Limits and Their Limits

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by R. Gidon Rothstein

Parshat Shemini

Tum’ah To Avoid

I guess I assumed HaKetav VeHaKabbalah was largely a rationalist, I think because he quotes nontraditional readers of Torah and is invested in showing how Chazal’s reading of verses fits the plain sense of the text. I guess I also assumed (the danger of assumptions!) rationalists treat tum’ah as a Torah construct, perhaps having mostly to do with the Beit HaMikdash and entry into it, rather than reflecting some metaphysical reality.

R. Mecklenburg’s reading ofVaYikra11;8 turns it around, at least somewhat. The Torah tells us not to touch the carcasses of nonkosher animals (the most immediate preceding one was the pig). Chazal limited the verse’s application to holidays, when we are supposed to appear at the Mikdash, and therefore must be in a state of taharah, having had no contacts that prohibit our appearance there.

Were Chazal’s view the whole story, R. Mecklenburg thinks the Torah should have given some indication of a time constraint. He says Chazal were teaching us the law, where the verse wants us to consider the ideal, the path of proper abstemiousness in life. He relates the goal of not touching tum’ah to a statement of Rava, Yevamot 20a, sanctify yourself in what is permitted to you.

[A rant: some people like to say whatever is not prohibited is permitted (others, perhaps more incorrectly, say the reverse, but they’re not my topic now). Rava is telling us much that is permitted we should nonetheless avoid.]

HaKetav VeHaKabbalah thinks Ramban intended the idea in his reading of kedoshim tihyu, the “sanctity” the Torah wants us to cultivate goes beyond allowed/disallowed, to a higher level of taharah, a word Ramban conflates with cleanliness.

Adding to this idea, Tanna de-Bei Eliyahu 1;15 cited VaYikra 11;44, vehitkadishtem, we must sanctify ourselves, leading Rabban Gamliel to eat his regular food in the same tum’ah/taharah state he would have needed for sacrifices. Rabban Gamliel said it was not only the kohanim who received sanctity at Sinai, but all Jews.

Touching dead pigs, R. Mecklenburg is saying, has problems beyond the specific Temple-related ones, and it is for all of us to aspire to this higher level of abstaining from unfortunate contact.

Food and Drink, More Than Mundane

Remarkably, I stumbled on a comment of R. Hirsch’s in this parsha where he, too, invokes the idea of refraining from the permitted. To introduce chapter eleven, where Hashem addresses Moshe and Aharon, R. Hirsch contrasts our chapter, full of laws about what food to eat or not, to chapter ten, where Nadav and Avihu were killed for offering an alien fire, where Hashem warned priests not to drink anything intoxicating before serving in the Mishkan/Mikdash, where kohanim ate sacrifices for atonement. That chapter, he says, noted that even our greatest leaders, worthy of the priesthood, can err grievously and capitally, when they followed instincts or emotions.

Hashem therefore warns them to avoid even the ordinarily allowed when coming to serve, such as not drinking what will cloud their judgement and lead them to follow their own emotions. [A vital point he slips in here: the danger of being misled by what feels right plagues all of us, and is more likely to come out when we are in less control, such as when we are intoxicated.]

On the other hand, the lofty spiritual effect of their eating sacrifices shows us how significant it can be, turning our attention to chapter eleven with new eyes: what we eat matters greatly, so we better pay close heed.

For Moshe and Aharon, No Less

To his view, the idea explains why Hashem addressed the chapter to Aharon as well, with the unique addition of lemor aleihem, saying to them. We have seen Aharon included in significant commands, such as Parshat HaChodesh (that we read this Shabbat, as it happens). Every one of those, however, had Hashem speak to Moshe and Aharon lemor, not lemor aleihem, to them.

The new phrasing here tells R. Hirsch the commands about kosher food start with Moshe and Aharon. Moshe is the teacher of mussar (ethics/discipline) and Torah, Aharon the prime educator of observance of mitzvot. [He has probably elaborated on this elsewhere that I have not seen, but it bears pause: Moshe isn’t an educator who molds behavior, that’s Aharon. Moshe teaches laws and values, Aharon is the one who finds the way for people to absorb and actualize them. It’s an important split.]

Their joint success depends on the nation’s observance of these dietary laws, because they set the nation’s foundation at a higher level. The calendar and Pesach established a basic nation, Parshat Mishpatim set up a functioning society, able to handle civil conflict.

The Mishkan and parts of the Torah aimed at establishing it set our horizons higher, to have the whole nation be sanctified, a mamlechet kohanim ve-goy kadosh. For it to be more than a motto, the sanctity must affect all of us, that we all fulfill VaYikra 19;2, kedoshim tihyu, a call for Jews to focus everything in their lives, including food, on sanctity and a God-driven life.

Permitted isn’t necessarily good. Kashrut laws lay out, in R. Hirsch’s view, a vision of food guided by sanctity above all.

The Uncertain Sin of Nadav and Avihu

The verse’s description of the sin of Nadav and Avihu, 10;1, leaves enough unclear to allow for continuing debate. Malbim shows how Tosefta thought they went into the Mishkan after fire had already come from Heaven, bringing uncommanded incense out of an abundance of joy. Sifra timed the sin earlier, they brought fire for fear there would be none, and entered the Mishkan to pray for more to come down.

Malbim finds further indication of events in the verse’s identifying them as sons of Aharon before their names. Usually in Hebrew, the name comes first, like “Sarai, eshet Avram, the wife of Avram.” Three of the reasons a verse might switch it up offer insight into their sin.

First, the verse might precede their names with their relationship to Aharon to highlight their failure to honor their father; they should have checked with him before they took bold [illegitimate] action. Or, the descriptive comes for emphasis, to say they were especially sons of Aharon, the reason they chose not to consult with Moshe. In their minds their father was equal to Moshe, so why check with their uncle (although they didn’t ask their father, either…)?

When we don’t want advice, we find all sorts of excuses.

Last, he points out the verse has a plural verb, then switches to the singular, they took, each his fire-pan. The Torah does this to let us know the people acted the same, each on his/her own, with no planning. Nadav and Avihu each took a fire-pan, incense, etc. Wrong as it was, they both came up with the idea, and acted on it.

They didn’t treat their filial relationship properly, they relied on it to sidestep another source of insight they should have sought, Moshe, and did it independently of the other. Says Malbim, based on our verse.

A Big Moment in Aharon’s Life

For our last, brief comment, R. David Zvi Hoffmann thinks Moshe encouraged/ ordered Aharon to approach the altar and perform the service for his chatat and olah because no zar, non-certified kohen, may approach. Moshe’s words were the last, necessary, step in turning Aharon into a kohen, ready and allowed to serve.

A parsha of learning limits, staying away from some permissible entanglements—tum’ah and food—Nadav and Avihu an example of ignoring needed limits, Aharon learning that some former limits no longer stopped him from priestly service.

About Gidon Rothstein

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