Three Times

The story of the inauguration of the Tabernacle appears three times in the Torah. Why?

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Rabbi Jesse Horn,

Rabbi Jesse Horn
Rabbi Jesse Horn

The “Yom Hashmini,” (Eighth Day) immediately following the Shivat Yimay HaMiluim (the seven days of Mishkan preparation), is the Mishkan’s “Opening Day” and it surfaces three times in the Torah.  The first time this day appears is in the end of Exodus-Shemot 40, then a second time in our week's Torah reading, Shmini, Vayikra-Leviticus 9, and lastly in Numbers-Bamidbar 7.

What is surprising is that there is absolutely no overlap in the three descriptions of this day.  This Eighth Day’s portrayal is entirely different each time.  In nowhere but Shemot, does the Torah describe how Hashem’s Shechina (Presence) filled the Mishkan to the point that Moshe could not enter.  Similarly, in Vayikra alone the Chumash tells the narrative of Nadav and Avihu’s tragic death along with inauguration of the Kohanim.  And similarly, only in Bamidbar does the Torah record the twelve Nesieim (princes) giving gifts. 

Why is that?  In none of the three presentations is there any overlap in content.  Surely something as powerful as Nadav and Avihu being consumed miraculously by a heavenly fire (Vayikra 9:24) could have been mentioned in Shemot’s or Bamidbar’s presentation.   Why not repeat details?  And if there is some agenda of not repeating anything, chose one of the three places and include everything necessary there.  Why divide the day’s happenings into three sections and spread them out in three different books?

Perhaps different elements of the Eighth Day’s inauguration were selected to accomplish different purposes.  Each presentation fits the book in which it is found.  In other words, each book mentions the Mishkan’s “Opening Day” for a different reason.  The Torah includes only the pertinent aspects of the day that assist in achieving whatever goal is trying to be achieved by that particular book.

What then is the theme of each of the three books, Shemot, Vayikra and Bamidbar, and how do the three presentations match the motifs of each of the books?

Shemot, as spelled out by the Ramban (Introduction to Shemot), captures the transition from Bnei Yisrael (the Jewish People) being an enslaved nation to a freed one; one where Hashem dwells among them in the Mishkan.  Shemot is really divided into two halves with the first half dealing with Bnei Yisrael’s slavery and the second with Hashem living amongst them in the Mishkan.  Based on that objective, Shemot describes the Mishkan as a place where Hashem’s presence was concentrated to the point that Moshe could not even enter.  Precisely this angle, the density of Shechina in the Mishkan, captures the successful conclusion of Shemot.  Bnei Yisrael’s liberation from slavery climaxed with a strong intensity of Shechina; exactly the theme of the second half of Shemot.

The first half of Bamidbar is about the nation at large, their preparations toward Eretz Israel (the land of Israel), and failures that kept them from immediately entering.  The gifts presented by the Nesieim on the inauguration day fall under this category and are therefore included in Bamidbar’s description of this day.

Now back to our Parsha to see how the Nadav and Avihu story contributes to the book of Vayikra.  The Ramban (Introduction to Vayikra) explains that Vayikra is a book of instructions for a lifestyle where Hashem dwells among Bnei Yisrael in the Mishkan.  Therefore the book of Vakiyra follows Shemot and includes Karbanot (sacrifices), Tumah V’Taharah (Laws of purity and impurity), and sins that could cause the Shechina to leave etc. 

Being that the focus is proper usage and misusage of the Mishkan, the Nadav and Avihu story is a perfect fit and naturally mentioned in Vayikra.  Nadav and Avihu’s bringing of an “Aish Zara Lifnay Hashem” (foreign fire before Hashem) captures the inappropriate lack of boundaries that they had for the Mishkan.  Although they had incredible religious motivation in bringing the Karban and themselves closer to Hashem, it was unwelcome.  Therefore it is specifically these details which are mentioned in Vayikra.

The take home message from Vayikra’s presentation of the Eight Days and the Nadav and Avihu narrative is control.  Unregulated emotional outpouring is dangerous, especially around the Mishkan and other religiously sensitive areas.  We should aspire towards maintaining emotional drive but control it with proper intellectual navigation.