Sex & Gender, Torah

Tzav: Anointing and Identity

Avigayil Halpern is publishing a weekly feminist dvar Torah on the parsha though her newsletter, Approaching, which is being crossposted to Jewschool. You can subscribe to her newsletter here.

One of the most affecting moments in Parshat Tzav is when, as part of the process of anointing the priests, Moshe dresses his brother, Aharon, in the Priestly garments. The Torah describes this in painstaking detail:

ויתן עליו את־הכתנת ויחגר אתו באבנט וילבש אתו את־המעיל ויתן עליו את־האפד ויחגר אתו בחשב האפד ויאפד לו בו

וישם עליו את־החשן ויתן אל־החשן את־האורים ואת־התמים

וישם את־המצנפת על־ראשו וישם על־המצנפת אל־מול פניו את ציץ הזהב נזר הקדש כאשר צוה יהוה את־משה

He put the tunic on him, girded him with the sash, clothed him with the robe, and put the ephod on him, girding him with the decorated band with which he tied it to him.

He put the breastpiece on him, and put into the breastpiece the Urim and Thummim.

And he set the headdress on his head; and on the headdress, in front, he put the gold frontlet, the holy diadem—as the LORD had commanded Moses.

(Vayikra 8:7-9)

What was it like for Aharon to don the Kohen Gadol’s vestments for the first time, as his brother placed them on his body? Did he feel joy? Pride? Connectedness? Was he overwhelmed by the weight of the fine fabrics, the gemstones, and the responsibility? Did he feel worthy of these holy clothes?

Dr. Michelle Lynn-Sacks, writing for the JTS Commentary, characterizes this dressing ceremony as the very process by which Aharon and his sons take on the identity of Kohanim.

The ceremony begins with Moses washing the men. From this naked, humbled state, Moses begins the process of dressing them, almost fashioning them into the priests they are becoming. Aaron is clothed first, presumably to distinguish him as the high priest, while it seems that his sons wait in public, unclothed. Moses methodically clothes each man, adding each garment and accessory one at a time, then adding droplets of oil and sacrificial blood to the clothes, until finally they are transformed from their humbled, naked state into resplendently adorned priests. The clothes help these men see themselves in terms of their new identity, and the process of dressing them in public serves to transform them in the eyes of their community as well.

The identity transformation is twofold. First, the men become priests in their own experience, and second, their status changes in the view of the public.

The holy vestments are integral to Aharon and his sons’ priestly identities. The garments are a primary means, as Lynn-Sacks points out, of their becoming priests initially, and they must wear the clothes during their service in the Mishkan. However, the priestly selves they become upon putting on the outfits for the first time cannot be taken off like clothing. They are priests forever, whether uniformed or not.

But the Sages imagine that Aharon may have felt conflicted about the permanence of this identity. In a haunting sugya from Horayot, he seems to express doubts about the anointing process, which take shape here as concerns about meilah, translated here as “misuse” — the inappropriate use of consecrated Mishkan or Temple property for personal purposes.

ת”ר: (תהלים קלג, ב) “כשמן הטוב [וגו’] יורד על הזקן זקן אהרן וגו’.” כמין שני טפי מרגליות היו תלויות לאהרן בזקנו. אמר רב פפא: תנא כשהוא מספר עולות ויושבות לו בעיקר זקנו. ועל דבר זה היה משה דואג, אמר: שמא חס ושלום מעלתי בשמן המשחה! יצתה בת קול ואמרה: “כשמן הטוב וגו’ (תהלים קלג, ג) כטל חרמון.” מה טל חרמון אין בו מעילה אף שמן המשחה שבזקן אהרן אין בו מעילה.

The Sages taught: “It is like the precious oil upon the head coming down upon the beard, Aaron’s beard, that comes down upon the collar of his garments” (Psalms 133:2). Two drops of anointing oil, shaped like pearls, were suspended for Aaron from his beard. Rav Pappa said that it is taught: When Aaron would speak and his beard would move, those drops would miraculously rise and settle on the roots of his beard so that they would not fall. Moses was concerned about this matter. He said: Perhaps, Heaven forfend, I misused the consecrated anointing oil and poured more than necessary, as two additional drops remain? A Divine Voice emerged and said: “It is like the precious oil upon the head coming down upon the beard, Aaron’s beard, that comes down upon the collar of his garments. Like the dew of Hermon” (Psalms 133:2–3). This analogy teaches: Just as there is no misuse of the dew of Hermon, which is not consecrated, so too, with regard to the anointing oil that is on Aaron’s beard, there is no misuse of consecrated property.

