We can draw lessons from three aspects of this Shabbos: It is Shabbos Mevorchim; more particularly, it is Shabbos Mevorchim Iyar; and because everything happens by Divine Providence, there is an additional lesson to be derived from the parshah read this Shabbos -- Shemini.
In greater clarification: The Baal Shem Tov taught that nothing in this world is coincidence; everything happens by Divine Providence. This applies to even such things as minerals, plants and animals, and certainly to humans. WIthin the category of humans, Divine Providence is emphasized most strongly regarding Jews, and concerning Jews, it is most evident in matters of Torah and mitzvos. For although everything happens by Divine Providence, there are different degrees -- to the extent that Torah tells us that G-d says, "I will surely hide My face on that day." That is, not only do we not see Divine Providence, but G-d actively hides Himself. Thus, there are differing degrees in Divine Providence, commensurate to the importance of the subject -- the more important it is, the greater and more revealed the Divine Providence. The highest level is, "the eye of the L-rd is directed towards those who fear Him" -- the highest level of Divine Providence ("G-d's eyes") is directed towards the righteous ("those who fear Him").
Although G-d sees everything with a single glance, there can still be different degrees in Divine Providence. An example of this is man himself, who has various limbs. The essential life-force of a man is equal in all limbs. Nevertheless, there are differences in how that life-form is revealed in the limbs. The life-force in the brain, heart, and liver, for example, is stronger than in the nails, which if cut, do not hurt at all.
So, too, in the case of Divine Providence: On the one hand, it works through one glance (similar to the essential life-force in which there are no differences). Simultaneously, there are differences in the degree of Divine Providence (similar to the differences in how the life-force is revealed in the limbs), ranging from complete concealment ("I will surely hide My face") to complete revelation ("the eye of the L-rd is directed towards those who fear Him").
In our case, Shabbos Mevorchim is a holy matter, pertaining to Torah and mitzvos: the mitzvah of sanctifying the month, and the custom of Shabbos Mevorchim -- and "a Jewish custom is Torah." Thus Divine Providence in the highest degree is associated with Shabbos Mevorchim, and we can therefore derive a lesson from the parshah read then.
The lesson from Shabbos Mevorchim (in general, relevant to all months): Shabbos Mevorchim is always in the preceding month, and thus the blessing given on Shabbos Mevorchim to the following Rosh Chodesh is said on the preceding month. The reason is simple: A blessing means we wish to effect something in a certain way -- and this obviously applies only before the thing has materialized. Thus we bless Rosh Chodesh (and the entire month) before Rosh Chodesh -- and therefore Shabbos Mevorchim must be in the preceding month.
A "month" in Hebrew is chodesh, which is cognate to the word chidush, meaning new. Although a month seems to be a repetition of the previous thirty day cycle, it is really something new -- its service is carried out in an infinitely loftier manner, making it a new thing. If this higher service would not be infinitely loftier, it would not be completely new, but only an addition to the past. When it is infinitely higher, it is completely separated from previous service, and becomes a new thing.
An example of this is Torah study: One method of study is to repeat and relearn that which was studied previously. Although through each repetition one gains a loftier level and new insights, it is not new, for the loftier level is not infinitely greater: the new insights are in the same topic and same method of learning as before. A loftier method of learning is to increase in one's study in an infinitely higher manner -- in a new manner. Simultaneous-ly, this new learning affects previous study, elevating it to the new level.
This is why R. Zeira, so that he could learn Talmud Yerushalmi, first fasted to forget Talmud Bavli. He did not fast to forget his actual knowledge (for it is forbidden to forget one's learning), but to forget the method of study peculiar to the Talmud Bavli. The methods of study of the Bavli and Yerushalmi are complete opposites. Bavli's is dialectic, whereas the Yerushalmi gets straight to the heart of the matter. Thus, to change from the Bavli's method to the Yerushalmi's, R. Zeira first had to fast to forget the method of study of the Talmud Bavli. Not only did he not forget the actual knowledge of the Bavli, but the study of the Bavli was now elevated -- he could now learn it in a manner infinitely loftier than before, in a direct manner, not through dialectics.
To return to our point: a "month," although seemingly but a repetition of the previous 30 days, is a completely new thing -- for its service is performed in an infinitely loftier manner than the previous month's service. The lesson from a month, then, is that service of Torah and mitzvos must always be in a new manner -- infinitely loftier than before.
