Tags: Aaron's sons, Leviticus, Moses and Aaron, Nadav and Avihu, ordination, prophets and priests, torah portion
The Israelites complete the tent that will serve as a portable temple at the end of the book of Exodus/Shemot. Moses consecrates the altar and the priests who will perform all the required rituals in this week’s Torah portion, Tzav, the second portion in the book of Leviticus/Vayikra.
Moses assembles the whole community outside the entrance of the new Tent of Meeting. In front of everyone he washes his brother Aaron and Aaron’s four sons, then dresses them in the white, gold, red, purple, and blue ritual garments described in the book of Exodus/Shemot.1
The ceremony continues with the ritual slaughter of a bull and three rams, offerings of animal parts and three kinds of flat cakes, and the application of anointing oil and blood from the slaughtered animals in various locations and combinations. (See my post Tzav: Horns, Ears, Thumbs, and Toes.) After the gorgeous new ceremonial garments are spotted all over with oil and blood they are holy—dedicated to God. So are Aaron and his sons, but they are not yet priests.
Moses leaves them with a supply of boiled meat (from the second ram) and leftover grain products (from the grain offering), and gives them strict instructions:
You must not leave the entrance of the Tent of Meeting for seven days, until the day of melot the days of your milu-im; because in seven days yemallei your yad. (Leviticus/Vayikra 8:33)
melot (מְלֺאת) = filling up, being full, fulfilling, completing. (A form of the verb mala, מָלַא = filled, was full.)
milu-im (מִילֻּאִים) = ordination; setting for a jewel to fill. (From the root mala.)
yemallei (יְמַלֵּא) = it will fill up. (Another form of the verb mala.)
yad (יַד) = hand; power, ability.
mala yad (מָלַא יַד) = Literally: filled the hand. Idiomatically: ordained.2
According to God’s instructions to Moses in the book of Exodus, one part of the ritual will be repeated each day during this seven-day period: the slaughter of a bull and consecration of the altar with its blood.3 But Aaron and his sons will simply sit in the tent entrance in their spattered garments, gradually eating their portions of the meat and grain offerings that they had shared with God.
God commanded to do what was done today, to atone for you. And you must sit at the entrance of the Tent of Meeting day and night for seven days, and you must watch over the watch of God, so you will not die; for so I was commanded. (Leviticus 8:34-35)
The Torah does not say whether the long ritual served as a general atonement and spiritual purification, or whether it atones for Aaron’s sin of making the golden calf back in the book of Exodus.4
Nor does it say what Aaron and his sons must watch over or guard for seven days. Many commentators have written that they spend the seven days meditating on the rules of holiness and ritual purity for serving God.5
Another viewpoint is that they are mourning, because they have a premonition that at least one of them will die on the eighth day, when they first serve God as official priests.6 But when Aaron’s two oldest sons, Nadav and Avihu, do die on the eighth day, in next week’s Torah portion, it comes as a shock to everyone.
The Torah also quotes Moses as telling Aaron and his sons that they must not leave the entrance of the Tent of Meeting for seven days because “it will fill up (yemallei) your ability (yad)”. Maybe it takes seven days in the entrance to God’s dwelling-place to fill up with sufficient holy awe to be able to conduct the business of holiness.
What strikes me is that Aaron and his sons are neither born nor trained to be priests. They get 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 the book of Exodus that God only calls Aaron in because Moses makes so many objections to the job God gives him at the burning bush.7 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.8 But when Moses climbs Mount Sinai and does not return for 40 days, and the people panic and ask for idols, Aaron makes the golden calf.
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, though they would be treated with the respect simply because they are Aaron’s sons.9 Now they are being ordained as priests. They will be the only people besides Moses and Aaron and Moses who are allowed to enter the Tent of Meeting, the only people allowed to handle the holiest objects inside it. Only they will turn the offerings of their people into smoke that ascends to God.
For seven days Aaron and his sons sit inside the sanctuary, in the entrance of the Tent of Meeting. Perhaps they face out, gazing at the bronze altar and the wash-basin in the sunlit courtyard. Perhaps they face in, gazing at the golden menorah, incense altar, and bread table under the tent roof, not to mention 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.
