Let's once again note the trajectory of the narrative. We were let go from Egypt. Not yet ready, we journeyed in a roundabout. We stood before Sinai where we entered the most remarkable covenant with God, and, in the midst of light, and thunder and glory received the 10 utterances. Then we understood that we were to go deeper in this relationship with God and each other to begin to receive mishpatim, more specific guidance how we live in the day-to-day true to God's expectations. Then we learned about ways of encountering God in sacred space - both directly through the terms in the text itself as well as through ways we might understand this language in our own times and in our own lives.
Naturally, this week the conversation turns more to how this encounter takes place in sacred space and who helps superintend it. More specifically, we learn the ways and means and the role of the priests. Who were the priests? How were they adorned and equipped, and what were they there to do? And what might all this mean to us? These will be some of the important matters we'll consider today.
This is the only portion in the last four books of Torah in which Moses' name is not mentioned or he is not speaking. Why?
Is it because he steps out of the way for Aaron to step forward and get the appropriate focus as we think specifically about the role of priests then and into the future?
Or, as some say, since the traditional date of Moses' death is at the time this portion comes along in the cycle, it pays respect but also indicates this is not about a cult, and life will go on even in the absence of our teacher. Yet others see a distance that may have something to do with broken leadership or an alienation of some sort that needs closer contact, which is the promise of the Mishkan.
I. Read 27:20-21.
This continues our exploration last week of the details of the construction and operation of the sanctuary. And, as lovely as were the elements we've already discussed, this one may touch me the most.
What's going on here, and what does it mean? What does this fire mean, and who makes it happen, and how?
(The fire symbolizes God's presence, certainly in our effort to manifest the reality of that presence, and the light is reflective of God's presence and the light it emits - its radiance for us, and our commitment to reflect it ourselves in our lives and with others.
The people bring the oil for lighting the eternal lights! This means that it is up to us to help make the fire, which emits the light, and on an ongoing basis. It's oil from beaten olives. What does that mean?
First, it's rare, and it's pure.
Also, it's symbolic, of the hard work we do, to our best capacity, to serve God, with creativity, effort, prayer, offerings, time, intention, duty - really the finest from our soul. Indeed the idea of beating out the oil might suggest as well that the value we bring might come, at least in part, from pain or sacrifice.
In a way, the oil fuels the fire that acknowledges God and brings us near God. In addition, all we do and bring in the way of God's wisdom and goodness lights us up to serve others and our community. So, our lives in covenant with God can brighten and enlighten our path as well as that of those with whom we live and those in the world to whom we can help bring God's illumination.
One fine interpretation of the sages relates this text to study of Torah, such as our study of God's word here in our classes. The Bible emits God's light, and the beaten oil is akin to what we bring to our study - our work, our insights, our time, our intentionality. Isn't it so that we keep "the fire burning" by the "fine oil" we bring to our study of the words?
This "bringing of the oil to fuel the fire and produce the light," as the text tells us, is our due forever! I can't think of a lovelier metaphor for purpose in our lives than this!)
II. We're introduced the incredibly important idea of priests. Let's get a flavor of who they were to be, their role, and the place of the vestments made for them and a sense of their significance. Listen closely, and think of what jumps out at you from the details of these ancient words. As we learned, literally, look behind the cloak!
Read 28:1-3, 6-10, 15, 22, 29-30, 31-35, 36, 39.
A. What does it mean that God designates Aaron and his sons as "priests to Me?”
(It seems as if Aaron and his sons will serve in the key role in the future to facilitate the people's nearness to God in sacred space. This will largely be done through the sacrificial rites, which, by the way, I can't wait for us to get to!! But, we must be patient for that as we're not yet there in our study.
Now, however, we, as readers, must begin to be attuned to wondering and learning about these priests - who they were, why they were there, and what they did, and thinking about what these notions might mean to us in our own time.
Who or what might "priests" be for us? Can they be our ministers and rabbis in a way? Can they be teachers and leaders who bring us nearer to God? Can we ourselves perform the functions of priests in how we serve others? Indeed is there a part of us, in our souls perhaps, that leads us and brings each of us closer to God? These will be matters I want you to reflect on, begin to discuss today, but as well be prepared to look at in later sessions when we return to them.)
B. What's with all this attention to the priests' vestments? Let's look at each of them, and consider the meaning. Thoughts about any or all of them, or their features?
(As stated, this may have to do with dignity, glory, and splendor, which are furthered through our senses to embellish the values, role, guidance, and authority by which the priests will help the people come near to God.
There are certainly features that suggest so:
1) What about the names of the tribes on pieces over the shoulders?
(Does this suggest sort of that the priests carry the people "on their shoulders," with ongoing duty to them, as well as the stones corresponding to the tribes on the breast piece of decision, covering the heart, as if to seek wisdom and compassion in service to these people?)
2) What about the colors?
(Are these the colors of royalty associated not with power but rather with facilitating nearness to God, and the dignity and authority to do so)
3) Why the words "Holy to HaShem" on the forehead?
(Is it to signify both to God and the people that their work is all about the work of sanctification, especially when people have need of teshuvah, turning back to God from straying. We'll later get into all the different sorts and times of sacred encounter that the priests facilitate. For now, let's simply acknowledge, as do these words, that this is all to make holy to God.)
4) What about the breeches?
(Do they connote the attributes of fine but a touch of the modest, perhaps for the person of the priest?)
5) What about the pomegranates and bells?
(Do these suggest life, beauty, and a sense of sound that arouses and suggests vitality and keeps from death?)
6) And generally reflect on the colors and textures and richness of the stones and the fabrics and materials?