Because this requires much effort, Shabbos Mevorchim, which precedes the new month, serves as the proper preparation to such service. The lesson from Shabbos Mevorchim in general, then, is that a Jew must make the proper preparations for the infinitely higher service of the new month.
Although the common theme of all months is the element of newness -- infinitely loftier service -- that service must still be commensurate to the individual nature of each month. Thus there are differences in the preparation to each month -- Shabbos Mevorchim. In our case, the service of Shabbos Mevorchim Iyar must be consonant to the particular service of the month of Iyar.
It is very hard to understand, however, how the service of Iyar can be infinitely loftier than that of the preceding month, Nissan. Nissan is the "month of redemption," meaning a person is redeemed from the limits of nature. How then can we prepare on Shabbos Mevorchim Iyar for an infinitely loftier new service? Is not Nissan, "the month of redemption," the ultimate?
Iyar, in Hebrew, is an acrostic for the words, "I am the L-rd your healer." The difference between G-d healing and a human healer (doctor) is simple: A doctor heals the sickness that a person already has. G-d, however, says, "All the sicknesses which I placed in Egypt I will not put on you, for I am the L-rd your healer." That is, G-d's healing is that He does not allow sickness to develop in the first place. In man's spiritual service to G-d, this corresponds to the idea of, "No sin shall befall the righteous."
Now we can understand the different services of Nissan and Iyar. The service of Nissan is in the manner of redemption -- Jews were in exile, and they were redeemed from it. Even when a person sins (exile), he can redeem himself from this undesirable state of affairs. The service of Iyar is in the manner of, "I am the L-rd your healer" -- it is not possible that a person in the first place does anything wrong (and that therefore he should need redemption).
Thus the service of Iyar is loftier than that of Nissan, and therefore even after Nissan, a person must go yet higher -- the service of Iyar.
The lesson, then, from Shabbos Mevorchim Iyar is that we must prepare for the service of Iyar -- to reach a level where sin is not even possible. Through this we reach an added distinction, special to Iyar -- the only month in which every day we have the mitzvah of Sefiras HaOmer.
Sefiras HaOmer is also associated with our previous explanation that a "month" is the idea of newness -- that although it seems to be but a repetition, it is really an infinitely higher level. Sefiras HaOmer has two aspects: 1) All the days of Sefirah are one, and therefore if one forgot to count one day, he cannot continue to count with a berachah. 2) Simultaneously, each day is separate, and therefore we make a blessing each day, not one blessing for the entire Sefirah.
Thus, although today, for example, is the tenth day of Sefirah, and we have already fulfilled the mitzvah of Sefirah for ten days, we still make a blessing for the eleventh time. For each day of the Sefirah sees an infinitely higher increase in sanctity, thereby making it a new thing -- which deserves its own blessing.
Through our speaking of Sefiras HaOmer may we speedily merit the true and complete redemption through our righteous Moshiach, when we will fulfill the mitzvah of Sefiras HaOmer from the Torah, not just from our Sages as we do today. Then we will also have the Giving of the Torah in a new manner -- "A new Torah will go forth from Me."
As mentioned previously, there is also a lesson to be derived from the parshah read today -- parshas Shemini. Although there are many lessons to be learned from parshas Shemini, we must first and foremost derive a lesson from the name "Shemini" itself, which means "eighth." The Baal Shem Tov taught that the Hebrew name of a thing reflects its concept, and thus the idea represented by "Shemini" represents the entire parshah.
Everything in this world exists in a spiritual fashion, including man's service to G-d. Indeed, the reverse is true: Because they exist spiritually, in man's service, they exist also physically. This is true of numbers also. The number seven, for example, symbolizes and is associated with the seven days of the week -- "For six days G-d made the heavens and the earth, and on the seventh day He ceased and rested." After the seventh day, a new week begins -- the first day, second day, etc. until Shabbos. The seventh day, Shabbos, is the end of a week. Thus, although hundreds of thousands of days have passed since creation, the day after Shabbos is still called the first day, and not the eighth day. For the purpose of the days of a week is that they are a preparation for Shabbos, and therefore the day after Shabbos is the first day of preparation for the coming Shabbos.
Parenthetically, even a simple Jew knows this. Previously, in Europe, a Jew knew unquestionly that the livelihood G-d granted him throughout the week was so that he could celebrate Shabbos properly. In those days, it was unheard of that a Jew should work hard the entire week only to increase his bank account, to buy a car with a chauffeur, to buy a house with many rooms, or to purchase an extensive wardrobe -- even when he can't wear so many clothes!
