Torah Portion: Parashat Shemini (Leviticus 9:1 11:47)


In this Torah portion, God commands Aaron and his sons to make the burnt and sin offerings at the Tabernacle. When God accepts the offerings, the people shout with joy. But when two of Aaron’s sons make an offering that was not commanded of them, they die. God describes to Moses the laws of kashrut, making distinctions between land animals, birds and animals in the water. Also in Shemini are some of the laws of ritual purity.


 

The purpose of these commentaries is to provide Jewish Journal readers with a brief, general entree into the multifaceted study of Torah from different denominational perspectives.

Rabbi Edward Feinstein 
Valley Beth Shalom (Conservative)

Americans have an infatuation with leaders. The English philosopher Thomas Carlyle believed that history is propelled by “the great man” (Carlyle’s phrase), whose values and energy animate our institutions. For Americans, “leadership” is a sacred word. Read more.

Rabbi Chaim Mentz
Chaim Mentz Chabad of Bel Air

In the early years of American Jewish history, there was a debate about whether American life was different from the shtetl life of Europe. Many embraced the idea of assimilation and secularization, yet others held strong and kept their traditional religious practices in this modern “new” world. Read more.

Rabbi Jonathan Hanish
Temple Kol Tikvah (Reform)

We are all human, so we all stumble at some point in our lives. If and when our stumble is discovered, we pay the price for our actions through repentance and transformation, and then, hopefully, we move forward and leave the past behind.  But, on occasion, our actions come back to haunt us over and over again, like a never-ending echo. Read more.

Rabbi Sarah Bassin
Temple Emanuel of Beverly Hills (Reform)

If you have spent any amount of time with a 3-year-old, you know this age comes coupled with a barrage of “why” questions: Why do you stop at red lights? Why do you put milk in your coffee?  Why do birds chirp? Read more.

Rabbi Edward Feinstein on Parashat Shemini (Leviticus 9:1 11:47)


Americans have an infatuation with leaders. The English philosopher Thomas Carlyle believed that history is propelled by “the great man” (Carlyle’s phrase), whose values and energy animate our institutions. For Americans, “leadership” is a sacred word. 

The success or failure of a business is ascribed to the strength of its CEO. Problems of state are described as a “crisis of leadership.” In sports, it’s the quarterback’s leadership that brings a team to victory; in music, it’s the star conductor we go to see.

[Read Rabbi Chaim Mentz, Rabbi Jonathan Hanish
and Rabbi Sarah Bassin's takes on Parashat Shemini]

These leaders are our heroes, our idols. They’re Steve Jobs at Apple, coach Mike Krzyzewski at Duke and Gustavo Dudamel at the L.A. Philharmonic. And should they fail, we take special relish in destroying them — tossing them out to look for new saviors.

Jews traditionally have a much more complex relationship with leaders. We love our leaders, and in the same breath, we suspect them. We may follow them, but we never surrender to them. This is true even in the ideal: A talmudic tradition teaches that if you’re planting a tree and you hear the Messiah has arrived … finish planting the tree, and only then go to see if it’s true.  

We elevate leaders, and then we argue with them. Perhaps “Jewish leadership” is an oxymoron.

Consider the biblical model: priest, prophet, king. The priest, as described in this week’s Torah portion, is responsible for the sacred precincts. His hands alone touch the consecrated objects, the holy symbols of God’s presence. But for all his sacred responsibility and privilege, and though he himself becomes a symbol of God’s holy presence, the priest holds no temporal power. He makes no policy. Though he wraps himself in the flag of the sacred, as it were, he is ultimately powerless.

The king, on the other hand, has all the power. But he is separated from the symbols of the sacred. There is no inherent sanctity to his kingship — his crown is not a religious symbol. His authority is purely functional, and therefore every use of his power must be justified. Even King David, the greatest of Israel’s kings, the progenitor of the Messiah, is sharply castigated by the prophet Nathan for killing his neighbor and stealing his wife. Separating king from priest and power from holiness means that being king does not put one above God’s law. Even the king is accountable.

And it is the prophet who carries this message. The prophet is the nation’s conscience. He incessantly and adamantly demands moral purity. But there’s a tension: No government or leadership can be morally pure. All leadership ultimately is a matter of negotiating compromises. Diplomacy, policy, planning, budgeting or any leadership decision is a matter of trading away some of your principles to preserve others. 

Were a prophet to find himself invested with power, he would soon despair. It’s no wonder Moses was not allowed into the Promised Land — into the real world of limitations and accommodations. 

