In the Middle – Parshat Shmini 5777

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I like to find symmetry in life. Symmetry in the sense that there’s balance between what came before and what will come after. In other words, I feel most confident when I know where I’ve been and how far I have to go. On my morning walks, I pace myself by remembering where the middle of the walk is. Knowing I have two miles down and two to go gives me tremendous energy to keep moving. When you’re pregnant, reaching the 20-week mark is a relief to know that you’re halfway done. Flying with kids, I’m always thrilled to get to the halfway point of the flight to reassure myself that we’ve made it through to that point without a major meltdown (if in fact we have). Similarly, on a long car ride, the halfway point is a good indicator and helpful way to answer “How much longer?” and “Are we there yet?” Marking milestones is a part of moving forward. Whether it’s the milestone of a birthday, years passed since a historic event in your life, or looking forward to one coming up, counting and marking life is what we do.

The Torah also counts certain milestones. When the Torah marks how far from Egypt the Israelites have traveled, it denotes not just the story of the present journey, but what’s yet to come and what ground they’ve covered. In Parshat Shmini, the Torah reading for this week, we cover another Torah milestone. The parshah begins with the words, “On the eighth day,” after the priests had been installed. The text picks up with the narrative of creating a holy leadership team of Aaron and his sons, who unfortunately make an offering without the appropriate directions or intentions and end up losing their lives. Following this tragic story are the laws for making time holy with sacrifices and laws for making our bodies holy by following kashrut.

Interestingly, chapter 10, verse 16 is commonly regarded as the middle of the Torah. It begins, “Then Moses inquired about the goat of the purification offering.” Specifically, the word darash (inquired) is said to be the word directly in the middle of the whole Torah. Clearly, since we are a people of perpetual learning and inquiry, there is significance in this middle marking, this halfway point. Emet v’Emunah, which is the Statement of Principles created by several organizations within the Conservative movement, teaches, “The ideal Jew is not so much a learned Jew as a learning Jew.” That is to say the essence of the Torah – study and inquiry – is found in this central word of its body.

The ideal Jew is not so much a learned Jew as a learning Jew.

I find comfort in this reminder that what sets Judaism apart is a constant, unfailing curiosity. After thousands of years of interpretations, we’re left with more questions now than ever before, which is kind of the point. The middle brings meaning, but in a “glass half-full or half-empty” kind of way. We’re halfway there, but we still have a long way to go. Shabbat shalom.

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You’re Famous – Parshat Shmini 5776

You're Famous

One problem with instant celebrity is that there is no adjustment period. It’s, well, instant. How can we possibly expect anyone who has gained power and influence overnight to wield it appropriately? With the speed of communication and spread of ideas we now enjoy, one day an amateur musician might record herself to share a song with friends on YouTube, and the next day find herself inundated with contract offers and demanding fans. The consequence of being thrust into the public eye is that suddenly no experience, no moment, is private. For however long that fame lasts, all eyes are on you, and all your actions are being viewed and judged.

Aaron’s sons, as we learn in parshat Shmini, are a little like the Justin Biebers of their day – their transformation to priesthood gives them instant celebrity. The text begins with the anointing and first acts of Nadav and Avihu as they make their entrance into the “celebrity” of the priesthood, and then it continues with specific details about how they should act in giving an offering.

From the very first moments with their new status, we see a pattern that might seem familiar if you follow pop culture at all. Nadav and Avihu instantly let the celebrity go to their heads and instead of following the laws of leadership and service to God, they make their own rules concerning sacrifice. And in an instant, they change the state of their leadership from responsible to power-hungry.

Chapter 10, verse 3 of sefer Vayikra reads:

Then Moses said to Aaron, “This is what the Lord meant when He said: ‘Through those near to Me I show Myself holy, and gain glory before all the people.’ Aaron was silent.”

We interpret this to mean that those who stand out as leaders will be given privilege not to be above the law, but to teach and preach the law and to preside with justice and civility. Sadly, Nadav and Avihu mistake their privilege for a kind of God-like invincibility, and that is their ultimate end.

Given the right combination of fuel, kindling, and spark, ideas and opinions spread like wildfire in our digital universe. We easily forget that having thousands of Twitter followers doesn’t give you permission, it gives you accountability. Parshat Shmini is a stark reminder that it is our responsibility to carry this influence beyond personal gain to the betterment of our world.

Fire and Ice – Parshat Shmini 5771

 

Ever since I was a little girl, I have been captivated by fire.  Not in a destructive sense, but by the flames burning, dancing around with varying colors.  I’d sit in front of my parents’ fireplace for hours just watching the dance.  Living in Los Angeles for six years, I quickly became aware of fire’s disruptive side and the devastation that it can bring.  Seeing huge forest fires consume trees, houses, and lives mystified me. What can start out as beautiful dancing flames can quickly turn into a damaging force without gentle care.
In a similar way, fire plays multiple roles in our lives as Jews.  We use fire to differentiate between sacred time and the ordinary week.  Every week we light two small fires as we begin Shabbat, and then another larger flame as Shabbat leaves us in Havdallah.  We also use fire to change the quality of our utensils from treif to kosher, and we refrain from making fires during sacred times.  Fire can be beautiful and symbolic or destructive and scary, but these dual modalities go back much further than our current traditions.
Our parshah this week, Sh’mini, introduces us to the rules and regulations of the priesthood and dietary laws, including a laundry list of animals that are considered acceptable for eating and those that are not.  We’re in the middle of the story of Aaron and his sons, Nadav, Avihu, Itamar, and Eleazar and the newly ordained priests.  One of the central roles of the priests is to offer sacrifices on behalf of the people.  And, of course in the barbecuing of sacrifices, there are flames and fire involved.  God gives Aaron and his sons specific instructions on how to do this, but Nadav and Avihu get carried away by their authority and misuse the powerful flames of God.  This mistake costs Nadav and Avihu their lives, and just as they sinned by offering strange fire, they are consumed by the fire of God.
Again we’re on the sea-saw between the fire of sanctification and the fire of destruction, between sacred and profane.  This continues to be the theme as God gives more specific rules to Aaron on the priesthood, stating in chapter 10 verses 9-10 that “this is a law for all time throughout the ages, for you must distinguish between the sacred and the profane and between the impure and the pure…”  Aaron’s job is to continue to teach the Israelite people these distinctions.
God says L’havdil, “to know the difference,” between holy and ordinary, between clean and unclean.  This is the same root used for Havdallah, the ceremony separating Shabbat and holidays from ordinary weekdays.  God tells Aaron that his job is to notice subtle differences and how time, objects, and people can be transformed.  The differences are marked by the flames burning, not only on the outside, but within.  The fire of God is a spark that lives within each of God’s creations. Sometimes our light is bright, shining and radiant.  Sometimes we bring light, love and laughter to the world.  L’havdil – on the other side – sometimes our light is diminished.  We are sad, burned out, and cold.    Our job is to notice when our fires are low and help one another fan the flames into their usual, resilient splendor so that our world will again be warmed by the beautiful dancing flames of holiness and joy.
Family Discussion Questions:
  1. Our ‘ethical covenant’ speaks of Kedushah, holiness, as a means towards creating a more peaceful society.  How does taking into account the differences in people, time, and objects help us become more attuned to our society?
  2. Can you think of other ways in Judaism that we mark separation between things in customs and events?