Separation Anxiety: Shemini 2020

by Adam J. Rosenbaum

Pre-Game Chatter: What is the most difficult aspect you’re dealing with during this time of pandemic? Is it social separation? Physical separation? Or, perhaps, separation from the patterns and structures we once relied upon?

This week’s Torah portion includes an expectation for Israelite priests to maintain certain separations, especially in the wake of the sudden deaths of Aaron’s sons Nadav and Avihu:

The Pitch: “You must distinguish between the sacred and the profane, and between the unclean and the clean; and you must teach the Israelites all the laws which the Lord has imparted to them through Moses.” – Leviticus 10:10-11

Swing #1: “God seems to be saying that the deaths [of Nadav and Avihu] were not the merciless act of a vindictive deity. They were a warning to mind the details.” – David Plotz, Good Book

Swing #2: “The primary concern incumbent upon the priests is not to avoid ritual purity, but to safeguard the separation between ritual impurity and purity.” – Jonathan Klawans, Impurity & Sin in Ancient Judaism

Swing #3: “[There is] an interesting dichotomy. Tamae, which is linguistically parallel to [holiness] in the verse, is the state in which one must stay away from [holiness]. Since [holiness] involves sanctity through separation, any further  separation, such as this state of tumah, must surely only add holiness.” – Judith S. Antonelli, In the Image of God: A Feminist Commentary on the Torah

Late-Inning Questions: To our commentators, is holiness an example of being closer to God, or a recognition of how separate from God we are? Does this indicate that separation is, at times, healthy? How is the act of separation during this pandemic teaching us meaningful lessons?

On-Deck at Emanu-El: We sincerely hope that you’ll participate virtually  in our semi-annual congregational meeting on Sunday at 10:30AM. We need to update you during this time of transition so that we’ll continue to move forward with strength.

Shabbat Shalom!