|Rabbi Shlomo Riskin
Ohr Torah Stone
Colleges & Graduate Programs
Weekly Torah Portion|
We know Abraham as the first Jew, but we don't usually think of him as the first priest, ancestor to Aaron, and yet if we examine some of the basic characteristics of the priesthood, as demonstrated in this week's portion of Emor, as well as in other sections of the Torah, we find that what makes Abraham distinctive, why he is unique in the history of humanity, are the very same qualities which are essential to the priesthood.
The theme of the priesthood, explored in our portion of Emor, is further amplified in the Haftorah, where we read, "And they (the priests) shall teach My people the difference between the holy and the common, and cause them to discern between the ritually impure and the ritually pure. And in a controversy they shall stand to judge...and they shall hallow my Sabbaths." [Ezekiel 44:23-24]
The priests were obviously the religious leaders of the Israelites. However, there are a number of problematic issues regarding their office, status and function. First of all, one of the great mysteries in the Torah concerns the laws of the Red Heifer, whereby the Torah commands the priest to conduct a complex ritual which transforms a person, defiled by contact with the dead, back to a state of purity [Numbers 19].
At the same time, the dutiful priest discovers that while facilitating the impure person's return to purity, he himself has become impure. Is it not strange that the very individual who purifies the impure must himself become impure in the process. Why?
A further difficulty concerning the priesthood emerges from the Torah's commandment not to give the Levite tribe, which includes all priests, an ancestral share in the land. Their housing problem was solved by transferring 42 cities from the other tribes' inheritance to the Levites and priests. In addition, the priests were given homes in the six cities of refuge, described in the Torah [Numbers 35] as islands of protection for anyone who killed accidentally, the fear of revenge by blood relatives of the victim forcing the 'killer' to flee for his life.
Inside these cities, the accidental killer could receive asylum, starting his life all over again without the fear that one of the victim's relatives would kill him.
Maimonides, in his Laws of the Murderer [Ch. 8, Hal 9] points out that all 42 of the Levitical cities were in fact cities of refuge, a total of 48 such cities throughout the land. We have to remember that all sorts of unsavory types fit into the category of the accidental killer; even someone who intended to murder X and ended up murdering Y, or someone who merely intended to maim significantly but not to murder, was called an accidental killer (shogeg), and had a right to seek asylum. Such individuals may not warrant the death penalty in a Jewish Court of Law, but they hardly merit a special prize or even an honored "aliyah" to the Torah. They certainly can hardly be counted among the elite of serious Jewry.
Is it not strange that the Torah commands the priestly class, whom I would have imagined to be located as near to the Holy Temple as possible, to have their lives intertwined with such petty criminals and lowlifes - or at least "trigger-happy" individuals? Finally, the Kohen-Priest ascends the `bimah' to ask the Almighty to bless the Israelites with the words: "Blessed art Thou...who has sanctifies us with the Sanctity of Aaron and has commanded us to bless His nation Israel with love." Do we have another instance in our laws of benedictions wherein the individual bestowing the blessing must do so with love? What does this signify?
In order to begin to understand the true role of Jewish leadership, we must remember that Abraham was not the first person after Noah to devote himself to G-d. Noah's son, Shem - who according to the Midrash was not only born nine generations before Abraham but lived forty years after the first patriarch died - really qualified for this preeminent position. He, together with his son Ever, established the first yeshiva in history. And when Rebecca, Abraham's daughter-in-law, felt unwell in her pregnancy (the fetuses in her womb struggled), she "inquired of the Lord" [Gen. 25:22] - and Rashi explains that she sought the spiritual advice not of Abraham but rather of Shem. Several verses later, after she gives birth to twins, Jacob the younger son is described as "dwelling in tents." [25:27] And again Rashi tells us that these are the tents of Torah, the tent of Shem and the tent of Ever for which Jacob, midrashic sources reveal, left his father's and grandfather's home and studied Torah for fourteen years.
