World of the Sages: Passionate encounters

With our eyes keenly directed to God, we are liable to forget our fellow human who may be running next to us or standing beside us. (photo credit: )
(photo credit: )
The Jewish community in Istanbul, Turkey maintains a captivating custom: moments before beginning the Amida prayer, worshipers apologetically wave to each other, silently asking for forgiveness for any wrongs committed. Prior to standing in solemn prayer before the Almighty - the prime act ben adam lamakom (between a person and God) - the ben adam lehavero (between one person and another) realm must be repaired. This appealing custom reflects the desire to bridge the ben adam lamakom - ben adam lehavero divide, ensuring that our relationship with God is not at the expense of our relationship with fellow humans. The practice in Turkey echoes a Temple ritual described by our sages. After the morning Temple service began, the kohanim would enter the Chamber of Hewn Stone for an abbreviated prayer service that included the reading of Shema with certain blessings. Once a week, on Shabbat, an extra blessing was recited by the kohanim who were completing their tour of duty in the Temple (M. Tamid 5:1). The Kohanim, as well as the Levites, were divided into 24 mishmarot or watches, whereby each mishmeret would serve in the Temple for one week twice a year (I Chronicles 24-25). On festivals when the entire nation came to Jerusalem, there was no specific mishmeret. During the second temple period this system was also employed - however, a new division into mishmarot was used. Each mishmeret was divided into six families and each family was responsible for one day during the week. On Shabbat the entire mishmeret served together offering the morning sacrifices, after which the incumbent mishmeret would pass the baton over to the next week's mishmeret who would complete the Shabbat Temple service. At the completion of the mishmeret's service, a special blessing for the changing of the guard was recited (B. Succah 56b). The Talmud relates the content of this additional Shabbat blessing (B. Berachot 12a). The outgoing mishmeret would turn to the incoming mishmeret and say: "May the One who has caused His name to dwell in this House, cause to dwell among you - love and brotherhood and peace and friendship." This is indeed a beautiful benediction to receive: Before entering the ultimate ben adam lamakom realm and embarking on God-centered Temple service, the new mishmeret is blessed with favorable interpersonal relationships. This blessing, however, may not have been introduced in a vacuum; it is entirely possible that awful events surround this institution. Each morning at dawn, a shovel of burning ashes was taken from the Temple altar and deposited on the floor (Leviticus 6:3). This act, known as terumat hadeshen, was initially done by whichever priest rose sufficiently early. Later, many priests wished to perform this service and a daily footrace up the ramp of the altar was conducted. The winner of this race was accorded the honor of terumat hadeshen. This practice, however, was terminated following a wretched episode. One morning, two kohanim sped up the altar ramp, each vying for the honor of terumat hadeshen. Neck-and-neck they raced until one kohen, desperate for the privilege to remove the smoldering ashes, pushed his fellow, who fell and broke his leg. When the court saw the danger involved in the race they canceled the competition and instead enacted a lottery - as was the custom for other Temple tasks - for the right to perform the terumat hadeshen (M. Yoma 2:1-2). A more tragic calamity that occurred during one of these races is also related: Two kohanim - in one version of the account they were actually brothers - were racing up the ramp. At the finish line, one kohen pipped his colleague, winning the contest and the right to do the terumat hadeshen. At this point, the loser took a knife and drove it into his peer's heart. This base display of zeal was matched by the father of the dying boy, who, running to the scene, found his child writhing with his last breaths on the floor of the Temple. Indifferently, the father declared: "My son is still writhing and therefore the knife has not become impure!" implying that the knife should quickly be removed before the young kohen dies and renders it impure (T. Yoma 1:12; T. Shavuot 1:4). The Talmud queries the chronology of these two appalling episodes and concludes that the murder occurred first. However, it was presumed - perhaps in a further show of apathy - that this was a random occurrence that would not repeat itself. Following the second episode where a kohen sustained a comparatively mild injury, the trend towards violent zeal - even if the intent was not to maim - could not be ignored and the lottery was legislated (B. Yoma 23a). In light of these accounts, the benediction of the outgoing mishmeret to the incoming mishmeret may have been a charge and a caution more than a blessing, as if to say: "Beware that your eagerness for Divine service not be at the expense of peace and friendship between you." One commentator opines that the blessing indeed comes from the pre-lottery period and reflects the deplorable but acute and life-threatening bickering that was commonplace in the Temple (Maharsha, 16th-17th centuries, Poland). Perhaps there is an inherent danger when our focus turns intently to the ben adam lamakom sphere. With our eyes keenly directed to God, we are liable to forget our fellow human who may be running next to us or standing beside us. The quest for a relationship with the Divine should not be at the expense of our relationship with other humans. Rising before dawn and eagerly racing to perform the Temple service is certainly laudable, but when it entails pushing another aside, the fervor is misdirected. Our tradition indicates that a tame, insipid lottery is preferable to passionate competition, if that competition exacts a price on the ben adam lehavero front. As we prepare to commune with the Almighty through the Amida or in any setting, we would do well to follow the custom of Turkish Jews, restoring our ben adam lehavero relationships before a ben adam lamakom encounter. The writer is director of Advanced Programs at the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies, teaches at Midreshet Lindenbaum and is a rabbi in Tzur Hadassah.