The kohen is no Catholic priest… and our hearts take priority over our brains
Exodus 25:8 (P Terumah) … ועשו לי מקדש ושכנתי בתוכם … and they will make me a sanctuary and I will dwell in their midst
Exodus 29:44-45 (P Tezaveh)וקדשתי את אהל המועד ואת המזבח ואת אהר ן ואת בניו אקדש לכהן לי. ושכנתי בתןך בני ישראך והיתי להם לאלהים … and I will sanctify Aharon and his sons to minister to me (44) And I will dwell among the Children of Israel and will be to them their G-d (45)
What is the role of the kohen, the Israelite priest? Most people never ask this question. Is the kohen G-d’s representative on earth; His interlocutor who has an infallible license to act and make decisions in the Almighty’s name? Apparently many of us presume this very Roman Catholic idea of the priestly role. And while mere confession of sins to a kohen will not yield absolution, nevertheless we seem to attribute certain powers to a kohen, and assume, that like priests of other faiths, a kohen is here to minister to the people in G-d’s name.
Parshat Tezaveh is not one of the more narratively scintillating parshiot. It begins with the call for oil with which to light the menorah, and then takes us through G-d’s very specific and detailed requirements for the priestly vestments, and the ritual offerings that would inaugurate the Mishkan, the Tabernacle.
Nevertheless there are a number of rather startling and theologically revolutionary ideas that are manifest in this Parsha.
The first is by way of G-d dictating how He wishes to be served – the style of the priestly garments, the pageantry, the menu of the offerings and sacrifices, and the minutest details of their preparation.
This comes in the wake of similar dictation by G-d regarding the architecture, design and materials for the Tabernacle and its vessels.
We take this sort of dictation by G-d for granted. Yet, in fact, it is counterintuitive. One would imagine that it is for the people to show their adoration of G-d by themselves choosing a fitting dwelling for Him and by voluntarily determining the appropriate way to manifest their adoration and worship. After all, we do not tell others what gifts to bring us (okay some people are tactless enough to do so) which is all the more why a gift or offering or tribute is a true reflection of the love, awe, fear, or gratitude of the giver.
And yet, G-d does precisely the opposite. Indeed, G-d tells us in minutest detail what He desires, like a spoiled American bride registering for her dinner plates, silverware,food processor and linens at Bloomingdales or Bergdorf, and we augment or diminish from these instructions at our own peril.
Perhaps we can better understand this revolutionary phenomenon once we better understand the precise role of the Kohen.
But even before we focus on the kohen, it is worth noting the utter uniqueness of the very idea of a dwelling place for G-d on earth. In no other monotheistic religion is there the belief that G-d actually resides in any specific church, temple of mosque. The spirit of their gods may be manifest, and their sanctuaries may attain a degree of holiness by virtue of their function as gathering places for worship. Nevertheless there is no claim that their god actually resides in, say, St. Peter’s or in the Qabba of Mecca. Their gods reside in heaven alone.
Which brings us to back to our kohanim.
Contrary to conventional wisdom, influences from other faiths, or simple ignorance, the job of a kohen is not to minister to the people. His job is to minister exclusively to G-d.
In Parshat Tetzaveh, Aharon and his sons are called to the priesthood. And no fewer than five times, G-d makes it manifestly clear that their job is “lלכהנו לי, to minister to Me (G-d).
- “And now take to you Aharon your brother and his sons with him from among the children of Israel, that he may minister to me (לכהנו ליi)” (28:1)
- “… that they may make Aharon’s garments to consecrate him that he may minister to me (לכהנו לי) (28:4)
- “And they shall make holy garments for Aharon your brother and his sons to minister to me (לכהנו ליi)” (28:4)
- “And this is the thing you shall do to them to sanctify them to minister to me (לכהן ליi)” (29:1)
- “… and I will sanctify Aharon and his sons to minister to me (לכהן ליi)” (29:44)
G-d makes it very clear that the role of the kohen is to minister to Him, and to Him alone. It is not the kohen’s job to minister to people except insofar as such ministering is at G-d’s behest. We, as ordinary Israelites, have no claims on the priest and he, in turn, owes us nothing.
How do we make sense of this? Are not the children of Israel entitled to some ministering? Don’t we need a priestly intermediary to act as our go-between to G-d? To whom are we ordinary mortals supposed to turn in our own hour of need?
This is precisely the point. We do not need a priest to serve as our advocate or as our confessor. Our relationship with G-d is direct and personal with no need for any go-betweens. Why? Because G-d “dwells in our midst”. So long as He has His personally-designated, designed and dictated dwelling place “in our midst” we have no need for anyone to plead our case for us.
Which brings us back to the role of the Kohen. The priest’s job is to minister to G-d and to G-d alone. His role is to maintain and operate
G-d’s physical residence on earth. And so long as he fulfills his role by doing his job of ministering to G-d, we, in turn, can rely on G-d’s manifest presence in our midst and our right and ability to address Him directly with our prayers and supplications.
Hence verse 29:44 is immediately followed by verse 45. To whit; if Aharon and his sons do their job “by ministering to me” only then “And I will dwell among the children of Israel and will be their G-d (45) And they will know that I am the Lord their G-d who brought them our of the Land of Egypt, that I may dwell among them, I am the Lord their G-d.” (46).
Ultimately the kohen’s role is critical for all of us. Because it is for the kohen to maintain G-d’s earthly domicile and to minister to G-d’s wishes. If he fulfills his obligation, we, in turn, can know that G-d is indeed present, and our relationship to Him is direct with no need for any intermediary.
This may help us understand the lead-up to the destruction of the Second Temple, when the corruption among the kohanim was so endemic and institutionalized that G-d no longer had a domicile in our midst, and we no longer had a G-d present to whom we could turn.
We listen to our hearts, not our heads
I couldn’t help but notice the deployment of the word “lev” (heart) in both parshiyot. As we saw above, the contributions to the Tabernacle’s construction were to come from “Every person whose heart inspired him to generosity”
Now in Tezaveh there are two more significant references to the heart:
“And you shall speak to all the wise of heart, whom I have filled with the spirit of wisdom, and they shall make Aaron’s garments … (27:3)
“Thus shall Aaron carry the names of the sons of Israel in the breastplate of judgment over his heart when he enters the Holy, as a remembrance before the Lord at all times.” (28-29)
In each case – generosity, wisdom and judgment – one would expect reference to the head not the heart. Certainly in contemporary society, giving, especially serious philanthropy, is done with tremendous gravitas, much deliberation, extensive scrutiny and – to say the least – a strong dollop of self-interest. Yet the Torah makes no such reference, asking instead that generosity be mindless and for entirely of the heart.
Wisdom, too, is something we associate with the mind. And yet the ones whom G-d “fills with the spirit of wisdom” are the “wise of heart” who are blessed with an instinctive – even impulsive – creativity which, precisely because it is not the subject to a laborious process of thoughts and second thoughts, discussions and committees, drafts and erasures, cuts and pastes, yields something eternally magnificent. Those who work with their minds do necessary things. But those who work with their hearts have the capacity to make things that are immortal.
And finally when it comes to judgment, the High Priest upon entering the Holy of Holies carries the names of Israel not on his head but on his heart. Because it is the spirit of the law that matters most, and it is the compassion that can never come from the brain that is paramount.
We Jews have for too long been slaves of our brains; living by intelligence and cleverness rather than by intuition and instinct. From these two highly specific, precise, calibrated parshiot we come away with something quite opposite — namely the powerful message that at the start of the day, and at its end, what matters most is the unquantifiable, unmeasurable impulses and wisdoms of the heart.