Today’s daf (Yoma 23a) tells a story reflecting a low point in the spiritual service and leadership of the Beit HaMikdash where two Kohanim raced each other up the ramp of the altar in order to decide who would lead the sacrificial service. Then suddently, when one Kohen neared the other, he took out a knife and stabbed the other Kohen.
Clearly such a story is profoundly unsettling. Worse still, when the father of the Kohen that had been stabbed approached his son and saw that while he was soon likely to die from his injuries he was still – only just – alive, instead of holding his son’s hand and talking to him, he then turned to the crowd as proclaimed, “[in a few moments when he dies] my son will be your atonement” and he then added “but since he is not yet dead, the knife used to stab him is – ‘fortunately’ – not considered to be tamei (spiritually impure).” As the Gemara then notes, “this comes to teach that they were more upset about the tahara (spiritual purity) of the vessels then they were about murder.” I think I can say with confidence that when most of us read this story, we reel with contempt when we read about this man who cared so much more about ritual laws than human pain and who placed things above people in his hierarchy of concerns.
But here’s the thing…. many of us do just this, and/or have also experienced things just like this.
True, most of us today wouldn’t care more about the spiritual status of a knife when someone is dying. But equally true is that there have been plenty of occasions in kosher kitchens around the world when a dairy knife has mistakenly been used for meat in a kitchen (or vice versa), and rather than simply figuring out whether a she’ela (halachic question) has arisen or should be asked, the first reaction expressed by the one who discovered the mistake is to shout at the person who innocently made the mistake.
True, most of us today wouldn’t care more about the spiritual purity of vessels ahead of human needs. But equally true is that there have been plenty of times in Jewish homes around the world when a Jewish custom has been insistently enforced by parents at the cost of the inclusion of their children or other close family members.
True, most of us think that we would help a person in need rather than worry about ritual laws. But equally true is that there have been plenty of occasions in synagogues around the world where what is often not even a ritual law is insistently enforced at the cost of the delicate feelings of a mourner saying kaddish.
And true, most of us think that we would concern ourselves with human pain ahead of questions of tahara & tumah (spiritual purity and impurity). But equally true is that there have been many instances in Jewish cemeteries around the world where what is often not even a law of tahara & tumah is invoked which then does a profound disservice to the psychological and emotional needs of those who have suffered a bereavement.
And how do I know that all these occur?
Because, over the years, I have witnessed examples of every single one of them.
Given this, how do we get out of this cycle?
Firstly, if we find ourselves in conflict between our ritual loyalties and our people loyalties, and we are unsure how to disentangle them, it is important that we have a spiritual guide who we think can help remind us of what our true priorities should be.
And secondly, if we find ourselves in a situation where others are clearly getting the balance wrong and are thereby causing pain and unease to others, we should speak up (in the right way). And if we’re not sure how to get the message across, or if we have tried by have not been listened to, a good idea might be to open up Yoma 23a, to review the story we have told, and to then tell the person that what you are seeing in their actions reminds you of the actions of that father who “was more upset about the tahara (spiritual purity) of the vessels than he was about murder” – and that perhaps they should take a moment to think about the choices which they are making.