Introduction - Today we will begin an exploration of the priests
- who they were, the roles they played in sacred space, and the standards by
which they were expected to live. Since our mission is to be a kingdom of
priests, our working hypothesis will be that a keen understanding of these
ancient keepers of sacred space can help us as well in lighting the path to
holiness for both clerics and laity today.
7. Read Leviticus 21:8 and Numbers 18:4
Leviticus 21 8 You will treat the priests as holy, because they offer your God’s food. The priests will be holy to you, because I am the holy Lord, who makes you holy.
Numbers 18 4 They will assist you and they will perform the duties of the meeting tent with regard to all the work of the tent. But no outsider may accompany you.
(The priests were divinely designated to lead us in our mission to become a holy people. They were dignified, and we were required to treat them as such, principally through their role in helping facilitate our encounter with the Divine through offerings we bring. In our sacred encounter, we come near God and closer to holiness. In our own time, our rabbis, ministers, religious leaders and teachers certainly, in many ways, play this role. I would suggest that the part of our selves and souls that drives us to draw near God and toward holiness plays a priest-like function, too. It is these figures and these features that have dignity and that demand honor and respect.
What are those features of us - our conscience, minds, hearts,
hands, character, and/or souls - that could be considered priest-like and lead
to the performance of priest-like tasks? How do we show them proper honor and respect?
What parts of our selves are not priest-like (or not yet priest-like that can’t
or don’t perform these functions?
Q7. What do we learn about the most important function of the priests? Why and how do we honor priests? Who and what might be priests in our own time?
8. Read Numbers 6:23-26
Numbers 6 23 Tell Aaron and his sons: You will bless the Israelites as follows. Say to them:
24 The Lord bless you and protect you.
25 The Lord make his face shine on you and be gracious to you.
26 The Lord lift up his face to you and grant you peace.
Q8. This is the famous priestly blessing. What, in effect, is the priest doing here? What does it mean to the sacred drama, and what does it say about the purpose of sacred space for us and for God?
(The blessing embodies the essence of the covenant. We draw near
to God in our offerings, which the priest facilitates. We commit to and strive
to fulfill the mission of holiness, living in God’s ways. The priest,
on behalf of God, conveys back to us the Divine consideration in the covenant
agreement - the blessing of spiritual contentment and wholeness.)
9. Read Exodus 30:23-25, 31-32, 7, 9; & Exodus 28:2-4
Exodus 30 23 Now take for yourself high-quality spices: five hundred weight of solid myrrh; half as much of sweet-smelling cinnamon, that is, two hundred fifty; two hundred fifty weight of sweet-smelling cane; 24 five hundred of cassia - measured by the sanctuary shekel - and a hin of olive oil. 25 Prepare a holy anointing oil, blending them like a skilled perfume maker to produce the holy anointing oil.
Exodus 30 7 Aaron will burn sweet-smelling incense on the incense altar every morning when he takes care of the lamps. 9 Don’t offer the wrong incense on the altar or an entirely burned offering or a grain offering. Don’t pour a drink offering on it.
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,
Q9. What might be the meaning and value of stimulating our senses of sight, feel, smell, and texture to the experience of sacred space?
(The anointing of a priest was a precious experience, akin in pleasantness to brothers dwelling together in unity or the falling of dew upon the mountains of Zion. The oil was thick and full of fragrance and flowed softly, slowly, and sweetly. We have the feeling that the priest and those who watched in these moments had a small sense of eternal bliss.
In some ways, these and other ancient practices are off-putting to us. Our similar rituals today are almost entirely words. Do we miss the mystery, beauty, richness - the sights, sounds, smells, and other sensations of sacred drama - that word-filled worship today largely lacks? Though the ancient ways will never be restored as they were precisely, do these mitzvot call us to consider ways in our own time of arousing the senses more fully to the glorious moments of the sacred? Do you have ideas about how we could do that in the moments we install or consecrate those who serve priestly functions or that part of our selves that does?
Discussion: Should we consider fragrance of spices, drops of special
oil, music, words, blessing of the inner-priest? Perhaps, in such moments, we
would reflect on the High Priest in the Temple in days past, on the sweet dew
of eternal Heaven, and on the holiness by which we and our new priest commit to
live in the present.)
10. Read Leviticus 6:10
Leviticus 6 10 The priest shall put on his linen vestments after putting on his linen undergarments next to his body; and he shall take up the ashes to which the fire has reduced the burnt offering on the altar, and place them beside the altar.
Q10. What do we make of the requirement that the priest remove the ashes daily from the Altar? What does it teach us about the work of the priest - whether it be the priest in ancient times, our rabbis and ministers, or the priests who operate in our inner sacred space?
What are we to make of the requirement that the priests removed the ashes daily from the Altar? Or to state it another way, isn’t that work the “janitor” should do?
(To make this even more interesting, the priest was required to wear linen garments in doing so. This task was actually an important and desired assignment. It represented the conclusion of the previous day’s offerings when worshippers drew near to God. So, the priest, in a way, began and ended the process of the offerings.
