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AUDIO ESSAY: Torah for the Earth - Shemini

Parashat Shemini

Haftarah: Samuel II 6:1-19

Welcome back everyone to this week’s Torah for the Earth audio essay. I’m your host, Charlie Forbes, and this week I will be addressing Parashat Shemini, which is Hebrew for “eighth.” This is a reference to the eighth day of inauguration, which describes the priestly service after Aaron’s ordination ceremony. Up until this point, we have read about the furnishings of the Mishkan, rules surrounding the sacrificial services, the priestly garments and duties, and the seven-day inauguration service. But now, in Parashat Shemini, something very special is happening because the Mishkan – the physical dwelling place for G-d’s presence on Earth – has been built. But not only has it been built, G-d’s presence (Heb: Shechinah) has finally entered the Tabernacle to dwell in the Sanctuary. In (9:24) we read: “A fire went form from before Hashem and consumed upon the Alter the elevation offering and…all the people saw and sang glad song and fell upon their faces.” It was an occasion infused with simcha – with joy – although this is tempered by two points: 1) In the Talmud (Megillah 10b) we read about how the word vayehi (וַֽיְהִי֙) (Eng: It was) “often indicates that trouble or grief is associated with the narrative.”[1] The parashah begins with the word vayehi [the line reads: וַֽיְהִי֙ בַּיּ֣וֹם הַשְּׁמִינִ֔י meaning:It was on the eighth day] which – in a way – alludes to the notion that there is something about this parashah that is colored by grief or trouble. The Sages teach that there was no need for a Tabernacle until the sin of the Golden Calf, and that – before the transgression – every Jew was worthy of the Divine Presence. A certain variety of spiritual connection to G-d (a divine conduit) was individuated, decentralized, and made personal. But, because the sin necessitated the need for a more centralized space of holiness, the infusion of the Mishkan with the Divine Presence is also coupled with the heartbreaking idea that there was a spiritual reality, a spiritual condition, that was once forfeited. For this reason, there is something to mourn – something to be missed. 2) The second reason for why the joyous nature of this parashah is sobered by grief is related to a rather unfortunate story regarding two of Aaron’s sons – Nadav and Avihu – who offered an “alien fire” (10:1) to G-d. After Aaron completes his first day of the sacrificial service and gives the Priestly Blessing (Heb: Bircat Kohanim), Nadav and Avihu performed some kind of unauthorized service which cost them their lives. While there’s much commentary on the nature of the deed that caused the brothers to be consumed by fire (particularly because the event is overtly tragic), the essence – or the motivations – behind the deed do have a positive message. Their enthusiasm to bring their own incense into the Holy of Holies can teach us about the right devotion, or the right eagerness, we bring to our own environmentalism. The remainder of the parashah is dedicated to the kosher laws (the Laws of Kashrut), which differentiate between animal species that are either permitted or forbidden to eat. This also includes instruction on some basic rules of contamination, such as koshering food or dealing with cookware that has come into contact with a non-kosher animal.

Judaism is notorious for having rigorous dietary laws. It is, perhaps, best known for forbidding the consumption of pork, blood, and separating milk from meat. But many of the religious traditions throughout the world have some form of dietary restrictions. Muslims don’t eat pork, many Buddhists don’t eat meat, and Jains don’t eat any animal products at all. Hindus consider the cow a holy animal and won’t eat beef, some Hindus even avoid garlic and onion, and Mormons don’t drink alcohol. Even if you want to travel to the Peruvian rainforest to journey on ayahuasca, the practice is to subsist on just a few foods and diet on a plant. The point here is to emphasize that many of the major religious and spiritual traditions throughout the world have some variety of dietary customs that are placed within a larger spiritual framework. This is not something that is unique to Judaism, although Judaism does have an explanation for dietary laws that is unique. The 613 mitzvot that are given in the Torah are divided into three main categories of laws: mishpatim, eidot, and chukim.[2] Mishpatim may sound familiar because these are the edicts that are outlined in ParashatMishpatim, which is the parashah following the revelation at Sinai. Mishpatim refers to civil and tort law – these are the laws that are completely logical, obvious, and would most likely be upheld by a stable society even if they weren’t given in the Torah. The second category, eidot, are also logical yet they are tied to some type of historical event or experience, so they would not be imagined outside of a particular context. An example relevant to this time of year would be eating matzah during Pesach – it makes sense within a certain framework, but they are also not completely logical – they exist in a realm beyond logic, however slightly. The third category, chukim, are super-rational commandments; they cannot be explained logically at all, and this is the category within which the kosher laws fall. This is why it doesn’t do any good to try and explain the health benefits of eating kosher, because it doesn’t work that way. There is the proverbial saying “you are what you eat” but kashrut is more about a way of life that induces a mindset for spiritual work. By ignoring the kosher laws, the harm may not be physical, but it does impede a certain type of spiritual growth by impairing the faculties that interface with the spiritual realm. The point here is that within Judaism, and throughout many traditions in the world, you can find a parallel between dietary restrictions and spiritual development. Somehow food restriction affects the human familiarity with an elevated spiritual condition – and this is an important premise to discuss in relation to the ecological crisis.

