The holiness of community and the individual
TorahParshat Tzav

The holiness of community and the individual

Leviticus 6:1-8:36

One of the central narrative elements of Parshat Tzav is the ordination of Aaron and his sons as the priests. Moses assembles the whole people outside the Tent of Meeting and then performs the prescribed sacrifices for the ordination ritual. Aaron and his sons then remain in the tent for seven days, specifically warned that leaving the tent before that time would be a capital offense. It is interesting to note that the sacrifices and accompanying rituals, normally the exclusive domain of the priests, are performed by Moses. Clearly this is because the priests have not yet been consecrated to be allowed to do so, and Moses has already attained the required state of holiness through his role as God’s messenger. The Vilna Gaon taught that during the seven days’ period when the priests were sequestered, Moses would attend to the daily offerings of the Tabernacle (cf Aderet Eliyahu on Leviticus, 8:33).

While Moses performs the public tasks of offering the sacrifices and enrobing Aaron and his sons, the actual ordination takes place in private by God. Leviticus 8:33 is translated by the Jewish Publication Society as:

“You shall not go outside the entrance of the Tent of Meeting for seven days, until the day that your period of ordination is completed. For your ordination will require seven days.” More literally, the last portion reads: “… for seven days [God] will fill your hands.” On one hand, the process is active, not passive, and on the other hand carried out by God, not Moses.

This contrast between public and private is an important one. It is significant that the whole book of Leviticus, as a manual for the priests to carry out their duties, is contained in the center of the Torah. There is no secret handbook that the priests alone can access; all of the knowledge regarding what to do and how to do it is publicly available. The various offerings at the altar take place in view of the entire people, both here and in general. As a parallel, the priests retire to the private quarters to consume their portions of the offerings. The period of ordination sheds some insight here as well. The private component involves a more intimate connection with and exposure to the Divine Presence. Just as Moses enters the Tent of Meeting to commune directly with God, so too the priests experience God more directly in private. As we saw in Exodus 20, God’s Presence was too overwhelming for the people in general; those who are elevated in holiness need to be away from the people to have these more intimate encounters.

This model can inform how we approach our worship today, even though our experience is through prayer and not through animal sacrifice. Communal
worship is one of the central elements of Jewish life. There is real power in gathering together with the community to lift our voices in song and praise. We are also each repeatedly called to elevate ourselves in holiness, in emulation of the holy God. Whether in the midst of the congregation or on our own, we must each craft a space that allows us to seek out God’s presence, to allow ourselves to be vulnerable and open to the experience of something beyond the physical and transient. Through the combination and public and private, communal and individual, we strengthen ourselves, our community, and our world.

Shabbat shalom. PJC

Rabbi Howard Stein is the rabbi of Temple B’nai Israel in White Oak. This column is a service of the Greater Pittsburgh Jewish Clergy Association.

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