Now we come to a lot of sprinkling and dashing and splashing and slashing….it’s “sacrifice” time at ye olde Tabernacle in the wilderness. But, “sacrifice” isn’t the right word at all; “offering” is better. “Sin” isn’t a good translation, either. So, let’s start out by realigning some of these concepts.
Realigning is a good word, because just like a good chiropractic appointment realigns your spine when you’re even a little out of balance, bringing offerings “realigns” the individual from being out of balance with God by a particular behavior, to being in balance. It’s not that the person is sin-full, or is essentially bad; s/he is temporarily off balance, off the mark. This week’s parasha gives instructions as to how to change that state of being from tamei (“unclean” but better to read “out of alignment with God”) to tahor (“clean”, but read instead, “aligned with God”.) There are several reasons to bring offerings to the Tabernacle; it’s not all about guilt. One would bring a simple daily offering of flour and oil…like pita! One might bring an offering of thanksgiving, or of well-being. And there are different recipes for different offerings, but “sacrifice” doesn’t really describe any of them. Sacrifices diminish. Offerings elevate…literally. The word for offering is “olah”, and it means to go up, rise. When you are called to the Torah, for example, you have an “aliyah”, and it is the same Hebrew root.
Part of the Torah portion this week describes a particular ritual of ordination. It’s when Aaron and his sons are invested as the High Priests. They get all dressed up in special clothing, and two perfect rams are brought forward. Aaron and his sons “laid their hands upon the ram’s head” and it was slaughtered and burnt. Then, they laid their hands on the other one, but when it was slaughtered, Moses did the following: “Moses took some of the blood and put it on the ridge of Aaron’s right ear, and on the thumb of his right hand, and on the big toe of his right foot.” (Lev. 8:23) He did the same for Aaron’s sons, as each of them stepped forward.
Well, that’s odd.
But if you think about it, Aaron and his sons were being installed as the highest leaders of the community. Their lives were changed at that point, and everything they did, even when they weren’t at work in the Tabernacle, had an effect on the people. Consider where the ritual focused: the ears, so that they may truly hear the needs of the people; their thumbs, so that their hands would do the work of God, and work for the community; and their toes, so that they would walk the path of a leader, with God accompanying them on their journey.
My sister was ordained as a rabbi recently. Luckily, we didn’t have to slaughter a ram and spread blood on her, because she was also dressed up for the occasion and it would have been a shame to get her clothes dirty. But her teachers did, indeed, lay their hands on her head, conferring upon her the role of leader of the community. It was a very profound moment. I remember when my father put his hands on my head at my Bat Mitzvah, blessing me with the words of the Priestly Blessing. I can still feel the weight of those very large hands, all these years later.
Perhaps our leaders, both secular and religious, need to be reminded occasionally of the fact that they lead with their entire beings – head, hands, and feet – and that taking on the role of community leadership is an all-encompassing responsibility. Aaron and his sons were treated with respect, kavod, but kavod is root as the word kaved, heavy, weighty. I imagine that they felt the weight of that little bit of blood on their skin long after it was washed off.