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Parashat Shemini 5782

March 24, 2022

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Three Lessons in Spiritual Leadership
A D’var Torah for Parashat Shemini
By Rabbi Jeffrey Segelman

Parashat Shemini establishes Aaron as the Kohein Gadol, the spiritual leader of the Jewish people. From Aaron we might learn positive lessons about how we grow as spiritual leaders. The parasha also tells a story of Moses from which we might also learn a lesson of spiritual leadership – albeit a negative one.  And then there is the lesson of spiritual leadership which we learn from the pig.

Moses said to Aaron, “Come near to the altar and perform your service…” (Lev. 9:7Rashi points out that Moses had to tell Aaron to ‘come near’ because Aaron was reluctant, embarrassed. He still had the image of the Golden Calf and his role in that scene. He felt unworthy. Yet Moses encouraged his brother, telling him that this spiritual leadership was his true calling. Aaron approaches the altar, completes the prescribed offerings, and then raises his hands to bless the people.

One of the great impediments to spiritual leadership is guilt. We know ourselves well. We know our failures and our foibles and the struggles that we have with our yetzeir hara. We think that perhaps we are not worthy. Yet we have the encouragement from our teachers and colleagues and we proceed. And like Aaron, when we begin to perform the tasks of leadership, we are strengthened and we move beyond the guilt. Indeed, like Aaron, we find ourselves able to raise our hands and bless entire congregations with the fullness of our heart. Lesson: We should have the humility of Aaron to know our shortcomings, but we must listen to the encouragement, begin our work, and let the challenges of leadership be a source of strength.

And then there is Moses. At the end of chapter 10, there is quite a scene between Moses and Aaron, Elazar and Itamar. Moses scolds them for not performing a particular offering properly. Aaron responds to Moses and informs him that it was indeed done properly but Moses had forgotten the particular law. When Moses heard Aaron’s response, he agreed.

The midrash (Leviticus Rabbah 13:1) explains that Moses forgot the law because when he saw what he thought was wrong, he became angry. In his anger, explains the midrash, he forgot the law. Anger is a profoundly dangerous emotion. It strips us of any wisdom and good judgment and we often say or do the wrong things. Sometimes hurtful and dangerous things. Managing and coping with feelings of anger is important for everyone, but it is particularly important in our roles as spiritual leaders. Even Moses can fall into the trap of anger. Surely we must pay attention and work on ourselves.

And the pig. Chapter 11 brings to us the fundamental laws of kashrut – particularly which animals, birds, fish (and insects) are permitted and which are forbidden. As you know, the qualification for an animal is that it must have BOTH a split hoof and it must chew its cud. Though that law is pretty straight forward, the Torah proceeds to list a few animals that have only one of the two criteria. Specifically, the pig has a split hoof, but it does not chew its cud. Of course, the question is: If God has told us that an animal must have both, why tell us that a pig is forbidden because it has only a split hoof. I would have known that already.

At that verse, the Kli Yakar explains homiletically that having one sign of kashrut is dangerous because we might be deceived into thinking that the animal is kosher. It is symbolic of people who pretend to be pious – kosher, if you will – but in fact, they are hypocrites. Like the pig who presents his hoof, there are people who present themselves in a certain way to make us believe that they are, what in fact, they are not. Obviously, everyone – and especially spiritual leaders need to be careful neither to be deceived, or worse, to engage in such practice.

But I prefer a more positive lesson. Perhaps God tells us about the pig to remind us that even a pig – the poster child (animal) for treif – has some good, kosher-like quality. Again homiletically we can say that the pig is reminding us that if we look, we can find something positive in every person. At first glance, it might not be immediately obvious, but spiritual leadership requires that we find that “split hoof” that positive quality in everyone we lead.

From Aaron, let us learn to humbly know ourselves, but to let our work strengthen us so that we move past feelings of guilt and inadequacy so that we can raise our hands in blessing. From Moses let us learn to control our anger so that it does not lead us to hurtful speech and errors in judgment. And from the pig may we learn to see some good in every person in our charge.

Rabbi Jeffrey Segelman is Director of Fieldwork and a lecturer in Professional Skills at AJR. He is also the rabbi emeritus of the Westchester Jewish Center.