Parashas Shemini – Journey to the Centre of the Torah

This week's sedra, Shemini, contains three distinct themes. The parasha begins with the first service performed by the Kohanim; we then have the obscure incident of the death of Aaron's sons, Nadab and Abihu; and the sedra concludes with a comprehensive set of laws on kashrus.

At the end of the previous sedra, Tzav, we saw that the Kohanim were instructed to stay at the Tent of Meeting for seven days while the inauguration service was to be performed by Moshe. For each of these seven days, we learn that Moshe had to erect the Mishkan, perform the inauguration service by himself and then dissemble the Mishkan once the service was concluded. This inauguration period climaxed with the consecration of Aaron and his sons as official Kohanim on the eighth day and from that moment onwards only Kohanim would be eligible to perform the Tabernacle service (not even Moshe, although he could instruct)... So that is where we left off in Tzav... this week's parasha begins from the first of Nissan (the eighth day of this inauguration service) and on this day with the Kohanim now officially inaugurated, the Mishkan could be erected permanently and the Kohanim could assume their new role. Shemini starts with the first service these newly consecrated Kohanim performed on that day, the day they achieved their new status.

The sedra is introduced with the words... “ויהי ביום השמיני / And it came to pass on the eighth day...”. We therefore see that the very first word of Parashas Shemini is 'ויהי/Vayehi' which our sages teach us is usually indicative of trouble or grief within the narrative. According to our sages the word Vayehi is made up of two words 'vay' and 'haya', denoting “a woeful event” and “came to pass”. We see many examples of this throughout Torah, some of the most famous are illustrated below;
In Parashas Lech Lecha (Bereishi 14:1), “Vayehi biymai Amrafel/And it came to pass in the days of Amrafel”... in this introduction to to the narrative of the battle of the four against the five monarchs in Avraham's days we see the use of this word due to the fact that the tzaddik Avraham's life was threatened. When they captured lot as a prisoner during the events which unfolded, we learn that this was merely a ploy in order to draw Avraham into battle and ultimately slay him.
In Megillas Esther the words “Vayehi biymai Achashvairosh” are used to introduce the story of the attempted genocide of the Jewish people through Haman.
In Yeshayau [7:1], “Vayehi biymai/And it came to pass in the days of Achaz ben Yosam king of Yehuda that Retzin king of Aram and Pekach the son of Remalyahu king of Yisrael went up to Jerusalem to wage war against it”... pretty self explanatory.

So what is the tragedy being pointed out with our possuk in Shemini using the wordwordויהי/Vayehi? According to the Midrash, the account of the Mishkan's inauguration is prefaced with the termויהי/Vayehi because the initial joy would be succeeded by a tragic event, the deaths of Aaron's sons, Nadav and Avihu. The Torah therefore seems to employ the use of this word here as an allusion to the future event. Another reason is brought down by Sforno however, that as we have previously learnt, before the sin of the Golden Calf there was no need for a Mishkan; every Jew was in fact worthy of the Divine Presence following the revelation at Mount Sinai... it became necessary however, after that calamitous national downfall, to build a Tabernacle. Using this wave of logic, it was truly sad that the Tabernacle was dedicated, because the joy was mixed with the realisation that the people had forfeited their opportunity for even greater holiness.

In fact we see in a later possuk how Aaron is told to... “come near” [9:7]... as he was both overawed and ashamed to approach the Altar due to his previous role in the making of the Golden Calf. Rashi tells us that Moshe had to encourage him saying, 'Why are you ashamed? It is for this reason that you have been chosen'... due to Aaron possessing the attribute of shame... G-d despises the haughty. The first offerings that were made in the priestly service were that of 'a he-goat for a sin-offering and a calf...' [9:3]. The he-goat offering corresponded to the people whilst the calf was brought directly for Aaron himself. It is brought down that Aaron's offering was a direct atonement for the sin of the Golden Calf whilst the he-goat offering was actually an atonement for the sale of Yoseph (by the brothers and atoned for by their descendants, the nation of Israel). Those sins stemmed from different root causes, and the different animals required by the Torah were reflective of the character flaws that caused the sins and needed atonement. When the people demanded that Aaron build them a 'g-d' to take the place of Moshe, they suffered from excessive dependence on him and thought that they could not endure without Moshe or something to take his place (as discussed in Dvar Torah to Parashas Ki Sisa), Aaron subsequently brought a calf which always follows its mother submissively. When the brothers sold Yoseph, however, they signified a rebellious instinct, for they refused to accept Yaakov's choice of Yoseph as the leader of the family... this behaviour was like that of a brazen goat and therefore this was the animal that was brought to atone for their sin.

With the completion of the first day's offerings, the service was concluded with Aaron and the Kohanim blessing the people by pronouncing birkas kohanim (the 'priestly' blessing) for the first time. According to Rashi this was the same blessing that the Kohanim use today, which appears in full in Parashas Nasso and was taught to Aaron and then subsequently to the Kohanim by Moshe. The Talmud also teaches us (Sotah 38a) that from the words used here... 'Aaron raised his hands' [9:22], we derive that the Kohanim must raise their hands when they bless the people. The Sfas Emes informs us that Aaron had such an overpowering desire to bless the people, for such is the generous and loving nature of Aaron and his descendants that G-d gave the Kohanim the eternal commandment of conferring the Priestly Blessing upon the Jewish people which is done every morning in Israel and usually only on Yom Tovim (High Holy Days) in Chutz L'Aretz (outside of Israel), depending on minhagim (customs).

