And the LORD said unto Aaron: ‘Thou shalt have no inheritance in their land, neither shalt thou have any portion among them; I am thy portion and thine inheritance among the children of Israel. Numbers 18:20
You are set aside, for a special purpose and destiny. Your “portion” now and forever more shall be the Eternal. Which really means your portion is 100 percent rooted in your faith that God and the people will care for you and your family. This is what is laid out before Aaron and his family in our Torah portion this week. In the Israelite society of the Torah, one in which everything is being introduced for the first time, the priests are informed that not only will their families never be able to own land, but they are entirely reliant on the people, Israelite society, for feeding, housing, clothing, and caring for them. The directives for the priests this week can read, on one hand, as a gift. No backbreaking tending of the land, no bickering with neighbors over whose cow crossed a field boarder, no trading or involvement in commerce. Taken out of the economy and dedicated to holy, not earthly, matters for all time? What better inheritance could one ask for than an eternal covenant between the Divine and your family? All you must do is follow instructions very carefully when fulfilling the Priestly tasks and all the first fruits of all the land come directly to your table. Your portion is part of God’s portion. You eat when God is honored in the proper ways.
Do you think the Priests rejoiced when being told their destiny? Did the wives clap their husbands on the back, the children high five? Did they all turn to hug and kiss each other because they knew that they would be fed and comfortable as a family…forever?
Or were they terrified? Did it occur to them that they were completely reliant on the people, the Israelite tribes, to feed, cloth, and house them for eternity. If the people Israel did not follow the rules and did not have complete faith in God, then these Priests were likely to either starve or be forced to flee the land so that they could go somewhere else where they could have a portion of land or an opportunity to earn a wage. The relationship between the Priests and the people is established as one based exclusively on good will and faith. There is no guarantee that the people will follow God’s laws. Earlier in this very portion we have an extreme incident of rebellion when Korah and his band of rebels speak and act out against the power structure and challenge Moses and Aaron’s authority. There was little evidence that the Israelites would be a calm, consistent, obedient, and generous people who would indeed care for the Priests and fulfill the commandments.
Set aside for special treatment. It could be the ultimate blessing or the ultimate curse for the Priests and their families. Did they fall on their faces when they heard the news? Or did they offer up their joy and exultation to the Divine? We will neve know. But as a congregational Rabbi I do have a little insight into what it means to be cared for and nurtured by the community.
Unlike the Priests, I chose this life of service. I filled out applications and took out student loans and studied for years to claim my mantle of leadership within the Jewish community. But very much like the ancient Priests of our collective past, my life and that of my family is not only completely dedicated to serving the Jewish people 24/7/365, we are also completely reliant on the community for all our needs. Every cup of milk. Every pair of new tennis shoes. Every car payment, mortgage payment, health insurance payment, every dollar of college savings for my children-everything we have is because of the generosity and kindness of the Jewish community. Both my husband and myself are congregational rabbis. From sunrise to sunset, each day of the year, we worry, care for, work to heal and help anyone in the Jewish community who needs our love and guidance. We live in the full knowledge that all we have, and will ever have, comes to us from the sacred donations of the people to our intuitions.
It is not an easy life. We both serve small communities in regions of the United States with small Jewish populations. We are like the Priests who served the small, outlying communities of Israelites before everything was centralized in Jerusalem at the Temple. If the people in our community are not doing well, we are not doing well. We are close to the people we serve, as I imagine the Priests were too. We celebrate with the people and we mourn with them. We walk with them, hand in hand, through the darkness. And we create space for the most beautiful celebrations when life is good. We live in intimate contact with the people Israel. We are not Divine, we are not special in any way other than we have chosen to dedicate out lives to the Jewish people. And that is where the spiritual imperative of faith, emunah, comes in. For without faith, good faith, kind faith, consistent faith and expressed faith-our existence is in danger.
Faith is what makes this entire system work. Not so much faith in God. But faith in each other. The people must have faith that the Priest, or rabbi, that they will care for the community with integrity and focus. And the Priests, or the rabbi, must have faith in the people Israel that they will provide for them and their families. When the people abandon the ways of their ancestors, when they discard the rules and norms of their society and go rouge, the Priests starve. When the Priests are distracted or lazy, the people are in danger of losing the protective coverage of God’s presence. Both Priest and the nation must show dedication to each other-or everything falls apart.
I am not going to lie. Being a congregational rabbi of a small congregation is a risky bet these days. The people, the Jewish people who live in our communities, and I do mean most them, do not support the institutions that feed rabbinic families. They do not make offerings or bring donations to the spiritual communal home, the synagogue, to help support the clergy and the teachers of our people. All over the country there are rabbis of small congregations struggling to eke out an existence-some working multiple jobs to keep their families afloat while still serving the community. Unlike the Priests, we rabbis can opt out. We can leave the rabbinate and enter the commercial world. But that means abandoning our post, walking away from what we view as our sacred duty and obligation to serve the Jewish people. We struggle and agonize over how to make a living and how to continue to serve the community. Walking away would show a lack of faith, in the people Israel and the Divine. Most of us keep on keeping on hoping that the people will rise and realize the value of our teachings and our leadership.
Leadership, at the end of the day, is both a blessing and a curse. It is both oppressive and liberating. It is a heavy mantle. It requires generosity and kindness, attention, and dedication on the part of everyone. It requires the most difficult form of faith-the faith in your neighbor, the faith that you will always be cared for by the community. I call it faith-based living. Walking with confidence into the unknown. No guarantees. And ultimately this is what we, the Priests and the rabbis of our people, model for the nation. Living your life in covenant, intertwined, embedded within the Jewish people, not knowing anything except that when we hold onto Torah and the ways of our people, we survive.
I will keep showing up with the same sort of awe and dedication of the Priests of our past. And I hope and pray that the people will keep showing up for my family. For my children. For our collective future. And for God.
About the author:
Rabbi Yohanna Kinberg serves Congregation Kol Ami in Washington, USA.