ועדיין היה אהרן דואג. אמר: שמא משה לא מעל, אבל אני מעלתי! יצתה בת קול ואמרה לו: (תהלים קלג, א) “הנה מה טוב ומה נעים שבת אחים גם יחד.” מה משה לא מעל אף אתה לא מעלת.

And still Aaron was concerned. He said: Perhaps Moses did not misuse consecrated property; but perhaps I misused consecrated property. A Divine Voice emerged and said: “Behold, how good and how pleasant it is for brothers to dwell together in unity” (Psalms 133:1). Just as your brother Moses did not misuse consecrated property, so too, you did not misuse consecrated property.

(Horayot 12a, translation from Sefaria)

The sugya tells us that the anointing oil that Moshe poured onto his brother Aharon’s head as part of the anointing process — the step following dressing him in the priestly vestments — lingered in Aharon’s beard permanently. These pearls of oil worried Moshe; perhaps he poured too much of the consecrated oil and that was the source of the extra in Aharon’s beard, and would be liable for meilah, for misuse. But even after Moshe has been reassured by a heavenly voice, Aharon still worries.

Aharon’s need for his own reassurance, beyond that which Moshe receives, suggests that the Rabbis here imagine him as uncomfortable with being so permanently marked with the anointing oil which made him the Kohen Gadol. The pearls of oil which decorate Aharon’s beard are a visible, indelible demonstration of his changed status, his identity as High Priest. And he wonders, even after the same question has been answered for his brother Moshe: is it meilah to carry this with him? Is he inappropriately using something sacred by carrying it with him on his body, forever?

The questions of identity, sanctity and authority that are raised by the way this sugya imagines Aharon’s worry resonate with me deeply as a young woman entering the rabbinate. But more than that, Aharon’s anxiety makes me think about my relationship to my own queerness.

The space provided by the solitude and in some ways shifting social norms of the pandemic has made me much more aware of how I have in many ways leaned away from my own queerness. Like the priesthood, queerness is both an inner, private identity that is not shifted by how it is displayed publicly, what clothes I wear or what I say, and simultaneously an identity that is displayed in public, in community, through clothes and words and actions.

Femme invisibility and bi erasure are real, but I’ve also prided myself — though i’m embarrassed to admit it, even to myself — on not making my queerness a major part of my identity or even my self-understanding. I have felt that I don’t deserve to claim my queerness, that I wasn’t queer enough to make a fuss over it. Aharon might have put on the clothes, but he still worried it was meilah for the sanctity of the anointing oil to become part of his body. He acknowledged his own role as Kohen Gadol, but still doubted if he deserved it.

In the openness I’ve found in the weirdness and privacy of this year, I’ve found the space to ask myself what it is I want, what feels right and good. I read Autostraddle, I wear more pants and fewer skirts, I’ve shifted my paperback romance novels to mostly queer ones. When friends offer to add me to their shidduch spreadsheets, I tell them I’m more interested in dating women right now.

As I begin to re-enter the physical sacred spaces I’m blessed to spend my life in right now, I want to wear my queerness with intentionality, with thoughtfulness. I want to write more queer Torah. I want to seek out queer religious role models, pursue queer sanctuaries. I want to get dressed asking only “what feels right today,” without considering if I’m dressing attractively for men.

I’m no more queer than I was a year ago or two years ago, but I want to put on the garment of my queerness and let it become more and more a part of me. I want to wear this identity without fear that I’m not enough for it. I want the vestments and the anointing oil, to lean into the parts of myself that could be hidden and the parts that can’t.

Aharon is the paradigmatic image of the Kohen Gadol, the High Priest who all other High Priests imitate. And yet, the Rabbis still imagine him doubting himself in the position. But they also imagine him reassured by God, by a direct Divine voice. We too can hear this voice, from God, from others, and from ourselves, if we listen hard enough.

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