This week’s parsha starts with outlining the special avodah in the Mishkan on the “eighth day”. This was the eighth day following the “seven days of inauguration”. During that time Moshe was the acting Kohen Gadol; he taught Aharon and his sons all of the laws and demonstrated to them the avodas hakorbanos and the workings of the Mishkan.

A Day of Firsts

The Gemara1)Shabbos 87b brings down that this eighth day was “crowned with ten crowns of firsts”.

  1. It was the first day of creation,
  2. the first day of the sacrifices of the nesi’im,
  3. the first official day of the kehunah,
  4. the first official day of avodah,
  5. the first day of the Divine fire descending down into this world,
  6. the first day of eating the sacrificial meat,
  7. the first day of the Divine presence dwelling in this world,
  8. the first day of Birkas Hakohanim,
  9. the first day of the prohibition of outside alters,
  10. and the first of the Roshei Chadashim.

The Meharsha on this Gemara explains the deeper idea of this Gemara, that on the day the Mishkan was officially opened for service it was as if the world was re-created from scratch. Just like our sages teach2)Avos that “with ten utterances the world was created”, so too the Mishkan had ten aspects of “firsts” to it. One of the ten aspects is “the first day of creation”. Rashi translates this to mean that it was Sunday. The Meharsha disagrees and says that this day was actually the first day of this new creation of the world through the Mishkan.

What is the message here? What are meant to learn from the fact that when the official service began in the Mishkan it was as if the world was created again from scratch? The Midrash Tanchuma in Prashas Pikudei teaches that we know that the 39 Melachos that we are forbidden to do on Shabbos are learned from the Melachos that were necessary to construct the building of the Mishkan. The Midrash adds that the Melachos that were necessary in constructing the Mishkan were parallel to creative acts that G-d performed when He created the universe originally. There is a direct correlation between the Creation of the universe, the constructive acts utilized in making the Mishkan, and the 39 Melachos which are forbidden on Shabbos. There is a discussion as to what the purpose of the Mishkan was. The Ramban understands that the purpose of the Mishkan was to be an ongoing encapsulation of the Mount Sinai experience. Other Rishonim disagree and say that the purpose of the Mishkan is to atone for the sin of the Golden Calf. Undoubtedly there are important principles to learn from both of these approaches. Within the line of thinking that the Mishkan was coming to atone for the Golden Calf we can understand why the world is being recreated anew through the Mishkan.

The ideal world and system of Divine Providence that was set up for Klal Yisroel to function in and serve Hashem in broke down at the Golden calf. After the Jewish people repented and recommitted themselves to the service of Hashem they were given the Mishkan as a vehicle through which they can relate to Hashem from the lower state they were now on after the sin of the Golden Calf. This is a new world with new rules. Our sages teach that this is also the idea of the thirteen attributes of mercy in Parshas Ki Sisa. There, Hashem revealed to Moshe that He will now relate to the Jews through the system of these attributes of mercy as opposed to the attributes of judgment. The Mishkan represents the new world that will run according to this new system.

Bringing Down the Shechinah

Aharon went through all of the motions of the Divine service on this first day of the official service but to no avail. The Divine presence did not come down to dwell in the Mishkan. Rashi brings the Midrash that says the Jewish people were confounded during the seven days of inauguration because Moshe did the service each day but the Divine Presence didn’t come down to dwell in the Mishkan. At that time Moshe told them not to worry because this service we are doing now during these seven days is just for the purpose of inauguration but on the eighth day when Aharon will officially do the service for the first time, then the Divine Presence will come down to dwell in the Mishkan. However on the eighth day when Aharon performed the service for the first time, much to his dismay the Divine Presence did not descend and dwell in the Mishkan. Rashi brings the Midrash which teaches that Aharon immediately assumed that the reason the Divine Presence didn’t descend is because he didn’t have the merit due to his sins. He quietly turned to Moshe and asked him what to do since he was embarrassed. Moshe entered into the holy of holies with Aharon and they davened together that the Divine Presence should descend and it did.

