PARASHAT SHEMINI - BIRKAT HAHODESH
April 22, 2006 - 24 Nisan 5766
Annual: Leviticus 9:1 - 11:47 (Etz Hayim, p. 630; Hertz p. 443)
Triennial: Leviticus 10:12 - 11:32 (Etz Hayim, p. 635; Hertz p. 450)
Haftarah: II Samuel 6:1 - 7:17 (Etz Hayim, p. 645; Hertz p. 454)
Prepared by Rabbi Michael Gold
Congregation Beth Torah, Tamarac, FL
Department of Congregational Services
Rabbi Paul Drazen, Director
For seven days, the Israelites have celebrated the formal inauguration of the priesthood. On the eighth day, while performing the final rituals, tragedy strikes. Aaron's two oldest sons, Nadab and Abihu, bring an alien fire not commanded by God. A fire comes forth from the Lord and consumes them. Moses tries to comfort Aaron with the words, "This is what God meant when he said, through those close to Me do I show Myself holy." But Aaron can react only with silence.
Moses calls Aaron's other two sons, Mishael and Elzaphan, to carry their brothers out of the sanctuary. They are not to mourn by baring their heads, rending their clothes, or going outside the tent of meeting. God commands Aaron to avoid wine and other intoxicants, lest he enter the Tent of Meeting intoxicated. (Could this have been the sin of Nadab and Abihu?) Moses becomes angry when Aaron made a mistake in the rite of the goat of purification. Aaron finally speaks, for the first time after the death of his sons, saying that he had brought all the offerings, yet still these horrible things happened to him. If he had eaten the purification, would God have approved? Moses accepts his words.
The second half of this portion introduces the dietary laws of Judaism. The animal kingdom is divided into those animals that can be eaten and those that cannot. Mammals must have a cloven hoof and chew their cud. Fish must have fins and scales when in the sea or streams. The chapter includes a long list of birds that are forbidden. (Traditionally, to avoid error, Jews only eat birds that they have traditionally eaten, such as chicken, turkeys, ducks, and geese.) Swarming things are forbidden with the exception of certain kinds of locusts.
The carcass of a forbidden animal causes ritual impurity. The purpose of all these laws is not health, as many believe, but rather holiness. Holiness comes through recognizing distinctions.
Issue #1 - Nadab and Abihu's Sin
"Now Aaron's sons, Nadab and Abihu, each took his fire pan, put fire in it, and laid incense on it; and they offered before the Lord alien fire, which He had not enjoined upon them" (Leviticus 10:1)
- What was the sin that was so severe that the two young men suddenly died? The Torah said they brought an alien fire. What could this mean? Is the Torah trying to drive home that we do not change the ritual of the Temple on fear of death? What does this say about our ritual today?
- Rashi teaches, "R. Eliezer said that the sons of Aaron died because they insisted on teaching Torah in front of their teacher Moses. R. Ishmael said that they entered the sanctuary drunk." What is the sin in teaching before your elders? Was the issue arrogance or another sin? According to one midrash, Nadab and Abihu would trail their uncle, Moses, and their father, Aaron, saying, "When will these two die already?" Is it wrong to try to grow up too fast?
- The Torah follows these events with the prohibition on drinking wine before doing the divine service. Jewish tradition certainly gives a mixed message about alcohol. Our tradition sees moderate drinking as a sign of joy. As the Psalmist says, "Wine rejoices the heart of man" (Psalms 104:15). We drink wine at our most joyous occasions, Shabbat and festivals, at a brit milah (bris), at a wedding. At the Passover seder we are obligated to drink four cups of wine. The drinking is less moderate at our more raucous festivals, Purim and Simchat Torah. On the other hand, there is also a powerful warning about the misuse of alcohol that runs through our tradition. Noah was the father of humanity, yet his first act after leaving the ark was to plant a vineyard, get drunk, and fall into a drunken stupor in his tent. This began a series of events that led to Noah cursing his son and grandson. The message is clear - alcohol abuse can send humanity down the wrong path. Has Jewish tradition become too accepting of alcohol abuse? Is the message about learning limits?
- Could it be that Nadab and Abihu did not commit any sin? Moses says after their deaths, "This is what the Lord meant when He said, through those near to Me I show Myself holy" (Leviticus 10:3). Is it possible that they were so close to God that God took their souls and left their bodies? Why did they become the paradigm for other martyrs in Jewish tradition?
Issue #2 - Dietary Laws
"Speak to the Israelite people thus; these are the creatures that you may eat from among all the land animals" (Leviticus 11:2)
- This portion puts huge limits on our ability to eat the flesh of animals, birds, and fish. However, today many people believe that we should question what gives us the right to eat animals at all. Should we humans be permitted to eat other sentient beings? After all, in the garden of Eden people were vegetarians. Is not a vegetarian diet more in keeping with the ethics and values of the Torah?
- Some would claim that a vegetarian diet is healthier. If so, why are our bodies built in such a way that we can eat and digest meat? You can eat an unhealthy vegetarian diet, with too much sugar and too many carbohydrates. You certainly can eat a healthy diet that includes meat, poultry, and fish in moderation. The key is balance - both quality and quantity affect our health.
- The bigger problem is with those who claim that eating meat is almost like cannibalism; they insist that we are animals ourselves and should not eat our cousins. What is the problem with this argument? Perhaps the answer is in the garden of Eden, where we were vegetarians, we were also animal-like, "naked and not ashamed." After we ate from the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge, we left the garden of Eden and raised ourselves above the animal kingdom. To quote Erich Fromm, "What is essential in the existence of man is the fact that he has emerged from the animal kingdom … has transcended nature. Once torn away from nature, he cannot return to it." (Art of Loving) Are human beings qualitatively different from animals? How does our diet reflect those differences?