Kohanim, Community and Separation: The Jewish Priestly Role | Aleph Beta

A Deeper Look At The Priestly Role

The Connection Between Kohanim, Community And Separation

Rabbi David Block Aleph Beta

Rabbi David Block


This week, a special guest lecturer, Rabbi David Block, asks: Why does the Torah use the culminating moment for the Kohanim – Jewish priests – to go through a long and bizarre induction ceremony? And what do its parallels to a certain other section of text teach us about the deeper role of the priests of the Temple?

By digging into the priestly duties of the Kohanim, a meaningful narrative emerges that helps us to appreciate Jewish priests and leaders today, and to have empathy for their struggles.


Hi folks, welcome to Parshat Tzav, you are watching Aleph Beta. Today I want to introduce to you a very special guest, his name is Rabbi David Block, he works with us here at the research department, and he's come up with a delightful presentation on Parshat Tzav that I really want him to share with you.

Ultimately my vision for Aleph Beta really is collaborative, it's not just about me. There's an underlying methodology at work here, a certain way of looking at Biblical text, and I'm really trying to help get that out there in the world. And as others develop their skills with that methodology I'm thrilled to be able to share the fruits of their research directly with you. So with no further ado, here is David. I really think you're in for a treat here. Enjoy.

Hi everyone my name is David Block, I work with Rabbi Fohrman here at Aleph Beta on content and curriculum development. So here we are.

Inducting the Kohanim: The First Priests of Israel

The Mishkan is finally completed, all of the vessels have been built and put in their proper places. The Kohanim – the priests – have been given all of their detailed instructions regarding their priestly garments that they have to wear during their service in the Mishkan, and the details of the services themselves that they're going to actually partake in every day. The only thing that's left is an official inauguration, an official induction of the Kohanim into the service of the Mishkan. And that's exactly what we find at the end of this week's Parsha.

Now, before we get there, let's play a little game. If you were the party planner for this inauguration ceremony, for these first priests in Jewish history, what would it look like? Well if it were me, I would imagine there would be this grand celebration with maybe music and trumpets ushering in the new priests. Moshe might say a few heartfelt words about how proud he is of his brother, of his nephews, and of the importance of the responsibilities that these priests are taking on. And there might be a special swearing-in ceremony, in which the Kohanim kind of pledge themselves to the commitment of their service.

But when you take a look at the actual ceremony it seems nothing like that at all. It seems just full of intricate details and ritual procedures: An animal sacrifice; the blood is sprinkled there, it's sprinkled here; oil is poured on here, oil is poured on there; they have to do it this many times, that many times... Why do we have such a long, detailed, intricate, really bizarre induction ceremony for these Kohanim? What's going on?

Understanding the Jewish High Priests' Duties and Rules

When you have a text like this it's easy to gloss over the words as we read it, it feels like it's all irrelevant. But, it's in those details that we might actually find the key to understanding the essence of this whole concept of priesthood. Let's try to read through a few of these elements of the induction ceremony together, and as we read try to think about what sounds familiar. We can actually play one of Rabbi Fohrman's favorite games which is, where have we heard these words before? Where else in the Torah do these words or themes appear?

I think that if we look carefully enough we'll find that there's one other ritual process described in the Torah – only one other – that contains many of the very same elements that we're going to find in our own induction ceremony. So let's take a look together and see what we can come up with.

At the very beginning of this whole induction ritual, after Moshe gathers all of the people to watch, the verse tells us the first thing that happens to the priests. Vayakrev Moshe et Aharon v'et banav vayirchatz otam bamayim – Moses brought Aaron and his sons and he washed them in water. What other process involves washing the subject in water?

Okay let's continue in our induction ceremony. The next bunch of verses describe how Moshe dressed Aaron in the new priestly garments that they were required to wear during the service. So again, let's think, does the concept of putting on fresh clothing as part of a ritual procedure remind us of anything else in the Torah?

Okay let's gather some more clues, let's continue reading in our induction ceremony. Vayitzok mishemen hamishcha al rosh Aharon – and Moses poured the anointing oil on Aaron's head. Does that sort of pouring oil on someone else's head, does that happen in any other ritual?

