Parashat Yitro 5775 – When Judges are Priests: On the place of the Teachers in Relation to the Law

When Judges are Priests: On the place of the Teachers in relation to the Law

Leading up to the Revelation at Har Sinai, the people are commanded not to approach the mountain (Shemot 19:12-13). Bizarrely, right before the ten commandments, perhaps the most pivotal moment of  Sefer Shemot, Moshe is commanded to once again tell the people to stay away from the mountain (19:21-24). While superficially redundant, this second command differs from the first in that it refers not only to “the people” but also to “the priests that approach God” (19:22). This immediately presents a problem as the priests (כהנים) that the Torah normally speaks of, Aharon and his sons, have not been appointed yet, nor has the Mishkan, their place of work, been built yet, nor have the relevant laws even been given yet. Though there are multiple approaches within the traditional commentators when it comes to understanding this phrase, we will focus on the rather unique approach of R’ Hezekiah ben Manoah (more commonly known as the Hizkuni). In order to fully understanding why he chose the approach that he did, we will first look at some of the more common understandings, enabling us to appreciate the unique and powerful message of the Hizkuni’s approach.

The most common understanding of the “priests that approach God” is that they are the firstborns of the Israelite nation. This approach originates in the gemara (Bavli, Zevahim, 115b), and is taken by R’ Avraham Ibn Ezra, Rashi, Rashbam, and Rabbeinu Behaye, as well as being mentioned as a possibility in the Ohr HaHayyim and the more modern Daat Mikra commentary. This interpretation is based on a few factors. First is the dedication of the firstborns to ‘א in Shemot 13, as a consequence of ‘א saving them from the death of the firstborns in Egypt. Perhaps more crucial though is the replacement of the firstborns with the Leviim in Bamidbar 3 (mentioned again in Bamidbar 8). The Leviim are dedicated to the work of ‘א’s Sanctuary, the Mishkan (Bamidbar 18:6). This implies that, before they were replaced by the Leviim, the firstborns were in charge of the work of the mishkan. However, this approach suffers from several problems. First is the understanding of the phrase “that approach God.” Ibn Ezra mentions two understandings of this phrase. The first is that this “approach” is their position during the Revelation at Sinai, that the firstborns will be standing closer to the mountain than the rest of the Israelites, though still beyond the border mentioned in Shemot 19:12-13. The problem with this is that the context of the phrase “that approach God” is the command for the priests to stay beyond the fence, implying that for some reason the firstborn would think they do not need to stay beyond the border. Thus the command has to be in response to something that happened in the past that would give the priests this impression. This is presumably what motivates Ibn Ezra’s second understanding, that the “approach to God” described in this verse is a reference to the priests bringing sacrifices on the altar that Moshe built after the war with Amalek. While this is certainly possible, and the altar was built just two chapters previous to our verse making it somewhat contextual, it suffers from not being explicit in the text. Without any explicit textual mention of sacrifices being brought on the altar, it is more likely that the altar was built as a memorial and as an act of gratitude to ‘א, in the manner of the Avot (cf. Bereishit 12:7-8, 13:18, 33:20, 35:7). However the larger issue with understanding the “priests” as the firstborn is that when the sanctified firstborn are replaced, it is not by the priests, but by the Leviim, so to say that they are priests here in Shemot 19 would be a little strange.

Though mentioned by fewer commentators, there is an approach that avoids this issue. Both Rabbeinu Behaye and the Ohr HaHayyim mention the possibility that the “priests that approach God” of Shemot 19 are the sons of Aharon, who will in the future be appointed as priests. This however suffers from the same lack of precedent as the previous interpretation. Simply put, before Aharon’s sons are explicitly appointed as priests in Sefer Vayikra, they have no reason to think they should stand closer to the mountain than anyone else, and so it is unlikely that they would have to be told not to do so.