I doubt they are doing anticipatory mourning for the coming deaths of Nadav and Avihu. But they may be mourning for their old way of life, which has ended forever. At the end of seven days, they will be the servants of God’s dwelling-place, who must act as God’s representatives every waking minute.
Their new lives as priests are imposed on them. They do not apply for the job. They do not even hear God call them, the way prophets in the Hebrew Bible are called into service. Moses simply tells them what God told him do. It might seem like a great honor to them, or it might seem as arbitrary as an accident.
At least they are granted seven days to sit at the entrance of their new lives, 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 when we face a sudden major change in life. But we have the example in this week’s Torah portion. May everyone who can take time on the threshold between an old life and a new one receive the inspiration to sit and reflect. And whenever our lives change, may God fill up our ability to meet the new challenge.
(An earlier version of this essay was posted in March 2010.)
1 Exodus 28:1-43, 39:1-31. See my post Tetzavveh: The Clothes Make the Man.
2 The source of this idiom is not known, but it may be related to the elevation offering, the tenufah (תְּנוּפָה), in which priests lay the meat or grain cakes to be offered on their palms and either hold them out, raise them, or wave them toward God before burning them. A tenufah was part of the ordination ceremony for Aaron and his sons (Leviticus 8:26-28).
3 Exodus 29:35-38.
4 Exodus 32:1-8, 21-25. See my post Ki Tissa: Out Came this Calf!
5 e.g. 13th-century rabbi Moses ben Nachman (a.k.a. Ramban, Nachmanides), paraphrased in Elie Munk, The Call of the Torah: Vayikra, trans. by E.S. Mazer, Mesorah Publications, 1992, p. 71; 19th-century rabbi Sampson Raphael Hirsch, The Hirsch Chumash: Sefer Vayikra, Part 1, trans. by Daniel Haberman, Feldheim Publishers, Jerusalem, 2002, p. 277.
6 Midrash Tanchuma, a collection of commentary from the 5th through 8th centuries C.E., paraphrased in Munk, p. 72. Aaron’s two older sons, Nadav and Avihu, do die on the eighth day, consumed by a fire from God (Leviticus 10:1-2); and Moses forbids Aaron and his two surviving sons to engage in mourning for them (Leviticus 10:6-7). The seven days sitting at the tent entrance are compared to the initial seven-day mourning period of shivah, but “sitting shivah” is a later Jewish custom.
7 Exodus 4:10-17.
8 Exodus 17:8-13. See my post Beshallach: Hands Up.
9 Aaron’s two older sons, Nadav and Avihu, are treated as if they are elders when they walk partway up Mount Sinai with the 70 regular elders, Moses, and Aaron to behold a vision of God’s feet (Exodus 24:1, 9-11).
Tags: Exodus, Golden Calf, Moses, Moses and Aaron, Shemot, torah portion, trust, wet-nurse
by Melissa Carpenter, maggidah
Moses never wanted the job.
When God spoke out of the burning bush and assigned him to lead the Israelites out of Egypt, Moses tried to get out of it. He objected:
Hey! Lo ya-aminu me, and they will not listen to my voice, for they will say: Your god, God, did not appear. (Exodus 4:1)
Lo ya-aminu = They will not believe, they will not trust. Lo (לֹא) = not. Ya-aminu (יַאֲמִינוּ) = They will believe, be convinced by, put trust in, have faith in. (From the root aman, אמן, which is also the root of amen (אָמֵן) = a solemn statement of confirmation or acceptance. See last week’s post, Naso: Ordeal of Trust for the first use of “Amen” in the Torah.)
God gave Moses three miraculous signs to convince the Israelites that he really did speak for God. But Moses still tried to turn down the job. Finally God compromised by giving Moses a partner: his older brother Aaron, who had stayed in Egypt when Moses fled to Midian many decades before.
The arrangement was that God would speak to Moses, Moses would speak to Aaron, and Aaron would deal directly with the people. Moses accepted this arrangement—maybe because he had run out of excuses.
