What Comes Next?, Parashat Shemini

Congregation Beth Shalom
Parashat Shemini
Rabbi David Whiman

In Judaism the numbers seven and ten have great significance. The seven days of creation. The seven branches of the menorah. The Ten commandments. But the number eight has an equal though often overlooked importance as well.

Sukkot and Hanukah are 8-day festivals.  A baby boy comes into the world and his brit milah is held not on the seventh day but rather on the eighth. And this week’s parashah, Shemini – the only Torah portion with a number for its name  – comes from the word shemoneh, the Hebrew word for the number eight.

It came to pass on the eighth day, The Torah says, that Moses called to Aaron and his sons, and commanded them to take up their duties in the sanctuary. After a seven-day celebration of consecration, it is on day 8 that the actual work of the sanctuary begins, On the eighth day, Aaron and his sons take up their priestly duties in the Mishkan.

Seven is a prime number. It signifies wholeness and completion. Seven marks an ending and eight the beginning of what comes next. At the Passover seder we asked and answered the famous four questions. But I think it has been our response to the question ‘What comes next?’ that has sustained our people and our faith from the time of Abraham onward. 

Contrary to what some would have you believe, over the last three plus millennia Judaism has been an ever-changing and ever-evolving religion. Ours has never been a static faith.  Because in our tradition, in addition to the ‘now’ and the ‘then’ there has always been a ‘next.’ 

When Moses completed his mission and died on the summit of Mt Nebo, the people mourned their leader for seven days and then on day eight they asked  ‘What comes next?’ That question was answered by Joshua and tribal leaders and Judges of Israel. When Jerusalem and the Temple fell to the Babylonians and then to the Romans, the question ‘What comes next?’ was answered by the rabbis who instituted the synagogue and the study of the written and the oral Torah. The same question was asked and answered by the Kabbalists of the 14th century and the Chassidic masters of the 17th century, and then the Reformers and the Zionists of the 19th century. Judaism has always been a reforming and revitalizing faith – with an eye on tradition and ever ready to formulate a new and vital answer to the question ‘What comes next?’ 

David Ben Gurion famously said, “We must not live in the past, but the past must always live within us.“ This week Israel celebrates its 70th anniversary. How Israel answers the question ‘What comes next?’ will in many ways determine the viability, the moral integrity and spiritual authenticity of the Jewish state.

To understand the profound spiritual significance of the number 8, go back to the story of creation. In the Midrash, the sages taught that human beings were created on the sixth day. They were placed in the garden, commanded not to eat of the forbidden fruit, quickly transgressed and were sentenced to exile all on that same day.  But, God granted them a stay of sentence.  They were allowed to celebrate that very first Shabbat in Eden. For the whole of day seven, the sun did not set. And as the light began to fade,God showed the first human beings how to make light. Unlike the Promethian myth, in Judaism fire was the gift of God. And that is why to remember that gift we light a Havdalah candle at the end of Shabbat symbolizing the power of human agency and and creativity and our God given ability to bring light into the world.

The light of the eighth day is the light that illuminates what comes next  - in the human story and in our own personal narrative as well. The eighth day reminds us that in some mysterious way when one chapter closes or comes to completion, something can begin again. We get not so much a do-over as the possibility of a do-differently. With our God given creativity we have the power to make tomorrow look very different from today. On day 7, Shabbat, we remember God’s creativity. On the eighth day, it all begins again and we reassert and celebrate our capacity to create a different tomorrow.

There is no more beautiful Jewish teaching than the importance of day 8. And our ability to make the future better for ourselves and others.

When bride and groom marry, traditionally the wedding celebration continues for seven days. During this period friends and family do for the bride and groom. We have something similar in that carefree period known as the honeymoon. But in Judaism real married life actuality begins when the honeymoon ends, on day 8 when the real work of marriage with all its challenges and rewards begins in earnest. The honeymoon is easy. Marriage is hard. Why? Because human beings, too, are never static; and husband and wife must ever navigate the what-comes-nexts in life. That is why they share a cup of wine and break the glass under the chuppah. To show that together they pledge themselves to share the allness of life.

And what is true of marriage is also true of bereavement. When I arrived at my last congregation I was asked a  question that I had never encountered in all my prior years of rabbinic practice. “Rabbi,” the mourner would often say, “when do I do the walk around the block?” I had no idea what they were talking about. Well, it seems that in New York the practice was to literally to ritually take a walk around the block to mark the formal end of the official period of mourning. 

When death intrudes into life, we observe shivah for seven days, but on the eighth day, we have a decision to make. What comes next? Will we return to life sobered, saddened, diminished but not undone by our loss. The walk around the block is a physical representation of my resolve to live into the future. It is a prayer offered not from the lips but by the feet, honoring our encounter with death but also our determination not to succumb to it. The walk at the end of shivah demonstrates a commitment to a gradual though difficult reentry into a future blessed and enriched by all that was good in the life of the one we have lost.

And this is true at every stage of a human life. Whether in times of joy or times of sorrow, in times of achievement or reversal, in the high moments or in the depths of our days, on the personal level and on the cosmic, the way we answer the question  ‘What comes next? makes all the difference in the world. That question and the host of answers given over the millennia is what have kept our people and our faith going and growing. It is how we respond to the challenge of the day eights of our life that determines ultimately if our life will be called a blessing or not.