Sending Israel on its Mission

What does it mean to be G-d’s “Kingdom of Kohanim”?

Daniel Pinner,

Judaism Daniel Pinner
Daniel Pinner

Parashat Yitro begins by relating that “Yitro [Jethro], the minister of Midian, Moshe’s father-in-law, heard of everything that G-d had done to Moshe and to Israel his nation” (Exodus 18:1). The word the Torah uses here to describe Yitro is kohen: “…Yitro, the kohen of Midian…”.

Sixteen chapters and several decades earlier, the Torah had first introduced Yitro, albeit without yet naming him, with the words “the minister [kohen] of Midian had seven daughters…” (Exodus 2:16). The Mechilta de-Rabbi Yishmael, Yitro, Massechta de-Amalek 1 and the Mechilta de-Rabbi Shimon bar Yochay 18:1 record two different interpretations of the word kohen (which we have rendered “minister”): Rabbi Yehoshua said that it means a minister of religion (i.e. a priest of idolatry), and Rabbi Elazar of Modi’im said that it means a national leader (akin to a senior government minister).

The verb le-khahen (the root of the noun kohen) means “to minister, to serve in a post”; hence the task of a kohen, whether a minister of religion or a government minister, is to minister to his people, to serve their temporal or spiritual needs.

The first contribution that Yitro, the [former] minister of Midian, had made to the Jewish nation was decades earlier when he took Moshe, a homeless and destitute refugee, into his house, gave him shelter, and gave him his daughter Tziporah as his wife.

In Parashat Yitro he makes another contribution to the Jewish nation. Seeing how Moshe spent his entire day adjudicating disputes among the nation and teaching them G-d’s laws, Yitro suggested to Moshe how to expedite the legal system (Exodus 18:13-26). In his decades of serving as a minister he had garnered wisdom and experience, and he now passed that on to his son-in-law Moshe.

And having learnt from his father-in-law some of the wisdom of government, Moshe then sent Yitro back to his own country (v. 27). Moshe sent him off in the greatest glory in the world and with many gifts (Mechilta de-Rabbi Shimon bar Yochay 18:27, Midrash Lekach Tov), and he went back to Midian to convert his family and as many other Midianites as he could to belief in the One G-d (Mechilta ibid., Targum Yonatan to Exodus 18:27, Rashi to Exodus 18:27, Ramban to Exodus 18:1).

The Children of Israel then continued their trek deeper into the desert, arriving at Mount Sinai on the 1st of Sivan (Exodus 19:1-2), and began their final preparations for receiving the Torah. And there, G-d told Moshe to convey His words to His nation: “You have seen what I did to Egypt, and that I bore you on eagles’ wings, bringing you to Me. And now, if you will assuredly hearken to My voice and keep My Covenant, then…you will be My Kingdom of Kohanim [Priests] and holy nation” (vs. 4-6).

What does it mean to be G-d’s “Kingdom of Kohanim”?

To answer this, let us define the task of the Kohanim in the Jewish nation, and define the exact relationship between the Kohanim and rest of the nation.

The great commentator, lexicographer, and grammarian the Radak (Rabbi David Kimchi, France, c.1160-c.1235), defines the Kohanim as “the servants of Hashem and the leaders of the nation” (Sefer ha-Shorashim, entry כהן).

Rabbi Meir Kahane Hy”d (New York and Israel, 1932-1990) offers an additional insight: “the word כהן also derives from the root כון (prepare); this root also gives the word נכון, nakhon (prepared, ready; or firm, correct), as in the verse ‘his heart is firm (נכון), trusting in Hashem (Psalms 112:7); and ‘Prepare (הכון) for going towards your G-d O Israel’ (Amos 4:12). For the Kohen has to be ideologically firm, and to be prepared to hasten to serve G-d in every possible way, since he is certain that G-d is firm, true, steady. The Kohen’s faith, too, has to be firm and unwavering, with the meaning of the word נכון as it appears in the verse, ‘the kingdom was נכון (firm, stable, steady) in Solomon’s hand’ (1 Kings 2:46)” (Peirush HaMaccabee, Exodus page 178, English translation page 405).

