“Holy Priests” Parashat Yitro 5780

As the Jewish People stand at the foot of Mount Sinai waiting to receive the Torah, G-d gives them “Rules of Engagement”. The mountain is to be the site of a Divine Revelation to an extent never before seen in the world. The mountain would be off-limits for the entire duration of the revelation. Anyone who trespassed would be instantly killed.

As part of the “Rules of Engagement”, G-d tells Moses [Shemot 19:21-22] “Go down, warn the people lest they break [their formation to go nearer] to G-d, to see, and many of them will fall. Also, the Priests (Kohanim) who go near to G-d shall prepare themselves (yitkadashu – literally, shall remain holy), lest G-d wreak destruction upon them.” To which Kohanim, exactly, is G-d referring? This is no trivial question. Up until this point in the Torah, the title “Kohen” has been used only in reference to non-Jews[1]. This is the first instance in the Torah in which the title “Kohen” is used in reference to Jews. The problem is that Aaron and his children are not designated as “Kohanim” until much later, during the design phase of the Mishkan (Tabernacle) [Shemot 28:1]: “You shall bring forward your brother Aaron with his sons from among the Israelites to serve me as priests”. If no-one had yet been designated as a Kohen, who, then, was the intended recipient of G-d’s warning?

There is a disagreement between two of the greatest medieval commentators, Rashi, who lived in France in the eleventh century, and the Ramban , who lived in Spain in the thirteenth century, regarding chronology in the Torah. According to Rashi, the Torah is not chronologically precise[2], while according to the Ramban, the Torah is chronologically precise[3]. That is to say, according to Ramban, if Episode A appears in the Torah before Episode B, then Episode A must have occurred before Episode B. According to Rashi, the location of an episode in the Torah is not necessarily an indication of when it actually transpired. Prima facie, one would think that the identity of the priests would be problematic only to the Ramban. Rashi could posit that Aaron was actually designated as a Kohen before the revelation at Sinai and the warning in the “Rules of Engagement” is referring to him. Nevertheless, Rashi asserts that the “Kohanim” that G-d was warning were not Aaron and his descendants, but, rather, the first-born, who were at the time responsible for the ritual service of G-d[4]. Many of the other medieval commentators take the path blazed by Rashi. Others assert that the Kohanim were actually the seventy elders who are first mentioned [Shemot 3:16] when G-d reveals Himself to Moses at the burning bush.

Before we can present our hypothesis, we require some background information. When the Jews left Egypt, they did not leave alone. The Torah tells us [Shemot 12:38] “A mixed multitude went up [from Egypt] with them”. The Egyptians did not subjugate only the Jewish People. While all Jews were slaves, not all slaves were Jews. When Pharaoh threw the Jewish People out of Egypt, the country was in tatters. Egyptian slave masters were in no position to lord over their remaining slaves. So when the Jews left, other non-Jewish slaves took advantage of the situation and left with them and latched on to their side. This “Mixed Multitude”, or “Erev Rav”, while accepted by Moses as an integral part of the Jewish People, eventually became a thorn in their side. Our Sages in the Midrash assert that nearly every malodorous episode that occurred in the Sinai Desert, including the sin of the Golden Calf (egel) was spurred by the Erev Rav. Rabbi Samson Rafael Hirsch, who served as the Rabbi of Frankfurt am Main in the nineteenth century, notes that the Torah uses a “code word” whenever it refers to the Erev Rav: it calls them “ha’am” – “the people”. For instance, in the first verse in the episode of the Golden Calf, the Torah tells us [Shemot 32:1] “When the people saw that Moses was late in coming down from the mountain, the people gathered against Aaron, and they said to him: ‘Come on! Make us gods that will go before us, because this man Moses, who brought us up from the land of Egypt we do not know what has become of him.’” The instigators – “the people” – were the Erev Rav. With this information in hand, we can gain new insight into the “Rules of Engagement” quoted above. Exactly one verse before G-d warns the “Kohanim”, He warns Moses [Shemot 19:21] “Go down, warn the people lest they break [their formation to go nearer] to G-d, to see, and many of them will fall.” If Rabbi Hirsch’s hypothesis is correct, G-d is referring here to the Erev Rav. We must conclude, then, that in the next verse – “Also, the Kohanim who go near to G-d shall prepare themselves” – must be referring to everybody else in the camp. In other words, when the Torah refers here to “Kohanim”, it is referring to the entire Jewish People[5].

