The pitfalls of passion
This week’s Torah reading opens with a description of the first duty of the priests, to clear the ashes after sacrifices had been made on the altar. In theory, this was a holy and spiritual task to be performed by the priests, but as described by the Talmud, it was very different – and far less spiritual – in practice.
The Talmud (Tractate Yoma, 23a-b) describes how the commandment to clean the altar was actually performed in practice, and the impression it gives is far from the solemn and holy ceremony we might imagine:
It happened once that two priests were running together up the ramp [of the altar in the Temple, in order to be first and so be the one to perform the sacrificial service of the day.] One of them stepped within the four cubits of the other. The other drew out a knife and plunged it into his heart.
In the passion of the moment, the priest who was so eager to be first to perform the commandment forgot his basic moral instincts and the result was simple murder.
The Talmud goes on to describe the response of Rabbi Zadok to this shocking incident. Standing on the steps of the Temple he reminded the people of the law of the egla arufa “the broken heifer”. This law states that where a dead body is found, and the killer is not known, the elders of the town are obliged to make a declaration over a broken heifer: “Our hands did not shed this blood”
The Talmud finds Zadok’s reaction puzzling. What, it asks, is the relevance of the law he quoted, the egla arufa, to the case at hand? This law does not apply in Jerusalem, and certainly not to a case, as here, where the identity of the murderer is known. The Talmud gives a strange answer, that Zadok cited this law “in order to increase the weeping”. But why should quoting an irrelevant law make people cry?
Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein has suggested that Zadok was trying to make a point about the nature of his society. The principle behind the egla arufa is one of collective guilt. Zadok’s message is that when one priest kills another, this cannot simply be regarded as the act of an individual wrongdoer. On a broader level, society at large must also carry the responsibility for creating an environment in which such an event could happen. In Lichtenstein’s words:
[The society in Zadok’s day] were undoubtedly responsible for emphasizing one side – the importance of competitiveness, of devotion, of striving and commitment, of zeal and ardor, without sufficiently emphasizing the corresponding importance of brotherhood, love, and respect.
Israel’s is a society of vibrant and passionate beliefs on many crucial issues. The strength of the dedication to these values and beliefs is a large part of what has enabled the State to be built and to survive. But this week’s reading is a reminder of the other side of the equation: passion and fervour carry with them the potential for violence and discord, unless they are tempered by tolerance and brotherly love.
In others’ words
“I loved Yitzhak, even in times of discord. We went a long way together, in the IDF, in the struggle for revival and defense of the State, and as its delegates. Our friendship and mutual respect was maintained even when we turned to different and opposing political paths. When I felt he was wrong, I did not spare him my criticism, and visa versa. However, I never doubted Yitzhak’s integrity, honesty and his genuine intentions to faithfully serve the People of Israel according to his own beliefs, and bravely strive for security and peace.”
Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, Memorial service for Prime Minster Yitzhak Rabin, November 2005
On a lighter note
In the middle of the Yom Kippur service, when the intensity of the prayers was at its height, the Cantor was overcome by emotion. He ran to the front of the synagogue, fell to his knees in front of the Ark, and shouted: “Oh Lord, I am nothing!”
The Rabbi, seeing this powerful display of humility, was also overcome. He ran to the front of the synagogue, prostrated himself next to the cantor, and bewailed: “Lord, I too am nothing”.
Watching the Cantor and the Rabbi, the Shammes of the synagogue, a simple man, was powerfully affected. He rushed to the front of the synagogue, fell to the floor, and cried out: “Lord, I also am nothing”.
Whereupon the Rabbi took one look at the Shammes, then turned and sneered to the Cantor: “Look who’s calling himself nothing!”