Shemini: Drawing a line

line-in-the-sandThis is where I draw the line.

And that’s Leviticus. The end.

Well, that would make for a pretty short blog posting here, so I’ll elaborate.

Leviticus (Vayikra) is all about drawing lines between things – this is ok, this is not. We are told to be on the lookout all the time, making and acknowledging distinctions.  In this week’s parasha, Shemini, we are presented with one of the most well-known and yet highly misunderstood sets of distinctions – the laws of kashrut, or what is permitted to eat and what isn’t.

Back up just a bit.  Earlier in the parasha, we read about all sorts of different offerings the people were bringing to the Tabernacle.  Goats, sheep, etc.  And Aaron, the high Priest, along with his sons, are instructed as to how to handle these offerings – what they should eat, and where it should be eaten (inside or outside.)  Then we hear of a fire “going out from Adonai” that consumes the offering.  Immediately after that, we read of another kind of fire – a  “strange fire” that Aaron’s sons Nadav and Avihu bring into the Tabernacle.  Bad move.  We don’t exactly know what that strange fire was, but it wasn’t good.  Another fire went out from Adonai and zapped Nadav and Avihu

Clearly there was a distinction between different kinds of fires, a deadly distinction.  This parasha makes other distinctions.  After the detailed descriptions of what makes a kosher animal and what makes an unkosher animal, the text says we are to make a separation between the unclean and the clean, “hamavdil bein ha-tamei uv’ein ha-tahor”  When I read that, I was reminded of the phrase that ends the Havdalah ceremony.  This is the short ritual that divides Shabbat and from the rest of the week.  We say, “Blessed is God…..who separates the holy from the ordinary”, “hamavdil bein kodesh l’chol”  (extra points for seeing the connection between “hamavdil” and “havdalah”…same root v-d-l)

Many translations have the opposite of “holy” as “profane”, as in, “Who separates the holy from the profane”  But that’s a pretty bad translation.  There is nothing profane about Tuesdays, they’re just not Shabbat.  Yet the text about kosher animals specifically states that some animals are “tamei” (unclean) and others are “tahor” (clean.)  Why not use similar language in these two settings?

I think it’s because clean/unclean are temporary states of being.  We learn from Leviticus that we can move between the status of clean and unclean and back again, depending on who we’re with and what we’re doing.  Clean/unclean is a fluid part of life.  No one is essentially or inherently unclean and through the ordinary course of our lives, we expect that at times we will be (figuratively) in or out of the camp.  But Torah gives us a way of sanctifying the move back to “clean” status, and Leviticus spends a lot of time instructing us on how to do just that.

But Shabbat is permanently in the status of holy.  It’s essence is holy, unlike us whose essence is not what moves between clean and unclean – just our temporary, body status.   Shabbat is never ordinary, Shabbat is never un-holy.  The distinction between Shabbat and the rest of the week doesn’t change, so we wouldn’t use the changeable, Leviticus language of clean and unclean for Havdalah.     Only the holy language will do, relegating the rest of the week to non-Shabbat status.  Not bad, but not Shabbat.  Not profane, but not Shabbat.

The Torah teaches us to be careful with our language, and Leviticus specifically teaches us to be discerning in our words and deeds.  Finding our way between the clean and unclean, finding the holy and the ordinary – this is what we look for.

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3 Responses to Shemini: Drawing a line

  1. Pingback: The Torah In Haiku | Shemini

  2. Pingback: Sh'minin - Torah in Haiku |

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