What is going on in this Midrash? Rabbeinu Yeruchem Levovits the great Rosh Hayeshiva in the Mirrer Yeshiva in Poland explains as follows. The nature of people in general when something doesn’t work out the way they wanted is to immediately look for scapegoats and factors upon which to cast the blame for the situation. Aharon was above that. He could have easily said that the remnants of the sin of the Golden Calf that were still lingering in the hearts of the Jewish People were responsible for this lack of Divine Presence. Instead Aharon scrutinized his own heart and actions and assumed that it was his own lacking that was to blame. Ultimately the reason the Divine Presence didn’t dwell on the Mishkan seems to be because of the sins of the nation as a whole, not those of Aharon. However if this is true how could it follow that when Moshe went in with Aharon and they davened together then the Divine presence did descend into the Mishkan? If the Jews were not meritorious enough to have the Divine Presence amongst them what could Moshe and Aharon davening together have solved?

Perhaps a better understanding of the character of Moshe and Aharon will help to attain clarity on this issue. The Gemara in Sanhedrin 6b teaches that Moshe and Aharon had very different approaches to dealing with people who came to them asking to judge cases for them. Moshe’s approach was pure truth. He would say “yikov ha’din es ha’har” – let the attribute of judgment pierce the mountain. Aharon on the other hand had a different approach. He would immediately try to push for a compromise between the two sides. He was “ohev shalom, rodeif shalom, u’meisim shalom bein adam lachaveiro – he loved peace and pursued peace and fostered peace amongst people. In the end the Divine Presence, like Torah, was the legacy of Moshe. He is the one who was chosen to bring it down into the world with his attribute of truth.

We shouldn’t think that Aharon doesn’t play a role in facilitating the Divine Presence in the world. Our sages teach “there is no vessel in the world which is able to hold onto blessing and keep it in the world like shalom”. This is the reason why the final blessing in the Amidah is about “shalom”. We want all of that blessing that we generated and brought into the world through our prayers to last and reach its full fruition. This is also why the Birkas Kohanim is done during this final blessing of Shalom. The kohanim are the sons of Aharon. This attribute of Shalom is their legacy. They are the ones who can foster peace amongst people and thus keep the bracha going. They may not be able to arouse the Divine Presence from on high to descend into this world but they can breed the necessary ingredient for keeping it here once it has descended.

Who Are Truly the “Close Ones”?

Further on in the parsha the Torah teaches us that the Divine Presence came down and consumed the korbanos and dwelled in the Mishkan. A fire then blazed down from heaven and burned the innards of Nadav and Avihu and their souls left their bodies. The Torah says the reason why this happened is because they brought a fire and ketores in a strange way that g-d didn’t command them to do. Our sages offer numerous explanations for exactly what the sin of Nadav and Avihu was. It is out of the scope for right now to deal with all of the opinions. What is interesting is that when this happened Moshe said to Aharon the father of Nadav and Avihu that “now I understand what G-d meant when He told me through my close ones I shall be sanctified”. I thought that G-d meant He would take either you or I from the world as a method of sanctifying His name at the culmination of the Mishkan. Now I see that really the two of your sons Nadav and Avihu were really greater than you and I. The indication of this statement is that Nadav and Avihu were taken because of their greatness not because of their sin.

In essence both things are true. Moshe realized in retrospect that Nadav and Avihu were greater than he and Aharon in some sense. This itself was the very reason why they were taken as a result of their sin and in the way that they were taken. Whatever their sin was, it certainly wasn’t outwardly blatantly obvious, it was very subtle. They were held to a very high standard and they were very close to Hashem, for this reason they were chosen to teach this message. Even the great holy people of the world have no diplomatic immunity. They are held to higher standards than everyone else not exonerated for grotesque errors and transgressions because they happen to be at the top of the leadership pyramid. What was their greatness though? What made the “close ones”? The Midrash teaches that they were really great leaders in potential. They would walk behind Moshe and Aharon and say “when will these two old men pass away so that we can lead the generation”? The Netziv adds that they were extremely elevated and lofty people. They had a very intense and overwhelming love for G-d. They walked with G-d and wanted to be the ones through whom His Divine presence would descend and dwell in the world. They wanted to experience the unimaginable pleasure and bliss of being the ones who brought the Divine Presence down into the world through their service. They were not just fantasizing on some ego trip. They really were that great. What they failed to realize was that nevertheless G-d had chosen His leaders carefully. He had determined exactly who was fitting to bring down the Divine presence. It was Moshe, with his attribute of Emes –truth. He was the one who was created and formed to bring the Torah and the Divine Presence down from the heavens into this physical and mundane world.

