After the rigid Parashiyot of VaYikra and Tzav, Parashat Shemini is considerably broader. Shemini begins with the inauguration of the Mishkan and the tragic deaths of Nadav and Avihu, and then abruptly shifts to the laws of Kashrut, Tumah and Taharah. Although this week’s Parashah seems like an
assortment of unrelated information, there is an underlying theme of Kedushah: Nadav and Avihu died for G-D, Kosher animals are more conducive to spirituality than non-Kosher animals, and for us to be Kadosh we must be Tahor. The final Pesukim include the reason for the observance of Kashrut, Tumah, and Taharah, in addition to shedding light upon Kedushah and our observance of Pesach as a whole.
The Torah explains why we are prohibited from eating insects: “Ki Ani Hashem HaMa’aleh Etchem Mei’Eretz Mitzrayim LeHiyot Lachem Leilokim ViHeyitem Kedoshim Ki Kadosh Ani,” “For I am Hashem Who elevates you from the land of Mitzrayim to be a G-D unto you; you shall be holy for I am holy.” (Vayikra 11:45) Normally, when Hashem reminds us of the Exodus from Egypt, it is referred to as “Yetziat Mitzrayim;” however, here, the Torah opts to say HaMa’aleh (lit. elevates). The language of “Hotza’ah” is not used; the Bnei Yisrael were elevated, rather than “brought out.” Some Mefarshim are puzzled by this deviation, and their various interpretations can offer a unified approach to why the Torah says “HaMa’aleh” as opposed to “HaMotzi.”
Rashi (Rashi Ibid.s.v.HaMa’aleh) understands the Pasuk to mean that Hashem only brought us out of Egypt on the condition that the Bnei Yisrael accept His commandments. Alternatively, Rashi suggests that had Hashem only taken the Bnei Yisrael out from Egypt to teach them the prohibition of eating insects, that alone would have been enough to elevate them from among the other nations. It would seem odd for the Torah to focus so intensely on forbidden insects in lieu of other Mitzvot, but perhaps the point is precisely that any random Mitzvah would have been sufficient to justify the Bnei Yisrael’s exodus from Egypt.
The only difference between Rashi’s two answers is that his first focuses on Mitzvot in general and his second focuses on the prohibition of eating insects as an individual Mitzvah. Either way, both answers teach that Hashem took the Jews out of Egypt to perform Mitzvot in order to elevate them, hence the word HaMa’aleh is used instead of HaMotzi. The Seforno (Seforno Ibid. s.v. Ki Ani) builds upon Rashi’s idea by stating that Hashem’s reason for taking the Bnei Yisrael out was to achieve the proper level of holiness to be able to serve and emulate Hashem. It is therefore appropriate that Hashem took them out of Egypt to perform Mitzvot, because Mitzvot are the conduit for reaching that necessary level of holiness.
Seforno’s idea that Mitzvot were enough to justify Hashem taking the Bnei Yisrael out of Egypt can be unsettling. Didn’t Hashem take the Bnei Yisrael out of Egypt because of the Brit Bein HaBetarim, and to rescue them when they cried out in their oppression and suffering? How can our freedom from enslavement not be as important as the mitzvot in Hashem’s rationale for taking us out? It’s hard to believe that Rashi and Seforno disregard the basic idea of the Bnei Yisrael’s redemption from slavery. Nonetheless, they hold that the underlying goal of the Jews’ redemption wasn’t merely for their freedom, but for them to serve Hashem.
The Or HaChaim (Ohr HaChaim Ibid. s.v. Ani Hashem) notes that the environment in Egypt was so perverse and the Jews were completely contaminated by it, and that it was improper for them to serve Hashem. According to the Or HaChaim, Egypt was a spiritual wasteland and it was necessary for Hashem to take the Jews out of there to be an Am Kadosh. It was only once Hashem took them out of Egypt that they began to purify themselves to serve Hashem. However, the danger of reverting back into a state of impurity was still real, so Hashem gave the Bnei Yisrael the Mitzvot as safeguards to preserve our purity. They are the key to the Exodus and if we don’t perform them the Exodus is irrelevant.
The Netivot Shalom understands that there were two parts to our redemption. He splits the Pasuk of “Ki Ani Hashem” in half. The first part of the redemption is “HaMa’aleh Etchem Mei’Eretz Mitzrayim”— the physical freedom brought about through the Makkot and Kriat Yam Suf. It removed us from the spiritually corruption of Egypt. The second part of the redemption was “LeHiyot Lachem Leilokim”— Hashem’s selection of us as his chosen nation.
In Parashat Kedoshim, the Seforno again mentions that the Mitzvot were to separate us from impurity, and elaborates on the fact that the Mitzvot were to emulate Hashem. (VaYikra 19:2 s.v. Daber) The goal of reaching the level Kedushah to serve Hashem wasn’t just about being holy, but about having a meaningful existence in the presence of Hashem.
When we celebrate Yetziat Mitzrayim, it’s about more than just our freedom from slavery; otherwise, Pesach would just be called Chag Cheiruteinu. The holiday is called Pesach because Hashem passed over the Jewish homes during the 10th plague; He chose us as his first-born nation. As the Netivot Shalom said, Pesach was about becoming the Am HaNivchar. We commemorate Hashem’s choosing of us for this special relationship.
Egypt was a spiritual wasteland, as we know from the Ohr HaChaim, and many hold that we were on the 49th level of Tumah and had we sunk any lower, we would have never left. We, therefore, needed the first part of the redemption (physical), as formulated by the Netivot Shalom, and we also began the process of returning to the Midbar— an environment more conducive to spirituality.
Dayeinu is a classic Pesach song that extends Yetziat Mitzrayim far beyond just our materialistic freedom. Hashem chose us, and Dayeinu centers the story beyond our Exodus towards the Beit Hamikdash and towards our servitude of Hashem, because the real goal of Yetziat Mitrayim was to become an Am Kadosh to serve Hashem. This is really the main point of the second part of the redemption as formulated by the Netivot Shalom— being Hashem’s chosen nation and serving Hashem.
The Omer helps us transition from Pesach to Shavuot; yet, it is more than just a count. It is also where we rectified each of the 49 levels that distanced us from holiness and Hashem. This was a necessary part of our Yetziyah before Matan Torah. The Kedushah culminates at Shavuot, at which point the Bnei Yisrael were able to serve Hashem as his Am HaNivchar, and accept His Torah to safeguard their purity and have a meaningful relationship with Him.