I know what you’re going to ask me – have I been away, was it productive, did I have a good sabbatical. In answer to all three questions let me first say thank you for giving me the space and time for it. It probably saved my life or my health (at least in the long term, I suspect sabbaticals help the life expectancy of clergy – whose life spans may be getting shorter and whose health is deteriorating with obesity, asthma, diabetes, depression, etc), it was certainly productive though you’ll be bored of the technical writing and not all that is productive is tangible (like having a relationship with your children); it was amazing, though I’m afraid there is no mind blowing sermon and I didn’t discover the mysteries of the universe. I’ve not been away unless moving to slightly further North is overseas (and I know for some of you it is).
But now to the business of the sermon!
The midrashic collection Leviticus Rabbah offers various interpretations for the various Torah portions in Leviticus. The collection itself, one of the oldest of its type dating back perhaps 1500 years, is often described as homiletic (in other words, the midrashim are sermon-like), or perhaps if we aren’t convinced they were delivered/performed as verbal sermons we might use the term coined in regards to this genre – ‘literary homily’. I rather favour the more recent description of anthologies of interpretations woven together.
Turning to the midrashim on the opening words of Parashat Shemini in Leviticus I can only describe them as the Torah of the next day. What is the eighth day? That is we might think – the next day after the seven days of creation, the next day after the messiah comes, the next day after revelation of the Torah, the next day after the Tent of Meeting is completed and priests consecrated, the next day after wandering the wilderness for forty years. Invariably, the next day is a day when it might go wrong.
After creation, Adam and Eve sin. After revelation, the Golden Calf. After the consecration of the priests, two of them (in our portion) – the sons of Aaron – offer up strange fire and are zapped to death by God.
The day after. The Torah’s version of the seven year itch. Brit milah happens on the day after 7 days. Married life begins after the 7 days of sheva berachot. Life after the death of a loved one occurs on the 8th day after shiva. Shemini Atzeret falls after the 7 days of insecurity of Sukkot. The 7 weeks from Pesach (it’s the seventh day of the Omer by the way) literally is the Torah of the next day (the 50th) with Shavuot. Torah of the next day – we should spend more time thinking about the Torah of the next day. Which is to say, when we undertake to complete, create or found something – when that’s done we need to think about the next day. The day after the energy has been expended, after the ideological purity has worn off, after the intense commitment is over. That’s when the new danger exists.
There is a tragedy – a true poetic tragedy – which the midrash on Leviticus Rabbah describes about the fate of Moses.
Rabbi Shmuel bar Nachmani said: For all seven days of the bush [the burning bush], God tried to persuade Moses to go on his mission in Egypt. As it says, “ALSO yesterday, ALSO the day before yesterday, ALSO since you have spoken to Your servant” (Exodus 4:10). Totalling six [days]. On the seventh day he said to God, “Send, pray Thee, by the hand of whom You will send” (Exodus 4:14). God said to him: Moses, you say to me, “Send, pray thee, by the hand of whom You will send”. By your life, I will tie this in your skirts.
When did he repay him? Rabbi Berekhia gave an answer in the name of Rabbi Levi and Rabbi Chelbo: Rabbi Levi said: For all seven days of Adar he [Moses] asked in prayer and supplication to enter the land of Israel. On the seventh day God said to him, “For you shall not cross this Jordan” (Deuteronomy 3:27). Rabbi Chelbo said: All seven days of the consecration Moses served as the high priest and thought, on the seventh day ‘it’s mine’. God said to him, ‘It is not yours, but rather Aaron your brother’s.’ “It came to pass on the eighth day he called” (Leviticus 9:1).
Leviticus Rabbah 11:6 (extract)
So Moses spends 7 days ignoring the persuasion of God in the burning bush. And then with impertinence he accepts his responsibility. Only let’s not forget that Aaron is actually brought in to help him out. So it is that years later, the people are freed, they’ve built a tabernacle, anointed the priests. Rabbi Levi imagines at the end of the wandering in the wilderness, for seven days Moses in prayer and supplication begs to enter the land of Israel – which will be literally the day after the Torah finishes. God tells him it’s never going to happen. The poetry of the Torah of the day after.
And according to Rabbi Chelbo’s interpretation for 7 days Moses thinks he’s going to retain the prophetic and High Priest’s mantle. For seven days it seems so. And then the pay back is made – he’s told he’s not the High Priest. Nothing of the sort. Others will ultimately serve God in that most intimate of ways. The Torah after the day after.
Imagine for a moment you are Moses. It must have been so incredibly painful to have invested your life’s work in leading the people of Israel and here you are told that at the end of completing your task, the day after, you go no further. You build the tabernacle, the dwelling place of God, and then you’re told – it won’t be you or your descendants working in here, pronouncing the ineffable name of God before the Ark of the Covenant.
Parashat Shemini – the eighth day is exactly this – the Torah of the day after.
We’re living the Torah of the day after here in the 21st century. If the defeat of Hitler 70 years ago led to, at least in Western Europe, a notional sense of optimism and idealism for common humanity through the European project and I suppose the United Nations, the generation of builders has had to let go. They won’t be the High Priests of this shared vision any longer. Why else did I hear the other night on television young politicians and commentators bemoan the fact they never had a chance to vote on Europe in the life time – they’re too young. I’m too young.
And if the, it seems, false hope of the end of ideological monoliths and totalitarianism was celebrated with the fall of the Berlin Wall 26 years ago – the day after is a generation of youths who have grown up not knowing communism or nuclear proliferation or escape from traditional, overbearing religion. Who have not experienced the effects of post-modernism as it pulled the rug from beneath the false idols.
We’re living the global Torah of the day after. The perilous question of what next remains alive more than ever. This is our eighth day.
And I think looking inwards to the Jewish community we are also in the midst of our eighth day. For example, Progressive Judaism is no longer a novelty, it’s proven itself to be no flash in the pan and the old radicalism of its youth has softened. Some might say the youthful zeal has been supplanted by a slipping back into former ways. Others might claim that this eighth day beholds the denial of fulfilment of its purpose to be cutting edge. A new generation lives in this eighth day who knew not the saintly founders, Montagu, Mattuck and Montefiore.
But what do we do in Judaism when a cycle of investment and fulfilment has run its course? What is the response that the Jewish community has embedded in its psyche? Surely it is this – we build anew, with a new generation, with new leaders, with new vision and renewed purpose. After the Torah comes the rest of the Bible, the Talmud; after the destruction of the Temple, we are all priests; after the expulsion from Spain, mystical Tsfat; after the Holocaust, a renewed commitment to European humanism and rebuilding of Jewish life; after the seven days of creation comes the real work of living.
Because you see the thing that Judaism knows is that time marches on and, with a reference to Yehuda Amichai, change is its God. Judaism has never been kept hostage by those seeking its ossification (at least not in the long term). And to be a Jew is to also hold fast to a vision of the world which is changing and we can change for the better. The fundamentalists of all schools of thought will not be allowed to thrust us back into the medieval seven days of the past. Because they stand for everything that is counter to the reality. We will draw deep on the sustaining power of the eighth day because humanity’s survival depends on it. And then we build.
(A study sheet on which this sermon is based is available here)