Parashat Shemini, 5771, Hannah Bennet

Parashat Shemini

March 26, 2011 / 22 Adar II, 5771

Hannah Bennet

Leviticus 9:1 - 11:47

First I would like to thank Ronna Kabaznick for asking me to offer this drash.  The last time I studied for, wrote and delivered a drash was ten years ago on the Shabbat after 9/11.  My youngest son was four months old then.  The days were very bright and sunny, crystal clear skies, and all of us then, as now, were riveted to the details of a catastrophe.  I am very grateful to you, Ronna, for giving me the opportunity to use this time for learning Torah when una tanah tokev enters our mid-year consciousness, sweeps aside frivolities and reminds us of essential matters.

I would like to thank Rabbi Bochner and Rabbi Creditor for their time, attention and erudition.  As when the bar and bat mitzvah children thank you, I now know personally what it means to learn from both of you. I share with the children heartfelt and grateful appreciation of your caring and learned guidance. 

I would like also to thank my family:  my husband, Michael, and my sons Zev and Daniel.  Thank you for your support this week as I prepared for this drash.  I did not bear the pre-drash stress with very much grace or dignity, so I must also beg your forgiveness.

I would like to dedicate this drash to the Netivot community in general, but especially to those founding members, some of whom I know only by face, and to those members who can be relied upon to show up regularly, week after week, who lain Torah, who make Kiddush, who daven—who are the anchors of our community. Thank you for accepting the yolk of this mitzvah.    You hold the space for us all.

This is Shabbat Parah, the Shabbat of the red heifer—the mitzvah of the sacrifice of a perfectly, purely, red calf that has never felt the weight of the yolk. In other words perfect in appearance and free from all constraint and labor.  The mitzvah of this sacrifice cannot be performed first because there is no temple in which to make it, but also because the perfect, unburdened, calf has never been discovered, appears not to exist, and cannot be forced into being by human design.  Rather, it seems to represent an ideal for which we yearn—that the sacrifice of something whole, complete and free, will make us whole, complete and free. Perhaps it is a metaphor for the perfect rest of Shabbat.   Perhaps it is a metaphor for Pesach showing us that our redemption from slavery, our freedom, lacks completion as the conclusion of the Haggadah suggests—“Lashanah haba’ah b’Yerushalayim.”

And it is because this Shabbat is the first of the four shabbatot before Pesach, that we read Parah and Ezekiel as well as Sh’mini. Let us recall some of the main events of these texts. Sh’mini recounts Moses and Aaron’s performance of sacrifices and offerings—sin-offerings, burnt-offerings, meal-offerings, offerings of well-being, guilt-offerings—and of the exacting ritual of the sprinkling of blood on the altar.  We read of Nadav and Avihu’s “strange fire” and HaShem’s immediate and stunning incineration of them.  We read of HaShem’s command that Aaron refrain from mourning his sons, and of Aaron’s heavy silence in the face of this command.  We read of the congregation’s observance of the mourning rituals for Nadav and Avihu.

We read also of the laws of kashrut, of the distinctions between tahor and tameh, and of proper mourning practices. In Parah, we read of the strange and impenetrable mitzvah of the sacrifice of the red heifer whose ashes mixed with water will make tahor one who has been made tameh by coming into contact with death in general or with a corpse.  Included here also is Miriam’s death, the cries of the people lamenting the lack of water even to drink.  We read of HaShem’s command to Moses to speak to the rock so that it will give water.  And we read how Moses instead strikes the rock twice.  Water flows, but punishments follow.  We read of Aaron’s death (let Aaron be gathered to his kin), of multiple battles with tribes who refuse to let the Israelites pass through their territories. We rest with the Israelites encamped on the steppes of Moab.

In haftorah Ekekiel, the prophet declaims that Israel’s humiliations will pass, the mountains of Israel will bear fruit, HaShem will care for us and turn to us, that even ourgraves will open, our dry bones will be lifted up, HaShem’s breath will be put into these bones, and we shall know that HaShem is HaShem.  The prophet proclaims HaShem’s promise that HaShem will remove the hearts of stone from our bodies and give us hearts of flesh, that we shall dwell in the land HaShem gave to our ancestors, that we shall be G-d’s people, that HaShem will be our G-d.

The themes of community, belonging, identity, relationship and connection reveal themselves in each text in both subtle and overt ways. Let us take these in turn.  Moses, Aaron, Nadav and Avihu with great care, following exacting detail, perform multiple sacrifices in preparation for HaShem’s appearance before the people.  HaShem is present to Moses directing the ritual gestures with specific commands.  They are learning their roles as high priests, as cohens and their holiness is partially contained in the precision of their actions before the congregation.  Nadav and Avihu are full participants learning their proper roles and gestures.  We are all familiar with their “strange fire,” and the alien offering of their own making, and HasShem’s sudden incineration of them.  HaShem commands Aaron to refrain from mourning.  Aaron remains silent and the community takes up the task of performing the burial rites and mourning rituals.  This is a profound moment and we must not be distracted by the shocking and violent deaths of Nadav and Avihu.  The power resides in this.  The Israelites are, in this very moment, in the process of becoming ritually and spiritually defined as one people, as a very specific people, in prescribed relationship to each other as well as to HaShem.  One of the ways this definition manifests itself is in the rituals of death and mourning.  There are moments in our lives when we cannot do for ourselves and those tasks must be taken up by the community on behalf of the individual.  And it is these tasks that define the community as a whole as well as the place of the individual with in it.

