This week’s parashat hashavua is called Emor, “speak”. As in, “G-d said to Moshe, speak to the children of Israel and say to them….” – a not-uncommon idea in the four books of the Torah in which Moshe is a primary figure. In this case, however, G-d is telling Moshe to speak to a particular subset of the children of Israel: in this case, it is the children of Aaron who are to be addressed, they who serve as kohanim, priests. What follows is a guide to priestly behavior, which might be summed up with the idea that the kohen is to hold himself to a higher standard than the average Israelite. (Remember the old Hebrew National hotdog tagline? “we answer to a higher authority.”)
It’s still true that most of us expect our priests – and ministers and rabbis, and all religious figures – to adhere to a higher standard than we might expect from other people. Yet when the Jerusalem Temple was destroyed by the Romans in 70 C.E., causing the end of the Jerusalem-based priesthood and its sacrificial system, our ancestors did something very interesting in response. Rather than to lose the concept of the priesthood and all it symbolizes for Jews, rather than simply to give in to the destruction, the early Rabbis invoked a verse from Torah:
You shall be to me a kingdom of priests, and a holy people. (Ex.19.6)
All of us can be as priests. The priesthood was no more; but each of us could hold ourselves to a priestly standard. The table upon which we set offerings for G-d was destroyed? then each of our own tables, in every one of our own homes, would become G-d’s table. Even as the kohanim would spiritually prepare themselves to eat the sacred food which came from the sacrifices, so we would, through specific rituals, spiritually prepare ourselves to share a sacred meal. Blessings over candles, wine and bread are Rabbinic mitzvot, which created a way for Jews to continue to focus upon the real meaning of the sacrifices once brought to G-d in Jerusalem.
That real meaning is this: outer forms of ritual and practice are important because they focus us on what is true, and real, in our lives. And what is true is that each of us stands before G-d, with no kohen to mediate from a higher spiritual position. What brings us higher is our own determination to keep the rituals relevant to us, to keep the practices so that they can keep us.
More than Israel has kept the Shabbat, the Shabbat has kept Israel. (Ahad Ha’Am)
On this Shabbat, remember that no one stands between you and G-d; no one is higher than the place to which you might rise. And this rising depends upon things that are already before you: the table and what is upon it, and what happens between those who share it. And the most important priestly act of all, the one that each of us must do for ourselves and each other? Now that the altar in the Temple is destroyed, keep something of the fire that once burned there upon the altar of your heart.