What was holy yesterday must be respected today.
Many (too many) years ago, when I was preparing for my bar mitzvah, I vividly remember the nervousness I felt knocking on Cantor Frankel’s office door. Cantor Frankel was my Hebrew School principal. I needed to ask him for resource material that could help me write a speech for my rite of passage.
My bar mitzvah Torah portion was from the book of “Vayikra.” It’s titled “Metzora” (Leviticus 14:1-15:33) . “Metzora” is commonly referred to as the “Leprosy” Torah portion. It deals with how Israelites infected with certain types of skin diseases and blemishes were taken out of their tribe and quarantined into an isolated colony away from the common people.
When I informed Cantor Frankel about my bar mitzvah parshah, he sighed and mumbled “ Leviticus, hmmmmmm, …. Metzorah, hmmmmmmm.” And, then he said, “Your Shabbat is also Shabbat Hagadol, the shabbat right before Passover. I think we will have you talk about Pesach.”
I can’t really criticize Cantor Frankel for avoiding a tough subject while mentoring a thirteen-year-old student. I have literally been in his shoes and did the same thing. I did feel the need as an adult, though, to go back to Leviticus and find something worthwhile to learn.
In “Metzora,” an antibiotic today would probably have eliminated many of the skin conditions that caused our Israelite ancestors to be designated as “ tame-impure” and then quarantined. Once I forced myself to ignore this fact, I found something worthwhile, something that was simple yet interesting and important.
The high priest, the Kohan, was the one at the beginning who would examine the skin of individual Israelites and determine whether they were “tame“ or “l o tame.” He would then declare in public before the people of Israel his verdict determining their fate; whether the individual could stay with his or her people, tribe and family or whether he or she needed to be separated and quarantined.
Perhaps more important, the same high priest, also in public before the people of Israel, would declare and present individual Israelites who had been separated in the colony in the past and had now healed from their impure status. He was the one at the end of a traumatic process officially responsible for welcoming the formally afflicted back into the Israelite community, back into their tribe, and back into their family.
Without going into too much detail, that “welcoming back” by the High Priest says a lot. It conveys a high level of ethical and humane conduct in the way the High Priest “followed through” and performed his duties.
Today, in an age of specialization, whenever individuals need to be separated from their families, from their community and from their former life, for whatever the reason may be, we do not often see that type of follow through. We do not often see individuals able to show the type of care, concern, and support every step of the way that the High Priest exhibited. Imagine if we could.
In another Torah portion in Leviticus (Tzav 6:1-8:36) , we see that same type of “follow through” by the High Priest. If you want to get a sense of what takes place in this sidra, I imagine you could go to a slaughterhouse, then a butcher shop, and then an outdoor barbecue. The outdoor barbecue, though, would be peculiar and different from anything you would ever encounter.
The people in charge, the priests, would be dressed in fancy uniforms, made from “linen raiment”; not really outfits one would associate today with an outdoor barbecue. Only a select few of the people, the priests, at the barbecue would be allowed to partake and eat the food. Not just meat but various other food items would be grilled. And, the overwhelming majority of the food would not be cooked to eat but burnt to a crisp on a grill whose flame the priest would never allow to be extinguished.
I looked on the internet for sermons and insights others have written about this sidra. One comment that repeated itself dealt with the enormous amount of ash that must have accumulated during the sacrificial process. That meant clean-up of the ash was a major endeavor. Who was in charge of this clean-up? You guessed it: the High Priest!
Based on a traditional midrash, Rabbi Harold Kushner comments that “the first act of the Kohan every morning … [was]… to put on ordinary clothes and remove the ashes from the previous night’s sacrifice. This [the wearing of ordinary clothes and the clean-up task itself] ensures that the … [ Kohen] … never forgets his link to the ordinary people who spend their days in mundane pursuits.“
The Kohen would then transport the ash to a specially designated area “outside the camp” called “makom tahora-a pure place.”
We hear comments today commonly said about individual leaders who have a positive impact on others.
“Despite his wealth, celebrity or notoriety, he always remains humble. He always remembers the roots from where he came.”
“She makes everyone feel valued and special. She never considers any task that needs to be done ever beneath her dignity.”
When we hear this type of praise, we should know from the Kohen role performing his sacrificial duties in Leviticus that there is probably a long history behind people uttering such compliments.
One final thought. Torah study eventually took the place of sacrifices in Judaism. There is probably a connection between the Kohen disposing the ash from the sacrifices in a specially designated “makom tehora -a pure place,” and the Jewish practice of not throwing sifrei-kodesh away after they are no longer legible, but, rather burying them in a cemetery or putting them in a genizah. Both practices symbolize the idea that what was holy yesterday must be treated with respect today.
ELLIOT FEIN is a retired Jewish Educator in Orange County and a contributing writer to Jlife Magazine.