Parshat Shemini

Torah Reading for Week of March 31-April 6, 2013


“The Temptation of New Beginnings”
By Rabbi Min Kantrowitz, ‘04

Parasha Shemini, constituting Lev 9:1-11:47, is unusual in many ways. This is the only parasha named after a number–eight!  Why is ‘eight” important? And what does the number eight have to do with the two important thematic issues that constitute the majority of this Parsha– the mysterious deaths of Nadav and Avihu and the detailed laws of kashrut (keeping kosher)?

We know that seven is the number of completion in Jewish tradition.  There are seven days in the week and the seventh day is Shabbat, the day of rest.  In traditional Jewish weddings, the bride circles the groom seven times under the chuppah (wedding canopy).  In Jewish funerals, the procession from funeral coach to gravesite stops seven times. The number seven figures prominently in delineations of Jewish time — the seven weeks of Counting the Omer, and the Sabbatical year marking the seventh year when the land rests and is renewed.  But what about eight?  Just as ‘seven’ refers to completion, ‘eight’ is associated with new beginnings.  A brit milah (circumcision) is conducted on the eighth day of a young boy’s life, after completing a week as an ‘unaffiliated’ infant, he is brought into the covenant and his new life as a Jew begins on the eighth day.  After the 49 days of counting the seven weeks of the Omer, the 50th day, the beginning of the eighth week is Shavuot, when we celebrate receiving Torah…marking a radically new spiritual beginning!

Leviticus 9:1 tells us that Aaron and his sons have spent seven days being ceremonially prepared by Moses for their new priestly duties.  The seven day training period having been completed, on the eighth day they step into their new roles.

New beginnings offer opportunity and freedom.  The next section of our Parsha illustrates the potential dangers of freedom, as Nadav and Avihu, two of the four sons of Aaron who has just been invested into priestly service, perform some undefined ritually inappropriate act, and are killed. Be careful with new beginnings, this parsha is telling us.  Whether religious zealotry, misguided ritual passion or strong drink were the contributing factors is irrelevant.  The fact is that new opportunities have both positive and negative potential.  We are being reminded to handle new responsibilities thoughtfully, considering implications and understanding boundaries.

The parsha continues with details about kashrut, the “fitness” of the food we consume.  It details which kinds of animals and insects are permitted, describing their physical characteristics with anatomical details that are to help us discern what is and is not appropriate food.

Why do these details about kashrut follow the story of Nadav and Avihu? Their story is a warning about the potential dangers of a spiritual journey; Nadav and Avihu were explorers who overstepped their bounds.  It is fitting, then, to follow this narrative with the laws of kashrut which are designed to guide our steps … to set up boundaries within which we can safely explore.  Having experienced the tragic consequences of actions based on passion without appropriate limits, the necessity for boundaries becomes clear.  The last verse of the Parsha reminds us: “To distinguish between the impure and the pure.”

New beginnings are exciting, but can be dangerous.  Recognizing the wisdom of boundaries can help keep us spiritually nourished and safe. May we all step into our new beginnings well trained, spiritually prepared, and honoring appropriate boundaries.

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