Torah Portion: Shemini Leviticus 9:1-11:47

HafTorah: II Sam 6:1-7:17

This week we read of the culmination of the process of setting up the Mishkan (tabernacle) and instituting the priestly order. We will talk of the death of Nadav and Avihu, Aaron’s sons, as well as the verses concerning what food are to be eaten. We will explore the connection, if any, between these divergent subjects.


Let’s start with the verses on animals permitted and those not permitted to be eaten. What is the factor that makes some kosher and others not kosher? There are many ideas on this question. The non-kosher animals are made up of predators that eat other animals. Also, the non-kosher animals are not healthy for us to consume. These may be valid arguments but I believe the real reason goes much deeper than that. Whatever we eat becomes part of us. It is incorporated into the cells of our body. It becomes a part of us. However the Torah may provide us with the most basic reason. In the very last verse of chapter 11 of Leviticus we read, “to distinguish between the impure and the pure.” This word translated as distinguish is the Hebrew word, “lehavdil.” It is the same word used at the end of the Sabbath – Havdala – which means to make something or someone holy in Torah language. It is to be separated out. Here in this verse it means to be able to distinguish between things that may appear to be very similar. However it goes much further than that. Cows will eat good grass and pass up similar looking plants that would be poison to them. They know which is good and which is not. Here the Torah goes further than that, we need to distinguish between the kosher and not kosher, if not then we would be little more than the cows.

G-d calls us to be holy, to distinguish between pure and impure. This reaches to every part of our life. We are called to distinguish between what is pure and what is not pure even when outwardly things may seem the same. We make those choices based on what G-d has said, not on how we feel or what we want. We are a holy people and as such some things are off limits for us, even if it goes against our desires or our personalities. We are not allowed to do certain things, just because G-d has said it. When our feelings are hurt or we feel the need to be hard on someone because of some hurt we can’t lash out just to feel better. G-d has said we are to be peacemakers not trouble makers. We are to choose the higher path, to put our own desires under the constraints of G-d’s word. We are not people who can be ruled by emotions or our own desires.

Which brings us to Nadav and Avihu, Aaron’s sons. In chapter 10 we read what happened when they brought strange fire before the L-rd. Why did they do this? They knew the rules. They knew the power of G-d. Yet they did something that was strictly against the pattern that G-d had arranged and set out. Why? Again we read about a lot of reasons. They were drunk or they were caught up in the moment. However when we get right down to it they did what they wanted to do, not what G-d said. They got caught up in the moment and followed their on fleshly desires. It cost them their lives. They were not able to control themselves.

As a contrast, look at Aaron. In Leviticus 9:6 we see Moses telling Aaron, “This is the thing which the L-rd has commanded you to do. “ It is your time, do it now how G-d has laid it out. He does and the fire of G-d came down and the people fell on their faces. This is followed immediately by the actions of Nadav and Avihu. One obeyed and two did not. After their death Aaron was commanded to not mourn or tear his clothes. He could not even help take the bodies out because he was serving in the Mishkan and touching the dead would have made him unclean. Think that was hard for him? Yet he did what G-d commanded, not what his emotions told him. We are called to do the same. May G-d give each of us the spiritual strength to live by every word that comes from G-d.