Friday, March 25, 2011

Parasha Shemini: Fire on the Eighth Day

Cross-posted from The Set Table.

Our parasha draws its name from the opening phrase—Vay’hi ba’yom ha’shemini—”On the eighth day.” (9:1) After seven days of preparations for the mishkan led by Moses, the dedication of Aaron and his sons as priests is completed on the eighth day. On the significance of the number eight, the late Lubavitcher Rebbe comments:
The number “seven” signifies the normative order of the world…[days of the week, years in the Sabbatical cycle]…Seven, therefore, is the symbol for the order of nature. The number “eight” is beyond “seven,” alluding to the supra-natural, an emanation of G-dliness which, like a miracle, transcends the normative order.  (Living with Moshiach, p. 83)
In this case, the transcendent miracle which the people await is God’s visible acceptance of the offerings on the altar. The people know that the purpose of the mishkan is for God to dwell among the people. However, they also remember their sin with the golden calf. Thus, they are eager to see a manifestation of God’s presence which will assure them that atonement has been made.
In Leviticus 9:6 Moses foretells the appearance of the presence of the LORD as a response to their obedience. This becomes a sign of restoration and a cause for rejoicing for Israel:
…and the presence of the Lord appeared to all the people. Fire came forth from before the LORD and consumed the burnt offering and the fats on the altar. And all the people saw, and shouted, and fell on their faces.
(Leviticus 9:23b-24)
We noted that our parasha began with the word “Vay’hi“—which, the sages have observed, is a word indicating misfortune. This is revealed when Aaron’s sons Nadav and Avihu offer alien fire on the altar:
And fire came forth from the LORD and consumed them; thus they died before the LORD.
(Leviticus 10:2)
Praises turn to shock and grief. The entire community mourns, save Aaron and his surviving sons, who are forbidden to do so. Pesikta d’Rab Kahana provides an overview of numerous shortcomings of Nadav and Avihu proposed by rabbinic commentators: they ventured too near to God’s presence; they brought a superfluous offering; they offered strange fire; they stared at the Presence of God; they took no counsel with each other; they lacked the prescribed number of garments; they presumed to render a halakhic decision in the presence of Moses their master; they “treaded on the heels” of Moses and Aaron, saying “In no time these two old men will die, and in their place we shall assume authority over the community” (Piska 26.6-11).

Yet Moses statement of comfort to his brother Aaron suggests a further interpretation:
Then Moses said to Aaron, “This is what the LORD meant when He said, “Through those near to Me I show Myself holy, and gain glory before all the people.” And Aaron was silent.
(Leviticus 10:3)
Thus R. Hiyya bar Abba asks: “Since Aaron’s sins, [Nadav and Avihu], died on the first of Nisan, why does Scripture mention their death in connection with the Day of Atonement? [c.f. Lev. 16:1] To teach that as the Day of Atonement atones for Israel’s sins, so the death of the righteous atones for Israel’s sins” (Piska 26.11). Despite Nadav and Avihu’s shortcomings, their death becomes a means of glorifying God, and points to the atonement made through the death of the righteous.

All of this transpired “on the eighth day.” The Talmud connects the number eight to the days of the Messiah (see Arachin 13b). If the miracle of God’s presence on the eighth day of the mishkan brings with it a burning judgment, how much more will the future revelation of God’s glory throughout the whole earth at the days of the Messianic era also bring a judgment like fire from God’s presence? This is a judgment of sanctification, as it says: “I will be sanctified by those near to me.”

As we seek to prepare ourselves and the world for the entrance of the Messianic era, let us live lives of holy fear before the God who is a consuming fire.

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