Who will get the priesthood?

Why shouldn’t kohanim be chosen from among all the tribes in the nation?

Priestly blessing at the Western Wall (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
Priestly blessing at the Western Wall
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
Parashat Korah tells a sad story. A group of people led by Korah, one of Moses’s family members, challenged Moses’s leadership. It was a popular yet organized uprising that opposed the leader’s authority. The central complaint the rebels had about Moses was about his brother Aaron’s kehuna (priesthood).
Aaron, Moses’s older brother, was appointed as a kohen in the Mishkan – the temporary sanctuary that accompanied Am Yisrael until the establishment of the Temple in Jerusalem. It was not only Aaron who was given the kehuna for all time, but his sons as well.
During the thousands of years since the Temple was destroyed, there are still several mitzvot and customs that express our treatment of the kohanim, Aaron’s descendants: “Birkat Kohanim,” the priestly blessing in the synagogue; the first aliya to the Torah that is kept for the kohanim, and more.
The uprising against Moses focused on the unfairness of his brother Aaron’s priesthood. Why should the priesthood be handed to Moses’s brother? Why shouldn’t kohanim be chosen from among all the tribes in the nation?
In our modern culture, where we strive for things to be equal, it is easy to identify with the claims of Korah and his followers. But we must keep in mind that Moses did not appoint Aaron to the kehuna on his own. Proof of this is that Moses’s own sons were not appointed to any position of power or authority.
Aaron’s appointment to the kehuna was the implementation of a direct instruction from God. Furthermore, we see from several other chapters in the Bible that Aaron was a leader of the nation already back in Egypt, even before Moses came to liberate the nation. It was natural that a position such as the kehuna would go to Aaron, irrespective of his brother’s leadership role.
The story of the uprising did not end well. The rebels were punished by God in a manifest miracle: the Earth opened up and some of them sank into it. A different segment of the rebels burned in a fire that came out of the Mishkan. A third group that blamed Moses and Aaron for the deaths of Korah and his followers died in a plague. A very discouraging conclusion to the uprising.
But after we recover from the story, we will see that we are still left with the question the rebels posed: Why indeed did Aaron get the kehuna? Does the Torah provide an answer for this?
Toward the end of the story, as we read about the plague spreading through the camp as a punishment for the uprising, we read about Moses instructing Aaron to stop the plague:
“Moses said to Aaron, ‘Take the censer and put fire from the altar top into it and put incense. Then take it quickly to the congregation and atone for them...’
“Aaron took [it], just as Moses had said, and he ran into the midst of the assembly… He stood between the dead and the living, and the plague ceased” (Numbers 17:11-13).
Here we see Aaron behaving nobly as he takes on a central role in saving those who wanted him removed from the kehuna. Aaron stands at the center of the camp and stops the plague that threatened to keep spreading through the nation.
The sages of the midrash enlighten us by pointing out that Aaron’s act does not end there. They tell us about a dialogue between Moses and Aaron during those moments when the plague began to spread.
“Moses said to Aaron, ‘Take the censer and put fire from the altar top into it.’
“Aaron said to him, “My respected Moses, do you wish to kill me? My sons burned because they sacrificed before the Blessed be He a simple sacrifice, and you tell me ‘take the censer’? My sons brought a strange fire into the Mishkan and were burned, and I will take a sacred fire out and I will die or be burned?”
“Moses said to him, ‘Go and do it quickly because while you are talking to me they are dying!’ “When Aaron heard this he said, ‘Even if I die for Israel, it is worth it!” Immediately, Aaron took…” (Yalkut Shimoni on Parashat Tzav)
Aaron is revealed to us here as a bereaved father who lost his sons in a traumatic incident. On the day the Mishkan was established, his two older sons – Nadab and Abihu – entered the Mishkan and sacrificed incense that God had not commanded them to burn, and they died immediately.
Aaron hears Moses’s instructions and understands that his fate will be similar. He will burn incense that God did not instruct him to burn and will die immediately. Due to this fear, he refuses to fulfill the instruction, but Moses urges him on angrily – While you are arguing with me, they are dying!
Moses did not correct him. He did not tell him that the incense he is about to burn is not going to lead to his death. He clarifies the situation: The plague is spreading and people are dying!
Aaron made a decision. He thought he was committing an irreversible suicidal act, but he was willing to sacrifice his own life to save the lives of so many others. He ran into crowd, into the plague, and – to his thinking – to his certain death. With this heroism, Aaron proved that he is worthy of being a kohen; worthy of serving God and the nation in the Temple.
The sages of the Mishna refer to Aaron as someone who “loves the people.” Only someone like this who is willing to give his life for another can be appointed to the kehuna. 
The writer is the rabbi of the Western Wall and Holy Sites.