Introduction - we will spend most of our time in this lesson on personal standards required to be and to serve as priests. Then we will examine the role and service of the Levites.
We will work at three levels - 1) what did these mitzvot mean in the context of the ancient Temple, 2) what might they mean in the operation of our most usual sorts of scared space, such as our churches and synagogues, and 3) what might they mean on the more personal level, that is, how “internal” priests and Levites might serve within us to operate sacred space where encounter with the Divine is facilitated to lead us to greater holiness.
As we proceed, we’ll explore this concept of “internal clergy” - what it might mean and how it might work. Just from the words, what ideas are triggered initially in your mind?
(Discussion - Possibilities might include: conscience, mind, ego, driver of intentionality or will, governor of soul, better self, etc. Is there something inside of us that lights the fire of our offerings, pushes us toward God’s way, and facilitator of our drawing near to God? What is that? Can we think of these mitzvot regarding the priests as guiding us as well with regard to such “internal priests”? I would like for us to suspend doubts, if we have them, and work on the hypothesis that they do.)
1. Exodus 30:18-20.
Exodus 30: 18 Make a copper basin for washing along with its copper stand. Put it between the meeting tent and the altar, and put water in it.19 Aaron and his sons will use it to wash their hands and their feet. 20 When they go into the meeting tent or approach the altar to minister and to offer a food gift to the Lord, they must wash with water so that they don’t die.
Q1. What do you make of the requirement that priests must wash their hands before entering sacred space? Does your explanation have meaning for us in our own time?
(This practice was clearly seen in part as encouraging physical cleanliness. But, even more, it was to serve as a sort of spiritual purification. This, as Chinuch teaches, elevates for us the Temple and the activities done there. Also, as we approach sacred encounter, we “wash away” the stuff of the ordinary world in order to draw near the Divine with “new” skin and self.
Is there a way to accomplish this in our own communal or personal sacred space?
Jews have the mikvah. We could wash hands as we move into sacred space. Or we could mentally or spiritually achieve some other sort of separation from secular to sacred as we cross the threshold with certain thoughts or meditations or changes of perspective.)
2. Read Exodus 28:2-5, 28, 32-33, 29:7-9
Exodus 28: 2 Make holy clothing that will give honor and dignity to your brother Aaron. 3 Tell all who are skilled, to whom I have given special abilities, to make clothing for Aaron for his dedication to serve me as a priest. 4 These are the articles of clothing that they should make: a chest pendant, a vest, a robe, a woven tunic, a turban, and a sash. When they make this holy clothing for your brother Aaron and his sons to serve me as priests, 5 they should use gold, blue, purple, and deep red yarns and fine linen.
Exodus 28: 28 The chest pendant should be held in place by a blue cord binding its rings to the vest’s rings so that the chest pendant rests on the vest’s belt and won’t come loose from the vest.
Exodus 28: 32 The opening for the head should be in the middle of it. The opening should be reinforced by a woven binding, a strong border so that it doesn’t tear. 33 On its lower hem add pomegranates made of blue, purple, and deep red yarns all around the lower hem, with gold bells between the pomegranates all around it.
Exodus 29: 7 Take the anointing oil and pour it on his head to anoint him. 8 Then present his sons and put the tunics on them. 9 Tighten the sashes on them, on both Aaron and his sons. Wrap the turbans on their heads. It will be a permanent regulation that the duties of priesthood belong to them. In this way, you will ordain Aaron and his sons.
Q2. Why did the garb of the priests matter in days of old, and should the dress of our modern day priests or our inner priest matter to us? How?
(While the exact nature and purpose of these ancient clothes remain unclear, certain truths can be gleaned from these mitzvot.
First, the garments and other elements were beautiful and splendid in a way that inspired the worshippers that beheld them. The priests served the Sovereign in sacred space, and the sight of them suggested the glory of the One they served. Further, the clothes displayed symbolic meaning through their material make-up, function, stitching, and other adornments that reminded both the ones who wore them and those who observed them of the holiness of the sacred drama.
Some sages suggested that the garments served to atone for various sins. These were garments of the soul, which helped to bring out inherent luster and strengths. In a way, this allowed the true holiness and splendor of the garments’ true inner counterparts to envelop the priest, transform him, and rectify the world from which all our actions flow. We, thus, could identify our essence with these noble qualities. Sins could thus be seen as merely outward failures, not inherent spiritual deficiencies.
We, too, tend to expect more than ordinary clothes or even suit and tie or dress from our clergy. It may be robes. Should/could it be more? Or is garb less important for us than the Biblical language suggests it was for the Temple, or even altogether unimportant?
3. Read Leviticus 10:6-7; 21:1-3; 10-11
Leviticus 10: 6 Moses then said to Aaron and his sons, Eleazar and Ithamar, “Don’t dishevel your hair and don’t rip your clothes into pieces, or you will die and bring anger upon the whole community. Your family—all of Israel’s house—will mourn the burning the Lord has done. 7 But you must not leave the meeting tent, or you will die because the Lord’s anointing oil is on you.” So they did what Moses ordered.
