Beit Midrash

  • Torah Portion and Tanach
  • Korach
To dedicate this lesson
Hirsch At Your Table

The Kohen’s Responsibility

A brief Dvar Torah on the Parsha, based on R. Samson Raphael Hirsch’s Torah Commentary


Rabbi Matityahu Clark

ויאמר ד' אל אהרן אתה ובניך ובית אביך אתך תשאו את עוון המקדש ואתה ובניך אתך תשאו את עוון כהונתכם. (Nm 18:1)
Because of the Korah rebellion, Moshe seeks to solidify the position of Aharon as the Kohen Gadol. He collects a staff from each of the tribal chiefs and places them together with Aharon's staff in the אוהל מועד, in front of the עדות, the place that represents the presence of God. God causes Aharon's staff to blossom, a clear indication that Aharon is the one chosen to be the Kohen Gadol. God then tells Aharon of the responsibilities that he and his descendents must bear in the Mikdash.

The declaration to Aharon regarding his responsibilities in maintaining the integrity of the Mikdash is a direct result of the entire Korah episode. After seeing what happened to the two hundred and fifty rebels, the people were concerned as to the methods of correct access to the Mikdash. The people were afraid that any misstep could result in their deaths. This verse states categorically that only the Kohanim and the Levites would be punished for irregularities in the Mikdash.

One can learn this from the introductory phrase of the verseויאמר ד'/God said. The usual phrase would start with וידבר ד'/God spoke. This phrase indicates that this was not a new law but a clarification of one already given. That clarification was necessary because the people were under the impression that they were collectively responsible for ensuring the proper maintenance of the Mikdash.

The word ויאמר is from the root א-מ-ר which means "to organize speech to be heard and understood." The root connotes an effort to explain the speech content. The word וידבר is from the root ד-ב-ר which means "to combine separate items into one." This root is a declaration or a command without concern for the listener's comprehension.

In order to understand what those exact responsibilities are, one must look to the meanings and differences between עוון המקדש/sin of the Mikdash, and עוון כהונתכם/sin of the K'huna. The Mikdash is a place, the K’huna a profession and a calling: how can we speak about their sins as if they were human beings? The word Mikdash in this verse does not refer to the structure of the Mishkan, its metal, its wood, its furnishings and utensils, but to an institutional mission whose goal is to protect and disseminate קדושה/holiness. This is achieved by the bringing of Korbanot/sacrifices that express and instruct us in the details of living a Torah life. A sin of the Mikdash/עוון המקדש, may involve misconduct in procedure or protocol, but the culpability lies in how such misconduct impinges on the message that is to be conveyed to the Jewish people.

The words מקדש and קדושה are from the root ק-ד-ש which means "to dedicate all resources" to holiness and sanctity. The word עוון is from the root ע-ו-ה which means "to deviate from the proper way."

The sin of עוון הכהונה refers to misuse of the Kohen's position and role for personal gain.
The Kohen’s role is to lead the people in fulfilling the mission exemplified by the Mikdash. The sin of corruption demeans the place of the Mikdash in the life of the people. It can lead to a complete disenchantment and rejection of God and the Mikdash by those whom the Kohen should be leading, teaching, and inspiring.

The word כהונה is from the root כ-ה-ן which means "to serve as leader." This root is a derivative of כ-ו-ן which means "to prepare."

The juxtaposition of the words in this message to Aharon indicates the responsibility and involvement of the Levites as well as the Kohanim. When referring to the עוון המקדש there is the added phrase of בית אביך/your father's house. This phrase encompasses the entire tribe of Levi and makes it responsible for protecting the image of the Mikdash. Those responsible for עוון הכהונה, the possibility of corruption for personal gain, are limited to Aharon and his descendants, who constitute that part of Levi that has been designated as Kohanim.

The word בית is from the root ב-י-ת "to contain and protect," usually in a house. It also refers to the family that lives in that house. The word אביך is from the root א-ב-ה "to submit to existing demand," usually referring to the father, the head of the family.

The creation of the Mikdash was to bring God into the lives of the people: ועשו לי מקדש ושכנתי בתוכם.. To fulfill the purpose of the Mikdash, those associated with it and charged with its operation must maintain an unwavering focus on the details of its functioning. Jewish history in both the First and the Second Commonwealth periods showed that disregard for this principle brought destruction and exile.

The word ועשו is from the root ע-ש-ה which means "to make." The word ושכנתיis from the root ש-כ-ן which means "to dwell." The word בתוכםis from the root ת-ו-ך which means "to center" and place in the middle.

Ultimately, then, the people need not fear coming to the Mikdash because it is their right and duty to do so. Protecting the image and reputation of the Mikdash are the sole responsibilities of those charged with the conducting and maintaining the activities in God's house.

Copyright © 2014, Matityahu Clark. All Rights Reserved. This is an excerpt from the forthcoming Hirsch At Your Table, a collection of brief divrei torah based on R. Samson Raphael Hirsch’s Torah Commentary.
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