A Jew doesn't need all these things. He works hard to get them only because he envies another person. Our Sages said: "Envy, desire, and honor take a person out of the world" -- they take a person out of Judaism and bring him into the world of America! These people call it wealth; it is really a sickness. A Jew should have no association with the "world of America," for "You have chosen us from all the nations." Certainly a Jew who has been in Tomchei Tmimim -- for even one moment -- can have no real association with such a world. Once in Tomchei Tmimim, a person is always associated with it, for "sanctity does not move from its place" -- willingly or unwillingly. It gives him no peace. He, however, thinks he has but a headache, and therefore the doctor prescribes aspirin to soothe him. He suffers from an American malady, therefore he must be given an American cure. In truth, however, he has a "headache" because he is so involved in material pursuits!
To return to our point: Even a simple Jew knows that the number seven symbolizes the seven days of the week, associated with the world -- "For six days G-d created the heavens and the earth, and on the seventh day He ceased and rested." The number eight, therefore, symbolizes that which transcends the seven days of a week, that which is above the world which was created in seven days.
The lesson from this in man's service to G-d: Service on Shabbos is different and loftier than on weekdays. On Shabbos a Jew does not have to rush to work, and therefore he says his prayers with greater concentration, etc. Although he fulfills all matters of Torah and mitzvos on weekdays too, it cannot be compared to Shabbos when he is not distracted by his business. On Shabbos every Jew is a "king" in his house, and therefore his mind is free to engage in Torah and mitzvos with greater concentration.
"Shemini -- Eighth" teaches that even after the lofty service of Shabbos, service must be loftier yet -- transcending the world which is associated with the seven days of the week. In plain terms: After the lofty level of his service on Shabbos, a Jew does not descend, G-d forbid, from his level to begin the week anew, but instead ascends to a level loftier even than Shabbos -- the level of Shemini.
This lesson is specifically derived from Shemini -- eighth, and not from eight. "Eight" means there are eight things present -- seven and an extra one. "Eighth" means there is one thing, but it is the eighth: it comes after the preceding seven, and stands alone (unlike "eight" which means the other seven are present also). "Shemini," then, represents a level that is unassociated with the preceding seven weekdays -- it transcends the world.
This does not mean a Jew should wait until after Shabbos to perform the service represented by "Shemini," to wait until a special day of the level of "Shemini." The parshah is not called "Yom HaShemini," "The eighth day," but rather just "eighth," teaching us that a special day is not needed to reach this level (transcending the world). The level of Shemini can be on Shabbos itself, and even on weekdays.
In greater clarification: "Shemini," we have said, is the idea of transcending the world. This is puzzling. The purpose of a Jew is to make this world a dwelling place for G-d. It seems, then, that "eight" (which includes the world -- seven days of creation plus one more) represents this idea better than does "eighth" (which excludes the world, the seven previous days).
However, although "eighth" is an entity for itself (unlike eight), the very fact that the "eighth" follows the seven indicates there is some connection between them. The difference between "eight" and "eighth" is that in the former, the seven remain the same as before, and one more has been added, making eight. In the latter, the seven are elevated to the level of the eighth; they cease to be seven, and become part of the eighth. Thus there are two aspects to Shemini: The eighth as a separate entity; and as the other seven are encompassed by it.
When, therefore, we say Shemini transcends the world, we mean the world exists, but its existence is elevated to the level of Shemini -- to the extent that the world assumes a new existence.
An example: In the future, our Sages tell us, people will not need to eat or drink, but their physical bodies will be nourished directly from the soul (unlike now, when the body receives nourishment from the soul through physical food). Although the body will then also be physical, it will be elevated to the level that its nourishment will be spiritual. This happened once before: When the Jews left Egypt, they ate Manna -- "bread from the heaven."
This, then, is the distinction given to Shabbos Mevorchim Iyar by parshas Shemini. One may think that because Shabbos Mevorchim Iyar occurs every year, there is nothing new to it this year. Parshas Shemini teaches that the service of Shabbos Mevorchim Iyar must be in the manner of "Shemini" -- transcending the world, in a new manner.
May it be G-d's will that from parshas Shemini we merit very quickly the harp of Moshiach, which will be "a harp of eight strings," in the third Bais Hamikdosh, in the true and complete redemption.
Rashi, the commentator par excellence on Scripture, always explains anything difficult in the plain meaning of the verse (or else says, "I do not know"). Simultaneously, Rashi does not make any comment that is not associated with the plain meaning. In today's parshah, Shemini, there is both a difficulty which Rashi does not explain, and something which Rashi does explain which does not seem to be necessary to understand the plain meaning.