The Greek philosopher Plato argued for a philosopher-king. He was wrong. Philosophers are like prophets. They deal in the realm of the pure, the theoretical and the ideal, and they make very poor kings. When philosophers/prophets take power, they tend to become tyrants, forcing everyone into the mold of their theory. 

Kings need prophets. The tension between them is essential. Those in power need to be reminded of the ideal and the pure. They need to hear the truth. And even while they make moral compromises, let them be reminded that their compromises are in fact compromises. Let them know what they’re compromising and the costs of compromise. Let them remember that, while necessary, it’s not ideal, and while pragmatic, it’s not perfect. Let them hear again and again: We can do better.

The Jewish model of leadership is filled with conflict, tension and stress. We are always arguing. Is this any way to do leadership? 

It isn’t orderly or clean or decisive. But it befits a people who began by running away from Pharaoh, and bears the scars of every subsequent ruler who thought himself a god. It befits a people who share God’s lofty vision of justice, but who know this world all too well. This week, in Parashat Shemini, we consecrate this model of leadership. Our priests will lead us in worship of our God, the God who demands ever-higher levels of holiness from real people, living in a real world.

Rabbi Chaim Mentz on Parashat Shemini (Leviticus 9:1 11:47)


In the early years of American Jewish history, there was a debate about whether American life was different from the shtetl life of Europe. Many embraced the idea of assimilation and secularization, yet others held strong and kept their traditional religious practices in this modern “new” world. 

Each side preached to their choir: “America is different.” But while one group argued we must modernize to fit in to our new world, the other preached, “America is a ‘treif midena’ (a non-kosher place) and we must create shtetlach to keep the assimilation out.” Each side felt their way was the true way to preserve Jews and Judaism in America. 

[Read Rabbi Edward Feinstein, Rabbi Jonathan Hanish
and 
Rabbi Sarah Bassin's takes on Parashat Shemini]

Through Divine Providence, God led millions of us here to America. God obviously would love to see Jews thrive with Judaism in this land of freedom. But which path is the proper path? Go out and leave the shtetl behind? Or build shtetlach with walls around us and do all we can to keep America out of our lives? 

Whenever a dilemma in Jewish life comes up, one must turn to our Jewish handbook, the Torah, for guidance. In the Torah is an answer for every Jewish issue.

In this week’s Torah portion, God reveals to us the laws of kashrut. God goes into great detail which animals are permissible (kosher) and which ones are not. For example, an animal that has split hooves and chews its cud, such as the cow, lamb or goat, is kosher (they have the spiritual permissible qualities for us to digest). 

When it comes to the laws of fish, God tells us that a fish must have fins and scales to be kosher. Simple — two signs. If you catch a fish with fins and scales, it’s kosher and you can now make sushi! 

The rabbis ask a question: We know that God is very precise in his wording in the Torah. Every word is calculated. Why did God add the word “fins” to the signs for being kosher? We know every fish that has scales has fins, but not all fish with fins have scales, so why not just write simply any fish with scales is kosher?

The Lubavitcher Rebbe explained that God is teaching us an important Jewish life lesson from the laws of the kosher fish. A fish is a navigator — it goes out and seeks the world, using its fins, yet it has its scales to protect it from foreign elements that may cause harm. God chose the Jews to be his ambassadors to the world, to spread his light and teachings to the world. 

America is a wonderful place to navigate, but we must have strong shields to protect us from assimilation or anything that may threaten our Jewishness. A perfect example of a kosher fish in America is former Connecticut senator and vice presidential candidate Joseph Lieberman. He lived within the American life, but observed the laws of kashrut and Shabbat, so he didn’t lose any of his Jewish identity. 

A Jew must be an ambassador for God, we must navigate the world; but we must keep our shields up and carry on the mitzvot of Judaism. So there really isn’t a debate anymore. America is not different! You can live a productive Jewish life while being a lawyer, doctor or even a senator.

Today, through the efforts of Chabad houses all over the United States, many young, modern American-Jewish families are returning to the “Old World life” in this “New World.” They have kosher homes, they are observing Shabbat, and even wearing kippahs in public places — because America is a place where a Jew can live to his or her highest Jewish potential. 

Being that the debate is over, please join me for some kosher sushi — you may like it! I look forward to meeting you.

Rabbi Jonathan Hanish on Parashat Shemini (Leviticus 9:1 11:47)


We are all human, so we all stumble at some point in our lives. If and when our stumble is discovered, we pay the price for our actions through repentance and transformation, and then, hopefully, we move forward and leave the past behind.  But, on occasion, our actions come back to haunt us over and over again, like a never-ending echo. 

