We often speak of the clergy as being klei kodesh, literally, holy vessels. There is something beautiful about this; it allows us to see them as vessels for connecting us with God and God with us. But at the same time there is something dehumanizing about this label; it transforms them from subjects to objects, taking away their personhood and their personality. These two aspects are related to one another – the more they are their own, autonomous, self-directed persons, the less that they are merely vessels through which holiness may flow without interruption.
This notion, then, is a challenging one. And yet, we find it underscored multiple times in the Torah’s description of the Kohanim and, in particular, of their initiation into the divine service. They all wear the same uniform, and we never take note of the individual kohanim who served in the Temple except perhaps occasionally the Kohen Gadol. But what drives home this message is the way that this act parallels, and is juxtaposed to, the sanctification of the altar and the other vessels of the Mishkan:
And Moses took the anointing oil, and anointed the Tabernacle and all that was therein, and sanctified them. And he sprinkled thereof upon the altar seven times, and anointed the altar and all his vessels, both the laver and his foot, to sanctify them. And he poured of the anointing oil upon Aaron’s head, and anointed him, to sanctify him. (Vayikra 8:10-12)
A general sanctity was conferred to both the kohanim and all the vessels, large and small, in the same way: the ritual sprinkling and pouring of the anointing oil. There then followed a more specific sanctification of blood, which was applied to those objects that were used in the bringing of animal sacrifices: the altar and the priests. In the case of the altar we read:
… Moses took the blood, and put it upon the horns of the altar roundabout with his finger, and purified the altar, and poured the blood at the bottom of the altar, and sanctified it, to make atonement upon it. (v. 15)
And similarly we find by the priests:
… Moses took of the blood of it, and put it upon the tip of Aaron’s right ear, and upon the thumb of his right hand, and upon the great toe of his right foot. (v. 23).
The kohanim, thus, were a vessel of the sanctuary and, more specifically, a vessel for the bringing of sacrifices.
This point is underscored further by Ramban, who notes that while the Torah had stated in Shemot that the kohanim were to be dressed between the anointing of the altar and their own anointing, Moshe dressed them first so as to directly juxtapose the kohanim and the altar so as to anoint them “as one unit.” (Ramban, Vayikra 8:10). Perhaps even more surprisingly, Ramban notes that the sprinkling of oil seven times on the altar was never commanded earlier. Moshe rather inferred it from the fact that he had been commanded to sprinkle oil on the kohanim. For, says Ramban, “the altar which is a vessel for the sacrifices is no less [i.e., demands no less of a sanctification] than the vessel of those who bring the sacrifices.” (verse 11). The kohanim are an extension of the altar, and whatever sanctification that is done to the altar, must be done to them.
In their capacity of serving in the Temple the kohanim were vessels, not individual people. But how much is this true, and should this be true, nowadays? As we already noted, this notion comes at the cost of dehumanizing the priest, or the rabbi. And it also comes with a great danger. For if we see our clergy as vessels, then whatever they communicate will be the direct and uncontroverted will of God. Making them vessels hides the role that they play in their teaching and their leadership; it allows them to present their interpretations and their judgments as if it is all straight from God.
When the role of the kohanim was just to serve in the Temple, it made sense for them to be seen as vessels. They were a part of the structure of the Temple, a part of the way the sacrificial ritual was to be performed. There was no place, in the Temple, for the kohen to bring in his personality and his unique talents. A brilliant kohen or a one not so bright; an electrifying personality or a dullard – the service was the same. They either did it correctly or incorrectly, and any question of better or worse was at most one of greater or lesser efficiency.
Not so when the role is to teach, to give religious direction, to counsel, to give halakhic ruling, to inspire, to lead. Here the differences between different religious leaders are vast. And it is not only a question of better or worse. Different clergy can excel in different ways. One can be scholarly, another charismatic and funny and another reserved and thoughtful. Each one uses his own talents to translate and communicate God’s word, and to connect the people to God’s word in a distinct way. And each one interprets God’s Torah, and God’s halakha, using his own gifts, his own understanding of the Torah and his own understanding of the world. To see our rabbis of today as vessels would be to deny their unique talents; and it would be to deny the role they play in shaping and presenting God’s message to us.
Purim is a holiday which accentuates this acknowledgement of our role in interpreting the divine will. As is well known, the megillah does not mention God, and the events of the megillah could have easily been attributed to chance or to smart political maneuvering. Seeing God in the events of the megillah was something that we did; it was our interpretation of the events that brought God into the Purim story.
While we believe that God was behind the events of the megillah, we at the same time acknowledge that this is not the same as receiving a direct message from God. The Gemara (Megillah 7a) raises the question as to whether the scroll of Esther is part of the Bible or not. Shmuel’s position is that it is not an official part of the Biblical cannon. And yet, based on his interpretation of a verse in the megillah, Shmuel states that it was written with divine inspiration. How can these both be true? The Gemara states that it was written with divine inspiration for the purpose of being recited, but not for the purpose of being written. What is this answer supposed to mean?
The best explanation of this statement, offered by a number of commentators, is the following. The fact that the megillah was written with divine inspiration makes it a book to be used in the performance of the mitzvah – the megillah must be read from a scroll. But that does not mean that this is a Biblical scroll, or that the megillah is part of our Tanakh.
The events of Esther – and our lives – occur when God’s role in the world is less obvious, when we play a role in seeing God’s presence. We can choose – we should choose – to see God’s hidden hand. But at the same time, we have to acknowledge that this is our interpretation. These are not objective facts. Shmuel reads the megillah and sees evidence that it was written with divine inspiration. But that doesn’t make it, for him, part of the Tanakh. For that we need obvious, direct prophecy. If we are the ones playing a role in interpreting the facts, that can create halakhicrealities for us. That can define that this is a scroll for the mitzvah of reading the megillah. But that does not create objective, theological truths.
We rule against Shmuel and have accepted the megillah as part of the Tanakh. But even that comes with a recognition that it has become such through our interpretation, through our acceptance of it as such.
What we need today is more leaders who acknowledge their own gifts and their own roles. We are no longer living in the Beit HaMikdash with the obvious felt presence of the divine, and where our clergy serves merely as functionaries. God’s word, like God’s presence in the megillah, needs to be found and to be interpreted, and our religious leaders play a central role in that process. When they do, then, present us with their understanding of the Torah’s teaching, they cannot present themselves as merely vessels and their teachings as the unmediated truth. The greatness of Torah she’b’al peh is that it embraces human contribution and creativity. Let’s own that responsibility fully and celebrate that we are not vessels, but that our Torah emerges through a partnership between us and God.
Shabbat Shalom and Purim Samayach!