You may have noticed I like travel analogies. The reason is simple – I love flying. There is still something magical to me about getting on an airplane and being whisked away to a new place, even if that place is really cold or even if it’s for business instead of vacation. I get excited about travel. When I was younger and I traveled with my father, I felt special because we had a “World Perks” card and could get into the secret club. That made travel even more special. Even the little things like having a lower group number so I could get on the plane earlier were huge in my eyes.
These days I don’t travel a ton or have a perks card, and therefore I have no special reward status. Everyone gets to board the plane before I do. I’m not “priority access,” and I don’t have platinum, gold, silver, bronze, or even aluminum status with any airline. I am simply a traveler. I can’t even board early because I’m traveling with a small child. The single reason I wanted children was to be able to board the plane early, and now the airlines have taken that away from me too. Ok, maybe not the single reason.
I am simply a passenger, coach class.
In parshat Tetzaveh, the Torah portion we read this week, God gives the commandments for what clothing the priests will wear, how they should be fashioned, and the materials that should be used in their fashioning. The priests are set to wear special clothing that distinguishes them from others in the service of God. These clothes are meant to add an aura of holiness to the priests as they complete their work. Since these vestments and garments are to be used for such a unique purpose, God gives a special instruction regarding who is to make them. Aside from this section on apparel, the parshah is mostly centered around the role of the priest.
The Israelite nation stems from the twelve tribes of the twelve sons of Jacob. The ones who are considered to be Priests, Kohanim, come from Aaron, the Levites come from the tribe of Levi, and everyone else is an Israelite. The Kohanim are those that have the honor in our parshah. They wear special clothes, perform sacred rituals, and are leaders in a general sense. The Levites help the Kohanim. They too have special roles in order to make sure the ritual rites are performed. The Israelites are simply congregants, members. Even today, Kohanim traditionally receive the first aliyah to the Torah and Levites receive the second, and only after this do the Israelites have an honor.
This process might have felt exclusionary, especially if you consider that a hereditary priestly class could easily include any unworthy children of a Kohen and exclude those who would actually want to serve. At the same time, there are advantages. It meant that the priesthood was free of outsiders who might use it for personal advantage, and it allowed – and still allows – for a legacy of ritual to be passed on from birth. This hierarchy is one of the few ways in which we’ve held onto the traditions of our past and preserved them.
Not everyone can be a Kohen. Think about it. If everyone were a Kohen, then no one would be a Kohen, just as we can’t all have platinum status, because then we’d have to come up with an entirely new way to board the plane. But the fact is today your status as a Kohen, Levite, or Israelite doesn’t limit how much you can give of yourself as part of our Jewish community. We can all learn, lead, pray, and support; those are the true perks.