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Shevi’i shel Pesach 5781 — 04/03/2021

Shevi’i shel Pesach 5781 — 04/03/2021

This D’var Torah was given on Shabbat haChodesh, erev Rosh Chodesh Nisan 5781, as part of a siyyum [completion] on tractate Pesachim, the tractate that has all the laws of Pesach, and which I had recently completed as part of the Daf Yomi program. The rest of the siyyum was given on the Thursday before Pesach, which was the Fast of the Firstborn. The point of having the siyyum on that day is that you make a little party in honor of the mitzvah of completing the tractate, and that lets everyone eat that day instead of actually having to fast!

Surprisingly, Masechet (Tractate) Pesachim deals with all the laws of Passover. One of those laws that has always troubled me is the law that chametz that gets mixed into any food prohibits that food even in the slightest amount – b’mashehu. This is the most stringent standard for any type of mixture in halachah. Normally, if something forbidden gets mixed into something permitted, and it is no longer discernable, we say that it is nullified and the entire mixture is permitted. Biblically the criterion is batel b’rov – nullification in a majority. In other words, if the permitted matter is more than the forbidden matter, it is as if the forbidden matter did not exist. The Rabbis, of course hedged the matter to keep us far away from trying to determine if the permitted or the forbidden substance is greater. The general criterion is noten ta’am – imparts flavor. If you drop forbidden substance A into permitted substance B, A is not considered nullified if you can still taste it in B. How can you tell? If you were to do a “taste-test” yourself, and A did impart flavor, you’ll be guilty of consuming something forbidden. For example, your non-Jewish cook is eating a ham sandwich while stirring your cholent and a small piece of ham falls in and gets stirred in so it can’t be identified and removed. You have to ask the cook to taste it. If they can identify the taste of ham, the whole cholent is forbidden, and if not, it’s permitted. This works for disparate elements – a drop of milk or cheese into a meat dish, or the like. For like substances, the general rule is batel b’shishim – nullification of one part forbidden in 60 parts permitted substance. A ratio of 60:1 is held to be one in which one cannot taste the forbidden interloper if it had a different taste. For certain kinds of more stringent prohibitions the ratio is larger. For terumah, the special tithe taken out for the kohanim, for which one is subject to death by the hand of heaven for eating it if one is not a kohen, the ratio is 100:1. For orlah (fruits of a tree in its 1st three years) and kil’ei hakerem (mixed plantings in a vineyard) the ratio is 200:1. In the case of chametz on Pesach, we have the strictest standard – no amount of permitted matter can nullify any chametz that gets mixed into it.

When it comes to mixtures of individual items, there are items that are similarly strict. For example, if an animal that has been consecrated for an offering, or a bechor / first-born male animal, becomes mixed in with the rest of the herd, the whole herd becomes prohibited. Clearly, there are some kinds of mixtures that we need to be very careful about.

I’d like to go off on a bit of a tangent here and consider the whole idea of mixing from the point of view of physics. To a hammer, everything is a nail; to a physicist, everything is physics. I had the pleasure when I first arrived in Milwaukee to be invited for Seder to our Rabbi’s house. I was seated next to him, undoubtedly so he could keep an eye on me… The Rebbetzin brought him a salad to mix up. I was watching him intently as he mixed the salad. After a bit he asked me sardonically, “Is it mixed enough?” I thought for a minute and said, “When it looks the same every time you stir it, then it’s mixed enough.” What happens when things get mixed? The answer is, structure gets lost. When the newly-made salad was brought out it was in layers – carrots, cucumbers, raisins, etc. There was information there – you could use the salad to determine up vs. down. Once Rabbi Kalmar was finished mixing, there were no more layers at all. Every spot in the salad looked pretty much like any other spot in the salad. Every direction was the same. It was just a more or less homogeneous mass of very tasty and healthy food. The whole process took perhaps 10 min.

