Our Torah portion this week, Parashat Yitro, opens with the problem of governance. Moshe, our great leader, doesn't have a system for sharing leadership. Just weeks out of Egypt, he sits all day, every day, in the Wilderness, hearing people's disputes. His father-in-law Yitro, a high priest, or kohen, of the country of Midyan, is visiting and he sees that this cannot go on. He explains to Moshe how to create a judicial system; he explains the qualities of leadership that Moshe needs to look for in others – qualities of courage and uncorruptibility.
So at first it seemed to me that the thing to do this week would be to draw some connection between these ideals of leadership and this week's State of the Union address. And I tried, really I did. But frankly I lost heart. I just didn't have the fortitude to do it. And I felt I had nothing to add this week to what we all feel and know and are trying to reckon with in the political realm.
But I wasn't quite done with the Torah portion yet. Because I found myself noticing how Yitro's advice about how to choose a basket of incorruptibles, people who could lead fairly and honestly –– this was advice not given by an academic, or a chief of staff, or a campaign consultant, but by a priest. A kohen: someone who had special insight; someone who could, in theory, channel the energy or access the wisdom that underlies or over-arches the affairs of state. When Yitro tells Moshe to find these anshei chayil, these people of integrity, he doesn't tell him to seek them out in the way you might expect, but rather, v'techezeh mikol ha'am – to envision them. That is, to find them through using some different kind of intuition.
It's a subtle thing, this visioning instruction coming from a priest, a kohen, not one of our kohanim at all, but someone from another religion, but clearly living some kind of engagement with mystery beyond the day-to-day. Someone for whom saying, "envision it" is a meaningful thing.
And thinking about the priest's role and the priest's abilities is relevant because just a few verses later in Torah, God says this thing. It's maybe a prediction or an expectation or even a demand. It's about priesthood and it's about us. In the moment that God says this thing, we are about to enter the Wilderness of Sinai. We are just days from receiving the Ten Commandments and the hundreds of other laws that will define our lives and our communities right up to the present day.
And in this lull before the drama of Sinai, God says: "Listen to me and be in relationship with me:
וְאַתֶּם תִּהְיוּ־לִי מַמְלֶכֶת כֹּהֲנִים וְגוֹי קָדוֹשׁ
And you will be for me a kingdom of priests, a holy nation." (Exodus 19:6).
A kingdom of priests, us, all of us! What a surprising expectation. Not, "obey me and you will be taken care of" or "disobey me and I'll punish you" – although both those sentiments get expressed numerous times elsewhere. But instead in this quiet before the law is given, "listen and be in relationship with me and you will be a mamlekhet kohanim, a kingdom of priests."
So what does this mean?
First, here's what it doesn't mean. It can't possibly mean you will be a kingdom of kohanim in the limited sense of our line of hereditary professional priests, i.e. Aaron and his descendants. Because we are not all Aaron's descendants! Nor were the Israelites in the story. So saying we will be a kingdom of kohanim can't mean that we're all going to be in charge of running the Israelite religion. That would be crazy talk.
On the other hand, everyone being in charge might in fact be a Jewish kind of thing. I remember the 1965 comedy album, "You Don't Have to Be Jewish". In it there is a sketch in which the president of Israel comes to America and meets LBJ. President Johnson brags that his job is harder, saying, "You only have 2 million people in your country, while I have over 190 million to contend with." And the president of Israel responds, "That's true, Mr. President. You are the president of 190 million people. But don't forget, I am the president of 2 million presidents."
So maybe it would be a very Jewish thing for everyone to be in charge. But it's not likely that Torah here is suggesting that everyone get a turn running the Temple. In the matter of priesthood, kehunah, not everyone can be the big kahuna.
Besides, the professional priesthood of antiquity was clearly and loudly restricted. It would not, for instance, include women. In the surrounding Mesopotamian, Egyptian and Canaanite cultures, women served the gods and goddesses as priestesses, and are referred to in Hebrew k'deshot – "holy ones." But priestesses were outlawed in our religion, maybe to mark our difference from the other peoples, or to concertedly rob women of their power, or both.*1*
Mesopotamian and Canaanite cultures also had a priesthood function for people like me, for the girlymen who served the gods and goddesses dressed as women, called kulu'u in Babylonian and k'deshim in Hebrew, which again means "holy ones," but which was translated into the Latin Vulgate by St. Jerome in the 4th Century as effeminati (a term which I must immediately begin using to describe my own tribe). These gender-fluid priest/esses were also outlawed in our religion. It seems that as God became more male in our imagination, so did God's servants.
Even garden-variety straight guys could not ascend to the priesthood if they had disabilities or any significant body variation. And so all of these people – the women, the queers, the disabled – even if they descended from the priestly line, were excluded from the priesthood.
So when God says, you will be for me a kingdom of priests, God cannot be talking only to the handful of people who qualified to serve in the Temple. Such a paltry number does not a kingdom make. No, this is not about our being priests by profession. It's about being our being priests by nature.
So what does it mean to be a priest by nature?
Well, what does a priest do? Our own Israelite priests received the gifts of the community, offered them up to God, and drew down blessing in return. At least that was the intention. That the priest would serve as a connecting node, a conduit, between earth and heaven, between human and divine, between everyday and mysterious, between our cut-off, exiled selves and the possibility of being in connection with everything. The priest was a magician with a wand, a conductor with a baton, cuing the flow of holiness, directing the wash of blessing.
And that is, or could be, each of us. Each of us in this kingdom, this realm of priests.
We already have what we need to do this. So many tools that we've drawn from our tradition or from other traditions or from our individual struggles and instincts.
We have what we need. We can unify heaven and earth, even if for a moment, for a heartbeat, for an hour or a day. And no animals need be harmed in the process.
We can do it with our mindfulness. Inviting ourselves to see the divine in all things. Or if we're not so much God-believing kind of people, then we do it by settling into a simple awareness of complexity and beauty and mystery. Something that expands our consciousness. Being quiet in nature, getting up early and noticing trees and animals and air and stars and the incomprehensible intricacy of it all. Holding a baby and feeling its heartbeat. We have the skill to make wonder familiar and to make the familiar wonderful.
We can do it by noticing the liminal places where things meet. Day and night. Ocean and sky. Me and you. And by noticing our dreams, which are the meeting place of the world we inhabit and the world that inhabits us.
We can do it by inviting more Shabbes into our lives. Not tonight, because Shabbat evening at synagogue is often a thing to do more than a way to be. I'm talking about tomorrow when we are at home. Are we inviting something extra into the flow of time? Are we letting go of enough of our concrete activities and chores and devices, so that we can breathe and feel something of the unrushed energy of the world?
And we can do it by listening. Listening beneath and beyond the chatter of our minds and the repeated loops of our set beliefs. Listening to the voice of the Divine or, in non-God terms, listening to the exquisite emptiness of the expanse. This isn't new-fangled – it's right in the text. Im shamoa tishm'u says Torah – if you listen, really listen, then you will be a kingdom of priests. (Exodus 19:5.)
We each have this ability to cue in the cosmic; to unite heaven and earth, the wondrous and the day-to-day. We can draw vision from that union and pour that vision into our art, into our relationships, into our politics. The state of that union should be as important to us as any other.
"Listen," says the Divine, "and you will be a realm of priests." This is our calling, before Sinai. Before the limits of law and the confines of culture. May we all step up to our place, into our priesthood, people of all shapes and genders and ages and lineages, and firmly call forth the blessings of heaven.
*1* Hebrew Priestesshood is in recent years being reclaimed through the Kohenet movement. Visit www.kohenet.com.