Written by: Avrohom S. Moller
This week we begin Sefer VaYikrah also known as תורת כהנים, the Laws of the Priesthood. It is because VaYikrah, Leviticus, deals with the laws of sacrifices, ritual purity and the special requirements of the priestly caste. It underscores that there are different strata and status amongst the Jewish people, where the Kohanim are “holier” and more chosen than the Leviim and Yisraelim. Sefer VaYikrah comes after Sefer Shmos, the Book of Redemption, where the Jewish people develop from a family to a mighty nation which receives the Torah, and everyone is a member of the “kingdom of priests.” Together they build the Mishkan, an earthly “abode” for Hashem to “dwell” in their midst. It seems very egalitarian and accessible to every Jew from every background.
The juxtaposition of Sefer Shmos and VaYikrah seems to pose a very fundamental question. If we have a very basic belief that all men stand equal before Hashem and that free will is in the words of the Rambam “a basic tenant and a major pillar in Torah and mitzvah,” then why would Hashem create a hegemony of kohanim who inherit their status and seem to be privileged from birth with their status?
Perhaps the answer is that there are two pathways which one must utilize to achieve closeness to Hashem and success as a Jew. It can be imposed externally by divine decree that a person must follow a prescribed path. His free will is expressed in his acceptance of these rules and restrictions, and when one views these responsibilities as an opportunity to grow, it will bring him closer to Hashem. On the other hand, one has to pursue a course of self-expression and individuality to become closer to Hashem. Autonomy is a pillar of Judaism together with humility and submission to Hashem’s will. Every Jew is a priest, some are given more responsibilities, but all Jews must create their personal connection with Hashem as well. The Gemara actually says that an illegitimate scholar is greater than an ignorant high priest.
We are preparing for Pesach, a time where we relive the אהבת כלולותיך, the sweet love of our union with Hashem some three millennia ago. It is time to reflect on how we relate to Hashem in our special and individual way and also how we conform to his dictates expressed in the Torah.