Does this mean that there is no room for others? Aren’t all Jews holy and great? Why should Nadav and Avihu have subjugated themselves to Moshe and Aharon? The answer to this point is very fundamental. Much to the surprise of many Judaism is very strongly weighted towards the emphasis of the creativity and uniqueness of each individual. Every Jew is special. Every Jew is a universe of hi own. However, unlike many of the more familiar systems out there in the world for emphasizing the creativity and individuality of each person, Judaism is strongly contending that this creative spark has to be expressed within the framework of Torah. The Torah that Moshe brought down into the world is the guidelines and boundaries for self-expression, creativity, and uniqueness. The only value that Judaism places on the creative expression of each unique individual is one that enhances and brings out a new facet of the Torah that Moshe brought down. A method of self-expression that undermines, usurps, or goes against the Torah is inherently lacking in value.

This was the test of Nadav and Avihu. They saw that within themselves they had the ability to have been the leaders of the generation. They could have been the Moshe Rabbeinu’s of the generation. Therefore they harbored inside of themselves the urge to express their love for G-d outside of the boundaries that are laid out in Toras Moshe. They weren’t against Moshe, they were for themselves. They should have maintained their uniqueness and specialness. They should have expressed their ideas and approaches, but they should have first gone to Moshe and Aharon and spoken it out with them. They shouldn’t have gone around them straight to G-d. To cut out the leadership hierarchy is only to pull the rug out from under your own feet in Judaism. They were not evil people. This was a very subtle urge they harbored. They were the close ones. They had something amazing to offer the world. But they missed their opportunity to do that. In the end they will be in the world to come because they were righteous but they lost their chance to be everything they could have been in this world.

What Does “Kosher” Really Mean?

The next main literary unit in the parsha is the presentation of all of the kosher and non-kosher variety animals. Aside from seeming out of place in the overall context of the parsha the laws of kosher variety animals are inherently difficult to swallow. The simanim – signs, of the kosher variety animals seem arbitrary and archaic. However, with a relatively simple formula the Rabbeinu Bachayeh uncovers a much deeper and much more central theme in these laws. There are four categories of creatures dealt with in the Torah, animals, fish, birds, and insects. The signs of a kosher variety animal are that they have split hooves and they chew their cud. The Rabbeinu Bachayeh says that the contrast of a split hove as opposed to a flat one is how connected to the ground the animal is. The contrast of chewing the cud as opposed to just swallowing whole without chewing and digesting properly has to do with being predatory as opposed to docile. The Torah lists birds that are non kosher in variety all of them are predatory as opposed to docile. With regards to fish the Torah says that the kosher variety have fins and scales. The Rabbeinu Bachayeh points out that generally the fish with fins and scales tend to stay closer to the surface of the water where the light of the sun is detectable, this in contrast to the fish without fins and scales which tend to stay towards the bottom of the water in the darkness. As for the insects he points out that many of them are venomous and or they are generated from unsanitary conditions.

The rule of thumb is you are what you eat. The Torah is saying that the type of nature we are looking to inculcate in ourselves is one of docility, of refinement, of elevation beyond physicality, above aggression and cruelty. Therefore the prescription for us is to eat foods that don’t have any of these negative aspects of nature. Of course the basis for keeping these laws is the Divine Decree not to eat them, but as far as a deeper rationale that we can glean from these laws it is about fostering a certain type of nature within ourselves. Why is developing this nature being emphasized here in this parsha. The Parsha concludes by saying that the reason we keep these dietary laws is because we are a holy nation. What is the connection between the two ideas, fostering a positive nature and being a holy nation? The answer is because the ultimate purpose of our lives as Jews is to bring out our true spiritual essence and identity. This is holiness. When we reach the state of existence where we are fully committed to a life of spiritual connection to the Almighty then we are holy. We need to live a life where it is consistently clear that we don’t inherently value the language of the body, but rather we deal with it and try to elevate it to align it with our true spiritual essence and identity. This is holiness. We are a holy nation. Our laws, all the way down to what we eat, were prescribed by G-d Himself to help us and steer us in this direction and make this mission possible for us.

