Between the Sacred and the Profane – Shemini 5781

Parshat Shemini describes the inauguration of the Mishkan, the portable Tabernacle that the Israelites built to bring the Divine presence into their midst.

Aaron, as the newly consecrated High Priest, leads the final ceremony, which reaches its climax when a heavenly fire shoots out of the Tent of Meeting to consume the sacrifices that he has prepared on the altar.  The people respond by falling to their faces, shouting.

Meanwhile, Nadav and Avihu, Aaron’s sons, have taken their fire pans and offered incense.  The same conflagration that consumes their father’s offerings engulfs them along with it.  

Moses jumps into action, ordering the removal of the bodies and warns Aaron and his remaining sons, Elazar and Itamar, against interrupting the inauguration ceremony by going into mourning. The Israelites will mourn on their behalf.

Then, suddenly, the story breaks.

God speaks, addressing Aaron directly.

וַיְדַבֵּ֣ר יְהוָ֔ה אֶֽל־אַהֲרֹ֖ן לֵאמֹֽר׃

And the LORD spoke to Aaron, saying: 

Leviticus 10:8

This is unusual. On only two other occasions in the Torah does God speak directly to Aaron, both in Numbers, chapter 18.  Usually, God speaks to Aaron through Moses. And this is highly significant. Almost all of the rules pertaining to the priesthood are delivered to the Israelites collectively. There is no secret manual of sacrifices to which only the priests are privy. This contrasts with other ancient rites in which that esoteric material is kept secret from the general public.

So if God is speaking directly to Aaron, there must be something special about what comes next.

We might expect God to say something about the tragedy that has just befallen Aaron’s sons, Nadav and Avihu. Maybe offer comfort. Or provide an explanation for what just happened

But no, instead God delivers instructions against drinking alchohol while performing priestly duties.

יַ֣יִן וְשֵׁכָ֞ר אַל־תֵּ֣שְׁתְּ ׀ אַתָּ֣ה ׀ וּבָנֶ֣יךָ אִתָּ֗ךְ בְּבֹאֲכֶ֛ם אֶל־אֹ֥הֶל מוֹעֵ֖ד וְלֹ֣א תָמֻ֑תוּ חֻקַּ֥ת עוֹלָ֖ם לְדֹרֹתֵיכֶֽם׃ 

Drink no wine or other intoxicant, you or your sons, when you enter the Tent of Meeting, that you may not die. This is a law for all time throughout the ages,

Leviticus 10:9

Midrashim and commentaries try to find connections between this prohibition and the tragedy of Nadav and Avihu. One solution claims that Nadav and Avihu’s mistake is that they were drunk when they made their incense offerings. But there is no indication that the esh zarah, the strange fire, that they brought had anything to do with drunkenness.

Another commentator suggests that it is a warning to Aaron and his surviving children not to drown their sorrows in drink. But again, nothing in the text suggests that this is a temptation under consideration.

God’s instructions to Aaron continues, although the syntax is strange. The sentence begins with an infinitive. It makes the Hebrew feel like a continuation from a different speech.

וּֽלֲהַבְדִּ֔יל בֵּ֥ין הַקֹּ֖דֶשׁ וּבֵ֣ין הַחֹ֑ל וּבֵ֥ין הַטָּמֵ֖א וּבֵ֥ין הַטָּהֽוֹר׃ וּלְהוֹרֹ֖ת אֶת־בְּנֵ֣י יִשְׂרָאֵ֑ל אֵ֚ת כָּל־הַ֣חֻקִּ֔ים אֲשֶׁ֨ר דִּבֶּ֧ר יְהוָ֛ה אֲלֵיהֶ֖ם בְּיַד־מֹשֶֽׁה׃

And to distinguish between the sacred and the profane, and between the unclean and the clean; and to teach the Israelites all the laws which the LORD has imparted to them through Moses.

Leviticus 10:10-11

Rashi, somewhat awkwardly, connects this passage to the prohibition against serving while intoxicated. In other words, you have to stay sober so that you will be able to properly distinguish between “the sacred and the profane, and between the unclean and the clean.” 

Or perhaps it should be read as an empahtic, and not directly connected to the preceding verse. וּֽלֲהַבְדִּ֔יל The essential duty of the priesthood is “to distinguish between the sacred and the profane, and between the unclean and the clean and to teach the Israelites” all of God’s laws.

We see here an inner and an outer focus.  The priests have jobs themselves to do. They are tasked with maintaining separation within the sanctuary on behalf of the community.  While everyone knows the rules, only the priests have to concern themselves with fulfilling them. Of the Torah’s 613 commandments, somewhere between 201 and 293 of them only apply when the Temple is standing.

But the priests also have an outward-facing role. They are teachers. According to Deuteronomy (17:7-9), the priests serve as judges, deciding legal disputes and interpreting God’s laws when questions arise.