Moses and Aaron are still together in this week’s Torah portion, Beha-alotkha (“when you bring up”), in the book of Numbers/Bemidbar. But their roles have changed. The big change came while the Israelites were camped at Mount Sinai, halfway between Egypt and the “promised land’ of Canaan. When they first arrived at Mount Sinai, the people trusted God. Sure, they had panicked a few times when there was a shortage of water or food, but each time Moses talked to God and God fixed the problem. So when they reached Mount Sinai, the people said:
Everything that God speaks we will do! And God said to Moses: Hey! I myself will come to you in the thickness of the cloud, in order that the people will listen when I speak with you, and also ya-aminu in you forever. (Exodus 19:9)
Alas, while Moses is secluded inside God’s cloud on top of Mount Sinai for 40 days, the people feel abandoned and lose faith that Moses will return to them. They ask Aaron to make a god to lead them, now that Moses has disappeared.
If Aaron were trustworthy as Moses’ co-leader, he would have reminded them that God explicitly forbade them to make gold or silver idols. He might have redirected them toward making an acceptable offering to God. Instead, Aaron made the Golden Calf, and the Israelites had a wild party.
When Moses returned and questioned him about it, Aaron lied about his own role—
So I said to them: Who has gold? They took it off themselves and they gave it to me, and I threw it away into the fire, and out came this calf (Exodus 32:24)
—and slandered the Israelites—
You yourself know the people, that they are bad. (Exodus 32:22)
The Midrash Rabbah on the Song of Songs, a collection of commentary from the 8th century C.E., said that the two breasts of the woman in the song symbolize Moses and Aaron, who were full of the milk of Torah. But Aaron fails as a wet-nurse when he fails to set appropriate limits for the “children” of Israel, and instead gives them their golden calf—and then denies his own responsibility for their downfall.
God and Moses between them kill thousands of the guilty, but they let Aaron live. Later they make him the high priest: the chief technician in charge of conducting rituals, looking impressive, handling holy objects, and diagnosing skin diseases. But Moses is left as the people’s sole boss and spiritual leader.
He does his best to keep them encouraged and in line, but in this week’s Torah portion Moses finally cracks.
The people appear to be in good shape at the beginning of the book of Numbers. They are marching from Mount Sinai to the border of Canaan in battle formation, with their portable sanctuary and all its holy objects in the middle, so they know God is with them. They have water to drink and manna to eat.
Then suddenly they are overcome with craving.
They weep and say:
Who will feed us basar? We remember the fish that we ate in Egypt for free, the cucumbers and the melons and the leeks and the onions and the garlic. But now nafsheinu are drying up; there is nothing except the manna before our eyes. (Numbers/Bemidbar 11:4-6)
basar (בָּשָׂר) = human flesh (skin and/or muscle); animal meat.
nafsheinu (נַפְשֵׁנוּ) = our souls, our lives, our throats, our appetites.
They are not actually hungry. They are disgusted with God’s manna and, according to many commentators who point out the double meaning of basar, with God’s laws restricting sex partners. Perhaps they are fed up with the whole religion. Or perhaps they have had their fill of spiritual experiences, long lists of rules, and the goal of taking over Canaan. They get cranky. They want a break for immediate physical pleasure.
Moses heard the people weeping in their family groups, each one at the entrance of its tent, and God’s anger flared very hot; and in the eyes of Moses it was bad. And Moses said to God: Why do You do bad to your servant, and why have I not found favor in your eyes, that you put the burden of all this people on me? Did I myself become pregnant with all this people, or did I myself give birth to them, that you say to me: Carry them in your bosom, like the omein carries the one who suckles, to the land that You swore to their forefathers? (Numbers 11:10-12)
omein (אֹמֵן) = guardian, substitute parent. (Literally, the reliable one, the dependable one; from the same root as ya-aminu and amen.)
Elsewhere in the Bible, an omein is a man in charge of bringing up a child; each of King Ahab’s underage children has an omein in the second book of Kings, and Mordecai is Esther’s omein in the book of Esther. The female form of this word, omenet, means wet-nurse or nanny. Moses imagines himself not just as a parent to the Israelites, but as their wet-nurse, too.
