Everyone has those numbers that appear in significant ways in their life – well, I assume everyone because it does for me. For me, that number is eight. I was born on the eighth day of the eighth month in the eighth hour of the day in 1980, my daughter was born on the eighth, and I could go on. Eight is an important number in my life. And Parashat Shemini takes place on the eighth day.
There is a little debate as to the eighth day of what? Our Sages of Blessed Memory, and a number of the commentators, hold that it is the eighth day after the days of preparing and practicing the rituals of the Mishkan, while a minority opinion holds that it was the eighth day of the month of Nisan. But that is not the topic of our discussion here. Rather, I want to look into what is so significant about the Mishkan being first put to use on the eighth day, whether that day is the first of Nisan after the seven days of preparation or if it is the eighth of Nisan. As the logic of Torah commentary goes, if there weren’t something significant about it being the eighth day then the Torah would not specify that these things occurred on the eighth day!
Our Sages of Blessed Memory likened the Mishkan to a model of the universe. It is incredibly significant, then, that on the first day of the use of the Mishkan two mistakes were made: one, Nadav and Avihu were consumed by the fire of the altar – according to various traditions either because, a) they did not make the incense by the correct recipe, b) they were drunk, c) they did not consult with their elders, or d) they did not consult with one another; two, Elazar and Itamar, the surviving two sons of Aharon, slaughtered the hattat-offering but did not consume it. Perhaps one lesson to learn from this is that the Mishkan, like the universe, would not be a place of perfection.
In Jewish numerology, seven is the number of perfection and eight is the number beyond perfection, representing that which can never actually be perfected. Some argue that this is why we circumcise our sons on the eighth day – it is not that we are perfecting the body by removing the foreskin, if such a thing could be said, rather it is that we are acknowledging in a certain way that perfection is never possible in physical form. Likewise, it has been argued that this is why we have the holiday of Shemini Atzeret (the eighth day of assembly) following the seven-day (in the land of Israel) festival of Sukkot – as an acknowledgment that even after doing teshuvah for Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur, and celebrating joy of Sukkot, we recognize that perfection is an ideal that is never actualized.
Rabbeinu Bahya brings us some more clues. He says:
The dedication of the High Priesthood on the eighth day is because of an implicit reason, we can see that a significant number of matters relating to the Mishkan and Mikdash have to do with the number eight. There are eight garments of the High Priest…There are eight spices in the anointing oil and eight spices in the incense…There are eight poles – two for the ark, two for the table, two for the gold altar, and two for the olah altar. There were also eight types of offerings which could only be brought on eight specific days…There were also eight types of instruments accompanying the songs of the Levi’im sung over the offerings.
Now, Rabbeinu Bahya does not specify why eight is so prominent in the Mishkan, so let’s try to extrapolate. If eight symbolizes the desire for perfection but the innate inability therein, then perhaps one lesson here is that our ritual mechanisms to connect to the Divine are imbued with imperfection. To presume that we could actually communicate with the Divine despite being inherently imperfect beings would negate the disunity of physical existence. The eight garments of the High Priest symbolize various negative character traits he was expected to conquer; the anointing oil is used to consecrate the priest and the items in the Mishkan to separate them from their mundane state, itself an implicit acknowledgment of imperfection of physicality; the incense was used as a ritual for atonement; the poles were in place because the humans designated to carry the objects were in too imperfect a state to approach the anointed items; the songs accompanying the offerings were intended to entice God into accepting the offering lest they were not perfect. So there is clearly a theme here.
One take away that I have from this information is that the purpose of the Mishkan/Mikdash, the mechanism through which God is caused to be present and through which God is caused to be made distinct, is not to perfect ourselves or the world; rather, the purpose of the Mishkan/Mikdash is to elevate ourselves to a place in which we can accept imperfection and strive to learn from it. Imperfection is a gateway to growth and elevation, not an impediment to it.