Rabbi’s Remarks: Modern Priesthood?

After stating the words of the priestly benediction (“May the Lord bless you and guard you…”) to Aaron and his sons, the Torah goes on to state, “Thus they shall link my name with the people of Israel, and I will bless them.” (Numbers 6:27).

The obvious question is: to whom is the “them” referring?

I still remember my Talmud professor at HUC-JIR, Dr. Bentzion Wacholder, explaining how the Cohanim – the priests – claimed that verse meant that God would bless the priests as a reward for pronouncing the priestly blessing on the Jewish people. The Jewish people, however, disagreed and claimed that the verse came to reassure them that God would put his stamp of approval on the priest’s words. (Whether the priest was worthy or not!)

This tension between “priest” and “people” is something that plays out over the ages with what we might call “organized” religion. If there is a class of individuals who devote their lives to learning all the mysteries of the faith, in some cases, are even “born” into it; does that entitle them to a role over and above the other adherents; or is anyone entitled to roles of leadership as long as they have the basic knowledge?

The book of Leviticus, as the name implies, speaks about many rules and regulations that apply to Cohanim (priests) and Levites. Leviticus 21:5 specifically prohibits priests from shaving their heads, cutting the corners of their beards or making gashes in themselves as signs of mourning. In Deuteronomy 14:1 the law is expanded to apply to the all Israelites. It states, “You are children of the Lord your God. You shall not gash yourselves or shave the front of your heads because of the dead.”

We might note that we have two types of spiritual leaders: priests (Cohanim) and rabbis. To be a priest you have to be a descendant of Aaron through the male line. Being a rabbi requires training and personal commitment.

We no longer have a Temple and an Altar with which to perform our formal daily religious obligations mentioned in Numbers 28 and 29. For centuries, the Jewish people have substituted the “Shacharit,” “Mincha” and “Ma-ariv” services to fulfill this duty.

Just as the priest would approach the altar to minister, so the leader – the shaliach tzibbur – stands at the amud (the prayer stand) to lead the congregation in worship. On the one hand, any one held worthy by the congregation is capable of serving in this capacity; on the other hand, there are various specific melodies and cantillation “modes” which require a level of expertise – as well as a trained voice. We all know about chazzanim who were able to inspire – and are still capable of inspiring – their attending congregation to emotional heights of prayer.

On a personal level, I believe that services are intended to allow members of the congregation to sense their connection to the Creator of the Universe. Everyone has their own “spiritual buttons.” Some find the music a satisfying avenue; others the content of the prayers; still others may find it sufficient to be in a sanctuary in the presence of praying community. Regardless, I believe that anyone who steps foot into the sanctuary has to have some sense of “ownership.” It gives me a sense of satisfaction as a rabbi, to see members of the congregation capable of leading the service for the rest of the community. I would love to encourage anyone who would love to take on this role to let me know if they would like to find someone to tutor them.

I have also learned to deeply respect the spiritual skill and musical artistry that a trained chazzan can bring to the congregation’s experience of the service. I appreciate those times when we are able to add this dimension to our worship experience.

As an Israelite, I also consider it an honor to lead the congregation in worship. It’s always a wonderfully pleasant duty: as a rabbi!

With best wishes for a happy Purim and a Chag Pesach kasher v’same’ach, (A joyous and “kosher” Pesach).

Rabbi Mordecai Miller