Lectures on the Torah Reading

by the faculty of Bar-Ilan University

Ramat Gan, Israel


A project of Bar-Ilan University's Faculty of Jewish Studies, Paul and Helene Shulman Basic Jewish Studies Center, and the Office of the Campus Rabbi. Sponsored by Dr. Ruth Borchard of the Shoresh Charitable Fund (SCF). Published with assistance of the President's Fund for Torah and Science. Permission granted to reprint with appropriate credit.
Inquiries and comments to: Dr. Isaac Gottlieb, Department of Bible, gottlii@mail.biu.ac.il

Parshat Shemini--5758/1998

On Individual and Collective Holiness

Hillel Neuman

Department of Jewish History

Shemini is comprised of two main sections which are ostensibly unrelated. The first deals with dedication of the Tabernacle, done by bringing offerings to atone for and to purify the priests ministering in the sanctuary and all the Israelites as well. In the course of these festive events we are told of the death of Nadab and Abihu, who met their end on this day because they "offered before the Lord alien fire" (10:1).

The second part of the reading deals with forbidden foods (11:1-28). Immediately following each of these topics, the importance of distinguishing between the impure and the pure is briefly mentioned: "For you must distinguish between the sacred and the profane" (10:10) after the first, "For distinguishing between the unclean and the clean" (11:46), after the second. The bulk of the second section, from 11:1-47, cites the types of clean and unclean animals and the laws pertaining to them. Although at first glance the relationship between these sections may seem unclear, a closer analysis of the verses giving the reasons for these rulings may provide better insight into the point of juxtaposing these sections

The principle repeated throughout the reading, which also explains the relationship of the various subjects contained therein, is that of making distinctions: between clean and unclean, between sacred and profane, between that which may be eaten and that which may not, between that which can be expiated and that which has no expiation. This principle is stressed throughout the reading, and it is in this context that one should understand the regulations pertaining to forbidden foods and the laws of purity at the end of the reading.

The laws detailing forbidden foods conclude:

You shall be holy, for I am holy. These are the instructions concerning animals, birds, all living creatures that move in water, and all creatures that swarm on earth, for distinguishing between the unclean and the clean, between the living things that may be eaten and the living things that may not be eaten" (Lev. 11:45-47).

Thus, the thread that ties together all the sections of this reading is the principle of distinguishing. This principle appears to teach us that the way to purity and sanctity is by personal purification, by separating oneself from impure objects and from people lacking a suitable level of purity. In view of this, we cannot help but wonder about two contradictory basic elements found in Judaism in general and in this reading in particular.

The first is the notion of distancing oneself from the impure in order to achieve purity. This is the source of the emphasis on the laws of purification, kashruth and the like, and it necessarily sets a distance between those who strictly observe such rules and others who do not. Indeed, at various stages in Jewish history these laws were a factor in drawing social distinctions between various groups in the population. For example, in the Mishnah, Tractate Demai distinguishes between the status of haver -- one who observes all the practices of ritual cleanness and purity -- and am ha'aretz -- a common person -- who does not maintain the level of ritual purity necessary for the observance of the laws on tithes.[1]

The second principle found in our Parasha relating to Holiness is the fundamental idea of unity. Unity requires that one turn a blind eye to internal contradictions in the nation and not dwell on different levels of observance.[2] The beginning of this week's portion emphasizes the principle of unity, describing the Divine Presence extending over the entire people as a whole at the dedication of the Tabernacle. Leviticus 9:23 describes the Presence of the Lord as appearing "to all the people." The Divine Presence does not distinguish between one person and another. On establishing the Sanctuary, it is written, "Let them make Me a sanctuary that I may dwell among them" (Ex. 25:8).[3] The Sanctuary and Divine Presence thus represent unity that applies to the people as a whole, priest and commoner, righteous and wicked alike. This notion of unity ostensibly contradicts the notion of distinction.

The question arises whether the proper way to achieving greater holiness is by personal purification and individual concern with sanctity (distinguishing between the unclean and the clean), or by collective purification, stemming from the notion of the unity of the people as a whole? These two contradictory approaches actually complement one another.

Taking a closer look at the account of the Tabernacle's dedication, we see that it contains more than the unifying element, for both contradictory elements are interlaced in the description of the Tabernacle's dedication. One approach is mentioned at the beginning of the reading: "This is what the Lord has commanded that you do, that the Presence of the Lord may appear to you" (Lev. 9:6). The objective, according to what is said here, is for the Divine Presence to dwell among the people, to connect with G-d. Indeed this happened, as described in the verse cited above. (Note that the descent of the Lord's Presence is not tied to any specific commandment being performed.)

