“Now I take the Levites instead of every first-born (b’chor) of the Israelites.” (Numbers 8:18)
It was this boy I prayed for; and the LORD has granted me what I asked of Him. I, in turn, hereby lend him to the LORD. For as long as he lives he is lent to the LORD.” (1 Samuel: 28)
The Torah conceives priests not just as people who bring sacrifices, but as people who are themselves a kind of sacrifice. In this week’s parasha, Beha’alotecha, the notion of the priest- as-sacrifice is made explicit: “Let the people lay their hands upon the Levites and let Aaron designate the Levites before the LORD as an elevation offering from the Israelites, that they may perform the service of the LORD” (Num. 8:10) To lay one’s hands upon someone or something (s’micha) is to designate it as a sacrifice. Notably, this is the same word we use today for rabbinic ordination. Insofar as rabbis are like priests, they too must understand themselves as a kind of sacrifice. In the opening of the Book of Samuel, Hannah, after years struggling with infertility, gives up her first born and only son, “lending” him to God to become a prophet. Samuel, like the priests, is himself a kind of offering. To be a leader is to be a sacrifice.
Of course, the sacrifice of the priests is not literal—the leaders are spared the gruesome death of the animals; yet the metaphor is strong. Their life of service, of apartness, is possibly a kind of social death. As I understand it, the priest must serve God knowing that he shouldn’t be alive. It is his consciousness of death that makes him mindful of his task and protected from distraction.
One way to understand sacrifice is as a form of substitution, the offering of one thing in place of another. The Torah this week claims the priests are a substitute for the first-born sons that should have died during the plague in Egypt. In so doing, it continues the long-standing motif in Genesis of switching in the latecomer for the firstborn (Isaac for Ishmael, Jacob for Esau, Rachel for Leah). The latecomer’s ascent over the given is a pattern throughout Tanakh. The second set of tablets are a substitute for the first, broken ones. The second generation of ex-slaves enters the Promised land where the first generation could not. King David, the second king, overtakes Shaul, the first. YHWH, the God of mercy, becomes the God of Revelation, even as Elohim, the God of judgment and Creation, opens the Torah.
Yes, priesthood is defined by birth, not merit, choice, or conversion; yet the institution itself challenges the norm of primogeniture—the assumption that first is best. The priests are not the firstborns but substitutes for firstborns because the person who serves the divine finds value where society does not. To be born a priest is to inherit a mantle whose force is the deconstruction of inheritance. Those who know God know that things could be otherwise. The radical hope for another world (and critique of this one) belongs to the latecomer, the disruptor. The firstborn represents incumbency.
The first two children in the Torah are Cain and Abel. Cain, the firstborn, whose name means acquisition, repeats what his parents do—he tills the soil. Abel (Hevel), whose name means “fleeting” discovers a new trade; he becomes a shepherd. How did he know one could become a keeper of livestock? A cursory glance at Biblical anthropology suggests the second born is less influenced by tradition than the first born. The priest is a rule follower, to be sure, yet the rule he follows is contrarian. Priests don’t own property. They do not buy into the same prideful illusions as everyone else.
Ecclesiastes begins, havel havelim, hakol havel. “Fleeting, fleeting, everything is fleeting.” The usual translations parse hevel as vanity or futility. The word is Abel’s name, the name juxtaposed with Cain’s. “Everything is fleeting” is an insight possessed by those who are themselves Abel-like, which, I am offering, means priest-like.
A quick rendering into self-help speak of Ecclesiastes 1 is something like “You can’t take it with you.” No amount of worldly glory or achievement will matter in the end. The Judge of Judges, as it were, won’t care much about any of the things on our resumes. Death has the final word in response to all our pursuits. But you can also read the text another way. Hakol means the entirety of the spiritual kingdom, all the profundities of heaven—it, too, is vanity, is fleeting, ethereal. Insight is granted to us only insofar as we aren’t attached to it. Just as we can’t take material possessions with us into the world of spirit, we can’t take spiritual insights with us into the world of matter. We can’t take true enlightenment to earth, can’t preserve our epiphanies in language. Soon, this d’var will end. A new word will be needed. But this is a positive thing. That which is like Abel is the source of discovery and difference. Cain energy is technically impressive, but creatively stale. The risk of the priest is that he becomes complacent, bringing a sacrifice because “that’s what one does.”
Let’s say that Cain (first born) and Abel (second born, substitute) are two aspects of the self; that our natural inclination is to kill the part of ourselves that just is in favor of the part of ourselves that has something to prove, to boast, to accomplish. What need do we have for our sheer existence when there is so much to do? But when we do this—when we kill our inner Abel, our simple shepherd—God retorts “the voice of your brother’s blood cries out to me.” That is, “I, God, want your fleetingness, your sheer existence. It is only apparently insignificant. You thought it had no body, nothing of substance. But behold, it is very much alive. Here is its blood.” Less allegorically put, the priests have an important task even as they apparently are cut off from the “practical” folks. They could have been “chosen ones,” they could have been “doers,” but in not pursuing what society tells them they should, they mirror for everyone the possibility of greater agency and freedom.
On the one hand, the Levites are an exceptional class of Israelites. On the other hand, the entire people are summoned to be a nation of priests, making the Levites an example of something to which the people can aspire, if in a more moderate way.
We must live with a sense that our existence is a gift. We must live with a sense that the ethereal and the holy matter even if we can’t prove or defend it. We must not let what we are given exhaust our sense of what might be. We must not diminish what is fleeting, but embrace it. When we do this we become chaperones of the divine presence and facilitators of personal and social transformation.
Zohar Atkins @Etz Hasadeh
Etz Hasadeh is a Center for Existential Torah Study.
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