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Sh'mini 5777 - 2017 - To Separate is Human, To Forgive is Divine

posted Apr 20, 2017, 2:12 PM by Ohel Avraham   [ updated Apr 21, 2017, 9:45 AM ]
4/22, Parshat Shmini, Torah Portion: Leviticus 9:1 - 11:47



This week, as we enter the period of s’firat ha’omer (counting the Omer), the 7 weeks between the Feast of Freedom and the Feast of Responsibility, we read parshat Shmini. The passage begins with Nadav and Abihu, the sons of Aaron, who offer “strange fire” before God and are killed as punishment. At the end of this week’s parsha, the Torah lists many rules and regulations around the consumption of animals – which animals may be eaten, under what circumstances, and how animals may come to be unclean – the beginnings of our modern understanding of Kashrut.

In between these two parts of the parsha, God speaks directly to Aaron. God says,

“Drink no wine or strong drink, you, or your sons with you, when you go into the tent of meeting, that you do not die; it shall be a statute forever throughout your generations. And that you may put difference between the holy and the common, and between the unclean and the clean; and that you may teach the children of Israel all the statutes which God has spoken to them by the hand of Moses.”

In Hebrew, the phrase “put difference between the holy and the common” is familiar – l’hav’dil bein ha’chodesh u’vein ha’chol. We recite an almost identical phrase each Saturday evening when we bid farewell to Shabbat at the Havdalah service. The root of the word havdalah is vet-dalet-lamed (בדל) – the same as the root of the word l’hav’dil. This root – and the words that are derived from it – relates to separation, to placing things into distinct groups or categories. These may be categories of holy and ordinary, clean and unclean, or kosher and non-kosher. Categories can relate to people, animals, time, space, or objects.

Recently, I listened to a podcast about this very same topic – how we categorize. The human brain is designed to place things into groups. Having people, animals, or objects in groups takes a great burden off of our brains. It allows us to “know” information about members of a certain group, relieving us of the need to investigate each group member to find out its individual characteristics.

In the best case scenarios, this motivates you to run screaming from the poisonous snake in the woods, as you have learned that members of the category “snake” are dangerous. In the worst case scenarios, it is stereotyping, preventing us from learning about those who differ from ourselves because we fear that they are bad or dangerous or scary.

Social psychologists have known for decades that the human brain loves to categorize – good and bad, safe and dangerous, approach and avoid. The Torah knows this, too. In many places, including this week’s parsha, the Torah goes to great lengths l’hav’dil – to separate things into their categories. We have l’hav’dil between kosher animals and non-kosher ones in this week’s parsha, l’hav’dil between Sabbath and the rest of the week, l’hav’dil between crops of different species, and so on.

The obvious concern is this: what about people or animals or times or things that do not fit into a category? What if they share core characteristics between categories? What if they (having volition and will) willingly choose a category other than the one they appear to fit into? What if they lack necessary characteristics of multiple categories? What do we do when something does not fit?

The Torah has little patience for this, regularly assuming that mixing of categories is a punishable offense (e.g., mixing of linen and wool). But we know that there are very few instances of unambiguously clear categories. In the messiness of life, black and white usually dissolve into a flood of shifting grays. So what do we do with the grey? For some, this is where rabbinic law takes over – giving over the complexities of real life to detailed Talmudic arguments over the most minute circumstances.

For others, this is where we place our own sensibilities, experiences, and values alongside the words of the Torah and begin to interpret. Using the Torah as our foundation, we can begin to understand for ourselves how these rules and statutes and laws can inform and enhance our daily experiences. One cannot always keep the strict distinction between Shabbat and the rest of the week. However, understanding that setting aside time on a predictable schedule – sacred time, undisturbed and uninterrupted – to be closer to God, to those we love, and to ourselves is vital to many people’s own sense of wellbeing.

Separating time is important – whether we can do that on Shabbat or not. Carving out sacred time – distinct and different from our daily routines – is the value from the Torah that we can enact in our daily lives. And the same is true for so many other categories – what we eat and do not eat, clothing that we wear and that which we choose not to wear, crops that can nourish one another and crops that can harm one another. The Torah offers a starting point – showing us that categories are relevant and important. However, it is incumbent upon us to interpret these categories to allow us to maximally benefit and minimally harm ourselves and those with whom we dwell.

-Yvonne Asher
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