Just as Yitro, the Kohen of Midian, was responsible for the Midianites temporal or spiritual welfare, so the task of the Kohanim in Israel is to teach the rest of the nation how to serve G-d, and to inspire them to follow Him, His ways, His teachings. The mission of the Kohanim is to bless the nation (Numbers 6:22-27), thereby elevating the rest of the nation in sanctity and faith in G-d.

In these last few days before giving us the Torah, G-d charged us with our intended mission in His world – to be His “Kingdom of Kohanim”. Our national relationship with the other nations is supposed to be similar to the relationship between the Kohanim and rest of the Jewish nation. We are collectively supposed to be “a light unto the nations” (Isaiah 42:6, 49:6), the nation in whom and by whom all the other nations are blessed (Genesis 18:18, 22:18, 26:4).

That is to say, we are responsible for the other nations’ spiritual welfare; G-d’s holy nation, who teaches the other nations the reality of the One true G-d, how to worship Him, how to follow in His paths.

Let us be clear. We have no ideal of converting non-Jews to Judaism; G-d gave the Torah specifically to the Jewish nation. He began the Ten Commandments with the words, “I am Hashem your G-d, Who brought you out from the land of Egypt, from the slave-house” (Exodus 20:2), which is clearly aimed specifically at the Jews. (After all, He did not take the Arabs or the Swedes or the Turks out of Egypt.)

But twenty-four generations before G-d gave us the Torah, He gave six commandments to Adam, six commandments which devolve upon all humanity, consisting of five prohibitions and one positive commandment. The prohibitions are against murder, theft, idolatry, blasphemy, and sexual immorality (homosexuality, bestiality, adultery, and incest). The positive commandment is the obligation to institute courts of justice to enforce these (and whatever other laws any given society decides to enact: law-enforcement must never be random or capricious or arbitrary).

For the first ten generations of humanity, these six commandments sufficed. But after the Flood, G-d for the first time granted permission to humans to eat animal flesh (Genesis 9:3), and He then added a seventh prohibition – the prohibition against eating a limb torn from a living animal.

These laws are enumerated in the Talmud (Sanhedrin 56a) and the Midrash (Yalkut Shimoni, Bereishit 22), and codified as practical law by the Rambam (Mishneh Torah, Laws of Kings Chapter 9).

Our task as Jews, as G-d’s nation, should be to spread the light of G-d, to teach His truth to the entire world.

As the S’forno (Rabbi Ovadyah S’forno, Italy, c.1470-1550) explains, “‘You will be My Kingdom of Kohanim’ – this is how you will be My most treasured of nations: because you will be a Kingdom of Kohanim, understanding and teaching the entire human race to call, all of them, on the Name of Hashem and so serve Him in unity, as Israel will in the future time to come, as it says ‘And you will be called the Kohanim of Hashem’ (Isaiah 61:6), and as it also says ‘For out of Zion shall go forth the Torah’ ibid. 2:3)”.

A time there was when Israel was a military and economic superpower, a kingdom that the entire world held in esteem, a nation that could inspire all humanity. That was in the days of King David and King Solomon. But due to our sins we lost our Land, foreigners invaded it, and we were driven into exile.

It might appear that being in exile would make it impossible for us to be “a light unto the nations”: after all, how can a powerless and defeated nation, scattered in a hundred countries of exile, perpetually living at other nations’ largesse, be an inspiration to anyone?

And yet the Talmud cites Rabbi Elazar: “The Holy One, blessed be He, exiled Israel among the nations solely so that converts could join them” (Pesachim 87b).

More than quarter of a century ago, I heard an explanation from Rabbi Meir Kahane Hy”d concerning this statement. Obviously our exile is a desecration of the Name of G-d, indicating as it does that G-d’s nation is weak, and by extension that G-d Himself has been defeated. But given the unfortunate fact of exile, Rabbi Elazar sought desperately for some positive aspect, and this was the one benefit he could find: by being scattered among the nations, we had the opportunity to spread the concept of the existence of the One true G-d.

Indeed, this statement appears in the context of several rabbinic sayings which find G-d’s compassion even in the midst of His anger at His people.

