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The kohanim, the priestly leaders of Israel whose major domain was the Sanctuary (Holy Temple), were members of the tribe of Levi, and especially the branch descended from Aaron.
Our Torah reading this week deals with the special garments and functions of the kohanim. A clear understanding of the main purpose of the Sanctuary and the functions of the kohanim there will help explain the role of religious leadership and religious institutions in Jewish life today - and will even help us understand the significance of the Holy Temple and the sanctity of the Temple Mount.
There is a fascinating difference of opinion as to when the Almighty commanded the Israelites to build a Sanctuary and began to delineate the function of the priests. According to Rashi, based on most of the rabbinic (Midrashic) interpretations, the command "And they shall build for me a Sanctuary so that I may dwell in their midst" (Exodus 25:5) came after Yom Kippur, after they had worshiped the golden calf and received atonement from the Almighty.
From this perspective it would seem that the major task of rabbinic leadership is to help the Jewish people establish a relationship with God, seek His forgiveness when they falter and discover avenues of approach for a relationship with the Divine.
The Ramban (Nahmanides) has a very different chronology, based on the order of the biblical narrative. For him, God commanded the construction of the Sanctuary immediately after the Revelation at Sinai, in order to provide a place from which His word would continue to emanate. The Bible itself, in detailing the construction of the ark which housed the two tablets of testimony, declares in God's name: "And I shall meet with you there and I shall speak with you from atop the ark's cover from between the two cherubs..." (Exodus 25:22).
This difference of opinion has far-reaching consequences in terms of the main function of our religious institutions - as well as to what extent we yearn for a third Holy Temple. If one continues the thought of the Ramban it becomes clear that the major feature of the Sanctuary was the ark which housed the Ten Commandments - and indeed the ark is the very first of the Sanctuary's furnishings which is biblically described. We understand well why the Great Sanhedrin - the institution which continued Torah interpretation in the face of changing conditions - was housed within the "chamber of hewn stone," within the Temple itself. This is likewise perfectly in consonance with the function of the kohen as well as the Levites as expressed by Moses at the end of his life: "They shall teach Your ordinances to Jacob and Your Torah to Israel" (Deuteronomy 33:10).
The chief task of Jewish leadership and institutions is to teach Torah; to make sure that God's word remains immediate and significant.
RAMBAM (MAIMONIDES) seems to have a different emphasis, much more in keeping with the chronology according to Rashi. This great codifier begins his Laws of the Chosen House with the definition that "the Holy Temple is a place in which sacrifices are offered" and where, three times a year, "the seeing of the Divine is celebrated." He goes on to say, in his description of the Temple's construction: "The altar is the most specifically determined place whose precise locus is never to be changed. There is a tradition accepted by all that the place of the Temple is the place of the binding of Isaac, the place of the offering of Noah when he left the ark, the place of the offerings of Cain and Abel, the place of the offering of Adam when he was created - and the place from which the dust used to create Adam was was taken" (Ibid. 2, 1).
It is clear from Maimonides that the most significant place in the Sanctuary is the altar, the place of sacrifices.
The three main types of sacrifices are sin offerings, gift offerings and whole burnt offerings.
A sin offering acknowledges the fact that we humans are prone to fall; it gives us the opportunity to stand before our Creator, admit our mistakes and rise from our failures. The whole burnt offering expresses a readiness to commit our personal and material resources to the Almighty and His vision of a more perfect world. The gift offering expresses our gratitude to a God who has created a world which can often give much pleasure and satisfaction. If indeed it is the altar - and not the ark - which is the main aspect of the Sanctuary, then it becomes the most important task of our religious institutions to help individuals rise after they have fallen - to visit the sick, to comfort the bereaved and to inspire individual growth and personal commitment to the ideals of a God of compassion and justice. In Moses's farewell blessing, he concludes the verse about the tribe of Levi previously cited with the words, "And they [the Levites and kohanim] shall place incense before Your Presence and burnt offerings on your altar" (Deuteronomy 33: 10).
Religious leadership is therefore to be found first and foremost around the altar, and not only in the classroom in front of the Holy Ark.
Unfortunately we generally think of the Holy Temple in terms of blood-and-gore sacrifice; I believe it was much more like a place for feasts, where families would gather to celebrate important occasions with a barbecue, giving proper thanks to the Ruler of the Universe for His bounty; it was like a synagogue kiddush, or a Chabad happening. The growth which comes from admitting one's mistakes, making proper restitution, and feeling the cathartic relief of forgiveness and acceptance is a critical aspect of our humanity. And of course there can be no real excellence in any aspect of one's life - personal, familial, intellectual or religious - without congeniality, commitment and sacrifice. In all these ways the religious institution must play a major role, and the kohen/rabbi/counselor must be ready to nourish and inspire, to give a helping hand and a warm embrace.
Perhaps it is for this reason that the Almighty entered into the covenant with the Israelites only after the youth of the nation offered sacrifices and gifts to the Almighty (Exodus 24:5).
The writer is the founder and chancellor of Ohr Torah Stone Colleges and Graduate Programs, and chief rabbi of Efrat.