David Seidenberg
Ecohasid meets Rambam

A Nation of Priests to all Creation

Art by Rachel Katz-Passow, design by David Seidenberg; Download Borei N'fashot cards here:

The vestments of the high priest, described in loving or excruciating detail (depending on how you feel about fashion) in Exodus chapter 28, seem to describe a functionary whose office is all about being glorified. But that’s not what being a priest is really about. The clothing of the high priest is a model for how all of us, members of a mamlekhet kohanim, a “nation of priests”, should feel about our role in the world. And that role is glorious: to pray and intercede on behalf of all humanity and all Creation.

Here’s a “shtickel” Torah–a little bit of Torah teaching–related to the Mishkan, the desert sanctuary, and the Temple, that illuminates the scope of what it means to act as priests. It’s the kind of Torah that the Carlebach chevra call a “cash Torah” — something you can khop (get it) in one sentence, that is powerful and impactful. (“Cash torah” because you can get it and use it right away.)

The Talmud (Berakhot 35a) teaches that eating food without saying a brakhah (a blessing) beforehand is like stealing. A lot of people know that teaching, and it’s deep. But here’s an even deeper part: the Talmud doesn’t call it “stealing” (g’neivah) but “me’ilah“, which means improperly taking or using sacred property that belongs to the Temple and the priests. That implies that everything in the world is sacred and that this Creation is like a HOLY TEMPLE.

That’s the “cash” part.

Here’s the deepest part, about our role of acting as priests:

If the prohibition of me’ilah means you can’t use property that’s sanctified, that’s because sanctified property should be used for a sacred purpose, and it should be used by the priests. So how does saying a brakhah over some food changes its status so that you can eat it, and what status is the brakhah changing? There are two possibilities: 1) It turns the food into something that’s no longer sacred and can therefore be used by an ordinary person (a “hedyot“)? OR, 2) it turns the person from a hedyot into a priest who can partake in what is holy in Creation!

I think it means the latter: by saying a blessing before we eat–or before we take in any pleasure that has a brakhah–we become like priests, preparing ourselves to administer to Creation. That means we take on an awesome responsibility: that we should act not just for our own sakes but for the sake of all people and all beings. That’s the role of the priest in the Temple.

Wow! That’s a universal mission, and it applies to all creatures and all human beings (contrary of what some of the extremist politicians in Israel’s government believe).

The commitment to praying on behalf of all Life is hinted at in Exodus chapter 29, which is not about beautiful clothes but about consecrating Aaron as high priest by anointing him with blood on his extremities: right earlobe, right thumb, right big toe. Blood is the symbol and substance of life, of nefesh, the Torah tells us again and again. To act as priests, we must act on behalf of Life in all our ways, reaching to touch life, striding towards life, listening to the pulse of life.

As the chevra would say, I bless us that we all merit to really see the beings sharing this planet through such eyes, so that our every act of eating, of taking, from this world, be an act of sanctification and blessing — meaning, not just blessing God, but bringing blessing to all the creatures that we share this planet with. Or, in R’ Moshe Cordovero’s words: may we live and work and act so that our actions “cause life to stream forth, to all beings”.

You can read more about Cordovero’s ecologically-tuned Kabbalah in my article on Kabbalah and ecology, from the Encyclopedia of Religion and Nature, here.

P.S. Parshat Teztaveh comes right before Purim about half the time, give or take. I love the coincidence of dressing up the high priest in the Torah reading and dressing ourselves up in costume. May your costume help you connect with your inner glory!

About the Author
Rabbi David Mevorach Seidenberg is the creator of, author of Kabbalah and Ecology (Cambridge U. Press, 2015), and a scholar of Jewish thought. David is also the Shmita scholar-in-residence at Abundance Farm in Northampton MA. He teaches around the world and also leads astronomy programs. As a liturgist, David is well-known for pieces like the prayer for voting and an acclaimed English translation of Eikhah ("Laments"). David also teaches nigunim and is a composer of Jewish music and an avid dancer.
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