This brings us to the comment of the Hizkuni. The Hizkuni actually presents two possibilities. His first suggestion makes use of the initial understanding, that the priests are the firstborns, but changes it in a way that avoids the problematic lack of precedent. Hizkuni says that it was the 70 Elders that were firstborns.[1] This has the advantage of the firstborns approach in that they are sanctified to ‘א, but it also has an explicit textual precedent. In Shemot 18, the chapter immediately prior to the one we’re dealing with, the Elders eat a meal with Yitro and Moshe “before ‘א” (18:12). While the exact meaning of this phrase is unclear, it would seem to indicate a degree of closeness or familiarity with ‘א that would require them to be specifically told that they need to stay back. However, this approach can be understood in one of two ways. The first is that the “Elders” is essentially a subcategory of the “Firstborns.” While this is possible it is also somewhat strange, and not only because it is unlikely that every single one of the Elders was also a firstborn. More importantly, in this understanding the seventy Elders are firstborns, but there were plenty of other firstborns who aren’t in this category. Thus the fact that the Elders are firstborns would be merely coincidental, and it is strange that the Hizkuni would mention it. More likely is the second reading, that the Elders and the Firstborns are two separate but identical categories, both of which contributed to them being called “priests.” Thus both the sanctification to ‘א and the eating before Him are significant. This too however suffers from a strangeness, namely that not only would all of the Elders be firstborns, but that there would only be 70 firstborns in a group with 600,000 men. This is likely what prompted Hizkuni to offer his second, more original, understanding.

Hizkuni’s second suggestion is that the “priests that approach God” of Shemot 19:22 are the Judges and Officers appointed in Shemot 18. While his assigning of the term “priests” to the judges is quite original, this understanding has a certain logic to it, as Hizkuni explains. As support for this approach, Hizkuni quotes Devarim 1:17, “for the judgment is God’s.” Thus their very nature as judges has a certain logic to it. Meanwhile, Sefer Devarim also conflates the priests with the teachers of the Law (31:11, 33:10), a job specifically referenced in context of the appointment of the Judges in Shemot 18 (vss.16, 20). So while the priest would be the teachers once they get into the land, Hizkuni sees the teachers as the priests before the giving of the Torah. Their special positions as teachers and Judges makes them automatically closer to ‘א , not to mention it separates them from the rest of the people who they would have seen as students. This alone might have been reason enough for them to think that they should stand closer to the Revelation at Sinai, but, as Hizkuni points out, there is another reason for them to think that. The Revelation at Sinai is the revelation of the Law, and as those responsible for teaching and adjudicating that law, it is quite natural that they would have thought they should be closer. This would not have been a privilege, but a responsibility, to be as intimately involved in the giving of the law as possible. In this, however, they are rebuffed, as Moshe is specifically sent down to tell them that they are not separate, that the entire people is equal before the law. The only exception is Moshe (Aharon is included only in his capacity as Moshe’s spokesperson), who throughout Bnei Yisrael’s journey in the Wilderness receives the law via prophecy, while the judges in the desert and after Moshe’s death do not (I have written about this here). Thus, while the judges and teachers of the Law are close to ‘א, there is an important distance between them and the revelation of the Law.

The Hizkuni’s comment has an important lesson to teach us about the relationship between the people of Israel, rabbinic authority, and the Torah. We know from Devarim that, “Moses commanded us a law, an inheritance of the congregation of Yaakov” (33:4). The law was not given to its teachers, to the judges, but to the entirety of the people of Israel. Rabbinic authority is not inherent in the rabbis, but comes from their familiarity with the law; not from creating the law but from understanding it. Thus it is incumbent upon all of Israel, each and every one of us, to approach the Torah personally, not to depend upon rabbinic intermediaries. The Torah belongs to all of us, and we each have our own portion in it. It’s not enough to trust that someone knows the law, we have to understand and appreciate it ourselves.

[1] In this he combines Zevahim 115b with מכילתא בחדש פ״ד.

