The sidra continues the story begun last week, when Aaron and his sons were dedicated to the priesthood in a ceremony lasting seven days. And now, on the eighth day, it is time for them to begin their work, to offer sacrifices at the altar, to prepare the place and the people for the imminent arrival of the presence of God.
We begin with a verse that has always caught my attention. “Vay’hee bayom ha’shemini, kara Moshe l’Aharon u’le’vanav, ul’zik’nei Yisrael” And it came to pass on the eighth day that Moses called to Aaron and to his sons, and to the Elders of Israel… “ (Lev 9:1)
Why does it catch my attention? Firstly because the eighth day is such a particular description – we have had a full week of seven days of preparation and now here we are with a new beginning. The eighth day always makes me think of the seven days of Creation and then – this day, the first day of the life of the world fully made. It makes me think of the mitzvah of circumcision to be enacted on the eighth day – the day a male Jewish baby is brought into the Covenant. It symbolises to me the moment of starting out, the first steps of independence once the groundwork has been laid.
So it seems right and proper that the priests should be starting their sacrificial work on this day, when the world is somehow shiny and new and all things are possible.
And then the second ‘catch’ – why does Moses call not only Aaron and his sons, but also the Ziknei Yisrael, the Elders of Israel? This is apparently a priestly activity, the instructions specifically for them to do, and yet the Elders are also there.
The Ziknei Yisrael are present at a number of pivotal events in the bible. At the burning bush Moses is told to gather the Elders of Israel (Exodus 3:16), at Sinai (Exodus 19:7) again they are gathered and told what God had said to Moses, in the wilderness after one of the rebellions again God tells Moses to gather them to hear God’s words (Num. 11:16). The Ziknei Yisrael are often the witnesses and the support to Moses at times of change or vulnerability. While they do not speak and seem to have no active or proactive role in the text, their presence is vital to the stability and robustness of Moses’ leadership.
So here we are, a verse denoting new beginnings for the worship system, witnessed by the Elders who have been with Moses every step of the way, and within a short time we have the story of a tragedy. The new beginning has gone badly wrong; Nadav and Avihu, two of the sons of Aaron have died because they have not followed the ritual correctly, and Aaron is unable to speak, and explicitly told that he must not show his grief in a public manner.
And then the dedication ceremony continues, with Aaron and his remaining sons Itamar and Elazar fulfilling the ritual, though it is clear in the text that their hearts are not really in it. They are traumatised and unable to eat the portion marked for the priesthood. And yet, like consummate professionals, the work of the Tabernacle goes on.
I always read this section with a sense of great sadness – the death of two of his sons clearly marks Aaron and the remaining sons forever. It seems unfair that whatever Nadav and Avihu did, the consequences should have been so drastic. Moses comes over as unfeeling and demanding, focussed on the continuation of the process more than on the desperate distress of his family.
And the elders? Well they observe it all, solidly present, quietly linking the past to the future, the witnesses to the trauma of our people
The response of Moses which seems so unfeeling is maybe not as cold as it first appears. He tells Aaron and the surviving sons to continue with the important work they have to do, not to allow themselves to stop and to interrupt all that they have prepared for. They cannot indulge in paralysing grief, but must get on with life. And so they do. They are dejected and in anguish, but they get on with the work of their lives, and so the people of Israel pick up once more and continue in their journey. I am reminded of all those Holocaust Survivors who did not speak a great deal of what had happened to them and to those they loved, but who got on with rebuilding life, defining themselves not by what had happened then but by what they do now. Their response which seemed so odd when I was a child now seems sensible. They were not held back in their grief, they continued to build life. Maybe that is what the eighth day is really about. Whatever happened before there is always a new start, the history may prepare us and shape us, but it can never hold us back if we chose to see ourselves as beginning the next stage of our lives.