Now let’s do a thought experiment – how long do you think it would have taken the Rabbi to stir the salad back to its original, layered state? I assure you, the lettuce will have wilted by then. Why is this the case? Let’s take a simple example. Suppose we have two boxes that are connected by a tube. There are 4 balls in this system and they’re bouncing around more or less randomly. Sometimes they find their way down the tube to the other box. Let’s say we start off with all 4 balls in the left hand box. Note that there is only 1 configuration in which we have 4 balls in one box. Now as the balls bounce around (“stirring the salad”) it is much more probable that a ball will move from left to right than from right to left (in fact there’s 0 probability of a ball moving from the right hand box, because there are no balls in the right hand box). So after a while there are 3 balls on the left and 1 on the right. It’s pretty easy to see that there are 4 configurations of 3 on one side and 1 on the other – you have 4 choices for the one ball and the other three are on the other side. Now as the balls keep bouncing, there’s three times the probability that a ball will go from left (where there are 3 balls) to right (where there is only 1). Most likely the next time a ball moves it’ll go from the left box, reducing the number to 2 and into the right box, increasing the number to 2. You can convince yourselves that there are 6 configurations of balls having 2 in each box. Note that the configurations with the greatest structure, the greatest order, are the most rare (4-0, 1 configuration), while the configuration with the least order (2-2, 6 configurations) is the most common.

Going back to the Rabbi’s salad – how many ways are there to structure the salad in layers, and how many ways are there to structure a mixed-up salad? You can see that simply by statistics the salad will spend virtually all of its time mixed and virtually no time structured. If it is to be structured, someone must come from outside (the Rebbetzin) and structure it. Left to itself, a closed system will devolve from a more ordered to a less ordered state – this is called the Second Law of Thermodynamics.

To create structure, order, from chaos, takes energy and intelligence. In this, human beings are partners with Gd. Human beings have an innate desire for order. The brain functions better in an orderly environment. The Shabbat melachah / category of “work” that is perhaps most easily done accidentally is borer, sorting, because we just can’t stand to see everything all jumbled up. So when it comes to creating order and structure in the world, we are partners with Gd. Just on one day a week we refrain from building and creating and ordering and structuring.

The opposite of mixing is of course separation. When we separate something out for a specific purpose we are m’kadesh it. When we separate something out from the mundane, then we indeed sanctify it in the full meaning of the word. On Pesach, Gd separated us out from the Egyptians (goy mikerev goy) to be a holy people. Our job is to sanctify ourselves, to separate our Self from the realm of action, to nullify our individual ego (bitul haYesh) to the extent that Gd can work through us to create order out of the apparent chaos. In other words, the ideal of our life is to let the individual aspect of our ego step aside, so to speak, and let Gd work through our universal aspect to realize His Will. As it is said, “Make His Will thy will, and he will make thy will His Will” (Avot II:16).

If I can return to physics for a bit, I think I can cast some more light on this idea. Over the past 40 years or so it has become clear that there is one unified field that underlies all the forms and phenomena in creation. The field has different modes of vibration – each mode corresponds to a particle or an interaction between particles. The various patterns of vibration, combinations of the different modes and the different frequencies in each mode, appear to us as the whole universe of change. Yet the unified field itself never changes. Think of the ocean, which rises in waves, all different patterns of waves, yet the ocean never changes in and of itself. The unified field is thus the source of all phenomena and all the laws of nature that govern these phenomena. The whole universe is just the play and display of these laws of nature.

In our tradition we are told that Gd is the only reality. Everything that we think of as reality is just the very surface crust of a whole spiritual universe, with many layers, but all, in the end, coming down to the play and display of Gd’s Will within Gd – where else could it play out – there is nothing outside of Gd. Gd’s Will is what is expressed as nature, as the evolution of the cosmos.

