Parshat Tzav by Ari Hart
We are in the thick of an entire set of parshiot dealing almost exclusively with kohanim, korbanot, and the mishkan. A large amount, especially when we consider the following:
While studying for semicha, the rabbinical student classically learns thehalachot of kashrut, niddah, and shabbat. These are understood to be the backbone of Jewish. How many full parshiot does the Torah allot to these concerns? 0. Only a few pesukim here and there for each. In total, these fundamental aspects of Jewish life cover a small fraction of the space given to parshiot dealing with the avodah in the mishkan.
Why? In a post temple world, why is the Torah so fixated on the avodah? What is the message?
I had the zechut to hear an answer from Rabbi Saul Berman, who explained it as follows:
To understand the Torah’s lengthy description of the practices our kohanim, we need to understand the broader context. It begins with the priests of Egypt. Egyptian kohanim were extraordinarily powerful. We see this from Genesis 47:20:
“And Yosef made it a law until this day for the land of Egypt to be a fifth part unto Pharoah; only the land of the priests alone was not Pharoahs”
The priests were above the law, even Pharoah couldn’t touch them! What was the source of the Egyptian priests’ power? Egyptian religion was focussed on death and attaining afterlife. In order to make it to the afterlife, one had to be guided through the end of this life with the right objects, the right incantations, and have ones body preserved in the right way. These activities, and therefore the passage to the next world, were entirely controlled by the priests.
The potential for corruption is striking: the priests had total control over what everyone was looking for: the afterlife. That left them untouchable, free to use their control in any way they wanted. No accountability, no transparency, total power.
The Torah is a direct critique to this concentration of power. Jewish kohanim are not only not in control of death and the afterlife, they are forbidden to even come near it! The kohens job is to teach and serve while people are alive.
And what about the secret rites and lack of transparency? The Torah rejects this as well. That’s why the Torah spends so many chapters explaining the exact rituals of the kohanim. It is so no Jew should be deceived or taken advantage of by religious power. These kinds of literacy and transparency are fundamental to the Torah, and to our vision for the world should be. May we be matzliach in our efforts to create it.