HaShem commands Aaron not to perform the public rites of mourning.  It is the community who gather up Nadav and Avihu’s remains, who rend their clothes, who recite the mourning prayers on Aaron’s behalf.  HaShem demonstrates to us at one of the most profound and universal moments of human existence what it means to be a Jew in mourning, and what it means to be a Jewish community when one of its members is in mourning.  Moses and Aaron are learning the ritual boundaries of Jewish practice that define us as a people.  Ha Shem is present in these moments to demonstrate the mystical power and demarcation of these boundaries.  It is as if HaShem places the exclamation point at the beginning of the sentence.  In matters of life and death this is what it means to be a Jew.  Once this demarcation has been shown, Sh’mini moves into the more mundane details of kashrut law.  These parashot delimit tribal identity forthe most profound and the most prosaic events of human life.

These texts offer us dramatic reminders of our special relationship to each other and of our unique intimacy with HaShem.  These texts ask that we turn toward each other and turn toward our Jewish spiritual identity,to be a whole people.  These parashot, unlike others, do not define us in relation to the non-Jewish world.  Rather they ask us to turn toward our communal self.  Our post-modern world, our skepticism, our secularism makes it very difficult for us to embrace such religiously mandated collective identity.   We cherish our individualism, our uniqueness, our self-expression. Naming or ritualizing states of separation from states of communal participation seem archane and strange to our radically individualized sensibilites.  

What then can we make of Parashat Parah it ideas of tahor and tameh?

If we think of it symbolically, it suggests distinctions between individual-ness and communal identity.  The ashes of the red heifer when mixed with water and sprinkled by one who is tahor on to one who is tameh is a ritual acknowledgement of one having been separated from the community and of being prepared to rejoin it.  It is worthwhile for us to explore possible meanings of these words tahor and tameh in this context.  Various translators offer juxtapositons like pure and impure; clean and unclean; sacred and profane; holy and common.  These translations are troublesome in that they suggest levels of moral elevation or taint.  Rather it is more useful to think of these terms in this way.  Tahor, as Rabbi Creditor has offered, is more accurately translated as “connectable.”   While tameh might better be translated as “not connectable” or maybe in some uses, “disconnected.”  In other words, the idea of tahor and tameh offers us a uniquely Jewish critique of radical individuality. 

This radical individuality can be understood as the tameh psyche “disconnected” from an essential dimension of itself—with all the fracture and distress alienation brings. Whereas tahor can be understood as the state of being in connection with others, with the community--but it also suggests something more.  Tahor should not be conceptualized as a singular individual’s connection to the communal whole.  Rather, I am suggesting that tahor names an internal state of connection with that part of one’s psyche that is organized as the communal self. I think this is a concept very difficult for the post-modern mind to grasp because the secular, post-modern psyche is organized as a radical individuality--as an atomized, isolated, entity.  The parashot we read today demand that as Jews we organize our psyches otherwise.

The kavanah inherent in the halachah prescribed in Sh’mini and Parah can be thought of as material manifestations of the ground of Jewish being.  This Jewish being is psychically organized by a communal self, a singular plural, that can only be expressed within the community and by communal ritual and practice.  To express the communal self is to be tahor, to be in a state of connection, of relationship, with oneself, with the community as a whole and with HaShem.   Thus at moments like Aaron’s, stricken and mute, when the congregation absorbs into itself Aaron’s grief, and ritually mourns for him, Aaron experiences within himself not just the “support” of the community.  He experiences the community expressing itself within himself.  This mutual psychological and spiritual interpenetration is what the observance of halachah and mitzvot—the mundane and incomprehensible, the profound and the apparently silly—is designed to create in us.  This is problematized by the post-modern condition—radical individuality coupled with secular skepticism.  We observe some mitzvoth and not others.  We observe some halachah and not others.  Somehow, though, for the Jewish communal self and the Jewish community to spiritually and psychologically interpenetrate whereby we experience the relationship within and between our individual selves, our communal self, the whole community, and HaShem we must be defined by essential mitzvoth and halachah.  What those might be in a non-Orthodox setting is not a new debate, and I have no practical advice along these lines.  What I am suggesting though, is a reading of the parashot that offers us the opportunity to think these things afresh.

Pesach is one such essential mitzvah. How might we set our kavanah as we move into this season.  This is the quintessential holiday during which we ritually express our communal identity.  As this holiday approaches it may be meaningful to bring to conscious awareness this communal self.  Consider Ellijah’s chair, the empty space we hold for those we keep in our hearts but who are not physically with us. Not only is this representative of real, yet absent, loved ones. It is symbolic of the place of our singular plural Jewish psyche.  I wonder how the quality of our Pesach observance might deepen if we were to bring into conscious awareness this dimension of our Jewish being. Is this what is meant by Ezekiel when he proclaims that “HaShem will remove the hearts of stone from our bodies and give us hearts of flesh”…. Are these hearts of stone of ours nothing other than our radical, alienated, individualities—that psychic separation that makes us tameh?  Are these hearts of flesh our experience of tahor, of connection, of psychic and spiritual wholeness?