Shabbat Shalom with a Heart Healthy Dose of Torah -Sh’mini

On the 8th day of the Tabernacle’s dedication ceremony, the priests bring offerings seeking atonement for communal transgressions. The sages argue that the most prescient of these transgressions was the Gold Calf – when Moses was atop Sinai with God for an extended period (40 days), the people began to rebel, thinking he had abandoned them. They fashioned a golden calf to represent God, as they knew God while serving Pharaoh in Egypt. They sacrificed to it, rejoiced around it and prayed through it.

As an atonement offering, God seems to be holding the entire community responsible for the calf, even while tradition somehow praises Aaron for figuring out how to galvanize an unravelling nation by creating the idolized calf. Something must be missing.

No sooner do we finish with the episodes involving worship at the altar, than Moses begins instructing people about what they can and cannot eat. Yes, the two textual themes could be disjoint. One can read the Torah to speak as if to say, “We closed that chapter … next!” For whatever it is worth, however, the sages decided not to create two separate weekly portions, here. They intended us to read the two stories as one cohesive text.

What was the sin of the Golden calf? IF it was the calf, itself, Aaron should have been punished. The people did not yet know of God’s command against idolatry; Moses had not come down with the text to share. They were seeking security and direction, as they were otherwise lost in the wilderness.

If it was not the calf, then it must have been their behavior. Think about it. Moses is lost in the desert. They are lost without Moses. In need of something around which to galvanize; something to help them focus on God, Aaron gives them an image that kept them spiritually focused before their liberation.

They did not respond spiritually. They did not respond with offers of thanksgiving or atonement for losing faith. They responded with debauchery and drunkenness. Freed from servitude to Pharaoh, they had not yet accepted the attributes of respect and dignity unwavering tied into the value of freedom. Their transgression was not only their lack of concern for Moses’ safety, but also for their self-centered failure to respect themselves and the dignity/needs of their community. They transgressed further in ostracizing those who did not join in the Bacchanal festivities but who did express an appreciated refocus on the blessings of freedom – even as they feared for their long-term security.

This was a teaching moment for Moses. After he called attention to the need to atone for the transgression involving the calf, he then spelled out how to avoid transgressing that way again.

The “rules” of kashrut speak more to the values with which we cherish our own dignity than to the health or cleanliness issues involving the animals allowed or permitted. In observing the dietary instructions, one is not permitted to say, “I can’t eat those foods.” One must respond, “I choose not to eat them.” The issue of eating or not eating thus has nothing to do with eating, and everything to do with being intentional in behavioral decision making. “Kosher” transcends the question of “what” and always speaks to the “why or why not I choose this behavior for myself.”

In a world where we default to behaviors that stem from other people’s expectations or agendas, our tradition always reminds us to think freely for our ourselves. What we choose to do ahs to make relevant sense for our place in the broader spectrum of the “real-world” through which our lives pass. The faithful journey is not a commitment to unbridled self-absorption. Even deep personal mediation is supposed to help us see our way to be better for ourselves and for our community.

The very first “sin-offering” at the Tabernacle stemmed from our own inhumanity. One would hope we would have learned something over the past several thousand years. The day will come, we pray, that this offering but something we used to have to do.

Shabbat Shalom.