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Parashat Shemini 5773 — 04/03/2013

Parashat Shemini 5773 — 04/03/2013

Nor shall you touch their carcass – they are unclean to you (t’mei’im hem lachem) (11:8)

This is not to be understood as a prohibition forbidding us to touch the carcasses of unclean animals.  Rather, [Scripture] is saying, “nor shall you touch their carcass, because they are unclean to you” meaning to say, “you cannot touch them without becoming contaminated by them.”  And the idea of the verse is to say that whoever touches then should bear in mind that he is contaminated and consequently beware of entering the Sanctuary and of eating sacred foods.  (Ramban ad loc, Artscroll translation)

They are an abomination (sheketz) to you (11:10)

Through these [non-kosher animals] you become contaminated; anyone who touches their carcass is contaminated until [immersion in a mikveh and the onset of] the evening. (11:24)

Only a spring or a cistern, where water is collected, shall remain pure (11:36)

Do not make yourselves abominable … for I am Hashem Who elevates you from the land of Egypt to be your Gd; you shall be holy as I am Holy. (11:43-4)

A few weeks ago (November of 2012) I walked into my back yard and saw a deer lying up against the fence which partially surrounds the yard.  Now I often see deer in my yard; this year’s drought drove many into inhabited areas looking for food and water.  Today’s deer however was lying quite still, and I quickly ascertained that it was dead.  In most jurisdictions in which I have lived the Department of Natural Resources wants to know about such incidents, so they can crack down on poaching.  Here, apparently, deer are mainly pests; they trashed my little garden which I try to grow for fun, but if they trash the farmers’ fields, where nutritious corn and soybeans grow, people’s livelihoods can get threatened.  The result was about 2-weeks of runaround from various government agencies, at the end of which an old friend of mine and I wound up dragging the deer to the curb, where it was shortly picked up by a city crew.

Now the deer is a kosher species – it certainly has a “cloven hoof,” and it is a ruminant with a 4-chambered stomach just like cattle.  There is kosher venison available, but the deer has to be slaughtered properly, just like kosher domestic animals, which means it has to be either farmed or trapped, not shot with a bullet or an arrow (which would render it treifah if you got to it before it died and slaughtered it properly, or a neveilah / carcass, if it died before being slaughtered).  My deer of course was not slaughtered at all (in fact we have no idea how it died), making it a neveilah.  As we were dragging the beast from the back yard to the front curb I realized that this was the first time in my life that I was becoming contaminated with a large neveilah, and that besides immersing myself in a mikveh, I would have to immerse my clothing as well.  Fortunately I had changed into some yard-work clothes!  A dip in a mikveh won’t do wonders for your Armani suit!

Why is this important?  What is tumah / ritual contamination anyway?  How does it relate to kashrut, which is the topic of the second part of our parashah?  I think we can get a hint from Torah and from Ramban.

What are the consequences of dragging a deer to the curb?  One becomes tamei, ritually impure.  What are the practical consequences of this in our day?  Actually none.  There are more severe forms of impurity, most notably impurity due to contact with a dead person, which we all carry with us, and from which, in the absence of the Temple in Jerusalem, nobody can be purified (see Parashat Chukat in Sefer BaMidbar).  Furthermore, as Ramban points out, there is no mitzvah to avoid ritual impurity.  The only consequence of ritual impurity is that one may not enter the Temple precincts nor eat sacred food (portions of both animal and meal offering as well as certain of the priestly gifts).  The penalty for willfully violating this prohibition, however, is quite severe – either spiritual excision (karet, the exact definition of which is not specified, but has something to do with alienation from Gd) or “death by the Hand of Heaven.”

I think that the incompatibility of the Temple and ritual contamination (of either people or objects or food and drink) is an important clue to what is going on here.  The purpose of the Temple and its rituals is, according to Ramban, to recreate the encounter at Mt. Sinai between the people of Israel and Gd, the infinite Creator.  This encounter was a direct experience of the infinite descending into the finite, and it was an overwhelming experience – one Midrash states that all the people’s souls left them (except for Moshe Rabbeinu’s) and Gd had to dispatch angels to revive them.  Why was the experience so overwhelming to everyone but Moshe Rabbeinu?  Perhaps an example from the physical world will help.

