Shemini

Leviticus 9:1-11:47

Barry Blum

Shemini seems to have two main concerns. Aaron has been chosen to be the Kohen Gadol, the high priest. His sons have been appointed as priests as well. They have just completed the prescribed seven days of sanctification. Now, on the eighth day, Aaron is told to offer certain specific offerings to God for his own sins as well as for the sins of the Israelite tribes as a whole.

Later in the portion we are told the rules of kashrut, of keeping kosher. We are told how to identify which land animals, which sea animals, which insects, which birds are clean or unclean. No explanations as to why any animal is clean or unclean are provided.

This second part of the portion is easier to discuss, so I’ll deal with it first. But before I begin, I want to tell you that I received a fax from “Kosher Petz” just the other day. “Just in time as we approach the Passover holiday … an on-line kosher pet food store in cyber space.”

Why is this funny, why do some people take it seriously, and what does it mean to Jews living in Kona today?

The Hertz Chumash states that “The Torah takes the whole of human life as its province; in the eyes of the Torah, nothing is secular. It penetrates into the home of the Israelite, and aims at controlling even the most intimate relations of his domestic existence.” Its laws are meant to create a healthy soul within a healthy body.

Did you ever notice that people tend to associate with other people according the particular patterns of what they ingest? I noticed it most in the 60s and 70s when we lived in California, but I saw it almost everywhere we went. Cigarette smokers tend to hang out with cigarette smokers; non-smokers with non-smokers. Alcohol users tend to associate with other alcohol users; teetotalers with teetotalers. Vegetarians didn’t dine with meat eaters on a regular basis. Vegans ate with vegans. If you keep kosher you find it difficult to eat out, or even at home with friends or even family who are not kosher.

So on one level, creating food restrictions serves to create group or tribal bonding. Is this the primary rationale for the restrictions or are the restrictions a technique of creating sanctity or more awareness? The Jewish perspective is that God brought His people out of Egypt to be a holy people. This holy people that accepted God’s dietary restrictions learned the meanings for these rules from the Torah commentaters.

In this portion we are told which animals, fish, birds and insects are kosher. Analysis of these categories points to the choices as being related to which animals might be healthy for us to consume and which might be unhealthy. The bottom dwellers like oysters and clams are more likely to be contaminated than the freely swimming fish that have scales and fins. Beyond physical health it has been observed that for birds, we are told to not eat those with undesirable personalities, the birds of prey, perhaps because we do not want to consume animals that have that quality about them because we do not want ourselves to be persons of prey. Likewise for land animals, we do not eat carnivores, we eat ruminants. For the vegetarians amongst us, you might note that there are many, many rules about how to identify what animals cannot be consumed but not nearly as much attention is devoted to restrictions on eating fruits or vegetables. Is this because our ancestors recognized that eating animals was not something to be done casually, unthinkingly, or even, not to be done if there was something simpler to eat?

Perhaps the essence of eating kosher means that our responsibility is to eat consciously. Not a bad rule for everyone.

So how does this follow after part one of the portion where Aaron is told what to do, and he does it, and it’s going to be the happiest day in Aaron’s life, and Aaron’s sons are told what to do, and they do something different, something not described, and God destroys them right before Aaron’s eyes? Their names are Nadar and Abihu. Here’s the passage:

“And Nadar and Abihu, the sons of Aaron, took each of him his censer, and put fire therein, and laid incense thereon, and offered strange fire before the Lord, which he had not commanded them. And there came forth fire from before the Lord, and devoured them, and they died before the Lord.”

Our Sages explain this by stating that the greater a person’s knowledge or position, the stricter the standard by which the person is to be judged. Like Moses who was commanded to touch the rock in the desert to bring forth water, because he struck the rock, he was punished by being denied entrance into the Promised Land; a severe punishment for an apparent minor transgression.

I learned about this sin of Moses’ when I was attending services in Marin County in the 1970’s during the time of Viet-Nam. Richard Nixon was in the throes of Watergate. It was just a little sin to break into the Watergate to get some information about his political opponents, but it was his undoing.

The sin here is the sin of arrogance. And why do I bring it up here and now? We are in the midst of a terrible war right now, one that has been brought upon us by arrogance. It is the arrogance of power. A leader, whether religious or secular, has a terrible responsibility. How to lead while protecting those whom he or she leads from harm? What to do when confronted with risk or danger to those whom he/she must protect?

A leader has the responsibility to inspire righteous behavior in those who follow him/her. Look at leaders in the sports arenas. We expect professional baseball players to refrain from gambling. We demand that Olympic athletes refrain from using performance enhancing drugs. We forgive actors, or at least we used to. We used to accept all sorts of romantic shenanigans. Now we even expect them to behave themselves because they too are examples to our youth. Do we expect less of our political leaders?

