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Shemini: The wisdom of Limits

It is not a coincidence that Aharon and Avihu, aharon’s sons, died on “the eighth day.”

Numbers in the jewish tradition are eloquent, and eight speaks of something that is both scary and appealing: the step “beyond”.

Most of the time, we live in the realm of number 7: the seven days of the week, the order of reality, the way of the world.

This is how our reality begins, according to the narrative of Bereshit (“in the beginning”):

For our lives to be possible, the great Oneness of chaos has to give way to some kind of order. 

And from there, emerges the world of life-affirming divisions: sky/earth, day/night, male/female, work/rest, which makes life possible. 

“Division” sometimes get a bad name, but when they are there to give a healthy structure, they are what makes Life possible.

However, when divisions stop working together towards creating complementarity or harmony, when the necessary separations give way to competition and contestation- usually of the other’s place in the magnificent order of the world, we find ourselves right back into Chaos.

This is the world of inner strife the Israeli society is struggling with for months now.

And this is the World of War, in which it has been precipitated since Hamas’ attack on October 7th.

Does this mean we should all go back to Oneness and everything will be fine?

Wanting to merge back to the One too fast can also have deadly consequences.

In many world traditions, the image of fire is used to represent the sacred, and many stories or myths warn us about coming ‘too close” without precaution.

We find this in famous Non-Dual teaching by Hindu sage Ramana Maharshi, who warns us that if the Ego wants to come close to Oneness, it will be consumed in the process, like a stick of wood in the fire.

Such is the theme in Greek Myth of Icarus, who wanted to get too close to the Sun. 

And such is the Talmudic story of “the Four who entered Pardes”, as the Hasidic Master Mei Ha Shiloach reminds us in reading Parashat Shemini: 

In this famous Talmudic story (Chagiga 14.A), out of the four Jewish sages who ascended to meet God’s glory, one died, one lost his mind, one became an apostate.

Only Rabbi Akiva “came in peace and went in peace.”

The Ishbitzer doesn’t mention it here, but in an early commentary on the book of Shemot, he equated Rabbi Akiva with the quality of Irah (deep reverence).

In this context, embodying irah means being aware of one’s human limitations, and therefore being convinced of the necessity for the protective structure of laws.

Laws work like fences.

The keep us safe both from the fiery light of the Absolute, and also from  the imprudent Folly of us, Humans.

Limitations are good, Shemini, the parasha of the step “Beyond”, reminds us. 

We can’t approach the Sacred Fire any way we please.

The sad story of Nadav and Avihu teaches us about healthy self-restraint- and it may not be a coincidence that the Parasha concludes with laws of kashrut.

AsI am writing these lines Israel is in its 182d day of war.

It seems like the whole world could use a little self-restreint, a little humility, a little Irah, right now. 

And to speak just of my people, so could Israeli leaders.

Once again it doesn't feel like a coincidence that the Mei HaShiloach, as he keeps weaving the central themes of his commentary like a beautiful tapestry of wisdom, keeps turning back to Irah.

What could happen in the world right now, if everyone took responsibility, for themselves and for their people ? 

What could happen right now, if everyone acted with a little more humility and reverence for Life?

This shabbat, may we be the offering we want to see in the world, and may we bring ourselves closer to the One, with wisdom.

Shabbat shalom

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