Kollot Haftarah Introduction: When religious priorities go wrong
Written by Rabbi Josh Levy — 19 March 2022
The first section of this morning’s portion describes a moment of Temple ritual – Terumat HaDeshen, the taking up of the ashes. In the first act of the sanctuary day, a small portion of ash left over from the burning of the olah – the burnt offering – was to be taken from the altar and placed at its side. Then, after a quick change of clothing, this ash was to be disposed of outside of the camp.
It is rather an odd mitzvah: it is clearly an act of ritual rather than a practical ‘clearing up’. Only a portion of the ashes were to be taken. For some reason, the clothing worn by the priest was hugely important, yet the significance of neither clothing nor act is explored in Torah. And much of the detail of how it was to be performed is not here.
As a result, Terumat HaDeshen attracted the attention of the early rabbis, who sought to fill in the gaps in its performance, and also used it as a jumping off point to explore – in their own way – questions of ritual.
Our haftarah this morning, taken – as is our custom in Kollot services – from rabbinic literature, is a part of that exploration. It begins with a question not answered in the biblical text – who is to perform this ritual?
We start with a Mishnah – a text from the earliest layer of rabbinic law, the first couple of centuries CE. In the Mishnah, we learn that originally this act was performed by whoever turned up first to do it. The assumption seems to be that few of the priests would fancy such a dirty job first thing in the morning. If two or more happened to want it, and turned up at the same time, a race might ensue, with a tie break mechanism, which you don’t need to worry about (but which I can explain at Kiddush for those who really wish).
But the priests, it turned out, were in fact eager to carry out this mitzvah.
Indeed, not only eager, but too eager.
The Mishnah describes a race that went wrong, with a push and a fall and a broken leg, after which the system was changed to a daily lottery – one of four in the day.
We then turn to the Talmud, where the picture becomes even more dramatic. Here, in a baraita – a text contemporaneous with the Mishnah but not included within it – the story takes a violent turn.
The Baraita describes a race in which, desperate to be the first to the altar, one priest turns to another and stabs him with the sacrificial knife.
Rather than being horrified at this act of violence, those present respond in extraordinary ways.
First Rabbi Tzadok – the name is ironic, there is no righteousness here – engages in an act of halakhic self-indulgence by asking a legal question – and one not in any way relevant to the situation – when he should be trying to save the boy.
And then, worse still, the boy’s father – himself of course a priest, this being a hereditary role – rather than rushing to comfort his son, rushes to rescue the knife that stabbed him, noting that while his son is still alive, it will not fall into ritual impurity. In doing so, he even transforms the child’s assault into an act of sacrifice at the altar, declaring ‘he is an atonement’. As the baraita notes, they cared more about the purity of their ritual items than about the spilling of blood.
What is going on here, in this extraordinary narrative that we will read in a moment?
The rabbis are exploring, in their own way, a similar question to that which Ethan raised in his Dvar Torah – what motivation should we bring to our ritual, and what happens if this is skewed?
The story – and this is a rabbinic story rather than a historical event – is designed to show us an extreme of what might happen when things go very wrong in our religious lives.
The priests are so keen to fulfil a mitzvah, so keen to perform ritual, that they overlook what really matters. They lose sight of the fact that their first priority should be to each other’s well-being, that we must cherish each other even when – especially when – we are serving God. Far-fetched as this may seem, it is not a great leap from this to large religious gatherings that took place despite the risk at the height of the pandemic.
And then, in response to this behaviour, again the wrong priorities – a retreat into legalism, a refusal to engage with the reality of what has happened, a sanctification of the wrong things – again, something that has echoes in modern scandals in religious organisations.
Our haftarah this morning is a rabbinic cautionary tale.
Through this grotesque story, the rabbis warn us what not to do; tell us what Judaism should look like: that it must have at its heart concern for one another’s welfare; that we should never allow ritual, law, or obsession with purity to stand in the way of what really matters.
It is the Rabbinic version of something we find often in the books of the prophets – the message that doing is not enough unless it is accompanied by ethical behaviour – it is not enough to perform the ritual part of religious life and not the relational – our Judaism can’t be only the mitzvot bein adam la-makom between us and God, without also being bein adam l’chavero – the behaviour between us.
If even the odd and obscure morning ritual of Terumat HaDeshen can go so terribly wrong, how much more so other aspects of our lives. And so we must always pay attention to our own intentions, to our priorities, to what we really hold sacred as we build our own religious lives.
Babylonian Talmud Yoma 22a-23a
MISHNAH: At first, any priest who wanted to remove the ashes from the altar did so. In the event that there were many, they would run and go up the ramp of the altar and whoever beat his fellow to within four cubits won the privilege.
If two were even, the Temple administrator would say to all of them: Put out a finger! How many did they put out? One or two, but they did not put out a thumb in the Temple.
It once happened that two were neck and neck as they ran to go up the ramp. One pushed his fellow, who fell and his leg was broken.
When the court saw that they were exposed to danger, they decreed that they would not clear the altar except by lots. Four lots were cast each day, and this was the first lot.
GEMARA: IT ONCE HAPPENED THAT TWO WERE NECK AND NECK AS THEY RAN TO GO UP THE RAMP.
The Rabbis taught in a baraita: It once happened that two priests were neck and neck as they ran to go up the ramp, and when one of them came first, to within four cubits before his fellow, the other took a knife and thrust it into his heart.
Rabbi Tzadok stood on the steps of the Hall and said, “Our brothers of the house of Israel, listen! Behold, it says IF A CORPSE IS FOUND IN THE LAND… YOUR ELDERS AND JUDGES SHALL COME FORTH… (Deuteronomy 21:1-2). For us, upon whom does it fall to bring the heifer with a broken neck? Upon the city or upon the Temple Courts?”
All the people burst out crying.
The father of the boy came, and found him still writhing. He said, “Behold, he is an atonement for you. My son is still writhing, and the knife has not become unclean.”
This comes to teach you that the ritual purity of their vessels was of greater concern to them than the shedding of blood.