WHO KNOWS EIGHT?
“On the eighth day Moses called Aaron and his sons, and the elders of Israel.” (Leviticus 9:1)
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. 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. We are in the middle of the 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 we 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. 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).
This is the reason we circumcise an infant on the eighth day. It gives a powerful message that the baby is being born into a world not yet perfect, and he has a task to help perfect it. A baby boy in the Jewish faith carries the symbol of that fact in his flesh. The work is always incomplete, and as the child grows up, he must find his particular calling to perfect the world. Although baby girls are not circumcised, they too carry the charge to help perfect an imperfect world.
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.
Many of you know that I love Broadway musicals. One of the most beautiful is Stephen Sondheim’s Sunday in the Park with George. It tells the story of Georges Seurat’s great pointillist painting A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte. At the end of the musical, the painter George (actually his great grandson channeling the thoughts of the painter) meets the muse of his model Dot. He has given up his painting, not knowing where to go, and she sings the beautiful “Move On.” “Stop worrying where you’re going, Move on. If you can know where you’re going, you’re gone. Just keep moving on. I chose and my world was shaken. So what? The choice may have been mistaken. The choosing was not. You have to move on.”
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.