black and white drawing of nadav and avihu being thrown backwards by a flash of light
"The Two Priests Are Destroyed" by James Tissot, ca. 1900, shows Nadav and Avihu being struck down in this week's Torah portion, Shemini.

God made the world in seven days — but what happened on the eighth?


Shemini

Shabbat Parah

Leviticus 9:1-11:47

Numbers 19:1-22


We’ve all had one of those days. Or one of those weeks. How will we get it all done? If only we had one more hour in the day. Or one more day in the week. And even if we could wave a magic wand and be granted our wish, we’d quickly want just a little bit more time than what we just received. On the other hand, we frequently can’t wait for the day to be over. Or we feel that a hard week can’t be over soon enough.

Yet, while we often think of a day as having 24 hours in it or a week as having seven days, Jewish tradition teaches that God gave us all one of the greatest gifts a human being could ever hope for: the eighth day.

Parashat Shemini is just that: the eighth day. It’s when everything begins. “On the eighth day, Moses called Aaron and his sons and the elders of Israel” (Leviticus 9:1). It’s on the eighth day that Aaron initiates the sacrificial worship, assuming his responsibility as Kohen Gadol, the High Priest. It is the day when Aaron purifies the Mishkan (Tabernacle), going through every single detail with care and precision as he assumes the Priestly mantle.

The eighth day was also the opportunity for Aaron’s sons, Nadav and Avihu, to pay closer attention as they learned to serve as priests. Ultimately, because they didn’t pay attention on the eighth day, they will come to offer eish zara, a foreign fire, that will cause their lives to end prematurely. What then, does the eighth day come to teach us?

Commentators like Isaac Abarbanel (15th-century Portugal) and Joseph Bekhor Shor (12th-century France) take a practical approach. Aaron took the first week as Priest to learn, to train, to be oriented to the sacrificial rite. Thus, the eighth day began Aaron’s first day performing the duties of High Priest.

Perhaps, though, this idea of the eighth day has roots dating all way back to the time of the creation story back in Genesis. Rabbi Jonathan Sacks suggests that the act of creating is inherently linked to the ability to destroy. Even when the first humans were created in the garden in Eden, so too were those temptations, the forbidden fruits — all of those things that can cause paradise and human innocence to be lost as quickly as they came into being. As Sacks notes, when God created the world, God created two fundamentally different lights, the light of the first day and the light of the eighth day. “The light of the first day was created by God. The light of the eighth day is what God taught us to create,” Sacks writes. “It symbolizes our ‘our partnership with God in the work of creation.’ On Shabbat we remember [the light of] God’s creation. On the eighth day, we celebrate our creativity as the image and partner of God.”

In many ways, Aaron’s first sacrifice in the Mishkan was the celebration of what’s possible on the eighth day. The eighth day represents the moment following creation. Just as God created a world for us in Genesis, our story in Leviticus is the exploration of what happens on the day after we create a spiritual home for God. Just as God created light with the hope that we would go out the following day and illuminate the world, so too it is our responsibility to recreate and perpetually implement that same model throughout our lives.

While the eighth day paradigm can be creative and positive, it can also be tragic and destructive. The eighth day can be a symbol of harmony and peace — or of chaos and loss. In the Torah, the eighth day is the Israelites’ second chance to choose how to move forward after the sin of the Golden Calf. And more poignantly, it’s the opportunity to rediscover purpose and meaning after Aaron’s children, Nadav and Avihu, are tragically and suddenly killed. Embedded in the eighth day is both a chance to mourn and grieve, to be silent as Aaron does, and to process, as well as to begin healing, changing and restoring light to the darkness.

In the days since the massacre that befell the Muslim community in Christchurch, New Zealand, only months after the tragedy in Pittsburgh, it seems that we are once again on the precipice of the eighth day. How will we respond? How will we take time to grieve and heal, to be silent amidst the chaos, and how will we reintroduce light into the world? How will we, as Rabbi Sacks reminds us, once again become covenantal partners with God in choosing good over evil, order over chaos, light over darkness? As one day comes and goes, as one week turns into the next, it’s time that we begin preparing for the eighth day. If God was gracious enough to give us this gift, then it ought to be our covenantal obligation to partner with each other and start creating a world that we know God would be proud of. Then and only then, will the Divine and human lights shine as one.

Rabbi Corey Helfand
Rabbi Corey Helfand

Rabbi Corey Helfand is the spiritual leader of Peninsula Sinai Congregation in Foster City. He can be reached at rabbi@peninsulasinai.org.