Perhaps the most universal wellspring in the Torah — the teaching that grips all good people ever since the time of Aaron the High Priest — is the priesthood, counterintuitive though it may ring. This week’s Torah portion, Emor (“Speak to the priests”), begins the multi-generational journey:
“The L-rd said to Moses: ‘Say to the priests (kohanim), the sons of Aaron, and tell them: Each of you shall not contaminate himself to a [dead] person among his people; except for the relative who is closest to him, to his mother and to his father, to his son, to his daughter, and to his brother; and to his virgin sister who is close to him, who has not been wed to a man; to her shall he contaminate himself’” (Leviticus 21:1-3).
Priesthood means separation from death. Its practice is retained by the descendants of Aaron (“the sons of Aaron”) to this day. They are forbidden to be in contact with, under the same roof as, or over the grave of, the dead. Leviticus enumerates the exceptions: the seven closest relatives, upon their demise (the verses quoted do not list one’s mate, but that too is an exception).
The priest lives for the living; the realm of death is, with rare exceptions, closed off from him. No visits to the cemetery, no attending to the dead, no attendance at funerals (unless under the open sky). These specific priestly practices touch but a small segment of the Jewish people, but the biblical demand touches us all: To serve life. To be a priest. To serve others wherever life takes us.
More specifically, to serve others in the specific way that defined the ancient Hebrew priesthood: out of our comfort zone. Examine the duty of the priest in the ancient Holy temples. His life was not his own. He had neither profession nor leisure time. His duties in the Holy temple took up the day and much of the night. Nor were these duties necessarily congenial: scraping out ashes from the altar, burning animals on the altar, dealing with the pleas and spiritual pain of countless people, an unending line of people.
The Temples have been destroyed and the priests no longer perform the services prescribed for them.
Those services, no. But other services? And other people? At our best, we are all priests today, even if not full time.
Those of us who study the Torah — or simply absorb it from parents and teachers, as if by osmosis — know the fundamental teaching of the biblical priesthood: to serve.
We may not personally care for the dead, but we care for the families of the dead, for the mourners. When we cut time out of our schedules to make a shiva call, we are one of the sons of Aaron. We are a priest. All the more so if we truly empathize and listen to the pain during that shiva call. When we cut time out of our schedules to visit a friend in the hospital or to welcome a friend into our home at a time inconvenient for us but necessary for our friend, we are one of the sons of Aaron.
Good people are called to be priests all the time: If one is a lawyer and helps a person out of a jam; if one is a listener and alleviates another’s loneliness; if one is a physician and alleviates pain, one is a priest.
Society is built on the priesthood, on those who serve.
Service in the Temple was closely scripted and demanding, and is all consuming.
Service as it now manifested may be spontaneous and informal: telling someone a joke to lighten up a moment of depression; taking someone to a ball game for a needed diversion; showing someone how to seed a tomato plant; these, too, are the acts of the current sons of Aaron.
The mentally ill may not be entirely with us if we speak to them; the victims of dementia may no longer recognize us if we speak to them. If? When we speak to people with mental debilities we act as a priest; we give not only of our time but we step out of our comfort zone to provide the human contact that is indispensable for everyone, whatever their mental state.
Leviticus continues in its description of the priesthood:
“The priest who is exalted above his brethren [the High Priest] — upon whose head the anointment oil has been poured or who has been inaugurated to don the [prescribed, splendrous, priestly] vestments — shall not leave his head unshorn and shall not rend his garments. . . . He shall not leave the Sanctuary and he shall not desecrate the Sanctuary of his G-d; for a crown — the oil of his G-d’s anointment — is upon him; I am the L-rd” (21:10-12).
The Sanctuary in Jerusalem no longer stands. Upon its destruction, the Jewish people were exiled. The place to be a priest, to serve, became every place. In a way, it is harder to be a priest now than it was in antiquity when all the rules were laid down, and the location and the dimensions of Sanctuary were clearly defined and delimited. The priestly charge remains: never to leave the Sanctuary, which now means to serve wherever we are. To understand that we have been anointed.
The priests in the Sanctuary performed most of their service beyond the view of almost everyone else. Now, as the Sanctuary is every place, our priesthood can be more difficult. Anyone can watch us as we serve — if we let them. And it is tempting to let them. Even the best of us want to be recognized for the service we perform. Now, in our time, as the workings of the Sanctuary are not hidden because we are not hidden, it is perhaps more difficult than in antiquity to purify our priestly service. That is why the passage in Leviticus concludes, “I am the L-rd.” Ultimately, that is the address of our personal priestly service, for that is its source and its reward.
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