We often speak of the clergy as “klei kodesh,” literally, “holy vessels.” There is something beautiful about this as it allows us to see them as vessels for connecting with God. But at the same time, there is something dehumanizing about this label. It transforms clergy from subjects to objects, taking away their personhood and personalities. These two aspects are related to one another: the more clergy are their own, autonomous, self-directed persons, the less they are vessels through which holiness may flow without interruption.
This, then, is a challenging notion. 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 the Kohen Gadol. Driving home this view is the way that it parallels and is juxtaposed to the sanctification of the altar and the other vessels of the Mishkan:
And Moshe 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. This was followed by a more specific sanctification of blood 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, “Moshe 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 (8:15).” Similarly, we read for the priests, “Moshe 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 (8:23). The kohanim, thus, were vessels of the sanctuary and, more specifically, for the bringing of sacrifices.
This point is underscored further by Ramban, who notes that, while the Torah 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 he could anoint all “as one unit” (Ramban, Vayikra 8:10). Perhaps even more surprisingly, Ramban notes that sprinkling oil on the altar seven times had not been previously commanded. Rather, Moshe 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 sanctification] than the vessel of those who bring the sacrifices” (8:11). The kohanim are an extension of the altar, and whatever sanctification is done to the altar must also be done to them.
In serving in the Temple the kohanim were vessels, not individual people. But how much is this true, and how much should it be true, today? As noted, this notion comes at the cost of dehumanizing the priest or the rabbi. It also comes with a great danger, for if we see our clergy as vessels, then we can likewise see whatever they communicate as the direct and uncontroverted will of God. Making them vessels hides the very human role that they play in their teaching and leadership, and it can allow them to present their interpretations and judgments as if they came straight from God.
When the role of the kohanim was restricted to service in the Temple, it made sense for them to be seen as vessels. They were part of the structure of the Temple, 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 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 job of clergy is to teach, give religious direction, counsel, make halakhic rulings, inspire, and lead. In these respects, the differences between different religious leaders can be 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, and his own understanding of the Torah and the world. To see today’s rabbis as vessels would be to deny their unique talents and the role they play in shaping and presenting God’s message to us.
Purim is a holiday that accentuates the acknowledgement of our role in interpreting the divine will. As is well known, the Megillah does not mention God, and its events could easily be attributed to chance or smart political maneuvering. Seeing God in the Megillah is something that we did; it is our interpretation of the events that brought God into the Purim story.
While we believe that God was behind the events in the Megillah, we also know that this is not the same as receiving a direct message from God. The Gemara (Megillah 7a) questions whether the scroll of Esther is part of the Bible. 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, he states that it was written with divine inspiration. How can both be true? The Gemara’s answer to this is that “the Megillah was given with divine inspiration solely for the purpose of being ritually recited, but not for the purpose of being written.” What does this strange statement mean?
A number of commentators offer the following explanation. The Megillah was written with divine inspiration, and this makes it suitable for use in the performance of the mitzvah: the Megillah must be read from a scroll. The megillah is a mitzvah object, no different than a shofar or a lulav. But that does not mean that this is a Biblical scroll; it is not part of our Tanakh.
God’s role in the megillah story and in our lives is often not self-evident; we play an active role in seeing God’s presence. We can choose—and we should choose—to see God’s hidden hand, and at the same time, we must acknowledge that this is our interpretation and not objective fact. Shmuel reads the Megillah and sees evidence that it was written with divine inspiration, but he realizes that this is his interpretation. For the scroll to be part of Tanakh, God’s voice would have to be direct and unmediated.
Our choosing to hear God’s voice in the megillah does not make it part of Tanakh for Shmuel, but it does make it part of halakha. Our interpretation, our Torah she’b’al peh, creates halakhic realities for us, and it is this interpretation that defines the scroll as the mitzvah object for the mitzvah of reading the Megillah.
What it does not do is create objective, theological truths.
In the end, we rule against Shmuel and have accepted the Megillah as part of the Tanakh. But this comes with the recognition that it is a book of Tanakh only through our interpretation and acceptance of it as such.
Today, we need more leaders who recognize their own gifts and the roles they play. We are no longer living with the obvious felt presence of the divine in the Beit HaMikdash, where our clergy served merely as functionaries. God’s word, like God’s presence in the Megillah, must be found and interpreted, and our religious leaders play a central role in that process. They offer us their understanding of the Torah’s teaching, their unique talents and insights. What they may not do is to present themselves as mere vessels and their teachings as unmediated truth. The greatness of Torah she’b’al peh is that it embraces human contribution and creativity, and acknowledges it as such. 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.