Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Belts & Badges / Parshat Tzav 2015/5775

Parshat Tzav paints a vivid picture: Before the entire community of Israel, Moses brings forward Aaron and his sons, washes them with water and dresses them in the raiment of their station. For Aaron, the High Priest, that means a tunic, sash, robe, ephod, breast piece with Urim and Tummim, headdress, and diadem. At the right is a depiction of what the High Priests garb it thought to have looked like. Next Moses took specially prepared olive oil and anointed the Tabernacle, the alter and the utensils that would be used to make sacrifices, the laver in which the priests would wash their hands and feet before making sacrifices, and finally Aaron, himself. In this way Aaron and the Tabernacle were consecrated: they were declared sacred to God and dedicated to the service of God.

Reading this description brought back a memory from long ago that may strike you as utterly dissonant in the context of the momentous moment and solemn ceremony Torah describes.  In elementary school, one of my most cherished dreams was to secure a spot on the school safety patrol. Do you recall safeties? In K6 school I attended, safeties were sixth graders who directed students in the hallways and at street corners near the school at dismissal time. Safeties got to wear white web belts with silver badges affixed. To me, these were the equivalent of the garb of a high priest. My initial application to be a safety was turned down because I was too short. When I appealed my rejection, the teacher in charge agreed to give me a chance. He handed me a brand-new, shiny, plastic orange belta new version of the old, white standard. I felt my heart sink. I had imagined wearing the traditional white web belt; thats what real safeties wear.  Are there any more white belts? I asked. The teacher looked at me quizzically and gently responded, Please give some thought to why you want to be a safety. Given how much I respected this teacher, I did. And it didnt take me long to realize that my ambition to be a safety was all about wearing the belt and the status I imagined it afforded, not the importance of the job. For years I had listened to safeties yell and order other kids around and, while I had no interest in yelling at anyone, the idea of having a post, along with the concomitant authority, was mighty appealing.

One can easily imagine Aaron becoming lost in the pomp and circumstance, ceremony and status, of his position. Does it go to his head? Does he lose sight of the fact that he is there to serve God and Israel and become enthralled by his power and authority? Aaron has lived much of his life in the shadow of his younger brother, Moses. It is Moses whom God appoints to confront Pharaoh. Aaron goes along as his assistant. Moses gets the white belt; Aaron gets the orange belt. Hes not even mentioned in the account of the Reed Sea (Exodus 14-15). When the Israelites fight the Amalekites, Aaron plays a supporting roleliterally: he and Hur hold up Moses outstretch arms to ensure that the Israelites will be victorious in battle (Exodus 17:8-13). When Moses ascends Mount Sinai,  Aaron finds himself, at long last, in charge. But what happens? He immediately succumbs to the demands of the people to build them a golden calf to worship. He is wildly popular with the people, but the outcome is what tradition has always branded as the worst case of idolatry in Israels history. Now, Aaron stands posed to take on the highest religious role in the nation, one that will be passed from generation to generation in perpetuity. He, and he alone, will enter the Holy of Holies each Yom Kippur. How could this not go to his head?

The consecration of Aaron and his sons lasted seven days. Many sacrifices were offered on the altar. I want to note two curious and telling things: The first is that as soon as Moses finishes winding turbans around the heads of Aarons sonsthe last act in dressing them in their priestly accountrementsMoses brings forward the very first sacrifice Aaron will ever make: it is a chatat, a sin offering.

וַיַּגֵּשׁ, אֵת פַּר הַחַטָּאת; וַיִּסְמֹךְ אַהֲרֹן וּבָנָיו אֶת-יְדֵיהֶם, עַל-רֹאשׁ פַּר הַחַטָּאת.  טו וַיִּשְׁחָט, וַיִּקַּח מֹשֶׁה אֶת-הַדָּם וַיִּתֵּן עַל-קַרְנוֹת הַמִּזְבֵּחַ סָבִיב בְּאֶצְבָּעוֹ, וַיְחַטֵּא, אֶת-הַמִּזְבֵּחַ; וְאֶת-הַדָּם, יָצַק אֶל-יְסוֹד הַמִּזְבֵּחַ, וַיְקַדְּשֵׁהוּ, לְכַפֵּר עָלָיו.
[Moses] led forward the bull of sin offering. Aaron and his sons laid their hands upon the head of the bull of sin offering, and it was slaughtered. Moses took the blood and with his finger put some on each of the horns of the altar, cleansing the altar; then he poured out the blood at the base of the altar. Thus he consecrated it in order to make expiation upon it. (Leviticus 8:14-15)

Why is the first sacrifice, the one that is intended to purify the altar, specifically a sin offering?And further, as we will see in next weeks parashah, Shemini, the very first sacrificial offering made on the eighth day, after the week of consecration is complete and the regular course of sacrifices commences, is also a chatat (sin offering). Could it be that the message of the sin offering, first during the week of consecration and first after the consecration is complete, is a reminder to Aaron that he is not only as imperfect as all people are, and vulnerable to doing the wrong thing, but perhaps even especially so because of his exalted and honored status: if he lets it go to this head, he will succumb to the temptations of ego-aggrandizement.

