Aaron's Beard

The sound of the ram’s horn echoed along the outer walls of the temple. I looked up from trying to fix the broken cord on my sandal and saw the other boys scrambling in through the east gate. Darting after them at full speed and ignoring the sting of the loose cord whipping my leg, I rounded the corner at the bronze gate and passed two of the slower boys before skidding to a halt at the back of the group.

Twelve of us had been chosen from all over Israel to participate in this special academy. In order to qualify, a boy had to be from the tribe of Levi, have lived no fewer than ten summers and no more than twelve, and have the sole recommendation from the town’s eldest rabbi. Even then only one in ten boys was chosen. Only two boys had ever been invited to return for a second summer. I was one of them.

The other one had attended many years ago and was now the rabbi in charge of our training. His name was Aaron. He was at that time one of the middle-ranking rabbis who had the rare honor of serving here at Solomon’s Temple in Jerusalem.

My eyes drifted upward as I admired the majesty of Jakin and Boaz, the two great pillars. Rabbi Aaron’s voice droned softly in the background—he rarely raised his voice—as the boys shuffled forward. The sheer size of the temple was awesome; we had nothing near that large back home. Although I had seen it many times—my family came to Jerusalem every Passover (except the year my mother was very sick)—I never grew tired of looking at all the masterful carvings of pomegranates and palm trees.

A younger boy next to me stepped on my loose sandal cord, and I almost fell. I threw him a scowl, elbowed him in the shoulder, and knelt down to quickly wrap the dusty cord around my big toe.

Aaron’s voice grew slightly louder, “Jonathan…Jonathan!” I stood up, surprised to hear my name, and noticed that everyone was looking at me. Had the rabbi seen me elbow the other boy? “Come to the front,” he said firmly. The boys parted and I felt like Moses crossing a sea of eyes. I was just about to apologize when Aaron continued talking to the group: “As you all know, Jonathan is an honored student and will be at my side during the ceremony.”

What ceremony? Now I wished I had been listening instead of daydreaming about pomegranates! Aaron told the boys to sit down on the lower steps, and then, sitting on higher step and facing them, he motioned for me to sit at his side. Hearing footsteps behind me, I turned as I sat down and saw a sober procession of five priests coming down the temple stairs. In the lead was Azariah, the high priest of all Israel! I had only seen him once before, and that was from a great distance. Now he was only a few feet away with his shining robes and long gray beard. When our eyes met, I felt embarrassed and quickly looked down. This was a man who had been inside the Holy of Holies! And then I noticed the mud stains on my tunic. I never should have been so childish as to play outside the gates with the other boys! I quietly tucked my feet under me, hoping he wouldn’t notice my broken sandal.

After a long pause, Azariah’s deep voice filled the courtyard. None of the boys moved a muscle. “This year’s Academy has been chosen to witness a unique ceremony…” and then I remembered. Before I left home, my father told me that Aaron would be anointed as a high priest while I was in Jerusalem. Azariah’s voice was like distant thunder: “This is the first time that a former student of the Academy has been anointed as a high priest.” Aaron had been facing away from Azariah and watching the boys’ awestruck faces with proud eyes, but now he slowly turned, knelt before the high priest, and his hand told me to do the same. The stones hurt my boney knees, but, like Aaron, I did not move, imitating his posture exactly.

The thunderous voice continued, “In the name of our LORD, God of our ancestors Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, I hereby….” Keeping my head bowed, I raised my eyebrows and studied every one of the high priest’s movements, from taking the jar of oil from the priest next to him, to lifting it high while asking God’s blessing, to pouring it slowly and purposefully over Aaron’s head. (I repeated the whole ceremony several times back home for my family and neighbors, anointing each of my little brothers in turn with a jar of water.) The oil kept coming and coming, and the little golden rivers that ran down Aaron’s face and poured off his beard entranced me. In some places the oil collected and in others, like his eyebrows and eyelashes, it fell in large drops. His thick black beard, lined with strands of gray, reminded me of a mountain bush sparkling with the morning dew. The smell was strong and sweet and, looking down, the stones were splattered with dark spots.

One of the priests stepped forward and began to dry Aaron’s eyes with an ornately decorated towel, but Aaron gently pushed the man’s hands away. His neck and the collar of his robes glistened with the golden oil and his whole head seemed to glow. Blinking the last drops from his eyes, he lifted his right hand, stroked his wet beard, and placed his heavy hand on my head. The oil ran down his wrist and a smile stretched across his face. Leaving his hand on my head, he began to laugh, great rolls of laughter, my body shaking with his. As he took his hand away, a drop of oil hurried down my forehead and paused on my nose. I reached up to wipe it away but stopped myself; remembering how Aaron had allowed the blessing of the holy oil to remain on his face, I lifted my head and stared at my nose as I tried to balance my only golden drop.

Many years later, I received that same blessing from Aaron himself when I was anointed a high priest at Solomon’s temple. I, too, had been in charge of the Academy for several years and chose one of the boys to kneel with me during the ceremony.

And now, today, I stand here on the highest step with the sacred jar of oil in my hands. The boy who was by my side during my anointing now has a full beard and kneels before me. He, in turn, has a boy by his side who reminds me vaguely of myself so many years ago. But now my beard is long and gray, and my eyes are failing me; yet I can still see well enough to notice that the boy’s sandal is broken.

Inspired by Psalm 133:

How good and pleasant it is    
  when brothers live together in unity!
It is like precious oil poured on the head,  
  running down on the beard,
Running down on Aaron’s beard,  
  down upon the collar of his robes.
It is as if the dew of Hermon  
  were falling on Mount Zion,
where the LORD bestows his blessing  
  of eternal life.

© 2003 Jon Andreas. All rights reserved. Written February 2003