Following the death of Aaron's sons, the Torah exposes us to what appears at face value to be a bust-up between Moshe and Aaron. The general dispute was regarding whether or not the Kohanim were able to eat from the offerings and which one's they were obligated to eat from due to their mourners status, as normally an onen would not be allowed to eat from offerings in that state. The question which was therefore facing Aaron and his remaining sons was whether Moshe's command regarding the eating of the meal-offerings should apply to the meat of the sin-offerings as well, and then if it did apply should it apply to all three of the offerings? Although the technical details of their dispute is not relevant to this discussion, the general idea is that this is the first place in the Torah where we find the classic exercise of the Oral Law, in which reasoning is used to define the parameters of the laws. Within this chunk of classic halachic dispute we see the appearance of the words 'דרש דרש/do'rosh do'rosh' which literally translates as 'inquire, he inquired' but using Torah interpretation tools we learn that the double expression of inquiry implies accentuation and therefore should be translated as inquired insistently. In most printed versions of Chumashim there contains an asterisk or a Masoretic note in between these words as they are the exact halfway mark of all the words in the Torah. This teaches us that the entire Torah revolves around constant inquiry; one must never stop studying and seeking an ever deeper and broader understanding of the Torah. What took place between Moshe and Aaron is reconstructed in Yeshivas, Chollels and Beis Midrashim worldwide; a machlocis shel'shmayim... literally an argument for the sake of of Torah. When it comes to seeking the truth within Torah there is nothing better than having a massive shouting match with your learning partner and getting both sides of the dispute completely out, such emotion shows both care and interest in the topic matter. According to Rav,תלמוד תורה כנגד כלם / Torah study is equivalent to all other mitzvahs, such is it's immense importance, we see this in no better sign than that of the central words of the Torah being concerned with an in depth pursuit of understanding an aspect of the Torah.

Rav Naftali Trop, the Rosh Yeshivah of the Chafetz Chaim's yeshivah in Radin, was a beloved figure known throughout the Torah world as a major talmid chacham. When he became very sick at a relatively young age, the yeshivah bachurim decided to donate time off their lives to him. Some of the boys pledged days, some pledged weeks. After all the pledges were made, they approached the Chafetz Chaim himself to ask him to donate time off of his life for the beloved Rosh Yeshivah. The Chafetz Chaim thought about it and then told the boys that he was willing to give Rav Naftali one minute of his life. The boys couldn't believe it and asked incredulously... “Rebbe, one minute, no more?”. Said the Chafetz Chaim, “If you knew what you could achieve in one minute of learning, you wouldn't be as careless with your time as you are”. The boys gained a new appreciation of the incredible value of time and returned to the Beis Midrash to learn. Later they said, “Never was the learning as intense as it was on the day that the Chafetz Chaim taught us the value of time”.

The second half of Parashas Shemini deals with the Laws of Kashrus, telling us permissible and forbidden land animals, fish, birds, insects and 'creeping animal and creatures'. What is first interesting to observe is how the Torah lists the exact four animals which are found with only one of the two attributes which indicate kashrus (separated hooves and brings up its cud), them being the camel, hyrax (similar to a woodchuck), hare (all lack split hooves but do bring up its cud) and the pig (has split hooves but does not bring up it's cud)... and what an incredible coincidence that no other species have been found with just one of these two attributes in the whole world apart from those named here!! According to the Vilna Goan's interpretation of Aggadic texts found in Gemara Berachos... these four animals correspond to the four empires which rose up against the Jews;
The animals which lack split hooves but bring up their cud (the camel, hyrax and hare) correspond to the Babylonians, Persians and Greeks because externally they showed signs of being unkosher nations but internally they actually believed in a creator (even though this might have been confused) and they also believed that the Jewish nation were the chosen people.
The Pig however corresponds to that of the Romans and the current exile we are still under as this animal shows external signs of being Kosher but is internally corrupt and perverted. This is clearly seen from Rome to today's 'great' nations who set up governments and judicial systems but are ultimately corrupted and hold deep immoral problems within the societies that they have established.

Last interesting point from this week's sedra is that the middle letter of the Torah also appears within our Laws of Kashrus in the possuk stating that we must not eat from anything that crawls on it's belly (ie. Worms and snakes). The letter The letter 'ו' in the word 'גחון' is written in an elongated form in the Torah Scrolls. The early sages who were called סופרים (literally means- 'those who count'), because they would count the words and letters of the Torah noted that this is the midpoint of the Torah in none other than Kiddushin 30a (the Gemara I have been studying all year!!... exciting times). So the central point of the Torah, letter wise, is in fact within the 'Belly/גחון' (the central point of our bodies)...

And with that I wish you all a belly-full this Shabbat of meat and wine! … and most importantly bread of course!

Daniel Sandground, (student at Ohr Somayach Yeshiva, Jerusalem)

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