It is challenging to translate the accounts in Leviticus into terms that are meaningful for modern people. Certainly the notion of seeking forgiveness for both misdeeds both intentional and inadvertent is germane to our lives day in and day out, but Leviticus also involves a lot of slaughtering animals, dashing blood against the altar, eating sacrifices, burning sacrifices, ritual purity, and animal body parts (thighs, kidneys, entrails, liver, fat), not to mention cakes of oil, wafers… So let’s compound the challenge of connecting to Leviticus by considering two rituals that both seem a world away: the ordination of the priests and the purification of the metzora.
Parshat Tzav's description of the ordination of the kohanim (the priests) involves a peculiar ritual: Moses dips his fingers in the ram’s blood and applies it to Aaron’s body in a manner reminiscent of the childhood game “Head, Shoulders, Knees, and Toes.”
ויקרב את-האיל השני, איל המלאים; ויסמכו אהרן ובניו, את-ידיהם--על-ראש האיל. וישחט--ויקח משה מדמו, ויתן על-תנוך אזן-אהרן הימנית; ועל-בהן ידו הימנית, ועל-בהן רגלו הימנית. ויקרב את-בני אהרן, ויתן משה מן-הדם על-תנוך אזנם הימנית, ועל-בהן ידם הימנית, ועל-בהן רגלם הימנית; ויזרק משה את-הדם על-המזבח, סביב.
[Moses] brought forward the second ram, the ram of ordination. Aaron and his sons laid their hands upon the ram’s head, and it was slaughtered. Moses took some of its 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 food. Moses then brought forward the sons of Aaron, and put some of the blood on the ridges of their right ears, and on the thumbs of their right hands, and on the big toes of their right feet; and the rest of the blood Moses dashed against every side of the altar. (Leviticus 8:22–24)
Etz Hayim notes: “Dabbing sacrificial blood on certain extremities of the body is essentially a rite of purification. In this manner Aaron and his sons were purified as they entered into their new status.” Yet already in the first century B.C.E., Philo interpreted the ritual as symbolic, not functional: “In this figure, he indicated that the fully consecrated must be pure in words and actions and in his whole life; for words are judged by hearing, the hand is the symbol of action, and the foot [is the symbol] of the pilgrimage of life.” What then can we say about this strange ritual when we note that the purification of the metzora from tzara’at (any of a number of skin afflictions for which a person was quarantined outside the camp of the Israelites until a priest could certify that the condition had healed) is remarkably similar? Here, too, the priest plays a levitical game of “Head, Shoulders, Knees, and Toes.”
וטבל הכהן, את-אצבעו הימנית, מן-השמן, אשר על-כפו השמאלית; והזה מן-השמן באצבעו שבע פעמים, לפני יהוה. יז ומיתר השמן אשר על-כפו, יתן הכהן על-תנוך אזן המטהר הימנית, ועל-בהן ידו הימנית, ועל-בהן רגלו הימנית--על, דם האשם. יח והנותר, בשמן אשר על-כף הכהן, יתן, על-ראש המטהר; וכפר עליו הכהן, לפני יהוה.
The priest shall dip his right finger in the oil that is in the palm of his left hand and sprinkle some of the oil with his finger seven times before the Lord. Some of the oil left in his palm shall be put by the priest on the ridge of the right ear of the one being purified, on the thumb of his right hand, and on the big toe of his right foot – over the blood of the reparation offering. The rest of the oil in his palm the priest shall put on the head of the one being purified. Thus the priest shall make expiation for him before the Lord.” (Leviticus 14:16–18)
Both rituals are remarkable for their physical intimacy—Moses touches the blood of the sacrifice and the priest touches the body of the metzora. We might think that neither would be desirable to touch, but the lifeblood of the ram is the blood of an animal no longer alive, and the body of the metzora is no longer “alive with tzara’at.” Both rituals signal that the bodies of the priest and the metzora are undergoing a transformation: the metzora who was tam’ei (ritually impure) is now again tahor (restored to a state of ritual purity); the priest has risen in holiness so that he might offer sacrifices on behalf of Israel. Each has been elevated.
It’s hard to say which ritual came first. If the purification of the metzora was first, we might think that the meaning of applying oil to the extremities of the metzora was to convey that every part of him, top to bottom, is now free of tzara’at, and certified so by the priest who would not wish to become tam’ei by touching someone who is ritually impure. Then perhaps the ordination of priests, in imitation of the purification of the metzora, conveys that the priest is wholly devoted to service of God, head to toe, just as the metzora is now deemed ritually pure, head to toe. But since a priest must apply the purifying oil to restore the metzora’s status as ritually pure, the priests needed to be ordained before the ritual of the metzora’s purification commenced. Hence, the way a metzora is purified may be an imitation of the ritual to ordain the priests, indicating the elevation of the metzora’s status from the realm of quarantined-and-stigmatized to that of the general community of Israel. Not only is the former metzora qualified to enter the Mishkan (Tabernacle) and bring sacrifices, he is as pure as a priest.
Perhaps the underlying message, which needs to be repeated in every generation, is the enormous worth in God’s eyes of each individual—even those stigmatized and marginalized due to some irregularity of their physical being. In the ancient world, disease brought stigma and marginalization. In our time, physical and mental disability do, as well. Yet Torah calls us to take a second look at how we think about others: God’s ritual for purifying the metzora is no less impressive or detailed than God’s ritual for ordaining priests to serve at the altar. Tamar Eskenazi points out:
The most marginalized, isolated person is reintegrated with an elaborate ritual, comparable only to that of the ordination of the High Priest. what is absent in these chapters of Leviticus, and in Leviticus as a whole, is a crucial as what is in it. At no point does Leviticus suggest that a person’s illness or disease results from that person’s sin… Patients suffer cruelty in isolation and ostracism, followed by social and religious stigma.
The “Head, Shoulders, Knees, and Toes” ritual helps us to see what is already apparent to God. We no longer practice the rituals of the Mishkan (Tabernacle) or Mikdash (Temple), but we can learn from them to look at the world through God’s eyes. This is a particularly important message at this time in history, and at this moment in presidential campaign.
© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman
Tamar Eskenazi, “Reading the Bible as a Healing Text,” in William Cutter, Healing and the Jewish Imagination: Spiritual and Practical Perspectives on Judaism and Health (2007: Jewish Lights), p. 86. Unfortunately, the Rabbis attached the interpretation of moral wrong to disease when they declared that tzara’at results from lashon ha-ra (gossip and tale-bearing) in BT Arakhin 15b.