We’ve got more sacrificial offerings this week — burnt, meal, sin, guilt, well-being (itself divided into thanksgiving and free will) — each with a precise method of slaughter, blood-splattering, burning, consumption, and aftermath. Thousands upon thousands of words of commentary have been written about this system and I’m not going to add to that.
What I want to focus on this week – as you’ll see in my poem Inheritance – is not the offerings (though I’m fond of the whole scene), but rather the verses concerning the public installation of Aaron and his sons as priests. Here are some excerpts to whet your appetite:
Moses took the anointing oil and anointed the Tabernacle and all that was in it… He sprinkled some of it on the altar seven times, anointing the altar, all its utensils, and the laver with its stand, to consecrate them. He poured some of the anointing oil upon Aaron’s head… then brought Aaron’s sons forward, clothed them in tunics, girded them with sashes, and wound turbans upon them… Aaron and his sons laid their hands upon the ram’s head, and it was slaughtered. Moses took some of its blood and put it on the ridge of Aaron’s right ear, and on the thumb of his right hand, and on the big toe of his right foot. Moses then brought forward the sons of Aaron, and put some of the blood on the ridges of their right ears, and on the thumbs of their right hands…
Don’t you just love the gravity of the situation? The pomp and ceremony? This is a very big deal — the entire ritual correctness of a people is at stake. With blood and holy oil and special clothing, Aaron and his boys enter the big league. Imagine what kind of family business they might talk about at the dinner table or what stories they might pass on to the grandkids while watching re-runs of CSI.
So…. as luck would have it, my step-daughter Leah’s Bat Mitzvah came on Shabbat Parah (Cow Sabbath). This special Shabbat includes a reading from the book of Numbers about the Red Heifer, the perfect cow slaughtered for the express purpose of purifying those who come into contact with a dead body. What a crazy thing for a 13-year-old girl to read about! This, I thought, is a hell of an inheritance.
That thought stayed with me as I worked on draft after draft of a poem connecting the blood & guts of ritual and what we pass down from parent to child about being Jews. Because most of the stories I heard as a child were of pogroms, poverty, and the immigrant experience (not to mention the Holocaust, Inquisition, etc etc.) and because I didn’t experience any of these things directly, I was stuck. What kind of history would I pass down? What kind of memories? It didn’t seem right to ignore these realities completely, nor did I want to dump 2000 years of persecution in her lap without a counterweight.
The problem (and poem) got solved a couple years ago when Leah (then 20) and I made a trip to an underground storage facility in Los Angeles and bought a mattress from a very nice woman for a few bucks. The place was a genizah of sorts, a cool and dry place where precious belongings were anonymously stored. I grabbed onto the metaphor of individuals as storage locker and the poem fell into place, knives, blood, and all. Leah likes that she’s in a poem (and so does my mother, who also makes an appearance), though she’d just as soon not have to read it. Oh well.