Let us hold that thought for a second and take a closer look at the scripture. The truth is that the verse “the Kohanim who go near to G-d shall prepare themselves (yitkadashu)” is not the first time that Jewish Kohanim are mentioned in the Torah. It is actually the second time. The first time Jewish Kohanim are mentioned occurs in the same episode, sixteen verses earlier, when G-d tells Moses [Shemot 19:6] “You shall be to Me a kingdom of Priests (Kohanim) and a holy (kadosh) nation”. It seems more than coincidental that both times the term “Kohen” is used in this episode, it is used in conjunction with the concept of holiness. Rabbi Zalman Sorotzkin, who served in the early twentieth century as Rabbi in Lutsk, Ukraine, and later in Jerusalem, explores this path in his monumental “Oznayim LaTorah”. Rabbi Sorotzkin notes that the Torah commands the Jewish People to be specifically “a kingdom of Kohanim” and not merely “Kohanim”. This means, suggests Rabbi Sorotzkin, that the Kohanim – the Jewish People – must not be distributed around the world. Their holiness must emanate from one central location – the Land of Israel. The Jewish People were about to receive the Torah, the Word of G-d. They were to become G-d’s emissaries, the conduit through which the Torah would emanate to the rest of humankind. Rabbi Mosheh Lichtenstein, the Head (Rosh Yeshiva) of the esteemed Har Etzion Yeshiva, explains that holiness, by nature, thrives in closed spaces, within boundaries. The holiest place on earth is the Holy of Holies in the Beit HaMikdash, a chamber with hardly enough room for the Ark of the Covenant. The Holy of Holies was entered only once a year, on Yom Kippur, and then only by the High Priest. The Jewish People, as holy Kohanim, were commanded to live within physical boundaries. Global distribution would dilute their holiness and would adversely impact their ability to influence the rest of the world.

Something doesn’t make sense. If the Jewish People had already been commanded to be a “holy nation”, why does G-d command them a second time to “be holy”[6]? I suggest that if the commandment to be a “holy nation” is referring to physical boundaries, then the commandment to “prepare themselves” is referring to metaphysical boundaries. The Torah is a “Book of Boundaries”. It contains two hundred a forty eight positive commandments, boundaries within we must reside, and three hundred and sixty five negative commandments, boundaries that we must never cross. I suggest that G-d’s second commandment to “be holy” is not a one-shot warning, part of “Rules of Engagement” to keep the people safely away from the mountain. It was an eternal commandment to the people who were about to receive the Torah: Understand that the Torah you are about to receive will create boundaries. You will no longer be free to do as you like. You must bend to a higher cause. This, and only this,  is what will metamorphose you into a “a kingdom of Kohanim and a holy nation”.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ari Sacher, Moreshet, 5780

Please daven for a Refu’a Shelema for Yehuda ben Tzivia, Yechiel ben Shprintza, David ben Chaya, Shachar Yehuda ben Irit, and Tehila bat Adi.

[1] In the Book of Bereishit, the title “Kohen” appears in connection with Malkitzedek, King of Salem, who was a non-Jewish [Bereishit 14:18] “Kohen to G-d Most High”, and also to [Bereishit 42:22,26] pagan Egyptian priests.

[2]Ein mukdam u’me’uchar baTorah

[3]Yesh mukdam u’me’uchar baTorah

[4] The first born were stripped of their position after they sinned at the sin of the Golden Calf (egel).

[5] This admittedly radical conclusion was proposed by my wife, Tova.

[6] Translated above as “prepare themselves”

About the Author
Ari Sacher is a Rocket Scientist, and has worked in the design and development of missiles for over twenty-five years. He has briefed hundreds of US Congressmen on Israeli Missile Defense, including three briefings on Capitol Hill at the invitation of House Majority Leader. Ari is a highly requested speaker, enabling even the layman to understand the "rocket science". Ari has also been a scholar in residence in numerous synagogues in the USA, Canada, UK, South Africa, and Australia. He is a riveting speaker, using his experience in the defense industry to explain the Torah in a way that is simultaneously enlightening and entertaining. Ari came on aliya from the USA in 1982. He studied at Yeshivat Kerem B’Yavneh, and then spent seven years studying at the Technion. Since 2001 he has published a weekly parasha shiur that is read around the world. Ari lives in Moreshet in the Western Galil along with his wife and eight children.
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