Remarks from Rabbi Emily Hyatt of Temple Emanuel on April 13, 2021
This past Saturday, Jewish communities all over the world read from the Torah portion called Shemini, in the book of Leviticus. The word Shemini translates to EIGHTH, or the 8th day. The portion is called shemini, the eighth day - because it tells the story of how the preparations for the inauguration of the tabernacle, that crazy portable sanctuary that the Israelites hauled with them through the desert - took seven days - and the eighth day is when the use of the tabernacle begins. On the 8th day, the priests went in - and... they started. On the 8th day, the Israelites learned how to pray and how to worship. The EIGHTH day (the first day in the tabernacle) -- the eighth day - was the beginning.
But Jews have a special relationship with the 8th day. You see, we’re living in the eighth day right now. What? Well, if we go WAY back - all the way back to the beginning - our tradition teaches that God created the world in six days - and then on the seventh day, God rested. And then, after that seventh day, came the 8th day - the day when God turned over the world to people, and asked them - asked US, all of us - to continue the work of creation, to make something special out of this world.
And so we do - we work hard each week to keep the amazing, insane, beautiful experiment of humanity going, using what we learned from God during the first seven days. You see, on the first day, God created light - our text says “and God said let there be light, and there was light. And the light was day and the dark was night, and the light was good - there was evening, there was morning, the first day.” And so it goes until the end of the week - where at the end of the seventh day, God taught US how to create light.
In Jewish tradition, we rest on the seventh day, Shabbat - and at the end of Shabbat, on Saturday night, we light what we call a havdallah (or a separation) candle to end the day of rest and come back to work. Every week, we use what we learned from God - that we begin by creating light, to separate between what was this day of rest and what will be a return to the eighth day - the return to OUR ownership of creation, a return to our partnership with God, a return to this incredible project of continuing to imagine what our world could be. We return to the challenges, the hard conversations, the impossible task of finding middle grounds or keys to coexistence. We return to the beauty of diversity and of difference and to the call to listen and to learn and to wrestle with how the heck we’re supposed to love the neighbor that we don’t understand -- and we discover that we love them anyway because they are human and because we believe that everyone - EVERYONE, even the stranger who we don’t yet know and even the sojourner who isn’t yet here, is created equal and is created in the image of God, whatever their God may look like.
When our founding fathers wrote “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights” I believe that those fathers meant that it is our job to defend these rights, because we are in partnership with that Creator. And here, during this eighth day, we know that the work of creation often means the REPAIR of our world - fixing the mistakes that we and those who came before us have made. So when those founding fathers then declared that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof;” that became the task - to learn from those came before us - those who defended this freedom and those who threatened it, so that we could build a society that allows each individual to wrestle with God on their own terms.
This is the eighth day. We have work to do, to defend those rights and fight for those freedoms. We do it by loving our neighbor, by welcoming the stranger, by learning about our differences and by opening our arms and our hearts and our minds to what is possible when the partnership with each of us and our own God is truly just between us and God - the wrestling, the questioning, the praying, the asking, the begging, the doubting and the believing - when it’s private. When it’s our own. When it’s safe. That’s when we are EACH responsible for the work of creation. We are EACH responsible for our own faith. We are each responsible for working to end the era when any religion stands for violence, hatred, judgment, persecution and pain - and we are each responsible for building a world where religion - if you choose one - and faith - if you want it - and God - if you believe in one - where those are not obstacles to peace but they teach us how to make it.
How do we protect our own religious freedom? By protecting the religious freedom of OTHERS. That’s how we walk into the 8th day each week - by welcoming those who feel outside, by making space for those who feel trapped, by making light for those who are in the dark - just like God taught us. God made light so that WE could make light. There was evening, there was morning - the 8th day.