Rabbi Elazar obviously did not mean that the exile is an ideal. Whenever the Talmud cites Rabbi Elazar without defining which Rabbi Elazar (there were more than 70 rabbis with this name in the Talmud), it refers to Rabbi Elazar ben Pedat, a second-generation (mid-2nd century) Amora.

Rabbi Elazar ben Pedat was born in Babylon, where as a young man he administered to Rav and Shmuel (Hullin 111b), but left his promising career behind and made Aliyah to Israel before he was even married (Berachot 16a). When he made Aliyah he cited the prophetic verse, “My Hand will be against the prophets who foresee falsely and who divine lies…they will not come to the soil of Israel” (Ezekiel 13:9), and said: “I have saved myself from this punishment” (Ketuvot 112a).

Though he fell into terrible poverty in the Land of Israel (Ta’anit 25a) he insisted on remaining there – and even earned for himself the honorific “the supreme authority in the Land of Israel” (Yoma 9b, Niddah 20b, Gittin 19b). Clearly, he did not view the exile as an ideal.

G-d’s charge to us to be His “Kingdom of Kohanim and holy nation” requires us to be a sovereign nation in our Land.

The Rambam, in the midst of a halakhic analysis of the Mashiach, addresses the two great religions which Judaism spawned. “Everything that Jesus of Nazareth and the Ishmaelite who arose after him [Mohammed] did are only to pave the path for the King Mashiach, and to prepare the entire world to worship Hashem in unity… How is this? – The entire world has already been filled with the concept of Mashiach, with the concept of the Torah, and with the concept of the mitzvot, and these concepts have already spread forth to the remotest islands and to many nations… Some [the Christians] say: These mitzvot were true, but they have been abrogated for our time, and are not supposed to apply for all the generations; and others [the Muslims] say: These are secret mystical matters which cannot be understood in their plain sense, and the Mashiach has already come and revealed the secrets. And when the true King Mashiach will arise and succeed and be exalted, all of them will immediately repent and realise that their ancestors bequeathed them a lie, and that their prophets and their ancestors led them astray” (Mishneh Torah, Laws of Kings 11:4, which has been censored out of many European editions of the Mishneh Torah).

Does this contain an implied criticism of Israel? – Maybe. After all, spreading the knowledge of G-d, the concept of Mashiach, the knowledge of Torah and mitzvot to all humanity was the mission of the Jewish nation – G-d’s “Kingdom of Kohanim and holy nation”. But because of our sins, because of our exile, we were unable to fulfil our mission, and other nations took on this task.

Though they distorted the authentic message, they succeeded where we failed. Both Christianity and Islam are (according to the Rambam) an improvement on the completely pagan idolatry which they replaced. Thanks to them, the entire world has heard of the concept of a Jewish nation, of one G-d, and of Mashiach – however inaccurate and imprecise and mistaken the details may be.

G-d’s true and complete message can be transmitted only through His Kingdom of Kohanim and holy nation. And we can only fulfil our destiny of inspiring humanity when we reflect G-d’s sovereignty by being ourselves sovereign in our Land.

As the Ibn Ezra (Rabbi Avraham Ibn Ezra, Spain, Morocco, England, Israel, and France, 1092-1167) says, “‘A Kingdom of Kohanim’ – because through you will My Sovereignty be seen, when you will be My deputies” (Commentary to Exodus 19:6).

And the S’forno similarly writes: “‘A holy nation’ – unconquerable, which will exist forever among humanity”.

And, as the Midrash Lekach Tov expounds: “‘You will be My Kingdom of Kohanim and holy nation’ – meaning, I and no one else will rule over you”.

And immediately after G-d called us to be His “Kingdom of Kohanim and holy nation”, Moshe summoned the Elders and transmitted G-d’s words to them and to the rest of the nation. And then he charged the entire nation to prepare themselves physically and spiritually for G-d’s manifestation on Mount Sinai, three days hence, when He appeared before the entire nation, introducing Himself with the words, “I am Hashem your G-d, Who brought you out from the land of Egypt, from the slave-house”.