“God spoke to Moses, saying, “Pinchas (a son of Eleazar and grandson of Aaron the priest) was the one who zealously took up My cause among the Israelites and turned My anger away from them, so that I did not destroy them in My demand for exclusive worship. Therefore, tell him that I have given him My covenant of peace. This shall imply a covenant of eternal priesthood…” (Numbers 25:10-13)
In order to comprehend the meaning of priesthood in Judaism, one must first understand that initially, all first-born sons were meant to be ‘kohanin’, or priests. In that way, the entire population, with all of its families, was connected personally to the priesthood – a fact that surely contributed to the general spiritual level of the nation. However, after the first-born, together with the rest of the nation, participated in the Sin of the Golden Calf, their status was lowered. In their place, the Tribe of Levi, who did not participate in the sin, were sanctified, and the sons of Aaron’s family were chosen to be the ‘kohanim’.
Ostensibly, the concept of the first-born being a ‘kohen’ seems to be ideal. In this manner, all families were connected to ‘kedusha’, or holiness, for every family had a ‘kohen’ who was entirely occupied with piety. This person was not just any representative, but the first-born – the most honorable amongst the sons, and thus, his sanctified mission also obtained important status. In practice, however, we were unsuccessful in fulfilling this wonderful concept, and instead of the first-born influencing the entire nation, the general, secular atmosphere blurred their uniqueness and they were drawn after the nation and sinned. In order to educate ‘kohanim’ to truly be spiritual people who are not influenced by turbulent secular life, a need arose to sanctify an entire family for the task of priesthood; a family whose entire job is to strengthen holiness and spirituality amongst Israel. Therefore, after the first-born sinned, Aaron and his son’s were chosen to be ‘kohanim’. Incidentally, it is fitting to point o
ut that some authorities say that in the future, the first-born will return to their original status and serve together with the ‘kohanin’ in the priesthood.
The ‘kohanim’ had two primary tasks. First, to teach Torah and Jewish law to the nation of Israel, as it is written (Malachi 2:7): “For the priest’s lips should keep knowledge, and they should seek Torah from his mouth.” The second task was to be men of kindness and peace, similar to Aaron the priest who “loved peace, pursued peace, loved his fellow man and drew them near to the Torah” (Avot 1:12). It is told that Aaron the ‘kohain’ knew how to make peace between neighbors and between husband and wife, and that thousands of Jewish children were named “Aaron” in his honor – for without him and his peace-making efforts, many of them would never have been born.
In order to enable the ‘kohanim’ to develop these two fundamental characteristics – wisdom and kindness – the Torah determined that the priests shall not receive an inheritance in the land of Israel, and that their livelihood would come from the tithes and priestly gifts granted to them by the Jewish nation. In this way, the ‘kohanim’ were free to learn, educate, and direct the people in the ways of the Torah. By receiving the priestly gifts from the people, the ‘kohanim’ would be connected to them with love and honor, and would make an effort to fulfill their spiritual mission for the sake of the entire Jewish nation. The fact that they did not possess land and were not partners in the competitive business world made it easier to nurture within themselves love and kindness towards the nation.
This is the essence of ‘birkat kohanim’, or the priestly blessing, that from within their love for the nation, the ‘kohanim’ deserve to be the emissaries who bless Israel in the name of God. This is the wording of the blessing: “Who sanctified us with the holiness of Aaron and commanded us to bless His people, Israel, with love.”