Tzav, this week’s parsha, establishes some of the sacrificial duties of the professional high priest, the Kohanim, along with some of their perks and ends with the ritual of their consecration. There is an obvious parallel between these duties, perks and consecration and those of the modern Jewish religious leader.
In Tzav, God tells Moses how to conduct a series of religious rituals that only the Kohanim can carry out, specifically the rituals of Burnt Offering, meal offering, offerings for purgation, reparations, sacrifices for well being and the prohimbitions regarding fat and blood, and then the insturctions for ordination of the priests. We are told what the priests should be wearing, how they kill, burn or otherwise consume the food or creatures being sacrificed.
The purpose or efficacy of sacrifice is taken for granted. If done correctly, the ritual will evoke well-being, sin will be purged, God will be placated. The acts are not without meaning and effect, but to me the obligation seems paramount and is perhaps an ends unto itself. One wonders how the high priests managed to escape corruption and cynicism and one assumes many did not. But noneless, they – and we – we brave alll the possible pitfalls, because they and we need the rituals. Why?
Rabbi Nancy Fuchs Kreimer wrote in The Torah, A Women’s Commentary,
As we learn about ritual as a human phenomenon, we come to understand it as a language of it’s own, uniquely meaningful.
But what gives it that meaning? Is it the ritual itself, is there some magic in the specific act, or is it enough that it is separate and repeatable and and we have all agreed to assign meaning to it? And in our own time, is group or private prayer an adequate substitute for an orchestrated and dramatic public offering of value to God? Or is the system of halacha and all the attendent sacrifices one makes in comfort and ease if one is halachically observant, the only true substitute for a fire on a high altar?
Or are those special creatures, the hereditary high priests the only ones who can perform the rituals correctly so that we may be made whole and holy? If so, can these Kohanim serve as models for a moden rabbinical student? How should we approach the learning and carrying out of our rituals? Is there is the inherent value to a ritual even if is divorced from its history, or meaning? Where can we find our fire?
Arthur Green writes in his interpretation of the Se-fat Emet’s commentary on Tzav,
We long for a perfect act of worship, one in which there is no distraction, no doubt, no holding back, no wandering of the mind, nothing but the pure gift of love. But we miss the point. Our worship is all about struggle, an ongoing inner process of transformaiton
I would like to tell you what was, for me, a perfect act of worship and a transformation.
My father was a kohen. When I was young, I knew he was special, and he got to do stuff other people didn’t do because of it and that made me special.
One day my father came home with this wooden box, and inside were five beautiful silver coins, which were for the pidyon ha ben, the ritual of redeeming the first born son from service in the temple. My father would “sell” these coins to the parents of the child for the price of a donation to the temple, he would then perform the pidyon ha ben, whatever that was, and they would pay him with the coins. My father was very proud of these coins and I really wish I still had them. We bonded over the coins, until he told me that I could never do this ritual because I was a girl, and only boys counted as kohanim, and only boys needed to be redeemed. Not fair.
Years pass, I am an adult feminist and completely alienated from Judaism and I move to Seattle and then discover Judaism ain’t so bad after all and move back to Jewish New York, but as drawn as I was to the Jewish community, I still couldn’t help feel that religion was irrational and not for me. But then, friends of mine had a baby, their first, and a boy, and they knew I’m a Kohen, I don’t remember why, and they asked me to perfrom their son’s pidyon ha ben.
Me? But I’m a woman? You mean, I can be a Kohen now? Or at least act as one? Yes, I can. It was so exciting! I hadn’t read Hebrew out loud in a long time, but Rabbi Sami Barth stood next to me at the ceremony while I enabled Debby and Wrolf to redeem the infant, Jeremy. And myself. Because in that act, that perfect act of ritual, both Jeremy and I were redeemed. My fear and doubts were nothing next to the connection I felt to Aaron, to my father, to every woman who ever wanted to lead and study and pray as a full human being and a Jew, and most of all, to my authentic self. A perfect act of worship and transformation, indeed.
That baby, Jeremy, is going to college next year. And I am applying to rabbinical school, though not because I’m a kohen. I belong to a congregation that considers such hereditary status to be beyond anachronistic, no, more like repulsive and un-American and we never, and I mean never, do aliyot by Kohen, Levite and Israelite, but I still, whenever I hear the priestly blessing recited by the rabbi and sung by the cantor, I still think, that’s mine to say, not yours, mine, though I don’t tell anyone, well I just told you, because I know I’m not supposed to feel that way, and I know it’s not real but I do.
But I have come to know that any leader of ritual can be that k’li kodesh, sacred vessel. Rabbi Shefa Gold, writing about this parsha in her book, Torah Journeys, says:
We are commanded to be a nation of priests, to take responsibility for the holiness of our world, to be healers, and when necessary to stand between Life and Death, bridging the finite and the infinite.
The ritual leader, kohen or rabbi or not, lights the holy fire, whether it’s a burning pigeon or a powerful metaphor, and creates the bridge between the past and the future.