The second objective of the Tabernacle's dedication follows: "Then Moses said to Aaron: 'Come forward to the altar and sacrifice your sin offering and your burnt offering, making expiation for yourself and for the people; and sacrifice the people's offering and make expiation for them as the Lord has commanded" (Lev. 9:7). As the plain sense of the verse indicates, the main object here is individual expiation along with collective expiation. Expiation (Kapparah)-- a concept that involves a distinction between one person and another, between those fortunate to be expiated and those not -- appears hand in hand with the sacrificial service. The climax of the Day of Atonement -- expiation and purification -- demands spiritual effort, rewarded by sanctity only at the end. Thus, expiation is not a passive, all-inclusive concept like the Divine Presence, rather it is the result of positive spiritual endeavor.

The call on us to be holy does not appear until the end of the weekly portion, after all the distinctions have been set forth (between clean and unclean, between sacred and profane, between that which may be eaten and that which may not, etc.). Attaining a high level of holiness is an individual matter. It requires expiation, purification, spiritual effort. In the theophany at Mount Sinai, only Moses attained the necessary degree of holiness to ascend the mountain. This ascent to greater sanctity is a personal challenge and has inherent dangers. Indeed, the account of Revelation at Sinai emphasizes the element of danger several times,[4] for when it is a question of increasing one's personal level of holiness the element of danger stands out. For Moses this experience was sublime, but for the people it was life-threatening. Indeed, it was also that way for Aaron's sons in the tragic event recorded in this week's reading.

The contradictory aspect of these two elements -- the descent of the Divine Presence and the service of atonement in the Sanctuary -- can be seen in the description of the Divine Presence descending in the days of Solomon. According to the account given there, the sacred service in the Temple could not be continued because the Divine Presence had descended. The Scriptural account indicates some sort of contradiction between the Divine Presence descending and the Temple worship being carried out.[5]

According to the emphasis which we find in this week's reading, it appears that the correct way to attaining greater sanctity is through personal expiation, following a way of distinction and separation, and not by a way that is equal for all. The correct way appears to involve active individual effort, not passive collective awareness. True holiness cannot be only a gift from G-d, as when the Divine Presence dwells among the people; rather, it is also dependent on the endeavors of the individual. Only after strict adhereto the laws of purity and proper expiation can one attain sanctity.

However, the reading also teaches us that spiritual elevation of the individual also rests on spiritualization of the whole. From the outset, with the dedication of the Tabernacle, this week's reading presents the elements pertaining to the whole to teach us that from this foundation one can rise to sanctity on the personal level. The Divine Presence can serve as a source of inspiration for each and every one. This help in attaining greater sanctity is bestowed on the individual as a gift from G-d, by virtue of the individual being part of the whole. The Jewish holidays, given to the entire people as festive occasions that unite the people, can serve as a source of inspiration for each and every person, to advance them to higher levels of sanctity. It must be noted, however, that the ultimate objective is unity of the people, the aspiration being that the entire people be holy, after all its individuals have achieved this elevation by virtue of their own efforts.

In conclusion, we find that there are different levels of closeness to G-d. The descent of the Divine Presence (which occurred several times in Biblical history) indicates one level of closeness, independent of individual worship. This closeness, however, is a gift from G-d bestowed on the entire people, generally in joyous celebration of a festive occasion. Individuals can relate to these moments simply as mass celebrations, or they can use them to attain greater personal spirituality. Moreover, the notions of expiation and purification denote another level of closeness to G-d which is dependent on individual behavior and personal endeavor. The process of expiation to attain personal purification involves hard work and is fraught with danger; the culmination of the process of separation and distinction brings one to the level of holiness.

[1] See Mishnah Demai 2.3ff, and the Tosefta, loc. sit., chapter 2.

[2] For example, the Sages had to ease the strictures concerning purity in order to enable the entire nation to participate in the festivities of pilgrimage to Jerusalem. Cf. Hagigah 3.6ff; Babyl. Talmud, Hagigah 26a-27a, especially the teachings of Rabbi Joshua b. Levi.

[3] The syntax of this verse is problematic. One would have expected to read, "that I may dwell in it." The difficulty is resolved by stressing the unity of the people. See the legends cited on this verse in Rabbi M. M. Kasher's Torah Shelemah, Jerusalem 1992, Part 5, Terumah, pp. 16-21.

[4] For example, cf. Exodus 19:12: "Whoever touches the mountain shall be put to death," as well as verses 21-24 and others.

[5] E.g., "and the priests were not able to remain and perform the service because of the cloud, for the Presence of the Lord filled the House of the Lord" (I Kings 8:11).