Aaron finds himself feeling the effects of a past act in this week’s Torah portion. He survived the punishment of the golden calf by acting as if he was not responsible for the crafting of an alien god. But we know better — the Torah teaches that Aaron was responsible because Aaron asked for the gold rings that adorned the ears of the people and then cast them into a mold, creating the golden calf (Exodus 32:2-4). When confronted by Moses, he omits the information about the mold with the words, “They gave [the gold] to me and I hurled it into the fire and out came this calf” (Exodus 32:24). In Aaron’s version, the calf just magically appears out of the fire. There was no mold. He took no active role. In the punishments that ensued for the sin of the golden calf, he was spared. 

[Read Rabbi Edward FeinsteinRabbi Chaim Mentz
and Rabbi Sarah Bassin's takes on Parashat Shemini]

Aaron, it seemed, was forgiven for his sin against God. He moved forward in his role as a leader. He learned the responsibilities he and his sons would take as priests. In last week’s Torah portion, it is taught that he and his sons entered the Tent of Meeting for seven days of ordination. On the eighth day, he was finally the High Priest. Moses called to him and he stepped out of the tent feeling exhilarated. 

Moses commanded Aaron to make three sacrifices so that “the presence of Adonai may appear to you” (Leviticus 9:6). The first offering was to be a bull calf sin offering. Rashi believed this was to finally forgive Aaron for the sin of the golden calf. But as the day’s events play out, it seemed to be a reminder that God had not yet forgiven Aaron for this mistake. Once the three sacrifices were complete, Aaron raised his hands and blessed the people with the words of the Priestly Benediction, but God did not appear. Something was wrong.

He and Moses entered the Tent of Meeting. What occurred there is only rabbinic conjecture, but it is believed that they prayed for mercy and that God forgave them because, once they exited the Tent of Meeting, the presence of God was seen. Aaron must have believed he was now fully forgiven. But he was not. His true punishment for the golden calf was yet to come. 

His two eldest sons, Nadav and Avihu, made an offering they had not been commanded to make, and “fire went forth before Adonai and consumed them …” (Leviticus 10:2). Many reasons are given for their deaths by rabbinic commentators — they were drunk, they were not following halachah, they were attempting to place themselves on the same level as Aaron and Moses. But, by viewing their deaths through the lens of the golden calf incident, it can be argued they were taken as part of Aaron’s punishment. 

As modern readers, we are bothered by the deaths of Nadav and Avihu. But, viewed as a metaphor for our own mistakes, this is a lesson about how a past sin can come back to haunt us. It is infrequent that someone actually avoids punishment from any action filled with wrong intent, especially when the community knows of the act. 

Aaron had started the day on a spiritual and emotional high that came from finding himself at the apex of his life. This joyous moment was destroyed because of a sin committed just months before, a sin for which he had not been forgiven. This series of events teaches us to be aware that every action we take has repercussions that could echo in our lives forever.

Rabbi Sarah Bassin on Parashat Shemini (Leviticus 9:1 11:47)


If you have spent any amount of time with a 3-year-old, you know this age comes coupled with a barrage of “why” questions: Why do you stop at red lights? Why do you put milk in your coffee?  Why do birds chirp?  

These questions can be exhausting for parents, but they represent an important milestone in our human development. As early as the age of 3, we do not just accept the world around us; we want to understand it. This impulse for meaning defines us as humans. We are hardwired to try to make sense of our world. It has led to many of our greatest advances as a species. But sometimes, this impulse takes over when there is no meaning to be found. 

[Read Rabbi Edward FeinsteinRabbi Chaim Mentz
and Rabbi Jonathan Hanish's takes on Parashat Shemini]

In Parshat Shemini, we encounter one of the most perplexing stories in the narrative of our people that leaves us searching for meaning. Aaron and his sons have just been through priesthood boot camp to learn how to fulfill their roles as priests for the ancient Israelites. After learning all the details of their jobs, Aaron’s sons Nadav and Avihu approach the altar with an unexpected offering that was not commanded by God. The result? God consumes their souls with fire and they die. 

Their deaths are shocking. So many of our rabbis want to make sense of what happened. They reason that Nadav and Avihu must have angered God. Maybe they were drunk when making the offering. Maybe they died as a belated punishment to Aaron for having made the golden calf. Or, my favorite — maybe they died because they thought they were too good to marry any of the Israelite women.   

Even Moses tries to offer a reason for Nadav’s and Avihu’s deaths, though he takes the more compassionate approach. Moses speaks to his brother Aaron in the name of God: “I am sanctified through those who are close to me” (Leviticus 10:3).

