The book of Vayikra is often referred to as the Torat Kohanim, The Teachings of the Priests. It contains the exact prescriptions for the kohanim to minister in the Mishkan and later in the Holy Temple in Jerusalem. Its topics refer to the sacrifices, the Temple rituals and the laws of purity. Israel, though, is called to be a “Kingdom of Priests” and the kohanim therefore are meant to be exemplars of a life of purity and holiness that all of Israel is called to. The standards of the priesthood that were meant for the Beit HaMikdash, are then also to be reinterpreted as standards by which all Jews are meant to elevate our spiritual and ritual status.
The same guidance that we receive for the service in the temple can ennoble, train and define the serious Jew today as well. So as we seek to fulfill our divinely appointed mission, we can turn to Hashem’s appointment of the original priestly order. The ordination of the kohanim for priestly service can serve as our marching orders as well.
In the eighth chapter of Vayikra we observe the elaborate ceremony that installs Aaron and his son’s into the service of Israel and Hashem. The kohanim go through a ritual washing for purification, and following the teharot they don special clothing to demarcate their office, and are anointed with oil. They then sacrifice a burnt offering of a ram to atone for their own sins before interceding for the sins of the nation.
Then things get really peculiar. Moses takes blood from the offering and places it upon the right ear, the right thumb and the big toe of the right foot. He then repeats the ritual for each of those receiving sm’chah. So what are we to make of this and how can this activity be meaningful for us today?
According to the first century philosopher Philo of Alexandria, “the fully consecrated must be pure in words and actions and in life; for words are judged in hearing, the hand is the symbol of action and the foot of the pilgrimage through life.” Using this allegorical interpretation Philo identifies a function for each of these body parts that enhance the human potential in every person. So our words, our actions and our lives can be understood to cultivate the greatest possibility for growth in body and spirit.
Medieval commentator rabbi Ibn Ezra uses a slightly different metaphor to accomplish the same concept. He argues that he ear “symbolizes that one must attend to what has been commanded,” while the thumb is “the origin of all activity.” Unlike the Hellenistic Philo, ibn Ezra’s metaphor points to obedience to the mitzvot and a life of holiness as the ultimate goal. Bringing the two perspectives together we can see a confluence of lives committed to mitzvot and middot, the commands of God and the human imitation of Godly character. Both are necessary to fully complete our ordained mission as a “Kingdom of Kohanim.”
So what is the glue so to speak that holds together the observing of mitzvot and the transforming of middot. I think the answer might be found in the essential element of the ordination that is ignored in both the metaphors of ibn Ezra and Philo; that is the requirement to spill blood. Blood is an ambivalent symbol, and expression of both life and death, at moments of great transition. The blood of child birth comes with an issue of blood that both sanctifies the life and renders the mother ritually impure for a thirty day period. The spilling of blood at brit milah on the eighth day of a male child’s life enders him a new creation, reborn into the family of Israel. During this season we commemorate the blood of the lamb that was smeared on the door frames and lintel of Jewish homes, to ward off the specter of death and signal the transition toward national liberation and renewal into the service of the Holy One of Israel. In the same way by accepting the sacrificial spilling of Yeshua’s blood, we are transitioned from inevitable death to eternal life. This transitional moment, like the placing of blood on the priest’s extremities carries us from an existence as a private citizen, and ordains us for greater public service; we become representatives of the Most Holy God.
Ear, hand and foot, an abbreviated code for our entire body, emphasizes the service of Hashem’s highest ideals must involve the totality of our being. Through an elaborate ordination service Aaron and his son’s entered a higher state of purity, devotion and service. As a holy nation of priests, can Hashem expect any less of us?