Perhaps this helps to understand what this section is doing in this parsha and how it fits together with what we learned earlier in the parsha. G-d is creating and sustaining this world every second. The purpose of this world is for us to achieve the ultimate closeness with our creator through our efforts and actions. This world is the venue that provides us with that opportunity. When we focus on ourselves in this world as independent beings with unique expression and identity and forget where we came from and what our source is, we make ourselves into icons. We gravitate towards focusing on ourselves, on our needs, on our interests. We ultimately fall into the trap of wanting to formulate and develop our own “laws’ and “guidelines” for achieving our ultimate self expression and the ultimate statement of uniqueness. We may be very great people and even yearn to come close to G-d, but ultimately the very first step is to be willing to subjugate ourselves to the will of G-d in full without looking to mold it or shape it into an image or system that fits our interests and goals. Ultimately there is one universal standard and baseline truth for the entire nation. The Divine Presence that comes about through our actions can only be initiated through Moshe, the one who was the vehicle for, represents, and upholds this universal standard presented by G-d.

From that point and on Aharon can take the credit. He is able to pursue peace. He can see the uniqueness of each individual and nurture it. He can make compromise between individuals despite their different views and opinions about a subject. The Divine Presence can permanently dwell in the world with the help of Aharon and his disciples. Nadav and Avihu had unbelievable potential but ultimately they refused to yield to the notion that there is a basic boundary and a framework provided by G-d through Moshe that we start with and ultimately must work within. They served G-d but in a non-prescribed way. This didn’t deplete from their inherent greatness, but it completely cut off and undermined their own “holy” efforts to connect to G-d in this world.

This is the point. Who says that having a docile, refined, and pleasant nature is “right” or “better” for serving G-d? Who says it is better than a very physical, animalistic, aggressive, and cruel nature? Let each person serve G-d with his nature. An aggressive animalistic and cruel person by nature will be a warrior and serve G-d on the battlefields of life. Why not? Ultimately g-d should yield to accept and value my service of Him with my nature. If the rules of the game and the guidelines will have to be formulated to fit my nature, than so be it. This is what the kosher laws are teaching in this parshah. No! There is a preset path, a boundary of acceptable service and unacceptable service. There is a way, a highway if you will. This highway may have many lanes and entrances and exits but it is THE path to get to the end. You can travel on it in which lane suits you, and get on and off as you please, but there is no other way to get to the end goal. Therefore G-d says “you need to be a holy nation. But holiness means getting in touch with your soul and transcending you body and the animalistic self. In order to do that you need to be refined, docile, and kind. Within that framework there is endless room for unique expression but to reject the framework is inherently failure itself.

The Symbolism of the Number Eight

This helps to understand why the “name of the parsha” is “Shemini” – the eighth. The Maharal M’prague explains that the significance of the number seven is that it represents the completion of the natural order. There are four basic directions that diverge from a central point on a plane. By adding depth, which is a basic component of our world you add the directions of up and down. This adds up to a total of six possible directions of diverging from center. The most basic six-sided figure is a cube the basic unit which is used to represent physical space and mass. This six-sided figure is representative of the raw physical identity of anything in nature. In addition to these six sides there is also the central point from which these six sides are derived. This point is the “seventh”. It represents the purpose or function that is embedded and hidden within the raw physical nature of everything in the world. The level of the eighth is beyond the natural order. It is the transcendent root of inception of everything in the universe. This eighth “dimension” or facet of reality as it were, is revealed in the Torah. The farthest man can reach without Torah is the seventh. In order to define and reach this purpose and function one must look deeply inside of the code embedded in nature. A person must look deeply into himself and find what his purpose and function is. But without Torah ultimately a person is limited and forced to look at the purpose and function that is encoded in the physical material level of the universe.

With Torah a whole new dimension and facet of purpose is revealed. Everything in creation and especially human beings become exposed to and aware of a transcendent purpose. What is my true spiritual essence and purpose? When a person accepts that and commits to following that path, then they have found the bridge to transcendence. It may be challenging to submit to a higher authority and to boundaries that are in some ways beyond the limits of our human perception but ultimately that is our greatest opportunity for growth and self expression.

References   [ + ]

1. Shabbos 87b
2. Avos