“Aaron,” he seems to say, “your sons did not die in vain. God felt close to them and took them.” One rabbi, the Ohr Hachayim, builds on Moses’ more gracious way of making meaning of this tragedy. “They approached the supernal light out of their great love of the Holy, and died,” he says. “Thus they died by ‘divine kiss,’ such as experienced by the perfectly righteous.”

What is Aaron’s response to all of this? Silence. The text tells us he said nothing. In the face of tragedy, sometimes there are no words. There is no meaning to be made. We simply must sit and grieve.

We can all empathize with Moses and the rabbis in their desire to explain what happened. In moments of tragedy, we want to say the right thing. We want to take the sting out of death and suffering and pain. We want to comfort the afflicted and we want to comfort ourselves because of our human need for the world to make sense. But if there is meaning to be made from suffering, it is for the person who has experienced the tragedy to make that meaning, not those witnessing from the outside.

Our tradition teaches us to follow the cues of those who mourn. When we enter the home of the mourner, we do not speak until we are spoken to. As Rav Papa offers in the Talmud, “The merit of attending a house of mourning lies in the silence observed.” 

Silence can feel deeply inadequate in the face of suffering. But the act of being present is a thousand times more powerful for the one who is suffering. And it is infinitely more powerful than saying the wrong thing — even if it makes sense to us. 

Torah portion: Becoming a distinguished people


“You shall be holy, for I am holy”

— Leviticus 11:45

I always find that Parashat Shemini inspires young people to ask questions. “Why did Aaron’s sons have to die?” “Why can’t I have a drink and get a little tipsy if it will help me enjoy services more?” And, of course, the most common one: “Why do we need to keep kosher in the 21st century?” As usual, the answers are found right in the portion itself, where we are taught exactly what we are expected to be — “you shall be holy” — and how to accomplish this lofty goal — “to distinguish (separate) between the impure and the pure” (Leviticus 11:47). 

We are to be holy and emulate the many divine qualities as best we can and to l’havdil, meaning to separate, or distinguish, between that which is tamei (impure) and that which is tahor (pure). As I once heard radio host Michael Medved say, “Judaism is all about distinction: separating the light from the dark; the kosher from the nonkosher; the holiness of Sabbath from the holiness of the rest of the days of the week.” 

To the inquisitive teenager, the natural response is that everything is actually holy; or to paraphrase the great Irish-American storyteller Michael Meade: If we say “enlightenment,” we also have to say “endarken-ment,” since everything comes from God. So why can’t we have those forbidden animals or do the forbidden practices that are discussed in the Torah?

This is not only the question of young adults, but also the question that forms the basis of the religious practice of many American Jews. The secular Jew who believes that everything is sacred is often very “pro-holiness,” but sees everything as equally holy. Everything is kiddush, sanctified, in their eyes. There is no distinguishing between “fit” and “unfit,” because everything is viewed as sacred without distinction. So, if you are going to eat an animal, there is no difference between a cow and a pig.

It is taught that the Lubliner Rav, Meir Shapiro, of blessed memory (1887-1933), returned from a successful fundraising trip to the United States in the 1920s and was asked by his European colleagues about Judaism in America. His response was, “American Jewry has learned to make kiddush; it has not yet learned how to make havdalah (separation).” Separation is one of the first acts of God (God separates the light from the darkness in Genesis 1:4), and it is one of the qualities that distinguishes the children of Israel from the rest of the nations.

It is this quality that is found in each of the parts of this week’s parasha. Aaron’s sons are killed by God, and many commentators have taught that this is because they did not distinguish between the types of sacrifices they were to make. As the sons of Aaron (Kohanim), they were held to a higher standard not only of holiness (Kohanim have more laws placed upon them), but they needed to know how to separate and make the correct distinctions in their actions.

Similarly, we recently experienced the holiday that embraces excess: Purim. A holiday where we are to lose distinctions altogether through getting so intoxicated that we “cannot tell the difference between cursed be Haman and blessed be Mordechai” (Megillah 7b). We have wine on every Shabbat as well as other holidays. But in this portion, God tells Aaron to “not drink intoxicating wine, you and your sons with you, when you come to the Tent of Meeting, that you not die” (Leviticus 10:9). There is a time to drink and a time not to. All humans are held to some standards (the seven Noahide Laws); all Jews are held to a higher standard of separating what is allowed and what is not; and the Kohanim to an even higher one. No matter who we are, holiness is not only sanctifying, but also distinguishing.

This portion teaches us that it is not only our responsibility as Jews to make distinctions and create havdalah. It is also our obligation, our privilege, and it is what will guarantee our survival. Rabbi Berel Wein has taught, “Without havdalah, all succeeding generations are doomed to assimilation and loss of Jewish identity and values”; and it is clear that without this understanding, we can easily lose our Jewish spiritual identity.

