SEVEN ATE NINE
Rabbi David Walk
Many of you understand that my title is the answer to the riddle: Why is seven the scariest number? But this is the week to discuss why the number ate (sorry, eight) is such a powerful and, perhaps, awesome number in its own right. While seven, based on the seven days of Creation, represents natural cycles of time and space, eight signifies beyond time and space - the realm of the Infinite and the Eternal - the realm of miracles and the supernatural. Abraham made a covenant (brit) with the Infinite Eternal One, and was thus told to circumcise his male children on the eighth day of their lives. This brit is a sign that Eternity and Infinity will be a part of the lives of Abraham's children forever. The figure eight, when placed on its side, is called the lemniscate and is the mathematical symbol for Infinity. That term means 'decorated with ribbons' and reminds us of the Mobius strip, which can look like a ribbon twisted like an eight and forms an unending loop. These things are spooky. We're comfortable with natural; we're uneasy with supernatural.
This concern for the spooky nature of the number eight is further discussed in a fascinating debate in the Talmud about the beginning of our Torah reading: (R. Levi): We have a tradition from Anshei Keneset ha'Gedolah that 'va'Yehi' (and it was) always denotes pain." Question: It says, "Va'Yehi on the eighth day (of Chanukat ha'Mishkan)"! (Beraisa): That day there was a Simchah in front of God like the day Heaven and earth were created. In both places it says "va'Yehi." Answer: The pain was that Nadav and Avihu died…Answer (Rav Ashi): "Va'Yehi" is sometimes good, and sometimes painful. "Va'Yehi bi'Ymei is always pain (Megilla 10b). Our eighth day is a conundrum for the Sages. There was joy, because of the dedication of the Mishkan or portable Temple, but profound sadness as a result of the Divine executions of Nadav and Avihu, Aharon's beloved sons. A full treatment of that episode requires an article of its own, which I wrote a few years ago. However, the explanation that I find most reasonable is that they didn't perform the service as directed by Moshe, their uncle.
What was the special nature of this 'eighth day'? Rashi helps by, perhaps, further confusing the issue: And it was on the eighth day: of the investitures. It was the first of the month of Nissan, the very day on which the Mishkan was erected. And this day was the first of ten 'crowns' of distinction (Leviticus 9:1). So, this day was the eighth day of the initiation of the Cohanim and the Mishkan, but it was also a day of many firsts, and it was the first of the month of Nissan. Was this day the eighth or the first? Well, both, and that brings us to another way of understanding the number eight.
The Kli Yakar (Reb Shlomo Ephraim ben Aaron Luntschitz, 1550- 1619) furthers our investigation into the number eight with new information. He informs us (based on a Midrash in Yalkut Shimoni) that the number seven is profane or normal while the number eight is holy. What makes the number eight holy? It is the number which describes the activities of Moshe. And how does that work? Moshe is the man of az, the Hebrew word for 'then'. We saw that, of course, a few days back when we read 'az yashir Moshe', 'then sang Moshe', which is the Torah reading for the seventh day of Pesach. But Moshe is also the man of mei'az bati, from the time I came to speak to Pharaoh (Exodus 5:16). The Kli Yakar goes on to explain that the Hebrew word az is the letter aleph riding on the letter zayin. Of course, if we transform those letters into their numerical equivalents that statement says: Eight is the result of the number one riding on top of the number seven.
That famous day in the desert was called the eighth because it followed seven days of intense preparation. But the symbolism goes much deeper, according to that discussion in tractate Megilla. That eighth day was as auspicious as the seven days of Creation. Why? Because mankind took over the reins of spiritual innovation. Rabbi Soloveitchik used to say that all kedusha, sanctity, is a result of human endeavor. Perhaps that reality only began on that momentous morning. Moshe was the man of az (not to be confused with the Wizard), because he was the first to relay this message of creating kedusha, with God's gentle guidance. But was the guidance 'gentle'? Weren't Nadav and Avihu killed because they misapplied this power? Yes, but I'd like to think that God took them away with the gentleness appropriate to their act. There's much I don't understand.
We began this article by saying that the number eight is 'supernatural', but what is supernatural about humans? I think the answer's simple and inspiring. The greatest magic is the God given talent to create kedusha. God gave us the power to make objects and time and, even, ideas holy. Eight is the number which represents this capacity. After the symbolic seven days of Creation, we take over. That's true of a brit and that was true of the dedication of the Mishkan. Much of Jewish history has been the story of God handing over authority to the Jewish people. This process started with the covenant with Avraham, made a big jump with Moshe, and continued with Great Court in Jerusalem. May we maintain that heritage.
And that's scary! This great power bestowed by God to spread kedusha carries great responsibility to wield this authority with responsibility. Perhaps, we needed the Nadav and Avihu story to remind us of the awesome nature of this entitlement. As a result that eighth day was joyous and painful. Every transfer of power is joyous and painful. Whether the pain or the joy predominates is, of course, up to us.