It’s Messiah season in the Holy Land once again, with Passover, Easter and elections quickly approaching (not in that order). Now, we may not agree on who that ultimate messiah should be, but we can all agree that messianic fervor must be treated with massive amounts of chocolate.
But let’s spare a thought for the first messiah, a man often unjustly discounted, dismissed and disrespected… (but enough about Buji!) Aaron the Priest.
Yes, Aaron is the first man to be anointed, which is what messiah (mashiach) actually means, as we read in this week’s Torah portion (Exod. 40:13):
Then dress Aaron in the sacred garments, anoint (u-mashachta) him and consecrate him so he may serve me as priest.
In fact, this image of Moses anointing Aaron is so powerful that David writes a whole psalm about it (133):
A Song of Ascents, of David.
Behold, how good and how pleasant it is
For brothers to dwell together in unity!
It is like the precious oil upon the head,
Coming down upon the beard,
Even Aaron’s beard,
Coming down upon the edge of his robes.
It is like the dew of Hermon
Coming down upon the mountains of Zion;
For there the LORD commanded the blessing—life forever.
However, as the Talmud tells it, there was great apprehension for each of the brothers during the ceremony:
Our Rabbis taught: It is like the precious oil … coming down upon the beard, even Aaron’s beard, etc., two drops like pearls hung from Aaron’s beard… And concerning this matter, Moses was anxious. He said, ‘Have I, God forbid, made an improper use of the anointing oil?’ A heavenly voice came forth and called out, Like the precious oil … like the dew of Hermon; as misappropriation is inapplicable to the dew of Hermon, so also is it inapplicable to the anointing oil on the beard of Aaron. Aaron however, was still anxious. He said, ‘It is possible that Moses did not trespass, but I may have trespassed’. A heavenly voice came forth and said to him, Behold how good and how pleasant it is for brothers to dwell together in unity; as Moses is not guilty of trespass, so are you not guilty of trespass.
What were they so concerned about? Why was every drop of oil so precious? Let’s take a closer look at this anointing oil (shemen ha-mishcha). WARNING: SIMPLE ARITHMETIC AHEAD!
Take also for yourself the finest of spices: of flowing myrrh five hundred shekels, and of fragrant cinnamon half as much, two hundred and fifty, and of fragrant cane two hundred and fifty, and of cassia five hundred, according to the shekel of the sanctuary, and of olive oil a hin. You shall make of these a holy anointing oil… (Exod. 30:23-25)
Now, the listed ingredients add up (500+250+250+500) to 1500 shekels–or 3000 half-shekels. I mention the half-shekel because this is the amount to be given by every Israelite, rich or poor, towards the construction of the Tabernacle. This is “ransom,” “atonement money” and “plague” inoculation for every living man, according to the previous chapter. But there are some who do not have that opportunity, namely those who fell on the day the Golden Calf was made, “and about three thousand men of the people fell that day,” because “the LORD plagued the people, because of what they did with the calf which Aaron had made” (32:28, 35).
Yes, Aaron goes on to offer a non-golden calf to atone for himself personally (Lev. 9:8) , but what about the 3000 who didn’t walk away? These are the 3000 half-shekels which go into the anointing oil. Thus, every drop is precious, and the brothers are anxious.
A final point to consider is the source of the raw materials for the anointing oil–the nesi’im, the tribal princes (Exod. 35:27-28), mysterious and obscure figures in this book of the Bible. What is clear is that they view the donation of these materials as a national duty, as much as the precious stones on which the names of the tribes are inscribed. It is about accountability, the idea that the people’s representatives assembled must represent all the people, not one sector, community or tribe. It’s a message we sorely need in Israel, and hopefully our princes will remember it long after the Election Day chocolate has melted away.