In this week’s Parsha, the Torah discusses the things that must be done by the Kohanim and to the Kohanim in order for them to become sanctified to Hashem. Some of the things they must do include bringing sacrifices, bathing ritually, and wearing the clothes described earlier in the Parsha. In addition to the previously mentioned rituals, one specific practice seems to stick out. This ritual, recorded in 29:20, is for Moshe to take the blood of the second of two rams that have been slaughtered and to place its blood on Aharon’s ear. He is then to place it on Aharon’s sons’ ears. Next, Moshe is commanded to put the blood on all three of their right thumbs collectively, and then on all three of their right toes collectively. This practice seems perplexing at the very least, and although we don’t necessarily need reasons for Mitzvot, some symbolism can been suggested for these rituals.
The Midrash Tanchuma suggests that this ritual is in anticipation of Aharon’s fear that Hashem is angry with him for his participation in the Cheit Haegel. The Tanchuma further suggests that the cow to be sacrificed in Pasuk 11 represents the Egel, and the two rams represent the two other sons of Aharon who should have died as well. Therefore, as a Midrash brought by the Torah Shlema explains, the blood on the ear is to atone for the fact that Aharon did not listen to the commandment of “Lo Yihye Lcha…” and the blood on the thumb and big toe is to atone for his help in making the calf, and his running to do so respectively.
A discrepancy is pointed out by the Netziv in terms of the relationship between the commandment for this ritual in this week’s Parsha, and the fulfillment of it in Parshas Tzav. In this week's Parsha the blood is put on the ear of Aharon first and then on the ears of his sons. Then the rest of the blood is put on the toes and thumbs of all three Kohanim in unison. In Parshas Tzav however, all the requisite blood is placed on Aharon first, and then his two sons. The Netziv explains that when the command was issued in Tetzaveh, the only reason Aharon was a Kohen Gadol was because of his age, since there was nothing qualitative to distinguish him from his sons. However, between the command and its realization, the Cheit Haegel occurred, which brought Aharon to a new level. Although this sin is often construed as a negative time for Aharon, the Netziv claims that it was actually Aharon’s Mesirat Nefesh, in his attempt to regulate the making of the Egel, which raised him to a new level. This in turn demanded a separate placement of blood altogether because of Aharon’s new special status that Moshe wished to celebrate.
Until the last point, all the suggestions have focused on the redemptive value for the Kohanim themselves and their happiness and well-being. However, there are other suggestions that seem to point to a more utilitarian purpose for these rituals. The Meshech Chochma explains the same discrepancy by pointing out that the command deals with the blood as sanctification for the body parts that would be doing the Avoda. Therefore all Kohanim were put together since they are equal in that respect. However, since Aharon was on a higher level because he had more Mitzvot and was closer to Sinai at the giving of the Torah, he was done first and separately.
The Yalkut Meam Loez mentions a similar idea to that of the Meshech Chochma – that the purpose of the placing of blood is to remind the Kohanim to be careful to listen well to the commandments regarding the Avoda (blood on ear), and to do the Avoda in an efficient and careful manner (blood on hand and leg).
In a similar vein, R’ Bachay explains that the Mishkan reflects the three parts of the world: the world of “Melachim,” the world of “Gilgalim,” and the world of “Shafel.” The Kohen Gadol too must reflect these three parts both in his capacity as the highest position in the temple, and in his capacity as a mini-world unto himself (See R’ Bachay in Bereishit 1:27). Therefore, these placements of blood must reflect the three parts of man in order to purify him enough to give the Korbanot by which the world stands (Taanit 27b). The placement of blood on the ear (head) reflects the world of angels and upper aspirations, while the placement of blood on the hand signifies the middle section of the body, which houses the heart and reflects the world of Gilgalim. The lower section of the body embodies the baser aspirations, where the blood is placed on the foot.
Lastly, a Midrash Hagadol quoted by the Torah Shlema seems to point to the idea that the sanctification of the Kohanim has utilitarian purposes for the rest of the nation. It says that the purpose of these rituals is to teach the Kohanim the proper procedure for purifying a Metzora, which has an identical purification ceremony.
Therefore, it is possible to see that even dating back to the Midrash there was a fundamental Machloket as to whether these rituals were designed to help the Kohanim do the Avoda for Bnei Yisrael, or simply to sanctify the Kohanim for their own sake. This Machloket has extreme ramifications in terms of how to understand the place of the Kohanim within Bnei Yisrael. Are they simply the agents of Bnei Yisrael in the Temple, or are they a separate entity altogether, which demands its own redemptive value?