After Moshe sacrifices one of the animals; V'et hadam yatzak al yesod hamizbayach vayekadsheihu – and he poured the remaining blood at the base of the altar and sanctified it. Lechaper alav – to atone for him. Why are we talking about atonement? Why would anybody need atonement? Was there a sin that we missed in the text?

Rashi here says that the verse doesn't mean that the priests needed atonement, it means that the altar itself was now ready to atone for people in the future. But a later verse in the same induction ceremony actually is more explicit that it may very well be the priests that need atonement. K'asher asah bayom hazeh tzivah Hashem la'asot lechaper aleichem – that which you will do on this day, God commanded you to do in order to atone; Aleichem – for you. It does seem that there is some element of atonement that really is taking place here for the priests. They need forgiveness for something. The question of course is, for what? Remember, this is an induction procedure - what does that have anything to do with forgiveness? But that's our fourth element, this theme of atonement.

After all the sacrifices are slaughtered, so the verse describes a very strange ritual. Vayikach Moshe midamo – Moses took of the blood; Vayiten al tenuch ozen Aharon hayemanit – and he put it upon the tip of Aaron's right ear; V'al bohen yado hayemanit – and on the thumb of his right hand; V'al bohen raglo hayemanit – and on the big toe of his right foot. What a strange set of steps. But again, this isn't the only place we find this ritual, it actually takes place ONLY one other time in the Torah - it's in that other ritual procedure.

Now let's look for one last clue. After the completion of all of the various rituals as part of this induction ceremony, it concludes with a final step. Uphetach Ohel Mo'ed teishvu yomom valailah shivat yamim – and from the entrance of the Tent of Meeting, you will sit day and night for seven days. Now seven days is a pretty common theme in the Torah, but there's only one other context in which someone like the priests here stays outside of a tent for seven days before being allowed to re-enter. And, it's the same place where all of these other elements I described above appear too. Where is that place? What's that other ritual procedure?

Biblical Connections to the Kohanim Rituals

The answer is just a few chapters away, in the purification process of the Metzora. The Metzora – the leper – is excommunicated, and before he can be considered cured of the affliction that he contracted he has to go through a sort of a ritual purification process. Rabbi Fohrman actually explored this process in detail in last year's videos on Tazria Metzora – I encourage you to check out those videos and their epilogues. But for now let's take a look at a few of the elements of what happened towards the end of that purification process.

V'rachatz bamayim – the Metzora had to wash himself in water, just as the Kohanim were required to. Next; Vechibess hametaher et begadav – the Metzora obviously didn't put on any special priestly garments, but he did have to launder his clothing, he actually had to put on fresh clothing before he re-entered the tent, just like the Kohanim. Vehanotar b'shemen asher al kaf haKohen yiten al rosh hametaher – the Kohen took the oil that remained on his palm and he put it on the head of the Metzora. That's precisely what Moshe did to Aaron.

Throughout the purification process of the Metzora the verse tells us that the purpose of it all is for atonement. Vehe'ala haKohen et ha'ola v'et hamincha hamizbaycha – and the Kohen brought the burnt offering and the meal offering onto the altar; Vechiper alav – and it atoned for him. So here, as opposed to with the priests, we actually know what the Metzora needs atonement for. The Sages list the number of sins, slander being the most common one, that can actually bring about this strange malady of Tzara'at. So before the Metzora could return to the camp he had to atone for those sins. In our Parsha it's not clear what the Kohanim actually need atonement for – we mentioned that. But at least the parallels between the two is very clear. Both processes are granting atonement for the subjects.

V'lakach haKohen midam ha'asham – and the Kohen took from the blood of the guilt offering; V'natan haKohen al tenuch ozen hametaher hayemanit – and he put it upon the tip of the Metzora's right ear. V'al bohen yado hayemanit – and the thumb of his right hand. V'al bohen raglo hayemanit – and on the big toe of his right foot. That's exactly what was done to Aaron and his sons in the induction ceremony in our Parsha. The words are identical, and, as I mentioned, these are the only two places in which this happens in the entire Torah.

Lastly; Vayashav michutz l'ohalo shivat yamim – he sits outside his tent for seven days, just as the Kohanim had to sit outside the Ohel Mo'ed, the Tent of Meeting, the Mishkan.

