Parshat Shemini (Leviticus 9:1-11:47)
By Rabbi Adina Allen
For the last five weeks I, like most others in this country who aren’t essential workers, have spent every day at home seeing no one off a computer screen other than the people who live in my house and the occasional neighbor that walks by at least six feet away. This period of time has been full of so many emotions. Over the course of a day, grief, anxiety, sadness and fear of the future may be mixed with moments of hopefulness, new-found gratitude, relief, delight and joy. This mix is different for each of us as we navigate the myriad ways this pandemic is reshaping our lives.
Amidst this range of emotions, this time has also been profoundly disorienting. For those of us who don’t have the regular rhythms of going in to work and going out to meetings, visiting family and friends, and attending classes and activities, each day can seem to blur into the next. Monday looks a lot like Tuesday; our “office” looks pretty similar to our living room, and many of the distinctions between “personal” and “professional” have, by necessity, faded away. Boundaries we once used to guide us are melting away as all facets of our life—once separate—are now tangled together.
As a rabbi who serves as the executive of an organization and who is now home every day with two extremely energetic children under the age of six, there are ways in which this blurring of boundaries has been confusing and exhausting. Most weekdays look like me scrambling to prepare my kids lunch in time to get them fed, before I have to jump on my next work call—moving from constructing lego ships on the living room floor to counseling a couple as they prepare for the wedding, and then getting right back to lego. Then it’s on to attending a staff meeting—each of my colleague’s faces in a grid across the screen—as I turn up the volume on my computer to try to drown out the sound of stampeding children’s feet and high pitched shrieks as our kids chase each other around the house until they tackle each other, resulting in laughter easily mistaken for tears or perhaps it’s tears that sound like laughter. It is hard to feel like I am ever fully in work mode or fully in parenting mode—always, to some degree, toggling between the two. What I’ve always done my best to keep as two separate worlds have now become profoundly mixed.
In this week’s Torah portion, Parashat Shemini, we are given specific instructions to not blur the boundaries. In Leviticus 9-10:10, Aaron is instructed “It is an eternal statute for your generations, to distinguish between the sacred and the profane (l’havdil bein ha kodesh u’vein ha chol).” In its context, this verse is a directive to Aaron to refrain from intoxicating drink so that he would be able to distinguish between a holy service and one that had been profaned. A clear cut and regimented system is set up to support the priestly class in doing their sacred work, enabling them to have strict definitions of what “counts” and doesn’t; what constitutes holy work and what is in the category of mundane.
As I reflect on this line during this time in which all of our lives have been profoundly shaken up, I wonder if, in fact, there are times in which we might find holiness in the radical remixing of the categories we once held dear.
With all of its many challenges, the blurring of personal and professional boundaries brought about by this time has also been profoundly beautiful. Not only am I spending more time with my kids, nurturing the connections in our family in new ways, but this mixing of worlds has also changed how I show up at work. While less polished and rehearsed, I am—by necessity— more authentic and real.
And I know this change goes far beyond just me. The rectangular Zoom frame that so many of us interact with all day, not only exposes the messiness of our lives, but it is also an incredible window into the fullness and complexity of other people’s lives as well. Over the course of the many online programs we’ve led for folks in our community these past few weeks, I’ve seen them participate fully and eagerly in the program as they also nurse their babies, knead challah for Shabbat, help their kid with a math problem, mediate a conflict between siblings, eat lunch, lay down on the couch, pet their cat and snuggle their dog. While there is enormous loss in not being able to be together in person, there is a way in which this mixing of worlds has invited—or demanded—that we be more who we are more of the time than we ever have been before. And there is a beautiful holiness in that.
We read Parashat Shemini just after we conclude our celebration of Passover, a holiday in which we are commanded to see ourselves as if we ourselves are leaving Egypt. Torah teaches that we crossed the Sea as a “mixed multitude.” In that time of radical change and upheaval, boundaries once held dear were subsumed by the larger task of escaping from the narrowness that confined us and making our way to freedom. Perhaps, this time of narrowness in which we find ourselves today calls for a similar breaking down of categories—of what is personal and professional; of what is mine and what is yours; of what is and what we believe is possible.
May we embrace the radical remixing brought about by this time, and may we learn to call it sacred.
Entrepreneur and artist Rabbi Adina Allen is the Co-founder and Creative Director of the Jewish Studio Project — an arts-based nonprofit in Berkeley, CA that blends traditional Jewish learning with a creative arts studio. She is a 2014 graduate of the Rabbinical School of Hebrew College.