Parashat Tzav

Ears, Thumbs, And Toes

The ceremony installing the priests teaches the importance of consecrating the entire body for sacred service.

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Our words, actions and life all must cultivate our highest potential of growth, expression and humanity. Rabbi Abraham ibn Ezra (12th Century, Spain) argues, on the other hand, that the ear "symbolizes that one must attend to what has been commanded" and the thumb "is the origin of all activity."

Unlike Philo, ibn Ezra sees the two pivotal points as obedience to God's 'mitzvot' (commandments) and a commitment to a life of sacred deeds. While ibn Ezra provides different reasons than Philo, the two of them agree in reading metaphoric meaning into the details of the ritual (which body parts are used).

However, both sages ignore the requirement of spilling blood, and both fail to explain the entire ritual as an interrelated unit. Building on their insights, we can extend their vision by utilizing the methods and findings of the modern study of religion as well.

Blood As a Symbol

Blood is a symbol filled with ambivalent meaning. A symbol of life (recall the emblem of the Red Cross) and of death (think of the devil's pitchfork), it is as a simultaneous expression of both realities--life and death--that blood becomes such a prominent symbol for moments and places of transition. At a child's birth--with 'brit milah' (circumcision), at the first Passover--when blood was smeared on the lintels of Jewish homes, blood marks the moment or the place as a transition between death and renewed life.

Here, too, by placing sacrificial blood on the priest's extremities, the Torah indicates that the newly-ordained 'kohen' has passed through a transitional moment from being a private citizen to becoming a representative of God and a public leader. Ear, hand and foot--an abbreviated code for his entire body--emphasize that service to one's highest ideals, to one's people, or to one's God, must be total.

Through his induction into the Temple ritual, he entered a higher state of purity, devotion and of service. To become a nation of priests requires of us no less.

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Rabbi Bradley Artson

Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson is Vice-President of the American Jewish University in Los Angeles and Dean of its Ziegler School of Rabbinical Studies. He served as a congregational rabbi in Southern California for ten years. Rabbi Artson?is the author of The Bedside Torah and co-author of a children's book, I Have Some Questions about God.