Vayikra: The Old Priest and the Doubting Teenager
by Rabbi David Hartley Mark
It had been a busy morning. Passover was coming, and folks throughout the village were worried and concerned about their ritual purity, what we call tahara. None but the pure could participate in the Passover Feast, a ritual we had borrowed from the Canaanites, but which we Kohanim-Priests had extended to include the Escape from Egypt, so many decades ago.
Who am I, Stranger? Call me Nodev-Korban, or Noddy for short; it doesn’t matter to me. I have been serving God and Israel in the Shiloh Shrine for—well, I can no longer remember. I do recall my mother, who first presented me to the High Priest, Kaspi, when I was about five years old. Yes, yes, you may well smile, Youngster, to imagine that this nearly-toothless old tent-peg of a Kohen was once a small boy!
My memories of my mother, Idena, are hazy—Papa told me she was very beautiful; but then, he was quick to acquire not one, but two concubines when Mama passed away of the plague brought by the Philistines—God avenge her death, and wreak havoc on our enemies! Ah, but memories, memories—when she hugged me to her bosom—she could not have been more than seventeen; folks marry young hereabouts—I remember that wonderful scent she used: cinnamon and sandalwood. Yes. Ah, well….
What do I do in the Shrine? Well, the same thing that I’ve been doing for most of my life—scraping out and collecting the ashes of the korbanote, the offerings. For some reason, our current High Priest can’t find any younger priests, or even Levites, to perform this task. Lazy louts that they all are—still, I can’t complain. It’s messy, I will admit, but necessary. Can’t have the Holy Offerings of the LORD GOD burning on a brass altar that is less than shining spic-and-span. It matters little to me if I have no one to help me; I have been doing it for so long, that it’s more a game than a task. And I am, mostly, alone with my thoughts, and my prayers to God. Yes.
Still, Stranger, you know these youthful types, always questioning. I spend more time atop this outdoor altar, sweeping, scraping and polishing, out here in the sun and open air, perhaps more than any other Kohen. It is always a relief when I am done, and can retreat to Mistress Naamah’s tent for a cool mug of barley beer, which she mixes with apple juice. “Cider,” she calls it, which is fine with me. It is a most refreshing drink, and Mistress Naamah is a refreshing sight, as well, although, like me, she is getting on in years—we never married; I’m not certain why, but she told me, years ago, that she “wanted to keep her prospects open.” What prospects those were I am unsure of—no man but I has ever paid her any attention—but she is a good old soul, and we get along well with one another. If I finish my chores after the sun has set, we sit outside her tent, sipping our brews, and gaze up at the stars. Yes, she is a sweet old soul, and very good to me….
As I said, being the priest who is in most constant touch with the Israelite public, I don’t mind when young folk come up and ask me questions. I’m up there at the altar for most of the day, and it makes the time go by. Who knows? One of these children may be doing my job one day, long after I am laid beneath the sod. It is a good education for them, and a chance for me to share what little priestly education I have. All I ask is that they remain faithful to their God and our Tradition—“for my yoke is easy, and my burden light,” as it says in the Holy Scrolls.
Which is why I was so surprised just the other day, when I was up there atop the altar, a-scraping and sweeping and tidying up—the work never ends, you know—to see young Mored ben Reev, gazing up at me with appeared to be strong interest.. I was surprised, indeed, to note that he had grown into a man, or nearly; this outdoor life seems to agree with our young folks. Still, an elder like myself has no trouble remembering the day on which that fine young man had his brit milah, his Covenant of Circumcision. How we danced and sang that day! Dancing, dancing—Naamah and me—and afterwards—well, never mind.
“Good day, Young Master,” I call down, pretending not to recognize him. Not too many youngsters like to be reminded that you were at their brit, or (for girls) their Naming.
The boy was staring at all the—how d’ye call ‘em?—accoutrements of the Mishkan, and I agree: we have been carrying God’s sacred dwelling-place for generations, now, ‘til they arrived in Shiloh.. Even though some of the ark-cloths are torn and the metalwork is missing a jewel here or a bolt there—I must get those Maintenance Levite boys to hop to it, and shine up the lot—the essence of the Place shines through.
Yes: the Place—HaMakom, as we call it. It is the spiritual center, the Holy Heart of our godly existence. I like to imagine the Holy One sending down His blessings upon all of us, and why shouldn’t He? After all, we offer Him the finest of our cattle, the choicest of our fruits and vegetables. When High Priest Kaspi and our corps des kohanim are hard at work, slicing and dicing (and taking a morsel of the flesh for themselves, as is only right and proper), and I behold the flames rising, the smoke billowing to heaven, I realize how lucky I am, how fortunate my people are, and—
“Excuse me,” comes a voice from below. I grab a handrail to steady myself; I am not as young as once I was—and squint my old eyes to find the speaker. It is that same Mored. Yes, it is! True, he has grown taller, but, even at this distance, I can see the blend of his father Shalom and his mother Nitza in his face. I call down:
“Yes, Master Mored?”
He frowns. “How do you know my name?” he asks.
“I have known your family for many years,” I reply, smiling, “and, if memory serves, I recall the night you were born, and they sent me to your home to burn protective incense, to lessen your mother’s travails. I was at your brit—"
“Are we related, or something?” asks the young man.
“Kol Yisrael chaverim!—All of Israel are brothers and sisters!” I proclaim, in a tone that would have sounded more stately had I not been dangling from an altar-horn, “Why, I—”
“If I may interrupt, Segan-Kohen (Assistant Kohen) Nodev,” interrupts this tyro, “I have some questions, about—about—the sacrifices, the Shrine, and all. Why you do—those things you do, and all.”
Things? I ask myself, Things? These are mitzvote, holy activities.
“Ask away,” I reply, cheerily. After all, if the youngsters don’t ask, they will never know—and where will become of our sacred traditions, then?
He kicks idly at a pebble beneath the linen fence, sending it through the linen fence, which flaps listlessly in the desert breeze.
“Well,” says he, speaking directly, as we Israelites do, “Why make sacrifices at all? All that hoopla about butchered animals, incense, and the like. What possible good can it serve?”
I must admit, that “possible good” remark rankled me. But I was determined to answer him quickly and strongly.
“They are offerings to the Lord God, Who is pleased with our efforts to share our bounty with Him—or to grant further produce and cattle if the years be lean.”
“And you really think that God eat—consumes—these foodstuffs?” Mored continues.
“Yes, I do,” I reply, getting heated, “Don’t you?”
“No,” he says, “I do not.”
The sun is setting, and the heat dissipating—thank God for the evening’s coolness, else I would have called off the discussion, then and there. I have met such doubters before, and they are not worth the argument; it’s a matter of faith, say I. Still, I could not let this wet-behind-the-ears boy continue his unbelief.
“Well, Mored,” I say, any pretense of courtesy gone, “If God did not create the Universe, then who did?”
“It just happened,” he replies, reaching down and plucking a grass-stalk to chew.
“And that grass?” I ask.
“The same,” he grins. Is he deliberately teasing me? Some of these nervy young types can be treacherous in their arguments.
“And what of the Afterlife?” I ask, letting go my best salvo of argument.
He gazes toward the setting sun. “A thick mire,” he replies, and strolls off.
What can one do with such a one? Shall I report him to the Temple Police? No, he’s such a nice boy, and comes from good stock. But what shall we do about our Doubters?
I will seek him out after work tomorrow, and we shall talk some more….