The end of parshas Shemini (11:41-47) talks of the prohibition to eat "sherotzim" -- small, creeping animals (e.g. snakes, insects, etc). Scripture repeats this prohibition a number of times in different ways: "Every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth is detestable and shall not be eaten (11:41)"; "Of all creeping things that creep upon the earth you shall not eat (11:42)"; "Do not make yourself detestable with any creeping thing that creeps, and do not defile yourselves with any creeping thing that moves upon the earth (11:44)." Rashi, on the words (11:44) "Do not defile yourselves," comments: "By transgressing many prohibitive commandments regarding them; and for [the transgression of] every prohibitive command, stripes [is given]."
In the same parshah, we have previously learned that there are many types of animals which are prohibited to eat: unclean animals, unclean wild beasts, unclean fish and fowl. Rashi tells us that the prohibition to eat sherotzim is repeated many times, and that there are therefore many prohibitive commandments regarding the eating of a sheretz. A simple question arises: Why are sherotzim more severe than other forbidden animals, to the extent that the prohibition -- and the accompanying punishment (stripes) -- is repeated so many times (which is not the case in other forbidden animals)?
The question is even more puzzling in the light of Rashi's comment at the beginning of this section. On the verse (11:2) "This is the living thing which you may eat," Rashi comments: "'This is the living thing' -- it denotes 'life.' Because Israel is attached to G-d and are worthy of being alive, He therefore separated them from uncleanliness, and decreed upon them commandments...." Rashi further comments, "'This is the living thing' -- This teaches that Moshe held the animal and showed it to Israel, [saying]: 'This you may eat, and this you shall not eat; This you may eat, etc.' Also of the creatures of the water he held each species and showed it to them. Similarly with fowl [it is stated]: 'And these you shall detest among the fowls.' And similarly with creeping animals [it is stated]: 'And this shall be unclean to you.'"
We see that Rashi emphasizes the common theme among all living things that are forbidden to eat -- that from all of them "He separated them [Israel] from uncleanliness." If so, the above question is reinforced. Why are sherotzim more severe than other animals?
Another difficulty: At the conclusion of this section Scripture states (11:45): "For I am the L-rd who brought you up from the land of Egypt." Rashi explains that, "Everywhere it is written, 'I have brought out,' and here it is written 'brought up.' [In reference to this] it was taught at the school of R. Yishmael: [G-d said:] 'If I had brought up Israel from Egypt only for the reason that they do not defile themselves with sherotzim as do other nations, it would be sufficient for them, and it is an elevation for them;' this is the meaning of, 'I brought you up.'"
The same question arises: Why does G-d say that, "if I had brought up Israel only for the reason that they do not defile themselves with sherotzim ... it would be sufficient ..."? Why is this said specifically concerning sherotzim and not other animals?
Further, why does Rashi emphasize that it would be sufficient that, "they do not defile themselves with sherotzim as other nations." What difference does it make, in the plain meaning of Scripture, how other nations conduct themselves? The difference between Jews and other nations is not just in eating sherotzim, but in every facet of life. Why, then, does Rashi make this point regarding sherotzim specifically?
The source for Rashi's interpretation is the Talmud. (Baba Metzia 61b) There, however, it does not mention anything about the conduct of other nations, and it also gives the reason why sherotzim is specifically severe. It states: "Why did the Torah write, 'who brings you up?' [The reason is] as the school of R. Yishmael taught, that G-d said, 'If I brought up Israel from Egypt only for the reason that they should not defile themselves with sherotzim, it would be sufficient.' But, he objected, is their reward [for abstaining from sherotzim] greater than [the reward for obeying the commandments concerning] interest, tzitzis, and weight? He answered, although their reward is no greater, it is more loathsome to eat them."
Thus we see the Talmud gives a reason for the severity of eating sherotzim -- because it is more loathsome than other things. Why then does Rashi change his interpretation from the Talmud, in that 1) He adds the words, "as do other nations" -- although it is seemingly unnecessary for the plain meaning; 2) He deletes the reason for the severity regarding sherotzim?
Another questions: Rashi only mentions the author of a particular interpretation if there is a difficulty in the plain meaning which is resolved through knowing the author. In our case, what difficulty is there that Rashi need tell us the author of this interpretation -- the school of R. Yishmael?
