Parshat Shmini: Leviticus 9:1-11:47; II Samuel 6:1-7:17.

The two main subjects dealt with in this week’s Torah portion of Shemini seem to be totally removed one from the other.

Rabbi Shlomo Riskin - man smiling in suit and tie wearing glasses
Rabbi Shlomo Riskin

First, we read of the death of the two sons of Aaron, Nadav and Avihu and then we read all of the details of the laws of kashrut. It seems to me, however, that there is a powerful connection between these two issues.

Let us begin with kashrut. The Bible itself concludes its food prohibitions by declaring the following rationale: “Because I am the Lord your God and you shall sanctify yourselves and you shall be holy because I am holy.” Most of our commentaries define holiness as the ability to separate oneself from one’s physical instincts and drives, an inner discipline that enables the individual to rise above the physical and to come closer to the spiritual.

The roots of kashrut express an even deeper idea. The story of the Garden of Eden and the first sin of Adam and Eve contains the transgression of the first two human beings, which was a breach of the laws of kashrut. The Almighty commanded Adam, “From every tree of the garden you are free to eat, but as for the tree of knowledge of good and evil, you must not eat of it.” Adam and Eve ate of the forbidden fruit and were banished from the Garden of Eden. But why was that fruit forbidden? If the fruit was so desirable, why was it prohibited?

It is the serpent who explains the reason: “Because God knows that on the day that you eat of it, your eyes will be opened and you will be like God, knowing what is good and what is evil.” The serpent, symbolizing the forces of evil within the world, is expressing the fundamental struggle that takes place within the heart of every individual: Who decides what is good and what is evil?

The realm of good and evil must be from the Divine Will rather than individual desire. The forbidden fruit is evil because God calls it evil. The ultimate source of morality must be a system that is higher than any individual.

Religious commitment demands humility of the individual who is required to bend his knee before a higher Divine power, both in terms of our ethical and ritual lives as well as in terms of our acceptance of tragedy, which often seems absurd and illogical.

Aaron the high priest stood at the zenith of success with the consecration of the Sanctuary in the desert. Then, his two sons performed an unsolicited religious act that expressed their profound appreciation of the Divine “and fire came forth from the Lord and consumed them.”

The Bible records Aaron’s response in two Hebrew words: “And Aaron was silent.” Apparently, we learn from this that when one individual acts unjustly toward another, we must speak out and act. But when a tragedy occurs that is not of human making — and when a Divine law insists upon human discipline — we must submit to the ultimate will of a God whom our Bible guarantees is “a God of compassion and lovingkindness” even though it may be beyond our subjective understanding.

Rabbi Shlomo Riskin is chancellor of Ohr Torah Stone and chief rabbi of Efrat, Israel.

Previous articleHillel Campus Alliance of Michigan Awarded Grant
Next articleThe Story of Jerusalem