It was twenty-two years ago this September I arrived in Berkeley as a Cal freshman. At my suburban high school I had managed to convince myself that I actually enjoyed calculus and inorganic chemistry, but UCBerkeley quickly changed all that. There were more students in my Chemistry 1A class than there were in my entire high school. Lectures were given in a cavernous, sunken room, complete with suspended TV sets in case you were too far from the instructor to see him. Even more fun were the chemistry labs. During that first week I was toiling away on some long-forgotten experiment when I heard a deep but friendly voice behind me say 'good morning, do you have any questions?' I looked up-and it was Glenn Seaborg! I was stunned; I had never met anyone this famous before. I thought to myself: this man has discovered 10%-ten percent-of the elements in the periodic table. This man is a Nobel laureate. This man has his own parking place on campus. And what did the young David Mostardi say to the great physicist? Nothing, I was struck dumb! I mumbled something and he walked on to the next person. What an idiot I was!
Keep Glenn Seaborg in mind as I tell you another short story, a story about Rosh Hashana, which I realize is somewhat out of season right now, but bear with me. I was in Johannesburg, South Africa on business, and the local Jewish agency had arranged for a High Holidays seat for me at a nearby synagogue. It was an Orthdox shul, but rather liberal-at least, the parking lot was stuffed with cars. A visiting rabbi gave a stirring sermon-not a drash, a sermon. 'If this is the new year,' he said, 'then what is new about it? Same earth, same sky, so what is new? We must be new.' The year was 1993, and just a few days before Yitzhak Rabin and Yasser Arafat had shaken hands on White House lawn. The rabbi skillfully used the opportunity to weave his own personal call for peace into his challenge that we must be new.
The next day I was invited to lunch at the home of one of the synagogue's members. And there was to be a special guest for lunch, none other than the visiting rabbi who had given the sermon the previous night. I asked his name, and was told that he was Rabbi Cyril Harris, the chief Orthodox rabbi of the Republic of South Africa. The chief rabbi? I was going to have lunch with the nation's chief rabbi? On Rosh Hashana?
After shul, the whole lunch party walked to our hosts's home. As we approached the house I noticed a newspaper on the driveway. The women walked on ahead, but all of the men stopped at the newspaper. So I stopped too. We looked at each other, we looked at the newspaper, we looked at the rabbi. 'I wonder,' he said, speaking to no one in particular, 'how the South African cricket team did yesterday.' He picked up the newspaper, peeled back a few pages-he obviously knew right where to look-'not bad,' he said, '187 for six!' He put down the newspaper where he had found it, and we walked into the house. I decided that I liked this man.
There was much polite talk over lunch, but that's not what I remember. What I remember is Birkat haMazon, the Grace After Meals. Rabbi Harris led the group, and he wanted to sing. But he wanted people to sing with him; he wanted everybody to sing. 'Sing!' he commanded, 'come on, sing!' But the people were shy; perhaps they were embarrassed to sing in front of the chief rabbi. 'Sing, people, sing! Swing low, sweet chariot.' I stared at him. I decided right then that anyone who sings 'Swing low, sweet chariot' during Birkat haMazon is one cool dude.
At this point you may be wondering when I'm going to stop namedropping and get around to talking about today's parasha. I'll tie it all together, I promise. I'd like to talk today about the priesthood. The first part of the parasha, and all of today's haftarah, talks about the priesthood.
As Bernard Bamberger writes: for ancient man, the essential form of worship was sacrifice. But a sacrifice not properly performed was worse than useless-it might lead to disaster. Is was essential that the sacrifices be directed by responsible and well-informed persons. Thus, as the appointed intermediaries between Israel and God, priests were held to much higher standard than the lay person.
The Torah goes into great detail about this higher standard. The Torah describes whom priests can marry, which physical defects disqualify them from the job, what events make them ritually impure, what clothes they must wear, how they must shave, what they can eat, special sacrifices they must offer. The rules describing priests closely mirror those describing the sacrificial items themselves: both priest and sacrifice had to be free of ritual impurity. These lengthy and complex descriptions of the priesthood stand in marked contrast to the familiar and accessible narratives of Genesis and Exodus. One could say that the priests are described in such a stylized way that their humanity is missing.