I am not able to carry all this people by myself alone, because they are too heavy for me! If thus You must do to me, please kill me altogether, if I have found favor in Your eyes, and don’t let me see my badness! (Numbers 11:14-15)
Moses has a hard enough time serving as the people’s sole spiritual leader and teaching them God’s directives. Being a nanny for thousands of ex-slaves is too much for him. e HeIf only they acted like mature adults, restraining their impulses and deferring immediate pleasure for the sake of higher goals! Instead, the people are like small children—as immature as if they are still nursing. (Children in ancient Israel nursed until they were about four years old.)
Moses cannot bear to be a single mother. He tells God he would rather die than continue to be their omein.
God tries to solve the problem by giving 70 elders some of Moses’ spirit of prophecy, so they can all help him. But in the rest of the book of Numbers, the elders prove insufficient to control the childish impulses of the Israelites. Either the elders are not mentioned, or in the case of Korach’s rebellion, they are part of the group that revolts and complains to Moses.
Have you ever been responsible for a small child who loses control and throws a tantrum? Rational explanations go right over their heads; all they can think about is the physical gratification they want right now, the comfort that their parent or babysitting is denying them. Back when that child was my son, I had to fight hard to stay calm until I could calm him down.
Small children are totally dependent on their caregivers. If they are to grow up into independent adults, rather than slaves, their omein or omenet must be totally dependable—emunah.
Yet all humans are imperfect, unable to rise successfully to every single challenge. I was not a perfect mother, but I did not give up, and now I am proud of my adult son.
Moses does not give up either, even though he did not give birth to the Israelites, nor ask for the job of being their nanny. When God lashes out at the people, Moses talks God out of God’s temper tantrum, and keeps everyone on the road to the future.
May everyone who is given responsibility for others find the fortitude to carry on. May we all be more like Moses than Aaron.
In next week’s Torah portion, the Israelite spies return from Canaan and ten out of twelve report that the land is full of fearsome giants. Look for my next blog post about how the people weep and refuse to go—because this time they do not ya-aminu God.
Tags: Exodus, high priest, Moses and Aaron, Shemot, torah portion
by Melissa Carpenter, maggidah
You shall make garments of kodesh for Aaron, your brother, for kavod and for tifaret. And you, you shall speak to all the wise of heart whom I have filled with the spirit of wisdom, and they shall make the garments of Aaron lekadsho, to perform as a priest for Me. (Exodus/Shemot 28:2-3)
kodesh (קֹדֶשׁ) = holiness; a holy thing, person, place, or day.
lekadsho (לְקַדְּשׁוֹ) = to make him holy, to consecrate him.
kavod (כָּבוֹד) = honor, magnificence.
tifaret (תִּפְאָרֶת) = beauty, magnificence.
In this week’s Torah portion, Tetzavveh (“you shall command”), God tells Moses how to set up the institution of priesthood for the Israelites’ new religion. Before giving instructions on how to ordain Aaron and his sons, God describes their costumes.
These are not merely fine clothes, but holy garments. In the Torah, something is holy when it is set apart for the worship of God. Priests must wear their vestments whenever they are on duty, and only when they are on duty.
The passage translated above says that Aaron’s holy garments will make him holy, too. Even if his heart were completely dedicated, he would not be holy without the garments.
Aaron, as high priest, must also wear these garments for kavod and tifaret. I can understand why special clothing confers honor; it indicates the wearer’s authority. In our society, doctors wear white lab coats, police officers wear uniforms and badges, and rabbis wear caps (kippot or yarmulkes) and prayer shawls (tallitot)—at least when they are on duty.
But the high priest of the Israelites must also wear special clothing for tifaret, for beauty or magnificence.
