This week, we celebrate a newly refurbished space at Harvard Hillel. In that spirit....
I love the image of King David dancing with abandon in front of the Ark of the Covenant as he brings it, in a great ritual procession of the people, up to the City of David, to Jerusalem.
Such is King David’s exultation, his unselfconscious whirling and leaping (2Samuel 6:16), that his wife, Michal – royal daughter of David’s predecessor, King Saul – perhaps unsettled by a seeming echo of her own kingly father’s notorious madness, scolds her husband, upon his return home, with vicious sarcasm, saying, “How glorious was the King of Israel today, exposing himself in front of the handmaidens of his servants as one of the riffraff might expose himself” (2Samuel 6:20)
Michal, we are told, remains childless all her life in consequence. Some see supernatural punishment in that, for insult to the King of Israel; but it is far more poignant and more terrible to suppose the couple never overcame the alienation of that moment, that David and Michal were never intimate again, so utterly estranging was his personal jubilation and her inability to understand or unwillingness to support him in the moment of his joy.
(Thankfully, we have a much more harmonious story of a generously spirited David, and his spouse and family, behind our dedication this week at Harvard Hillel!)
Our Torah-reading this week – Sh’mini, “the Eighth” – is named for the day of the Tabernacle’s dedication, by Moses and Aaron and the people in the wilderness.
So much of our tradition accustoms us to processes and narratives of seven days – starting with our ancient story of the very world’s formation, six parts creation, one part rest and appreciation – all the way to the Seven Nuptial Blessings of a Jewish wedding, for example. An eighth day, a step beyond the fundamental cycle, suggests the phenomenon of actually living with the fullness of what the seven represent.
On the one hand, an Eighth part of cosmos and creation may mean solidity and solidarity with the ultimate. “Wisdom hath builded her house” begins the Midrash on Sh’mini, quoting from the Proverbs (Leviticus Rabbah 11:1; Proverbs 9:1), and the rabbinic exposition goes on to imagine the first human beings in the Garden of Eden, in their prelapsarian state, as sharing in God’s own soaring, world-spanning nature and perspective; and witness David’s dancing.
On the other hand there is the question of whether human beings can bear absorption of the ultimate. The Ark’s initial progress toward the City of David is marred by a moment in which a well-meaning hand extended to steady the holy vessel results in the would-be supporter’s instant demise (2Samuel 6:6-9); two of Aaron’s priestly sons are similarly zapped when they try, in our Torah-reading this week, to take a ritual spin of their own devising in the newly dedicated Tabernacle (Leviticus 10:1-2); we know what happens when the first human beings, in the Eden story, get too close or casual with divine capacity in the Garden; and witness David and Michal’s falling out with one another. Seven may be perfection – we venture an Eighth part at our peril.
And yet the eighth day, and on, is exactly where we live. We do not spend our whole lives in initiations and sabbatical sanctifications. We tell our formative stories, do our formative work, take a seventh moment, perhaps, a breath, for a holy instant of appreciation, and then plough on – not so much happily ever after as complicatedly ever onward. Such is real life.
Still, if moving forward means losing sight of our beginnings, we may be lost. The steady cycle of Seven keeps us grounded in the foundational story of ourselves. The exultation of an occasional Eighth keeps us aspirational. “For today the Eternal One will appear to you,” says Moses to the people as he assembles them on the eighth day for the Tabernacle’s dedication, after a full, preparatory week, “and the whole community stood before the Eternal One” (Leviticus 9:4-5). “I will establish a home for My people Israel and will plant them firm, so that they shall dwell secure and shall tremble no more; evil men shall not oppress them any more as in the past,” says God to David as the king installs the Ark of Sinai’s covenant in Jerusalem (2Samuel 7:10).
We are blessed to live in sacred spaces. If we become too casual or cavalier about the tremendous actuality of our habitation, we forget ourselves hazardously. If we remember from time to time, if we recall and reattach ourselves, in dedicatory spirit and in celebration, and even with audacity, to the great Place in which we exist, then we are engaged in the truly dangerous but truly electrifying process of magnificently living.