This week in preparation for Yom HaShoah (Holocaust Memorial Day in Israel) next Monday night and Tuesday, I study in memory of my great-grandmother, Rachel Leah Chodesh Poliakoff, and her daughter, who were murdered during the Holocaust.
In Parashat Shemini, we learn about the inauguration ceremony for the Mishkan (Tabernacle). After seven days of preparation, the ceremony takes place on the eighth day (shemini means eighth). Moses calls Aaron and his sons to prepare offerings. Aaron and his sons prepare the offering to atone for their own sins and then for the sins of the people. Aaron and Moses bless the people, and then a fire comes down from heaven and consumes the incense and the elevation offering.
Rabbi Shlomo Riskin, the former Chief Rabbi of Efrat, has a very interesting lesson about this ceremony, and especially God’s consuming the offerings by fire from heaven. He points out it was like man’s first use of fire. That use came about on the eighth day after Creation. God created Adam and Eve on the sixth day. They disobeyed God and sinned by eating the fruit of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. This was a sin because after that act, good and evil were no longer solely found in God’s commandments. Now that mankind had the knowledge of good and evil, people would make their own decisions about such matters. Adam and Eve were banished from the Garden of Eden.
After being forced from the Garden of Eden, they were comforted by the rest of the seventh day, Shabbat. At the end of the seventh day, when the eighth day was starting, darkness began to envelop the human world for the first time. Then, at the time when we make the Havdalah service separating Shabbat from the rest of the week, God prepared two flint stones for Adam. Adam rubbed them together and made fire for the first time. (My three sons are now calling each other to say, “See, Dad did know what it was like before the discovery of fire!”)
So Adam started the eighth day with a way to bring warmth, light and hope back into the world he had tarnished with the sin of eating the fruit that God had forbidden. In the same way, the Jewish people, in building the Mishkan, had found a place to pray for forgiveness and elevation to become better, as a means of making up for the sin of worshipping the Golden Calf. Both events happened on the eighth day of a series.
But just as the knowledge of good and evil put humanity in the difficult position of deciding what was good and what was evil, so the gift of fire put humanity in the position of using its power for good and evil. As Rabbi Riskin points out, fire can “strengthen and purify, or it can subvert and petrify; it can bring light and warmth, or it can bring cannon fire and nuclear fire.”
One of the skills you probably learned on your first campout was how to make a fire. The things you learn in school, at home, in Scouts and everywhere else give you the power to know good and evil. Remember that you have pledged yourself “to help other people at all times” and use your skills to that end.
Rabbi Riskin’s complete d’var Torah can be found on the website of his educational institutions, Ohr Torah Stone, at https://ots.org.il/shabbat-shalom-shmini-5776/