By Shlomo Riskin
Moses and Aaron were the two great leaders of the Israelites in the desert, prophet and priest.
Moses, the master prophet, seems to have arisen to leadership not because he came from a prominent Hebrew family – indeed, the Bible introduces him merely as a child of “a man from the house of Levi who took a Levite woman as a wife” (Exodus 2:1-2), and his adoptive mother with whom he lived his most formative years in the palace of Pharaoh was a gentile Egyptian princess.
The Bible relates three incidents in which Moses fought against acts of injustice – his slaying of an Egyptian taskmaster who was beating a Hebrew, his berating of a Hebrew raising his hand against another Hebrew, and his protecting a Midianite shepherdess (who later became his wife) from unfair treatment by other Midianite shepherds. Apparently, Moses was chosen by God to lead the Israelites not because of his ancestral pedigree, but rather because of his Abrahamic character of compassionate righteousness and of a universal sense of moral justice.
Prophetic leadership apparently depends not on who your parents and grandparents were, but rather on who you are.
Aaron, the high priest, is of very different typology.
Firstly, the priesthood is all about genealogy – priesthood comes exclusively from being born into a family of priests. Hence, in our portion of Tetzaveh – the only portion in the biblical books from Exodus to Deuteronomy in which Moses’s name doesn’t appear – the task of setting up the menorah is given to “Aaron and his sons” (Exodus 27:21). The Bible lists them by name, “Nadab, and Abihu, Eleazar and Ithamar, the sons of Aaron,” and states that they are to be brought forward to serve as priests. Aaron and his sons comprise a unit of familial inheritance from father to son, a phenomenon completely absent in the case of Moses.
The kohanim have special vestments, which they must wear while performing the Sanctuary (or Temple) service: four specific garments for the regular kohanim, and eight specific garments for the high priest. Indeed, if a priest is without his unique garb, he must vacate the Temple Mount – which leads the Talmud to declare that the sanctity of the kohen seems to reside in his external garb. However, the prophet has no distinguishing garment whatsoever.
Apparently, the prophet is a charismatic leader whose only qualification is that he is inflamed with the fiery passion of the spirit of the Lord; the kohen inherits his position, which relies on priestly vestments to bestow “honor and glory” and inspire the masses with prideful religious fervor.
In order to understand the different and complementary roles each of these officiates must play in the drama of Israelite leadership, we must first understand the essence of our Jewish mission. The first task of religion – and the fundamental search of most philosophers from earliest times – is to provide a stable and unchanging constancy in a world of frightening flux, to give people the sense that they are participating in experiences and rituals which were there before they were born and will continue after they die. This allows transient mortals to grasp eternity, and to feel that they are in the presence of God.
Herein lies the power and the noble task of the priest, the guardian of our ancient religious traditions.
The verse which most defines him is: “Remember the days of old, understand the years of past generations. Ask your father and he will tell you, your grandfather and he will say to you” (Deut. 32:7). His primary function is to safeguard the rituals; he must hand over the exact structure of the ritual, the precise text of the prayer or legal passage, from generation to generation.
His expertise lies in his mastery of the external form – and preserving it at all costs.
But the root of every religion is the sense of awe at being in the presence of God, the passionate commitment to Divine command in the here and now! What happens when parts of the ritual lose their relevance, when people get so caught up in the form that they lose the essence, so involved in the precise structure of the Divine service that they forget that the real Divine service lies in their human sensitivity? Then it is the prophet who must come forth, speaking as the mouthpiece of the Voice of the Living God, reminding the religionists that all their ritual is of no value if they forget the poor, the orphan, the widow and the “chained” wife-widow, the other, the stranger, and the proselyte knocking at our door. The prophet’s message must insist that God despises our rituals (Isaiah 1:11-17), unless “moral justice rolls forth like the waters and compassionate righteousness like a mighty stream” (Amos 5:24).
Thus far, and especially during these last decades, the Chief Rabbinate in Israel has majored in the priesthood, but is sadly lacking in a prophetic dimension.
The last time that happened, the Holy Temple was destroyed.
Rabbi Shlomo Riskin is chancellor of Ohr Torah Stone and chief rabbi of Efrat, Israel.