At first glance, one would be hard pressed to uncover any thematic unity between the beginning and the end of Parshat Shemini. The initial narrative describes a tragedy. On the day Aaron and his sons were to be sanctified as the priests of Israel, Aaron's two elder sons, Nadav and Avihu, offered an unauthorized sacrifice and died approaching the altar. The Torah describes Aaron's shocked silence upon hearing the news, followed by his later insistence to Moses that the celebration of sanctification could not go on unchanged.
The concluding section details the laws of kashrut, enumerating those animals that may and may not be eaten. It is near the end of these dietary laws that we might well find the elusive tie between the two major sections of our sedra.
The Torah indicates that if an "unclean creature" crawls into an earthenware vessel, that vessel should be shattered. The Talmud paradoxically rules that it is only through the shattering of the vessel that its shards can be rendered pure.
The second teacher of Hasidism, the Maggid of Mezeritch, applied this ruling to our inner lives: sometimes, the heart can only be rendered pure if it has been broken. While loss and sorrow may embitter us, the empathy and openness that also comes in the wake of heartbreak can prove transformative.
Perhaps the loss of his two sons — together with his loss of faith during the sin of the Golden Calf — qualified Aaron to become the High Priest. His own heartbreak made him singularly empathetic to others who had experienced bereavement or doubt. Realizing the urgent preciousness of life, he was impelled to "seek peace and pursue it," reconciling those alienated from each other. This Aaron became so beloved that when he died all Israel mourned him — an honor not even accorded to Moses himself.
Some weeks ago, I listened to a radio interview with Dr. Rachel Naomi Remen, a leading figure in the field of integrative medicine. I was moved by her words and decided to do some further reading. What I discovered reinforced the probity of the Maggid's insight: Nothing can be so pure as a broken heart.
As one of few women on a medical faculty in 1960s America, Remen cultivated a professional mode of objectivity and attachment. Then, almost against her will, she found herself drawn into the stories of the people she was treating. She credits time spent with her dying mother as one of the turning points in her career.
During those final days, Remen listened to tales of her grandmother and namesake, Rachel, a saintly figure renowned for her many deeds of lovingkindness. Remen's mother took particular delight in introducing the spirit of her mother to her daughter. Remen realized that she now wished to elevate lovingkindness to a place of prominence in her personal and professional life. Until that time, she had been known only by her middle name, Naomi. To mark the shift, she asked to be called by her given name — her grandmother's name, Rachel.
From Aaron through the Maggid of Mezerich to Dr. Rachel Naomi Remen in our era, the teaching of Parshat Shemini continues to convey a powerful existential truth. While we can't completely eradicate our brokenness and wounds, the understanding gained from them can purify us and equip us to help others.
Rabbi Howard A. Addison is the religious leader of Congregation Melrose B'nai Israel Emanu-El in Cheltenham. E-mail him at: [email protected]