Parashat Metsora 5774 – Of Priests and Purification

וְכִפֶּר עָלָיו הַכֹּהֵן וְטָהֵר

Parashat Metsora describes the process of purification for a person or house affected by Tsara’at. This process reveals something incredible about the nature of Tsara’at and what it means for someone affected by it. Vayikra 14 describes the purification process:

12 The priest shall take one of the male lambs and offer it with the log of oil as a guilt offering, and he shall elevate them as an elevation offering before the Lord. 13 The lamb shall be slaughtered at the spot in the sacred area where the sin offering and the burnt offering are slaughtered! For the guilt offering, like the sin offering, goes to the priest; it is most holy. 14 The priest shall take some of the blood of the guilt offering, and the priest shall put it on the ridge of the right ear of him who is being cleansed, and on the thumb of his right hand, and on the big toe of his right foot. 15 The priest shall then take some of the log of oil and pour it into the palm of his own left hand. 16 And the priest shall dip his right finger in the oil that is in the palm of his left hand and sprinkle some of the oil with his finger seven times before the Lord. 17 Some of the oil left in his palm shall be put by the priest on the ridge of the right ear of the one being cleansed, on the thumb of his right hand, and on the big toe of his right foot-over the blood of the guilt offering. 18 The rest of the oil in his palm the priest shall put on the head of the one being cleansed. Thus the priest shall make expiation for him before the Lord. 19 The priest shall then offer the sin offering and make expiation for the one being cleansed of his uncleanness. Last, the burnt offering shall be slaughtered, 20 and the priest shall offer the burnt offering and the meal offering on the altar, and the priest shall make expiation for him. Then he shall be clean. [1]

When taken on its own, this process might seem strange to the modern mind. However, in comparison to another text from earlier in Vayikra, it reveals something incredible.

The above passage is incredibly similar to the process of the inauguration of the Kohanim, found in Vayikra 9:

22 He brought forward the second ram, the ram of ordination. Aaron and his sons laid their hands upon the ram’s head, 23 and it was slaughtered. Moses took some of its blood and put it on the ridge of Aaron’s right ear, and on the thumb of his right hand, and on the big toe of his right foot. 24 Moses then brought forward the sons of Aaron, and put some of the blood on the ridges of their right ears, and on the thumbs of their right hands, and on the big toes of their right feet; and the rest of the blood Moses dashed against every side of the altar… 30 And Moses took some of the anointing oil and some of the blood that was on the altar and sprinkled it upon Aaron and upon his vestments, and also upon his sons and upon their vestments. Thus he consecrated Aaron and his vestments, and also his sons and their vestments.

The two passages are strikingly alike, revealing something very important about the nature of tsara’at.

A person affected by tsara’at is taamei and is therefore excluded from the community. As a person who is taamei, they are excluded from the realm of Kedushah, from the Mishkan and the regular service of ‘א.  In their exclusion from the community their impurity is contained and kept from spreading, but the person is also isolated and cut off. They have thus been excluded from ‘א’s statement, “you shall be to Me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation”. They, temporarily, are neither a part of the People nor the Priests. The everyday lives of Bnei Yisrael revolve around two poles: ‘א and His People. Social Sins are also sins against ‘א. And part of becoming tahor and rejoining the people is returning to the service of ‘א.

[1] translations from the Jewish Study Bible.

Parashat Tazria 5774 – “And the Kohen Sees..”

וְרָאָה הַכֹּהֵן אֶת הַנֶּגַע

Parashat Tazria contains the procedural instructions for dealing with occurrences of Tsara’at[1]. The Torah’s description of Tsara’at is a malady that affects the skin with scaly lesions, but that’s about all that is made clear from the text. The symptoms don’t seem to match up with any known dermatological conditions in existence today[2]. This fact, far from being inconvenient, makes perfect sense in terms of the context in which Tsara’at appears in the Torah. Tsara’at in the Torah doesn’t show up in a section about the curing of ailments, rather in the context of Tumah and Taharah. The Torah is not concerned with the medical issue of Tsara’at, rather with the religious implications. The focus in the discussion of Tsara’at is not on the healing of the disease, but on the responsibilities of the Kohen.

