October 17, 2021 |

The Eighth Day

There are a lot of different ways to live your life. Each culture and each minority group develop their own style of dress, their own arts and music, their own language and forms of expression, their own values and etiquette. Perhaps every culture and nation has some aspects of their culture that works well and that is beautiful and impressive to others. Each culture also has customs and ways that don't work so well, that should be fixed, that are unattractive.

This is certainly true in our American moment. Americans, despite our impressive diversity, are defined by a certain kind of culture of achievement and angst, of culture and capitalism, of politics and publicity. In some ways, the whole world admires our American system and wishes to emulate us. In others, they can see clearly that not every democatic experiment we have conducted has worked out so well.

In our Jewish experience, this is true as well. Each Jewish community and each individual Jew is involved in a living attempt to define itself within Judaism and each attempt is unique. Each of us admires and cherishes our tradition, but there are also has aspects with which we struggle. There are also - for each of us -- elements of Judaism that naturally reverberate for us, that we find intensely beautiful and attractive. We are always trying to balance our inclinations with our responsibiltities, to balance our needs to find self-expression in our Judaism (the parts we like) with an udnerstanding that we must preserve its authenticity and traditions (even if we sometimes don't get it.)

Our Torah portion highlights two important areas in Jewish life where this struggle often comes up. The first is the importance of being part of a Jewish community, whenever and wherever it may be found. The second is the importance of ritual, of halacha (Jewish law), or a specific way that things are done.

I think it is so clear that being part of a welcoming Jewish communtiy is critical to living a satisfying Jewish life. Whe times are tough - emotionally, spiritually, financially - communities bind together to support their members and make sure that they have what they need to get by. In many shuls, people cook for each other when their neigbors are sick or bereaved and have anonymous chessed funds for those who need financial help. When times are good, communities gather to celebrate and be together. It's hard to have a Purim celebration all by yourself; the essence of the day demands togetherness! On the other hand, communities can sometimes feel onerous. It can feel like everyone is peering into your business, or that you are having a hard time establishing your own private identity as part of the communal whole. Sometimes, we need to take a break from the community, but, inevitably, find that we miss its warmth and togetherness after a while.

Similarly, having a set menu of "dos" and don'ts" can sometimes feel annoying.Do we really have to keep kosher all the time and Shabbat every week? It would be much easier if we could take a wee little break during the week we are on that Caribbean cruise. The rules and regulations can be confusing, can seem foreign to us and others around us, and wearying. However, the idea of rituals is amazingly comforting. Starbucks's new logo is "take comfort in rituals" and those who flock to self-empowerment gurus like Tony Robbins express their amazement at how much they recommend having sets of rituals and ritual activities that do not vary. They might suggest a ritual like drinking coffee with a good friend or saying "affirmations" each morning ("Today, I will be positive"), how different is this really from saying the morning blessings - Blessed are You, hashem our God, king of the Universe, for giving me eyes with which to see (pokei'ach ivrim)[1].

According to Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, the two sons of Aaron in this week's Torah portion failed to understand both the importance of staying within the community and of keeping the rituals of the Torah. On the eighth day of the inauguration of the Tabernacle -- which was the grand finale, when fire was to come down from the Heavens - they brought an unauthorized incense offering of their own volition, without including or consulting with anyone else. Rabbi Hirsch writes that what they did was selfish. Since there was no unique role for them to be "in the spotlight" on the eighth inaugural day, they sought some way to make their own mark. This is not the right way to go about it - one cannot be an attention-seeker when the community is celebrating together. You have to be a member of the community. In other words, it's not all about you. Secondly, they failed to stay within the rituals of the day. In their excitement and enthusiasm, they thought that they could add fire to fire. In their ardor, they thought that adding 'the next thing' would be better. But it wasn't[2]. Separating themselves from the community and adding an extra flame simply showed that they did not value the community, but themselves, and that they did not value ritual, just what felt good to them at that time.

It can be challenging sometimes - when we are weak and frustrated - to be tenacious in our embrace of our fellow Jews and to stick with our commitments to Jewish practice. But we should dig deep not to break our momentum and not to lose our accomplishments for the irrationalities of the moment. As Rav Hirtsch notes, the secret of the eighth day is how it builds upon the previous seven. The eighth day is the next octave up. By staying with the community and sticking with the Jewish law that we keep, we rise to a level that is simialr to the one before, but always elevated, always higher. May we build our Jewish lives from octave to octave and not be stuck just playing the same notes again and again. Shabbat shalom!

[1] Of course, the blessing is clearly superior, for it is not only self-affirming, but also God-affirming.

[2]There is actually a Talmudic adage that says "kol hamosif gorei'a", "one who adds, detracts", which is used in modern parlance as "too much of a good thing" among other phrases.


Rabbi Avi Heller

Joined: July 27, 2007

Originally from Denver CO, Rav Avi received a BA from BU and Rabbinic ordination and an MA in Bible from YU. Before joining MJE, he was Director of Jewish Education at BU Hillel, co-directed the BU Jewish Learning Initiative on Campus and was an Associate University Chaplain. He has been the...

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