A great deal of the words in this week’s holy parsha are devoted to instructing Aharon and his children in the duties and Temple ritual of the priestly family of Israel. We are also witness to the installation ceremony of Aharon and his children into their holy and exalted status.
The Talmud debates the question whether Aharon and his family are to be seen as God’s representatives to the people of Israel or as the representatives of the people of Israel to God, so to speak. The Talmud resolves this matter in a legalistic fashion but the original question remains valid. How are we to view the priests and spiritual leaders of the Jewish people? Do they represent Heaven to us in a human form and must they be regarded more as angels rather than as humans?
Or, perhaps we should view them as humble servants of the Jewish people, attempting to bridge the gap between Godly holiness and human weakness and frailty. Midrash teaches us that Aharon was originally loath to accept the office of the High Priest of Israel. It seems that he was aware that by accepting this role of exalted leadership he was exposing himself to Heavenly judgment, which would exact tragic consequences in his family.
Tainted with the memory of his participation in the debacle of the Golden Calf, Aharon seriously doubts that he is the right man for this position. His brother, Moshe, who also had his own personal doubts as to whether he should assume the leadership role of Israel, is enlisted by God, so to speak, to convince Aharon to accept the awesome responsibility of serving God and Israel at one and the same time, and creating the priestly family of Israel for all time.
We see in the words of the later prophet, as recorded in Trei Asar, that the people of Israel were to seek out the priest, ‘for the lips of the priest were to guard and disseminate knowledge and Torah’ and the priest himself was described as an angel of the Lord of Hosts.
The Talmud follows up on these words and boldly states: “If the priest truly resembles an angel of the Lord of Hosts in his private life and deportment then one should seek him out for advice, Torah knowledge and instruction. If however the priest, in his behavior and reputation, does not resemble an angel of the Lord of Hosts then one should not look to him for knowledge and instruction.”
This statement sets the bar for the priest rather high. There are few people we’ve met in life that we would truly deem to be angelic. Perhaps this was also one of the hesitations that Aharon experienced before assuming the mantle of the High Priest of Israel.
Nevertheless, none of us can shirk God’s service. But one must realize the dangers and pitfalls inherent in assuming any sort of leadership role in the Jewish world and especially in the Jewish religious world. I am reminded of the anecdote told about Rabbi Yisrael Lipkin of Salant who wished to send his disciple Rabbi Yitzchak Blazer to serve as a rabbi in nineteenth century St. Petersburg. Rabbi Blazer demurred, saying: “I am afraid of serving in such a position and in such a place.” To which Rabbi Lipkin responded: “And therefore who shall I send – someone who is not afraid?” Such is the nature of Jewish leadership throughout the ages from Aharon till our day.
Shabat shalom Rabbi Berel Wein
Rabbi Berel Wein- Jewish historian, author and international lecturer offers a complete selection of CDs, audio tapes, video tapes, DVDs, and books on Jewish history at www.rabbiwein.com