In this week’s Torah portion, we read about the appointment of Aharon – Moshe’s older brother – to the job of priesthood in the Temple. This appointment was not made by elections or by tender, but by Divine instruction directly given to Moshe: “And you bring near to yourself your brother Aaron, and his sons with him, from among the children of Israel to serve Me [as kohanim, that is priests].” (Exodus 28, 1) The consequences of this choice are known to us even today, many years after the destruction of the Temple, when every man who is a descendant through his father of Aharon the Priest recites Birkat Kohanim (the Priestly Benediction) in front of the congregation of worshipers, and during the reading of the Torah, the kohen is the first to be called up to the Torah.
How did Aharon merit such an honored post – for himself and for his offspring? What is the role of the kohen in the Temple, and what are the necessary qualifications for one to be able to fulfill this role? To understand the role of the priesthood, we must understand the role of the Temple.
The Temple in Jerusalem was not a place of ritual worship as were temples of other religions. This was not a place that held impressive ceremonies that lacked content.
The role of the Temple was to connect between man and G-d; an internal connection made primarily through speech – man talking to G-d, and G-d turning to man.
Man turns to G-d through speech, or prayer, and in the Temple also by sacrificing sacrifices that act to internally strengthen man’s concept of life, as one that was not meant merely for physical enjoyment alone, but also, and primarily, for spiritual and moral transcendence.
How does G-d turn to man? In speech! G-d’s voice is heard through the Torah, which is His word. That is why part of the Temple complex was set aside for the seat of the Supreme Court – the Sanhedrin – where deliberations were held and Halacha, Jewish law, was decided on for all of Am Yisrael.
The role of the kohen in the Temple was to assist in this internal and deep connection between man and G-d. This was done through the priests’ role in sacrificing sacrifices, as well as offering guidance and teaching Torah to the entire nation.
This significant job of assisting in the link between man and G-d could not be given to just anyone. Aharon the Priest was chosen for this because his character was so pure, so lofty, that only he could fulfill this role completely.
Modesty, love of man, love of peace – these were Aharon’s traits.
As an example, when Moshe Rabbeinu – Aharon’s younger brother – was chosen for the job of taking Am Yisrael out of Egypt and leading it up to its entry to the Land of Israel, Moshe was afraid that his appointment might be construed as disrespectful of his older brother.
When Moshe voiced this fear before G-d, He answered thus: “Is there not Aaron your brother…he is coming forth toward you, and when he sees you, he will rejoice in his heart.” (Exodus 4, 14) We all know how easy it is to be swept up in jealousy for a brother. A short visit to a courthouse provides evidence of the many complicated disputes that unfold in families. But Aharon rose above the jealousy and rejoiced – not only outwardly, but also in his heart. He was genuinely happy about his younger brother’s appointment.
We can only tell the following story about a person with such lofty traits: “Two men fought with each other. Aharon went and sat with one of them and said to him: My son, see what your friend said? His heart is distraught and he tears his clothes and says – ‘Woe is me! How can I lift my eyes and see my friend? I am so ashamed that it was I who hurt him!’ This is how he sat with him until all jealousy was removed from his heart.
And Aharon goes and sits with the other and says to him: My son, see what your friend said? His heart is distraught and he tears his clothes and says – ‘Woe is me! How can I lift my eyes and see my friend? I am so ashamed that it was I who hurt him!’ This is how he sat with him until all jealousy was removed from his heart.
And when they met each other, they hugged and kissed each other.” (Avot D’Rabbi Nathan) Only a man with such lofty character and such a special personality can serve in the lofty role of priesthood in the Temple. There is no need for “elections” for this. His leadership made him the natural and only candidate for this job.
Now we understand why our sages offered the following advice: “Be like the students of Aharon. Love peace, pursue peace, love humanity, and bring them close to Torah.
The writer is rabbi of the Western Wall and Holy Sites.