20 April 2017

Parshas Shemini

Parshas Shemini
by Rabbi Pinchas Winston Shlit”a

It is an Action Parsha that ends off on a low. First we are treated to one of the most spectacular moments in history: God’s Presence descending onto the handiwork of man, the Mishkan. It sounds like no big deal, but it makes cold fusion look like child’s play.

Then, we are hit with the disastrous deaths of Nadav and Avihu. It is like falling off a high emotional cliff, straight down at breakneck speed. It’s like doing a “180” on a dime at 150 miles an hour. Who can’t help but mourn with Aharon HaKohen over the sudden and tragic loss of his two oldest sons—on the greatest day of his life?

Then, as if nothing unusual has just happened, the Torah slips into a discussion about kosher and treif animals. That’s like standing next to someone at a funeral who insists on telling you about his dietary habits. 

Of course, that is only the way it seems. The Torah is the handbook of derect eretz and social sensitivity. If the laws of kashrus follow the story of the deaths of Nadav and Avihu, it has to fit into its idea of both. If it doesn’t seem to, it is because WE’RE out of place, not the Torah.

Conflict is universal. Rarely does any relationship remain even-keeled at all times, and some of the best of them end up in some kind of divorce or another. Allies can quickly and surprisingly become mortal enemies.

What causes this to happen? What tips the balance and leads to disaster? It’s a good topic to discuss as we make our way from the redemption of Pesach to the Torah of Shavuos, via the mourning period of the Omer.

The rabbis teach in Pirkei Avos the following:

The Tablets are the handiwork of God, and the script was God’s script charus—engraved—on the Tablets. Do not read “charus,” but “cheirus”—freedom. For, you can have no freer person than one who engages in Torah study. (Pirkei Avos 6:2)

Granted it is only a play on the word “charus,” but the message is 100 percent serious. The rabbis mean exactly what they say. The freedom we cherish as people can only be achieved by living within the guidelines of Torah. One of the greatest ironies of life is how Torah restrictions provide the greatest freedom.

Of course, society in general does not buy this. On the contrary, they believe just the opposite. An Israeli reporter recently called Charedi Jews more dangerous than Arabs. Assumedly it is because of the Charedi lifestyle and the restrictions it creates for non-affiliated Jews. Freedom? As far as the reporter and others like him are concerned slavery not freedom was engraved on the tablets.

Yet, the same society has and follows its own “Torah.” They have created many restrictions and follow them quite meticulously. Some are national laws, like do not steal, do not murder, and do not run red lights. Others are self-imposed, like get a job, be on time, and exercise regularly. 

Dieting has its own pretty serious set of regulations and restrictions. There are support groups and partners to help police one another to make sure that members stick to the rules at all times. When someone does “sin,” they make a point of “repenting.”

There are many examples in life of the same idea. There are also examples of people who refuse to live according to rules and restrictions, and they tend to be criticized by others and are those who tend to accomplish little in life. Many end up in prison for one crime or another.

The bottom line? We know from experience that human beings need guidelines and restrictions to help them accomplish in life. We know that worthy goals are only reached with discipline. People understand that it is well thought out restrictions, that pick up the psychological and emotional slack when they themselves cannot. 

It’s like water. A liquid wants to flow wherever it can, but when it does, it is usually destructive. Only when the water is channeled and it remains within its boundaries is it most useful and glorious. The Great Flood of Noach’s time made this point quite clear.

It is the same with people. Sometimes a person is objective enough to figure out the right response to a moment. Very often he is not, and every fiber of his being screams out to do something that, in the long run, is inappropriate. Very often it is a guideline that keeps him in check, and saves his future.

No one questions the motivation of Nadav and Avinu when they brought their unauthorized fire offering in this week’s parsha. It was clear then and now that they were caught up in the spiritual ecstasy of the moment, and wanted to engage in it even more. They were zealous for God, but in the wrong way.

It can, and has happened to many throughout history. The road to Gehinom is paved with good intention for a reason. Just because someone has the right feeling and a great intention does not mean he will act in the correct manner. This is especially if he tries to figure out his response in the heat of the moment. 

That’s where the end of the parsha and the details of kashrus come in. It teaches this very lesson. It says that zealousness for truth is amazing and to be lauded and encouraged. It will not find its proper outlet however if a person does not first take the time to familiarize himself with the nitty-gritty details of Torah law. 

This means that halachah must become part of a Jew’s everyday consciousness. Only then will he or she be able to, in the heat of a moment, be properly channel his or her inspiration and energy in the correct. 

Human relationships depend upon this as well. Everyone is a story unto him- or herself. We all come with “baggage,” and this is true all the way up to the level of nations as well. It is rules and regulations that help us to protect our relationships, by maintaining a mutual and productive status quo.

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