The Doorway of 8
These are strange and unsettling days. Days that might begin with productive equanimity, laughter, with intentional focusing in on the small joys: new recipes, new puzzles, new novels to begin.
And yet, too often, these same days can slip into potholes of darkness: unexpected bouts of fear, loss, grief. With our daily rhythms so dramatically altered, it is easy to lose track of time. Days blur and lack their familiar markers.
What day is it today?
Where are we exactly?
How did we find ourselves here?
What lies ahead?
It feels like we are walking through an unfamiliar wilderness.
And yes, that’s exactly where we are walking.
We are sharing the journey of our ancestors.
Through a swath of wild landscape, stripped down, with nothing but the most essential needs on our backs, moving forward one step at a time, with our destination a hazy, distant image somewhere ahead.
In certain years, we need to stretch the boundaries of our imaginations to feel the narrowness of Egypt, to reclaim the experience of stepping out in a desert, moving along an unmarked path. But not this year. We are just in that space.
We sit now within the period of Sefirat Ha’Omer - the daily counting of the omer, moving us from Passover to Shavuot, from liberation to revelation, from narrowness to expansion by way of the wilds - and the counting of each day has assumed new potency this year.
Facing so much dislocation, the daily counting of the Omer is an anchor. It tethers us to a place in time, an identity within a history and tradition that looms so much larger than this one moment, this particular year. There is comfort in that.
Each day, we count that day. One day. Two days. Three days. All the way through forty-nine days.
Seven days for seven weeks. Sheva shabbatot temimot. Seven weeks of wholeness.
Seven. A number of wholeness in the natural realm. The number seven represents what is perfect, complete in the natural world.
But what about the number 8?
This Shabbat, we read Parshat Shemini. Shemini, its name, comes from the Hebrew word for eight - shemoneh. The parsha opens by speaking about the inauguration of the holy mishkan (tabernacle) on the 8th day.
And the parsha contains two moments that invite us to consider how we respond to those experiences that push us beyond our understanding. The encounters with life that humble, perplex, overwhelm our capacity to understand or respond.
The first comes when the inaugural sacrifice is brought in the mishkan on the 8th day:
Moses and Aaron then went inside the Tent of Meeting. When they came out, they blessed the people; and the Presence of the LORD appeared to all the people.
Fire came forth from before the LORD and consumed the burnt offering and the fat parts on the altar. And all the people saw, and shouted, and fell on their faces.
After seven days of waiting, the Divine Presence finally appeared to the People. And they were overwhelmed by the experience. They saw. They shouted. They collapsed on their faces. Confronted with God in front of them, they could do nothing else.
Immediately following this verse, we read the story of Nadav and Avihu, the two sons of Aaron who sought to offer their own, non-mandated offerings:
Now Aaron’s sons Nadab and Abihu each took his fire pan, put fire in it, and laid incense on it; and they offered before the LORD alien fire, which He had not enjoined upon them.
And fire came forth from the LORD and consumed them; thus they died at the instance of the LORD. Then Moses said to Aaron, “This is what the LORD meant when He said: Through those near to Me I show Myself holy, and gain glory before all the people.” And Aaron was silent.
When confronted with the sudden, tragic death of his two sons, Aaron could find no words. Va’yidom Aharon. Aaron stayed silent. He was struck dumb. There were no words.
Back to the number 8. While the 7 symbolizes wholeness and completion in the natural order of life, the number 8 pushes us further, beyond, into the supernatural realm.
8 is a step into the mysterious realm of the spiritual. In the space of 8, we are asked to expand our capacity for encounter and understanding, to let go of our hold on what is normal and expected and make space for what might be.
And when faced with these experiences, there is no one right response. You can scream. You can collapse. You may stay silent. All acceptable.
We return to the Omer. Our tether to time in this wilderness.
To the 8th day. Today.
Today, we begin the week of Gevurah. Strength. Tenacity. Discipline.
Our tradition, our calendar, its teachings give us the structure to find footing in this place. We move forward, one day at a time, cultivating the qualities we need to seek wholeness beyond the natural order of things.
So, this week, we flex our strength. With trust, we soften into our inner reserves and let our capacity for fortitude guide us through the next 7 days.