(Do you get a sense of the special, the eternal, the sky and the earth and heaven, in its best and finest, etc.?)
Conclusion to vestments generally:
Do we wonder about other issues: do these vestments guard the priests from the sin to which they are exposed? Or is more a matter that they convey a strength or authority? Do they attract the worshiper to God and holiness? Indeed if we're to celebrate the splendor and glory of God, shouldn't the "clothes suit the occasion?"
C. What does it mean that God calls for people who are skillful (with whom God has endowed with the gift of skill) to make the vestments?
("Skillful" is hakhmei lev - wise of heart. Notion that there is a wisdom of heart, something other perhaps than intellectual, that's involved here. Perhaps spiritually guided in the way of God. There's a sense of a sort of renewing inspiration or creativity or spiritually-based artistic skill, which, at least, in part is God-given in order that it be utilized and the fruit of it be given back to God.)
D. Here's a question. We've now learned about all sorts of features in the sanctuary: the gold, the fine fabrics, the figures of the cherubim over the ark, all these elaborate vestments, the oracular aspects of the urim and thummim that we haven't even touched. Does all this have a flavor of the idolatrous? If so, in what ways?
Or is it possible that this represents a transforming of ways familiar to the ancient world, including pagan ways, to a setting that will be sacred for God? If so, why would this have been done? Could it create some confusion that might cause problems? How?
(There does seem to be a feel of it in that some of these elements are akin to those that were used in pagan practice. Does the Bible suggest that it's simply in our nature to need or require these sorts of accouterments and that they fit when they're in service of our relationship with God? These might be universal in many ways. So, it might be just right to expropriate and transform to the new way. But there might be problems. We'll get back into these questions when we come upon the vexing matter of the golden calf.
III. Investiture - Read 29:1-7
A. There's a consecration ritual here involving offerings of choice grains and animals, a washing of Aaron and the other priests-to-be, a clothing of the priests in the vestments we've discussed, and an anointing by oil poured on the priests' heads.
1. This has an ancient feel to be sure. But can we moderns resonate with it in any ways through our own rituals or experiences, and, if so, how?
(We have ceremonies after which we feel somewhat transformed and ready for the next stage, do we not? Confirmation. Graduation. Installation. Inauguration.
We may have prayers and contributions instead of animals and grains. We might have our own caps and gowns and robes instead of these vestments. We may have a diploma or a certificate or a handshake or a hand on a Bible or a blessing or even hands on the head instead of anointing oil. But, however the details change on the outside, I would suggest we know of the elements of such a ritual.
One distinguishing feature here as opposed to our more secular ceremonies, but more in accord with our religious ceremonies: all the elements further in sight and sound and feel in front of the congregation the connection of the priests to God, their service to us and God, and our ongoing desire for God's presence and instruction.)
2. Look closely at verse 3 - the idea of "presenting" offerings. The verb hiqriv (present or bring forward) or korban (bring near) - these are verbs I want you to note mentally. There is quite a bit of text here on sacrifice. We could begin to explore it, but I want to wait until Leviticus to do it more thoroughly. The meaning of sacrifice - ah, it's incredibly fascinating, but it's a topic for another day, one I very much look forward to exploring with you.
3. Let's talk for a moment about the anointing oil. What do you see as the purpose of this oil in this ritual?
(We've talked about oil that fuels the fire that lights the lamp. Surely there's a sense here of the use of this precious commodity with its symbolic richness being used, and particularly over the head that wears the frontlet indicating holiness before God, as the ritual means of anointing.)
B. Read verse 35. Note the ceremony goes on for seven days. Any idea of the meaning there?
(The practice probably has something to do with the notion that transition (or readiness) is not something likely to take place (or at least very well) quickly or immediately. Recall the time it took to go from Egypt to Sinai. There's time from birth to circumcision. There are the middle days in the festival holidays. There's time in grieving between burial and coming out more normally in the world. All of these practices in Judaism suggest this emphasis on the time of transition being recognized and included in the ritual.
And further it's never to be as if the ritual ends as if to see the priest has full authority. The need for offerings is ongoing, again, to signify a reliance on, and duty to, God in the service.)
IV. Let's read 44-46 and consider this question we've been circling all morning: why the priests? What were their role? And can we think out what they mean to us today?
(There's a notion among the sages that there are different roles to be played among the people, and these roles conform with the roles of different parts of the body. Perhaps the king to the heart, the Sanhedrin to the eyes, the priest to the head, and the citizenry to the rest of the body. Also, there is a sense in which the work and success of one is to that of all the others.
In one way, the sanctity of the priests is drawn from the people, and it is designed to strengthen the people with God. And, so, the sanctity of the priests contributes to and can enhance that of the people. Moses' leadership as scholar, prophet, and leader and Aaron's as High Priest clearly elevate the people. And the priest plays a vital role in our continuing nearness to the God who now says that God brought us out of Egypt not only to be our God but also to abide with us.
This is crucial now - God's desire to abide with us!)
So, who are priests in our day? And is there something, perhaps a quality, within us that plays the part of priest? Or is this whole notion of priest something from and for another day?
It's hard to segment forces or organs or instincts or taught ways of being inside of us. But is there something that is "elected," and "anointed," and "prepared" that is also "dressed" in a certain way and does its work in certain ways that keeps bringing us closer to God and that calls us to come near and make offerings to God?
Is it that still, small voice? Is it a trait or habit or way of being from within that our family, our church/synagogue, our faith have cultivated? Is it a better and more disciplined element of our character that steps forward and leads the way? A sort of spiritual and ethical "monarch" that we've appointed within ourselves?)