In ancient times, the firstborn provided the leadership for the Israelites.
We recall the desperate struggle of Jacob to obtain the birthright along with the blessing that went with it. The institution of the first born became the initial hereditary priesthood of our people. The firstborn were designated to be the teachers and the purveyors of tradition from one generation to the next. The vitality and the continuity of our heritage was placed in their hands, however, the book of Genesis points out that in many cases, the firstborn did not assume the leadership role of the family.
In this week’s Torah portion, the mantle of leadership is officially changed. No longer does the “bechor,” the firstborn, assume responsibility for the role of educator and spiritual mentor of the people. The Levites are designated for the service of the Lord.
“For they are formally assigned to me from among the Israelites, I have designated them for my service in place of the firstborn.”
The Kohanim were to officiate at worship and the rest of the Levites were to accompany them and become the chorus and the teachers of the people. The Levites were not given a geographical inheritance, but were given Levitical cities among the tribes.
They ministered to the spiritual and educational needs of the people, but in time they became the establishment and the prophets arose to challenge their power and their lack of moral leadership. The Kohanim and the Leviim for the most part lost their sense of purpose and dedication, although many of them remained faithful servants of the Lord and the people. The point remains that a hereditary spiritual and educational establishment could not be expected to always live up to the high standards of performance that was expected of them.
The prophets offered an alternative and for many centuries prophet and Priest lived side by side, both complimenting each other and providing a tension which served to further the moral awareness of the people. Some prophets, Jeremiah is an example, were kohanim as well as niviim. Though they were born to one calling, they were called to another responsibility.
While the kohanim and leviim continued to be in charge of the service of The Temple in Jerusalem, the institution of the rabbinate presented itself as the prophetic era came to a close. The rabbis provided the means by which the Jewish tradition was kept alive. An aristocracy of birth was replaced by an aristocracy of learning.
While material wealth provides status in every society, among our people, the learned were accorded their due position within the structure of the Jewish community. We trace our development and the evolvement of our people from the days of the primacy of the firstborn to the kohanim and leviim, to the flowering of the rabbinic tradition of leadership through learning.
Rabbi Sheldon W. Switkin of Bexley is visiting rabbi at Shaaray Torah Synagogue in Canton.