A Grain of Sand

"I will multiply you as the stars in heaven and as the sand upon the shore." - Genesis 22:17

"I can see the master's hand in every leaf that trembles, in every grain of sand." - Dylan, Every Grain of Sand (on Shot of Love)

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Holy Cow! Thoughts on the Torah Portion (Sh'mini)

This is the Outback Steakhouse section of the Torah - detailed descriptions of the flaying, roasting and (sometimes) eating of animals designated for sacrifice. Sacrilicious. Amidst the carnivorous worship is a very hidden story of personal change and the courage it requires.

In this week's portion, the High Priest Aaron - the guy who will be in charge of all of the animal and meal sacrifices for the whole community of Israel - begins his priestly duties (along with his sons, who are also priests). This is the big moment: for weeks, we've been reading about the construction of the tabernacle (the sanctuary used for sacrifices and worship in the desert) and about all the instructions for the sacrifices in mind-numbing detail.

Of all the people to head up the priesthood! Aaron, the guy who made the golden calf. This is like Homer Simpson being put in charge of The President's Council on Physical Fitness and Sports, or, as I wrote last week, Elliot Spitzer heading up investigations into prostitution. The wrong guy for the job. Everyone knows this: Moses, Israel, God. You can imagine them all standing around silently looking at their shoes as Aaron steps forward, whispering to one another "how awkward is this?"

Just as everyone's toes are curling with embarrassment, Moses tells Aaron that before he can start, he has to make a sin offering to purify himself of sin. The animal he has to sacrifice for the purification: a calf. The calf here and the calf of the 'golden calf' fame are the same word in Hebrew: egel (pron: AY-gell).

Long before this moment, way back in Exodus, and before the tabernacle had been built, the ceremony that was to be performed when the tabernacle was finished is described (see Exodus 29). But in those instructions, which were given before the episode of the golden calf [for those who care - this is according to Ramban; see him on Vayikra 9:2-3], there is no calf, only a bull (par) and other animals. What gives?

The most obvious answer, and the one the medieval rabbis loved, was that Aaron is supposed to atone. In the arithmetic of screw-ups, this purifying calf atones for the corrupting calf of gold. An act of goodness can resolve ('bring closure,' in the banal contemporary expression) a moral crisis. It is significant that the sin offering was a calf - because we can't become better in the abstract. We have to confront or be reminded of the precise circumstances of our failures. We let ourselves off the hook with vague promises to be better, to be nicer, yadda-yadda-yadda. Our failures, however, are specific and change requires that we think of their details to overcome our failure.

It could also be a brutal reminder to Aaron: this calf you made to worship, you see that it represents nothing more than this thing, this animal that you are about to kill. Flesh and blood that will be gone tomorrow. This is a stark theological lesson in the problem of idolatry. The problem with idolatry is not that God is offended (though we are told that God is "jealous") but that it is essentially false. Idolatry is about raising up something to the level of eternal that is really just fleeting. Money, cars, status, baby cows. Aaron is being reminded to the passing nature of the matter that he worshipped.

Eliav is crying...more later

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