Sometimes you need a very good memory!
That is the case this year, as Passover began on a Friday night and ended on Saturday night, eight days later. Jews attending synagogue thus found their weekly Torah cycle interrupted not just for one week but for two, as special Passover readings were interjected into the normal weekly progression. Only this week, do we finally pick up where we left off three weeks ago, resuming the tale of Aaron’s investiture as high priest. We start with the enigmatic phrase, “On the eighth day.” But, eighth day of what?
You have to remember that the reading three weeks ago ended with Aaron and his sons (newly ordained as priests) having to wait seven days outside the desert sanctuary (the mishkan). Only now, on the eighth day, can Aaron and his family enter it to initiate sacrifice on behalf of the people. By doing so, they celebrate the fact that God has come to dwell there.
But still: why only on the eighth day?
A Talmudic tradition says the eighth day corresponded to Nisan 1, the anniversary of the day that God began to speak the universe into being. If so, our reading really does require a good memory! It assumes you are thinking back all the way to the act of creation itself. We saw there how God created the world in seven days. Now, as it were, though countless centuries have elapsed, we come to the eighth day: not just the eighth day of Aaron’s ordination, but the eighth day of creation.
The universe was apparently incomplete all those years, awaiting a final act of creation that even almighty God cannot accomplish. God can make the world, even visit it on occasion; but God cannot live in it without the work we do that invites God in.
So that is what the many weeks of reading through Exodus (and now, Leviticus) have been about. All that detailed stuff about hammering together boards and sockets, sowing priestly garments, preparing the eternal light, and affixing the gorgeous drapery — even Aaron’s crash course in sacrifice: all of that was about the uniquely human task of bringing God here to earth, to dwell.
Architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe reputedly said, “God is in the detail.” He did not mean God’s details (though they are beautiful enough) – the microscopic magnificence of a butterfly’s wing or the billions of flower species each different from the next. He meant our own. Yes, all these past few weeks of reading Torah have been about finding God in our details, the details of a desert mishkan that, made just right, invites God in.
When God finished the divine share of creation, “God blessed the seventh day and rested.” But think about it: Can God get tired? No, God rested because there was nothing left for God to do. Creation had now to be delegated to us. That is why the sixth day of creation ends with the words, “God looked at everything he had done.” Everything God had done, not everything there is to do – like a builder of a home who erects the framework but then must await the electrician to light the place up. From the seventh day on, then, God awaited this eighth day, when God’s creatures might finally finish the job by doing the one thing God could not: make a dwelling place here for God.
We are invited to continue that tradition, not just in building actual sanctuaries, but in our everyday pursuits. Whatever our tasks – planting a garden, serving a customer, preparing a report, representing a client, visiting the sick, chairing a committee – we are to do them with such excellence of detail that even God would feel comfortable dropping by. Are you raising a family? Attending to business? Volunteering in a synagogue? Building a friendship? These are not mere pastimes to fill the space between birth and death. They are examples of a sanctuary, updated for our time: examples of the human ability to find creativity meaningful and work fulfilling. So decorate your home, sell your product, investigate a school for your children, invent a better something-or-other – but do it right; cut no corners. You may find God coming to live nearby. And some day, someone may write of you. “It was an evening and it was a morning: an eighth day.”