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Parashat Shemini 5777 — 04/22/2017

Parashat Shemini 5777 — 04/22/2017

Vayikra 9:1-11:47

This discussion is brought to you by the numbers 7 and 8. (Apologies to Sesame Street)

The quick answer to the question “what do 7 and 8 have to do with our parashah?!” is that we learn of the events that take place on the 8th day of the Mishkan’s inauguration, which were significantly different from the events of the first 7 days. For the first seven days of the inauguration Moshe Rabbeinu acted as the Kohen Gadol (High Priest), and, in addition, he erected and broke down the Mishkan on each of the seven days. On the eighth day, Aharon assumed his role as Kohen Gadol, which was permanent, and, correspondingly, the Mishkan was no longer broken down on a daily basis, just when it needed to be broken down for travel.

In Jewish thought, the number seven is related to the manifest, created world – the world which was created in seven “days” according to the account in the first chapter of Bereishit. The number eight, just beyond seven, represents the transcendent, that which is beyond manifestation. Thus, a boy is circumcised on the 8th day of his life, signifying his transcending the material world into which he has just been born and dedicating his focus to be on the transcendent. The “eighth day” of Sukkot, Shemini Atzeret, is considered a separate holiday that transcends the material rejoicing of the harvest festival. It is quieter, a time of greater intimacy with Gd in Rabbinic tradition.

A manifestation of the 7-vs-8 theme that I find most interesting takes place in the passage of the Akeidah (Bereishit 22:1-19). This passage contains the only recorded conversation between Avraham and Yitzchak, and takes place as they are walking together to Mt. Moriah, having left Avraham’s “two lads” and the donkey by the road to await their return. Avraham has the knife and the “fire” (a torch?), while Yitzchak is carrying the wood. Yitzchak asks, “Father” (one word) and Avraham answers, “I am here my son” (two words in Hebrew: Hineni beni). Yitzchak continues: “Here are the fire and the wood, but where is the lamb for the offering?” (6 words in Hebrew) Avraham answers, “Gd will see for himself the lamb for the offering my son” (also 6 words in Hebrew).

What is happening here? It appears to me that Yitzchak is taking a worldly approach to his question (7 words), while Avraham is looking at it from the standpoint of the transcendent (8 words). Yitzchak sees that, on the surface, something very fundamental was missing from the offering – the offering itself. He apparently doesn’t see beyond this surface value, so he asks. Avraham, on the other hand, knows the truth – that the offering is in fact already prepared. He has been told by Gd to offer up Yitzchak, despite the fact that this would contradict Gd’s explicit promise that he would have descendants through Yitzchak. Nevertheless, he is confident that this apparent contradiction would be resolved. So he hints at both circumstances by his use of language – note the position of the comma: “Gd will see for himself the lamb (comma) for the offering – my son.” If Gd provides the lamb (a ram actually), good. If not, then you, my son, shall be the offering. For Avraham, the response comes from Gd’s level, which transcends the material, obvious level. Note also that the bodies of the question and the reply both have 6 words. Perhaps this corresponds to the 6 days of creation, the days on which work may be done. The difference between 7 and 8 is in the call and response. Yitzchak calls out simply, “Father.” Avraham responds, “Here I am, my son.” I am here, as I am everywhere, because I identify with my essential, transcendent nature.

Now, to return to the seven days during which Moshe served as Kohen Gadol… Ramchal writes:

The spiritual realms are said to be divided into ten different aspects, each representing another facet with which Hashem influences and guides the world. [RAR: These are the 10 sefirot.] These ten aspects may be subdivided into two divisions – three in the upper group and seven in the lower group.

Our primary avodah [task] is to rectify the lower seven aspects, for it is there that the tumah is able to maintain a stronghold. By rectifying these aspects we assure that the tumah is unable to prevent Hashem’s influence from reaching us.

The Avodah of the Kohanim associated with the first seven days of the inauguration of the Mishkan was carried out by Moshe Rabbeinu. Why was it necessary for Moshe to serve in this capacity before handing over the responsibility to Aharon? If it was in order to teach Aharon, would one or two days not have sufficed?

The 10 sefirot are indeed divided into an “upper three” and a “lower seven.” They are often arranged in a “tree of life” formation, and associated both with parts of the human body and with Biblical figures. These seven are (from “highest” to “lowest”)

  • Chesed (loving kindness) – Avraham – right arm
  • Gevurah (strength) – Yitzchak – left arm
  • Tiferet (beauty, harmony) – Ya’akov – heart
  • Netzach (victory/immortality) – Moshe – right leg
  • Hod (splendor) – Aharon – left leg
  • Yesod (basis) – Yosef – organs of excretion
  • Malchut (kingship) – David – organ of procreation

The Divine energy and intelligence flows downward through these stages (10 stages including the upper three) – thus Aharon/Hod receives this flow from Moshe/Netzach, which immediately precedes him, as Ramchal states. Note that the right side is the side of chesed and the left side is the side of din. Nevertheless, Aharon is associated with Hod, which is on the left side, and Moshe Rabbeinu is associated with chesed. This appears to be opposite to the notion that Aharon’s root is in chesed. However, there is another theme that runs through Jewish thought in which these associations make perfect sense.

