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“You shall be holy, for I am holy”
— Leviticus 11:45
I always find that Parashat Shemini inspires young people to ask questions. “Why did Aaron’s sons have to die?” “Why can’t I have a drink and get a little tipsy if it will help me enjoy services more?” And, of course, the most common one: “Why do we need to keep kosher in the 21st century?” As usual, the answers are found right in the portion itself, where we are taught exactly what we are expected to be — “you shall be holy” — and how to accomplish this lofty goal — “to distinguish (separate) between the impure and the pure” (Leviticus 11:47).
We are to be holy and emulate the many divine qualities as best we can and to l’havdil, meaning to separate, or distinguish, between that which is tamei (impure) and that which is tahor (pure). As I once heard radio host Michael Medved say, “Judaism is all about distinction: separating the light from the dark; the kosher from the nonkosher; the holiness of Sabbath from the holiness of the rest of the days of the week.”
To the inquisitive teenager, the natural response is that everything is actually holy; or to paraphrase the great Irish-American storyteller Michael Meade: If we say “enlightenment,” we also have to say “endarken-ment,” since everything comes from God. So why can’t we have those forbidden animals or do the forbidden practices that are discussed in the Torah?
This is not only the question of young adults, but also the question that forms the basis of the religious practice of many American Jews. The secular Jew who believes that everything is sacred is often very “pro-holiness,” but sees everything as equally holy. Everything is kiddush, sanctified, in their eyes. There is no distinguishing between “fit” and “unfit,” because everything is viewed as sacred without distinction. So, if you are going to eat an animal, there is no difference between a cow and a pig.
It is taught that the Lubliner Rav, Meir Shapiro, of blessed memory (1887-1933), returned from a successful fundraising trip to the United States in the 1920s and was asked by his European colleagues about Judaism in America. His response was, “American Jewry has learned to make kiddush; it has not yet learned how to make havdalah (separation).” Separation is one of the first acts of God (God separates the light from the darkness in Genesis 1:4), and it is one of the qualities that distinguishes the children of Israel from the rest of the nations.
It is this quality that is found in each of the parts of this week’s parasha. Aaron’s sons are killed by God, and many commentators have taught that this is because they did not distinguish between the types of sacrifices they were to make. As the sons of Aaron (Kohanim), they were held to a higher standard not only of holiness (Kohanim have more laws placed upon them), but they needed to know how to separate and make the correct distinctions in their actions.
Similarly, we recently experienced the holiday that embraces excess: Purim. A holiday where we are to lose distinctions altogether through getting so intoxicated that we “cannot tell the difference between cursed be Haman and blessed be Mordechai” (Megillah 7b). We have wine on every Shabbat as well as other holidays. But in this portion, God tells Aaron to “not drink intoxicating wine, you and your sons with you, when you come to the Tent of Meeting, that you not die” (Leviticus 10:9). There is a time to drink and a time not to. All humans are held to some standards (the seven Noahide Laws); all Jews are held to a higher standard of separating what is allowed and what is not; and the Kohanim to an even higher one. No matter who we are, holiness is not only sanctifying, but also distinguishing.
This portion teaches us that it is not only our responsibility as Jews to make distinctions and create havdalah. It is also our obligation, our privilege, and it is what will guarantee our survival. Rabbi Berel Wein has taught, “Without havdalah, all succeeding generations are doomed to assimilation and loss of Jewish identity and values”; and it is clear that without this understanding, we can easily lose our Jewish spiritual identity.
Instead of choosing to eat pork or shellfish, consider how accepting the responsibility of separation not only distinguishes each of us as individuals, but also how it perpetuates our tradition of making every moment and every action a holy one. Just by contemplating the separations of holiness we begin to make ourselves, our community and the world a bit more filled with light, holiness and harmony.
May each of us find holiness in the distinctions and be distinguished as holy people.