Parashat Shemini begins “and it came to pass on the eighth day” but what had happened during the prior seven days? For that we have to go back to the end of the last parashah, Tzav where Aaron and his four sons were told not to leave the Tent for seven days and nights. There they would go through a training period which would end with their inauguration into the newly established Priesthood. It was a ceremony filled with excitement. The new nation of Israel would attend an elaborate ceremony with Moshe anointing them with oil, consecrating, i.e., separating them for their special roles to be the link between God and the people.
Moshe said, “…this is what the LORD commanded you to do and the ‘Kvod’, the Glory of the LORD shall appear to you. …a fire came out before the LORD and consumed the burnt offering…. the people saw and fell on their faces.”
This awe-inspiring scene was immediately followed by a horrific one where Nadab and Abihu, Aaron’s two older sons, offered “eish zara”, strange fire to the LORD which He had not commanded them to do… and they died there before the LORD”. “Then Moses said to Aaron, I will be separated from the other gods for those who approach me, and the people will see my Glory. “
This theme of being separated is crucial to understanding Leviticus. Not only was the Bore Olam to be separated from any other god, but the Israelites were to be separated from all the idolatrous nations. They were to lead the way for humanity to know that there is only one Creator of everyone and everything.
Aaron, of course, was devastated, but he remained silent. Moshe got upset with him because he refused to perform the rest of the liturgical service. But when he explained to Moshe that he couldn’t because that would have been hypocritical, Moshe understood. This shows us that our God understands and cares about our feelings. He is not rigid or religious like those who are more worried about how they appear to others than showing themselves for who they are. The Creator knows our hearts, our intentions. We can’t fool God; He knows when we are being hypocrites. He is more interested in our moral behaviour than an empty, religious, external display.
It seems as if the punishment of Nadab and Abihu was far greater than they deserved, but they were next in line for this newly established priesthood and as such they were called to a higher standard. They would be setting a precedent for all who would follow. There is nothing wrong with tradition when it enhances God’s Words in the Torah, but the danger lies when it replaces them.
In the writings of Mattityahu, Matthew 15, we read that Yeshua argued with the Pharisees about this very thing. When they asked him, “Why do your talmidim break away from the traditions of the elders”, he answered a question with a question, as most Jews do … he said, “…and why do you break away from the Commandments of God for the sake of your traditions. For God said, “Honour your father and your mother” and “Anyone who curses his father or mother will be put to death (He was directly quoting Deut 5:16).” But you say, “If anyone says to his father or mother: Anything I might have used to help you is dedicated to God,6 he is rid of his duty to father or mother.” In this way, you have made God’s Word ineffective by means of your tradition. Yeshua was constantly directing his people’s attention back to the written Torah, unlike the religious leaders who had prioritized values by saying that if anyone made a vow, whether it was just or not, it had to be kept. In so doing, they were invalidating the Word of the Creator.
Yeshua continues: “7 Hypocrites! How rightly Isaiah prophesied about you when he said: These people honour me only with lip service, while their hearts are far from me.9 Their reverence of me is worthless; the lessons they teach are nothing but human commandments.’” (Isaiah 29:13)
In the same way that Nadab and Abihu were setting up a tradition that would replace God’s Commandments, so many religions do today, not just Judaism. The regulations in Leviticus were not meant to be observed literally or legalistically, rather they set down precedents for our behaviour. In this case, to examine our intentions before we do anything which we might justify by saying that they are “for the LORD”. Are our intentions tahor (clean) or tamei (unclean), true or hypocritical?
This is related to Chapter 11 which deals with the foods which are considered tahor and tamei, clean and unclean. We begin with the LORD speaking to Moses: “Speak to the sons of Israel saying, these are the living things which you may eat among all the beasts of the earth.” There is only one verse describing the animals they could eat – any that had a cloven hoof and chewed the cud, while there were several injunctions for what they could not eat. I wondered why. What was it about those particular animals, at that time, that the Hebrews would be prohibited from eating them, but not the rest of humanity? Were they poisonous? Did God hate the rest of His creation?
