Let's face it; Torah is not always easy to understand. Take for example, this week's portion, which describes the bloody ceremony of Aaron's investiture as high priest.
In Tetzaveh, the consecration process is described in gory detail. Aaron and his sons must undergo three levels of purification. First, they were washed in water outside the entrance to the Tent of Meeting. Then, Aaron alone was anointed with special oil. Finally, a bull and two rams were sacrificed — their blood splattered all over the altar, and placed on the priest's right ears, thumbs and big toes.
My question is why? Why was such a holy ceremony so gruesome? I can't say for sure — this whole business is foreign to my modern sensibilities.
Fortunately, the scholars of our tradition have some wisdom to offer. They remind us not confuse the act of purification with physical cleanliness. By definition, one cannot be covered in blood and oil and be hygienically clean. Instead, consecration focuses solely upon spiritual cleanliness — and our spirits are not easily made pure!
A Fresh and Renewed State
Let's look at how the three cleansing agents work. Water is a source of life, but also of death. The Torah contains abundant references to wells of water, powerful symbols for sustaining life. Yet God "cleanses" the world at the time of Noah with floods of water. Similarly, we Jews have used the mikveh to cleanse ourselves for generations. It makes a certain amount of sense that Aaron and his sons would be washed in water. They needed to cleanse themselves, to kill their sins and impurities, and wash them away, so that in their renewed and fresh state they could begin their offices of service.
The anointing oil is a little more difficult to grasp. Why oil? Again, I'm not sure. What I can tell you is that the oil used for anointing was a very rare preparation of olives, and that only the high priests and kings were anointed this way.
This is why they were popularly called "anointed ones" (in Hebrew the word is mashiach, which later came to mean "messiah"). All messianic traditions are concerned with redeeming or saving the world.
Perhaps there is a direct connection between the concept of messianism and the oil. Common olive oil was a staple product during biblical times. It was, among other things, a primary source of basic nutrition and used as fuel for lamps. Perhaps when the high priest was anointed with the more unusual olive oil, he understood that he was uniquely responsible for maintaining the connection between Israel and God — the Source of Life and Light.
As for the blood, how could blood serve as an agent for purification? We may very well find the concept of pouring and splattering blood repugnant, but not our ancestors.
For them, blood was the life-force. The offerings were very much like sin offerings, where the entire animal was burned to ashes. Gersonides taught that Aaron and his sons were required place some of the blood on their right ears, thumbs and toes because these are organs of doing (hands and feet) and understanding (ears).
The priests were responsible for leading us in observing the ways of Torah and through that observance to deeper understanding. In this way, the very life force, the soul of Israel, was dependent upon the priests.
The very definition of purity can be found within this ritual. Perhaps spiritual purity means to become entirely what God wants of us; to not only cleanse ourselves of our sins, but to take sacred responsibility for each other.
All Israel is a kingdom of priests. We are all responsible, and when we all meet that responsibility, the age of the Messiah shall surely arrive.
Rabbi Gary Pokras is the religious leader of Temple Judea of Bucks County.