The whole history of the world, as we have read it through the Torah up until this point, has been defined by the human relationship to food. Adam and Eve weren’t permitted to eat meat in the garden, and this is a secession made by G-d after the flood. When the three strangers arrive at Abraham’s tent, and he offers them hospitality in the form of a meal, there’s a whole rabbinical discussion around how this meal isn’t kosher. From Gan Eden, until the giving of the Torah at Sinai, humans – progressively – are given more freedom with what they can eat. But this is also accompanied by a collective spiritual stasis, and the loss of an ability to attune to the sacred elements of the material world. And this changes after the giving of the Torah, as various restrictions are instituted with the laws of kashrut. The challenge, in a contemporary sense, is explaining why this matters – why eating in a certain way makes a difference for our comprehension of G-d’s emanation into the world. It’s easy when we see, or feel, a tangible effect from a change in our dietary patterns. We can test for nutrient levels in the blood, measure body fat percentage, or maybe we notice an improvement in our energy levels with certain tweaks. There’s a clear cause and effect between what we eat and how we perform. We can feel it. We can sense it. And this is the main point, because it involves our own internal ecosystem – a corporeal sensory system. But when the relationship moves the other way, from the human to the seemingly external ecosystem, the cause and effect is hard to sense. For example: If we stopped eating so much fish, or certain varieties of fish, we wouldn’t be depleting our oceans. If we stopped eating so much meat, then there would be less factory farming. And if we stopped eating less processed foods, then there would be less plastic packaging to deal with. But it’s difficult to sense the depletion of the ocean, or the chickens suffering in warehouses, or the amount of plastic used to wrap our foods. But I would make the argument that the challenge in sensing these conditions is directly related to what we eat – or, to be more specific, to what we eat but shouldn’t be eating. It seems like an absurdity, that the more we eat foods which harm the earth, that those are the very foods which restrict our ability to sense the harm.[3] But this is the essence of the laws that fall within the category of chukim; these are the intangibles of kashrut that are impossible to describe logically, because they involve an incorporeal sensory system. This is why our eating affects the spiritual condition of the planet; what we eat has an influence on our motivations to live sustainably, and this is the environmental take-away from the kosher laws. If we are to save the earth from spiritual contamination, then we have to restrict what we eat. Unregulated eating will never result in spiritual freedom, nor will it provide a container for a consciousness devoted to sustainability. Physical contamination is spiritual contamination, and spiritual contamination impedes the flow of physical action that can better the state of the material world.

In the story of Nadav and Avihu, we are being warned about the misappropriation of zealousness. We are told that the brothers were so inspired after witnessing G-d consume the elevation offering, that they desired to “reciprocate with a display of their own love for G-d.”[4] But they weren’t wrong in wanting to serve G-d, they simply chose the wrong method – at the wrong time – to channel that expression. In a commentary to this passage we read, and I quote: “Knowing that there was a commandment to bring fire and incense every day, and seeing that Moses had not yet told anyone to do so, [Nadav and Avihu] assumed that they should act on their own. Moses, however, was waiting for the descent of the Heavenly fire. He wanted the very first incense to be kindled with G-d’s own fire in order to cause a sanctification of G-d’s Name (Rashbam).”[5] The lesson in this story has much to say about how we bring G-d into our life, and how we provide a space for that feeling of elevation that Nadav and Avihu were seeking. In wanting to serve G-d, by climbing the ladder of holiness, we reach higher heights – not by travelling up – but by helping G-d to infuse the earthly world with holiness. This is related to the basic teaching delivered in the Talmud (Chagigah 14b) about the four rabbis who ascend to Pardes, whereby only one (Rabbi Akiva) leaves that realm safely. When thought of, in relation to kashrut, we are being asked to eat in a certain way so that we can have the capacity to live a healthy, spiritual life. This also means eating with awareness, and with an understanding about the source of our life-energy and our physical sustenance. Restrictive eating is about eating in solidarity with the earth community, and about allowing for the divine presence to settle in our lives. This doesn’t mean eating with fervent asceticism, or by trying to survive on rice and sunshine. The key in the spiritual approach to kashrut is about asking how the world gets polluted physically, and then making changes to mitigate the pollutants in the spiritual realm. This premise, hopefully, can help us all live more sustainably.

Thank you all for listening. That’s all for now, and I’ll catch you next week.

Topics Include: The category of chukim and the kosher laws, the parallel between dietary restrictions and spiritual development, and eating sustainably to live a healthy spiritual life.


Scherman, Nosson. "The Stone Edition of the Chumash: The Torah, Haftoras and Five Megillos, with a Commentary Anthologized from the Rabbinic Writings." (1993).

Taylor, Pinchas. “Reason for Keeping Kosher.” As found at:

[1] Scherman, "The Stone Edition of the Chumash,” p.588 [2] Taylor, “Reason for Keeping Kosher” [3] “Just as someone who is constantly exposed to loud music and harsh noise, slowly and imperceptibly, but surely, suffers a loss of his ability to hear fine sounds and detect subtle modulations, so too, the Torah informs us, a Jew’s consumption of non-kosher food deadens his spiritual capacities and denies him the full opportunity to become holy.” (Scherman, "The Stone Edition of the Chumash,” p.597) [4] Scherman, "The Stone Edition of the Chumash,” p.593 [5] Scherman, "The Stone Edition of the Chumash,” p.593

The Torah for the Earth Podcast and Audio Essays are Copyrighted to Charles Scott Forbes Jr, 2019.

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