Shabbat, Shevat 20, 5762 (Jan. 20, 2002)

A Nation of Priests

Yitro (Jethro)
Exodus 18:1-20:26

“Now then, if you will obey Me faithfully and keep My covenant, you shall be My treasured possession among all the peoples. Indeed, all the earth is Mine, but you shall be to Me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.” – Shmot 19:5-6

The Torah speaks of three types of priesthood. The first was the priesthood of all mankind in the authority Hashem gave to Adam when He told him that he had dominion over the earth. The second is the priesthood of Israel in the world, spoken of in the above mentioned passage. The third is the priesthood of the kohenim. Each level has its own responsibilities and areas of authority given by heaven.

This week’s parsha, Yitro, includes the Ten Commandments, which are said to be the essence of the whole Torah. When the elders accepted the Torah saying, “All that the Lrd has spoken we will do!” (19:8), they were accepting the position of priest to the world. Just as the kohenim have certain restrictions that set them apart in Israel, the mitzvot of the Torah set the people of Israel apart from the nations. Many of the obligations and restrictions of the kohenim were a type of those very things that set Israel apart.

  • The kohenim wore special garments; each piece had a purpose and a special meaning in heaven. The people of Israel were commanded to wear tefillin and tzitzit.
  • The kohenim ate the sacrifices, and no one else could eat these things. Similarly, the Jewish people are restricted by the laws of kashrut. While other people may eat kosher foods, Jewish people are not allowed to eat anything that is not kosher.
  • The kohenim were restricted in who they could marry. Jews may only marry within the nation.
  • The kohenim performed sacrifices and rituals in the Temple. The people of Israel today have prayer three times daily in connection with those daily offerings.
  • The kohenim gave special blessings. The people of Israel, too, have specific blessings for various occasions.
  • The purpose of these blessings and, indeed, performance of all the mitzvot, is to raise the mundane. Just as this was the overall significance in all the kohenim did in the Temple, raising up the mundane to a level of holiness is the role of Israel in the world. This is a rectification of the fallen state of the earth.
  • On Sukkot the kohenim blessed the nations. Our Prophets say Israel is to be a “light unto the nations”. This is the ultimate goal of the blessings--to bring us all into the Redemption.
  • The kohenim stood as intercessor for the nation of Israel. So, too, is Israel called to intercede for the world. Israel is the advocate in the heavenly court on behalf of the nations.
  • When the kohenim would perform the incense offering, they were beseeching the heavenly court for mercy for Israel. This is Israel’s proper voice: pleading for mercy in the heavenly court on behalf of the nations.
  • Aharon, the first Kohen Gadol (high priest) of Israel, personified peace. Israel, too, was created to be a channel of true peace in the world, that genuine, lasting peace that can only come from heaven.
  • Another role of the kohenim was healer. Even so, Israel’s prayers, the divine spirit of compassion and pity that pours out of Israel to the world, is for rectification, balance, and healing.

When Yaakov blessed the Tribes, he said of Levi that he would be scattered through Israel. This as a sort of exile, and some could see it as a punishment for Levi’s anger. However, there is a more positive view of this. As the priestly tribe, the Levites needed to be close to the people they served; they had to know them--their needs, their hurts--in order to properly pray for them and to teach them how to live in the world as Hashem intended. Israel’s exiles have been punishment for disobedience. Yet in the world, Israel has been able to come to know the people of the nations. If we are aware of what we are supposed to be in the world, we could see the positive aspect of our own exile, as well. Realizing this, we can look at the kohenim as a model of the broader role of priesthood in the world and truly step into the place of Hashem’s partner-- the kingdom of priests and a holy nation--in bringing Redemption to the earth.

Shabbat shalom,

Copyright 2005 © Miriam Ben-Yaacov


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