When I can’t sleep, I often free verse / wax poetic about whatever’s on my mind. It’s always interesting reading it the next morning. Here’s one from the other night:
sift the good notes
from the bad
from the siren song
step in rhythm
grow in concert
we are all notes
It seems we all want to be one with our natural state and the spaces we are in — content, fulfilled, thriving. That would seem to be enough, but the truth is we want more than that— we want to transcend this natural state, to not be bound by the limitations and constrictions of this world, a world where the good is always intertwined with a bit of “bad”. Only in the next world is good 100% and bad is not even a concept. When I was a kid, and even today, when I walk out of the theater after seeing a superhero movie, I feel like I have those powers, if only for a little bit. The allure of these comic books turned movies is the thought of breaking free of one’s limitations, of ridding oneself of reality, of turning what is natural into supernatural.
In these past parshiot, we have been reading about the Mishkan (the tabernacle) and how Hashem commanded Aharon, the high priest, and his sons to bring special sacrifices for seven days to prepare themselves for their service in the Mishkan. Every seven days, Moshe would take the Mishkan apart and put it back together, as the Jews wandered through the desert on their way to the Promised Land. In this week’s parashah, Shemini, Hebrew for “eight” (referring to the eighth day following the seven days of the inauguration of the Tabernacle), we learn that the service of the Mishkan actually begins on the “eighth” day.
As we read, “And it was on the eighth day . . . and the glory of the Lord appeared to all the people . . . And fire went forth from before the Lord and consumed the burnt offering and the fats upon the altar, and all the people saw, sang praises, and fell upon their faces.”1
The Kli Yakar, a preeminent Medieval Torah scholar, asks why it’s called the “eighth day.” The Jewish week is seven days, and the consecration of the Mishkan was limited to seven days, as it is written, “And you shall not go out of the door of the tent of meeting for seven days, until the days of your consecration be fulfilled, for He shall consecrate you seven days.” The Kli Yakar answers his own question, stating that related to the eighth day it is written, “Today the Lord appears to you.” Hashem doesn’t appear in the Mishkan during the seven days of consecration but on and because of the eighth day, a day beyond the natural order of things.
Seven is a recurring number in the Torah representing the natural order: seven days of the week; the month of the festivals is Tishrei, the seventh month of the Hebrew calendar; and we have seven-year cycles, culminating in Shemittah (the Sabbatical year). As we learn, seven in Judaism always represents completeness of the natural world, the finite world; so eight, of course, is that one step beyond nature, something more than human, more than finititude– something holy. Shabbat, the seventh day of our week, is a taste of the infinite, but it’s still bound in time and space. It’s a gift from Hashem that we even get that taste, as it is stated in Talmud Shabbat, “The Holy One, blessed be He, said to Moshe, I have a precious gift in My treasure house, and it is called the Shabbat.”2 The eighth day represents a taste beyond this world.
Eight also brings to mind the ancient ritual of the brit milah, circumcision (Avraham’s original covenant with Hashem), which happens on his eighth day, representing the commitment of his life to something beyond nature, a covenant with Hashem. One can ask, if it is a sign of our covenant with Hashem, then why would we not be born with it? The answer is because it is our job to take a physical action and create the covenant, a partnership literally seen on the body, that we have taken part in and taken personal action towards. The Arizal teaches that this is part of Adam and Eve’s primordial sin and the constant battle we were forced into as humanity, always torn between opposing physical and spiritual inclinations. So much so that it is also the one organ that can bring the potential of the Divine Femine into creation itself. So the brit milah acts as a reminder to not get stuck connecting only to our physical impulses and to continue seeking connection to the Infinite.
To emphasize his point of seven being bound by nature in this world and eight representing that which is above nature, in the next world, the Kli Yakar says, commenting on Talmud Arachim, that the harp that was played in the original sanctuary had seven strings, but the harp that will be played in the Temple of the Messianic Era will have eight strings.3
But we can dig even deeper into the Kli Yakar’s question and answer. His real question is this: if eight represents unity with God on a supernatural level, how can the eighth day have any connection to the seven days prior, which take place purely in the natural world? The phrase “the eighth day” implies a continuation of the previous seven days. So, how do we bridge that gap between the natural and supernatural? How can we move from seven to eight?
