In this parshah we get more rules for the alter, some addressed to the people but most addressed to the priests. Here we see the anointing of the priests – very clearly showing that some people are made holier than others. The priests, as the access point to God, are elevated above the level of mere human. Towards the end of the parshah we even see that if the priests leave the temple before the required seven days after anointing that they will die. They have crossed from the realm of the human to a more spiritual realm and it would be lethal to cross back.
The supernatural implications of this kind of idea do not appeal to Humanistic Jews and, indeed, many other rational Jews. Neither does the idea that some humans are above others. Obviously we live in a world with different levels of power and privilege, but no human is essentially more holy than any other. With the destruction of the temple comes an equalizing and, although many Jews mourn over the destruction, for many of us that equalizing is a positive. Of course, rabbis took the place of priests as the access point to God – and many behave as though they are superior to others. But many do not. The best leaders are those who acknowledge their humanity and find ways to make their own lives meaningful and inspire others to do the same. None of us can be perfect and all of us are simply human.
This idea comes across in the parshah. The priests are exalted and are given the sacrificial offerings. But they also are charged with cleaning the ashes from the perpetual fire. The idea of a flame that burns and should never go out is not unique to Judaism, but is a powerful idea. An eternal flame can represent the continuity of a people, and also the goodness within us as individuals and as a community. It can be the fire of passion and the light of reason. The idea of the ever-burning fire provides nice symbolism for us to consider – what do we value and hope to be everlasting? Of course, the fire produces ashes and these must be dealt with. The priests are custodians – of the people’s access to the spiritual, but also of the physical temple. In removing the ashes, in doing the physical work, they solidify their humanity and their connection with the other humans – even as they are performing the most holy tasks. All of us must try to find this balance between doing the drudge-work that must get done but making sure we attend to the flame inside of us that drives our deeper selves.