Rashi need not explain the reason for the particular severity in the case of sherotzim, for it is self-understood from Scripture itself. "Sherotzim," Rashi explains (11:41), "are things which are 'low, short-legged, which seem, only to creep.'" That is, sherotzim are creeping things which are very low to the ground. When Scripture enumerates the different categories of sherotzim, it says (11:42): "Whatever goes upon the belly," upon which Rashi notes, "This is a snake, and the term 'belly' denotes 'bending,' for it goes bent and prostrated on its belly."
Scripture could have simply said "snake" and not "whatever goes upon the belly." But it does not do so because it wants to emphasize that sherotzim are things which are low, moving on their belly.
In parshas Bereishis, we learn that because the snake caused Adam and Chavah to sin, it was punished -- "You are cursed of all the animals and from all the beasts of the field." Its punishment was, "On your belly you shall go, and dust you shall eat; and Rashi explains that, "it had legs and they were cut off."
The severity of this punishment is that going on the belly indicates how lowly and unworthy the snake is of all animals. All of it is in the dust, whereas other animals, which go on feet, are above the ground. Moreover, all other animals eat grass or meat, whereas the snake eats only dust, the lowest thing. The fact that it is connected with the ground shows how despicable it is.
Since we thus already know how degraded sherotzim are -- creeping things which are low on the ground similar to a snake -- Rashi need not explain why the prohibition to eat sherotzim is more severe than other unclean animals.
But all is not clear: Since sherotzim are so disgusting, how are other nations allowed to eat them? Moreover, earth itself has many good qualities -- all plants grow from the earth, and it is used for building purposes, etc. Why then are sherotzim so severely forbidden to Jews?
Rashi alludes to the answer by adding the words that Jews do not defile themselves with sherotzim "as do other nations," and by telling us the author of this interpretation -- the school of R. Yishmael. The Mishnah (Negaim 2:1) states: "R. Yishmael says: The children of Israel (may I be an atonement for them), are like boxwood: neither black nor white but of an intermediate shade." R. Yishmael is stressing the greatness of Jews that they are not black.
Earth, dust, is black. Since Jews are not black, they are far removed from "dust." Therefore, sherotzim, which are close to the dust, are especially repugnant to Jews -- which is not the case with "other nations."
In greater clarification: R. Yishmael was speaking in regard to the laws of leprosy -- what color of leprosy is unclean on what color skin (i.e. a color on a white skinned person has a different law than on a dark-skinned person). Leprosy is a punishment for wrong behavior, thus indicating a low spiritual state. The Rambam (Laws of Leprosy, 16:10) writes that first "the walls of the person's house are affected ... if he remains wicked ... the vessels of his house change ... if he remains wicked ... his clothes change ... if he remains wicked ... his skin changes and becomes leprous." Thus leprosy on the skin indicates a very low spiritual state.
R. Yishmael tells us the distinction of Jews: Although a Jew is on such a low spiritual plane that his skin is leprous, nevertheless, "May I be on an atonement for them" (an expression of love), and they are not black.
So too in our case: After the Torah talks of the prohibition of eating unclean foods, it emphasizes Jews' greatness that "they do not defile themselves with sherotzim as do other nations." Even a Jew who is so low that he eats forbidden foods, does not defile himself with sherotzim -- because they are so repugnant, close to the dust.
Rashi's interpretation is based on the words of the "school of R. Yishmael." Thus, in addition to the above connection with R. Yishmael himself, there must also be a connection to the school of R. Yishmael.
The Talmud (Berachos 32a) states: "'G-d said, I have forgiven (the Jews for the sin of the golden calf) according to your (Moshe's) word': The school of R. Yishmael taught: 'according to your words' -- the nations of the world will in the future say 'happy is the disciple whose master agrees with him.'" The Maharsha explains that G-d forgave Israel for worshiping the golden calf and did not destroy them, so that the gentile nations would not say He destroyed them because He was unable to bring them into the Holy Land. This argument had been advanced by Moshe, and G-d agreed with him and refrained from destroying the Jews. This is what the school of R. Yishmael said, that in the future the gentile nations will say, "Happy is the disciple (Moshe) whose Master (G-d) agrees with him." We see from this that it is important to G-d (so to speak) that the gentile nations should also recognize the greatness of Jews.
That is why Rashi explains that the Jews "do not defile themselves with sherotzim as do other nations." This distinction of Jews is recognized by all, even the gentile nations -- who see that they eat sherotzim, while Jews do not defile themselves by eating them.