Leviticus 21: 1 The Lord said to Moses, Say to the priests, Aaron’s sons: None of you are allowed to make yourselves unclean by any dead person among your community 2 except for your closest relatives: for your mother, father, son, daughter, brother; 3 also for your unmarried sister, who is close to you because she isn’t married—you may be polluted for her sake. 10 The high priest—the one whose head has been anointed with the anointing oil and who is ordained to dress in the priestly clothing—must not dishevel his hair or tear his clothing. 11 He must not go near any dead bodies and cannot make himself unclean even for his father or mother.
Q3. We’ll discuss notions of “clean” and “unclean” in the next chapter. But, putting those ideas aside, why do you think the priest ought to avoid coming into sacred space, if recently touched by death? Does your answer have any relevance to your experience in sacred space?
(While certain of these mitzvot appear on the surface to guide generally toward proper demeanor and appearance of the priest, they are designed mainly to prevent a priest who is in mourning from, at the same time, conducting worship. The behaviors described in the first mitzvot characterize a person whose thoughts and spirit are directed toward grief rather than the religious functions performed in sacred space.
We will discuss these concepts in far greater depth in upcoming chapters, so we must postpone a good bit of important substance until then. But let’s at least simply understand here that the drama of death and the drama of formal sacred encounter are both significant, but separate elements of living. This is not to say that God is with us only in sacred space. God is with us in each drama. The Torah, however, guides us to live them fully and, thus, separately, not mixing or diluting them in ways that diminish each. This separation is especially essential in the case of priests who lead in sacred encounter and must be thoroughly engaged with worshippers experiencing sacred drama.
These requirements are so important that even contact with the death of kin must be avoided, in the case of the High Priest, when grief can only distract from service. God imposes limitations and disciplines on priestly life that foster focus, single-mindedness, order, and decorum in their attitude and service. Our clergy help lead us to holiness principally through sacred encounter. God expects their full devotion in those sacred moments.
Do we learn lessons from this guidance for the conduct of our modern-day priests or our inner priest?
Discussion - the separation of experiences of fundamentally important, but different chapters of our lives is wise, especially to avoid mixing and diluting with sacred encounter those emotions, feelings, thoughts, and soul energy that are by necessity oriented to different tasks.)
4. Read Leviticus 22:2 and 21:6
Leviticus 22: 2 Tell Aaron and his sons to be very careful how they treat the holy things that the Israelites devote to me so that they do not make my holy name impure: I am the Lord.
Leviticus 21: 6 They must be holy to their God so that they do not make their God’s name impure. They must be holy because they offer the Lord’s food gifts, their God’s food.
Again, I want to delay our
consideration of what “tamei” and
“tahor” mean until we dig deep on them and
related concepts in the next chapter. These are very difficult matters. I have
hypotheses to suggest when we come to them. But, for now, I simply want you to
remember the point we discussed a moment ago: there are certain dramas of life
after which we, here specifically the priests, require a separation before
being able again to be wholly focused and whole-hearted in the sacred encounter
that is experienced in sacred space.
5. Read Leviticus 10:8-11
Leviticus 10: 8 The Lord said to Aaron: 9 Both you and your sons must not drink wine or beer when you enter the meeting tent so that you don’t die—this is a permanent rule throughout your future generations— 10 so that you can distinguish between the holy and the common, and between the unclean and the clean, 11 and so that you can teach the Israelites all the rules that the Lord spoke to them through Moses.
Q5. While it’s a bit self-evident, what strikes you as wrong about the priest being intoxicated in sacred space?
(Worshippers and priests can hardly experience sacred encounter appropriately and fully while mentally, spiritually, and physically diverted by drink or intoxicant. This risk becomes exceptionally dangerous if the priest errs in the sacred process as a result of being so diverted. Surely, too, intoxication is a certain sign of disrespect for the sanctuary, the Way of life it promotes, the holiness that we aspire to attain and promote, and the One we come there to encounter and follow.)
6. Read Leviticus 21:23, 17-18
Leviticus 21: 23 but since he has an imperfection, he cannot enter toward the inner curtain or officiate at the altar, making these parts of my sanctuary impure by doing so. I am the Lord, who makes them holy.
Leviticus 21: 17 Say to Aaron: None of your future descendants who have some kind of imperfection are allowed to offer their God’s food. 18 No one who has an imperfection will be allowed to make an offering: this includes anyone who is blind, crippled, disfigured, or deformed;
Q6. We moderns, I think rightly, generally, support inclusion and rights for the disabled. Do our sentiments conflict with these words? How might they be made compatible? Think broadly about the purposes served by the mitzvot.
(While there can be a debate about the merits of this whole-scale prohibition, I think the mitzvot, at the least, are fundamentally saying that a priest must be fully capable of facilitating sacred encounter. Such work may involve sight, movement, other senses, and focus and attention, but if the priest has limitations that diminish these capacities, the words here say such limitations are disqualifying, either temporarily or permanently.
