Parshas Tzav – The role of Kohanim in our nation

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Artwork by Alex Levin.
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By: Rabbi Shlomo Rosenfeld

The second half of ספר שמות deals almost entirely with the Mishkan. פרשת תרומה is the commandment to build the Mishkan, which is mirrored in פרשת ויקהל which describes the actual building process. פרשת תצוה discusses the making of the clothes of the כהנים and the process with which to induct them into service of the Mishkan, which is mirrored in פרשת פקודי where it talks about the actual making of the clothes. However, the actual introduction of the כהנים service is discussed in our פרשה, פרשת צו.

The רמב”ן explains that each ספר has its own function. בראשית deals with creation, creation of the world, then again after the מבול, then of the Jewish people. שמות deals with גאולה of the Jewish people and the perpetuation of that redemption through the Mishkan. Vayikra is called תורת כהנים and deals with the reality that the כהנים live in, קרבנות, טומאה, טהרה, קדושה, and all the things that don’t make sense in the world we live in, but that are needed to live with God. And each of the stories/מצוות that are placed in each of the 5 ספרים are done so because they are thematically integral to the message of that ספר. Based on this, it seems strange that the planning of the inauguration party of the כהניםis in שמות and the actual happenings are in Vayikra. What changed from planning to execution that they are themed differently than each other?

If you compare the two narratives (פרק ח’ in ויקרא and פרק כ”ט in שמות), you’ll notice that the two are almost a perfect mirror of one another, so much so that if you just gloss over the text, they sound exactly the same. But if you look carefully, you’ll see that the story in our פרשה has a few additions that come up a few times. The first is the idea to gather the people together. In פרשת תצוה there is no mention of the people, almost as though the inauguration of the Kohanim was meant be a private family party with Moshe, his brother and nephews. But in our פרשה Moshe is told a few times to gather the people so they can watch the proceedings. Moshe tells the entire nation that he was commanded by God to do this and Rashi says it was emphasized so the people wouldn’t think he was deciding to do this on his own (anyone reminded of קרח here?). Which leads us to the second difference, the fact that God commanded Moshe to do this. The narrative in our פרשה is filled with כאשר צוה י-ה-ו-ה את משה. Every step along the way we hear that this was commanded by Hashem and not based on Moshe’s decision making. The question is, why was this not mentioned in Hashem’s original instructions to Moshe back in פרשת תצוה?

If you had to choose between שמות and ויקרא which ספר is more communal and applicable to the nation as a whole than the other based on the definitions above, would it be שמות or ויקרא? Likely שמות. That is where our nation is formed, the מצות of Shabbos and יום טוב are there, and overall it seems to apply to the Jewish people as a whole more so than the laws we need to adhere to when living in close quarters with God. Most of us don’t get our hands into the nitty gritty of צרעת, טומאה, מקואות, or קרבנות. This is reflected in how our yeshiva learning is structured nowadays as well, very few people learn the laws that come from Vayikra in depth.

So, the placement of the instructions for the beginning of the כהנים is in שמות, the ספר of the כלל, since we all need to know that the Kohanim were there and important but the practicality of that happening is in תורת כהנים since it isn’t something that we relate to directly.

But that leads to a question. If the actual inauguration was less applicable to the nation as a whole, why in the story in our פרשה does it say repeatedly that Moshe should gather the entire nation together. This means that it is important for us to see and know what happened. Well which one is it? Is this meant for the nation as a whole or only for שבט לוי?

I think the reason the Torah says to gather the people was an unsuccessful attempt to avoid what happened when קרח stepped forward. He said that we are all holy, we don’t need כהנים at all, and he tried to overthrow Moshe’s kingship. Hashem sided with Moshe and קרח and his cohorts all died. The reality is that we can’t all connect to God on an equally intimate level since we all have egos and agendas. On the purest level you need an ego just to break away from Hashem’s oneness to simply exist. And on a more practical level most of our egos are coarser and less holy than that. But Hashem wants a relationship with us, He wants to live in our world, so we can feel His love and connect to Him. So, He chose a section of the people to be separated (which is the real definition of קדושה) as His priests and to serve Him more closely than the rest of the nation. And if you think of why the כהנים were chosen they really instigated this separation. They were the ones who gathered around Moshe after the עגל happened when he said מי לה’ אלי, and they stood up to kill their half-brothers and cousins in the defense of God in this world. But we all need to know that it is for our benefit that these kohanim exist, they are meant to be messengers through which we can connect to God on a more intimate level.

And I think the humbling message of פרשת צו is that we can’t just plug into God, it doesn’t work like that. We need separated and elevated people to bring us together in service of Hashem. And since the whole problem in our path of connecting directly to Hashem is ego, one of the missions of the כהנים was to bring peace and wholesomeness to the entire Jewish nation (which paradoxically sometimes means being able to pick up a sword and kill someone), which is why the תלמידים of Aharon are named in פרקי אבות as being אוהב שלום ורודף שלום. And in fact, when the Torah tells of the קרבנות that the כהנים brought at their inauguration, one of them was a קרבן שלמים, which the Torah emphasizes that it’s called the איל המילואים, from the word מלא, which means to fill. And Mizrachi says that the concept of filling something – מלא – and the concept of peace – shalom/שלמים – are one and the same. The job of the כהנים was to bring the people together to make a full nation and create a peace for them.

I would be remiss not to quote the Rambam’s famous adage regarding כהנים here. He says that it is not only those born into שבט לוי that can serve Hashem in this way, rather any man from the entire world whose spirit gives him to serve Hashem, to stand before Him, to walk straight with Him, and to throw off the yolk of the many calculations that man makes, this person will become holy like the קדש קדשים, and Hashem will be his lot and inheritance for this world and the next.

The concept of Kohanim is to show that we can’t just access Hashem directly, there needs to be a nullification of ego first, and the Rambam’s חידוש is that there is no gene that makes this possible, it is nothing more than a mindset and view of the world that can give anyone the power to be a peace bringer and to connect others to Hashem.

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