Within the Mess, There is Holiness

The Kohen Gadol

The Kohen Gadol

We read Parashat Tetzaveh this week. It begins with the pure olive oil for the Temple lamps, and continues with a detailed description of the priestly vestments and the ordination of Aaron and his sons as the first priests of Israel.

This is a Torah portion that lends itself to flights of fancy. The ancient rabbis and modern Hebrew school kids both love to visualize the vestments and imagine the exact appearance of the great candelabrum. The ordination is a bit grubbier, with its orders for dabs of blood here and there, and splashing of blood and stacking of gory sacrifices.

It is tempting to separate the two, to focus on the beautiful priestly garments, made from wool and flax, woven with many brilliant colors and studded with jewels. But I think it is no accident that the two descriptions come together in the Torah: first the beautiful clothing and ornaments, then a description of what was to be done in those vestments.

The Kohen Gadol, the High Priest, did not sit on a throne observing the action in the Temple. The work of a Cohen was the work of a holy butcher, calming the beasts, blessing them, then slipping a very sharp knife through skin and veins and cartilage. When the animal collapsed, then the priests had to work together to skin it, to cut it into the pieces the sacrifice demanded, and to stack it up on the altar to be burned. This is not delicate work, and it is certainly not clean work. By the end of a busy day at the Temple, the Cohanim must have looked ghastly. Even their ordination required them to be anointed with the blood of a sacrificial animal, underlining the work that they were to do.

In the 21st century, we often talk about “spirituality” as if it is something very beautiful and serene. And I imagine that the priestly garments, when new, were magnificent. But in the actual business of doing the holy work, something happened: everything got messy. Blood and tears and mess were smeared about, splashed about, and the beautiful garments got dirty with blood and soot and gore.

And folks, that is real life: the “perfect” Shabbat table gets messy with spilt wine. The most elegant Chanukah menorah will be covered with wax at the end of the holiday. Real, adorable babies wear diapers. And our real lives are not as we dream them: they are messy with frailties, bad habits, neuroses, and failings.

Our task is to learn to see the toddler under the spaghetti sauce, the human being in a sneering teenager, and the spark of the Divine in our own fallible selves and others. It is then that we have truly internalized the lesson of the Kohen Gadol in his magnificent, bloodied vestments: within the mess, there is holiness.

Image:  Andreas F. Borchert, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Germany license.

2 Responses to Within the Mess, There is Holiness

  1. Dawn Kepler says:

    Thank you, this brought tears to my eyes.

    May I add something lovely that I learned about the Temple Priests? They were not to have any blemishes nor could they be very good looking. They were to be unremarkable. They were conduits, and as such should remain as much in the background as possible. Their actions were what mattered. Clearly, those actions were laborious and grimy.

    Being a daughter, sister, wife, mother, friend is often laborious and sometimes even grimy. Taking an aging parent to the bathroom, helping a friend stand up with their IV pole, collecting a sweaty teen from practice, massaging twisted old feet – and that’s just off the top of my head.

    But what you remind me is to pause in those tasks and be grateful for the messy people that I love so much despite the grim. Please HaShem, may others love me enough to care for me when I am tired, lost or dirty.

    Like

    • rabbiadar says:

      That’s a wonderful take on it, Dawn. Often we focus on the “unblemished” part of the the requirements for the priests, but “unremarkable” puts a whole different spin on it.

      Like

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