This is followed by a detailed account of which fish, birds, and crawling things were unclean, tamei טָמֵא. The words used to describe them are detestable, an abomination. The more I read, the more it occurred to me that these things just don’t make any sense. E.g., anyone who touches a lizard, snail, chameleon, gecko, etc. shall be unclean until evening. I thought perhaps these regulations must be “chukkim”, which we just need to obey, without understanding. There are certainly many opinions about it but there must be something deeper, at the spiritual level which we do not know.
Then I thought that for me the key to better understanding it lies in these following verses keeping to the theme of being separated aligned with unclean and clean. Lev. 10: 1 says “I will be separated from the other gods for those who approach me…” and Lev.11:44 – 46, says” For I am the LORD your God; therefore, you shall sanctify (separate) yourselves and you shall be holy (separated) for I am holy….and 45: “For I am the LORD who brings you out of the land of Egypt to be your God; therefore, you shall be holy (separated) as I am holy. Verse 46 says: This is the Torah of the beasts, the bird, of every living creature …to differentiate between tamei and tahor, unclean and clean and what may be eaten and what may not be eaten.”
Our Ranebi taught us several things: 1) that the Scriptures always explain themselves, 2) that we need to look to whom they were speaking and 3) when this was happening, and then to stand back to look for the greater picture. Then a flash of understanding hit me. The idea of the words “detestable and abomination” reminded me that the best way to get the people “of that time”, who were steeped in idolatry and superstition to obey, might just be through fear.
This is exemplified through two stories. The first is the story of the Sotah, the wife of the jealous husband who he suspected of committing adultery. He had to bring her to the cohen who mixed up a drink from the ashes of the red heifer which she then had to drink. If nothing happened when she drank it, she was deemed innocent but, if she were guilty, the warning was that her insides and her thighs would swell up to bursting and she could no longer have children. The idea was that if she was guilty she would refuse to drink and the truth would become obvious.
Another example in the Torah was the regulation that the man was not to touch his wife during her 7 days of menstruation or he would become unclean, tamei, and could not enter the Temple. This idea has been held until today among the Orthodox Jews. It has nothing to do with the woman being dirty, as she is made out to be, rather in His mercy, God was giving the woman a break, a time of rest during her period of hormonal upheaval. What method was used?…fear, playing to their superstitions.
Through stories like this God was slowly weaning the people from idolatry and superstition while getting them to focus solely on Him, the invisible God. This was not going to be easy. It is extremely hard for people to change their belief systems which have been ingrained in them over centuries.
At that time, God chose certain ways of performing this feat…and one of these was what this nation would and would not eat.
If these foods were so dangerous for our health, would God who loves all His creation, allow millions of people to be contaminated and die while only a small group of people, the Israelites, would be saved? This is not the picture that the Torah paints here. God was setting apart a nation through a variety of means, for a time, until they were well identifiable as a people. He would give these separated people, His Chosen People, the Commandments that they needed to obey and bring to the rest of the world thus being ohr l’goyim, a light to the nations. Yeshua followed in the footsteps of Moses who brought us the original Ten Commandments and his role was to bring us back to these, not to create another religion so that we as a people could fulfill our role to the nations.
Yeshua taught us “…whatever comes out of the mouth comes from the heart, and it is this that makes someone unclean. For from the heart come evil intentions: murder, adultery, fornication, theft, perjury, and slander. These are the things that make a person unclean…”
When God said that we were to sanctify ourselves and be holy for He is holy, what was He saying? He was separating Himself from all the idolatrous gods and likewise separating us as a nation from all the idolatrous nations because He was giving us a mission. His love for humanity is such that He wants every human being to know who He is and how wonderful it is to be in relationship with Him. He was forming this prototype nation that would live in such a way that others would recognize that they were not like us and that would make them jealous, jealous enough to want to be like us. The regulations in Leviticus were for that purpose, at that time. Today, our calling of being ohr l’goyim, light to the nations is fulfilled by our moral behaviour, not by what we eat or how we dress.