This is the first appearance in the Torah of the word tifaret in any of its forms. (Alternate spellings pronounced tiferet and tifarah occur later in the Bible.) Sometimes the word means “beauty” or even “beautification”, as when God threatens to strip all the jewelry and other ornamentations off the vain women of Zion (Isaiah 3:18). Sometimes it means “magnificence” or “distinction”, as when the general Barak says he will only go to war against Sisera if the prophetess Devorah comes with him, and Devorah replies:
Is that so? I will go with you. However, the way you are going, it will not be for your own tifaret; because God will hand over Sisera to the hand of a woman. (Judges 4:9)
The high priest and his assistant priests wear the same first two layers of clothing: undyed linen breeches (underpants), and long linen tunics over the breeches. The high priest wears a sky-blue robe over his tunic.
All the priests wear the same sash to hold their tunics (and for the high priest, his robe) together at the waist: a strip of linen embroidered with sky-blue, purple, and crimson wool, just like the curtains hanging at the doorways into the outer courtyard and the sanctuary of the mikdash (“holy place”). (See my post Terumah: Under Cover.) And all the priests wear turbans wound around their heads, though the high priest’s turban is a different shape.
The high priest gets additional costume items. The hem of his robe has alternating gold bells and embroidered pomegranates. (See my post Tetzavveh: The Sound of Ringing.) Over his robe he wears an eifod (an over-tunic of two squares of material fastened by straps at the shoulders and waist) with a gem on each shoulder strap. Over the front of the eifod hangs a choshen (a square pocket) with gold embroidery and twelve gems on the front. And tied to the high priest’s forehead, in front of his turban, is a tzitz (an engraved flower-shaped gold plate). (See my post Tetzavveh: Holy Flower.)
Modern commentator Avivah Gottlieb Zornberg wrote in The Particulars of Rapture that the appearance of the high priest is all-important; the man merely animates the glorious costume as it carries out the rituals in the courtyard and the sanctuary. She also pointed out the double meaning of the Hebrew word for “garments”.
You shall make begadim of kodesh for Aaron, your brother, for kavod and for tifaret. (Exodus 28:2)
begadim (בְּגָדִים) = garments, clothing. (The singular form, beged (בֶּגֶד), means “garment”, but is spelled the same way as beged (בֶּגֶד) = faithlessness, fraud, deception.)
Like “a wolf in sheep’s clothing”, a person can deceive others by wearing clothes that do not match his true identity or his inner self. A high priest wearing a dazzling holy costume might have an unworthy personality.
Today, people often project their expectations on the person in uniform or the person with the title or degree. Doctors in their white lab coats, with their MD degrees, may or may not be the perfect diagnosticians that patients assume they are. The person who wears a kippa (cap or yarmulke) and a tallit (prayer shawl) as he or she leads services, and has received ordination as a rabbi, may or may not be as saintly as congregants assume.
For the high priest of the Israelites, the clothes did make the man. All people needed to do was watch the gorgeously bedecked priest carrying out the ritual of the moment, and the sheer beauty of it inspired them to religious worship.
For a congregational rabbi today, the longest and most gorgeous tallit is not enough. The rabbi must also inspire congregants with his or her d’var Torah (“word of Torah”, or sermon). And a rabbi today is expected to set an example of ethical behavior, and to provide pastoral counseling. A rabbi’s soul really does matter more than the rabbi’s clothing.
This makes a rabbi more like Moses, who wears ordinary clothing as he speaks with God and leads the Israelites. At least his clothing is never mentioned in the Torah, except for the shoes he removes at the burning bush, and the veil he wears after his face acquires an unearthly radiance. The materials or colors of Moses’ shoes and veil are not specified.
In the Torah, the religion of the Israelites is established with both Aaron and Moses, and continues with both a high priest to conduct religious rituals and a king and/or prophet to provide guidance.
Maybe we need both an Aaron and a Moses today, as well. My own congregation has a number of people who are skilled at leading services. (And we wear the right garments when we do so!) Yet a large number of our congregants want some of our services to be led by an official, ordained rabbi. The title “rabbi” is as reassuring to them as the MD after my doctor’s name is to me.
And sometimes an Aaron is not enough; we need inspiration from a Moses, from a person with deep soul, whether or not that person has a title or a uniform. But finding the person with the deep soul is harder. You can’t just look for a man in a blue robe with a gold plate on his forehead.