He was despised, shunned by men, a man of suffering, familiar with disease, as one who hid His face from us. He was despised, we held him of no account. Yet it was our sickness he was bearing, our suffering that he endured. We accounted him plagued smitten and afflicted by God. Crushed because of our iniquities, he bore the chastisements that made us whole, and by his bruises we were healed. We all went astray like sheep, each going his own way; and the Lord visited upon him the guilt of all of us … he shall receive the multitude as his spoil for he exposed himself to death and he was numbered among the sinners, whereas he bore the guilt of the many and made intercession for sinners.
Sounds Christian doesn’t it? A servant who suffers and is despised by men? One who is exposed to death? Who made intercession for sinners? These words are taken from Chapter 53 of the Book of Isaiah (53:3-12) and are an important prophetic locus of the coming of Jesus. Jews do not read Chapter 53 this way. This text is not a prophecy at all but a description of who we are as a people.
In Parshat Yitro we read that God declares us a “kingdom of priests and a holy nation” (Exodus 19:6). It comes just before the reading of the Ten Commandments. These are weighty words, and I imagine that the people who stood at Mount Sinai did not quite understand what God and Moses were getting at. What do the words “Kingdom of Priests” mean to these newly freed slaves? What is a priest? That word has never been used before in relationship to the Jewish people. The people did not yet know about the classification of part of the Levite tribe as kohanim. They did not know about the duties this landless group would have to perform. The kohanim were to be the religious intercessors for the nation. They would perform their sacrifices, heal the sick, celebrate holidays, bury the dead and deal with distinctions between clean and unclean. No, these words “kingdom of priests” are used long before the Jewish people get a hint of what Aaron and his sons are obligated to do.
So what does it mean? That all of Israel can be kohanim, priests? Won’t this conflict with the very idea of the kehuna? If we are all kohains, who gets the first aliyah? And then there is the problem of “kingdom.” Does this mean that we will be the ruling class of the world? Or should we operate in our own kingdom, a geographic place, where even the cab driver is a leader?
Rashi believes that here we are talking metaphorically. “Priest” is a pseudonym for “ministers.” We are ministers in the department of justice in God’s world. Kli Yakar has a different perspective. We are the leaders of the kingdom. He says that we exist on a level of kingship over God and His word. We receive God’s decree and then are free to adjudicate. We are philosopher kings imbued with Torah who rule like priests. We are a leaders not ministers. For Rashi, we are servants; for Kli Yakar, we are leaders.
We need to put ourselves in the sandals of the Israelites standing at Sinai. They did not know what the words “Kingdom of Priests” meant when they first heard them. Like a bar mitzvah boy or bat mitzvah girl, they were too young to really understand the deeper meaning of the Jewish mission in the world. Does the bar mitzvah boy really know what is ahead of him? Does he fully comprehend what it means to be a Jew with obligations? What the bat mitzvah sets in motion is a vision of lifelong learning and acquiring Jewish values. A vision is set forth for the people: “You are to be a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.”
Such is the vision of Isaiah set forth above. Isaiah’s suffering servant is not a man who died on a cross for our sins. The suffering servant is the kohain. The kohanim are those who live their lives of the liminal man — he is permitted to receive the impurities of the people; he brings their offerings of atonement; he carries the sins of the nation and creates the rituals for purification. He defiles himself by working in the trenches and bringing holiness to the community. Isaiah uses this persona of the hard-working, sin-bearing kohain as the overarching vision for each Jewish individual who works to be a light unto the nations. This is exactly the metaphor that the Torah uses in relation to the vision of what the Jew can be for the world starting today. And if we conflate both Rashi and Kli Yakar, we can say that “kingdom of priests” represents a both/and not an either/or expression about the role of Jewish people in the world. We lead with Torah values and we minister to the grief and impurity in the world.
The “Servant Leadership” movement is very much in vogue in the business world and its thinkers credit Jesus with introducing the idea to the world as illustrated by his actions in each of the four Gospels. Our prooftext of servant leadership starts with the “Kingdom of Priests” of Exodus. We could say that Jesus was a foundational figure in translating an important Jewish philosophy to the world.
We need to remember that “Kingdom of Priests” is embraced by each individual. It is a metaphor transformed into a purpose-driven vision for each person. Chapter 56 of Isaiah, a few chapters after the suffering servant (53), enunciates the vision that embraces the world: “Those who hold fast to My covenant — I will bring them to my sacred mount and let them rejoice in my House of Prayer … for my house will be called a House of Prayer for all peoples” (Isaiah 56:7). pjc
Rabbi Jonathan Perlman is spiritual leader of New Light Congregation. This column is a service of the Greater Pittsburgh Rabbinic Association.