If we have water flowing through a pipe, at low volumes the flow will generally be smooth.  If the pipe is very occluded with plaques of various sorts however, the smooth flow breaks up into turbulence, with a concomitant loss of pressure.  The stronger the flow, the more easily is it broken up from smooth flow to turbulent flow – that is, smaller imperfections in the pipe will destabilize a strong flow than are needed to destabilize a weak flow.  The glory of a human being is that we serve as the “pipes” for the infinite to express itself in the finite.  If the flow of Divine energy through us is to be strong, we must make sure that we keep ourselves free of impurities, both the obvious ones (all the improper thoughts, speech and action which Torah enjoins us from) and the not-so-obvious ones (e.g. tumah / ritual contamination).  In our ordinary, everyday life, it is enough to keep ourselves clear of the ordinary impurities.  If we want to be in the presence of a much greater flow of the infinite, such as is present in the Temple, then we have to concern ourselves even with the tiniest of impurities – these would be the ritual impurities Torah delineates for us, most of which we would have no idea about had Gd not given us the operating manual.

There is a perceptual correlate to this discussion.  Non-kosher animals and birds are often referred to as tamei / ritually impure.  This is really a misnomer, as no living creature other than a human being can become ritually impure – they become so only in death.  What does it mean to call a pig, for example, tamei?  (Our common description of anything not kosher as treif comes from a different source.)  The answer has to do with the effect of eating non-kosher food.  Our Rabbis tell us that eating non-kosher food cause atimut halev / stopping up of the heart.  That is, non-kosher food causes our spiritual senses, those delicate perceptions of the finer layers of creation that lie behind the surface, to become covered over and encrusted, so they lose flexibility and are unable to respond to the tiny signals that come from these subtle layers.  This is, conceptually, similar to the process by which our high-frequency hearing becomes damaged with age or prolonged exposure to loud sounds (e.g. loud music).  The fine hairs in the inner ear lose flexibility and cannot respond to faint or high-frequency fluctuations.

Our purpose as human beings and as Jews is to provide a mechanism by which Gd’s perfection may be reflected in the physical world around us.  To do that we need to keep our souls, our bodies, and our senses, both spiritual and physical, clean and functioning in an optimal manner.  Gd exhorts us on the one side not to make ourselves abominable – that is, crude, unfeeling, blind and insensitive – and on the positive side, to be holy.  He gave us the instruction manual for the care of body and soul; it surely behooves us to make full use of this knowledge.


Pirke Avot, Chapter 1

We begin our study of Pirke Avot again.  Each Shabbat we study one of the six chapters, so we complete the entire tractate by Shavuot, the commemoration of the giving of the Torah at Mt. Sinai, 7 weeks after the Exodus from Egypt.  We then cycle through the tractate until Rosh HaShanah.  We typically associate this study with the Shabbat Minchah service.  (During the winter, between Rosh HaShanah and Pesach, we recite Psalms 104 and 120-134 – Shir HaMa’alot / Songs of Ascents.)

Mishnah 6:

Yehoshu’a ben Perachiah said:

Make yourself a teacher.

Acquire for yourself a colleague

And judge everyone (alt: the whole person) in the scales of merit.

The last of these three sayings is probably the one that is heeded least in our modern society.  It is a call to take the exact opposite attitude towards interpersonal relations than that which we see glorified in the press, on the internet and in daily interactions.  If people judged each other in the scales of merit, would we need anti-bullying classes in schools?  Would our election campaigns turn into smear-fests, to the point that decent people have to think long and hard before getting involved in public service?  (A wise man once said that in a more enlightened age, the candidate who praised the other candidate the most would win.)  To judge everyone in the scales of merit means first of all to have some empathy for the person – to evaluate that person as another human being who is trying to do the best he or she can to fulfill all their responsibilities and to create a better life for themselves and society.  That is certainly the way we judge ourselves!  It’s time for us all to get off our high horses and start cutting everyone else some slack, and being a bit more stringent with ourselves, rather than the other way around.

[Historical note:  It is possible that Yehoshu’a ben Perachiah was Jesus’ teacher.]