It may be that these senses speak to inner capacities, too. The “inner priest” who is “blind” or “deaf” or “dumb” or otherwise blemished, perhaps spiritually, should be disqualified as well.
What might we more specifically be talking about here? Can you think of disabilities or blemishes that would make our present-day or inner priests incapable of facilitating sacred counter for us?
7. Read Leviticus 21:13-15; 21:7
Leviticus 21: 13 The high priest must marry a woman who is a virgin. 14 He cannot marry a widow, a divorced woman, or a woman defiled by promiscuity. He can only marry a virgin from his own people15 so that he doesn’t make his children impure among his people, because I am the Lord, who makes him holy.
Leviticus 21: 7 Priests must not marry a woman who is promiscuous and defiled, nor can they marry a woman divorced from her husband, because priests must be holy to their God.
Q7. We moderns tend to react negatively to any such restrictions on anyone in our society. Why do you think the Bible put these limitations on the priests? What purposes did they serve? Even given our more liberal sentiments, are there valuable lessons we could learn from these mitzvot?
(If a person or force or element of life that plays a priestly role lacks a whole and devoted love, support, and comfort, there arguably could be a missing quality, if not a void. In addition to the gift of being “well married,” the priest also benefits from bearing responsibility for, and giving, love, compassion, and support to the spouse. The mutuality of such a special relationship and the sharing and service it involves surely informs, enriches, and adds value to priestly service to others and to God.
While some can survive and even perform work well in less desirable personal circumstances, it is likely true generally that being married to a person who is incapable of loyalty, caught up in or deeply wounded by previous relationships, or of poor character would undercut the spirit, joy, full duty, and dignity expected of the priest.
One key point the sages make is that if a priest is going to properly castigate the sinner and help him turn back from wrongdoing, he must be upright himself. Finally, if the priest is there to help lead us to holiness, he must live to the highest standard.
As we continue to think about the work of our inner priests, do you see truths in these mitzvot that might enlighten us further?
8. Read Numbers 18:23-24, Numbers 4:18-19 , Deuteronomy 18:1-2, Numbers 35:2, Deuteronomy 12:19
Numbers 18: 23 The Levites will perform the service of the meeting tent, and they will be responsible for their own sins. This is a permanent regulation for all time. But they will not inherit land among the Israelites 24 because I’ve given the Israelites’ one-tenth portion, which they have raised to the Lord as a gift offering, as an inheritance to the Levites. Therefore, I’ve said to them, “They won’t inherit land among the Israelites.”
Numbers 4: 18 You must not let the tribe of the Kohathite clans be eliminated from the Levites. 19 This is what you must do for them so that they stay alive and don’t die when they approach the most holy things. Aaron and his sons will enter and assign each of them his work and his load.
Numbers 18: 18 Neither the levitical priests nor any Levite tribe member will have a designated inheritance in Israel. They can eat the sacrifices offered to the Lord, which are the Lord’s portion, 2 but they won’t share an inheritance with their fellow Israelites. The Lord alone is the Levites’ inheritance—just as God promised them.
Numbers 35: 2 Command the Israelites that they give cities from their inherited property to the Levites in which to live. You will also give the Levites pastures around their cities.
Leviticus 25: 34 But the pastureland around Levitical cities cannot be sold, because that is their permanent family property.
Deuteronomy 12: 19 Watch yourself: as long as you are on the land, don’t forget about the Levites.
Q8. After we talk a little about the many roles of the Levites, here are the questions: What are the Levites doing in the cities of refuge? And, in our internal self, who or what would correspond to those who fled to the cities of refuge, and who or what would correspond to the Levites?
We spent time in our study of Torah last year on Levi and the role of the Levites who succeeded him. For those of you who studied the Prophets and the Psalms with me, we learned a good bit about the Levites in those texts as well. We will learn even more when we get to the next chapters in this year’s study. But let’s start today by looking at several mitzvot that introduce us to the Levites, their role in the operation of sacred space, and how they might matter to us in our own time.
A. Assuming, as we will learn in greater detail in coming weeks, that the Levites have discrete, full-time duties in the Temple and the Levitical cities, what do we learn from the mitzvot we’ve just read?
(The Levites, like the priests, were expected to devote themselves fully to service of God, facilitate our coming near to God, and teach and inspire the people to live in God’s Way. They had discrete roles in sacred space, including guarding, singing, being gatekeepers, and opening and closing the gates. They were not generally to engage in, or be concerned about, the interests of commerce, war, and other such matters. Thus, they were to be separated apart, supported, and kept from the affairs that would distract them from their divinely established mission. It was/is our duty, that of those served by the Levites, to support them entirely.)
B. What might this mean to us today, with respect to those who preform Levitical duties in our external or internal sacred space?
(We have the duty to support full-time servants of God who help bring us to God and God’s ways, whether they serve us in church or synagogue, cities in which they dwell, or even internally within ourselves. How, and in what ways might we do this? What might such support entail?
Discussion - Cover ideas of material, spiritual, and moral support for those who study, teach, minister, bring people to God, including that part of ourselves that is devoted to God and bringing all of our other constituent parts to service of God.)