I have long struggled with the Book of Leviticus, a text that goes into great detail describing the ancient Temple rites performed by the priests. While there is certainly value in recalling our Jewish history and appreciating a form of worship that was common in antiquity, I often wonder what meaning we can find centuries later in a ritual that for some seems better left in the past.
In an effort to find meaning in Leviticus, biblical scholars have long divided the third book of the Torah into two main sections. The first half, known as “the priestly tradition,” focuses on the role of the priests and Levites in the day-to-day functioning of the Temple and sacrificial worship. The second half, also called the “holiness code,” describes at length the mitzvot and practices that inform the way we live our lives in pursuit of holiness. Perhaps it is through the intersection of these two themes that we can find new meaning as we read and reread this part of the Torah year after year.
Parashat Emor begins with Moses relaying this message from God: “Speak to the priests, sons of Aaron, saying to them: ‘Do not defile yourselves for a person [nefesh] among your people’” (Leviticus 21:1). The meaning of this opening verse is that the priests were not to come in contact with the deceased, lest they become impure and unfit to serve God in their priestly capacity. Yet, when read through a Hassidic lens, the laws are actually a universal call for all of humanity.
Two great 18th-century Hassidic masters, Rabbis Ya’akov Yosef of Ostrog and Menahem Nahum Twersky of Chernobyl, both students of the Ba’al Shem Tov, offer insight into our narrative. Rabbi Ya’akov of Ostrog suggests that the word kohanim (priests) should not be read in an exclusive way. Instead, the word kohen refers to each and every person who takes it upon him- or herself to engage in acts of kedushah (holiness) as a way of following God. Put differently, we all have the ability to live extraordinary lives by performing mitzvot and using the values and rituals found in Torah, in “doing Jewish,” as a way of bringing sacredness to our behavior and relationships. In doing so, we become like priests (Rav Yeevi on Leviticus 21:1).
Similarly, Rabbi Mena-hem of Chernobyl teaches that we should not think of ourselves as greater or lesser than others simply because we were or were not born into the lineage of priests. Rather, “Every one of Israel surely contains the entire Torah. … Every worshipper is called a ‘priest’ … To be a disciple of Aaron, loving peace and pursing peace, loving people and bringing them near to Torah” is the call for all of humanity (Me’or Eynayim on Leviticus 21:1). For Rav Menahem of Chernobyl, loving God requires that we all aspire to be priestly by engaging the world through acts of holiness, allowing every being created in God’s image to know the blessings of peace.
These two Hassidic masters teach me that in reading the ancient texts from Leviticus we should not dwell on who is and who isn’t a priest, nor should we focus on trying to make relevant the sacrificial system. The priestly rite of the Bible served its purpose in history. The bigger takeaway is one that transcends time, a paradigm that Aaron and his descendants were trying to model for all people in every generation: that each nefesh, every human being, must aspire to make a bridge to the priestly and the holy in all that we do.
It’s true that to function as a priest in the time of the Torah required you to be born a priest, but to live a priestly life only requires living a life of holiness. Earlier in the Torah, in the moments leading up to revelation at Sinai, God tells Israel, “Now then, if you will obey me faithfully and keep my covenant, you shall be my treasured possession … you shall be to me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation” (Exodus 19:5-6).
The Torah gives us a glimpse into what is possible as history unfolds and is retold. While history may be a thing of a the past, becoming a people of priests who bring holiness to the world through our deeds, is, and will forever be, at the heart of Leviticus, the Torah, and our lives for every generation to come.