TORAH MINUTE - SHMINI (MAR 92)
The first chapters of Leviticus speak of the sacrificial rites which were the basis of the pre-Diaspora Jewish religion and the consecration of Sanctuary in the Sinai Desert. The portion of Shmini opens by describing the eighth (Shmini means "eighth") day of the consecration of the Sanctuary and the ascension of Aaron to the position of Kohen Gadol (High Priest). For Aaron, the day would begin with a supreme triumph and end in terrible tragedy. He brings the first sacrifice to atone for the sins of the Children of Israel and witnesses its acceptance as Hashem provides the consuming fire. Just then, two of Aaron's sons, Nadav and Abihu, bring their own burnt offering, but instead of faithfully waiting for Hashem to provide the consuming fire, they take it upon themselves to ignite the sacrifice. Hashem again causes fire to descend from Heaven, but this fire is the instrument of immediate punishment for Nadav and Abihu - and Aaron's sons lie dead before him at the moment of his triumph.
The sins of Nadav and Abihu, the unconsecrated fire, the fact that Nadav and Abihu interpreted law in the presence of their teachers and the fact that they may have been intoxicated, all have prompted a wealth of commentary. The offense that I chose to expound on today is that of Nadav and Abihus ambition. It is said that when they walked behind Moses and Aaron, Nadav and Abihu would wonder aloud when those two "old men" would die so that they could assume the leadership of Israel. We all have hopes and aspirations, a healthy ambition is no sin - but when we delve into the purview of Hashem and speculate on who should live or die, we risk the same punishment as Nadav and Abihu. Just a few days ago we read the story of Purim and how the evil Haman was ultimately hanged on the gallows he prepared for the Jews of ancient Persia. A more potent example may yet be before us. How many times do you think George Bush has wished Saddam Hussein were dead? Saddam remains in firm control of Iraq, and if, just prior to election day, he were to open an offensive against, say, the Kurds and couple that with a few days of anti-American diatribes - Saddam could just become the instrument of George Bush's political demise! I hope that all of our ambitions are noble ones and that they lead to our betterment - not to our downfall.
The Torah goes on to describe Aaron’s stoic acceptance of the death of his sons. Aaron willingly accepts the judgment of Hashem by suppressing what must have been powerful emotions. Our sages use this example of Aaron's faith to derive the prohibition against excessive grief after a loss. We are taught that if we mourn beyond the prescribed period, Hashem may give us a reason for this excessive grief. All of us have suffered great disappointment or tragedy in our lifetimes, but until the arrival of the Messianic age when the reasons for our tragedies are explained, we must, through our faith, emerge from our shock and grief, and remind ourselves of what we still have - and thank Hashem for that. For if faith is the essence of our religion, then that faith must be the source of our consolation.
For his self-control and willing acceptance of the judgment of Hashem, Aaron is rewarded with great prestige amongst the Children of Israel when Hashem speaks directly to him, rather than through Moses. Aaron, and all future Kohanim (Priests) are warned never to conduct the Temple rites while intoxicated. Long before the invention of the Breathalyzer, our sages determined the "legal limit" of intoxication at one reviis, about 3.4 ounces of wine drunk rapidly. Should the Kohen consume more than this amount, his services, whether correctly administered or not, would be invalid. The prohibition against practicing religious rites while intoxicated has survived to the modern practice of Judaism. Like the ancient Kohanim, we are all prohibited from participating in daily services while "under the influence". Some interpretations hold that if we find ourselves intoxicated, it is better not to attend services than commit the offense of "DWI" (Davening While Intoxicated). I believe that this ancient precept should be given new emphasis, particularly on those occasions where we have made the consumption of alcohol the primary focus of the service. Over the years, we have somehow forgotten that wine is Hashem's enduring gift to mankind and that the ritual consumption of alcohol is but another opportunity to thank He who created the bounty of the earth and the fruit of the vine.
The portion of Shmini concludes with the rules by which we can identify those animals which are be clean to us and fit to eat. I will not delve into the myriad of laws concerning Kashrus, but I would like to share with you one interpretation of the verses (Chap. 11 verses 4-7) which describe four animals and why they are unclean. The animals mentioned, the camel, the rock badger, the hare and the swine all possess one of the two characteristics of a clean animal - either the split hoof or the chewing if its cud. The question is asked, why does the Torah use the wording, "... the camel will be unclean to you because it chews its cud but does not have a cloven hoof" instead of the more direct wording "the camel shall be unclean because it does not have a cloven hoof". In other words, why does the Torah first mention the characteristic which makes the animal acceptable and then mention the characteristic which makes it unacceptable? The Sage's answer is that the wording of these sentences should be interpreted as a clear warning to beware of hypocrisy.
The swine, which has come to symbolize that which is not clean to us, possess a split hoof and outwardly appears to be a clean animal. Only a close internal examination can determine that it is, in fact, unfit for us to consume. How many individuals in own community fit the example of the swine, outwardly appearing to be righteous but inwardly possessing the inclination toward harmful acts. It is interesting to ponder which is more threatening of our existence, hypocrisy from within our community or from those who surround us. The ultimate example of hypocrisy towards the Jews has just come to light with the disclosure of the defense treaty with Saudi Arabia. After what we thought was a long standing policy of support for Israel a true democracy and a true ally - we find that the real American commitment in the Middle-East was for the defense of Saudi Arabia, a repressive monarchy where the most basic civil-rights are nonexistent. it appears now that our present administration is no more anti-Israel than its predecessors, just more open about it.
Let us learn well the lesson of the four unclean animals to uncover and remove hypocrisy from our own fold. And let us remember this lesson as we carefully weigh the choices we will be given this year to ensure future of our own country and that of Israel.