Instead of choosing to eat pork or shellfish, consider how accepting the responsibility of separation not only distinguishes each of us as individuals, but also how it perpetuates our tradition of making every moment and every action a holy one. Just by contemplating the separations of holiness we begin to make ourselves, our community and the world a bit more filled with light, holiness and harmony.

May each of us find holiness in the distinctions and be distinguished as holy people.

What It Takes to Be a Jewish Leader


Charlton Heston (alav haShalom) made a great Moses; on screen, he seemed perfect — tall, handsome, gravelly voice, and not even Anne Baxter could seduce him.

Thankfully, the biblical Moses was not as monochromatic as the theatrical Moses. Despite his near perfection as a human being, he was still complex and flawed. Instead of shying away from this fact, both the biblical text and the midrash revel in it.

We are told that only after seven days of Tabernacle consecration did Aaron, Moses’ brother, begin his job as the High Priest, taking over the work on the eighth day (“Shemini” means eighth, hence the name of the Torah portion). Who was working the Tabernacle for the first seven days? Moses himself.

The midrash explains that when God first appeared to Moses at the burning bush, inviting him to be the redeemer of Israel, Moses demurred for seven days. On the seventh day of their disputation, Moses put his foot down with an exasperated “Please send someone else!”(Exodus 4:13). While knowing full well that Moses would finally relent to His arguments, God was still disappointed in his initial obstinacy.

The rabbis debate how God punished Moses for his refusal: One rabbi says that it came at the end of 40 years, when, after Moses entreated God for seven days to be allowed entry into Israel (as recorded in Deuteronomy), God finally refused. The other rabbi suggests that the punishment came about here, when Moses was initially allowed to act as the High Priest, but only for seven days. On the eighth day, he was stripped of the priesthood and it was awarded instead to his brother and nephews.

What is the connection between Moses’ refusal to act as redeemer and these two events? To explain, we need to first understand why Moses was so adamantly against being a savior. It’s not that Moses didn’t view himself as a leader — he very much saw himself as someone capable of shepherding his people. But he viewed himself first and foremost as a spiritual leader, a lawgiver and teacher who would eventually present the Tablets to his people at Mount Sinai.

His mistake, however, was failing to see how the same person who was to be the people’s spiritual leader could also act as their physical liberator. He was unable to integrate the two and see how the two roles could be fulfilled by the same individual. While fully prepared to be the giver of the Torah, he felt that a person destined for such a spiritual calling was not qualified to also be the person who would engage in political wrangling with world leaders. He just couldn’t see himself standing in Pharaoh’s court, demanding the Jews’ release.

Moses’ petition to God to send someone else was not a refusal to be the spiritual leader of Israel, but rather a request to have God assign a second leader to act as their political and military commander-in-chief.

The connection to his punishment is now understandable. Both service in the Tabernacle and life in the Holy Land demand that one appreciate the duality of all that exists in this world. To be a good Kohen (priest), one must realize that the offering of an animal’s carcass on the altar is a form of spiritual worship, accomplished by a purely physical act. To be a proper dweller of Eretz Israel, one must appreciate that within every single fig and grape of the Holy Land is contained something transcendent and holy, which is manifested by the unique agricultural mitzvot of Israel. Without the ability to synthesize the spiritual and physical together, one can neither inherit the priesthood or Eretz Israel.

By the time the Tabernacle had been dedicated, and certainly by the time the Jewish people came to Israel’s borders, Moses had internalized this concept. But because he had failed this calling during his early stages of development, God denied him the opportunity to be that symbol of spiritual-physical fusion.

The Talmudic sages (T.B. Sotah 14a) ask why Moses so desperately wanted to enter the land of Israel. “Did he need to eat its fruits?” No, he simply wanted to fulfill those agricultural mitzvot that could only be fulfilled inside of Israel. And God’s refusal to Moses was the lesson: If you cannot amalgamate the spiritual and physical, you cannot properly live in Eretz Israel.

Sometimes in life we are called upon to perform a task or role that we do not envision is right for us. Sometimes the rabbi is called upon to be a general, and sometimes the general is called upon to be a rabbi. We should be ready to come to God’s call no matter what the task, and appreciate that the greatest service comes as a fusion of spirituality and physicality. May we hear the call when it comes!

Rabbi N. Daniel Korobkin is rosh kehilla of Yavneh Hebrew Academy, director of community and synagogue services for the Orthodox Union West Coast Region and a community mohel.