The Morning After Of The Day Before
Sermon Parashat Shemini
Rabbi Esther Hugenholtz
The Morning After of the Day Before
Jews likes numbers – a lot. In fact, we like numbers so much that there is an entire branch of Jewish mystical thinking dedicated to Hebrew numerology called Gematria. Due to the fact that the Hebrew letters of the alphabet also have numerical value, there are rabbis who love playing number games, using Gematria, to look for patterns of meaning (or even a predicted score of their favorite sports team!)
However, we can scale it back: we do not need to reference the arcane in order to appreciate Judaism’s fascination with numbers. Numbers loom large in our tradition and have a great number (pun intended) of interpretations attached to them. The first number that our tradition roots itself is, as you may remember from your Passover seders, One. ‘Echad mi yodea, echad ani yodea, echad Eloheinu, shebe’shamayim uv’aretz’ – ‘Who knows one, I know one – One is our God in Heaven and on Earth.’ As the ditty at the end of the Seder continues, we connect with different numbers along the way: two tablets of the law, three patriarchs, four matriarchs, five books of the Torah, six orders of the Mishnah, seven days of the week and eight days until the circumcision of a male newborn. The song continues, of course, but I will stop here.
What I do want to talk about however, is that liminal space between the numbers, two particular numbers to be exact: seven and eight. The Jewish tradition feels a particular kinship with the number seven. Seven days of the week, seven arms of the menorah, the golden candelabra of the Temple, seven windings of tefillin on the arm. The number seven signals shleimut: completion, wholeness, peace. As the Kiddush prayer affirms, lifted straight from B’reishit (Genesis) tells us: ‘Vayechal Elohim bayom hashvi’i melachto asher asa, vayishbot bayom hashvi’I mikol melachto asher asa, vayebarech Elohim et yom hashvi’i vayakadesh oto…’ – ‘And on the seventh day God finished God’s work which God had made and rested on the seventh day… and God blessed the seventh day and made it holy…’ (Gen. 2:1-2). Seven is a number of completed work, of looking back with pride, joy and satisfaction on the work of our hands, of resting and completion.
If seven signifies completion, how about number eight?
What is the phase after the completion of a sacred process?
Parashat Shemini seeks to answer that question. The hint lies in the name of the Parashah: ‘eighth’ – ‘Vayehi bayom hashemini kara Moshe l’Aharon ul’vanav ul’ziknei Yisrael’ – ‘And it was on the eighth day that Moses called upon Aaron, his sons and the Israelite elders’ (Lev. 9:1). In this particular case, the number eight refers to the morning after the initiation of the Mishkan, the Tabernacle. The previous Parashah, Parashat Tzav recounts the seven days of the initiation of the Aaronic priesthood, the Cohanim.
So now that this process of initiation has completed, why do we even need to talk about an eight day? Can’t we just get back to business?
Not according to the Torah. The Torah likes dwelling in this liminal space between seven and eight, between ending and beginning, completion and potential. Eight destabilizes seven and intentionally so. Eight suggests that there’s maybe more to the story, that there might be another way for us to grow. Eight reminds seven not to be static but to embrace the dynamic of all what may be. This is exciting as well as dangerous and Parashat Shemini demonstrates that ambivalence so well.
We learn not only of more sacrifices (it’s Vayikra, the book of Leviticus after all) but also of the death of Nadav and Avihu, two of Aaron’s sons who literally played with fire as they brought an unlicensed offering of ‘eish zara’, strange fire. Aaron, the bereaved father, is at a loss of words and Moses doubles down in ensuring the meticulous observance of the sacrificial cult. The joy of initiation is followed by a new phase: of assuming responsibility. Of defining boundaries, between sacred and profane, between permitted and forbidden, between what the Torah mandates as edible and as taboo in the dietary laws that follow.
The number eight is about growth and covenant, like the eighth day of circumcision and like the scenario we encounter here. There is something new going on, climbing a new rung on the ladder of life, a new tier on the spiral of our existence.
And so it is for you, Jacob, on this day of your Bar Mitzvah. Apart from the blood, fire, gore and creepy crawlies (which is 90% of your Parashah), this is a very good Parashah for a young man becoming Bar Mitzvah. You have spent time preparing and training for this, you have been initiated through the skills you’ve learned in this process and tonight, tomorrow, you will lead us from the completion of one stage of your life to the next. While the trite adage ‘today, you become a man’ is not quite accurate, it is accurate to say ‘today you start something new, something significant and something empowered’. New beginnings are kind of scary: going to a different high school, making new friends, starting a new hobby or a new job, assuming new responsibilities.
But Parashat Shemini teaches us that we don’t have to experience these scary new things alone. Yes, sometimes we might play with fire and get burned, and the Torah’s narrative gives us an example of what agency and responsibility can lead to: success (like Aaron) or failure (like Nadav and Avihu) in the leadership of one’s life. Luckily for us, the stakes are not quite so high, but the metaphor is useful.
You will continue to grow, as will all of us, and you will assume greater responsibilities and greater leadership. But the most important lesson of the Parashah does not lie in the answer ‘no’. It doesn’t lie in what went wrong or what we are not allowed to do: it lies in the freedom that comes with potential, the empowerment that comes with responsibility.
It lies in, like your name sakes across the generations, of assuming the Priesthood of your own life, of grabbing hold of your own Judaism. It lies in joy, as the Talmud comments on this eighth day of our Parashah: ‘that day was as joyous to God as the day on which Heaven and Earth were created’ (Bavli Megillah 10b). Just remember: your Bar Mitzvah is a great teaching moment to all of us.
The day before of the morning after is the door to our new lives.