This week we are reading about the inauguration of Aaron and his sons into the priesthood - the High Priesthood in Aaron’s case. The fifth aliyah concentrates on two of the sacrifices, a bull offered as a sin offering and the first of two rams, which is an olah, or a whole burnt offering. Blood is daubed or poured in various places, such as at the bottom of the altar and, in the sixth aliyah, on various parts of the new priests’ bodies. All in all, this is a very messy business, the thought of which makes today’s services look a lot better. One of the local non-Orthodox rabbis commented once that a lot of sincere Orthodox Jews whom he knew, although they prayed every day for the restoration of the Temple, really were not looking forward to this part.
What, then, can we learn from this ritual, which seems so alien to our modern, urban sensibilities? Most of us, while unwilling to give up meat, get squeamish even thinking about how that makes it into those relatively neat packages in the supermarket. I believe that the answer is, in good Reconstructionist tradition, looking at the function of the ritual and its message about what we should expect from our leadership.
First of all, the par ha-chatat, or “sin offering” is sacrificed. Interestingly enough, this is done after Aaron and his sons have been washed, clothed in the gorgeous vestments (particularly for the High Priest) that had been made, and anointed with oil.These men have got to be feeling like they are pretty hot stuff. Wait a minute - now they have to undergo a cleansing from sin? To me, this says that our leaders, whether secular or religious, need to maintain a sense of perspective and humility. They need to remember that for all the trappings of their offices, they can make mistakes, and that sometimes it may be necessary for them to publicly acknowledge their errors. A similar function was served in ancient Rome, when the victorious general, during his triumphal procession, is said to have been accompanied by a slave intoning into his ear, “Remember that you are mortal.”
The second offering, the ram that is totally consumed - unusual among sacrifices in that none of it is used or eaten, may offend us even more. What an utter waste! Isn’t this the equivalent of burning a $100 bill, especially in a society that didn’t always get enough protein? However, the message of the whole burnt offering can be read to say, “Look, God - we are not holding anything back. We are giving ourselves, heart and soul, to serving You.” This is also something that a leader should do. It is difficult to remember, as our news is crowded with politicians all seeking personal gain, weighing any action they take based on whether it will help them raise more money or get re-elected, but this is the basis of any real tradition of public service. Thank God, this tradition is not dead. The self-aggrandizers and abusers of power may get the coverage, but those who stand up for principle no matter how they may be smeared are still there, and they are the ones who will earn our gratitude, even if it is belatedly or never expressed, as so often happens.