Here's the d'var Torah I wrote about this week's portion back in 2007, originally published at Radical Torah. Enjoy!
I have a sister-in-law who teaches biology at a prep school. She has played host to a bizarre variety of creatures. Once, I’m pretty sure, she had a tarantula in a terrarium. For a while she kept snakes. And these days, her lab is home to some kind of spiny lizard, who puffs himself up every time anyone who might demand attention enters the room.
I thought about all of these erstwhile pets while reading this week’s Torah portion, parashat Shmini, which details a list of animals the Israelites are permitted to eat (and forbidden from eating), and then an even longer list of animals whose very presence (especially when dead) transmits tum’ah (ritual impurity) even by touch.
Next week we’ll look again at how Torah regards childbirth as an automatic conferrer of tum’ah. Even liberal Jews who may not structure their lives or worldviews in terms of taharah and tum’ah can parse the notion that birth and death charge our spiritual lives with a kind of dangerous energy that can take a while to dissipate. But what’s the big deal about touching your neighborhood gecko, millipede, or furry spider? What is this stuff doing in our Torah?
Some commentors have suggested that each animal or insect listed represents something in humanity. Cows are kosher, for instance, because they are ruminants, and we privilege the work of ruminating over the ideas we consume. According to that line of thinking, I guess, swarming creatures might be anathema to us because we want to eschew the mob mentality, and choose instead to act as conscious individuals.
The commentary to the Fox Chumash suggests that this is really about the priestly obsession with structure and order. The book of Leviticus shows us how the world is inherently ordered, and this text is all about the valuable art of making distinctions. Along similar lines, Mary Douglas famously suggested that the system is designed to separate us from animals which are boundary-crossers or which don’t fit their categories neatly — sea creatures which also have legs, for instance, or winged creatures which can’t fly.
This is a text, in other words, which likes its boundaries to remain intact and its categories to be clear. For those who resist the binarism of these kinds of boundaries, this week’s portion may pose some challenges. The structure Shmini suggests seems to teach us to pigeonhole everything we encounter into “permitted” and “forbidden,” although many of us might argue that this black-and-white thinking fails to notice or grapple with reality’s many shades of grey.
For some of us, these structures are enlivening, like a trellis which enables wisteria vines to climb toward the sun. For others, these structures constrict, an unnecessary calcification. Shmini reminds us to notice where we stand on that spectrum of comfort, questioning, and practice. And however much attention we pay to this discursive set of instructions about what to eat (and not eat), touch (and not touch), we need to pay more mind to what follows. That’s the injunction to be holy as our God — Who brought us up from the land of Mitzrayim to be our God — is holy.
What does it mean to be holy as God, Who brought us out of the Narrow Places is holy? That’s the question with which Torah wants us to grapple. This year we begin studying parashat Shmini as the festival of Pesach is waning, so that liberation from the narrow straits of slavery is inevitably much on our minds. As is the practice of guarding our consumption carefully, and using that care as a constant reminder of the miracle of our liberation.
What do I take away from this week’s parsha? That every interaction I have with animals in water, on air, or on land — every encounter, whether with a creature enlivened or with the shell which used to house that creature’s breath — is an opportunity for me to remember holiness, and to act in a way that keeps me mindful of God.
Condensed into a single teaching, Shemini is about the commandment to bring holy consciousness into every corner of our lives, from what we eat to what we touch. Whether or not touching a field mouse or tarantula gives you the willies, that moment of touch has potential to change you. Even the glimpse of a wild rabbit dashing across the grass, or seeing the first ants of the new spring season, offers an opportunity to notice what we encounter, to remember our essential freedom, and to be awake.