The Torah Text
Parashat Shemini begins with the conclusion of the priestly initiation rite, wherein Moses trains and consecrates Aaron and his sons to become kohanim, ritual leaders of the Israelites. The rite includes seven days of purification, followed by an eighth day of culmination.
Sadly, Aaron’s two older sons Nadav and Avihu quickly mess up and die as a result. The rest of the parashah details clean and unclean animals, and Ibn Ezra suggests that the error lay in not properly differentiating. Thus, an essential role of the priests is differentiator-in-chief, teachers of how to distinguish right from wrong, holy from profane, and clean from unclean.
Ibn Ezra’s Teaching
וַיְדַבֵּר יְהוָה אֶל מֹשֶׁה וְאֶל אַהֲרֹן. בעבור שהוא הכהן המורה המבדיל בין הטמא ובין הטהור
Leviticus 11:1 GOD SAID TO MOSES AND TO AARON. For Aaron is the kohen who teaches and who differentiates between the unclean and the clean. (Translation Strickman and Silver)
וַיְהִי בַּיּוֹם הַשְּׁמִינִי. ובשבעת ימי המלואים היה משה מקים את המשכן בכל יום וסותרו כדי להרגיל בו וללמד
Leviticus 9:1 AND IT CAME TO PASS ON THE EIGHTH DAY. … Moses erected and took apart the tabernacle on each one of the seven days of consecration to train and teach. (Translation Strickman and Silver)
Reflections for the Path
There is great power in being able to divide the world into parts, into separate paths. You can get somewhere more efficiently when you can chart out which ways to take and which ways to avoid. You can determine justice only when there are rules and consequences that divide the world into right and wrong. Yet division isn’t everything.
I think Ibn Ezra’s comment on Lev. 9:1 hints at this other aspect of the priestly role. For seven days, Moses trains the new priests by taking apart the Mishkan – symbolizing the power of differentiation, division, and discernment of parts – yet also putting it back together.
Moses models that companion quality to differentiation, namely union. Being able to see the whole. Ultimately a priest distinguishes sharply for the sake of a wiser vision of the whole.