This week’s Torah portion is Shemini, Leviticus 9:1–11:47.
On the second night of Passover we began counting the omer, a spiritual journey that mimics the original 50-day journey our ancestors took from slavery in Egypt to receiving the Torah.
We count the omer nightly with a prayer we recite after sundown. The point of the omer in the modern world is mindfulness. So what can we learn from this week’s Torah portion that will enhance our mindfulness so that we are open and ready to receive the Torah and its wisdom?
“And Aaron was silent” (Leviticus 10:2).
Aaron’s sons, Nadav and Avihu, offer an aish zarah, a strange or alien fire, to God that God had not commanded. They are immediately struck down. We don’t know why they did it but the consequence was clear. Moses responded immediately with words from God. Aaron was silent.
Here are two very different responses to death. One is the need to fill the silence and say something immediately and the other is to sit in silence. We do not know why Aaron was silent. Had he cried himself out and had nothing left in him? Was he so bereft and overcome that silence, for him, was the only possible response? Did he understand the enormity of his sons’ transgression and the consequence that he was unable to blame God?
Our lesson is that we will never know someone else’s feelings, how someone else is truly reacting on the inside during mourning. So do we offer words like Moses did, or do we allow someone to sit in silence? Our omer lesson is to observe and listen to the nuances of others.
“For you must distinguish between the sacred and the profane” (Leviticus 10:10).
This Torah portion is also about the kosher laws — which animals, fish, birds and insects are kosher to eat and which are not. While it is true that many Jews today do not follow these laws, the principle of differentiation between holy and profane is still a powerful one. How does one exist in a world where there is no differentiation, where anything goes? One of the key concepts of Judaism is to elevate the profane to the holy.
We do this every time we say a blessing on something as mundane as taking a bite of food or waking up in the morning. Our omer lesson is to hone our awareness of the difference between ordinary and holy in everything and everyone around us.
As we continue our omer journey, let us extend this perception to the needs of others. What is it that usually passes us by? What can we do for those for whom the ordinary for us (eating 3 meals a day) is an extraordinary experience for others (the hungry and poor for whom food is scarce)?
Perhaps during your omer journey you might read about recommended behavior while paying a shiva call. When you are making a shiva call, do you find yourself feeling the urge to make small talk or are you able to sit in silence with the bereaved? The sages model some of the rules of mourning behavior on Aaron’s silence.
Take some time to review Parshat Shemini, and the Torah portions of the upcoming weeks, and see what lessons can be learned for your omer journey.
Rabbah Arlene Berger is rabbi of the Olney Kehila and a community chaplain.