What does the “removal of ashes” represent? What might it mean for us?
First, the fire burns better if old ashes are removed. But, also and importantly, there’s something special in the work of aftermath. If, for example, our offering is a contribution of goods or money or time, the rabbi, minister, or leader must often wrap up the process in ways less glorious than the initial receipt. Or, if there’s an issue or a mess where there’s a residue of a problem, say differences among congregants, the leader might need to tie up loose ends or do “clean up.”
Aren’t there often “ashes” from our own offerings that must be cleaned up? Examples?
Discussion - There is often as much dignity in the lonely and
dirty work of completing the offering as there is in the glory and passion of
12. Read Deuteronomy 18:6-8
Deuteronomy 18 6 If a Levite leaves any of your towns, from wherever he has been residing in Israel, and comes to the place that the Lord will choose (and he may come whenever he wishes), 7 then he may minister in the name of the Lord his God, like all his fellow-Levites who stand to minister there before the Lord. 8 They shall have equal portions to eat, even though they have income from the sale of family possessions.
Q12. What might be the explanation for the division of priests into different groups who served at different times and in different ways? What lessons do we draw from this guidance for the work of our outer and inner priests in our own time?
Though the language is somewhat unclear, it is understood to guide that the priests are required to minister in Courses, which means (outside of the main festivals) there was to be a division of priests into different groups that served in different ways in an orderly and efficient manner? Why might this be important, and what does it mean to us?
(Given the intense and demanding work required in drawing near to God, having breaks in work and divisions in work might be very helpful to remaining fresh, dignified, and true to the moment. This, physically and spiritually, seems important, if not necessary, to performing priestly functions effectively. Plus, working in groups generally is supportive and conducive to less straying.
Perhaps there’s wisdom here for today’s rabbis, ministers, and leaders, as well as to us in the way our “internal priests” work to facilitate our encounter with the Divine. Whether it’s time for rest, preparation, freshness, strength, or avoiding duplication, wasted effort, loss of energy, unwarranted competition for authority - operating within the discipline of courses may be a crucial way to enhance the effectiveness of the priest.
Can you see ways that such divisions would be helpful to you generally, and even more specifically in handling tasks that have sacred elements to them?
Read Leviticus 16:2
Leviticus 16: 2 Tell your brother Aaron that he cannot come whenever he wants into the holy area inside the inner curtain, to the front of the cover that is on the chest, or else he will die, because I am present in the cloud above the cover.
Why might there be a limit to access to certain sacred space even to the priest? (We’ll discuss later, but not now, the exception on the holiday of Yom Kippur, the day of turning back to God for all the people.) And what might this sort of limit mean to us?
(Sages teach that no one, including the most esteemed priest, can casually approach the Divine and indeed that there may be certain space, here in the Holy of Holies, where generally no one can go. It’s as if we are called to draw near but to understand always that there’s a dividing line, that we are human and God is God. This respect, deference, humility are fundamental to our faith, and this mitzvah, along with many lessons taught in so many other places in the Bible, reinforce that understanding.
However much we strive to be holy as God is holy, and we should, we are not as holy as God, and we stray if and when we forget that truth.)
13. Read Numbers 7:9 & Exodus 25:15
Numbers 7: 9 But to the Kohathites he gave nothing because their duty concerned the holy things that had to be carried on the shoulders.
Exodus 25: 15 The poles should stay in the chest’s rings. They shouldn’t be taken out of them.
Q13. Why would the priests (or the Levites) be required to carry the Ark when it’s moved? Why might it need to be moved, often with dispatch? What does all of this mean to us?
Why would the priests (or the Levites) be required to carry the Ark when it is moved, and why must the Ark be ready to be moved with ease and dispatch? And what might all this mean to us in our own time?
(There is no possession more valuable than the Tablets and the
divinely granted Way of life they represent. There is no other way of life
worth living if it is contrary to God’s expectations. Since it is the
priests’ duty to protect this in sacred space, it follows that it
should remain within the duty of the most sanctified to protect it in
transition as well. This includes the idea of carrying by people, not by
animals or wagons.
Those who have priest-like duties in our own time also have
extraordinary custodial duties with respect to protecting God’s
word and those texts and objects that contain and honor that word. To the
extent that a part of us plays the role of priest in our own lives, that part
bears responsibility for keeping and protecting and honoring the custody of the
Ark inside of us, and carrying it, along with God’s word, wherever we
When the Ark is endangered or it must be moved at an inhospitable
time, we must be ready to move it immediately. Religious leadership entails
guiding and helping the community “move the ark” from
the “places” in their lives where living in the Way
is threatened. Presumably, there’s a part of each us that must take the
responsibility to “move the ark” when
other forces threaten it and our living in accord with it.
Also, the ark was to be moved to be with our forces in battle as a sign of support. Perhaps our “internal priest” also must be able to “move the ark” to “the scene of battle” inside of us where God’s word must be applied.
Under either understanding, how might these ideas play out in real-world ways for us?