Kingdom of priests

Kingdom of priests

Rabbi Jonathan Perlman
Rabbi Jonathan Perlman

Yitro, Exodus 18:1-20:23

In this week’s Torah portion, we read that God declares the Jewish people a “kingdom of priests and a holy nation.” (Exodus 19:6) It comes just before the reading of the Ten Commandments.

What do the words “kingdom of priests” mean to these newly freed slaves?  What is a priest?

This is the first time the word is mentioned in relation to the Jewish people.  The people did not yet know that part of the Levite tribe would be classified as priests (kohanim in Hebrew).  They did not know about the duties this landless group would have to perform.  The kohanim leadership would soon become the religious intercessors for the nation.  They would perform their sacrifices, heal the sick, celebrate holidays, bury the dead, and deal with distinctions between clean and unclean.  The words “kingdom of priests” are used long before the Jewish people get a hint of what Aaron and his sons are obligated to do.  Does God intend that all of Israel can serve as kohanim? If we are all kohainim, who is called to get the first aliya?

And then there is the problem of the word “kingdom.”  Does this mean that we will be the ruling class of the world?  Or should we operate in our own kingdom, a geographic place where everyone is a leader?  Can you imagine? It reminds me of a joke. President Obama says to President Peres:  “I am the president of millions of people” and Peres says, “Yes, Mr. President, but I am the president of millions of presidents.”  Who needs such a country.

So let’s parse these words “kingdom of priests.”  Rashi believes that here we are talking metaphorically. Priest is a pseudonym for minister.   We are ministers in the department of justice in God’s world.  Kli Yakar has a different perspective.   “Priest” is another word for leader. We are the leaders of the kingdom.  He says that we exist on level of kingship to establish God’s rule in the world.  We receive God’s decree and then are free to build God’s kingdom.  For Rashi, we are servants; for Kli Yakar, we are leaders.  Each decides to emphasize the phrase in his own way. The words “king” and “priest” are so different from one another. It seems at first that you are either a king or a priest; you cannot be both.  

In my opinion, the Israelites standing at Mt. Sinai did not know what the words meant at the time of their first hearing them.  Like a bar mitzva boy or bat mitzva girl, they were too young to really understand the deeper meaning of the Jewish mission in the world. These words “kingdom of priests,” I believe, constitute a vision.   Does the bar mitzva boy really know what is ahead of him?  Does he fully comprehend what it means to be a Jew with obligations?  What the bar mitzva sets in motion is a vision of lifelong learning and acquiring Jewish values.  As the Israelites stand ready to receive the commandments, it is a bar mitzva of sorts without the fountain pens.  A vision is set forth:  “You are to be a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.”  

We would do well to look at the description of the “servant leader” used in Isaiah chapter 53 to answer the paradox of what besets Rashi and the Kli Yakar. Who is the one described as one who was “wounded because of our sins, crushed because of our iniquities. He bore the chastisement that made us whole, and by his bruises we were healed?” (Isaiah 53:5)  He is the kohain who lives the life of the man in between — he is permitted to receive the impurities of the people; he brings their offerings of atonement; he carries the sins of the nation and creates the rituals for purification.  He defiles himself by working in the trenches and bringing holiness to the community.  And Isaiah uses this persona of the hard-working, sin-bearing kohain as the overarching vision for each Jewish individual who works to be a light unto the nations.

This is exactly the metaphor that the Torah uses in relation to the vision of what the Jew can be for the world starting today.  Combining the words of Rashi and the Kli Yakar, we can say that “kingdom of priests” represents a both and statement, not an either or statement, about the role of Jewish people in the world.  We lead with Torah values and we minister to the grief and impurity in the world. We pay attention to injustice.  We act compassionately. We bear the pain of the world but we also lead with knowledge, the knowledge that comes deep within our spiritual resources. We serve and lead and become a “holy nation.” The servant leaders direct toward a utopia that the prophet Isaiah describes a few chapters later (56:7), a prayer that we say at the High Holy Days:  “Those who hold fast to My covenant — I will bring them to my sacred mount and let them rejoice in My House of Prayer … for My house shall be called a House of Prayer for all peoples.”

(This column is a service of the Greater Pittsburgh Rabbinic Association.)