Shabbat Greetings

This week, we read the portion, Shemini (Leviticus 9:1-11:47). The word Shemini means “eight.” For seven days Aaron and his sons had prepared themselves for the formal inauguration into the priesthood. Now on the eighth day the formal rituals would begin. Numerous offerings are brought as Aaron and his sons prepared for their special role. Unfortunately, things go wrong. The two oldest sons of Aaron, Nadav and Abihu, bring a strange fire and die before the altar.

Eight has a special meaning in Jewish tradition. This is also Shabbat HaChodesh – the special sabbath announcing the new month of Nisan on Monday night/Tuesday of this coming week. On the first day of Nisan, God presented the first commandment of how to “sanctify the new moon” (kiddush hachodesh) for the onset of Rosh Chodesh and thus Nisan becomes the first month of the Jewish year (counting by months.). This means Passover is in two weeks beginning with first seder on Monday night, April 22nd. 

Thus the number ‘8’ is special because on Passover we sing the song Achad Mee Yodea – “Who Knows One?” One is God. Then the song runs through all the numbers up to thirteen. Each has a special answer. When I conduct a Seder, I like to use the song as a quiz. Of course, when we sing,“Who Knows Eight?”, the answer is the eight days of circumcision. We keep the baby boy for seven days, symbolic of the complete week of creation. Then, on the eighth day we bring the baby into the covenant.

The number seven in Judaism symbolizes completeness. There was a complete week of creation. Soon, we will be in the counting period of seven times seven days of the counting of the Omer, leading from Passover to Shavuot. Passover is celebrated seven days (at least in the Bible and in Israel. Outside Israel some add an eighth day.) The Bible contains seven festivals of complete rest, beyond the Sabbath. Every seven years is the Sabbatical year, and after forty-nine years (7 x 7) we celebrate the Jubilee year. When we wrap the tefillin around our arm, we wrap it seven times. In a traditional Jewish wedding, the bride circles the groom seven times (I have the bride circle 3 times; the groom 3 times and then they make a circle together). And Aaron and his sons had seven days to prepare themselves for their holy task.

Seven may symbolize completeness, but the world we live in is incomplete. We have a job to complete the task that God took seven days to complete. God saw the world was “very good” but not perfect. Our job is to continue the task of creation, to complete and perfect the world. This is the meaning of the Hebrew phrase tikkun olam “perfecting the world” which grew out of Lurianic kabbalah. Seven may symbolize completeness, but the task is never complete. As Pirke Avot teaches, “Your job is not to complete the task, nor are you free to avoid it” (Avot 2:16).

Unfortunately, this portion teaches the powerful lesson that as we humans try to perfect the world, sometimes things go wrong. The Torah never describes the precise sin that cost Nadav and Abihu their lives. Perhaps they were drunk, while bringing the offering. This portion forbids the priests from drinking. Or perhaps they were following their father Aaron and uncle Moses, complaining, when are these two old men going to die already so we can take over? This is one of my favorite Midrashim (Rabbinic stories). Or perhaps they simply brought a false offering, not following God’s command. At the moment of his sons’ death, the Torah simply teaches that Aaron was silent.

If seven symbolizes completeness, eight symbolizes incompleteness. There is still work to be done. We must continue moving forward and do the work. Sometimes things go wrong. But we must move on.