Parashat Vayikra: The Priestly Sacrifice

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Priestly Blessing
22 Mar 2007

Parashat Vayikra 5767

Rabbi Elazar says in Ketubot 111a:

Whoever resides in Eretz Yisrael is without sin, as the prophet says (Yeshayahu 33:24): “Let no one say that he is ill from sins, for HaShem forgives the sins of all (Jews) who reside there (in Eretz Yisrael).

1- How are we to understand that the people of Eretz Yisrael are forgiven just because we live here?

2- R. Elazar’s statement implies that one who does not reside in Eretz Yisrael is not in an ongoing state of forgiveness. But surely there are God fearing Jews in many places in the world; why do they not merit the ongoing state of forgiveness?

We will return to this later.

As we begin reading from Book of Vayikra (also known as Torat Kohanim), let us imagine that the Bet HaMikdash has just been built.

Before our bureaucracy is able to re-establish the system of 24 mishmarot (the service units into which the kohanim and le’vi’im are divided), by necessity the most available kohanim who will be drafted to serve in the Bet HaMikdash are those who reside in the Old City. Now if I will merit to be among them, I can imagine the following scenario taking place on my first day “on the job”.

A Jew will come up to me holding his sin offering (korban chatat) and relate that he had unwittingly violated the Shabbat when his Conservative leader, an honors graduate from the “Seminary”, informed his congregation that it is permitted to drive one’s car to the synagogue on Shabbat. I will then collect the blood of the sacrifice (a kohen need not perform the shchita), and after ascending the kevesh (ramp) leading up to the sovev (a ledge one cubit [ama] wide surrounding the altar), will place some of the blood on the four stone cubes which are situated at the four corners of the altar.

At that moment I know I will ask myself, “Who am I to bring atonement to this man. Am I better than he? True I have not desecrated the Shabbat, but I have my own array of aveirot. So how can I bring about this man’s atonement?”

And there is a larger question: Since personal teshuva (atonement) is the process by which one attains forgiveness, why are kohanim necessary?

We can understand the role filled by kohanim at large, by investigating the mitzva of the kohanic blessing recited daily in most parts of Eretz Yisrael (over 450 times a year. In chutz la’aretz a kohen has the opportunity to perform this mitzva about 10 times a year. The arithmetic is quite simple: 4500 mitzvot for a kohen in 10 years in Eretz Yisrael as compared to 100 times in 10 years in chutz la’aretz).

1) Is there a qualitative difference between kohanim or is everyone “tuned into the same frequency” and the community receives a “standard” blessing regardless of the kohen’s religious status?

2) Birkat kohanim begins with a beracha: “baruch ata…le’varech et amo Yisrael –be’ahava” – …to bless His nation Israel with love”. Why must we emphasize that this mitzva is fulfilled with a conscious feeling of love. Are we not commanded to do every mitzva with love?

3) It is unacceptable for one to stand with his back to the aron (the holy ark which contains the Torah scrolls).The chazan and community always face the aron.. Why then do the kohanim stand with their backs to the aron?

4) While reciting the blessing the kohen’s fingers are opened in the accepted fashion; what does this mean?

5) At the end of the birkat kohanim in Parashat Naso the verse says “…ve’ani avorchem” …and I shall bless them”. Rabbi Akiva explains that HaShem is saying to the kohanim that they shall bless the nation and then Hashem will bless the kohanim. Why does the Torah state that HaShem will bless the kohanim who perform this mitzva, are we not all blessed by HaShem for every mitzva we perform?

6) There is a mitzva in the Torah obligating the community to give preference to kohanim in the performance of mitzvot (birkat hazeemun, called to the Torah first etc.). Why this preferential treatment?

7) At the end of the beracha the kohanim recite a prayer stating “Master of the universe we have perform that which You have decreed upon us…”. After the opening beracha where the kohanim are commanded to bless in “love”, this highly emotional act now turns into a “decree”. Decrees and love don’t go together!

There are yet many more questions!!

I would like to resolve these questions by an incident which occurred nearly 40 years ago while I served as the assistant to the Minister for Religious Affairs of the State of Israel, Dr. Zorach Warhaftig zt”l.

