Shemini - Lesson 25 Notes

Introduction - re-cap. 

Note the name of the portion. Bayom HaSh'mini. Eighth day. In a manner of speaking: all around the world and back to start again. The next day after a full week of days. Keep all this in mind. 

I. Read 9:1

Any thoughts about why we see the period between ordination and the initiation of formal worship as "on the eighth day?"

(A full cycle has passed. This means each day, each part, each phase of the week has passed. The world was created with Shabbat in seven days. Perhaps, having lived through a full cycle in transition, we're now ready to begin an enterprise, to live in the day-to-day.  

We have octaves. We have the notion of circumcision on the 8th day, denoting the end of transition from the womb to the time of full personhood.  We have the first day after a week-long festival. We have the 50th day after the beginning of the counting of the omer, when the march to revelation ends, and our new full life as God's people begins.

Some see it as a day of miracle. This first full day of the Tabernacle was seen as happening on the first day of Nisan, the month of miracles. In other words, there is also a sense of the beyond-this-world in the eighth day along with the in-this-world notion that I just expressed with respect to its being the first day after the full cycle of a week.)

II. Read 9:6

I just want to note here the ever-present motif through this book. He hear this sound throughout - tzivah (God commands) and kavod (God is present). I know I sound a bit like a broken record, but these ideas, which are not often enough associated with the study of Leviticus, are paramount to the book. 

III. Read 9:7-9

Let me just note here that this is finally the true demarcation, the transition of authority in the operation of sacred space from Moses to Aaron, the command is conveyed to the leader, Moses, and, after instruction, the duty of operation is authorized by Moses to Aaron. 

One question: any thoughts about why Aaron brings a purification offering, that is, a chatat offering, of a calf?

(Is this just an offering to separate himself from preparation to actual service? Is it to be sure he's whole hearted and "clean" to serve? 

Or is there some recognition and atonement for his role in the saga of the golden calf? Does this help him deal with any residual emptiness that may still hover over him? Would he be readier to serve and would we be more willing to follow if we saw our priest acknowledge error and, coming near God, show a dedication to be right with us and God? This might be especially important for the priest who helps us when we err, to help us move on and back.)

IV. We won't read them all, but Aaron brings as well as grain offering, the burnt offering, and a well being offering, as if to inaugurate the full range of offerings we've studied. 

Let's do read 9:22-24

Offerings. Blessings. Presence of God appears to the people. Fire from God that consumes the offerings. The people see, shout, and fall on their faces. 

We've talked so much about sacred space - how it is constructed and operated, and its purpose. Now we have a few verses that give us a sense of what happens after the first implementation. Be imaginative and descriptive: what do you make of these words, this account, of the priests and Moses - what they do, God's role, and ours?

( This is what we've discussed so deeply in this book over the past few weeks: God's call and command for us to draw near. This is, after the call and command and the preparation, the actualization of God's intention!

I would at least add a few words about what a journey it's been since God's reaction to the golden calf to these glorious moments - a distance, the prospect of a permanent distance, the offer of a sort of partial presence, and, through all that Moses did and asked and in all that God showed and revealed, this glorious manifestation of God's presence. The story is a saga we should always bear in mind, spirit, and heart - of Moses' heroic leadership, God's ever-present source of justice, righteousness, kindness, and mercy, Aaron's assumption of duty and service,  and the people's presence and support.)

V. Having said that, we come immediately to one of the strangest, most challenging, and mysterious dramas in the Bible in verses 10:1-4. 

There are so many varying interpretations of this story. We'll go through yours and others and discuss which seem to us to be the best account, whether several might be possible, and how we might handle the uncertainty and ambiguity about the meaning of this story. 

A. First, what exactly did Nadab and Abihu do, and how could it have warranted such a fate? 

(It seems basically that they did something counter to what God had enjoined. Perhaps that gives it the feel of the idolatrous, an exuberance that was inappropriate, an out of place ritual, or a sort of a human invented ritual that smacks of the golden calf exercise. 

Some say they brought fire itself when it wasn't called for, perhaps from coals from a profane source,and got too close with it. God provided the fire here. This suggests a lack of, or misplaced, faith. 

Egotism (taking their own pans and proceeding without guidance)?

Some say it may have been drunkenness of a sort, since God proscribes drinking when entering the tent in 8-9. It may have been that the drunkenness caused a carelessness with the pans and the fire.

Too much ambition? Seeking position or role ahead of their time?

Excessive piety (trying to get closer than was due, and burned by an" excessive fire in their own souls)?

Bringing a form of incense that was associated with a foreign cult? This is Milgrom's explanation. 

Or, could it have been something much more positive? We'll get to those possibilities in a moment. 

B. Before we do, let me ask this: what was their fate? And their being consumed? 

(Conventional explanation is obvious. Alternatively, some say this was their "being burned out" emotionally or spiritually, losing reverence, because of a rejection.) 

C. What does Moses mean when he says to Aaron that this is what God means when He says through those near to Me I show myself holy and gain glory before the people?

(Some say that this was about N and A, that when people act like a leader they get less indulgence when they err, that this was a sign of God's holiness when they got "too near." Perhaps it's that in the actions of all who come  near to God God's holiness is revealed.  

Others say that this was testimony to their nearness and holiness and that God honored them through death in a pure fire and grieved their death. Some even say their death contributed to consecrating the space. (I don't buy this.)