The answer that the Lubavitcher Rebbe gives is simple and profound: supernatural revelations depend on human efforts. Hashem designed His world that way. The Messianic age will be brought on only by human’s revealing and serving Hashem in this world. It is those acts we take in our “seven” days of natural time and space that will bring about the Divine response of the “eighth” day – the infinite – Moshiach. The highest level of holiness is only made possible by our physical acts of spirituality. So it is called “the eighth day” not because it naturally follows the seven, but because if we use these seven days to draw close to Hashem, the eighth day becomes the day of Schechina (Divine Grace). The lesson is for us to do all we can in this natural and finite world in order for Hashem to bless our efforts with His infinite blessings.4
The counting of the Omer is a seven week period– seven weeks of seven days. It is written, “You shall count for yourselves, from the day after the [festival] rest, from the day you bring [before Me] the Omer sacrifice– seven full weeks shall they be. Until the day after these seven full weeks, [Shavuot], shall you count fifty days, and then shall you bring a new offering to Me.”5 Here we see another odd jump in numbers: the Torah commands us to count for 50 days, but it also commands us to count seven weeks, which only adds up to 49 days. But much like “the eighth day” brought on by our seven days of spiritual work in consecrating the Mishkan, the fiftieth day of the Omer is that taste of the Infinite that we get on Shavuot, the holiday that commemorates and recreates our receiving the Torah directly from Hashem at Mount Sinai. That 50th day of high holiness is only made possible by the 49 days of spiritual work that we do in counting the Omer.
As we touched on last week, the Kabbalah teaches that Shavuot, the 50th day of the Omer, correlates to the 50th Gate of Wisdom. Kabbalistically, the 50th Gate of Wisdom is connected to Malchut (Kingship), which, in the Ten Sefirot (Emanations), is the vessel that manifests the Light of Keter (Crown). God’s Infinite Light originates at a level that is beyond this world, physically inaccessible to us, but it is filtered down through the Sefirot until it reaches the Malchut, out of which it shines onto us in our finite world.
To understand the significance and the process of these 50 days from Pesach to Shavuot, we need to understand that there are 49 “Gates of Impurity,” descending levels of sin, in direct opposition to the 50 Gates of Wisdom. The Kabbalah teaches that, while in Egypt, the Jews descended to the 49th Gate of Impurity. And it took 49 days for our ancestors to travel from Egypt to Mount Sinai, to be prepared to receive God’s Divine revelation. Through the counting of the Omer, we have the opportunity to move through our own 49 “Gates of Understanding & Holiness,” step by step, day by day.
Rebbe Nachman of Breslov taught that the 49 Gates correspond to the 49 letters that make up the names of the Twelve Tribes of Israel. Each tribe, therefore, has individual gates for its members, so everyone can return to Hashem through their own personalized pathway. Shavuot, receiving the Torah, is the 50th and highest Gate, the full teshuva, the complete return to Hashem. Rebbe Nachman always stressed the power of saying Tehillim (Psalms) in order to perform teshuvah (a return to Hashem). And the 49 days between Pesach and Shavuot are the most powerful time to recite Tehillim and return to Hashem.
This lesson is reinforced when we learn from the following pasuk (verse) related to the Jewish people’s exile in Egypt:
וְאֵ֗לֶּה שְׁמוֹת֙ בְּנֵ֣י יִשְׂרָאֵ֔ל הַבָּאִ֖ים מִצְרָ֑יְמָה אֵ֣ת יַֽעֲקֹ֔ב אִ֥ישׁ וּבֵית֖וֹ בָּֽאו
These are the names of the Children of Israel who went down to Egypt; each man and his wife, they came.6
In Hebrew, the last letters of these lines make up the words ‘Tehillim’ and ‘Teshuvah’. The verses that follow this one list the names of the Tribes (their 49 letters) which correspond to the 49 days of Sefirah which correspond to the 49 Gates of Teshuvah.7 Reb Natan of Breslov teaches that the daily obstacles we encounter are in direct proportion to the spiritual levels of wisdom we seek to achieve. The fiftieth gate of understanding is beyond us– it’s not something we can achieve ourselves– but, much like “the eight day” and Shabbat, it will come to us as a gift from Hashem by the work that we do within the seven dimensions of space and time in the natural world.
The root of each person’s soul has a path. The power of Tehillim for the soul is that when one doesn’t know how to reach the specific gate of repentance/return, reciting Tehillim brings that person’s soul to the specific gate of repentance they need to enter.8 As we learn from Talmud Sotah, “[Man in this world] is like a person traveling in the pitch-dark night… who does not know which path to take.”9 Rabbeinu reminds us, that if you think you are far, remember the words from Devarim,10 “It is something that is very close to you–- in your mouth and your heart, so that you can do it.”11 On the 50th day of the Exodus “God descended on Mount Sinai.”12 This involved the concept regarding which Hashem said through the last prophet Malachi, “Return to me, and I will return to you.”13 This is the return of Hashem Himself, the 50th gate of return.
The counting of Sefirat HaOmer is meant to prepare us to receive the living Torah anew every Shavuot, and it is our preparation for the 50th Gate, the gate of Wisdom. All of this begins with Pesach, which in Likutei Halachot is explained as ‘Peh Sach’, which means “a talking mouth”. This means that the only path to the upper levels of holiness is through speech, through Tefillah (prayer), the true speech of calling out to God. We do this by reading Tehillim and using speech to speak out and count each day. It’s a time when we count and realize that each day is a new beginning, a new opportunity for change, for return, for Oneness, and that each day does indeed count. The blessings you receive correlate to the words that you speak– this is the power of the Omer, of counting out loud with the blessings of Sefirat HaOmer.