For the ancients, the chief function of the highly stylized language was to emphasize the importance of the rituals that the priests performed. But what can we as moderns glean from these passages? I suggest that the stylized language challenges us to remember that the priests were people too; indeed that priests were even 'regular guys.' As teenagers the young priests-to-be were awkward with girls and rebelled from their parents. At age 40 they had mid-life crises and male-pattern baldness, and they had teenage children who rebelled from them. (I regret to report that there were no female priests. We have made great strides in this matter.) The virtue of a movie such as The Ten Commandments, however sappy the dialog and overblown the special effects, is that it forces us to remember that people then were exactly the same as people now-that only technology has changed. That's why the stories of the Torah are so easy to understand, why the lessons are so germane-because human nature has not changed in the last 5000 years.
So what we have in today's parasha is part of the job description of a regular guy trained to be the most famous celebrity of his day-the high priest of Israel. I have this image of a poor shoemaker in Jerusalem, and one day the high priest walks in to buy a pair of sandals. And, he reacts much as I did to Glenn Seaborg, which is to say stunned and speechless. It has been 2000 years since the priesthood ended. To fill the void, we have created new kinds of high priests. Some of them are called King, or President, or chief rabbi. In the United States, the high priest is called President, and his job description is written down in the Constitution. As you no doubt recall Article II talks about the President; here's a brief portion:
[The President] shall have Power, by and with the Advice and Consent of the Senate, to make Treaties, provided 2/3 of the Senate present concur; and he shall nominate, and by and with the Advice and Consent of the Senate; shall appoint Ambassadors, other public Ministers and Consuls, Judges of the Supreme Court, and all other Officers of the United States whose Appointments are not herein otherwise provided for, and which shall be established by Law.
Perhaps you'll also agree with me that our Constitution is written in a dry and stylized manner, as you might expect from a legal document.
So, both the kohen gadol and the US President are described in their respective job descriptions with dry, stylized, legalistic, boring terms. So what's the difference? Well, we know a great deal about the President the man. We know what he looks like, we know what his family looks like, even what his pets look like. We know his golf handicap, his breakfast cereal of choice, and so on. Nowadays we typically know more about the President than we really want to.
But do we know anything about the President's job description? How many of us in this room have read the Constitution lately? Does anyone remember what Article IV talks about? And yet, this is the document that the President swears, on a Bible, to protect and defend.
Whereas few of us can remember Article IV of the President's job description, everybody here is familiar with the High Priest's job description. Indeed, we think so much of the Torah that we read it all the way through every year. With but very few exceptions we know nothing about the High Priests themselves. We have no images, no personalities, no politics. All we have is the Torah.
So on the one hand, we have the President, a man very well known to us, but whose job is written in a document that few of us read. On the other hand, we have a completely unknown man, the High Priest, whose job is written down in a document that we read every year. Your homework for today is to envision each man in the other context: a President who is truly motivated by the oath he utters every four years, to protect and defend the Constitution-and a very human High Priest, friendly, sports nut, devoted family man, balding with chronic back problems.
And the next time you meet a high priest, be it Glenn Seaborg, high priest of physics, or Rabbi Cyril Harris, high priest of South Africa, or a high priest of Hollywood, or the high priest of your particular calling in life, remember the two worlds in which all high priests lives: that of solemn responsibility, and that of ordinary man and woman.
But those are just the high priests who have gained notoriety. If you look closely, high priests can be found in many places. There are many is this room right now. In fact, I believe that we are all high priests. Each one of us has avocations, hobbies, and passions in life. Passions where you need to balance solemn responsibility with ordinary man and woman. For each of you in this room, there is someone who would be honored to meet you for your passions in life. And maybe to have lunch with you on Rosh Hashana.
Later that year I saw Rabbi Harris on television. Nelson Mandela had just been inaugurated as President of South Africa, and he had attended services at some synagogue. Rabbi Harris and President Mandela, both wearing tallitot, waving to the adoring crowd. "Hey!" I shouted, pointing to the TV, "I had lunch with him!" To me, it recalled fond memories of a visit to a faraway land. To someone else, it was just a couple of old men.