Tzav: Seven Days of Filling Up

April 11, 2011 at 3:24 pm | Posted in Tzav | 1 Comment

(This blog was first posted on March 13, 2011.)

What does it take to change Aaron, Moses’ older but not wiser brother, into the high priest of all the Israelites?  What does it take to elevate Aaron’s four sons into assistant priests?

In this week’s Torah portion, Tzav (“Command”), Moses assembles the whole community, and in front of everyone he washes the five men, dresses them in all the ritual garments described in the book of Exodus/Shemot, then sprinkles anointing oil on them (as well as on everything in the sanctuary).  Next Moses daubs the blood of sacrificed animals on the right ear, right thumb, and right big toe of each of them.  After burning the offerings, Moses takes some anointment oil and blood (probably mixed with ashes) from the altar and sprinkles the mixture over them.  Finally Moses leaves his brother and nephews with a good supply of food, and strict instructions:

You must not leave the entrance of the Tent of Meeting for seven days, until the day fulfilling the days of your filling; because it will fill up your power seven days. (Leviticus/Vayikra 8:33)

yedchem = your hand; your power

yemallei et yedchem = it/he will fill up your hand, fill up your power; it will invest you, inaugurate you, ordain you, install you.

And you must dwell at the entrance of the Tent of Meeting day and night for seven seven days; and you must guard what must be guarded of God, so you will not die; for so I was commanded.  (Leviticus/Vayikra 8:35)

ushmartem et mishmeret = you must guard what must be guarded, you must keep safe what is for safekeeping.  (A more common translation is “and you shall keep God’s charge”, but this overlooks the double use of words based on the root shamor = guard, protect.)

After all that oily, bloody, smoky ritual, why do Aaron and his sons have to sit by themselves at the entrance to the Tent of Meeting for seven days before their final confirmation?

Most commentary says they spend the time either learning all the rituals for the sanctuary, or meditating on the holiness of their new jobs, or mourning—because they have a premonition that at least one of them will die on the eighth day.

I suppose if Moses wrote down all the ritual laws he received from God, Aaron and his sons could spend seven days reading and quizzing each other until they’d memorized every detail.  It’s one valid way to interpret the clause “and you must guard what must be guarded of God”.  Sometimes getting all the technical details right is the most important thing.

But the Torah also quotes Moses as telling Aaron and his sons that they must not leave the entrance of the Tent of Meeting because “it will fill up your power seven days”.  Maybe it takes seven days of dwelling in the entrance to God’s dwelling-place to fill up with sufficient holy awe so they have the power to conduct holy business.

What strikes me is that Aaron and his sons were neither born nor trained to be priests.  They got their new positions without any previous job experience.

Up to this point, Aaron has not been the sort of man who wears a gold medallion on his forehead saying “Holy to God”.   It’s clear in Exodus that God only contacts Aaron because Moses makes so many objections to the job God gives him at the burning bush.  To his credit, Aaron greets his long-lost brother without jealousy, and willingly serves as Moses’ sidekick.  When the Israelites are attacked by Amalek on the way to Mount Sinai, Aaron literally supports Moses’ arm and helps him save the day.  But when Moses climbs Mount Sinai and does not return for 40 days, and the people freak out and ask for idols, Aaron makes the golden calf.  Commentary from the first millennium says Aaron apologized and atoned for the calf, but that’s not in the Torah.

Now Aaron is promoted from Moses’ unreliable assistant to High Priest.  Aaron will officiate over the ritual offerings in the sanctuary.  Aaron will light the menorah.  Aaron will be in charge of God’s dwelling place.

Aaron’s four sons are also getting major promotions.  They have not done anything of distinction yet, though the two oldest, Nadav and Avihu, did get to climb halfway up Mount Sinai with the 70 elders and see a vision of God’s feet on a sapphire pavement.  As members of the tribe of Levi, and as Moses’ nephews, all four would be treated with the respect accorded to elders.  But now they are being ordained as priests.  Besides Aaron and Moses, only the four of them will be allowed to enter the inner sanctum.  Only they will be allowed to handle the holiest objects in the sanctuary.  Only they will turn the offerings of their people into smoke that ascends to God.

For seven days they sit inside the sanctuary, in the entrance of the Tent of Meeting, gazing either out at the bronze altar and wash-basin in the courtyard, or in at the golden menorah, incense altar, and bread table, and the curtain screening off the ark itself.  For seven days they sit there, without distractions, realizing they will spend the rest of their lives dedicated to holy service.

Are they also mourning?  I doubt they had a premonition that one or more of them would die.  (Aaron’s two oldest sons do die on the eighth day, in next week’s Torah portion, but it comes as a shock to everyone.)  Early commentary compares these seven days to the seven-day mourning period of shiva, but “sitting shiva” is a later Jewish custom.

Nevertheless, I can imagine Aaron and his sons as not only awed and excited by their new roles, but also mourning for the old lives they are leaving behind.  Before the seven days, they were respected elders among the Israelites; relatives of the great Moses, but still ordinary people.  Moses was obviously different, but his brother and nephews were not set aside as holy.  After the seven days, they will be set aside as holy.  They will be the servants of God’s dwelling-place, who must act as God’s representatives every waking minute.

In a way, all five of them have just lost their lives.  They need seven days of mourning before they take up new lives as priests.

I wish that everyone who faces a sudden big change in life were granted seven days to just sit at the entrance of the new life and dwell there, experiencing the grief, fear, awe, and whatever else comes along, letting the transformation sink in.

We don’t have a Moses to set aside seven days for us.  But whenever we can, let’s do it ourselves.  And whenever our lives change, may God fill up our power to meet the new challenge


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  1. […] the ordination of the first priests, see my earlier posts: Tzav: Horns, Ears, Thumbs, and Toes and Tzav: Seven Days of Filling Up.) […]

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