April 12, 2011
Becoming a Kingdom of Priests: Achrei Mot (Leviticus 16:1-18:30)
I want to recruit you into an order to which all Jews belong: the Mamlechet Kohanim, the Kingdom of Priests. I begin my campaign as we read of Aaron, the priest, and the instructions given him when he is, according to 12th century commentator Nachmanides, “in the most severe stage of mourning,” a time of sadness when “the Holy Spirit does not manifest itself.”
In Parshat Shemini, we saw Aaron swaddled in silence, having witnessed the deaths of his two sons, who were consumed by fire during the dedication of the Tabernacle. Since then, we have read about those relegated to life outside the camp with conditions anthropologist Mary Douglas calls “sacred contagion” — including skin disease or bodily emissions, often incorrectly translated as “impurity” — requiring distancing from the sacred precincts of the Israelite camp, just as Aaron was distanced from the Holy of Holies after his sons’ deaths. Their common emotion is one of alienation or a sense of “otherness” often experienced by those suffering from the unsettling experiences of illness, grief and other radical life changes — even the celebratory ones, such as childbirth — times when the Holy Spirit may feel inaccessible. Also common to these disparate experiences is the need for a priestly ritual in order to restore the individual to the community and to alignment with Holiness. In Aaron’s case, he, as high priest, performs the ritual himself. In the other situation, the priest goes outside the camp to diagnose the condition and initiate the healing ritual.
Reaching out to perform a healing ritual took place in the ancient Jerusalem Temple as well. While they were still outside the Temple’s sacred grounds, community members coping with what today might be understood as bereavement, illness in the family or changes in financial or community status entered the Temple Mount and walked toward a designated entrance on the prescribed “Mourners’ Path.” As it says in Semachot, a minor tractate of the Talmud, “Who are they that circle to the left? A mourner, an ex-communicant, one who has someone sick at home and one concerned with a lost object.”
But I want to know: Who were those that circle to the right? The ones who, according to Semachot, would say to those in this broadened category of mourner, “Hamakom yenachem, May the One Who Dwells in This House comfort you.” These comforters, walking in the opposite direction, were presumably coming toward those outside the Temple from the sacred space within it. They must have just gone through a healing ritual themselves and were feeling empowered to reach out to those who were suffering with these simple words of blessing, “Hamakom yenachem.” They reached out with words of healing, as the priests did to those suffering outside the camp.
All of us — Aaron, the priests ministering to the afflicted in the desert, the ones emerging from the Temple to comfort those on the Mourners’ Path, and those of us who care for others in the community — are part of that Kingdom of Priests, reaching out to bring blessing to those in need. We are empowered/required to perform these healing rituals of comfort, as much a part of Jewish spiritual practice as lighting Shabbat candles and going to synagogue. These are not just the jobs of the rabbis or the caring communities. These are what we are all supposed to do.
So will you sign up? Will you take extra carpool days for the family in the day school with the colicky new baby or give the woman who serves on a committee with you a ride to chemotherapy? Will you bring lentil soup to a house of mourning or invite the new family to Shabbat dinner?
Look around at the people you see each day. How many of them are facing challenges and could use some support? More than you suspect.
Look back at the list of conditions. How many of us would be walking the Temple’s Mourners’ Path? How many people were outside the camp with skin eruptions and strange bodily emissions when they were walking in the desert with no sunscreen or showers for 40 years? Plato said, “Be kind, for everyone is fighting a great battle.” When you reach out with kindness, you walk in God’s ways, and the Holy Spirit is manifest. Join me as we extend our hands to each other in this Mamlechet Kohanim.