A Kingdom of Priests and a Holy Nation

One of my favorite lines in this week’s portion has always been “and you shall be to me a kingdom of Kohanim (priests) and a holy nation.” Rabbi Jonathan Sacks asserts that this phrase is “the shortest, simplest, most challenging mission statement of the Jewish people.”[1] What does it mean to serve G-d as a kingdom of Kohanim, especially in light of the fact that most Israelites are not Kohanim? Rashi from 11th century France defines the word “Kohen” as a prince, referencing 2nd Samuel, [2] where it states that David’s sons were Kohanim. We know that David was descended from the tribe of Judah, not from Levi as Kohanim were, so therefore the term Kohen must have an alternative meaning.

Nachmanides, from 13th century Barcelona, has a different understanding, writing that Kohen means servant. Our people’s task as they are about to receive G-d’s Torah is to commit to being His servants. G-d made us free from slavery so that we would serve Him wholeheartedly, as a Kohen must serve G-d through the offering of sacrifices.

The interpretation that I prefer is that of Rabbi Ovadiah Seforno, of 16th century Italy. He interprets Kohanim as “instructing the entire human race that we should all call out in the name of G-d and to serve Him with one accord. Each of us is a Kohen of G-d,[3] instructed to teach Torah and live life in the most ethical manner. In being given the Torah, our task is to spread monotheism and our service of G-d to all the people of the world, to be the active agents of G-d, the “G-d Squad” if you will. This is a democratized process, not limited to the work of the Kohanim but rather one which applies to every Israelite.

The key is the democratization-that we are a “kingdom of Kohanim.” The obligation to follow a higher ethical and moral standard is not limited to a small subset of our people but rather applies to each and every one of us. G-d wants us to stick together as a people, united in our bringing His presence into the world.

Why then is the word Kohen used? Perhaps it is because Kohanim had to hold themselves to higher religious standards than Israelites. They were more limited in terms of what they could eat, who they could marry and where they could go. Unlike other Israelites they could not own their own land or venture off to acquire more material possessions. These restrictions were meant to focus them on the spiritual task of serving G-d and atoning for the wrongdoings of the Israelite community. Furthermore, the Kohanim had to be pure, without blemishes. All of Israel was meant to emulate the Kohanim-not to follow their restrictions but to conduct their affairs scrupulously, with honor and out of devotion to G-d.

The second part of the verse, being a גוי קדוש, a holy nation, is far less commented upon yet I believe equally as intriguing. What does it mean to be holy? No one’s 100 percent sure-it’s one of those things that you know when you see it. Many commentators define holiness as being “set apart.”[4] This makes sense when you think about the interplay in rabbinic literature between the גוים, all the other nations of the world, and the גוי אחד, the one, unique nation of Israel. Every weekday morning and afternoon, we pray that G-d שומר גוי אחד ושומר גוי קדוש, protect the one nation and protect the holy nation which is set apart from all others. In being a גוי קדוש, our actions need to be such that they separate us from the societal norms. This is not to say that we are any better than anyone else but rather that as a people we need to follow a high ethical and moral standard.

How many times have you cringed when you’ve heard of a Jew who did something illegal or unethical? How many times have you wondered if someone’s actions are “bad for the Jews”? We inherently know that we are a גוי קדוש, one nation which is supposed to rightly or wrongly follow a supreme moral example in our service of G-d. Our ancestors resolutely committed to it, proclaiming נעשה ונשמע, WE WILL DO AND WE WILL HEAR. This is of course easier said than done, as we see with the creation of the Golden Calf 40 days after Moses went up Sinai to receive the 10 Commandments. However, we resolutely made the statement that we strive to observe G-d’s will and set an example for all the other nations.

Let us think of ways that we can fulfill this mission statement, being united as a people in service of the Almighty and striving to always live in accordance with a high code of ethics. When we see a member of our community going astray, let us gently but firmly fulfill הוכח תוכיח את עמיתך, taking him/her aside and asking him/her to correct his/her behavior. May we every day emulate the precept of נעשה ונשמע, actively working to make this world more G-dly, more righteous, more ethical and more spiritual.

[1] Jonathan Sacks,  Covenant & Consersation: A Weekly Reading of the Jewish Bible Exodus: The Book of Redemption London, England: Maggid Books & The Orthodox Union, 2010), p. 131.

[2] 2 Samuel 8:18

[3]Based off Isaiah 61:6

[4] See Rashi on Leviticus 19:2

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