In the Maharal-ian universe the number seven represents the recurring pattern of nature, epitomized by the seven days of the week, while the number eight is associated with the transcendent (think of bris milah, Chanukah). It is therefore ironic that after sitting secluded in the confines of Ohel Moed for seven days, “hevi’ani hamelech chadarav”, after offering for seven straight days korbanos shelamim which had the unique din of being categorized as kodshei kodashim and eaten only within the Ohel, on the exalted yom hashmini, the eighth day, which our parsha describes, this special milu’im state ends and the operation of the Mishkan begins its normal routine. Why is this eight different than all others?
The explanation is that immersion in intense and isolated holiness, such as which occurred during the days of milu’im, is not an end in itself, but is a means. Torah life is not meant to be lived cloistered in an Ohel. Intense spiritual growth in isolation is but a prelude and preparation for the even greater and more noble task of doing good in the regular, mundane world; engaging in the day to day without succumbing to spiritual lethargy and decay. It was that greater purpose which began on the eighth day.
Professor Steve Landsburg has an interesting blog post entitled, “The Tragedy of Chametz,” in which he comments about our giving up bread and the Xstian observance of Lent, “This always strikes me as mildly tragic. If you’re going to sacrifice your pleasures in order to feel virtuous, why not at least do it in a way that helps someone? Instead of giving up meat or leavened bread, donate a few hundred dollars to a worthy cause.” He compares these activities to a runner who pushes himself to run around a track: “You push yourself to do something hard, you feel good about it, and you leave the world pretty much the way you found it. What a shame that you didn’t push yourself to do something useful instead.”
Even if one accepts this sort of economic argument that measures “good” based on social utility alone (plenty of joggers run around a track for personal health and enjoyment; there need not be a social benefit for an activity to be positive), I think we can offer a reasonable response to Landsburg. The Zohar asks: if matzah is such a spiritual, elevating food, why do we not withdraw from chametz completely and eat it year round? The answer echoes the lesson of the days of milu’im: matzah is a means to an end, not an end in itself. The week of withdrawal from chametz is a week dedicated to building a different food-consciousness so that our eating year-round is done in a more spiritual, mindful manner. Having a different consciousness about food in turn can lead to a different consciousness about consumption in general.
It would be shortsighted to describe a week spent in job training or learning a new skill as a “tragic” waste of time even there is no immediate benefit (in fact, productivity may suffer during the training period). The net future gain accrued from having improved skills or knowledge more than compensates for the immediate loss (why else would companies offer paid training?). There may be no immediate gain from giving up chametz for a week, but without the spiritual “training” period of that week, the net gain of good works that result from having taken the time to work on developing a more moral and thoughtful personality would be impossible to attain.