In Parashat Ki Tisa, we are told that Aharon and his sons must wash their hands and feet from the Kiyor, a large copper urn, in order to keep them from dying while serving in the Mishkan. A few things about this command are puzzling. First of all, why is the Kiyor specifically a copper vessel? Should not a vessel of the Mishkan, Hashem’s house on Earth, be made out of gold, or at least silver? Why copper, a relatively lowly metal? Second, why must the Kohanim wash only their hands and feet? If the purpose of this washing is to prevent them from being Tamei, impure, shouldn’t they go to a Mikvah and wash their entire bodies? And if this isn’t the purpose of the washing, then what is?
I suggest the following answer. The Torah makes a special effort to mention that water should be placed within the Kiyor. This seems a bit obvious, as what else would we expect the Kohanim to wash with? However, as many of us know, water is compared by Chazal throughout Torah SheBe’al Peh to the Torah itself, and thus, the command means to place the Torah inside the Kiyor. It was to be placed within a copper vessel. Copper, as I mentioned earlier, is a lowly metal; a humble metal, one might say. Hence, it represents humility. In order for a Kohein to be truly worthy of serving Hashem, he must combine the twin traits of humility and Torah knowledge. One who possesses Torah knowledge but not humility will meet an ignoble end, as his arrogance will cause him to think sinful thoughts or overestimate himself, leading him to disregard the sanctity of the Mishkan, an act for which the penalty is death. Humility without knowledge, however, is almost as bad. If a Kohein can’t perform the Avodah correctly, then he will surely incur death, regardless of his intentions, be they base or noble.
However, this still doesn’t explain why the Kohanim must wash only their hands and feet. Why not the whole body? The reason for this is because of what these two limbs represent. The hand represents action. It is the tool which we use to accomplish our aims and manipulate the world around us. The brain may control, but the hand is what acts. One cannot merely think humbly of himself and have Torah thoughts in his head. One’s actions must also demonstrate such qualities, or, at the very least, not display a lack of them. For a Kohein, however, there are higher standards. The hands had to be bathed in water. So too, a Kohein’s every action has to be “bathed” in humility and Torah knowledge. He has to demonstrate, without the slightest shadow of a doubt, that he is worthy of his position, especially while serving in the Mishkan. His every action has to be figuratively bathed in these qualities; they must inform and influence everything he does.
But what about the feet? What role do they play according to this approach? The feet here represent freedom. It is one’s feet that take him on his chosen course; his feet take him where he wants to go. They symbolize man’s ability to choose, to decide his path and his fate. The same is true with the Kohein. In the atmosphere of the Mishkan, there was really very little freedom of choice. It was do or die, sink or swim. If you err, the serious consequence might ensue. This, of course, is not exactly the most conducive atmosphere for freedom of choice. Outside the Mishkan, however, it was another story. One could freely choose how he desired to act, how he wanted to be. Even then, in freedom, one must be “bathed” in Torah and humility. The Kohein, therefore, is instructed to live by these qualities, so that those who do not serve in the Mishkan, and thus have more freedom of choice, will make wise decisions guided by Torah and humility.
In Parashat Yitro, just before Matan Torah, we are called a “Mamlechet Kohanim,” a nation of Kohanim (Shemot 19:6). While not held to the standard of the children of Aharon, we too have an obligation as Hashem’s chosen people to display these priestly qualities. First of all, we must strive to fill ourselves with the twin qualities of Torah and humility. However, that is only the first step. Next, we must strive to imbue our actions with these things, making it clear that these are the guiding forces within our lives. Last, but certainly not least, comes the lesson of the feet. Out in the open, in the presence of one’s friends, or while one’s Rabbi is around, one may feel compelled to demonstrate these things, feeling that the atmosphere gives him no other choice. However, in private, or when these role models and peers are gone, we may drop our display and become less concerned or respectful. This is what happened to Yeho’ash, king of Yehudah. As long as his teacher Yehoyada was alive, he maintained his piety. Once Yehoyada passed away, however, and he was “free,” he felt that he could relax his standards, and in doing so doomed himself to an inglorious end, murdered by his servants.
There are times when fulfilling all of these obligations may seem a chore. We may maintain these standards around others, but when we consider ourselves free, we lose them. This, unfortunately, is not true and total dedication to God. One who truly wishes to be holy, one who truly wishes to be part of a nation of Kohanim, will not only imbue himself and his actions with Torah and humility, but will do so even when he can be considered free. Let us all take note of these lessons and strive, with all our might, to imbue our actions with humility and Torah, even when free to do as we please.