This week’s sedra Shemini is all about ‘safeguarding’ – a popular concept at the moment when even Show Biz folk are joining the likes of the NHS, Ofsted, etc. in establishing preventative measures to deal with abuse and exploitation. But whilst no doubt in Biblical times bad things happened too, this d’var is about safeguarding the Holy character of the Jewish People.
Shemini (referring to the eighth day following the seven days spent sanctifying the priests), deals with the ‘How to be Holy’ question. In reality the entire book of Vayikra (Leviticus) faces this challenge. Out with magic and idolatry and in with purification representing true repentance (sin-offering), surrendering to God’s will (burnt-offering), dedicating work to the service of God (meal-offering) and thanking God (peace-offering). Basically, as Maimonides (1135-1204) explains raising the ancient, universal method of animal sacrifice to a spiritual plane. And just as the priests had their rigorous routine, so too did the People. Indeed, many Jewish children began and probably still begin the study of Scripture with Vayikra ‘because little children are pure and the sacrifices are pure, let those who are pure come and occupy themselves with pure things’ (Midrash). As the child grows up, safeguarding ‘pure things’ becomes an enormous task involving body, soul and mind. Help is at hand with the laws of purity swiftly following the laws on sacrifice. Purity is seen in the precepts that govern daily life and make Holiness an active principle. None more so than in the kitchen! The rules of kashrut meticulously expressed (xi:1- 47) intimately affect our entire beings. Lots of reasons are given for keeping kashrut. For the wife of the German philosopher Franz Rosenzweig ( 1886-1929), to enable their guests, whatever level of observance, to eat in their home . For Maimonides ‘The Dietary Laws train us in the mastery over our appetites; they accustom us to restrain both the growth of desire and the disposition to consider pleasure of eating and drinking as the end of man’s existence’. For me, those concerns are important as is trying to grasp with things that I don’t understand whilst at the same time making something special out of the mundane.
For all of us, it is about safeguarding our Jewish inheritance in one way or another.