Parashah Ponderings

Serving the Divine with Ear, Thumb and Big Toe

Parashat Tzav / פרשת צו
Torah Portion: Leviticus 6:1 – 8:36

This week we read of the inauguration of the office of the High Priest with the ordination of Aaron and his sons. Interestingly, the word for “ordination” of rabbis that we use today is “smicha,” a term we find in our current parashah that refers to laying hands onto a sacrifice so as to transfer one’s spiritual impurities from one’s self to the animal being sacrificed. For example, we find in Leviticus chapter 8, verse 22, that Moses brought forth “the ram of ordination. Aaron and his sons laid their hands upon the ram’s head…”

Of course, when a rabbi is ordained today, there are no sacrifices involved. A person of authority may or may not lay hands on the head of the soon-to-be ordained rabbi, but there are no sacrifices. Rather, there are words spoken that charge the rabbi to go out among the people of Israel to teach and inspire.

The ordination of the priests and the ordination of rabbis are similar, though, in one respect: the authority who ordains them charges them to bring their whole selves to the tasks before them. To be a teacher and spiritual leader of the Jewish people requires a commitment of heart and mind, hands and feet. One’s thoughts, one’s actions, and one’s way of going about the world are to be directed toward the Divine.

We see this commitment symbolized in the ordination of Aaron and his sons just after the “ram of ordination” is 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” (Lev. 8:23). This ritual is then replicated for Aaron’s sons.

According to Rabbi Avraham ben Rambam, the son of the great commentator and philosopher Moses Maimonides, this ritual teaches the Kohanim, the priests, a lesson:

The blood upon the ear symbolizes that the Kohanim should always listen to and obey God’s commands. The hand is the organ that grasps things and that is active; so the blood upon the thumb symbolizes that the Kohanim should actively carry out His (sic.) will. And the foot is the organ of movement; so the blood on the big toe symbolizes that the Kohanim should always move with alacrity to serve God. (Art Scroll Stone Edition Humash on Lev. 8:34)

We are free to interpret the symbolism of the ear, thumb and big toe differently from Avraham ben Rambam, but the gist is the same: to be a priest requires whole-bodied commitment. The commitment is no different for those who would serve the Jewish people as rabbis today.

Serving the Divine with one’s whole mind and body is not something that we expect only of Kohanim and rabbis, though. This is an expectation of each and every Jew. Exodus 19:6, God directs Israel through Moses to be to God a “kingdom of priests and a holy nation.” While the actual priests may have been responsible for overseeing the ritual aspects of communal life, their responsibility to serve God is shared equally with the people they serve. In other words, we are all priests in a way.

The prophet Isaiah has this in mind when he asks in Isaiah 58: “Is this the fast I desire?” He goes on to make the point that God is not satisfied if everyday people go through the rituals of religious life while at the same time living in a way that demeans their fellow human beings and ignores the plight of those in need. To truly serve God entails serving all of humanity and, I would add, caring for all the natural world.

If we are to be a “kingdom of priests and a holy nation,” each of us must imagine that our ears, thumbs and big toes are dedicated for sacred purposes. With our ears, we must listen for God’s “voice” in those around us, recognizing that sometimes this takes patience and discernment. With our thumbs, we must go do that which makes our world a better place for all God’s creatures. With our big toes, we are to “walk” in ways that just and righteous, modeling for the world menschlikeit (human decency) and a devotion to tikkun olam (repairing the world).

Along with Aaron and his sons and those today who have devoted their professional lives to sacred service, may each of us see ourselves as ordained to serve the Holy One with our ears, thumbs and big toes.

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