The theme of the priesthood is explored in this week's portion. The priests were obviously the religious leaders of the Israelites. However, there are a number of problematic issues regarding their status. One of the great mysteries in the Torah concerns the laws of the Red Heifer, whereby the priest is commanded to conduct a ritual so that a person defiled by contact with the dead is returned to a state of purity. At the same time, the dutiful priest discovers that while facilitating the impure person's return to purity, he himself has become impure.
Torah also commanded not to give the Levite tribe an ancestral share in the land. This was solved by transferring 42 cities from the other tribes' inheritance to the Levites and priests; these, as well as six additional "cities of refuge" described in the Torah, were islands of protection for anyone who killed accidentally.
In order to begin to understand the true role of Jewish leadership, we must remember that Abraham was not the first person after Noah to devote himself to God. Noah's son, Shem, really qualified for this preeminent position.
According to the Midrash, it was he, together with his son Ever, who established the first yeshiva in history. When Rebecca, Abraham's daughter-in-law, felt unwell in her pregnancy, she sought the spiritual advice of Shem. After she gives birth to twins, Jacob the younger son is described as "dwelling in tents."
Rashi tells us that these are the tents of Torah, the tent of Shem and the tent of Ever. And Rashi explains that the guests of honor "at the great feast Abraham made on the day that Isaac was weaned" were "the greatest of the generation (gedolai hador): Shem and Ever and Elimelech."
But if this is true, why does the historic chain of the Jewish people begin with Abraham and not with Shem and Ever, who preceded Abraham?
Said simply, Shem and Ever were Torah giants, but they were deeply involved only in the spiritual progress of their students, the intellectual and religious elite. Abraham on the other hand, understood that the mitzvah V'ahavta et HaShem Elokecha ("And you shall love the Lord your God)" means that one must make God, the God of righteousness, compassion and peace, beloved by all humankind; this requires going out and traveling and teaching the masses. Indeed, this is what Abraham did.
This element of the Abrahamic personality was codified by the Torah into the priesthood. The Kohen-priest had to love his fellow Jews so much that he would gladly be willing to defile himself so that another Jew could become pure.
It is here we find the secret of the mystery of the red heifer!
Rabbi Shlomo Riskin is the chief rabbi of Efrat.