This week’s portion, Shemini, (Lev. 9:1-11:47), begins with the tragic incident of Aaron’s two eldest sons, Nadav and Abihu, who bring some “strange fire” before God and are struck dead in the Holy of Holies. The parshah goes on to expound the Torah’s dietary laws, kept to one degree or another by many Jews to this day.
This Torah portion emphasizes fitting and proper behavior and avoidance of impurity. We may well ask ourselves why these details are so important. Why are some animals permitted and others forbidden? Why must two prominent young men die because they brought God one kind of fire instead of another?
We try to understand the laws of the Torah on a rational basis because so many of them really are rational. Don’t murder, don’t bear false witness, honor your parents – it is clear why these laws promote justice, fairness, caring for the world and for its inhabitants. But not all of Torah’s laws are rational. This parshah concentrates on distinguishing that which God has declared fit from what God has declared unfit. Unlike Nadav and Abihu, we will not be struck down if we eat pork, or a cheeseburger, or bread on Passover. But the performance of these laws gives the Jewish people a common bond and a communal identity that has survived for thousands of years. As we prepare for the Passover Seder, which will also be performed by Jews around the world tonight, let us celebrate that which makes us a holy people.