Parashat Shemini
Minyan Kol Chai

While I was reading the Torah portion in preparation for this teaching, Noa  came into the room. When she saw me, she asked, "why are you wearing your kippah."

I told her that when I read the Torah, I put on my kippah. She didn't ask any follow up questions, so I assume she must have been satisfied enough with the answer.

Her question called to mind the words I had read moments before. Shortly after Nadav and Avihu are consumed by the fire that went out from the presence of  Adonai, Moshe says to Aharon and to his remaining sons Elazar and Itamr, "Your heads, do not bare. Your garments you are not to tear, so that you do not die..." Although Moshe's intention is to prohibit them from grieving for Nadav and Avihu, when I read the line "your heads do not bare" - I thought of my kippah.

It was raining at the time,  I continued along with my reading, jotting down notes, each association like a drop absorbing into the soil of my soul in search of a root to enter.

This writing is an attempt to recount the journey of those drops of intrigue from the roots and up into the light where, like the awakening trees outside, I might deliver a wake up call - to my soul and hopefully the souls of others.

On several occaisions, Aharon turns parts of animals to smoke on the slaughter-site.  This made me think of last weeks G-d cast in which the author did a great job of  explaining the subtle differences between the different offerings - Sin offering, thanksgiving offering, hattat offering, etc.  She pointed out the role of the senses in these sacrifices. One thing she pointed out that I had not considered before was the multi-sensory experieince for the entire community. I thought of the smoke wafting over my backyard fence when my persian neighbors host a barbeque. The smell of the meat fills the neighborhood. What must it have been like to live in a place filled with the smoke from cooking meat, burning meat, burning grains and incense?

I thought of Yonatan Rosner's drash from his daughter's baby naming. He wrote of her middle name, Mor - myrhh - and the role it played in the incense offerings of the priests.

And here, the texts breaks away from the chain of sacrifices and arrives at the story of Nadav and Avihu

10:1 Now Aharon's sons, Nadav and Avihu took each-man his pan, and placing fire in theme, put smoking incencse on it and brought near, before the presence of YHWH, outside fire, such as he had not comanded them.  And fire went out from the presence of YWH and consumed them so that they died, before the presence of YHWH

The infraction of Nadav and Avihu was that they brought outside fire and  unprescribed incense. A few days ago, Jaelyn put on some essential oils that smelled like heavy perfume. She brought unprescirbed incense into my car. It was overpowering. I could taste it in my throat. Too much of a good thing leaves a bad taste in your mouth.

Which leads us to the last major section of this week's parasha. Chapter 11 is all about which animals are permitted and which prohibited for an Israelite to eat.

I have a complicated relationshp with the food animals in this section. My dad grew up in a home with milchic, fleischic and treif dishes. My grandfather Murray gave me forkfuls of lobster dipped in melted butter.  I went to a conservative Hebrew school, but somehow missed out on the fact that shellfish wasn't kosher.  In high school I worked at honeybaked hams.  Later I worked at a chicken house on a kibbutz in Israel and experienced the inhumane reality of the kosher meat industry.  Although my ignorant bliss was shattered, I continued to eat chicken and other animals but I couldn't enjoy meat the same way as I did before being exposed to the suffering and cruelty to which I contributed while working on the farm.

After many years of eating and living with an unsettled conscious, I married Renée and we decided to make our home the holy center in our lives. We kept what we deemed a vegetarian kosher home - with the unconsidered exception of allowing fish into our home and diet, as if the life and death of a fish were any different ethically or envrionmentally than any other living creature.

A few nights ago, I took the kids out to a Mexican restaurant. Renee was working late, so she was going to meet up with us. From the menu, something I loved in the past called to me. A crab enchilada. A craving.
Against my better spiritual judgement, rationality, and value system, I ordered it.  I thought about Yom Kippur, I thought about the types of sins that people committ - about the words we chant while beating our chests. Still, something in my craved not only the food, but perhaps the control
that gave me the power to be stronger than God. Before my shocked but understanding wife and children, I savored the flavors and textures that I loved as a kid and hadn't eaten for perhaps 20 years.

Afterward I felt both satisfied and sick. Not just because it was too rich, but because I had given in. I'm sure that we all find ourselves in this place at some time or another after confronting our own hypocricy - not livng up to the standards we set for ourselves.

At the end of Moshe's instruction to Aharon, Elazar and Itamar that began with "Your heads, do not bear" YHWH speaks to Aharaon saying "Wine and intoxicant do not drink, you and your sons, when you enter the tent of appointment. so that you do not die - a law for the ages, throughout your generations, and so that there be separation between the holy and the profane, between the tamei and the pure.

In this parasha, first, we read of sacrifices that remind all who can see and smell the smoke that holy work is happening in their midst, then the death of those who go too far followed by the emphasis on a separation between the holy and profane, and finally a long list of the permitted and prohibited animals.

And in that list, the one that stood out that I had never before noticed:

"The hare, for it brings up its cud, but a hoof it does not have."
I thought about chewing the cud.  In my class at school, I write the word "Bullshit" on the white board and ask my students "what is bullshit?". After the shock and amusement passes we engage in a serious discussion.  Bullshit is the exceremet of a bull. I ask them if they know what ruminate means. Somebody looks it up. The first definition is usually "To think deeply about something" the second is "To chew the cud." We talk about chewing the cud about the four stomachs of a cow. About how to ruminate, to think deeply about something is the same as chewing, swallowing, bringing it back up, chewing some more, swallowing again and so on. Somehow, BS has come to be regarded as empty of thought or effort. I tell my students it is fine to BS me - as long as it is true BS, the end product of a true rumination.

One one hand, my justifaction for eating the crab enchilada can be regarded as a simple justification to myself. I craved the thing, I ordered it, what else really matters.  On the other hand, perhaps you can only know if you're on the right path if you willingly stray. In my case, I now find myself in a field confronting a hare. The reason the hare isn't kosher isn't because of the way it eats, for it does chew the cud,  but because it doesn't have the right kind of foot - no hoof.  

And the parasha goes on to say from its flesh you are not to eat, its carcassas you are not to touch. I wonder about that foot. That part of the animal which makes it not only unfit for consumption but tamei, unpure to even touch. I think of the red dyed rabbit's foot on a little chain that used to dangle around the belt loop from my toughskins. The one I used to rub for good luck - and I wonder if I'm pushing my luck.

I think about the separation of the holy from the profane.
About Noa's question about why I was wearing a kippah
About crab enchiladas and honeybaked hams and the chicken house and a dead rabbit's foot hanging from my waist.
I ruminate.
Some of it tastes sour in my mouth - like unprescribed perfume overtaking my car.
Some of it tastes good, like a memory of my grandfather dripping in melted butter.
I hope that, as detestable as it might be, my rumination is pleasing to the lord.