Indeed, the centrality of Shem and Ever in the unfolding spiritual development of the Jewish people is given full fanfare when Rashi, in the very context of Abraham's own life back in Parashat Vayera, explains that the guests of honor "at the great feast Abraham made on the day that Isaac was weaned," [Gen. 21:8] were "...the greatest of the generation (gedolai hador): Shem and Ever and Elimelech."
Thus wherever we turn it's clear that long before Abraham emerged to carry forth G-d's message, Shem had already made a name for himself as a spiritual giant. But if this is true, why does the historic chain of the Jewish people begin with Abraham and not with Shem and Ever, who preceded Abraham by ten and seven generations respectively?
This question is raised by the Raavad (1125-1198) on his gloss to Maimonides' opus. In his introduction to the Laws of Idolatry, Maimonides describes how even "... their wise men... also thought that there was no other god but the stars and spheres. But the Creator of the universe was known to none, and recognized by none save a few solitary individuals, such as Enosh, Methusaleh, Noah, Shem and Ever.
The world moved on in this fashion until that pillar of the world, the patriarch Abraham was born..." [Laws of Idolatry, Ch. 1 Hal. 2] Continuing his discussion, Maimonides goes on to describe how Abraham "...would travel and cry out and gather the people from city to city and kingdom to kingdom until he arrived in the land of Canaan," where Abraham proclaimed his message, "And he called there on the name of the Lord, G-d of the universe" [Gen. 21:33]. Maimonides details how people would always flock to Abraham who would then instruct them about the true path.
But where, asks the Raavad, is Shem in all of this? "If Shem and Ever were there [and we know as we've pointed out earlier that they were the leading Sages, the gedolim] why didn't they protest this idolatry?"
The Kesef Mishnah (Rabbi Yosef Caro) offers an answer to this question: "Abraham would call out and announce (to all the peoples) belief in the unity of G-d. Shem and Ever taught the path of G-d (only) to their students. They did not awaken and announce the way Abraham did, and that's why Abraham's greatness increased."
Said simply, Shem and Ever were Torah giants, and like many great roshei yeshiva they were deeply involved in the spiritual progress of their students. Shem and Ever, spiritual giants, concentrated on the intellectual and religious elite.
In contrast, Abraham understood that the mitzvah 'V'ahavta et HaShem Elokecha' (And you shall love the Lord your G-d) means that the G-d who created all of humanity wishes to be beloved by all humankind; this requires going out and traveling and teaching the masses in a Chabad-NCSY-like fashion. And indeed, this is what Abraham did, succeeding on an unprecedented scale. Only a person who has a profound love for G-d and all of His children could ever really become a leader, and the founder of the nation of Israel. Only an Abraham could have been chosen by G-d as the first Jew.
This element of the Abrahamic personality was codified by the Torah into the priesthood. The priest-Kohanim first and foremost had to love every single Jew - had to call upon G-d to bless the Jews in a loving fashion and had to demonstrate their love by living with the dregs of Jewish society in the Cities of Refuge. The Kohen-priest had to love his fellow Jews so much that he would gladly be willing to defile himself so that another Jew could become pure! This is the secret of the mystery of the red heifer!
Tragically, we no longer have a red heifer, an authoritative priestly class, a sacrificial cult in our Holy Temple. But happily we do have a few altruistic Jews who burn with love of Israel, who are more than willing to risk their own impurity so that other Jews can be purified.
Such a pure Kohanic soul - who befriended the friendless, who went to distant places to embrace distant souls who yearned to feel the nearness of Divine love, who fearlessly entered places where everyone else feared to tread, cities of refuge where 'accidental' killers roamed - was Reb Shlomo Carlebach, zt"l, our holy brother. He was not from the school of Shem and Ever, but rather from the school of Abraham and the school of Aaron, who gladly risked impurity and suffered humiliation so that his beloved brothers and sisters could find warmth and truth and G-d. If there were more souls like his, we would once again be worthy of a red heifer, an authoritative priestly class, and our Holy Temple in Jerusalem rebuilt.