Purifying Old Habits by Alex Haberman


Parashat Shemini teaches us to constantly strive to achieve new and higher levels of spirituality, as well as to combine the physical with the spiritual. Chazal teach us that the number eight indicates completeness and perfection (Maharal, Ner Mitzvah). Rav Shimshon Raphael Hirsch analogizes this completion of the number eight to an octave in music, the completion of which raises us up to begin at the next level.

The first Pasuk of Parashat Shemini states, “VaYehi BaYom HaShemini…” “And it was on the eight day...” (VaYikra 9:1). The Meforashim explain that it was actually the first day of the month of Nisan, not the eighth, as the prior week was spent on preparing for next phase, the inauguration of the Mishkan. The Gemara in Masechet Megillah states that the joy of Hashem at this time was equal to His joy at the time of the creation of the world, for this is the joy of new life and new beginnings. The ten important “beginnings” and “firsts” of the Torah, according to the Seder HaOlam as related by Rashi, include the events of Parashat Shemini, those being the first days of the year, the first days the Kohanim (priests) performed their service in the Mishkan and recited the Birchat Kohanim (priestly blessing), and the first day the Mishkan was used and the Shechinah rested on it and on Am Yisrael. At that point, Moshe Rabbeinu cryptically says, “Zeh HaDavar Asher Tzivah Hashem Ta’asu, VeYeira Aleichem Kevod Hashem,” “This is what Hashem has commanded you to do so that His presence will be upon you” (9:6). The problem here is that the Parashah never identifies this “Davar,” “thing,” that we must do to gain the presence of Hashem. The Torat Kohanim and Targum Yonatan suggest that it is overcoming one’s evil inclination in the service of Hashem. However, the Parashah then unexpectedly switches to the topic of Kashrut (Jewish dietary laws). The Torah is teaching us that, “HaAdam Nefal Lefi Pe’ulatav,” man is formed and shaped by his actions.

The major part of the Parashah, as mentioned before, deals with Kashrut, which transforms the physical act of eating into a Mitzvah, and echoes Hashem’s first Mitzvah to Adam and Chavah to refrain from eating from the Eitz HaDa’at in Gan Eiden. Similarly, the Parashah also discusses the laws of the Mikvah (body of water in which you become pure after being impure). The Pasuk states, “Ach Mayan UVor Mikveh Mayim Yihyeh Tahor,” “But a spring or a cistern in which water is amassed will be pure” (11:36). The Rabbis homiletically read “Ach Mayan,” literally, “but a spring,” as “Ach MeiHaAyin,” that one should always critically examine themselves from the perspective of “Ach” - lowliness and humility - putting aside any pride or ego so that one can “Mikveh Mayim,” amass the pure waters which the Rabbis equate with Torah learning, and “Yihyeh Tahor” - lead a life that is pure.

This idea of transformation is also seen in Masechet Kidushin. The very word Kidushin comes from the word “Hekdeish,” because a woman is transformed from being allowed to any other man to being designated to her husband alone, just as a sacrificial animal is Hekdeish, restricted to use only in the Beit HaMikdash (Kiddushin 2b). Restrictions on our lives enable us to focus more on elevating the simple into something special and spiritual.

The Parashah teaches us that the Mishkan or Beit HaMikdash is not just something that existed physically and is now gone, but rather is a way to show that we should perfect the Mikdash within us. This involves the daily struggle of “Zeh HaDavar” - to master our bad habits in all physical matters such as food and Taharat Mishpachah. May we all strive to continue to grow spiritually every day and to merit Hashem’s constant presence within us.

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