A Taste of Torah: Weekly Commentary from the JTS Community
Parashat Sh'mini 5763
Exodus 12:1 - 20
March 29, 2003 25 Adar II, 5763
This week's commentary was written by Rabbi Lauren Eichler Berkun
Ask an observant Jew why he or she keeps kosher. Many will reply, "because God so commanded" or "because it is a mitzvah in the Torah." Many others will reply, "Because keeping kosher forces me to think about my Jewish identity every time that I sit down to eat. Kashrut compels me to make choices. Kashrut distinguishes me as a Jew."
The theme of making choices and setting limits is central to this week's Torah portion. It is instructive to read the laws of kashrut in the larger context of Parashat Sh'mini .
The Torah portion begins with a description of the animals to be offered at the commencement of the formal worship in the Tabernacle. We learn that the animals must be of a certain species, a specific age, without blemish. Not all animals are fit for sacrifice. Following Aaron's execution of these sacrifices, his sons Nadab and Abihu offer an "alien fire, which God had not enjoined upon them" (Lev. 10:1). His sons are consumed by a Divine fire. We learn that there is a time and place to give an offering. Not all fire is godly. Following the tragic death of Aarons' sons, Moses forbids Aaron and his remaining sons to publicly mourn. We learn that there is a time and a place for mourning. Next, God speaks to Aaron and forbids alcohol consumption during priestly service. There is a time and a place for drinking. Finally, Moses challenges Aaron's surviving sons about the goat of purification offering. He is angry that they had not partaken of this most holy offering in the sacred sanctuary. Aaron responds that they could not eat the offering on such a calamitous day. There is a time and a place for feasting.
These dramatic events provide the immediate backdrop for the laws of kashrut. In Leviticus 11, we learn that not all animals are permitted to us. By now we are familiar with the theme. We must make choices: not all animals may be sacrificed. We must make distinctions: not all fires are godly. We must make separations: there is a time and a place to mourn, to drink, to feast ...
The conclusion of the Torah portion highlights the fundamental theological message: "For I the Lord am your God. You shall sanctify yourselves and be holy, for I am holy" (Lev. 11:44). This verse would present a powerful literary ending to the portion. However, the portion actually concludes with a much more mundane passage: "These are the instructions concerning animals, birds, all living creatures that move in water, and all creatures that swarm on earth, for distinguishing between the impure and the pure, between the living things that may be eaten and the living things that may not be eaten." (Lev. 11:46). Holiness is achieved through a process of distinctions, limits, and boundaries. The Sifra teaches that "you shall be holy" means "you shall be distinct" (See Eitz Hayyim Torah Commentary, p. 1440). We become a "distinct" people through the many "distinctions" we make as Jews.
This "Shabbat HaHodesh" is the last of the special Sabbaths leading up to Pesach. We prepare for Rosh Hodesh Nisan and for the holiness of Pesach by reflecting on the power of distinctions. In the coming weeks, we will be consumed with the separation between chametz and matzah. As we scour our pantries and search for "Kosher for Passover" labels in the grocery store, may we remember the biblical charge: "For I the Lord am He who brought you up from the land of Egypt to be your God: you shall be holy, for I am holy" (Lev. 11:45). We were redeemed from Egypt to strive for holiness. Our everyday distinctions make us holy.