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Parashat Shemini

April 12, 2007

Parashat Shemini
Heidi Hoover

In recent years, soy has become popular among American vegetarians and others trying to eat a more healthy diet. It is a great source of protein without the fat and cholesterol of meat. The presence of soy in Asian diets has been associated with the low level of heart disease in that part of the world. Tofu, which is made from soy, is good in stir-fried dishes, in soup, even with pasta. What could be bad? More recently, however, there have been studies showing that there can be negative health effects from eating soy products. These include possible thyroid problems, some cancers, fertility issues, and more. So what is going on here? Apparently, what many of these studies are showing is what happens when soy makes up too much of one’s diet.

We are not a society of moderation. We believe that if some is good, more must be better. If soy is so healthy for us, we should eat it all the time ‘ more of it will just make us more healthy. That turns out not to be true, which, if you think about it, isn’t so surprising. Just about everything that is good for us in small or even medium-sized quantities is bad for us in large quantities. Even something that seems as benign as water fits the pattern: we’re told it’s healthy to drink 10 glasses of water every day, but drinking too much water too quickly can cause illness or death. (You do have to drink a very large amount very quickly for this to happen ‘ at least three liters in a very short time.)

This week’s parashah, Shemini, begins just after the ordination of Aaron and his sons Nadav and Avihu as priests. They make their first sacrifices, and then the Presence of God appears to all the people and fire consumes the offering. People shout and fall on their faces. Imagine what that must have been like for the Israelites. They have been working hard and giving their valuables to create this structure that will allow them to worship God in the way God has commanded. The appearance of God’s Presence must be an indication of their success. Though the moment is terrifying, it is also incredibly exciting. God is pleased. How wonderful it is to feel that you’ve done something right!

Perhaps Nadav and Avihu were caught up in the moment. Like so many of us would, they may have thought that if some sacrifice was good, more must be better. I imagine them excited by being in God’s Presence, wanting to have more of that exhilaration of success. They grab their fire pans, put fire and incense on them, and offer it to God. But it turns out that God didn’t want this’it’s eish zarah, alien fire. (Lev. 10:1) In an instant fire flashes out and consumes them.

Some commentators say that it wasn’t the sacrifice itself that was wrong, but that God did not ask for it at that time. There are limits. There was a certain type and amount of sacrifice that was good at a given time, and when those limits were exceeded it was very bad for Nadav and Avihu.

This may be a link to the rest of the parashah, which lays out the laws of kashrut, telling which foods are permitted and which are forbidden. These limits set on food couple with the message about moderation in Nadav and Avihu’s mistake ‘ even the foods that are permitted should not be eaten to excess. More than enough of something good is not better.

Not only is it healthier for our bodies to eat good food in moderation, it’s good for our bank accounts to live that way, and it’s good for our spirits to value moderation. As Ben Zoma says in Pirkei Avot, ‘Who is rich? He who rejoices in his portion, as it is written, ‘You shall eat the fruit of the labor of your hands; you shall be happy, and it shall go well with you,’ (Psalms 128:2).’ The Rambam considered moderation to be a great virtue. It is up to us to resist the societal forces pushing us to want more, and more, and more, to always feel that whatever we eat, drink, or own is not enough.

May we be blessed to value and enjoy what we have, and find fulfillment in a life of healthy moderation. Shabbat shalom.