Moshe Rabbeinu is the quintessential prophet – he is called the father of all prophets. The nature of prophecy is that it is a brilliant insight into the root of creation, a cognition of the ultimate reality of the Divine. It is an outpouring of Divine grace, and is therefore associated with chesed. This is wonderful for the prophet of course, and it can be conveyed to some extent through words, but for us ordinary folk, it is only marginally useful. It needs to be embodied in a structure that can lead others to a similar state of consciousness. This is where the priest comes in. The religious structures and rituals presided over by the kohanim are designed to affect the entire people, indeed the entire world. They give form and structure to the great flow of knowledge and vision and inspiration of the prophet, and thereby channel that flow so that the people can come to know Gd, if not at quite the same level as the prophet, at least at a very high level.

All of this is not to say that Moshe Rabbeinu only exhibited the characteristic of chesed – he was, after all, the one who gave us all the laws in Torah, both Written and Oral. Similarly, Aharon’s root was in chesed, as it is said, he was a lover of peace and a pursuer of peace. This whole discussion is about their roles as archetypes of the way Gd expresses Himself in creation.

One final thought. The 10-fold structure of the sefirot is repeated infinitely in a fractal manner. Each of the sefirot has a whole system of 10 sefirot within it, in an infinite regress. In addition, the sefirot have many levels stacked up, with malchut of one level being Keter (“crown” – the uppermost of the 3 “upper” sefirot). In a sense, the system of sefirot is self-transcending – its values of 7 and 8 are wrapped up together in malchut.

The structure of creation, from the most subtle, celestial level to the astronomically grand, is made of multiple layers of infinite regress. It is truly impossible for the human mind to understand it analytically, but it is possible to live it naturally by expanding our awareness to contact its infinite source directly. Then all knowledge will be available inside us, in our own consciousness.

Reflections on This Week’s Torah Portion

by Steve Sufian

Parshat Shemini

Shemini means “eight”.  In this parshah, we learn that Aaron completed his seven days after being initiated by Gd through Moses as High Priest of Israel; on the eighth, he performed his first service as High Priest:

“…And the glory of the Lrd appeared to all the people.” Leviticus 9:23 (

Aaron made his own offerings (“korbanot”, drawing near) and also those of the people in the correct way and the glory of the Lrd appeared to all the people.

This is the world we want today and always, a world in which all leaders and all people – all included, none left out – are properly prepared to draw near and to experience the glory of Gd.

Leviticus Chapter 9
24 And fire went forth from before the Lrd and consumed the burnt offering and the fats upon the altar, and all the people saw, sang praises, and fell upon their faces.

כדוַתֵּ֤צֵא אֵשׁ֙ מִלִּפְנֵ֣י יְהֹוָ֔ה וַתֹּ֨אכַל֙ עַל־הַמִּזְבֵּ֔חַ אֶת־הָֽעֹלָ֖ה וְאֶת־הַֽחֲלָבִ֑ים וַיַּ֤רְא כָּל־הָעָם֙ וַיָּרֹ֔נּוּ וַיִּפְּל֖וּ עַל־פְּנֵיהֶֽם:

The symbolism of “eight”, as presents it, appeals to me: eight symbolizes Gd beyond the seven days of creation [if we include the seventh day of “rest”] and, therefore, knowable only by Gd, beyond comprehension by the creation.

On the eighth day, we would have Gd as Kaddish says about Gd: above and beyond any praise or blessing we can utter in the world. On this day, Aaron is fulfilled and he and all the Children of Israel see the Glory of the Lrd; also on this day, two of Aaron’s sons are consumed by the same Fire of Gd that consumed the offerings of Aaron and the people. Both events occur on the same day, indicating the inscrutability of Gd. Torah says this was because they offered “strange fire” which Gd had not commanded; some rabbis say it was because they were drunk; other rabbis say it was because they were great and Gd sanctified the Tabernacle through them. We have diverse views, consistent with the symbolism of eight as Gd being beyond description or human understanding.

Consistent with this interpretation of Gd beyond understanding is the description in this parshah of dietary laws, particularly what animals, birds, fish, insects are clean and which are not to be eaten.

Discussion I have seen on this indicates that the reasons for the categorizing are not understandable simply from a human zoological view but they are known only to Gd and we must have faith in them and thus to be holy as Gd is Holy.

So it is up to us to live pure lives, to serve as High Priests within the Temple that is our own body and personality, and to offer our lives to Gd, Totality beyond words to describe or understand, and to enjoy the unfoldment of Gd’s glory within us and around us, everywhere. Everywhere. For everyone.

Baruch HaShem