At first read, it seems difficult to find a convergent theme for parshat Shemini. The parsha begins with the inauguration of the Mishkan, God’s “earthly dwelling place.” The great happiness of this inauguration is clouded by the death of Nadav and Avihu, two of Aaron’s sons, who had brought an “alien offering” (10:2). However, Aaron’s enigmatic silence (10:3) preserves the sanctity of the occasion. The parsha then turns to discuss the prohibition of serving in the Mishkan while intoxicated, laws of priestly mourning, then on to laws of forbidden animals, fish, birds and insects, and concludes with laws regarding ritual purity.
What links these seemingly unrelated elements?
We need to consider the two central elements in the parsha: the Mishkan and its concomitant avodah, the ritual service taking place there. Opinions abound as to what are the purpose and nature of the Mishkan and avodah. The Mishkan is a nexus between heaven and earth, modeling the human sphere, the physical/concrete nature of the world and the integrated nature of creation as a whole. The essence: Something of cosmic importance happens there.
The centerpiece of the avodah is the human being, specifically the highest order of human being as represented by the Kohen Gadol. The sacrificial rites of the avodah performed by the Kohanim are far from “sacrifice.” The more appropriate term for the Hebrew word “korban” is offering, or “closening” (to coin a word), from the shared Hebrew root letters of “Karov.” The avodah in the Mishkan was intended to bring human beings close to their God through the awareness of relationship, connection and a dependency that calls upon an individual to share one’s own unique strengths and gifts.
How does offering animal life and plant life bring people closer to God? And what does this have to do with the closing elements of the parsha?
The hub that links Mishkan and avodah is a very specific action that occurs with all of the offerings in the Mishkan: the act of consumption, of eating. In Hebrew, “tochal,” eat or be consumed, is a recurring key word in the parsha. It appears at the Mishkan’s dedication, where a fire from God went forth and consumed various offerings. Again “tochal” appears when the fire “consumed” Nadav and Avihu. The whole closing section of the parsha deals with the sacred act of eating, what to eat, what not to eat.
Conscious consumption expresses the awareness of the systems that brought that encounter into being, the dependency on and integration of all creation within the body, to express the highest will, to do good for the world and for others, to choose to express awareness of interrelationship.
This is the convergent theme of parshat Shemini, the convergence of Mishkan as universe, avodah as awareness, in the sacred act of consumption.
How far away are we from expressing this paradigm? It’s as close as your next bite of food. B’teavon!
Rabbi Baruch Rock earned his B.A. in history and journalism at New York University and a master’s degree in desert studies from Ben Gurion University of the Negev. In 2011, he received rabbinic ordination from the Joseph and Gwendolyn Straus Rabbinical Seminary in Israel. He is a Jewish studies teacher at Gesher Jewish Day School in Fairfax, Va. Rabbi Rock will be teaching — and learning — at Limmud Baltimore on April 21 at Johns Hopkins University. For more information, visitlimmudbaltimore.org.