Jewish GOAT Moments


Rabbi Noah Arnow


What moment was the G.O.A.T. in Jewish history?

We often focus on our “lachrymose history,” tallying up tragedies, expulsions, destructions, and slaughters. It might be harder to come up with good moments.

There is a certain intense relief and catharsis that comes from victory over existential oppression and threat. You’ve probably heard the handy way of describing Jewish holidays as, “They tried to kill us. We won. Let’s eat.” But it’s often more an avoidance of a very bad outcome rather than a good moment in itself.

One could make a case for the revelation at Mount Sinai as the best moment. It was pure, intense, maybe so intense it was scary, but definitely wondrous. It was raw though, unmediated, unpredictable and dangerous, and contained instruction and promise, but not fulfillment.

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Rather, I want to make the case for another G.O.A.T. (“greatest of all time”) Jewish moment that you may never have considered.

Leviticus 9 (which we read this week as part of Parashat Shemini) describes the celebration of the first use of the mishkan, the tabernacle (or portable temple the Israelites used while wandering in the wilderness). The second half of the book of Exodus focused on the instructions for and then the building of the mishkan.

Leviticus 8 explains the consecration of the mishkan, which takes place over seven days. But then in Leviticus 9 is the actual inauguration, on the eighth day. (The eight day is significant—if seven signifies the cycle of wholeness, eight is breaking out beyond that circle, to a new, unexpected but hoped-for moment.)
Various sacrifices are brought, Aaron and Moses bless the people, God’s presence appears to all the people, fire comes out from God and consumes the offerings, and the people, saw, shouted and prostrated (Lev. 9:23-24).

It’s this perfect moment when all the instructions have been followed to a T, and everything works—God appears, and shows God’s favor and accepts our offerings.

Religion is, in some sense, all about trying to experience the divine presence in a predictable, regular, fashion, and this is the first use of the mechanism for doing that.

Jewish lore describes that day has having “ten crowns,” meaning symbolizing the first or preeminent occurrences of certain events, including it being a Sunday, representing the first day of creation, the day the princes of Israel brought the first sacrifices, the installation of the priesthood, the first day the mishkan was fully used, the first day of God’s presence resting on the Jewish people, the first day the priests blessed the Israelites, and the first time fire came from God onto the altar.

This perfect moment is even sweeter, and more profound, when we remember the sin of the Golden Calf, which called into question the very possibility of relationship between God and Israel. Israel may have wondered if they could ever successfully atone, and this was the final and incontrovertible proof that they were forgiven.

So this moment also has that sense of relief associated with holidays like Passover, Purim and Hanukkah.

If only that joy, that perfection, that “ten crown moment” could have lasted. Alas, Aaron’s sons Nadav and Avihu get carried away, offer “strange fire” and God consumes them.

But for the short time it lasted, that moment just might have been the G.O.A.T.

Rabbi Noah Arnow serves Kol Rinah and is a Past President of the St. Louis Rabbinical and Cantorial Association, which coordinates the d’var Torah for the Jewish Light.