Serving God with ears, hands, and feet
Tetzaveh — Exodus 27:20-30:10
February 9, 2011
Parshat Tetzaveh continues the theme begun last week — instructions for making the Mishkan, the portable sanctuary, and its furnishings — dealing with the people who will serve in the sanctuary, the kohanim (priests). We read about the elaborate vestments that were to be made for Aaron, the kohen gadol (high priest), and the special garments that were to be made for his sons. And we also read about the ritual of the kohanim’s consecration.
The Torah tells us that on the day of their ordination, Aaron and his sons were to be dressed in their priestly vestments. Aaron was to be anointed with special oil and then sacrifices were to be offered on behalf of the new priests.
The Torah then says: “Slaughter the ram, and take some of its blood and put it on the ridge of Aaron’s right ear and on the ridges of his sons’ right ears, and on the thumbs of their right hands, and on the big toes of their right feet.” This marking of ears, thumbs, and toes is obviously symbolic, but just what does it symbolize?
Rabbi Joseph Hertz’s Torah commentary explains: “The ear was touched with the blood, that it might be consecrated to hear the word of God; the hand, to perform the duties connected with the priesthood; and the foot, to walk the path of righteousness.” In other words, this ordination ritual was intended to symbolize piety and devotion to God and God’s Torah.
But there’s another explanation, found in Itturei Torah, a compilation of commentaries by Rabbi Aharon Yaakov Greenberg: “These three, the ear, the hand, and the foot, are what the Kohen and every leader must have: an ear to hear the cries of the Jews, to know and understand their needs and requirements; hands, not only to accept the offering due the priests, but also to bestow a blessing on whoever needs it; and feet which hasten to run and help whoever is in need.” That is, the kohanim were never to forget that their mission was to serve the people, particularly those in need.
So which is it? It seems clear to me it must be both. The kohanim were ordained to serve God and their fellow human beings. Torah and mitzvot are not an end in themselves, but a means to building a just and compassionate society. As we are taught in Bereshit Rabbah 44:1, “Rav said, the mitzvot were given only in order that human beings might be refined by them. For what does the Holy Blessed One care whether a person slaughters an animal by the throat or by the nape of the neck? Hence its purpose is to refine human beings.”
This is more than a nice teaching. In recent weeks I have had to dig my car out of huge mounds of snow many times. On several of these occasions, young men from a nearby yeshiva walked by singly or in pairs, some of them actually turning their heads so they could pretend they didn’t see me. I wondered: What good are their long hours of Torah study if none of these young men was willing to take a few minutes to help a 60-something-year-old woman struggling with a snow shovel only a few hundred yards from their beit midrash? Isn’t the point of learning to help bring God into the world?
The Torah tells us that Aaron and his sons were installed in the priesthood through the marking of their ears, hands, and feet. Moreover, the Torah also tells us (Shemot 19:6) that God has called us to be a “kingdom of priests and a holy nation.”
Like the very first kohanim, we fulfill that destiny when we turn our ears, hands, and feet to the service of God and to the service of our fellow human beings.
Rabbi Joyce Newmark, a resident of Teaneck, is a former religious leader of congregations in Leonia and Lancaster, Pa.