Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Parashat Shemini: Now, Yes, Now

For Congregation Ner Shalom, March 21, 2014
[Sorry for the long delay in posting.] 

There is a moment in this week's parashah that caught my attention this year for the first time. It has to do with Aharon, whom we really don't speak very much about. Moshe is the star of our desert epic and religion-formation narrative, of course, and Miriam has been reclaimed and placed centrally by many of us in order to slake our desperate thirst for female leadership in Torah.

But Aharon? Who is he? We don't get much sense. His character is wooden. He is usually doing or saying something with Moshe or with Miriam. We don't get much of him alone. He is also a prophet, by all standards. He gets spoken to by God, but it's not like the love affair God has with Moshe. When God speaks to Aharon, it is business talk. Aharon is the High Priest Elect, and Moshe's second in command. But still, somehow, he manages to be both central and peripheral. Face it, people used to write songs about Moshe. Now people write songs about Miriam. But no one sings about Aharon.

But now, in the Book of Leviticus, the Priestly Code, is when Aharon comes into his own. He becomes ritually relevant. He is no longer just a spare Moses; he begins his priestly work.

Over the past two weeks, since the launching of Leviticus, we have covered 8 full chapters of ritual instructions. Instructions for the priests, all about accepting offerings, doing sacrifices, managing the public matters of sin, guilt, forgiveness, and worship. This is the job of the priests, of the High Priest in particular. And if it is all done correctly, then God will appear right there, in the Tent of Meeting. If it is not done correctly, terrible things could happen, as in fact they do just a few verses down the road.

But here in Parashat Shemini, shemini meaning "the eighth," it being the eighth day of Aharon's consecration as a priest along with his family; and the completion of the eighth chapter of instructions, now at last the priestly practice is ready to begin. Moshe tells Aharon & Sons to gather their bulls and goats and rams and meal and oil and all the items and ingredients that had been laid out by God through Moshe, so that they can atone for their own sins and begin their holy service for the people. The Cohanim collect all these things and they, and the entire people, draw near to the Tent of Meeting.

And then, although Torah doesn't say it explicitly, you know that all eyes turn to Aharon. A silence falls, punctuated only by bleats of sheep. This is the moment when the Children of Israel will move at last from theory to practice. From being a people receiving the law to a people fulfilling the law. This is a moment where preparation and action are in equipoise, like two sides of teeter-tauter. And no one moves.

Moshe then says - krav: go, approach.

קרב על המזבח ועשה את חטאתך ואת עולתך וכפר בעדך ובעד העם 
ועשה את קרבן העם וכפר בעדם כאשר צוה יי

"Go, draw near to the altar and do your sin offering and your olah-offering and make atonement for yourself and for the people; make the people's sacrifice and provide atonement for them as Adonai commands."

These words are the Cohen's job description. Which Aharon knew. He'd been there also for the delivery of all of the laws and rituals. So why did Moshe need to say it? Perhaps the words are formulaic, for the sake of ceremony. Aharon takes on the mantle of priesthood in this moment, and the prophet articulates his duty. "Go now," says the Prophet, "and be the Priest. Do these things for yourself and for the people, as God commands."

Ceremonial rhetoric, like oaths spoken at an inauguration. Because sure enough, as soon as he says them, the text reports, vayikrav Aharon el hamizbeach, Aharon approached the altar.

But even though it sounds like it could be official language, it's not clear that it is. Rashi, the great Medieval French commentator, thinks that Moshe needed to say this in fact to get Aharon moving. Rashi imagines Aharon to be in discomfort. He says, shehayah Aharon bosh v'yarei lageshet - Aharon was embarrassed and afraid to approach. Yarei, afraid, perhaps in the sense of plain fear, perhaps in the sense of awe and overwhelm. Rashi then imagines a conversation right there between the brothers, just out of the people's hearing. Moshe asks, "Why are you embarrassed? This is what you were selected for."

