In an article for Emor 5773, Rabbi Cherki notes that the priesthood has two separate complementary facets: To be exalted and far above the people, and at the same time to be linked to them for their benefit.
“And G-d said to Moses, Say to the Priests, the sons of Aaron, and you shall say to them…” [Leviticus 21:1].
The above verse, which is the beginning of this week’s Torah portion, is problematic. After the words “say to the Priests, the sons of Aaron,” the verse does not tell us what they should be told. And it then continues with, “you shall say to them.” What does this mean?
The answer to the above question is that there are two statements. The first one is a declaration to the Priests, that they are the sons of Aaron. It is necessary to remind the priests that the reason for their special status is because they are Aaron’s sons.
Since they are the sons of Aaron, they have an obligation to act in a holy fashion which corresponds to the image of Aaron. They are noble men, sons of the first noble man. Their sanctity stems from their pedigree, and this differentiates them from the rest of the nation. This is the aspect of the priesthood that is emphasized in Leviticus, the book of teachings related to the Priests.
As opposed to this, Numbers, the book of the nation, emphasizes the fact that Phinehas achieved the status of priesthood by defending the sanctity of G-d, which led to the atonement of the nation of Israel. His priesthood was a reward for the benefit that he brought to the nation, and he became a priest as a result of his relationship with the nation.
In short, there are two sources for the authority of the priesthood. One is from above, separate from the nation, as in this week’s Torah portion. The other is a level of priesthood that stems from the strength of the nation, as is described in the Torah portion of Phinehas.
There is a benefit from the fact that there is a side of the priesthood that is exalted and far removed from the people. In order for the Priests to have the strength to lift up the people, they themselves must be external to the nation. The priestly “separate” side is especially necessary to lift up the simple people. For this reason, what is emphasized throughout this week’s portion is the separate aspect of the Priests and the way they are not involved in the normal crises of life. They are not familiar with death, since they have been commanded not to come into contact with the dead, they do not have financial worries, since they are given priestly gifts by the people, and they have been commanded to avoid mental anguish by not marrying a divorced woman. The ultimate level of these matters involves the High Priest, who does not even see death in his own immediate family and who is not even allowed to get close to a widow, whose separation from her former husband was not caused by a spiritual failure, as in the case of a divorce. The book of Numbers, on the other hand, discusses in detail how to struggle against difficulties, such as those encountered in the desert. It is within this framework that Phinehas became a priest, because of his relationship with the nation and the help he gave them. His priesthood stems from the contact with the nation as a whole, including all the differences among the people. The elements which choose Phinehas include a combination of all the sectors of the nation.
Isolation from the nation also leads to separation from the land. At the “Covenant of the Pieces” Abraham was given a promise that the nation which would be strangers in another land and would be in bondage would receive the Land of Israel. But the tribe of Levi was not held in bondage in Egypt, they were merely strangers in the land. And that is why the Levites entered the land with all the others but were not given a heritage. Moses, who was not in bondage and did not even live in Egypt, as can be seen from the fact that he lived in Pharaoh’s palace and that Jethro’s daughters identified him as an Egyptian, did not have the privilege of entering the land.
Source: “AS SHABBAT APPROACHES” – a biweekly column in Shabbat B’Shabbato, Emor 5773, Volume 1471. (Zomet Institute) See: www.zomet.org.il/eng