Now, if there were only a few of these parallels we might have been able to chalk it up to coincidence. But the combination of all of them makes it seem like there really is some sort of essential connection. So the question is, of course, what is that connection? What do the parallels mean?

The Meaning Behind the Kohanim Induction Ceremony

Earlier, I mentioned last year's Tazria and Metzora Parsha videos. There, Rabbi Fohrman highlighted a really fascinating theme that emerged from the imagery of the text. The purification of the Metzora is really like a birth. While the Metzora was afflicted it was as if the communal aspect of his life was dead. All of the sins that the Sages tell us brings about the affliction of Tzara'at such as speaking slander, theft, stinginess - all of those sins are actually interpersonal sins. When the Metzora sinned he actually made a choice to separate himself from the fabric of the community. He mistreated others, he betrayed his relationships, he considered himself to be really a cut above everyone else. So it's as if we come in and say to the Metzora, fine, if you don't want to be part of this community, leave. His communal identity was destroyed because he preferred to focus only on his individual self. When he spoke ill of someone else, when he broke those relationships, he chose his own isolation. So the purification process was like undergoing a rebirth of his communal self. It was a necessary step to rejoining the very community from which he isolated himself.

Is it possible that the parallels between the two ritual procedures are actually teaching us that something similar is going on to the Kohanim? Maybe they in a way are being reborn too? If that's true, then just like the Metzora, the Kohanim cannot enter the camp – this time it's the Mishkan, the Tabernacle – until they go through this birth process. So what is this birth process? What are they being created or born into that they weren't before?

So for that we need to understand the purpose of the Mishkan itself. In past videos Rabbi Fohrman explained that the Mishkan is really our human replication of creation itself. Just as G-d carved out a space in G-d's world for us, we carve out a space in our world for G-d. But the Mishkan is not the first time that there was a special space in this world for G-d. The first place was the Garden of Eden. It was a place in which G-d's presence was actually felt, it was as if G-d and mankind really just lived together in the Garden. But after the sin of the tree of knowledge we were kicked out of the Garden, and that was the last time we had that special space with G-d, until now. The Mishkan seems to be a recreation of the Garden itself.

When we were kicked out of the Garden, Keruvim – these cherubs – were stationed to keep us away from the Eitz Hachaim, the tree of life. In the Mishkan, these cherubs were actually stationed to usher us in, to give us access to another type of Eitz Hachaim – the Torah itself – which Proverbs actually refers to as “the Tree of Life”. Before we were kicked out, how did Adam and Eve encounter God? Through God's voice. In the Mishkan that's precisely what we encounter from above the Ark - it's God's voice. The Kohanim are about to join a new community, a community with God just as Adam and Eve had been a part of so many years before.

You know, the reality was that G-d didn't just make His presence felt everywhere in the world, but G-d did tell us how to create a place in which G-d's presence would return. And, he appointed a certain family to be the Kohanim, to represent the rest of the Israelite community in their interaction with G-d. It really was a re-creation of Eden. But before these Kohanim, before these representatives, entered that new community with G-d, they have to go through a ritual process just as the Metzora had to do before re-entering his community.

But it really seems like it's only a half parallel. Yes, the Kohanim went through a birth process before joining a new community, but the Metzora had to be reborn because he or she had sinned. A part of them died that needed to be revived. That's what the ritual process was. But it doesn't seem like any of that's true with Kohanim, it doesn't seem like they did anything wrong. Remember earlier we saw that the induction ceremony seems to imply that the process granted the Kohanim atonement. Remember? Lechaper alav.

Perhaps there really was a sin, a sin that didn't allow them to be part of this community with God beforehand. But maybe the sin wasn't their own sin, but the sin of their great, great, great, great grandmother and grandfather, the very sin that kicked us out of the Garden in the first place the sin of eating from the tree of knowledge. Years ago humanity was kicked out of God's Garden; years later we try to re-create that garden, we try to rebuild that bond with God. But before the Kohanim are able to rejoin this special community with God in the Mishkan, they have to atone for the very sin that required us to build the Mishkan in the first place.

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