This week, we finish reading the Book of Leviticus. The Book of Leviticus could be seen as a “training manual” for the Israelite priests. Though the Book included many laws and instructions to the Israelites as a whole, the general tone is toward the Levites and the Kohanim, the priests.
The priests of Israel were unique to the ancient world. The responsibilities of the priests of Israel were radically different from the priests in pagan religions. Up until this point in human history, the priests of other cults were considered magicians, with special powers. They foretold the future, reading signs in acts of nature, interpreting omens, and even performing divination by examining the entrails of sacrificed animals. Our priests did not tell the future, did not heal, and did not intervene with God. Rather, our priests were instruments of God. They did not heal; they prayed to God for healing. They weren’t able to purify one who had been defiled; rather they had instructions on how to recognize and judge when the impure one had become pure. While pagan priests claimed to speak with the dead, “The Israelite priest deals only with the living, never with the dead.” (Rabbi Reuven Hammer)
And most notably the priests did not bestow blessings. Just as we do today, we ask for God’s blessings. The words of the priestly benediction are perfect examples: May God bless you and keep you; may God’s face shine upon you and be gracious to you; may God lift God’s face unto you and give you peace.” (Numbers 6:24-26) In each case, the priest (or Rabbi, or parent!) calls upon God to bless. We have no intermediaries, no one with supernatural powers.
In Rabbi Hammer’s words, “The Torah created a revolutionary new type of religious authority, one who had no magical powers and who was not in possession of secrets or esoteric knowledge. The priest was rather a person who related to the masses and who imparted knowledge to them…this represented a major step forward in the development of rational and humanistic religion and paved the way for the democratization of religious leadership.” (The Torah Revolution)
May you have a week of blessings and a Shabbat of peace,
Rabbi Debbie Israel