It seems that Aaron heard the message. The Rabbis tell us that Aaron was particularly respected for being a peace maker. Hillel taught that Aaron was the paradigm of a peace maker. He perhaps suggests, as well, that this arose out of Aarons love for others and resulted in bringing people close to Torah:

הוי כתלמידיו של אהרון--אוהב שלום ורודף שלום, אוהב את הברייות ומקרבן לתורה.
Be of the disciples of Aaron, loving peace and pursuing peace; love your fellow creatures and bring them close to the Torah. (Pirke Avot 1:12)

In fact, there is a suggestion in the Babylonian Talmud that because Aaron not only loved peace, but actively pursued it in the community, he was sometimes more beloved of the people than his exalted and deeply humble brother Moses.

וכן משה היה אומר יקוב הדין את ההר אבל אהרן אוהב שלום ורודף שלום ומשים שלום בין אדם לחבירו שנאמר (מלאכי ב) תורת אמת היתה בפיהו ועולה לא נמצא בשפתיו בשלום ובמישור הלך אתי ורבים השיב מעון.
Moses's motto was: Let the law cut through the mountain. Aaron, however, loved peace and pursued peace and made peace between man and man, as it is written, The law of truth was in his mouth, unrighteousness was not found in his lips, he walked with Me in peace and uprightness and did turn many away from iniquity (Malachi 2:6). (BT Sanhedrin 6b)

Just how did Aaron pursue peace? Avon de-Rabbi Natan, the midrash on Pirke Avot, Avot provides two examples. Here is the first:

R. Meir asked, What does, He prevented many from doing wrong (Malachi 2:6) mean? We could illustrate it as follows: Whenever Aaron encountered even someone of questionable reputation, he would stop and greet him. On the morrow, that same person might want to do something wrong, but would stop and think to himself: Woe unto me! How would I lift my eyes afterward and look Aaron in the face? I would be ashamed before him when he greeted me. Consequently, that man would restrain himself from doing wrong.

This is an extraordinary use of authority and status. We dont find that Aaron issuing warnings, making threaten, berating, criticizing, or leveling condemnations. He greets everyone in the street, even knowing that they are of questionable reputation. He lives the teachings of Shammai, Greet everyone with a cheerful face (Pirke Avot 1:15) and of R. Matya b. Charash, Be the first to extend greetings to every human being (Pirke Avot 4:20). To be acknowledged by the High Priest, and in a warm and friendly way, inspires those who are inclined to do wrong think twice, think better of themselves, and consequently behave better. What a wise and powerful use of authority.

Here is the second example Avot de-Rabbi Natan offers:

If two people were feuding, Aaron would walk up to one, sit down next to him and say, My child, dont you see how much your friend is tearing her heart out and rending her clothes. The person would then say to himself: How can I lift up my head and look my friend in the face? I would be ashamed to see her because it is I who treated her foully. Aaron would remain at his side until he had removed all rancor from his heart.  Afterwards, Aaron would walk over to the other person, sit down next to her and say: Dont you see how much your friend is eating his heart out and tearing his clothes. And so this person, too, would think to herself: Woe unto me! How can I lift up my head and look my friend in the face? I would be ashamed to see him because it is I who treated him foully. Aaron would sit with this person until she, too, had overcome the rancor in her heart. And finally when these two friends met, they would embrace and kiss each other. That is why it is said [that when Aaron died], And they wept for Aaron thirty days, the entire House of Israel (Numbers 20:20). (Avot d Rabbi Natan, chapter 12)

The second example is a model we might, ourselves, have the opportunity to follow. (I once did, and it worked splendidly.) Here Aaron does far more than greet people in the street. He stops when he recognizes their pain. He sits and listens to their story. He understands that their quarrel is not black-and-white and that each carries a share of the responsibility for the breach in the relationship. But Aaron does not pull rank, judge, and assign blame. Rather, he gives voice to the best in the other party.[1] In the safe space Aaron creates, each person can pull back from anger that obscures their ability to see the situation from the perspective of the other, assume proper responsibility for the feud, and extend forgiveness to the other.

The two examples of Aarons peace-making skills demonstrate how Aaron uses his authority and status. Its not about him. Its about what he can do for others.

As a school safety, I was initially assigned to the K-3 wing of the school; my job was to insure that the students exited school at 3:20 pm in an orderly manner. It wasnt easy and I did a lousy job. Many of the third graders and a few of the second graders towered over me. No one listened to me. I didnt last two days. I was serendipitously reassigned to the big corner a block from school where almost everyone crossed to walk home. It was easy because everyone knew the drill. No yelling required. Best of all, this was a high-prestige post which I had snagged not because I was good at the job, but because I was too short to command authority anywhere else. Several weeks into the job, for some inexplicable reason, a kindergartner walked out into the road just as a car approached the corner, even though the crowd of children stood patiently on the sidewalk. As I had been trained, I grabbed the child and hauled her back onto the curb. In the scheme of things, it was a minor incident. There were some gasps and a few sighs of relief, but in 15 seconds it was all over and life continued. For me, however, something had changed. I finally got it. The belt was not a mark of greatness. It was the uniform of someone beholden to others. It wasnt about me. It also wast about being a safety; it was about the safety of the other kids. I was there to serve them. Its a lesson most of us have to keep relearning throughout life.

Would that so many in positions of authority felt that they were there to serve not their egos, but the needs of others.

© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman

[1] Perhaps its needless to say, but the original text couches everything on the masculine: both parties to the feud are men. It was my choice to make one a man and one a woman, rather than say s/he and his/hers throughout, in order to make the text comport with modern sensibilities.

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