Perhaps they had unbridled love of God, which simply went beyond Divine will. It is said that that portion of the morning prayers, "Compel our inclination to be subservient to you," has something to do with avoiding something in the two young men. Love of God has restraints grounded in obeying God, it is argued. 

Others: they had forsaken mortal life, taken up by an undying splendor. 

I think this is more a form of consolation for Aaron. Despite his loss, he is near to God and must continue to be, that through Aaron (though now pained and at loss), God's glory will be known in his service of bringing people near.)

D. What does it mean that Aaron was silent? 

(That it was mysterious and he knew not how to respond? He was dutiful and respectful? That he was in great pain and couldn't speak? All of the above? Or that he was still, holding in his pain, while accepting the decree and continuing to be dutiful to the essential role he had just assumed.)

VI. Read 10:8-11 (and continuing as to offerings). 

Notice anything significant here? Discuss. 

(God speaks to Aaron directly! He directs as to the instruction and role in teaching the people. Is this because of the new delegation of authority to him, which is significant? Is it to assure continued role, even in wake of Nadab and Abihu? Is it to comfort as well, as a sort of reward for being silent, dutiful, especially after sons' deaths?

VII. Let's quickly read of the dispute between Moses and Aaron in verses 16-20. I encourage you to reflect on it on your own. There's a lot here about roles that leaders (and brothers) play, how differences arise, specific ideas about the capacity of the priest to lead in making offerings while he is in grief or just returning from erring, and the importance of a leader to acknowledge when another is right and admit it and honor it. Further, it is a wonderful and very positive portrait of Aaron that is worth keeping in the mind of Bible students. 

But let me ask at least this: what characterizes this portrait of Aaron for you?

(We come away from this ready, seeing in Aaron a man who has atoned in quiet, in humility, strength, independence and has lived committed to service of God with God-directed action. And he has done so in the pain and grief of loss. All of this fine stuff of religious literature is here in the tale. Fantastic.)

VIII. Let's get a sense of the dietary restrictions and their purpose. Read 11:1-3, 9, 13-19, 20, 41-45. 

Let me introduce the topic and then ask some questions. 

1. These rules appear to be, in part, about a separation that is aligned with holiness. They're for the body of the person as well as the body of the community. 

2. There appears to be a concern about health, but it seems mostly about spiritual health. Often, characteristics of animals that are forbidden are to be avoided - such as swarming, violent, crawling on belly, common to pagan eating practice of the day, or already dead. Sort of a "you are what you eat" notion. Plus, there's an idea of God's using this as a way of teaching us to control our appetites, building a sort of self-control. 

Some say the animals that can be eaten are those that eat grass and are raised by human beings. Others note that the prohibited animals appear to cross two domains of air, land, and water, and a separation is intended. 

3. This may simply involve, and typically does for the Orthodox, the modesty and the obedience of following God's word irrespective of whether or how it might make sense to us. 

4. We always should recall that the Bible takes a middle course as to eating of animals - it is permitted but, in effect, discouraged. 

The writing here seems well aware of the idea that people were not initially authorized to the eating of animals but that only a later dispensation by God permitted it. It seems grounded in an uneasiness in the eating of animals and has the effect of discouraging it in many ways, including the prohibition for eating the blood. So, this may be an orientation to reverence for life by real restrictions (though not a prohibition altogether) to access to the animal kingdom for food. Life becomes very simple for vegetarians! 

5. There are ideas here that I didn't include in the verses we read that go beyond what can be eaten to food that makes one "clean" or "unclean," or in Hebrew, tahor and tamei. 

This is a very important but complex notion that mostly relates to how we are to be and in what shape when we enter sacred space and how important it is to holiness to preserve and honor that space to be whole. This is such an important notion we will need to devote more and separate time to it. We'll do so in future sessions, and we'll have the opportunity when we encounter it in later portions. 

6. But, for our purposes here today, let me conclude with reference again to the idea that we are created in the Divine image, set to be holy as God is holy. And all functions of life, including eating, should have sense of duty to God, mindfulness, and separation associated with it in this spirit. In other words, there may be the notion that one is limited in these ways as a constant reminder of the obligation of the separation that goes with aspiring to, and reaching toward, holiness. 

Given this background and the reality that you do not keep kosher, what are we to make of this part of the Bible? Are there lessons to be learned? Meaning, metaphorically? Specifically, why do you think the text brings us here to this matter and to these ideas?

(It seems basically that we are learning that our bodies, our selves, must be handled with care as is sacred space. Really, it introduces the idea that sacred space extends to us, to our bodies, our selves.  And what we eat and what we touch matter, in and of itself, and in our readiness to come back into community sacred space. There is an intersection! Wow. This is a huge point, and it comes on us to a great extent right here. Whether we choose to follow it all as exactly prescribed, the Bible certainly calls out to us to be mindful of how we treat life's most basic functions, including eating. Being mindful and acting on that mindfulness are matters of the highest importance. 

As to how we in our family handle this text, we are certainly not perfect. But we've grown accustomed to avoiding pork and shellfish. We limit, but, eat meat, and are concerned about how they're killed. We don't fully separate milk and meat as some do, but we're mindful of what we see as the ethics in the actual rule. And we're broadly mindful of eating and limits and health and how it all relates to our physical, emotional, and spiritual well-being. Is this what the Bible has in mind? I'm not sure, but, we hope our approach is rooted in its principal goal - to be mindful of God’s word and try to act upon it.) 

IX. Set-up for next week. 

Shemini - Lesson 25 Notes  - Leviticus

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