“The Priestly Work”
By Dr. Tamar Frankiel, Provost
This week’s parsha, the second in the book of Vayikra (Leviticus), summarizes the priestly sanctification into their roles. “Command them,” the parsha begins – command Aaron and his sons to assume these roles and perform their duties of making various kinds of offerings.
The Jewish people have been set aside as a “kingdom of priests” and a “holy nation,” but only one segment has these specific priestly roles.
Or is that true? Are these roles also a model for all of us?
I would suggest that the priestly work is a focused lens, a microcosm. We learn from our commentators that the mishkan is a microcosm of the Creation as outlined in Genesis. What if we understand that the priests’ detailed work is another microcosm, of what it is to work, to perform avodah, to serve?
The classic definition of avodah after the Temple’s destruction is prayer: As the priests had their fixed rituals, we have our siddur and prayer services that bring us near to serve God – although the rabbis ask, does God need our prayers?
We sometimes forget that the kohanim were not just serving God, perhaps not even primarily serving God. As our rabbis would say, “What need has God of chickens and goats?” They were serving people – serving the rest of the Jewish community. They served as intermediaries to bring people near – people who came with anxiety, fear, brokenness, asking for forgiveness and reconciliation, as well as expressing joy and gratitude.
Why the intermediaries? Because the priests learned how to sanctify space and time, primarily by paying attention to detail. As an analogy, think of what happens when we set a table for a special meal. The tablecloth and napkins are chosen, the dinnerware carefully set out, along with flowers, wine, and perhaps some graceful décor. The room takes on a new aura, a sense of anticipation grows; we look forward to surprise or celebration.
Normal routine isn’t like that. The everyday is a mere generalization, a round of similar events, where we hardly notice this very same room when we walk through it. We live in a fog.
The priestly work is to cut through the fog. Not only the fog of mindlessness, but also the fog created by anxiety, suffering, brokenness, and fear. Re-reading parts of Victor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning a few days ago, I was struck by a powerful and terrible image he used. Suffering, he said, is like pumping gas into a room: it will diffuse and fill all the space in the room. The only thing that stops it is if you can seal off a part of the room against it.
A terrible image, considering that he was in a concentration camp — and we know about sealed rooms too.
Yet Frankl goes on to describe what the inmates did in the midst of their horrendous suffering: They would gather quietly in small circles and someone would recite prayers or poetry. Or they would make jokes; occasionally they would sing. There was some counter-movement, a pushback against the deadening reality of their world.
This is part of the priestly role we play in the world – creating a space that seals us off temporarily from the smothering, suffocating negativity of the world. We do this in prayer; we do it on Shabbat; we do it in honoring the dead, and in celebrating new life.
But we can also play this role on a daily basis, like priests accepting and attending to the offerings of the Temple. We can do it by paying careful attention to those who want to come near, who want to reveal their brokenness, who seek forgiveness and reconciliation. We can set the table expectantly, and be available to midwife the gift of the heart. This too is avodah.