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Priests, Pigs, and Principles

04/06/2024 09:02:03 AM


Shabbat Shalom! This week’s Torah portion is Parashat Shemini, in which the Mishkan is finally ready to receive its first official sacrifices, but two of Aaron’s sons bring an improper sacrifice and are smote. Then in the controlled chaos that follows, as Moses tries to resume the sacrificial ritual and push Aaron’s family forward as though they haven't suffered a terrible loss, he incorrectly scolds Aaron’s remaining sons. When Aaron reminds his brother that he and his remaining sons are not ritually pure to eat the Holy BBQ in the Mishkan as commanded, because they had been in direct contact with the dead bodies of their brothers/sons, Moses acknowledges his mistake. It is an interesting moment of humility for all four men involved in the moment. Eleazar and Itamar don't get a lot of airtime, so I'm hesitant to over-inflate their importance and leadership, but they are now the only two priests after Aaron the High Priest, so they're clearly still in positions of power and should be commended for acting as good role models just as Moses and Aaron often are. 

The second half of the parasha is dedicated to the listing of Kosher animals. The Torah portion gives the basic overall rules for the different categories of mammal, poultry, and fish that we may eat, and then also names some examples of forbidden animals in each category. Pigs are named specifically, and are probably the most well-known unkosher meat, or at least the most acknowledged unkosher as a meat that is very common for others to eat. All predators are also unkosher, but I don't think lions and tigers are a staple of anyone's diet, so people don’t even think about that the way a lot of non-Jews are at least somewhat aware that Jews don’t eat pork. 

Aside from the fact that it is now a common meat for other peoples of the world to eat, I think actually the main reason the Torah names it specifically is that most unkosher animals don’t have cloven hooves. The Torah specifies that all mammals must have cloven hooves and chew its cud if it is to be considered kosher, and it points out that camels and hares, for example, are ruminants but they aren’t kosher because they don’t have hooves. But pigs are the opposite. They do have split hooves, but aren’t ruminants. I think it’s easier to see an animal’s feet than to tell what it’s insides are doing when it eats. 

On this matter, Midrash Rabbah points out that pigs can be sneaky for the uneducated wishing to keep kosher: “Just as the swine when reclining puts forth its hooves as if to say, ‘See that I am kosher,’ so too does the empire of Rome boast as it commits violence and robbery under the guise of establishing a judicial tribunal. This may be compared to a governor who put to death the thieves, adulterers and sorcerers. He leaned over to a counselor and said: ‘I myself did these three things in one night.’”

We see here the example of leadership that is dishonest and hypocritical, in stark contrast to the honest and humble communication shown between Moses, Aaron, Itamar, and Eleazar at the beginning of the parasha. Of course, I don’t use this comparison to say that Jews have always had or are inherently better leaders. Plenty of the kings of Israel and Judea have been guilty of that which the Roman governor admits to in the Midrash. Saul turned to a sorcerer and raised the prophet Samuel from the dead. David is admonished for stealing Batsheva and compared to a rich man who steals sheep from a poor man. Solomon isn’t exactly accused of adultery, but he does have more wives than there are nights in a year, so that seems like a similar sort of greed and laciviousness. And those are the good ones! We don’t even know all the crimes of the various kings in the Books of Kings that the Tanakh just tells us “did what was displeasing to the Lord!” We know idolatry was involved, but I’m sure there was more immorality going too. 

Rather, I wish to suggest that we should all be aware of our own flaws and be willing to learn, be willing to accept correction, and that we should not punish others for that which we tolerate in ourselves. Even if we do not see ourselves as leaders or in positions of authority, I think almost everyone has someone in their life that looks to them as a model for behavior. If not constituents or employees or otherwise underlings in a traditional sense, then perhaps students, children, grandchildren, nieces, nephews, younger cousins, siblings, maybe even parents on certain occasions where youth may be more tuned in on a particular topic. May we live our lives with honesty, approach others with patience and grace, and be granted the same when we inevitably misstep. Amen and Shabbat Shalom. 

Tue, July 23 2024 17 Tammuz 5784