Parashat Shmini: The people of eight

Eight is a time for beginnings. Seven represents fullness, completeness. There are seven days to creation, seven days to a week. Then comes the eighth.

 SCRIBES FINISH writing a Torah scroll. (photo credit: DAVID COHEN/FLASH 90)
SCRIBES FINISH writing a Torah scroll.
(photo credit: DAVID COHEN/FLASH 90)

In Leviticus, Aaron is ordained as the High Priest. We are told in parashat Shmini (Leviticus 9:1): “On the eighth day, Moses called Aaron and his sons and the elders of Israel.” Why was the eighth day chosen? 

Eight is a time for beginnings. Seven represents fullness, completeness. There are seven days to creation, seven days to a week. Then comes the eighth.

When a male is born in Judaism, he lives for a week before brit milah signifies a new beginning as one ushered into the covenant of Israel. Conversely, when someone passes away, the mourners sit shiva, literally seven, before they begin a new phase of life, one without the physical presence of the one whom they loved who has died. Each, the onset and the end of life, envision the eighth day as a starting point.

The holiday of Sukkot concludes with Shmini Atzeret, the eighth day of gathering. The pilgrims have gathered in Jerusalem and God wishes them to stay one more day. It concludes with Simhat Torah, the reading of the Torah – the new beginning, Genesis.

Before the bride and groom come under the huppah, it is traditional to have the bride circle the groom seven times (in these days, sometimes three, three and one.) That is completion, and now they are ready to step into their first symbolic home for a new beginning. 

 A WEDDING canopy is seen against the backdrop scenery of the Mediterranean Sea. (credit: MENDY HECHTMAN/FLASH90) A WEDDING canopy is seen against the backdrop scenery of the Mediterranean Sea. (credit: MENDY HECHTMAN/FLASH90)

In our parasha, Aaron begins on the eighth day because he must begin again. The seven days are the ordination, and now he is cleansed. Aaron has known failure with the golden calf and will know tragedy with the death of his sons. Rashi explains that this is the cause for the public announcement – people should know that despite Aaron’s participation in building the golden calf, God has chosen him for this role. 

He must begin again. Just as Moses has known multiple frustrations, disappointments, and failures, he and Aaron will nonetheless renew themselves to continue to lead Israel’s march through the desert. Eight is the promise that the shortcomings of the past are not the last word. 

ON THIS day, the day after Aaron’s ordination was complete, says the Talmud (Megillah 11b), there was rejoicing similar to the creation of the world. The Talmud is making a profound statement of new beginnings. The world was finished, Aaron was ordained, but it was on this day, when he began his full function, that there was great joy. Because for all the depredations of Israel until this moment, there was a chance to begin again.

It is common to celebrate beginnings – births, a new job, a new relationship. There is a power and excitement to the first time that anything happens that is often unrepeatable in later iterations. Part of the resilience and wonder of human beings is that we are so adaptable. However, that same adaptability makes doing things for a second and third time less urgent and exciting than the first.

Yet the power not of beginning, but of beginning again, is a secret to survival. Throughout the Torah, people have the chance to build anew. When they enter Israel, the people start afresh. They begin with Saul, with David, with Solomon; the rabbis reinvigorate Judaism after the destruction of the Temple. 

We find the community of Safed creating vibrancy from the ashes of the Inquisition, American Jewry from those who fled Europe before the wars, and countless events in the history of the Jewish people down to our own day and the founding of the State of Israel. 

Many peoples in history have lived their term and disappeared; they could not exceed seven. Israel is the people of the eight, ever renewed, and teaching that beginning anew is the way of spirit.■

The writer is Max Webb Senior Rabbi of Sinai Temple in Los Angeles and the author of David the Divided Heart. On Twitter: @rabbiwolpe.