The Kohen’s responsibility in a case of Tsara’at essentially amounts to confirming whether or not it is indeed Tsara’at. The blemish is shown to the Kohen and then the Kohen pronounces it Tsara’at or not, or isolates the person for a week or two until a determination can be made. When the Kohen pronounces it Tsara’at, the person becomes Taamei until their purification can be completed. If the Kohen determines that it is not Tsara’at then the person is Tahor. This seemingly simple process actually depicts one of the most unique characteristics of the Jewish religion.

In most ancient cultures, the priesthood was greatly involved in the medical issues of the community, much like the Kohanim and Tsara’at. However, in other religions the priests were involved in the actual healing process, as opposed to the Kohanim. The Kohanim simply examine the diseased area to determine if the blemish actually is Tsara’at. In other ancient religions the priests would recite incantations and perform rituals to cleanse and cure the affected area, something not found in Judaism. The Kohanim are, in fact, never involved in healing. In Tanakh, that job falls to the “man of god”, the prophet.

Prophets throughout Tanakh heal people from a variety of illnesses. Tsara’at itself is a disease often healed by a prophet[3]. In Bamidbar 12 Miriam is struck with Tsara’at as punishment for speaking ill of Moshe, and is only healed after Moshe prays for her. In Shemot 4:6-7, Moshe causes his hand to become afflicted with, and then healed of, Tsara’at. In II Kings 5, Na’aman is healed of Tsara’at by a procedure he is instructed to perform by the prophet Elisha. These are only some  of the biblical examples of prophets healing people. While both the prophet and the priest are men of God, only the “Man of God” is a healer.

While both serve the religious needs of the people, the Prophet and the Priest have very different roles. The priest is responsible for the continuing routines of the Jewish Religion, for the things that do not change in the service of ‘א. The prophet is a vehicle for change, a fiery response to an untenable norm. The prophet receives prophecy suddenly, while the priest is part of a chain of service starting before him and continuing after. The priest carries out and conveys the timeless will of ‘א that stretches through eternity. The prophet receives and relays the timely will of ‘א that is needed in that second.

This distinction is critical for understanding the assignment of the role of healer to the prophet rather than the priest. The occurrence and curing of Tsara’at is a function of the will of ‘א. While priests fulfill the will of ‘א in a general sense, they cannot compare to the prophets. The unique feature of Israelite prophecy is the status of the prophet as a “messenger  of ‘א”. Thus it is not really the prophet who does the healing, it is ‘א. The prophet merely conveys and out carries out His will.

Judaism today is much more a religion of priests than of prophets. We cannot hear ‘א’s timely will, what He thinks needs to be fixed on a day to day basis. Instead, we cling to the Will of ‘א as given in the Torah, we grab on to the Eternal Word. Instead of ‘א telling us what to do and when, we keep his Halakha and let it guide our lives. The Metsora, the person afflicted with tsara’at, does not go to the Prophet to ask why they have been afflicted; they go to the Kohen to ask what this means for their ability to approach ‘א. So too in the struggles of modern life. There are no prophets today to explain why things happen, and we ought not look for them. Instead, we should take time to examine who we have been, and see who we can be from this point forward.

 [1] This Devar Torah has been Influenced throughout by The Religion of Israel, Y. Kaufmann, and the Anchor Bible Commentary to Vayikra, J. Milgrom.

[2] The problem of identification is  two-fold: Firstly, the symptoms. Psoriasis is close, but it still doesn’t fit perfectly. Secondly, and more importantly, the treatment. There’s no such skin condition that would get noticeably better in just a week or two. (J. Milgrom, Chapter 13, Comment A)

[3] While these cases have been used to explain that Tsara’at is received for sins against Man or sins against God, most of them can really be read either way. (J. Milgrom, Ibid.)