Like priests of old, we must self-deny to know the Torahs joys

Deuteronomy 16:18-21:9
Isaiah 51:12-52:12

The land of Israel was divided among all of the tribes but one, the tribe of Levi. Tribe members alone were not to inherit a portion of land. They were the priests of Israel, which is striking because the priestly caste of other nations was historically landed and wealthy.

In Egypt, after the people had sold all of their possessions to Pharaoh for food during the famine, they were forced to hand over their land as well to avoid starvation. Pharaoh made special arrangements, however, to safeguard the vast estates of the Egyptian priests (not unlike those owned by the monasteries and clergy of the Middle Ages).

Jewish priests were denied material interests by Divine decree because the sanctuary and the privilege of Divine service were their inheritance. For the opportunity to serve G-d, the priests, who administered the sacrifices for the nation in the Holy Temple, themselves had to sacrifice the wealth they might have amassed if they had been permitted to indulge in worldly occupations.

History provides many examples of religious bodies whose religious influence was destroyed by their political power derived from their wealth. G-d intended the Levites to forever be a spiritual force in Israel. The pursuit of material success could surely have enticed them away from their true calling, to the detriment of the Jewish nation.

If this axiom is true of the priests it must be true as well for the “kingdom of priests,” the nation of Israel. Our history has too often been one of torture and suffering up to and including the modern state of Israel. We are supposed to be G-d’s chosen people who are charged with the care of His Torah. But what good have we drawn from this?

It would appear that we have been given over to taskmasters who have embittered our lives with increasing persecution and endless wanderings. We are commanded to keep the Sabbath holy and, as a result, we have often suffered enormous financial loss.

The Talmud teaches us that the Torah, the land of Israel and the world to come can only be acquired through suffering. If the prize is worth having, it must be worth the effort needed to obtain it. If eternal life were easily earned, what bliss would it promise?

In the same vein, the Jews were required to fight step by step to acquire the Holy Land. If the Torah imposed no hardships and demanded no sacrifice, what credit could be earned by its keepers?

Jews are asked to live in a city of Torah where inhabitants are impeded in their progress to prosperity in many ways. Though the Jew may be tempted to move to another city where he might be unfettered in his struggle for great wealth (and certainly many have done so), he should, upon reflection, realize that when he departs this world, gold and silver will not accompany him but only his Torah knowledge and good works.

If the Jew understands his priestly inheritance, it will answer most of his complaints and solve many problems. The ancient Levite was happy to exchange many of the material comforts of this world for this true inheritance. Since we are a kingdom of priests, like the priests of old, we, too, are required to sacrifice some of the “good things” of life for the service of G-d.

Our fathers submitted to hardships and self-denial but found much joy in the Torah. By fulfilling the mitzvot of their Creator, they forgot the pain inflicted by their earthly tyrants. We need to remember this.

The Torah will always demand self-denial from us, but we are called upon to act the part of priest to the world, particularly in times of moral darkness such as these. Unless mankind is prepared to self-destruct, it may someday be more amenable to the proddings of the priest. Although that day has long been delayed, in the certitude that it will come, the Jews have lived through centuries of suffering and in that conviction we will continue to endure.

Shabbat shalom.

Rabbi Pinchas Lipner is dean of the Hebrew Academy in San Francisco.