Justice, Religion

The Vort: Tzav – Transparency, Accountability, and the Priesthood

We are in the thick of an entire set of parshiot dealing almost exclusively with priests. A large amount, especially when we consider the following how the fundamental aspects of Jewish life: sacred time, sacred family relationships, sacred eating, etc, are each given only have a few verses here and there. In total, these fundamental aspects of Jewish life cover a small fraction of the space given to parshiot dealing with the priestly service in the mishkan. Why?
Why is the Torah so fixated on priests? If the Torah is supposed to be a document for the entire Jewish people, why so much detail about the practice of priesthood, something only 1/24 of the population would engage in? I had the honor to hear an answer from Rabbi Saul Berman, who explained it as follows:
To understand the Torah’s lengthy description of the practices our priests, we need to understand what the biblical reference point for priests was: the extremely powerful priests of Egypt. We see this from Genesis 47:20:
“And Yosef made it a law until this day for the land of Egypt to be a fifth part unto Pharoah; only the land of the priests alone was not Pharoahs
The priests were above the law; even Pharoah couldn’t touch them! And what was the source of the Egyptian priests’ power? Death. Egyptian religion was focused on death and attaining afterlife. In order to make it to the afterlife, one had to be guided through the end of this life with the right objects, the right incantations, and have ones body preserved in the right way. These activities, and therefore the passage to the next world, were entirely controlled by the priests.
The potential for corruption is striking: the priests had a monopoly on the afterlife. That left them untouchable, free to use their power in any way they wanted. No accountability, no transparency, total power. Want to get into afterlife? That will be $100,000. Have sex with me. Worship me. Scary stuff.
The Torah is a direct critique to this concentration of power. Jewish priests, as we see in these parshiot, are not only not in control of death and the afterlife, they are forbidden to even come near it! The priestly taboo around death is so that they do not become gatekeepers to the next world, but instead stay focused on this one. Jewish priests are servants and facilitators, to teach and serve and help the Jewish people to “choose life” and grow closer to God.
And what about the secret rites and lack of transparency characteristic of Egyptian priests? The Torah rejects them. That’s why the Torah spends so many chapters detailing the priestly rituals, to create transparency of everything they’re doing. No hidden tricks or secret knowledge. That transparency protects the common person from abuses of religious power.
The Torah’s focus on priesthood is not just some cultic show and tell. There is a profound critique of religious power and control, and a call for literacy and transparency throughout the people. These are fundamental Jewish values. May we be successful in realizing them in our world today.

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