Parshat Shemini: Expanding Kedusha

Rabbi Elan and Nomi Mazer were Straus-Amiel shlichim in Toronto, Canada, where Elan serves as National Director of Mizrachi Canada

Mazer 1The first half of Sefer Vayikra discusses two main topics, sanctity and purity. Sanctity, kedusha, relates to the laws of korbanot at the time of the Mishkan and Beit HaMikdash. Purity, tahara, relates to a series of situations and objects that can cause a person to be considered impure. 

Both of these subjects are very difficult for modern Jews to relate to – they are very far from our current daily worship, and at times seem even antithetical to our religious aspirations. Colloquially we refer to kedusha, holiness, as something of great spiritual significance, however their original association is with animal sacrifices, which are an extremely physical and material experience, quite at odds with our current understanding of the term..  

I would like to step back for a moment to look at the structure of these parshiot in order to better understand the role that Kedusha and Tahara play in our avodat hashem. 

The first two and a half parshiyot of Sefer Vayikra speak about korbanot, In middle of Parshat Shemini, culminating with the deaths of Nadav and Avihu, who improperly entered the kodesh kodashim . After these deaths, the Torah changes topics in Parshat Acharei Mot, and switches to the laws of tahara and tuma, purity and impurity. 

Why is it that the story of Nadav and Avihu serves as the transition between these two topics? Further, at the beginning of parshat Tazria, the Torah transitions back from the laws of purity and revists the laws of korbanot, this time focusing on the service of Yom Kippur which takes place in the kodesh hakodashim. Oddly enough, the Torah brings back the deaths of Nadav and Avihu as the transition between these two topics.

וַיְדַבֵּ֤ר יְקוק אֶל־מֹשֶׁ֔ה אַחֲרֵ֣י מ֔וֹת שְׁנֵ֖י בְּנֵ֣י אַהֲרֹ֑ן בְּקׇרְבָתָ֥ם לִפְנֵי־יקוק וַיָּמֻֽתוּ׃ 

Hashem spoke to Moses after the death of the two sons of Aaron who died when they drew too close to the presence of Hashem.

וַיֹּ֨אמֶר יְקוק אֶל־מֹשֶׁ֗ה דַּבֵּר֮ אֶל־אַהֲרֹ֣ן אָחִ֒יךָ֒ וְאַל־יָבֹ֤א בְכׇל־עֵת֙ אֶל־הַקֹּ֔דֶשׁ מִבֵּ֖ית לַפָּרֹ֑כֶת אֶל־פְּנֵ֨י הַכַּפֹּ֜רֶת אֲשֶׁ֤ר עַל־הָאָרֹן֙ וְלֹ֣א יָמ֔וּת כִּ֚י בֶּֽעָנָ֔ן אֵרָאֶ֖ה עַל־הַכַּפֹּֽרֶת׃ 

Hashem said to Moses: Tell your brother Aaron that he is not to come at any time. Into the Kodesh behind the curtain, in front of the cover that is upon the ark, lest he die; for I appear in the cloud over the cover.

In his seminal book Mesilat Yesharim, Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzato explains that the difference between tahara and kedusha is that the former is about separating from the material world, while the latter is about engaging the material and sanctifying it.

The Torah here is teaching us a very powerful lesson. Kedusha is the goal of the Jewish people, as we were told at Sinai that we will be a ממלכת כהנים וגוי קדוש – a kingdom of priests and a holy nation. We begin this task in the Beit Hamikdash by sanctifying the mundane, using material objects and raising them to the level of holiness, focusing physical things towards a higher purpose.

However, we must realize that kedusha is something extremely delicate.  When we mix the worlds of the spiritual and physical it is easy to become confused, and to lose track or veer away from our objective. The role of tuma and tahara is to make sure that we have a heightened sense of morality and clarity of what is right and what is wrong, and the understanding of proper manner in which we can approach the concept of kedusha. Therefore, it is essential that the section of tahara precedes the Yom Kippur service, for only when we have fully internalized the message of tahara are we ready to enter the Kodesh HaKedoshim on the holiest day of the year without falling into the pitfalls of Nadav and Avihu.

This process does not end in the kodesh kodashim, Sefer Vayikra does not conclude with the Yom Kippur service. Once we achieve the highest level of kedusha on Yom Kippur, in the proper way, through the tahara of the Kohen and the entire nation through the Yom Kippur service, the Torah tells us that something amazing can happen. The parshiot in the final section of the sefer continue with the world of kedusha – however this time leaving the confines of the Mishkan to take the kedusha out into the greater world, to family relationships, sanctity of community, holiness of time, and sanctifying the land in the sabbatical year.

In the second half of Sefer Vayikra, the parshiot speak again about kedusha, however in a different context, that is, not within the confines of the Beit HaMikdash. Acharei Mot speaks about kedusha in relationships, Kedoshim explains how kedusha can be found within society, Emor focuses on the kedusha of the Kohanim and holy times, and Behar teaches us about the kedusha of the land during the sabbatical year.

In order to create this expansive reality, we need to take the right steps to ensure that as we engage in the material world, it is done with the proper care that such an endeavor necessitates. e 

Mizrachi Organization of Canada is a Torah driven, community focused educational organization committed to Jewish identity and its destiny. Mizrachi Canada is the umbrella Religious Zionist Organization for many activities in Canada which connects the local community with Israel in many ways.

Shabbat Shalom!

View previous articles in the “Our Shlichim Share” series


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