Categorized | Columnists, D'var Torah

The number 8: higher and completely distinct

Posted on 28 March 2019 by admin

There is a song that children love which has traditionally been inserted at the end of the Passover Seder called Echad Mi Yodea (“Who Knows One?”) But what does this have to do with relating the story of the Exodus from Egypt? Perhaps this popular poem, all about numbers, snuck into the Haggadah because Passover is the ripest time for Jewish education, to impart to the child (and to ourselves) a Torah worldview. Reciting “Who Knows One?” instills a natural association with One God — and likewise, some meaningful content associated with each number in the song.
A name and a number
This week, the number eight is emphasized, as the parasha title, Shemini, means “the eighth”—after the opening words “and it came to pass on the eighth day.” It’s the only Torah portion whose name is a number. And in certain years (outside of Israel), we read this portion a total of eight times.
This eighth day to which it refers follows last week’s instructions to complete a seven-day inaugural process of the Mishkan (sanctuary). The day after was set aside for inducting Aaron and his sons into priesthood, as they began their service. It was also the day on which the presence of God was revealed — when the Shechinah began to reside amongst Israel.
One of the primary commentaries on the Torah, Rabbi Shlomo Ephraim Luntschitz, known as the “Kli Yakar,” is bothered by the phrase “shemini.” Labeling something the “eighth” in any sequence implies a common feature with the previous seven. The events of this day, however, were not a continuation of a previous seven, but the beginning of a new process. If so, he questions, why was this called “the eighth”? — it should have said something like “the following day” or “the day of revelation.”
Sevenths and eighths
In his answer, rich with insights, he explains that the Torah uses the term “the eighth day” to highlight its extraordinary quality — a day of revelation. He continues to elucidate how the number eight, which often appears in the Tanach in conjunction with the number seven, carries certain connotations: In Jewish thought, the number eight signifies something supernatural, a superior divine disclosure, while the number seven signifies the natural experience and ordinary processes. (The Hebrew word shemini, eight, also shares a root with shemen, which means fat or expanded.)
(This is a recurring theme: There are seven musical notes in any given scale. Our weekly cycle consists of seven days. The symbolic seven-stringed harp of the first two Temples stands in contrast to the eight-stringed harp in Messianic times, when the entire world will reach a higher consciousness, “for the earth shall be filed with the knowledge of God, as the waters cover the seabed.” Interestingly, the infinity symbol we use takes the form of a sideways eight.)
The Kli Yakar commentary goes on to explain how the numerical association even manifests in Jewish law where the mitzvah of circumcision supersedes the prohibition of forbidden labors on Shabbat; a brit milah is associated with eight while Shabbat is associated with the number seven — “and the rule is that the sacred takes precedence over the mundane.”
Grades of holiness
While his question on the Torah’s usage of “eighth” is probing, there are two apparent difficulties with his answer provided. First, how can he claim that the seventh day, Shabbat, is part of the mundane? After all, throughout the Torah and prophets we find references to how this spiritual day of rest is permeated with holiness (i.e., “And God blessed the Shabbat day and made it holy,” Exodus 20:11). These verses — which are found in the Kiddush (from the same Hebrew root word as “holy)” — clearly stress the sanctity of the day.
The commentaries clarify that the expression “seven refers to the mundane” is only relative. The “day of rest” is indeed elevated above the other six days in its purpose — it is the completion of the natural order, the holy element within creation. But the number eight signifies a level that is beyond creation — not just higher, but completely distinct.
In other words, there are two general grades of holiness: There is a finite holiness that still has a relationship to the natural order. We can draw down and access this level with our actions — by refining the world through mitzvot. Then there is a more transcendent holiness, too potent to be incorporated within the physical realm (except for certain occasions).
Thus, we can speak of progressive stages: the raw, seemingly ordinary, existence of material; the perfection or holiness reached within the world (reflected by number seven); a holiness that transcends this world, a signal of the world to come (reflected by number eight).
If so, it seems that the Kli Yakar didn’t really answer his question, but instead made it stronger: The number eight is completely beyond the natural order which is controlled with a cycle of seven, and the eighth day was likewise disconnected from the previous seven, a unique occurrence bound up with the infinite.
But his succinct commentary is perhaps addressing an important existential question: How much of what we end up with in life is earned, and how much is due to factors beyond our effort, what we’d call a blessing or a gift? (A relevant subject in physical, economic and spiritual pursuits.)
Gifts and rewards
A reward, such as salary, is usually commensurate with the achievement — the person’s effort and capabilities — and so is in proportion to the quality of the invested. A gift, however, is not an outgrowth of one’s effort, but based on the kindness of the giver. Yet, in certain contexts, there may be a strong connection between the recipient’s actions and the decision of the giver to present that gift.
In our biblical extract, we are being taught a rule that pertains to holiness. There can be a process whereby the cause-and-effect are inherently distinct components, but at the same time specific actions are necessary to trigger remarkable results, “a gift.” Or from a different angle, in a relationship with God — or the global interaction between human effort and divine response — we must put in work, but what we receive in return far surpasses the boundaries of our capabilities and achievements. In numerical symbolism, the level of eight is infinitely higher than seven — so we can never earn eight — yet only when the process of seven is complete does the level of eight arrive.
This theme plays out in many aspects of our lives. Perhaps the best example is a marriage, which entails components of seven and eight. Seven represents our effort, beginning before marriage and continuing throughout. It is also our love and appreciation for a spouse. Eight is the deeper and eternal love, the connection which reaches way beyond any conscious appreciation. The ultimate goal of Jewish marriage — “finding your bashert” — is to transition from seven to eight and uncover the element of eight.
Two souls join in this world, brought together through an unfathomable intricate series of events over generations. On the one hand, a successful marriage can be perceived as a product of all the personal developments and preparation: the investment in trying to understand the way the other person operates and be in tune with their feelings and build a meaningful life together. But in the end, the fruits of their efforts — a sacred bond, the children created and legacy left — stem from a power beyond the boundaries of any joint effort, “the gift” that belongs to the realm of eight.
Takeaway
Whether in personal growth, in a relationship, career goal, or in our spiritual pursuits, we all face challenges and struggles. At times we may feel that the next higher stage is impossible or out of reach. One message from this week is that we must first recognize our task, the responsibility of fixing and refining our part through natural means, a process signified by seven. But when we do our job to attain perfection, we then uncover a force way beyond us that comes into our lives. This is the gift of “the eighth day.”
Rabbi Dan Lewin is director of the nonprofit Maayan Chai Foundation. For information, visit www.maayanchai.org.

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