The drama surrounding the eighth day of the inaugural procedure for the Mishkan unfolds in the beginning section of Parashat Shemini. The day was suffused with the uneasy tension of excitement, anticipation, nervousness, and minor setbacks. Moshe instructed the nation saying, “Zeh HaDavar Asher Tzivah Hashem Ta’asu VeYeira Aleichem Kevod Hashem,” “This is the thing which God has commanded that you should do, so that the glory of God may appear unto you” (VaYikra 9:6). Finally, after each step of the required ritual was adhered to and a period of uneasy waiting had passed (see Rashi on Pasuk 23), "VaYeira Chevod Hashem El Kol HaAm," “the glory of God appeared unto all the people” (VaYikra 9:23). A fire issued forth and consumed the Korbanot placed on the Mizbei'ach and the nation responded – "VaYar Kol HaAm VaYaronu VaYipelu Al Peneihem," “and when all the people saw it, they shouted and fell on their faces” (9:24). Rashbam explains that God’s glory alluded to in Pasuk 23 is further defined by the following Pasuk as the consuming flames that descended on the Mizbei'ach. Other commentators (Da’at Mikra), though, claim that each phrase refers to an independent event, the glory of God referring to the heavenly cloud that filled the Mishkan and the heavenly flames referring to the fire that consumed the Korbanot.
Two parallel incidents in Tanach highlight the uniqueness of the series of events in Parashat Shemini. Divrei HaYamim records a similar reaction of the nation to God’s presence descending on the Beit HaMikdash on the occasion of its inauguration. After Shlomo HaMelech concluded his prayer, we are told, “VeHaEish Yaredah MeiHaShamayim VaTochal HaOlah VeHaZevachim UChevod Hashem Malei Et HaBayit…VeChol Bnei Yisrael Ro'im BeRedet HaEish UChevod Hashem Al HaBayit VaYichre'u Apayim Artzah Al HaRitzfah VaYishtachavu VeHodot LaShem," “a fire came down from heaven and consumed the burnt offering and the sacrifices and the glory of God filled the house…And all the children of Israel looked on when the fire came down and the glory of God was upon the house, and they bowed themselves with their faces to the ground upon the pavement, and they prostrated themselves, and gave thanks unto God” (Divrei HaYamim II 7:1, 3). Similar to the inauguration of the Mishkan, the inauguration of the Beit HaMikdash contained the same features of the descent of God’s glory, a consuming fire, the witnessing nation, their prostration, and their words of praise.
An additional incident involving Eliyahu’s battle with the Nevi’ei HaBa’al on Har HaKarmel differs from the previous two incidents with respect to the nature of the event, but bears a striking resemblance in the description of the nation’s response. After the Nevi’ei HaBa’al offered their sacrifice on their Mizbei'ach and Eliyahu placed his sacrifice on his Mizbei'ach, Sefer Melachim describes the prayer that Eliyahu issued to God, and God’s response – "VaTipol Eish Hashem VaTochal Et HaOlah…VaYar Kol HaAm VaYipelu Al Peneihem VaYomeru Hashem Hu HaElokim Hashem Hu HaElokim," “then the fire of God fell and consumed the burnt offering...and when all of the people saw it, they fell on their faces and they said, ‘the Lord He is God, the Lord He is God’” (Melachim I 18:38-39). Many of the elements from the previous two scenes appear here as well – a consuming fire, the witnessing nation, their prostration, and their proclamation of God’s superiority.
Although the three scenarios differ from one another with respect to the specific language used to describe the prostration of the nation and their words of praise, each incident contains both elements. The ordering of these two elements of prostration and praise, though, differs in Parashat Shemini from the description in Sefer Divrei HaYamim and Sefer Melachim. In Parashat Shemini, the order is praise (see Targum Unkelus, who interprets the word VaYaronu as VeShabachu) and then falling, whereas in Divrei HaYamim and Melachim the order is falling and then praising. What is responsible for the unique ordering of the nation’s response in Parashat Shemini? (Note – Rav Zalman Sorotzkin raises this question in comparing the Shemini passage to the Divrei HaYamim passage, but resolves it by reversing the order in Shemini on the basis of a Midrash Torat Kohanim.)
The discrepancy between the three passages in their ordering of the nation’s prostration and praise might be due to the differing levels of engagement the nation was experiencing in their relationship with God and the efforts to invite His presence. In Divrei HaYamim and Sefer Melachim, the prostration of the nation is exercised out of a sense of overwhelming awe and unworthiness. They submit themselves to God and hide their faces before being able to offer words of praise to Him. In those two scenarios, the nation was not actively engaged and contributing toward the efforts to invite God’s presence. In Sefer Divrei HaYamim, Shlomo HaMelech and Chiram were the primary benefactors and executives involved in the Beit HaMikdash’s construction. The other members of the nation were merely forced laborers. In a different vein, in Sefer Melachim, the nation was vacillating between their support of Ba’al and their belief in God. Eliyahu was on a mission to demonstrate God’s superiority to them. As a result, the nation first falls on its face out of embarrassment, fear, and a deep sense of unworthiness before it can proclaim that “the Lord is God.”
The nation’s involvement and engagement in Parashat Shemini differs from the other two passages. The nation was deeply engaged in donating materials and constructing the Mishkan. Their contributions had even reached a point of excess requiring Moshe to curb any future contributions. Skilled craftsmen and artisans dedicated their artistry and creativity toward the effort. As a result, at the culmination of the process, the nation stood in the courtyard yearning and pining for God’s presence to return and reside amongst them in the Mishkan. When the long awaited moment finally arrived, their response was one of ecstatic joy and shouts of praise in an upright posture. They had partnered in the effort in exerting time and energy and investing resources in its success, and they stood proudly celebrating the descent of God’s glory. The prostration that followed was not a manifestation of fear nor of embarrassment, but, as the Targum Yonatan explains, an expression of prayer – “may God’s presence and pleasantness continue to reside amongst us always just as on this day.” For this reason, in Parashat Shemini, the nation can proudly stand and praise God first before humbly bowing their heads in prayer for His continued presence in their midst.