Shabbat Shalom with a Heart-Healthy Dose of Torah-Bhaalot’cha
Anointing Priests is sacred work. Torah spends a lot of time talking about how the priests are set aside from the rest of the people in order to maintain their "holy and pure" status. God commands them to shave their heads and their bodies to distinguish them from the wider population. They must wear special clothing and eat special foods. This week, we learn that the Levite clan is to be the living exemplar of holiness and purity; a beacon of light for this people Israel … the people set apart from all others as God's "chosen."
Ok, and now for the rest of the story. Even as Torah goes to great length to separate the Levites from all others, we face several conundrums internal and external to the text.
1. This week, the Torah designates all Levites as priests in charge of the sacrificial rituals. Other parts of Torah give this power to only a subset of Levites (the Kohathites). In still other Torah texts, only a subset of the Kohathites hold the special priestly status: Aaronides or Kohanim. Moses is a Levite and a Kohathite and God bars him from the Tabernacle for being Aaron's brother and not his offspring. Within the Book of Numbers, all three stories co-exist. This week, we talk about the unique status of the entire Levite clan. We will read of the Korach rebellion that separates first the Kohathites from the rest of the Levites, and then only Aaron's lineage and descendants from even the rest of his sub-clan.
2. There is a class of people set aside for service to God, who live by a very different set of rules. The Nazirites (also detailed in this Book of Numbers) are not allowed to cut/shave their head. In fact, the shaved head is a sign that the Nazirite (one set aside for special service to God) is in a state of impurity, having come in contact with a corpse. So two conflicting rules for what it means to be set aside for service to God. Interestingly, one inherits the Priestly status while one must choose to be a Nazir.
I cannot ignore that all of these divergent stories of "God's anointed" exist in this one Book of Numbers. Maybe the book's purpose is not to count the census of people (as it is so labeled). Perhaps it portends to help us count the variety of ways in which Torah affirms one's ability to serve in holiness.
3. Torah tells the story of a people freed from captivity. Egypt enslaved Israel for up to 400 years. The purpose of the Exodus was to let Israel cast off the ways of the heathen/pagan Egyptian culture so that they would commune with God in freedom. Repeatedly, Torah admonishes us to leave the ways of the Egyptians behind. The whole matter of the Golden Calf earned God's wrath because the people did not have enough faith to let go of Egyptian religious practice of animal/idol worship. Time and time again, Moses reminds Israel to be a holy and distinct people; distinct from the unholy Egyptians and other pagan nations. To adopt their ways is to return to Egypt. So, why is this week's text devoted to fashioning the rules that make the Israelite priesthood look, act, and dress no differently than did the Egyptian priests?
Egyptian priests shaved their bodies and heads. They ran the sacrificial altar rituals in special clothes (also white linen). They lived by unique rules, passed their status from parent to child, and served as the conduit between people and God. Egyptian priests were also circumcised. "Hamavdil baen kodesh l'chol." Our liturgy demands that we separate the sacred from the mundane (some will even translate this as the dichotomy of sacred and profane). How are we to be a sacred people when the holy commands received by Moses make us behave no differently than the Egyptians?
At the time of the Torah's redaction, we already know that there is a large segment of the people who found all aspects of altar sacrifice and worship to be corrupt. The Rabbinic movement (Pharisees) completely separated from the corrupt practice. What if the redacting sages offered the biting political satire that "holy rituals and purification rites (including appearance and grooming)" have nothing to do with the connection experienced between our souls and divinity? It simply does not matter what we look like, what we do, or who we choose to emulate: Egypt or anyone else.
Holiness is not a function of the trappings of ritual. The Prophets scream against empty ritual, each reminding Israel that finding God involves more than filling out behavioral checklists. See Isaiah 1, Psalm 50:12 -13, Amos 5:22-25, Jeremiah 7:22, I Samuel 15:22-23, Hosea 6:6, or Micah 6:6-8 (a posthumous "thank you" to Rabbi Gunther Plaut for this). The Prophets teach us that it is not by might or power (not by the demonstration of deeds) but by spirit (the soul turned to holiness) that we embrace the divine. "Clean hands and a pure heart allow us to commune with the Divine (Psalm 24:3-4). If "showing up" at the altar is not enough, nor then does following a checklist of rituals make one more holy than others who do not.
Torah is not random or inconsistent. Torah was not intended to be read in snippets or sound bites. Torah consistently tells us that there is no "one" standard superior to all others. Ritual can help one experience a deeper connection with God, but it takes the intention of the heart to make that connection real. Yes, I think we all do need to show up together more often, but I think we need to do so with the intention of sharing more than space in the sanctuary or social hall. We need more folks who rally around the Torah's universal ethical messages: we need more Torah people. Every time we make Torah speak in ways that alienate us from each other, we diminish our tradition. Shabbat Shalom.