In the midst of the Israelites’ building the Mishkan, the sacred dwelling-place for God during their wilderness sojourn, this parsha/Torah reading has God giving instructions to Moses regarding the attire of the High Priest, the Kohen Gadol. What was his function? He was intermediary between God and the people, charged with preparing a strict regimen of offerings, not all of them burnt. These included the lechem ha-panim, or the “showbread,” twelve loaves of which lay on the altar-table during the entire week (amazingly retaining their freshness, long before chemical additives were even invented), to be eaten by the Levites that Shabbat. Various oil- and grain-offerings, in addition to the firstlings of the flock and herd, were also dedicated to God.
When studying these offerings, we must never forget that they were not meant for God alone: the Mishkan, and its successor, the Bet Ha-Mikdash/Holy Temple, were also the source of sustenance for the lesser priests, their wives and children—indeed, the entire tribe of Levi, forbidden by God to engage in any occupation save caring for the temple and its accoutrements. When an Israelite girl married a priest or Levite, she and her subsequent offspring could eat only of the hekdesh, the meats, vegetables, and fruits dedicated to God, of which the Levites claimed ten percent. Many modern-day churches continue this tradition by requiring their better-off members to “tithe,” or donate 10% of their incomes, while we Jews make do with a system of dues-paying memberships. A rabbinical school professor once told me, years ago, “The Torah is always right. If temples tithed their members, not a congregation in this country would be running a deficit!”
The High Priest was also the people’s shaman, charged in the Book of Leviticus with examining any boil, lesion, or skin infection which might break out amidst the people. In an age long before hydrocortisone was available, the only “cure” he could offer was to quarantine the sufferers for a week, after which the skin disease would have done one of two things: either heal, or not. If the patient recovered, he was to bring a thanksgiving offering. If not, well….
Finally, the High Priest was a sort of low-level prophet, guardian of the Urim v’Tumim, translated as “Signs and Wonders.” These were the twelve jewels which adorned his breastplate, and which, according to legend, were capable of answering “yes” or “no” queries. If the answer was “yes,” the stones would light up. (The jewels survive to this day on the seal of Yale University, whose president from 1778 to 1795, the Rev. Ezra Stiles, required freshmen to study the Hebrew language in order to study the Bible in its original, unlike Harvard, where only upperclassmen were tasked with Semitic studies. Indeed, Rev. Stiles’s high esteem for Hebrew led him to befriend Rabbi Raphael Karigal [1732-1777], a representative of the Hebron, Israel, Jewish community, during the latter’s visit to Newport, RI, in 1773.)
Jews must understand that there is no connection between today’s rabbis and cantors and the kohanim/priests of ages ago. Rabbis are teachers, cantors sing (and may teach, as well). They are not intermediaries; every Jew prays directly to God. Nonetheless, old beliefs die hard, and many Chasidic Jews, for example, believe that their rebbe has God by the sleeve; there are stories, and even jokes, about this.
The office of High Priest has passed into the mists of Jewish history, although there have been isolated whispers calling for its restoration: when the State of Israel was declared in 1948, and again following the triumphant Six-Day War of 1967, a small but hopeful coterie of kohanim (those Jews through whom the priestly line has been passed) in yeshivote/rabbinical schools worldwide, began studying the laws of offerings, certain that Messiah would soon come, the Holy Temple would be raised, and their services needed once again. Alas, Messiah tarries still, but Jewish eschatological hopes will never die.