In Rashi's fantasy, Moshe makes an argument for destiny. Of course Aharon can do his appointed task; he was chosen for just this purpose. The very fact is testimony enough. And how reminiscent that is of the the story of Esther that we read this week (the two stories only collide on Jewish leap years like this). Esther hesitates when called upon to act on behalf of the people. Mordecai says to her, "Who knows if you didn't come to the throne for just such a moment as this?" And, reassured that great wheels of destiny are in motion, she acts.

In any event, Rashi's midrash arises out of this puzzling moment of pause between the completion of the instructions, and Aharon moving to follow them, a pause that could have lasted into infinity if Moshe had not said, "Krav, go, approach..."

Now, I'm not a big believer in destiny, as you all know. But I do believe that we're all better prepared to handle what comes next than we think. Aharon was ready, not necessarily because God selected him, but because he prepared as if God had.

Two weeks ago I talked about the idea that we each have inside of us a pintele Kohen, a tiny priest, that manages those great personal priestly functions - atonement, forgiveness, praise, remembering, honoring, redeeming, reclaiming, caring, soothing. All of our priestly functions that perhaps no one else even sees.

But thinking about Aharon in this verse makes me wonder if sometimes, despite knowing what we have to do, despite knowing that we are fully prepared to do it, we just need someone to say to us, "Now, start."

Yael Raff Peskin and I got together last week. We got into one of those conversations that people who have lost their parents get into. The "so how's your grieving going?" kinds of conversations that would sound shocking to others but are sometimes a big relief to have. She asked how my kaddishing was going. And I reported back that when my father died 14 years ago, I found a minyan every week, even while I was on the road, so that I could say kaddish publicly. But that this time it feels so different, and I haven't really been able to say kaddish, even in private.

And even though she wasn't telling me to do anything in particular, Yael's words had the effect that Moshe's words to Aharon did. They gave me permission to start enacting my duty; to start doing the thing that I'd wanted to do, but somehow couldn't start without a voice saying, "Yes, now, it's okay to start now." Her words empowered me in some ways to start grieving, a kind of grieving I couldn't quite start without someone saying, "Yes, now, it's okay to start now."

How many of our priestly functions - whether it's doing some mitzvot or repairing a relationship or just taking care of ourselves - are we holding back on, knowing what we need to do, but still too embarrassed or overwhelmed or frightened to start. In which case maybe Aharon's story here can serve as the voice that says, "krav, approach the altar, yes, now, start now."

I can't talk about Aharon's moment of hesitation without pointing out one last thing about the Hebrew. Moshe doesn't say to him bo, come, or lech, go. He says krav, approach. Draw near. The word krav shares the same roots as the word korban, which appears later in the very same verse. Korban is translated as "sacrifice" or "offering" but it literally means "drawing near." The offerings to Adonai are for the purpose of our drawing close to something of the Divine. It is a drawing near through sacrifice. Through giving something up of this world. And Aharon knows this. There is something he sacrifices in taking on the kehunah, the priesthood. Perhaps what he gives up is his ability to only represent himself, to just be a guy called Aharon. He lets go of his freedom not to feel responsible for the people and for the world. He accepts a limitation on his ego, he takes on his shoulders the weight of the need of the Children of Israel. He might oversee the offering of the sheep and cattle and unleavened cakes. But he foresees in this moment that he is offering up himself as well, offering up the Aharon that could've been.

And so who can blame him for his moment of hesitation, a moment on the other side of which nothing will ever be quite the same?

And - who can blame any of us for our hesitations? This life, this journey, this wilderness. Who knows where it will lead us? Who knows which choices are reversible and which are not? Who knows the ramifications of anything that our inner priest demands of us?

But still, we're prepared for kehunah, for priesthood. We have received, we have discerned, we have written the instructions. As God said back at Mt. Sinai, "you are a nation of priests." We are prepared. Even prepared to make some sacrifices for the sake of our own holiness and that of our world. We stand in the moment of pause, listening for the voice that will say, krav, draw near, now, yes, now.

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