By Rabbi Shlomo Riskin
“And G-d spoke unto Moses saying: Speak unto Aaron and to his sons, that they separate themselves from the holy things of the children of Israel which they sacrifice unto me so that they profane not My holy name, I am G-d!” [Lev. 22:1-2]
The theme of the priesthood, explored in our portion of Emor, is further amplified in the Haftorah, where we read, “And they [the priests] shall teach My people the difference between the holy and the common, and cause them to discern between the ritually impure and the ritually pure. And in a controversy they shall stand to judge…and they shall hallow my Sabbaths.” [Ezekiel 44:23-24]
The priests were obviously the religious leaders of the Israelites. However, there are a number of problematic issues regarding their office, status and function. First, one of the great mysteries in the Torah concern the laws of the Red Heifer, whereby the priest is commanded to conduct a complex ritual so that a person defiled by contact with the dead is returned to a state of purity [Numbers 19]. At the same time, the dutiful priest discovers that while facilitating the impure person’s return to purity, he himself has become impure. Is it not strange that the very individual who purifies the impure must himself become impure in the process. Why?
A further difficulty concerning the priesthood emerges from the Torah’s commandment not to give the Levite tribe, which includes all priests, an ancestral share in the land. Their housing problem was solved by transferring 42 cities from the other tribes’ inheritance to the Levites and priests; these cities, as well as six additional “cities of refuge” described in the Torah (Numbers 35) as such, were all islands of protection for anyone who killed accidentally, the fear of revenge by blood relatives of the victim forcing the ‘killer’ to flee for his life. Inside these 48 cities, the accidental killer could receive asylum, starting his life all over again without the fear that one of the victim’s relatives would kill him. (Maimonides, Laws of the Murderer, 8,9).
We have to remember that all sorts of unsavory types fit into the category of the accidental killer; even someone who intended to murder X and ended up murdering Y, or someone who merely intended to maim significantly but not to murder, was called an accidental killer (shogeg), and had a right to seek asylum. Such individuals may not warrant the death penalty in a Jewish Court of Law, but they certainly cannot be counted among the elite of serious Jewry.
Is it not strange that the Torah commands the priestly class, whom I would have imagined to be located as near to the Holy Temple as possible, to have their lives intertwined with such trigger-happy criminals and lowlifes?
Finally, the Kohen- Priest ascends the `bimah’ to ask the Almighty to bless the Israelites with the words: “Blessed art Thou…who has sanctified us with the Sanctity of Aaron and has commanded us to bless His nation Israel with love.” Do we have another instance in our laws of benedictions wherein the individual bestowing the blessing must do so with love? What does this signify?
In order to begin to understand the true role of Jewish leadership, we must remember that Abraham was not the first person after Noah to devote himself to G-d. Noah’s son, Shem – who according to the Midrash was not only born nine generations before Abraham but lived forty years after the first patriarch died – really qualified for this preeminent position. According to the Midrash, it was he, together with his son Ever, who established the first yeshiva in history. When Rebecca, Abraham’s daughter-in- law, felt unwell in her pregnancy, she “inquired of the Lord” (Gen. 25:22); Rashi explains that she sought the spiritual advice not of Abraham but rather of Shem. Several verses later, after she gives birth to twins, Jacob the younger son is described as “dwelling in tents.” (25:27) Again Rashi tells us that these are the tents of Torah, the tent of Shem and the tent of Ever, for which Jacob, left his father’s and grandfather’s home to study Torah for fourteen years. And Rashi explains that the guests of honor “at the great feast Abraham made on the day that Isaac was weaned,” (Gen. 21:8) were “…the greatest of the generation (gedolai hador): Shem and Ever and Elimelech.”
But if this is true, why does the historic chain of the Jewish people begin with Abraham and not with Shem and Ever who preceded Abraham by ten and seven generations respectively?
This question is raised by the Raavad (1125-1198) on his gloss to Maimonides’ Laws of Idolatry, when the “Great Eagle” describes how even “… their (Gentile) wise men… also thought that there was no other god but the stars and spheres. But the Creator of the universe was known to none, and recognized by none save a few solitary individuals, such as Enosh, Methusaleh, Noah, Shem and Ever. The world moved on in this fashion until that pillar of the world, the patriarch Abraham was born…” Our first patriarch”…would travel and cry out and gather the people from city to city and kingdom to kingdom until he arrived in the land of Canaan, where Abraham proclaimed his message, ‘And he called there on the name of the Lord, G-d of the universe’ ” [Gen. 21:33]. And Maimonides details how people flocked to Abraham, who would then instruct them about the true path. (Laws of Idolatry,1,2).
But where, asks the Raavad, is Shem in all of this? “If Shem and Ever were there (and we know as we’ve pointed out earlier that they were the leading Sages, the gedolim) why didn’t they protest this idolatry?”
The Kesef Mishnah (Rabbi Yosef Caro) offers an answer to this question: “Abraham would call out and announce [to all the peoples] belief in the unity of G-d. Shem and Ever taught the path of G-d (only) to their students. They did not awaken and announce the way Abraham did, and that’s why Abraham’s greatness increased.”
Said simply, Shem and Ever were Torah giants, but they were deeply involved only in the spiritual progress of their students, the intellectual and religious elite.
Abraham on the other hand, understood that the mitzvah ‘V’ahavta et HaShem Elokecha’ (And you shall love the Lord your G-d) means that one must make G-d, the G-d of righteousness, compassion and peace, beloved by all humankind; this requires going out and traveling and teaching the masses in a Chabad- B’nai Akiva – NCSY-like fashion. Indeed, this is what Abraham did, succeeding on an unprecedented scale. Only an Abraham could have been chosen by G-d as the first Jew.
This element of the Abrahamic personality was codified by the Torah into the priesthood. The priest-Kohanim first and foremost had to love every single Jew – had to call upon G-d to bless the Jews in a loving fashion and had to demonstrate their love by living with the dregs of Jewish society in the Cities of Refuge. The Kohen-priest had to love his fellow Jews so much that he would gladly be willing to defile himself so that another Jew could become pure! This is the secret of the mystery of the red heifer!
Originally appears on the Ohr Torah Stone website