One day an official of the ministry urgently requested to see the Minister, I let him in and followed.

He told the Minister that a Jew from Moscow had just arrived in Israel (a very rare occurrence at the time) who has a story which the Minister must hear.

Dr. Warhaftig, who was a very serious man replied, “I don’t get paid to hear my’selech” (stories), but he agreed.

There entered a frail looking man with deep set eyes, whose age one could never guess.

After his initial feeling of being overwhelmed in the presence of a minister of the Jewish state, he began the following story, which I shall repeat in the first person as I heard it.

“I organized a cheder in Moscow to teach Jewish children. But since a thing like this cannot be kept secret for very long, I was arrested and sentenced to ten years in deepest Siberia. After several weeks of travel by train, I arrived at the camp in an acute physical condition, emaciated and frozen by the cold. Some Jewish prisoners stole sugar cubes which helped me very much. When I finally reached some sort of physical vigor, the chief guard said to me everyone must work in the camp, and I will be a painter.

When the first Shabbat arrived, I did not go out to work, and when asked by the guard for the reason, I explained that today is Shabbat. A few moments later the chief guard came and said that in the past there were others like me who kept Shabbat but in very short time the “problem” was attended to. The chief said he will not force me to work, but will reduce my daily ration to under what the body needs to maintain itself in the cold and I will die a slow painful death.

A few days later I was taken to the house of the camp’s commandant to paint. As I entered I saw that the wife of the commandant had a Jewish face. I took a major risk and spoke to her in Yiddish. At first she ignored me, but after several minutes she began speaking to me in Yiddish. I then told her of my dilemma, that I am being denied the necessary food ration to remain alive. Now, not only was she Jewish but the commandant himself was a Jew, and they had a 16 year old daughter. Of course, they were good atheistic communists who didn’t believe in anything spiritual.

The following day the wife demanded that her husband save me, to which he replied that it is none of her business what happens in the camp. She then said to him that if he does not help me he will go to gehennom. The daughter never heard the word “gehennom”, so her mother explained that there are people, not them of course, who believe in life after death where the righteous go to gan eden and the evil to gehennom.

The next day a guard informed me that I have a visitor. Who could be here in Siberia to visit me, I wondered. There stood before me a young girl who said that she cannot tell me who she is nor what is happening, but asked me that in the event that she saves me, would I give her half of my Gan Eden?

I did not know that this was the daughter of the commandant, and replied ‘If you help me I shall give you half of my Gan Eden”

She returned home and began a full hunger strike against her father, who fearing for her life restored my food ration and even succeeded in having me returned to Moscow the following month. Before leaving, I was again visited by this young girl who revealed who she was and related to me the details of what happened in the house and her hunger strike.

She then told me that I would soon be returning to Moscow, and I must remember my promise to give her half of my Gan Eden.

I looked at her and said, “I do not know why you want my Gan Eden when your Gan Eden is far far superior to mine”.

For several minutes after finishing the story, the Minister’s room was draped in silence.

In here are the answers to the kohanic questions.

When we become bar or bat mitzva an “account” is opened in our names in Olam Haba, the World to Come. And as we keep mitzvot the account keeps growing, so that after 120 we will withdraw the capital together with its accrued interest of the shamayim, Heavens.

When a kohen recites the birkat kohanim there is no general pool of goodness and blessing to which he connects and retrieves for our benefit. The kohen gives to the community his own personal bank account of Gan Eden, and at the end of the blessing the kohen’s “account” is totally depleted.

Now all the questions are resolved.

1) There is a qualitative difference between one kohen and another, for the more righteous the kohen the greater is his Gan Eden and more meaningful are his blessings.

2) The opening blessing is based on “ahava”. Is there a greater expression of love than when one relinquishes and transfers his Gan Eden to another person? This is the ultimate act of love.

3) We face the aron because we are “depositing” our mitzvot into Olam Haba, but now when the kohen is withdrawing from his Gan Eden he stands with his back to the aron.

4) Prior to the beracha the kohen’s hands are closed as a sign “this is mine”, but as he turns he opens his hands as if to say, “I no longer possess that which I had till now”.

