Priest and Prophet

  • Harav Aharon Lichtenstein

Summarized by Dov Karoll


The second half of this week's parasha (chapter 8) describes the seven day Milu'im (consecration) process throughout which Moshe performed the Avoda, the priestly service. At the end of the parasha, Rashi (8:28 s.v. Va-yakter) quotes an intriguing gemara (Avoda Zara 34a) which says that Moshe did not perform this Avoda while wearing the regular priestly vestments, but rather in a plain white robe. Tosafot there (s.v. Ba-meh) explain that Moshe had the status of a Kohen (priest) when he performed the Avoda, but did not wear the priestly vestments because they were not yet consecrated. According to Tosafot's understanding, Moshe in fact was considered one of the priests, in addition to Aharon and his sons. However, Aharon and his sons, as well as the priestly vestments, needed the seven day Milu'im before they could begin to serve. Thus, only Moshe was able to perform the Avoda during these seven days, as he was the one Kohen who was already prepared for the task (presumably due to the time he spent upon Har Sinai).

On the eighth day of that period, described in chapter 9, the transfer of Kehuna (priestly duty) was made to Aharon and his sons. After that transfer, the roles of Moshe and Aharon diverged. Moshe was primarily the prophet, and Aharon was primarily the Kohen. While Moshe did serve as a Kohen, and Aharon was also a prophet, their primary roles were clearly set. As their traditional names indicate, "Moshe Rabbenu" - Moshe was the prophet and teacher, and "Aharon Ha-kohen" - Aharon served as the priest. Moshe was the one who both received Divine messages and relayed them to the people. Aharon was charged with conducting the Avoda in the Mishkan, according to the guidelines which God had commanded Moshe.

This split between the roles of prophet and Kohen, and the conflict between them, comes up often throughout Tanakh. One issue which the prophets often reprimand is the lack of religious sincerity in the Avoda, the Divine ritual. One example is the story in Shemuel I (chapter 15), where King Shaul spared Amalek's animals, against God's command to totally destroy them. Shaul then explained to Shemuel that he left the animals of Amalek alive so they could be offered as sacrifices. Shemuel responded (15:22): "Does God want offerings as much as He wants you to heed His command?! Obeying is better than an offering!" God desires that you fulfill His command, even at the expense of losing the opportunity to offer sacrifices. In other words, the prophet often has to remind people that the sacrificial ritual must be put into perspective with other forms of Divine service. The prophecies of Yeshayahu (see 1:10-17) and Yirmiyahu (see chapter 7) also reflect a constant strife between the prophet and the Kohanim, those who perform the ritual service in the Temple.

This conflict stems from a fundamental difference in their roles. The Kohen's role is to guard the rituals fastidiously, to perform the Avoda according to a given rule-book. The guiding principle of his service is routine and regularity, loyalty to the system and its proper functioning. In contrast, the prophet's primary role is to bring down fiery new messages from Above. His goal is to induce change. He is a vibrant character, infusing spiritual meaning into people's lives and new vitality into their Divine service. Due to the differences between these roles, it is understandable that there has been so much conflict between their respective representatives.

It is precisely because of this deeply rooted schism between the positions of Kohen and prophet that there was a special need for Moshe's participation in the Milu'im process. When the routine and ritual of the Mishkan were being initiated, it was necessary for the greatest of all prophets (as clearly stated in Bemidbar 12:6-8, Devarim 34:10, and cited as the seventh principle of faith in Rambam's listing) to infuse that ritual with Divine fire. Subsequently, these roles would be split, and Aharon would succeed Moshe as the Kohen. However, Aharon would hopefully maintain Moshe's spirit. Aharon would be performing the Avoda while infused with that same Divine guidance and spiritual balance which was apparent when Moshe performed it. It was in order to emphasize this ideal, the unity of these two roles, that Moshe himself had to be the one performing the Avoda in its initial stage.

In our lives, it is important that each person infuse his own personal Mikdash, the sanctuary which is his own self, with these two elements. It is very significant that a person have a routine rich in religious activity. Like a Kohen, he must take part in constant actions and rituals which will maintain his connection to Judaism and the world of Halakha. He must make sure that all the actions which Halakha requires of him are fulfilled. Beyond that, however, a person must supplement this rich routine, the "Kohen" aspect, with the "prophet" aspect that is within him. He has to develop the deep connection to God which is to lie behind the fulfillment of the seemingly ritualistic acts which he performs. He has to feel the spiritual connection which is supposed to come as a result of the fulfillment of rituals.

If one has the opportunity to spend some time in an environment such as a yeshiva, this goal may be temporarily attainable without too much difficulty. The real challenge is one which everyone must face at any point at which he or she lives and works in an environment which is not entirely Torah-filled and spiritually charged. That challenge is to maintain this deep commitment while involved in "everyday life." Even though only a small percentage of a person's time may be devoted to actions which are narrowly defined as ritualistic (whether learning, praying, or other mitzvot), it is of the utmost importance that he infuse these activities with prophetic vitality and passion. In this way, he will truly be a worthy successor to the prophets.