Shemini 5761

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Shemini

This d’var Torah was originally distributed by Kolel: The Adult Center for Jewish Learning during the year 5761 and can be found in its archives.

Shemini (Leviticus 9:1-11:47)


Last week, Aharon and his sons were dedicated as priests to serve in the Mishkan. This week, in Shemini, the altar itself is dedicated, and the priestly service begins- but on a tragic note. Nadav and Avihu, Aharon’s sons, bring a “strange fire” on their own initiative, and are “consumed” right then and there. God warns Aharon directly that priests may never perform their service while drunk. Rules are given for the disposition of the day’s korbanot. The last section of the parsha lists which animals, birds, fish and insects are permitted or forbidden as food.


“For I am God, Who brought you up out of the land of Egypt, to be your God- you shall be holy, for I am holy. ” (Genesis 1:31)


At the end of the list of permitted and forbidden foods, there is a general admonition not to break these laws, and to be holy, because God is holy. Perhaps holiness consists of making distinctions between pure and impure, or in following God’s commandments, or in cultivating a heightened consciousness of our eating habits- whatever the definition of holiness, the Torah strongly links our behavior to our relationship with God.


Being an extremely careful reader, Rashi notices that one word in our verse is a bit unusual:

    “For I am God, Who brought you up out of the land of Egypt-” I [i.e., God] brought you up on the condition that you accept My commandments.

    Another explanation of “For I am God, Who brought you up-” everywhere else it is written, “I have brought you out,” but here is written: “I have brought you up.”

    The School of R. Yishmael taught [that God said:] ‘If I had brought up Israel from Egypt only so that they do not make themselves impure by eating crawling things, as do other peoples, that would be enough for them, for this is very high level of raising up.’ That is the meaning of “brought you up.”

What’s Rashi talking about here? If you check out other prominent verses which mention the Exodus from Egypt, you notice that they speak of God taking the Israelites out, not up, as for example in the Ten Commandments:

    I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery. (Exodus 20:2)

So Rashi offers two explanations: first, that Israel was brought up from Egypt only to observe the commandments. That makes a general kind of sense, given that this verse comes at the end of a long series of detailed laws. Rashi’s second explanation is more contextual, related to the rules of kashrut [“keeping kosher,” or following the dietary practices]: not eating impure foods “raises us” up on a spiritual level, just like being free rather than slaves raises us up on a moral or social level. The mystical tradition takes this further, teaching that what we eat affects us on the level of the soul, not just the body.

Another way to understand Rashi’s comment is to think about how poor, oppressed servants would eat, as opposed to a people free to reach their spiritual potential. Perhaps just as the Israelites were “raised up” from the social and material conditions of servitude, they must be raised up from the mental habits they acquired in oppression. How you eat, and what you eat, says something about your personal dignity and mindfulness- something the oppressed Israelites probably didn’t have much of a chance to cultivate while working as slaves. Not being oppressed any more means that the Israelites can choose what to eat, and don’t have to eat just anything that comes their way- thus being “raised up” from slavery means that one’s morale and sense of self-worth is also raised up.

Different Jewish communities have different practices when it comes to kashrut, but I think most branches of Judaism would agree that we are whole beings, whose physical state affects our spiritual state and vice versa. If we want to be “raised up” spiritually, we have to pay attention to our physical existence, integrating our habits of eating, spending, dressing, and working with our religious ideals. Conversely, as Rashi points out in his first interpretation of our verse, our physical freedom and well-being only matters if we “raise ourselves up” with meaningful spiritual and moral goals.

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