If you needed a job and came across an advertisement – Wanted: Men and Women to Serve as Priests and Priestesses – would you be interested in being a priest? My guess is that not too many would have a desire to do so. Today, certainly, the crisis in the church would make you think that you would prefer to do something more “normal.”
What if you came across an ad asking for kohanim? Would you apply? Most likely you know that you can’t apply for a kohein position. It’s inherited – you are either born into the family or not. In this week’s parshah, there is the description of an encounter between Moses and God. And in that encounter, God tells Moses that his nation will be a “kingdom of priests and a holy people.” (mamlechet kohanim v’goy kadosh) Now, if we see priests as people who are different, set apart, and have unique functions to fulfill, what does it mean to be a “kingdom of priests”?
I want to suggest a different meaning than that which would be commonly assumed. And, it serves not only as a description for this concept, but also helps us understand the reason for Jewish excellence. It has been said that we were the first people to have a holy text that was accessible to everyone and not just designated people. And, as opposed to every other ancient religious tradition, every Jew was to be literate and capable of reading the Torah and our religious texts. In fact, compulsory education was an expectation for every child amongst us. It took 1800 years before there was another culture that insisted that all their children be literate. In most places, only the children of royalty and the wealthy could read. In addition, archaeology’s first find of a prototypical alphabet was in the Sinai.
So what we see is that learning played a central dimension in the culture of our people. More than faith, learning was at the center of Jewish living. Even at the darkest hours we kept our schools going. Books were the most prized possession of a traditional family’s home and the most learned were the most respected. Once we left the ghetto and began to assimilate into larger cultures, we took a culture of learning and a thirst for ideas into the world and became leaders in every discipline. And so mamlechet kohanim (a kingdom of priests) meant that we would be a people that valued literacy, education and learning. But that didn’t stand on its own. It was connected to goy kadosh, a holy nation. And the reference here is that our holiness would be achieved through our connection to a covenant.
The covenant demanded behavior that was good, just and ethical. And so our lives as a kingdom of priests were not to be brought away from the world, but rather into the world, assuming responsibility for people, our own, and those in need. You want a job as a priest? You got it if you’re Jewish. But remember that it brings awesome responsibility. We are responsible to educate and to be learners ourselves. And we must approach it with a sense that we have the potential to do it with holiness, and a commitment to the Divine and to God’s creation.