Parashat Shemini 5777

Rabbi Richard Jacobi, 21 April 2017


This parasha takes its name from the eighth (and final) day of the ceremonies to consecrate the sanctuary. Given the importance of seven in the Torah and Jewish tradition (think of the week, of Shabbat, of swearing oaths – literally ‘to seven onself’, of sitting shiva, and so on), the eighth day places a crown on the completeness of seven full days of celebrations. It shows just how important the matter being commemorated is. For the evolving Judaism of the time when Leviticus was written, the centrality and permanence of the sanctuary and the Temple rituals had to be shown to be unquestionable.

Yet, the Temple and its cult were twice destroyed and Judaism survived. We Progressive Jews would argue, as expressed in the Affirmations of Liberal Judaism, that “the Synagogue has permanently replaced the Temple” (Affirmation 30). We also know that there are Jews around the world who are actively preparing for the return of the Temple to Jerusalem. If there were to be a referendum (advisory not binding), what would the result be? And, if it were to go in favour of the return of the Temple, would some Prime Minister of Israel take that as a democratic mandate to re-build the Temple? Further, as a necessary step towards that goal, would they then hold a general election in order to have a further mandate for the destruction of the Mosque currently on the Temple Mount?

If you supported that Prime Minister, how would you act? If you opposed this course of action, how would you organise a dispersed population with a view to ensuring that what you thought was a suicidal course of action did not happen? The desperation you might feel could lead to drastic and extreme action. This could be an action against others or you might to turn in on yourself in a mental health crisis. Here, in passing, I pay tribute to Prince Harry for talking openly about the torment that turning in on oneself can cause.

So, a parasha written around 2,500 years ago, and set maybe a further 800 years earlier, is not that removed from the realities that we in the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland face this week. Reading the Torah can sometimes feel like we are encountering a story from long, long ago. However, the truth of Ben Bag Bag’s aphorism – “Turn it and turn it, for everything is in it” – is that if we apply ourselves to the text, each year we will find something new in it. This year, I learn from it that our Liberal Judaism is worth defending and advancing, even at times when the prevailing mood around us is polarising. We don’t wish to elevate a priestly class above us, nor do we wish to see purveyors of “strange fire” – Nadav and Avihu, two sons of Aaron who did this in parashat Shemini – being killed outright by God’s wrath.

It is too easy to join the rush to the polar extremes, and we Liberal Jews don’t do anything just because it’s easy. So, whatever your individual take on Judaism and politics is, we have seven weeks until the general election in which to conduct ourselves as we expect others to. Preserve our civility, listen and debate seeking enlightenment not force. Engage with the politics of democracy, wrestle with our consciences, experience the unease and find the best (or least worst) path, respecting that others will find a different path through their own conscientious thought. Strongly oppose those who would overturn the checks and balances of civil society (as seems to be happening in Turkey).

Then, when the election is over, come and sing with fellow Liberal Jews over Shabbat 9th – 10th June, and join the reflective debates at the Day of Celebration on Sunday 11th June. I guarantee that we will find new meanings and lessons in the parasha for that week!

Ben Bag Bag continued: “Reflect on it [Torah] and grow old and gray with it. Don’t turn from it, for nothing is better than it.” It’s not always easy, but it can help us lead a meaningful and engaged life.

To find out more about the LJ Day of Celebration and register click here.

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