Shabbat Shemini: Teach Us To Count Our Days

למנות ימינו כן הודע ונביא לבב חכמה

Limnot yameynu keyn hoda’ v’navi levav hokhmah

“Teach us to count our days that we might acquire a heart of wisdom.”

Psalm 90.12

“What day is it?” This isolation we are practicing for the sake of public health, and the disruption of the routines that define the days for us, makes it hard to keep track of time. All the more reason to be grateful, I find, for the ancient Jewish practices that keep insisting on their relevance no matter what happens in our so-called secular (aka not Jewish) lives.

A curious coincidence: the name of our parashah this week is Shemini, which means “eighth.” And today is the eighth day of Sefirat ha’Omer, the Counting of the Omer. ”Who knows eight?” As the song at the end of the Seder proclaims, shmonah yemei milah, the eighth day is Brit milah, the Jewish covenant of circumcision which was the very first identity marker of which we know that was adopted by the Jewish people for all those with male bodies (regardless of expressions of gender or sexuality – you can find much more on that in the Talmud.) 

On the surface – p’shat – level, our parashat hashavuah, the parashah for this week in the Torah, describes the beginning of the sacrificial practices associated with the Mishkan, the tent set up on the middle of the Israelite camp in order to create a sense of connection between us and HaShem. But we are taught that there are four levels of interpretation for every verse, every word, every letter in the Torah. Digging deeper into levels of drash (“investigation”), remez (“hint”) and sode (“secret”) opens up for us a fascinating door into the profound meaning of counting our days.

We begin with the name of the parashah, shemini, “eighth.” The context of this number is provided at the end of last week’s parashah, with the words “Your ordination will require seven days.” (Lev. 8.33). The words are directed to the first kohanim, priests, who will serve in the Mishkan and were undergoing a week of training to prepare.

The eighth day in Jewish tradition symbolizes that which comes after the perfection of Creation. In seven days HaShem created the world, we are told in Bereshit, and on the eighth day the story of human action within that creation began. So also in this parashah, in which the Mishkan, which is a microcosm of Creation, becomes active on the eighth day, through human agency, in partnership with HaShem.

The Zohar, the primary source of much Jewish mystical speculation and insight, offers a closer, more literal reading of Leviticus 8.33.

כי שבעת ימים ימלא את ידכם

Shivat yamim y’maley et yedkhem 

Seven days shall fill your hands 

Drawing upon the unusual syntax, the Zohar suggests that “We have learned: they are six, all included in this (seventh) one, which is totality of them all.” The Seven mentioned here is Binah, “understanding,” the mother sefirah out of which the world of emotion, of physicality, in short of the world we know, was born.

The sefirot that compose our world are the six mentioned by the Zohar plus the final one that represents the world as we know it. Noting the similarity between the word sefirah, “counting” and the word sefirah, “characteristic”,  opens the mystical door to seeing these as the sefirot that we are to count during the Counting of the Omer period. 

There are many places on the web where you can find a daily guide for counting the Omer. It lists the sefirot that compose our world, as characteristics that also compose us, in the order of the weekly counting. In short, it offers you a profound way to meditate upon an intensely personal consideration of who you are, and how you are, both in your inner existence and in the world.* It can help you keep track of what day it is. More, it may fill your hands with a sense not only of each day that passes, but of the Binah, the wisdom, that gathers them, and us, all up.

Shabbat shalom,

Rabbi Ariel

*there is much, more more to be said about this, and I have said it in my Because All Is One

parashat Emor 5773, and 32nd Day of the Omer

This week’s parashat hashavua is called Emor, “speak”. As in, “G-d said to Moshe, speak to the children of Israel and say to them….” – a not-uncommon idea in the four books of the Torah in which Moshe is a primary figure. In this case, however, G-d is telling Moshe to speak to a particular subset of the children of Israel: in this case, it is the children of Aaron who are to be addressed, they who serve as kohanim, priests. What follows is a guide to priestly behavior, which might be summed up with the idea that the kohen is to hold himself to a higher standard than the average Israelite. (Remember the old Hebrew National hotdog tagline? “we answer to a higher authority.”)

It’s still true that most of us expect our priests – and ministers and rabbis, and all religious figures – to adhere to a higher standard than we might expect from other people. Yet when the Jerusalem Temple was destroyed by the Romans in 70 C.E., causing the end of the Jerusalem-based priesthood and its sacrificial system, our ancestors did something very interesting in response. Rather than to lose the concept of the priesthood and all it symbolizes for Jews, rather than simply to give in to the destruction, the early Rabbis invoked a verse from Torah:

You shall be to me a kingdom of priests, and a holy people. (Ex.19.6)

All of us can be as priests. The priesthood was no more; but each of us could hold ourselves to a priestly standard. The table upon which we set offerings for G-d was destroyed? then each of our own tables, in every one of our own homes, would become G-d’s table. Even as the kohanim would spiritually prepare themselves to eat the sacred food which came from the sacrifices, so we would, through specific rituals, spiritually prepare ourselves to share a sacred meal. Blessings over candles, wine and bread are Rabbinic mitzvot, which created a way for Jews to continue to focus upon the real meaning of the sacrifices once brought to G-d in Jerusalem.

That real meaning is this: outer forms of ritual and practice are important because they focus us on what is true, and real, in our lives. And what is true is that each of us stands before G-d, with no kohen to mediate from a higher spiritual position. What brings us higher is our own determination to keep the rituals relevant to us, to keep the practices so that they can keep us.

More than Israel has kept the Shabbat, the Shabbat has kept Israel. (Ahad Ha’Am)

On this Shabbat, remember that no one stands between you and G-d; no one is higher than the place to which you might rise. And this rising depends upon things that are already before you: the table and what is upon it, and what happens between those who share it. And the most important priestly act of all, the one that each of us must do for ourselves and each other? Now that the altar in the Temple is destroyed, keep something of the fire that once burned there upon the altar of your heart.