Drash on Parshah Sh’mini

By David and Beatriz Haymer

Part 1: The Laws of Kashrut

Sh’mini is usually described as the Parshah containing the key instructions for the laws of Kashrut, specifically what may or may not be eaten. It does so, but this Parshah also starts with a continuation of details described in the previous Parshah regarding purgation and burnt animal offerings.

It is here that a startling event occurs when two of Aaron’s sons, Nadab and Abihu, while participating in the ritual offerings, make some sort of mistake involving “alien fire”. The exact nature of this mistake is not clear, but the consequences of it are – God sends forth a fire that instantly consumes them on the spot. Over the years, much has been written on this passage, but nevertheless, much about this event remains largely a mystery.

So, you might ask, why begin with an event that is so difficult to understand? Perhaps it is a sign that other things will follow in this Parshah that will also be difficult to explain or understand. This concept comes into sharp focus when talking about forbidden vs. permissible foods for eating.
To begin with, plants are easy – no restrictions, period. With animals, however, lots of specific rules are laid down. God says that we may eat anything that lives in water, except those things that lack fins or scales. We also know that some birds are acceptable because they are used in ritual offerings, but consumption of most other birds is not allowed. Insects are flat out forbidden, except that locusts, crickets and grasshoppers are given as an explicit exception.

Starting to see a pattern here? For every broad category of animal, there are both allowed and forbidden varieties. The rules drill down even further, drawing distinctions between animals that chew cud and have true hoofs which may be eaten vs those without true hoofs, even if they also chew cud, that are forbidden.
So, what really is the difference between an animal with a “true hoof” vs. one without? This is an example of another mystery because people don’t see how this can fit into any sort of rational system of classification.

I’m not at all bothered by it, however, because I know that all such classification schemes are subject to change. After all, going back to Genesis, when it is time to name all the animals in the garden of Eden, God commands Adam (meaning man) to name them. This naming forms the basis of taxonomy, the study of relationships that serves as a fundamental building block for all of biology. But, because man gives the names, man can change the names. Indeed, this is something that taxonomists do on a regular basis.

Part 2: Being Holy

This Parshah also contains a series of statements about holiness.
כִּ֣י אֲנִ֣י יְהוָה֮ אֱלֹֽהֵיכֶם֒
*For I the LORD am your God:

וְהִתְקַדִּשְׁתֶּם֙ וִהְיִיתֶ֣ם קְדֹשִׁ֔ים כִּ֥י קָד֖וֹשׁ אָ֑נִי
*you shall sanctify yourselves and be holy, for I am holy.
(And you will make yourselves holy, and you will be holy because I am holy)

וְהִתְקַדִּשְׁתֶּם֙ (V’hit kadishtem)

“And you will sanctify yourselves”, hit kadishtem is a reflexive verb, and it is also the mandate form. A reflexive verb is one in which the doer and receiver of the action is the same. God is commanding us to make ourselves sanctified, to be separate, set apart, distinct. The Hebrew reads “you will make yourselves holy. It’s not going to happen to us; we have to do it. We have to do it to ourselves.

Then, twice, in successive verses, God says וִהְיִיתֶ֣ם קְדֹשִׁ֔ים כִּ֥י קָד֖וֹשׁ אָ֑נִי
v’hitem kadoshim, ki kadosh ani

Sefaria translates this as “be holy”, but the original Hebrew actually says “and you will be holy because I am holy”. The future tense, you will, is used. We are being told “you will do this”; there is no option B or C.

וִהְיִיתֶ֣ם קְדֹשִׁ֔ים כִּ֥י קָד֖וֹשׁ אָ֑נִי – And you will be holy because I am holy.

But how do we make ourselves holy?! What does it mean “be holy”? Separate? Distinct? The theme of separation runs throughout Torah from Breshit when G-d separates light from the darkness and Shabbat from the days of creation, to G-d separating Abram from his ancestral context to a land unknown, to God taking the descendants of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob out of Mitzraim to be a people separate, different from all other peoples. These exemplify separation in states of consciousness, time, physicality, and practice. That is, separation in thinking, being, and doing.
The context in this Parshah where we are given these mandates of making ourselves separate and distinct, and being separate – that is, continuing to keep that distinction, revealed one answer to my question, “What does it mean to be holy?”

Here, God gives a guide for what we may consume to feed ourselves and those things that, in the words of Torah, will draw upon us abomination and make us unclean. We are given parameters for discerning what is acceptable and what is not. With these we can distinguish and separate that which nourishes from that which will pollute us.

We’ve often heard, when encouraging a healthy and wholesome diet, the adage, “You are what you eat.” Indeed, the vitamins, minerals, and other nutrients in the food we consume will be assimilated and integrated into our bodies. They become part of us, helping our body build or repair itself.
There are certain things that we can eat that may be “mmh… ono”; tasty; that smell and feel oh so good being eaten; but they do not contribute to the overall wellbeing, health and strength of our body. They will not help our body repair or renew itself. Not only do they not help our body function “Como Dios manda” (as God intended) but over time they will cause discomfort, distress, and ultimately disease.

That is what the list God gives here in Sh’mini is telling us; those forbidden things should not be considered nutrition. There are certain things we should not eat because, what we consume and what we come into contact with will determine our state of being. But let’s understand this beyond the pashat, the literal.

Looking for the “sod” I also ask myself, “What am I consuming in print, entertainment, thoughts, ideas, attitudes? Am I indulging in behaviors or negativity that initially feel oh so good but over time will be detrimental? Will exposure to or feeding on this uplift, nurture, heal, support or serve me?
So, why should we exert ourselves to be holy? G-d answered that before when telling us to be holy because He is holy: Ki ani Adonai Eloheihem: because Adonai is Eloheinu, our G-d. Our G-d is saying “because I am your G-d, the G-d of creation, miracles, and wonders; who took us out of Mitzraim; the final authority over life and death. Yes, that God!

God has given us guidelines. If I take care to discern, and then consciously choose that which revives, renews and repairs, I will be in a better position to be present for the others in my life.
May we all exercise the discernment God has given us, continually making wise, conscious choices, so we can live fully, intentionally, joyfully, and thus be a blessing to our closest others.

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