5) The pasuk says “…ve ani avorchem” and I shall bless them, because Hashem is saying, “Do not worry, empty out your Gan Eden for the sake of my children and I will bless you (the kohanim) many times over for the loss of your Gan Eden”.

6) We give preference to kohanim in the performance of mitzvot because we, the community, will get the reward of the kohen when he releases his Gan Eden to us.

7) At the end of the beracha, kohanim recite the prayer “Master of the universe we have performed that which You have decreed upon us…”. recognizing the fact that the kohen has no choice in the matter. He cannot say I will keep my Gan Eden and not bless the people. It is a decree which he must conform to.

The essence of the kohanic service is dual sacrifice; the sacrificing of the animal as required by the Torah, but more so the kohen’s personal sacrifice for the sinner seeking atonement.

When performing his kohanic duties, a kohen relinquishes his spiritual gains for the good of the nation. When Hashem sees this ultimate act of love of the kohen towards his fellow Jews, HaShem joins in the act of love by answering the sinner’s request and kohanic intervention of tahara and atonement.

Just as a father is overwhelmed with pride and happiness upon seeing unity and love among his children, so too does our Father in Heaven empathize with the feelings of His children in their self sacrifice for one another.

This is the explanation of Rabbi Elazar’s teaching that one who resides in Eretz Yisrael is without sin, for to live here is to experience self sacrifice in the common cause of returning to the Holy Land.

In a way we are all kohanim here. Those who serve in the army as well as those who do not, for the enemy makes no distinction between Jew and Jew. The acts of self sacrifice for the national ideal are plain to be seen. The scars, both physical and psychological, after 100 years of struggle to establish our right for a national home are plain to see. But these are scars which strengthen our determination to overcome our enemies and reestablish ( what are we reestablishing?)

The idea of total self sacrifice in Eretz Yisrael permeates our parasha.

Parashat Vayikra discusses two types of animal sacrifices: the shelamim and ola.

The shelamim is as its name implies – whole, peaceful or in modern terms “user friendly” because the three essential elements of a korban (sacrifice) are gratified: the altar receives the animal’s innards for burning; the kohen receives the chazeh and shok (chest and lower right foot) and the supplier of the korban receives the meat of the animal to eat.

In contrast to the largess of the shelamim sacrifice, the olah is much less generous. The olah, in its entirety, is burned on the altar with only the animal’s skin given to the presiding kohen.

Our generation is divided between those who can be likened to the shlamim sacrifice and those who can be likened to the olah sacrifice.

Many people’s lives in the Jewish communities of Europe and North and South America are “whole” as the Jews there feel secure in their multi- faceted lives. A part of the income is paid towards taxes, as good citizens must do. Another part is divided between their winter and summer homes, with another part of the family wealth spent on vacations in exotic places like the Bahamas for Pessach, or skiing in Switzerland. Tzedaka plays a role in their lives, although the tzedaka expense has never delayed the purchase of a new car or home. This is the shlamim experience.

In contrast there are those people who chose to reside in Eretz Yisrael where, like the olah sacrifice, it is all for “the boss.” The reality of our lives is such that we live from one miracle to the next. So much so, that even the arch apikoris, David ben Gurion, is quoted as saying, “One who does not believe in miracles in Israel is not a realist.”

Every Jew here knows that he might have to pay a price for returning home. In chutz la’aretz when a situation in one area becomes intolerable, a Jew picks himself up and moves to another. When we were thrown out of Spain, our fathers went westward and settled in Germany, Poland and Turkey. When “difficult” neighbors move into our streets, we move to the sun-belt leaving behind the synagogues built with such gusto and joy 50 years before, so the non-Jews will be able to continue their prayers there. We go south to Miami, and west to L.A., and when these places are too far we set up new communities in Teaneck and the “Hamptons.”

Eretz Yisrael is the Jews’ last stop – it is home. Here we stand firm and fight in defense of our emuna and eternal destiny.

Rabbi Elazar’s words that one who lives in Eretz Yisrael is forgiven for all his sins has never been truer than today.

We in Eretz Yisrael are in a sense all kohanim and all korbanot olah.

Shabbat Shalom, Nachman Kahana

The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.