Our situation as human beings is that we have an individual ego, intellect, mind, which allows us to see ourselves as separate from Gd. Our consciousness, our innermost soul, of course, knows differently. It’s just that the infinite part of our soul, the chelek Eloka mi’ma’al / portion of the Divine above, is mixed in with the finite aspects of our personality. It is our job to separate them out, and virtually all our practices serve this goal – on Shabbat we give over the realm of action to Gd and separate ourselves out. In tefillah we constantly remind ourselves ayn od milvado. The hope is that by contacting the transcendent, even fleetingly, it begins to be established in our awareness on a permanent basis. Then we become completely kadosh, completely separate from the world of nature, l’ma’alah min haTeva. All action, even the action of the finite aspects of our personality are now just expressions of Gd’s Will, like the rest of nature.

One last point. We read last week in Ki Tisa that “no man can see My Face and live.” We want to join ourselves to Gd, but of course we can’t get too close or our individuality will be completely overwhelmed by Gd’s universal nature. If we want to “know” Gd, there must be some distance between us and Gd. A mother wants to hold her baby close, but if she really wants to appreciate the baby she holds it at little distance, so there’s a relationship instead of an identity. Our physical natures provide that little bit of individuality that keeps us separate from Gd, from being able to take that one step too far, like Nadav and Avihu tried to do. Perhaps this is the deeper meaning of mashehu. We must transcend our individuality, reach out to the Divine, approach it asymptotically if you will, but there must always be that mashehu within us, that little bit of “I” that experiences, that allows us to appreciate the Divinity that surrounds us. This is a mashehu that we dare not allow to be nullified in the infinite ocean of Being.


Commentary by Steve Sufian

Parashat Shemini

Shemini means “eight.”  In this parshah, we learn that Aaron completed his seven days after being initiated by Gd through Moses as High Priest of Israel; on the eighth, he performed his first service as High Priest: “…And the glory of the Lrd appeared to all the people.” Leviticus 9:23 ( Aaron made his own offerings (“korbanot,” drawing near) and also those of the people in the correct way and the glory of the Lrd appeared to all the people. This is the world we want today and always, a world in which all leaders and all people – all included, none left out – are properly prepared to draw near and to experience the glory of Gd and as they experience, the experience becomes available to all the people.

Leviticus, 9:24. “And fire went forth from before the Lrd and consumed the burnt offering and the fats upon the altar and all the people saw, sang praises, and fell upon their faces” (translation,

The symbolism of “eight,” as presents it, appeals to me: eight symbolizes Gd beyond the seven days of creation [if we include the seventh day of “rest”] and, therefore, knowable only by Gd, beyond comprehension by the creation.

On the eighth day, we would have Gd as Kaddish says about Gd: above and beyond any praise or blessing we can utter in the world. On this day, Aaron is fulfilled and he and all the Children of Israel see the Glory of the Lord. Also on this day, two of Aaron’s sons are consumed by the same Fire of Gd that consumed the offerings of Aaron and the people. Both events occur on the same day, indicating the unknowableness of Gd. Torah says this was because they offered “strange fire” which Gd had not commanded; some rabbis say it was because they were drunk; other rabbis say it was because they were great and Gd sanctified the Tabernacle through them. We have diverse views, consistent with the symbolism of eight as Gd being beyond description or human understanding.

Consistent with this interpretation of Gd beyond understanding is the description In this parshah of dietary laws, particularly what animals, birds, fish, insects are clean and which are not to be eaten. Discussion I have seen on this indicate that the reasons for the categorizing are not understandable simply from a human zoological view but they are known only to Gd and we must have faith in them and thus to be holy as Gd is Holy.

So, it is up to us to live pure lives, to serve as High Priests within the Temple that is our own body, personality, soul and to offer our lives to Gd – Totality beyond words to describe or understand – and to enjoy the unfoldment of Gd’s Glory within us and around us everywhere. Everywhere. For everyone. Offering our lives to Gd is not dissolving and disappearing from existence: it is being restored to the Full Awareness that our individual personalities are, were and always will be roles that Gd plays within Gd. Gd is One without a Second and with our offering we dissolve the duality and are restored to Oneness, All-n-All.

Passover is especially a lovely time to do this. It is a good time to pass over limits, to let death pass over us and to experience immortality in enlightenment and perfect health.

Chag Pesach Sameach,