In this week of Purim and Parashat Tzav, I’ve been reflecting a great deal on leadership. Who gets to lead? How do leaders prove themselves worthy? What is the role of spectacle and performance in identifying and validating leaders?
The Book of Esther which we read this week is long on spectacle and performance. It reads as a farcical court intrigue, a spoof of a melodrama. Clothing, stagecraft, public pronouncements, and shifting identity (most notably Esther’s) all play a role in the story’s unfolding. By tale’s end, interior and exterior identities match, the Jews are saved, and the party’s on.
Parashat Tzav’s last section explores the intersection of public performance and leadership from a different angle. Leviticus 8 details the ordination of Aaron and his sons as priests, a ritual already prescribed in Parashat Tetzaveh (Exodus 29). Its pomp and intricate choreography clearly mean to convey an impression much like the one described in the first century BCE Letter of Aristeas. “I emphatically assert that every man who comes near the spectacle of what I have described will experience astonishment and amazement beyond words, his very being transformed by the hallowed arrangement on every single detail.”
The details, however, are much more than smoke and mirrors. A number of key features of the ordination ritual, indeed, point inwardly, inviting us to consider the connection between spectacle and spirit. The blood of the central ordination sacrifice, the Torah tell us, is placed on the ridge of Aaron’s right ear, and on the thumb of his right hand, and on the big toe of his right foot (Leviticus 8:23), signaling the demand for integrity on the part of the priests. Ears, hands, feet are expected to align with one another. Inside and outside are required to match.
Esther and Tzav serve as a fascinating counterpoint to the just concluded AIPAC Policy Conference. I attended the conference on Monday and observed a great deal of spectacle and performance much of it generated by the four presidential candidates who spoke to us that day. While one could describe my experience as “astonishment and amazement beyond words,” not all of it was uplifting by any stretch. The choreography and stagecraft were impressive indeed, yet I came home still not really knowing who’s who. Writ large, I wish the ritual of AIPAC’s annual gathering, conceived of as an assembly of the whole community, found a way to better align ears, hands and feet. Esther and Tzav offer up the perfect blueprint.