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Leviticus The Test of the Eighth Day

By Rafi Ellenson

Parashat Shemini (Leviticus 9:1-11:47)

Often, we don’t see our imperfections until we’ve completed our first drafts. This isn’t a problem. It’s a beautiful and essential part of human nature. We don’t and we can’t achieve perfection. We can only try and try again where we fall short.

Consider the creation narrative in Genesis. Seven days creates one perfect, whole, complete cycle of creation and rest. After that—on the eighth day—is when humanity really begins. On that seventh day, “God ceased from the work that God had done,” and on the eighth God made humanity a partner in creation. (Genesis 2:1) The true test of what we make, of what we do, of who we are begins on that eighth day—and continues each day after that.

And so begins our Torah portion Shemini, which asks what happens on the eighth day of the mishkan, the tabernacle, the earthly dwelling place of God, the portable dwelling place in the wilderness, after the priests were trained in their sacrifices.

In the Babylonian Talmud, Shabbat 87b, we learn that the day the mishkan was constructed was like the first day of creation, like the first day of the week. It was a day meriting measures of royalty:

Rav Ḥavivi from Ḥozena’a said to Rav Ashi: Come and hear a different proof from the following verse: “And it came to pass in the first month in the second year, on the first day of the month, that the tabernacle was erected.” (Exodus 40:17) It was taught: That day took ten crowns. It was the first day of Creation, meaning Sunday, the first day of the offerings brought by the princes, the first day of the priesthood, the first day of service in the Temple, the first time for the descent of fire onto the altar, the first time that consecrated foods were eaten, the first day of the resting of the Divine Presence upon the Jewish people, the first day that the Jewish people were blessed by the priests, and the first day of the prohibition to bring offerings on improvised altars.

אֲמַר לֵיהּ רַב חֲבִיבִי מָחוֹזְנָאָה לְרַב אָשֵׁי תָּא שְׁמַע וַיְהִי בַּחֹדֶשׁ הָרִאשׁוֹן בַּשָּׁנָה הַשֵּׁנִית בְּאֶחָד לַחֹדֶשׁ הוּקַם הַמִּשְׁכָּן תָּנָא אוֹתוֹ יוֹם נָטַל עֶשֶׂר עֲטָרוֹת רִאשׁוֹן לְמַעֲשֵׂה בְרֵאשִׁית; רִאשׁוֹן לַנְּשִׂיאִים; רִאשׁוֹן לַכְּהוּנָּה; רִאשׁוֹן לָעֲבוֹדָה; רִאשׁוֹן לִירִידַת הָאֵשׁ; רִאשׁוֹן לַאֲכִילַת קָדָשִׁים; רִאשׁוֹן לִשְׁכּוֹן שְׁכִינָה; רִאשׁוֹן לְבָרֵךְ אֶת יִשְׂרָאֵל; רִאשׁוֹן לְאִיסּוּר הַבָּמוֹת

The mishkan transformed the history of the Israelites and of Judaism in fundamental ways. The mishkan brought with it the incomparable beauty of the Divine Presence, the capability to bless and to sacrifice— but it brought prohibitions as well. Indeed, while there was excitement and joy regarding the construction of the mishkan, the eighth day after the mishkan was completed was accompanied by panic and tragedy—that is, the death of Aaron’s sons when they brought forward an “alien fire” as an offering to God without being commanded to do so.

We read in Shemini:

וַיִּקְח֣וּ בְנֵֽי־אַ֠הֲרֹ֠ן נָדָ֨ב וַאֲבִיה֜וּא אִ֣ישׁ מַחְתָּת֗וֹ וַיִּתְּנ֤וּ בָהֵן֙ אֵ֔שׁ וַיָּשִׂ֥ימוּ עָלֶ֖יהָ קְטֹ֑רֶת וַיַּקְרִ֜יבוּ לִפְנֵ֤י יְהֹוָה֙ אֵ֣שׁ זָרָ֔ה אֲשֶׁ֧ר לֹ֦א צִוָּ֖ה אֹתָֽם׃ וַתֵּ֥צֵא אֵ֛שׁ מִלִּפְנֵ֥י יְהֹוָ֖ה וַתֹּ֣אכַל אוֹתָ֑ם וַיָּמֻ֖תוּ לִפְנֵ֥י יְהֹוָֽה

Now Aaron’s sons Nadav and Avihu each took his fire pan, put fire in it, and laid incense on it; and they offered before יהוה alien fire, which had not been enjoined upon them. And fire came forth from יהוה and consumed them; thus they died at the instance of יהוה

For Nadav and Avihu—not to mention their loved ones—the eighth day is defined by the horrifying instance of their death. While the midrash—Jewish legendary explanationseeks to answer why they died by rationalizing it through sin, arrogance, or drunkenness, none of these feel satisfactory to me. Medieval literature argues that God seems eager to make an example out of Nadav and Avihu, as sacrifices are only to be made when God commands them to be made. Like many, I am struck by what seems a cruel and callous act; an unnecessary response to mistake.

Aaron famously responds to his sons’ death with traumatized silence. After being admonished by God and Moses and being re-instructed in the laws of sacrifice, Aaron eventually speaks back, harshly, to his brother: “Would you want me to not eat the meat of the guilt sacrifice after what I went through today? Would this have pleased God?”

Moses is stunned. The leader who once was hard of speech has again reverted to his wordless state by his older brother:

וַיִּשְׁמַע מֹשֶׁה וַיִּיטַב בְּעֵינָיו׃
And when Moses heard this, he approved.

Rabbinic literature understands Moses’ approval to mean a correction. He was wrong to demand so much restraint of his brother on a day of overwhelming pain. It is a poignant moment between the two characters that demonstrates Moses’ capability to listen and Aaron’s ability to self-advocate in the face of grieving.

As we ourselves enter our proverbial eighth day of the Covid-19 pandemic for what feels like the umpteenth time, we enter uncharted territory in which mask mandates are lessening, the world seems to be opening up, and the worst parts of the pandemic are, God willing, we hope, behind us. We need to begin asking ourselves: what will we do on the eighth day when mistakes will be rampant? How will we respond when we might do the wrong thing in a given situation and bring forward “alien fire”? How will we behave in the face of a still uncertain future where we long to reconnect in person and reasonable fears of worsening variants still loom ahead?

I encourage us all to approach others in good will, respect, and good faith. We have gone through a full cycle—perhaps many full cycles—of this pandemic together—of creation in what we have learned and destruction in what we have lost—and we can’t afford to give up those lessons. The eighth day can be a frightening time because it is the first day without God’s direct intervention—without the explicit training of how to make sacrifices. We have to set our own path. But if we enter this time with Moses’ open ears, Aaron’s grieving heart, and belief in our own personal agency and ability, we will be ready for the challenges that this moment demands.

Rafi Ellenson is a second year rabbinical student at Hebrew College. He works as a Rabbinic Intern at the Bronfman Fellowship, a teaching fellow for the Miller Center for Interreligious Learning & Leadership at Hebrew College, and as a literary translator. He is currently translating “the little book of e,” a collection of the poet E. Ethelbert Miller’s haiku, due out for publication by Simon & Schuster in 2023.

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