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The Ultimate Life, Not Just for Jews

This week’s Torah reading, parshat Emor, begins with many technical laws pertaining to the Kohanim, the priestly subdivision within the Tribe of Levi. The Kohanim was comprised of Aaron, his sons, and their direct descendants. The Kohanim had the special responsibility of performing the sacrificial ceremonies in the Holy Temple. With this responsibility came many restrictions pertaining to when and whom of the Kohanim could enter the Temple to perform its service.

As the Kohanim grew numerically, they became divided into twenty-four groups, each group known as a משמר, “mishmar” or “watch.” The Kohanim were the שומרים, “the guardians” of the Temple. Each “mishmar” served one week of a 24-week rotation. Each “mishmar” then  was on duty at the Temple 2 weeks a year. Of that week of service, perhaps an individual kohain had a duty to perform at 9 am on Wednesday. Not a very heavy workload considering all the Kohanim in each “mishmar.” So, we must ask, what did the kohanim do the rest of their time both while on duty and back home, when off duty?

The answer is found in the very last portion of the Torah, וזאת הברכה. This portion records the blessing Moshe gave to each tribe at the end of his life. Regarding the Tribe of Levi he said, “They shall teach Your ordinances to Jacob and Your Torah to Israel; they shall place incense before Your presence and burnt offerings on Your alter. Hashem will bless His legions…” (Devarim 32: 10-11)

The second chapter of the prophet Malachi is devoted to the Kohanim. “And now this commandment is for you, O ye priests… For the priest’s lips  should guard knowledge, and they (the general population) should seek the law at his mouth. For he is the messenger of the Lord of Hosts.”

It is clear from the Torah and Malachi that the primary job of the Levites and Kohanim is to teach Torah to the Jewish people. Secondarily, they are to administer and perform the sacrificial service in the Temple. In short, the job of the Kohanim was to bring people close to God. A person closeness to God is primarily through the acquisition of knowledge; secondarily, a person can be brought close to God through participation in the Temple service.

Since the Tribe of Levi and the Kohanim in particular were designated to be the nation’s teachers, they did not receive a specific portion in the land of Israel. Rather, they were given forty-eight cities, spread throughout the land of Israel in which to live. In this way, teachers would be accessible to all the inhabitants. In return for their work as educators, not having the economic opportunity to develop their own tract of land, God created a legal system of tithes on produce and designated portions of sacrifices that were to be given to the Kohanim and Levites in order to sustain them and their families.  

The Rambam writes:

 “Why did the Levites not receive a portion in the inheritance of the land of Israel and in the spoils of war like their brethren? Because they were set aside to serve God and minister unto Him and to instruct people at large in His just paths and righteous judgments, as it says, “They will teach Your judgments to Jacob and Your Torah  to Israel.” Therefore, they were set apart from the ways of the world. They do not wage war like the remainder of the Jewish people, nor do they receive an inheritance, nor do they acquire for themselves through their physical power. Instead, they are God’s legion, as states: “God has blessed His legion” and He provides for them, as it states: “I am your portion and your inheritance.” (Rambam Mishnah Torah: Laws of Shmitah and Yovel, 13:12)

However, there is a problem. Just before God gave the Torah to Israel, He tells them, “You shall be to Me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.”(Shemot, 19:6). How is that possible? Were they all to be priests or are the priests to come from the Tribe of Levi? If they were all to be priests, how would they have sustenance? Who would be growing the crops, raising the cattle, building a vibrant economy?

To answer we must posit that there are two systems or planes of existence recognized by the Torah. One is the “halachic” plane where individuals and society operate by a fascinating system of technical, legal (halachic) rules and regulations, specific delegations of responsibilities, and such. But in addition to the halachic system, there is also a meta-technical or metaphysical plane of operation as well. In that realm each individual can direct his or her energy into the world of learning and ideas.

In that metaphysical plane of existence, the more one is emersed, the less he or she is involved with the physical world. Basic and minimal physical sustenance is all that is needed. God, in His infinite wisdom, designed the physical world in such a way that basic needs are provided for and met. This is the underlying concept of גן אדן, “the Garden of Eden.” In that realm, man’s necessities for life are provided for by the way God structured the natural universe. Man’s energy is then freed to be used for his true aim and pursuit, knowledge of God. In that state of being, a person is not caught-up chasing after objects the local culture values. Rather, the personality of such a person is transformed and all of his or her activities become sanctified employed for a much higher pursuit.

Finally, it is crucial and vital to know that this metaphysical realm of existence is not just for Jews. All mankind is composed of the same nature and potential. Consider carefully, again, the words of the Rambam:

  “Not only the tribe of Levi, but any one of the inhabitants of the world whose spirit generously motivates him and he understands with his wisdom to set himself aside and stand before God to serve Him and minister to Him and to know God, proceeding justly as God made him, removing from his neck the yoke of the many considerations (involvements) which people seek, he is sanctified as holy of holies. God will be His portion and heritage forever and will provide what is sufficient for him in this world like He provides for the priests and the Levites. And thus, David declared in Psalms 16:5, “God is the lot of my portion; You are my cup, You support my lot.” Blessed be the Merciful One who provides assistance.” (Rambam Mishnah Torah, Laws of Shmitah and Yovel, 12:13)

Every human being can be “sanctified as the holy of holies,” can be a person whose essence is tied to the knowledge of God.

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Robert Kaplan

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