If you were cast away on an island with just one Jewish text for company, which would you choose?
This week Rabbi Malcolm Cohen of Temple Sinai in Las Vegas selects: Mishnah Yoma 2.1-2
The text I’ve chosen is from tractate Yoma of the Mishnah. This particular piece describes how the priests all wanted to clear the altar of ashes after a sacrifice had been made: “It once happened that two (priests) were equal and they ran and mounted the (altar) ramp, and one of them pushed his fellow so that he fell and his leg was broken. So when the court saw that they were in danger they ordained that they could not clear the altar except by lot.”
I love the text partly because I’m a Cohen and it gives a wonderful insight into what my ancestors got up to (I think they’re my forebears, I didn’t take the test). The priests lived in a bizarre, isolated world where they had enormous responsibility. If they didn’t do their job properly, they believed people would die, most likely them, because carrying out the rituals correctly was the only way the relationship with God could be maintained.
There is the comedy aspect of the text. You have to imagine the priests in a Chariots of Fire-like, slow motion run, straining every sinew, pushing their palms into each other’s faces, perhaps tripping their close rivals up, then playing innocent. You get the idea. Something that was holy and elite made rather childish and playful, until the broken leg that is.
Lastly, they are not fighting over who does the sacrifices or who gets to go into the Holy of Holies. They are fighting over who clears up the ash afterwards. This implies that even an ashy trace of God is still special, that you can find sacredness in the strangest of places.
The ash also symbolises the trail, the hint that God leaves behind of His presence – if we would only pay attention.