We have seen the president of Iraq commit atrocities against foreign countries like Iran and Kuwait, and against his own Kurdish citizens, and against his own generals who have displeased him, creating an example that with absolute power comes the right to do anything he damn well pleases.

And we are seeing the president of the United States become frustrated that the president of Iraq will not yield to his demands, demands that seem reasonable to the American; and so this American leader has been willing to put foreigners to death, and put allies to death, and put Americans to death, because he has absolute power to do whatever he damn well pleases.

But the Torah teaches us that both of these individuals should be held to higher standards than the rest of us, that they should not be allowed to succumb to the baser instincts, like anger and frustration and impatience and impulsiveness.

Three years ago I had a secret fantasy. The Millennium was soon to be upon us. The Soviet Union had fallen and there was a new spirit arising in Russia. Northern Ireland was getting close to some peaceful resolution. The Oslo Peace Accords were still seen as potential solutions to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I thought, “wouldn’t it be wonderful if the world decided to give peace a chance? Maybe give up war for the Millennium.”

Alas, it wasn’t to happen. Not then. But I’ll tell you, we are in a quandary right now. Those of us who did not want Bush to start this war in Iraq, watched with horror as it began. But then, as Ellen Goodman explained so eloquently, we found ourselves hoping that Bush might be right, that this will be a quick and painless war. Please, let it be so. Those who did want Bush to start the war wanted the same thing. Get in fast and win and get out. Well it doesn’t look that way now. It’s a real war, people are being killed, Iraqis, American, English, and there will be more, many more. The leaders of the war on our side, the Americans, are the old men: the Secretary of Defense, the Vice President. Bush is a young man. I don’t think he’s a smart man. He’s a good follower. He has been accepting the advice of his father’s old advisors.

But I believe that the path Bush is following will fail. He’ll be shown wrong. He’ll go bankrupt. And when he does, I can see that this war could be the last war the world will fight because it will become so clear that as a method of conflict resolution, war is a lousy solution. There are better ways.

We teach children not to fight. We don’t like it when they bring guns to school. It’s wrong to teach our children that when you don’t get your way, you fight a war. It’s wrong to teach children that war can be fought without pain and suffering. It’s wrong to teach children that war is fought for free, that we don’t have to pay a terrible price to go to war. This war may be the perfect teaching opportunity for this message.

My worst fantasy is that our president has not only made the wrong decision, but that he has committed us to a plan that will lead not only to extended bloodshed and ultimate failure to solve the real problems in the Middle East, but that the USA will have lost so much international respect that we will suffered consequences far beyond getting into a bad war. This is not unlikely since we are already acting as if we no longer have respect for the rest of the world, even our allies. Will we see the “fire coming forth from the Lord” as punishment for our national arrogance?

Or, will there be, as a result of our wrongful behavior, some sort of learning? I don’t believe that Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld nor Vice President Dick Cheney are capable of learning that war is nowadays a stupid or outmoded concept. They’re too fixed, too old. I don’t believe that our president even fully understands what’s going on. He seems mainly focused on making statements that he thinks are supposed to frighten Saddam Hussein. But I wonder if maybe, when things get really bad, when everyone starts to see that war is never as it’s planned, is never as it’s anticipated, is never a clean activity, then maybe the younger citizens of the United States will learn something, and maybe this could become the last war. Wouldn’t that be nice? I know, that’s what they said about WWI.

Communication technology has become so sophisticated that reporters now tell us about and show us battles in real time. I can imagine that our poor generals are getting frustrated by all these reporters enabling even more commentators and critics to offer their amateurish observations on the progress of their war even before they have had a chance to evaluate their situations. It must be like having a theatre critic blabbing away during rehearsals of the show, or having observers at surgery criticizing the surgeon’s techniques right in the middle of the operation. What a drag! How dare they?! Who do they think they are?! We can only hope that these same generals will get the message that doing this kind of work is no longer such a good idea, and that there must be a better way, if not to make a living, than to solve disputes.

It would appear that Nadar and Abihu, the sons of Aaron, didn’t think ahead when they fooled around with strange fire. They were not in direct communication with God, as Moses was. They didn’t discuss their plans with Moses or with Aaron. They just acted. Nowadays, it seems that no one can do anything anywhere in the world without being observed in real time by CNN or NBC and then criticized by Fox or ABC and then analyzed by National Public Radio. Perhaps this will be our salvation. We all hoped that this intercommunication technology would have prevented this conflict. It was not to be. But maybe it still can succeed. Talk, discuss, analyze, talk, negotiate, talk and talk, and then resolve.

Our Torah is filled with battle after battle. It’s true that they tried to kill us. It’s true that God then comes in to save us. It’s also true that even using warfare over and over again, we’re still fighting wars. The message has to be that this methodology was our past, and it’s time now for our future. To return attention to part one of this Torah portion, it’s time to eat instead of fight.

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