Priestly ordination: hearing, doing, walking (Radical Torah repost)
April 03, 2009
Here's the d'var Torah I wrote for this week's portion in 2006, originally published at Radical Torah.
סמכ: the root means "lean, lay, rest, support." It's a laying-on of hands. We use it today for the ordination of rabbis, but in this week’s Torah portion we see the word's older usage, in the description of how Aaron and his sons became the first Israelite priests.
It's an intense ceremony. It requires Moses, and Aaron, and Aaron's sons; vestments and anointing oil; a bull of sin-offering, two rams, and a basket of unleavened bread; and the witnessing power of the entire community, gathered at the Tent of Meeting. Three animals will be leant-upon, then slaughtered, then consumed by mouth and by fire. Of these sacrifices, perhaps the strangest and most intense is the ram of ordination — leant-upon, slaughtered, and its blood used as paint upon Aaron and his sons' right ears, thumbs, and big toes before the fat parts of the ram (and the breads from the basket) are held up as an elevation-offering and burnt.
Earlier in the portion we read that we are absolutely, positively not to eat blood; it belongs to Adonai, and anyone who eats it is to be cut off from his kin. Blood is a symbol of life-force in a visible and visceral way. As we will learn, contact with blood makes us tamei, charged with the power of spiritual impurity. And here, blood is used to mark Aaron and his sons as priests for all time.
I imagine it was still warm when Moses painted it on. According to God's instructions he anointed each man with blood in three places: the ridge of his right ear, his right thumb, and his right big toe. Why these three places? What can we learn from this esoteric ritual which will speak to our lives?
The ear was marked because it is a place where the outside world enters human consciousness. Once they were "earmarked" in this way, each new priest would hear things differently; perhaps only holy sounds now would enter, or the sounds that entered would become consecrated in a new way.
The thumb was marked in order to remind these men that matters of life and death resided in the work of their hands. They would be responsible now for the deaths of countless animals — and, through their expiating actions, the lives of the entire community. Their hands would do God's work in the world, as they understood that work to be done, and needed to be consecrated with the substance which was God's alone.
And the toe? The toe seems insignificant, until something happens to it. A friend told me recently that he broke a toe — one single toe! — and found himself limping, in tremendous pain, for weeks. Our toes provide us with balance. Perhaps the anointing of the priests' toes served to remind them that only through the life God lends can we walk the path appointed to us. It warned them to mind their steps, and to be mindful that they walk the earth with constant and unflagging support from the One Who graciously gives us life.
When Moses slaughtered the ram and painted its life upon Aaron and his sons, it conferred holiness upon them. But they leaned on it first, and in so doing they conferred something upon it: the emotional significance necessary for its death to change them.
Today in lieu of sacrifice we offer God the service of our hearts, our prayers and devotions, and the sanctified gratitude we feel at every meal. In this way we are all like priests, drawing near to the Infinite with our own appropriate offerings. What can we do to ensure that we, too — like Aaron and his sons — feel physically charged with our metaphysical task? How can we anoint what we hear, what we touch, and how we walk in the world so that our lives are imbued with the life-force we borrow from God?