culmination of the Exodus was not to be found in the immediate freedom from slavery. Rather, the culmination was but something in the future. It was a rendezvous with Hashem.

People often improperly abbreviate Hashem’s message to Pharaoh. Hashem did not say, “Let My people go.” He declared: “Let My people go that they might serve me.” Pesach is not about simple freedom. It is not about the current politically correct fad, the cause de jure. It is about serving God. It is about going from Pharaoh’s slaves, “avadim l’pharo,” to servants of Hashem, “avdei Hashem.” It is about getting closer to Hashem, moving closer to perfection and to He who is perfect.

The notion of perfection explains why it was Aharon and not Moshe who was the agent for the Shechina resting on the Mishkan. Moshe at this time represented an almost impossible achievement. He had not yet sinned, allegedly by hitting the rock. He spent a total of 120 days on Har Sinai alone with Hashem and without eating. His face glowed with a radiance that frightened the people. The Mishkan was to serve as a means of casting off sin and coming closer to Hashem. But Moshe appeared to be without sin. Aharon was different. He had sinned. He had sinned most publicly with the creation of the Golden Calf. Indeed, the korban he offered on the eighth day was a calf specifically to serve as atonement for the Golden Calf. If Aharon could obtain atonement, so could all of Israel. Thus, Aharon and not Moshe was the person who would complete the dedication of the Mishkan. Aharon not Moshe was the paradigm for teshuva.

Yet Judaism does not allow the individual to cast off personal responsibility and place it on the priest. Each member of the nation is responsible for their own relationship with Hashem. The kohanim are only facilitators. This point is made by the fact that at the outset of the eighth day Moshe gathered not just Aharon, not just his sons, but the Elders representing the nation. This point is made by the fact that the Divine Presence will not rest on the Mishkan until the people are brought into the dedication ceremony via Aharon blessing the people.

The people’s involvement, our involvement, cannot be casual. The effort to come closer to Hashem must be constant. This point is made by the insertion throughout the parsha of various halachot concerning how to perform the korbanot service. Of course, Moshe explained all the laws to Aharon and his sons before the dedication of the Mishkan began. To do otherwise would be as irresponsible as beginning a pilot’s training only after he took the controls of a plane. Relating various laws to us as the story seems to unfold teaches that there must be constant learning throughout our lives. There must be constant efforts to strive for a better relationship with Hashem. This is also the reason for placing the laws of kashrut at the end of the parsha. The effort to come closer to Hashem must be incorporated into our lives as much as the consumption of food. For the Jew there cannot be any dichotomy between spiritual nourishment and physical nourishment.

We still, however, are left with the question concerning the Midrash. What connection is there between the battle of the Leviathan and the Behemoth? In the normal course, the water-dwelling Leviathan and land-dwelling Behemoth will not come together. Hashem will in this instance force them together just as animals were forced together in the arenas.

Unfortunately, in our daily lives, too often destructive events are manufactured. Controversies are created needlessly. Sometimes it is done because an individual wants to appear more righteous, or more learned or pious than those around him. He will manufacture a controversy, suggesting that the mechitza is too low for him, that the hashgacha of the caterer is not good enough or that the shaliach tzibur is not nearly righteous enough for his taste. The controversy is as contrived as the battle between the great fish and the great beast. Ultimately, Hashem will bring such people to justice and such false controversies to an end. Those truly righteous people who avoided these fake disputes will be rewarded by seeing them end. Although one should not take pleasure in another’s comeuppance, in this matter Hashem will make an exception. With this understanding of the Midrash, the connection to the parsha is obvious.

The rabbis suggested many reasons for why Aharon’s sons, Nadav and Avihu, died. One recurrent theme is pride. Nadav and Avihu thought themselves better than those around them. They thought themselves more righteous and they were going to put their righteousness on display. The results were tragic. A fire came forth from before Hashem and consumed them from within, leaving their exterior untouched. True piety, a true close relationship with the Creator, does not require great outward displays. Eliyahu, the same Eliyahu who came to the Seders, found that Hashem was not in the wind, in not the earthquake, nor in the fire but in a still, small voice.

If we are to come closer to perfection, come closer to Hashem, we must harness the spirit of the Yom Tov of Pesach, that willingness to follow Hashem into the wilderness to serve Him and not our own sense of self. To move beyond merely being free to using that freedom. If we can do that then we can look forward to the day that is completely good, “yom shekulo tov,” the day that is a complete Shabbos, and complete eternal rest, “yom shekulo Shabbos u’menucha l’chayei haolamim.”

William S.J. Fraenkel received a Bachelor of Arts in religion and a law degree from NYU and served as a board member and officer of several Orthodox shuls. The opinions expressed in this dvar Torah are solely his own.