In the midst of their inauguration, just after tragedy strikes, God speaks to Aaron directly to summarize the essential role of the priesthood.

You may remember a passage from Exodus, when the Israelites recieved the Torah at Mount Sinai. They are instructed to be a “kingdom of priests, a holy people.” And so we see that the role of Aaron and his offspring may be seen as a means to that ultimate end. 

You may have recognized the language in what God tells Aaron. וּֽלֲהַבְדִּ֔יל בֵּ֥ין הַקֹּ֖דֶשׁ וּבֵ֣ין הַחֹ֑ל ul’havdil bein hakodesh uvein hachol — “and to distinguish between the sacred and the profane.”

We use these words in the blessing for Havdallah. As Shabbat ends, we quote God’s directions to Aaron. But instead of the priests having a set of narrow responsibilities for keeping sacred apart from profane, pure from impure, the words undergo a cosmic reformulation. 

It is now God who makes this distinction:

Praised are You, Adonai our God, sovereign of the universe, who distinguishes between the sacred and the profane, between light and darkness, between Israel and the nations, between the seventh day and the six days of creation. Praised are You, Adonai, who distinguishes between sacred and profane. 

All of creation: time, space, people, point toward these distinctions.

If that is the ultimate goal, perhaps that explains why God interrupts the disastrous inauguration ceremony to remind Aaron, and us, what it is all about. Right now, everything is a mess. 

Leviticus 1-16 (The Anchor Yale Bible Commentaries) Hardcover – December 1, 1998

Pure and impure, sacred and profane — all are mixed up. That is why we need the priesthood: to perform the job in the sacred Temple, and to teach the people how to live in a world in which the proper balance is maintained. 

But eventually we will become worthy of the title, a “kingdom of priests, a holy nation.” We remind ourselves of that every week, when we mark the transition from sacred to profane. The Sabbath we have just experienced, a taste of the world to come, is our sample for what a world in balance could be like.


Leviticus 1-16 (The Anchor Yale Bible Commentaries) by Jacob Milgrom

Ki Tissa 5773 – Oy For The Extra Soul

וְשָׁמְרוּ בְנֵי־יִשְׂרָאֵל אֶת־הַשַּׁבָּת לַעֲשׂוֹת אֶת־הַשַּׁבָּת לְדֹרֹתָם בְּרִית עוֹלָם.  בֵּינִי וּבֵין בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל אוֹת הִוא לְעֹלָם כִּי־שֵׁשֶׁת יָמִים עָשָׂה יְהוָֹה אֶת־הַשָּׁמַיִם וְאֶת־הָאָרֶץ וּבַיּוֹם הַשְּׁבִיעִי שָׁבַת וַיִּנָּפַשׁ. *1*

…uvayom hashevi-i shavat vayinafash

“It shall be a sign for all time between Me and the people of Israel. [For in six days YHVH made heaven and earth,] and on the seventh day He ceased from work and was refreshed”

On its surface, this passage is connecting the observance of Shabbat to the Creation of the universe. The idea that God spent six days working, and then as the final act of Creation, ceased all labor and rested, is the origin of the human need to rest. As it often does, the Torah speaks in anthropomorphisms, ascribing to God the word vayinafash. It means more than just “then He rested.” There are other words for that. The word nefesh conveys the idea of soul, or vitality, or essential character.*2* Robert Altar translates the expression as “on the seventh day He ceased and caught His breath.”

A midrash reads something else into this word: vayinafash. Something happens during Shabbat, when we observe it, that is a contrast from our experiences during the other six days of the week.

In the Talmud,*3* Resh Lakish teaches that “The Holy Blessed One gives a person an additional soul (neshamah yeteirah) on the eve of Shabbat, but at the end of Shabbat it is taken away. [How do we know this?] As the Torah says: shavat vayinafash – “He ceased from work and was refreshed.” keivan sheshavat – once that day has ceased, vay avdah nafesh – woe, that soul is gone.

Reish Lakish is pointing to a legend that teaches that we gain an extra soul on Shabbat. That extra soul attaches itself to our seven-day-a-week soul and remains with us for all of Shabbat. When it leaves on Saturday night, we are sad. So the word vayinafash really is a contraction of vay – “oy!!” and nefesh – the soul.

Oy for the loss of the extra Shabbat soul.

Rashi adds that the extra soul enables us to fully enjoy the eating, drinking and relaxation of Shabbat. Food tastes better. The rest is more rejuvenating. And when that special time is over, it’s kind of sad.

It’s like when the last day of a vacation arrives (the kind of vacation that includes relaxing on a resort). We don’t want it to end. We don’t want to go back to work and school, and cooking and cleaning up after ourselves. But every vacation must end. Oy!

