Image: The High Priest in the Holy of Holies, from the Holman Bible, 1890. Public Domain.
This week’s Torah portion is Tzav, “Command.” It begins:
“The Eternal One spoke to Moses, saying: “Command Aaron and his sons thus…” – Leviticus 6:1-2
Nowhere in Scripture is there anything to suggest that Aaron wanted the position of High Priest. The more I think about that role, the more I am convinced that it isn’t the sort of job most people would want. It’s hard, heavy work: slaughtering animals, skinning them, cutting them up, stacking the pieces with wood in a very precise manner, burning the lot, then cleaning up the mess. It’s bloody, sweaty, dirty work. And as we will soon see, mistakes in the vicinity of the Mishkan [Tabernacle] can be fatal.
It’s easy to miss the grubbiness and danger of the job. We read about elaborate vestments with fancy embroidery, precious stones, and magical devices. Most sacrifices involve a meal for the priests. The title is seductive, too: “High Priest” or in Hebrew, “Kohen Gadol.”
There is a story in the Talmud (Shabbat 31a) about a non-Jew who walked by a synagogue, and heard the reading from Exodus describing the High Priest’s garments. He was very curious, and asked a bystander about the passage. “They are special garments for the High Priest.” The man was excited. “For this, it is worth becoming a Jew. I’ll convert and become the next High Priest!” The bystander, amused, suggested that he go see a rabbi named Shammai, who was a builder by trade.
He went to Shammai and said, “I want you to convert me, but only on the condition that I become the next High Priest!” Shammai, disgusted by his chutzpah, poked at him with a measuring rod until he fled the shop.
Undeterred, the man got the name of another rabbi, Hillel. He went to see Hillel and repeated his outrageous demand.
Hillel looked at him for a moment. “OK,” he said, “But if you want to become High Priest, you should learn the laws concerning the High Priest. Start with those.” Overjoyed, the student went away to study.
Then he read the verse, “Any non-priest who participates [in the holy service] shall die” (Num. 3:10). “To whom does this refer?’ he asked. Even King David, he was told. Even David, king of Israel, was not allowed to serve in the holy Temple, as he was not a descendant of Aaron the kohen. He was horrified: he didn’t want to die!
He returned to Hillel. “May blessings fall on your head, humble sir, for drawing me under the wings of the Divine Presence.” For you see, even though he no longer wanted to be the High Priest, he had found the beauty of Torah in the text itself and in the person of Hillel. He continued studying Torah, and eventually converted to Judaism.
There are many lessons available in that story. One I have to work to remember is that sometimes ignorant people ask offensive questions without meaning offense. I can pick up the nearest measuring rod to chase them out of my shop – Shammai’s response is understandable! – or I can give them what they need to educate themselves. It’s my choice.
Have you ever asked a question you realized later was foolish or even offensive? When and how did you learn better? And what did you do then?