A Nation of Priests

This week’s portion of Tetzaveh, wherein Moses’ name is not mentioned even once, exclusively belongs to Aaron, whose name appears more than 30 times. It is a portion devoted to the holy vestments and the consecration of Aaron’s priestly descendants. This is the week of the Kohen, but in actuality it is the week of the entire nation of Israel, a nation created to be wholly holy, an entire nation of priests, dedicated to G-d.

Such is the Divine charge to the Israelite nation immediately prior to the revelation at Sinai: “And you shall be unto me a kingdom of Kohanim and a holy nation.” Sforno’s commentary reads the verse this way: “You shall be a kingdom of Kohanim to understand and to teach to the entire human race the necessity of the calling out in the name of the Lord, so that they might serve Him together … for from Zion shall come forth Torah [to the world].”

The day of the observant Jew begins by expressing the innate priesthood of every single member of our nation. Before the Jew does anything else he fills a large vessel with water; his left hand pours the water over the right, and the right hand pours the water over the left, for three cycles. Just as during the priestly ablutions in the Temple, so is this act of ritual washing to be performed with koach gavra, from one’s own vitality. The blessing we make as we wash, Netilat Yadaim, refers to the lifting or consecrating of the hands.

On Friday evening we greet the Sabbath by kindling the candelabrum in every Jewish home and bless our children with the Priestly blessing.

On Passover many of us dress in special white garb at the Seder and we even wash our hands before eating the vegetables dipped in saltwater; all of this is reminiscent of what the Priests did in the Holy Temple. On Yom Kippur we likewise wear the white robes and dramatically repeat each word of the priestly words of confession in a re-experiencing of the actions of the High Priest in the Holy Temple.

Today, tzitzit may be worn by every Jew, enabling the one who wears it to act with the majesty of the High Priest of old. There is no more democratic institution than our present-day synagogue. Just ask a non-Jewish visitor to distinguish between the laymen and the clergy and he will not be able to do so. We are all
Kohanim and must continue to teach first Israel and then the world.

Rabbi Shlomo Riskin is chief rabbi of Efrat.

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