Rabbi Menahem Mendel of Kotzk, the Kotzker Rebbe, understands the passage a bit differently. He takes the midrash of vayinafash as a lament: “oy for the soul.” But it is not at the end of Shabbat as the extra soul is departing that it happens. It is at the beginning of Shabbat.

Here is how he imagines it: as Shabbat enters us on Friday evening, we are aroused from our foolish slumber and given extra clarity. We look back to the previous six days, and with this new insight, recognize all of those moments that we were not devoted to Torah study or spiritual practice. And then, we cry, “Oy. Woe, that soul that was lost! Woe for all the time wasted in useless endeavors.”

How many minutes spent on Facebook? Or watching TV? Or procrastinating?

How much more time could have been spent with partners or spouses, or friends? Or reading with children? Were there times when we could have been learning Torah? Or performing gemilut chasadim, lovingly helping others?

As Shabbat begins, and we set the distractions aside, we are made painfully aware that our time could have been better-spent.

And so, we are left with two different interpretations of vayinafash. Either it’s the end of Shabbat, and the soul is lamenting the loss of its partner and anticipating the loneliness it will face in the coming week. Or, it’s the beginning of Shabbat, and the newfound awareness instills in us a sense of regret for how poorly we have treated our souls during the previous week.

Either way, “oy!”

Thank God, Rabbi Simchah Bunim has a more positive take on it. He would have us live in the moment. As soon as a person begins to rest on Shabbat, ovedet nafsho “vay” shelah. A person’s soul loses its “oy.”*4*

Shabbat is a taste of the world to come. True Shabbat rest means being fully in the moment. Not regretting the past, nor anticipating the future. Just being present. And when we can do that, all of our “oy’s” float away. I like that.

So which is it? What is Shabbat for us? Is it a temporary opportunity to experience spiritual joy, and heightened sensuality? Is it a painful reminder of how much time we spend not engaged in fruitful endeavors? Or, is it a respite from the difficulties and burdens of life? Probably a bit of all three.

A challenge that many of us face here in the South Bay is that we don’t know how to observe Shabbat. I think that there are a lot of people that recognize a need to slow down and take a break from all of the busy-ness of our lives. A lot of people are longing for spirituality, and would love to be able to have a Shabbat like the midrash describes. A Shabbat on which an extra soul attaches to ours. When food and drink really do taste better. When we get to have rest that is truly rejuvenating.

A barrier for some is, quite simply, not knowing how to do it. Not knowing the prayers to recite around the Shabbat table on Friday night, or how to sing the Shabbat zemirot, the special Sabbath songs. Or, having kids who resist any sort of limits placed on their actions.

In neighborhood Jewish communities, there is a Shabbat feeling that permeates the streets. When we lived in New York, we would pass dozens, maybe even hundreds, of people on our way to and from synagogue. The shul did not have a weekly sit down kiddush, because people in the community would regularly invite each other over for Shabbat lunch, and spend the whole afternoon together. Kids could easily go over to friends’ homes.

Life in the suburbs makes this a whole lot more difficult. Most of us do not have neighbors who are observing Shabbat. The atmosphere in the streets of San Jose does not experience a palpable shift on Friday evening. Few, if any, people in our community are hosting Shabbat lunches in their homes.

So we have brought Shabbat experiences into the shul. For the last several years, we have made a concerted effort to provide a full Shabbat lunch almost every week. We say the berakhot together before the meal, and always sing Birkat HaMazon afterwards, for those who choose to stay long enough. And sometimes, we sing zemirot. For kids, we have brought in books, games, and sports equipment, to make this a fun place to be, and gain positive Shabbat memories. This creates an opportunity, for those who choose to embrace it, to celebrate Shabbat together, and not feel like we are on our own in our homes, longing to have some sort of experience, but not having the resources to do it.

But I still think there is a longing for more. I know there is a longing for more. More opportunities for our souls to lose their “oy’s” by being truly present in the moment. And I think that we can find more of those opportunities together in our shul.

Opportunities to spend Shabbat together: singing, talking, learning, resting. Waking up to become aware of the extra soul.

Shabbat has the potential to transform our entire lives.

That is part of the idea behind havdallah. After the three stars appear in the sky, and Shabbat is technically over, we try to hang on for a few more minutes. So we invoke the senses one last time, hoping that the extra soul will stick around a bit longer.

Havdallah is about beginning the new week with Shabbat still part of us. It sends a hopeful message that we can enter the days of creation without forgetting what we are here for. This week can be the week when the additional soul stays with us. The week when we remember to be spiritually aware in every moment, and when this awareness adds that special spice that makes our food taste better, our rest more rejuvenating, and our love for each other stronger.

This Shabbat can be the Shabbat when the “oy” leaves our soul, and does not come back.



*1*Exodus 31:16-17

*2*Nahum Sarna, JPS Torah Commentary:Exodus, p. 202.

*3*BT Beitzah 16a, Ta’anit 27b

*4*Itturei Torah III, 256.