Shemini: Separating Sacred from Ordinary

Copyright Neal Joseph Loevinger 2010

Torah Portion: Shemini, in which Aharon’s sons die a tragic deaths, laws are given for the comportment of the priests, and the idea of kashrut- sacred eating- is spelled out in detail.

Dear Friends:

We’re back after the Pesach break and reading to do some drashing around here!

In this week’s Torah portion, Nadav and Avihu, Aharon’s sons, die when bringing a “strange fire” to the Mishkan, or portable Sanctuary. Afterwards, Moshe tells his brother that the priests must not drink any wine or other alcohol when entering the Tent of Meeting, for they must “distinguish between the sacred and the profane, and between the unclean and the clean.” [Vayikra/ Leviticus 10:10]

This idea, of separating or distinguishing between holy and ordinary [ ul’havdil ben hakodesh u’vein hachol] finds its way into our prayers at the end of Shabbat, during the Havdalah prayer, marking the close of Shabbat and the beginning of the work week:

“Blessed are You, The Infinite One, Ruling Principle of the Universe, Who separates the holy from the mundane, light from darkness, Israel from the other peoples, the seventh day of rest from the six days of work. Blessed are You, Adonai, Who separates the holy from the mundane.”

This concluding blessing of Havdalah is not without controversy; the feminist theologian Judith Plaskow has critiqued this set of “separations” as setting up value hierarchies in which the “other peoples” are seen as “less than” the Jewish people. To me, locating the first part of the blessing- separation of holy from ordinary- in its original Biblical context is key to a more universal interpretation. In Shemini, Moshe tells his brother not to enter the Sanctuary when drunk, presumably because there are times and places where one must be absolutely clear in consciousness and intentionality. Rejoicing with wine is fine, under certain circumstances, but not for a priest about to make offerings in the Mishkan.

The Mishkan– a portable Sanctuary- was holy not because it was on intrinsically holy ground (it was portable!) but because it was set up with great care and reverence by the Levites, in the center of the camp. Similarly, Shabbat is a chosen “cathedral in time” (to quote Heschel), which is holy not because one minute is ontologically different than the next, but because we’ve chosen to create space in our lives for spiritual experience. The Jewish people are not better, nor worse, than any other; but we choose to share history and destiny with a community in time and space because that allows particular spiritual language and values to be expressed that would be lost were human cultures all mixed and undifferentiated.

Seen this way, kedushah- holiness- is a not an intrinsic quality, but related to our ability to choose and cultivate certain kinds of awareness or consciousness. Shabbat isn’t better, as such, than the work-week; without the six days of work, we’d be cold and hungry! Rather, Shabbat is a set-apart time for awareness of our place within creation, and a pulling back from busyness to make space for contemplation.

Thus, making distinctions or separations between kodesh and chol , or between Shabbat and the work-week, isn’t about hierarchies at all; it’s about the simple fact that we can’t be highly aware of everything all at once, and need times of focus and intention. We call those things holy which are worthy objects of special attention; it’s a choice to find kedushah in a fantastically distracted world, a choice to cultivate the consciousness of self and God that is foundational to Jewish practice.

Shabbat Shalom,


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: