Our hearts are torn by the events described in Chapter 10 of Leviticus,in this week’s parasha Shemini.
The High Priest Aaron’s sons, Nadav and Avihu, are killed when they enter the Tabernacle with “a strange fire” to offer to God. The young priests were consumed by the fire of God. Aaron was silent in the face of this loss, and the bodies were removed from the front of the sanctuary.
Moses gives the remaining sons, Eleazar and Ithamar, some pubic mourning instruction and the unequivocal injunction against drinking on the job, and then says, “you must distinguish between the sacred and the profane, between the unclean and the clean” (Lev 10:10)
The translation is extremely disturbing. The Hebrew reads, “bein hakodesh u’vein hachol”. The word “kodesh” is often translated as holy, but also means separate, kept apart. The word “chol” however, means sand. Simple, ordinary sand, that you find in the wilderness. This is a phrase we hear in the Havdalah ceremony, the short, sweet set of prayers that ends Shabbat. Said on Saturday nights, the wine and candles remind us of how we brought Shabbat in, and the spices give us the sensory element to keep a little bit of Shabbat with us into the work week. And then we say, “Blessed are you, God, who separates the kodesh from the chol.” So the opposite of holy is sand? No, the opposite of holy is ordinary.
Holy things happened in that space in the wilderness where the Mishkan stood. That was holy sand, because holy things happened there, things that couldn’t happen anywhere else, things that were separate from the rest of the communal space. But the sand that was just next to the Mishkan? It wasn’t profane sand, it was just sand. What happens in a place is what makes it holy or unholy, ordinary or special.
So what does it mean in the context of Leviticus? As a primer for the priests, and ultimately, for us all, Leviticus teaches that it is our job in this world to acknowledge, to distinguish, to discern between that which adds to the unique and spiritual and goodness of the world, and that which drains that goodness away. We must be aware of our surroundings, perhaps in a way that Nadav and Avihu were not. We are to separate ourselves from that which diminishes the holy moments in our lives, whether they are small or great. But there’s a difference between the un-clean-ness and the ordinary. There’s nothing wrong with sand; it’s just not the holy sand. There’s nothing wrong with Wednesdays; it’s just not Shabbat. It’s what we see around us, and what we try to do with the ordinary that can make it holy, and it’s our job to tell the difference.