When I first heard the news of this tragedy my mind went
straight to a story told in the Talmud. Every morning, when the Temple stood,
the ashes would need to be removed from the offerings made the previous day. I
imagine this was seen as a relatively lowly task and so not much thought was
put into deciding who would get the “honor” of removing the ashes. Then we hear
a story (23a) where two men are racing up the ramp to get to altar when one man
pushes the other off the ramp, breaking his leg. From that point forward we are
told that the Kohanim would use a lottery to decide who would be chosen to
remove the ashes.
Then on the very next page (23b) we learn of another story
with a much more tragic ending. Once again two men are running up the ramp to
the altar when one man pulls a knife and stabs the other. The father of the man
who was stabbed runs to his side and realizes that his son is still alive. Does
he call for help? Does he try and save his son? No and No, when he realizes
that his son is still alive he calls out that his son should be seen as a
sacrifice, and removes the knife before he dies. By removing the knife he has
assured that it would not become impure.
I don’t know what is worse, the zealous behavior that led to
one man stabbing the other or the fact that the father was more worried about
the cleanliness of a knife than saving the life of his son. The rabbis
understood that the story came to teach us just how corrupt society had become,
that the purity of utensils took precedence over that of human life.
The goal of religion is to create meaning in our lives not
become so important that is distracts from living life.