We cannot reach our ultimate destination in just one holiday. Indeed, Pesach and our Exodus was just the beginning. During the Omer we continue our spiritual ascendance, working to bring ourselves closer to purity, intending to return to Hashem. And it is not until the 50th day– the day beyond the natural– that God returns to us, and we receive the Torah, the ultimate revelation.
In the absence of the Beit HaMikdash
In the days leading up to Pesach, followed by the days leading up to Shavuot, we read the parshiot that detail the korbanot (sacrifices), the ways in which we purify ourselves towards transcendence.
With the absence of a Beit HaMikdash (Holy Temple) and altar today, it is forbidden to offer sacrifices. However, Chazal (our sages) tell us that our prayers today are in place of the korbanot.14 In addition to asking Hashem for our needs, prayer is a time to focus on self-improvement. It is a time when we “offer” our animal soul to Hashem, refining our animalistic tendencies and submitting them to Hashem’s will.15 Our most profound sacrifice is when we subdue and harness the overwhelming power of the evil inclination and manage to use that energy for good, for Hashem.
As it’s written in this parashah – וְהִתְקַדִּשְׁתֶּם֙ וִהְיִיתֶ֣ם קְדֹשִׁ֔ים – “You are to sanctify yourselves, and you shall become holy.”16 The Chatam Sofer teaches that by using the term וְהִתְקַדִּשְׁתֶּם, the reflexive form of קדש, it’s implied that even if one feels they haven’t attained any degree of sanctity, they should act as though they are already קדוש (holy), and to perform the mitzvot that may not even feel aligned in your current spiritual state. By making this initial effort, even though a person may not yet be קדוש (holy), (וְהִתְקַדִּשְׁתֶּם), Hashem is assuring us even in this case, that we will ultimately achieve true sanctity (וִהְיִיתֶ֣ם קְדֹשִׁ֔ים).
As we learn in Talmud Yoma, if one tries to sanctify oneself below, even if just a little bit, the person is helped to be sanctified much more from Above (both in this world and the world to come).17 “Sanctify a little from below” refers to our mitzvot in physicality, while “sanctify much more” from Above refers to the next world tied to the soul. So taking the initial step of וְהִתְקַדִּשְׁתֶּם, acting as קדוש, is the stepping stone to attain true קְדֻשָּׁה for holiness’s sake or any other sake, which will ultimately lead one to perform the mitzvot for their own sake, leading to sincere קְדֻשָּׁה.
This is a great example of the lesson we learn in Talmud Pesachim, “Mitoch shelo lishma, bah lishmah,” which means “even a mitzvah performed with ulterior motives garners reward,” as Rav Yehuda said that Rav said, “A person should always engage in Torah study and performance of mitzvot, even if he does so not for their own sake, as through the performance of mitzvot not for their own sake, one gains understanding and comes to perform them for their own sake.” The act of giving itself will eventually change the way one feels about giving.18 As stated before, if our heart compels us to want to hold on and not let go, it is the act of giving and letting go that we must master. And by way of this, we sanctify ourselves and each other.19 This is when we shift the focus from physicality to spirituality, when our alignment isn’t lead by the mind, but by the soul.
The biggest takeaway from this parashah for me is that when we elevate our soul above our body, aligning our physical selves to our spiritual selves we can transform our natural space into a supernatural setting.
For this week, I’ll leave you with a few questions, and I look forward to hearing/reading your thoughts!
- What are your physical acts of spirituality?
- How do you tap into the supernatural?
- How do you draw down the space and power of eight into the space of seven that we all reside in?
- What is your unique human effort in revealing and serving Hashem in this world?
Please email your thoughts when you get a chance to: firstname.lastname@example.org
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This week’s Dvar is sponsored by the Nishli family for the Aliyat Neshama of Amit Yaakov Ben Yehudah, and is also sponsored by a friend for a speedy refua for Chaim Yosef Zev ben Feiga.
Notes & Sources
- Leviticus 9:1-24
- Talmud Shabbat 10b
- Talmud Arachim 13b
- Likkutei Sichot, by the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Shemini, vol. 3
- Leviticus 23:10–16
- Exodus 1.1
- Likutei Moharan II, 73
- Likutey Etzot, by Rebbe Nachman, Teshuvah # 31
- Talmud Sotah 21a
- Likutey Moharan 4:8
- Deuteronomy 30:14
- Exodus 19:20
- Malachi 3:7
- Talmud, Berachot 26b. Zohar III, 28b
- Torah Ohr 62b. Kuntres Ha’Avodah,p. 10
- Leviticus 11:44
- Yoma 39a
- Pesachim 50b
- Chatam Sofer 24, ד״ה והתקדשתם