Shemini – Actualizing Potential
A curious point is raised by Rabbi Jesse Horn, who noticed that in three distinct places in the Torah the inaugural day of the Mishkan is addressed. The first appears in the last chapter of the book of Exodus. This is where we would most expect it, as the instructions for, and the construction of, the Mishkan are detailed in the second half of Exodus. When the building was complete, probably just as Moses was brushing the dust off his hands, a cloud descended to cover the Mishkan, reflecting the Divine presence. This presence was so intense that Moses could not enter the Mishkan. This manifestation appears to be the punchline of the narrative, as no other details of the inaugural day are mentioned in this context.
The next place the Mishkan’s inauguration is mentioned is in our reading of Shemini, in Leviticus. The ceremonies began seven days earlier, and the eighth day was the culmination, with Aaron assuming his duties as High Priest. A series of sacrifices were prescribed for this day, and the Torah relates that Aaron and his sons performed all their duties just as Moses instructed. Aaron concluded the service and came out to bless the people. He then entered again, this time with Moses, and they both subsequently came out and blessed the people, after which God’s presence became apparent to the entire nation.
The third and final place where this is discussed is in the book of Numbers, detailing the gifts of the tribal leaders upon the inauguration of the Mishkan. Rabbi Horn points out that not only is this narrative spread out over three different places, in three separate books of the Torah, these three narratives are entirely different and there are no overlaps. Each time the Torah addresses the opening day of the Mishkan it has an entirely different focus.
Rabbi Horn suggests that each narrative comes to support the theme of the book in which it appears. The Book of Exodus focuses on the nation of Israel as they shift from slavery to free people. The first half of the book covers the servitude and the second half follows their journey to and within freedom. The ultimate expression of their freedom was to achieve a return of God’s presence in the world, and this was the purpose of the Mishkan building. For this reason the Torah suffices to describe the presence of God filling the Mishkan, showing that this quest was fulfilled. No further discussion is needed in this context.
In the book of Numbers the inauguration is discussed for the third time. The context of the book is the preparation of the people for entry into the Promised Land. The contributions of the tribal leaders were useful for the functioning and the transport of the Mishkan, and therefore Numbers was chosen as the appropriate place for that aspect of the Mishkan’s opening.
Leviticus, however, serves as a book of instructions for life in the presence of God. In his introduction to Leviticus the Ramban explains that the rules of Temple offerings, ritual purity and family life are detailed in Leviticus because these were part of daily living in the wilderness. The narrative of the inauguration in this context must reflect this theme as well. I depart here from Rabbi Horn’s explanation and suggest that Aaron’s attempt to “summon” the Divine Presence is the focus of this story. After completing the series of offerings “Aaron raised his hands toward the people and he blessed them…” (Leviticus 9:22) The commentaries note that this blessing was the classic three-part priestly blessing to which we are introduced in the Book of Numbers. But then Aaron again enters the Mishkan, this time accompanied by his brother Moses. They both came out and blessed the people, and this time the “glory of God was apparent to the entire nation.” (vs. 23)
In his second explanation on this verse Rash”i relates that Aaron was disappointed that God’s presence was not manifest after he concluded the service and blessed the people. He felt badly, and attributed this failure to his involvement with the Golden Calf. Moses therefore came to his aid and they both prayed that the Divine Presence should rest on the Mishkan. When they emerged they blessed the people, and this time the presence of God appeared. What was the content of this second blessing? Rash”i informs us that the blessing consisted of the words later stated in the conclusion of Psalm 90 (attributed to Moses): “Let the pleasantness of the Lord, our God, be upon us, and let the work of our hands be established for us, yea, let the work of our hands be established.”
Why didn’t Aaron repeat the normal Priestly blessings? Was that not the appropriate blessing coming from the High Priest? Perhaps an alternative blessing was chosen because a different message was appropriate for this occasion.
A story is told of a congregation with a dilapidated synagogue that hired a young, enthusiastic rabbi. Upon assuming his post he energized the congregation and organized a complete overhaul of the building. The members went to work, and after weeks of repairing, painting and refreshing the building, the synagogue began to sparkle with new life. The garden outside, however, was another matter. The rabbi took it upon himself to work on the overgrown garden. Whenever time allowed it he dug up weeds and root systems. He planted rows of neat rows of plants and flowers and carefully placed climbing vines where they would thrive. A few months later when everything was in full bloom the garden looked beautiful. A congregant passed by and complimented the rabbi on the garden, commenting that the Lord must be his partner. “Yes He is,” the rabbi acknowledged, “but you should have seen the garden when my partner cared for it!”
Moses and Aaron wanted to stress the partnership between God and humanity. God can put all the mechanisms in place. He can provide the sunshine and rain, he can ensure that raw material is available and that the chemical reactions take place. But without our input the potential will remain unrealized. If we want to live life in accordance with God’s will we need to put in the effort and actualize the partnership. In the end, with a combination of our efforts and God’s input, we will have a thriving garden. Leviticus is indeed about living our lives appropriately, and Aaron’s activities reflected his submission to the order that God prescribed through Moses. Sometimes an extra push is necessary, but in the end they merited to God’s presence in their midst.