This week's parsha
Kingdom of Priests
Scientists have claimed that the Jewish priests, the Cohanim, are distinguished from other Jews by a particular gene transmitted through the male line. This distinction applies both to Ashkenazim (western Jews) and Sefardim (eastern Jews).
According to the Torah, all Cohanim are descended from one man: Aaron, the brother of Moses. Further, while any human being can convert to Judaism, no one can convert to become a Cohen. These points help to substantiate the claim that Cohanim are actually genetically distinguished from other Jews.
The special role of the Cohen is to serve in the Temple, as representative of the entire Jewish people. The effect of the Cohanim is to bond the Jewish people and the world as a whole to G‑d through their special service. The Cohanim, both in Temple times and today, also have a special power of blessing. In order to be able to carry out their spiritual task, the Cohen is bound by special laws which do not apply to anyone else.
This helps us understand an interesting passage in our Parshah, which is a kind of introduction to the centre-point of the Torah, the giving of the Ten Commandments at Mount Sinai. G‑d instructs Moses to make the following declaration to the Jewish people:
You saw what I did in Egypt, carrying you on eagles' wings and bringing you to Me. Now if you obey Me and keep My covenant, you will be My special treasure among all nations, because all the world is Mine.
You will be for Me a Kingdom of Priests and a holy people.
These words are often quoted to explain the "chosen" quality of the Jewish people. We have a special relationship with G‑d, with a special covenant which includes laws which relate specifically to the Jewish people and to no-one else. G‑d tells us that the effect of this relationship is that we will become a "Kingdom of Priests."
What does this phrase mean?
One way of understanding it is as describing the innate closeness to G‑d of each individual Jew. A further aspect, however, is that it emphasizes the responsibility of the Jewish people and of each Jewish man or woman.
Closeness to G‑d, being like a "priest" or even like a High Priest, imparts also the power and responsibility to make the world into a dwelling for the Divine, a realm where holiness can be expressed. This means teaching, guiding, having an effect not only on Jews but also non-Jews. Just as the Cohanim bond the Jewish people to G‑d, so the Jews, as a Kingdom of Priests, bond the whole world to G‑d.
This sense of responsibility is also the true meaning of the chosenness of the Jew. Each one of us was chosen at the Giving of the Torah described in the Parshah. The Sages tell us all Jewish souls which would ever be born were present, including all future proselytes to Judaism.
Each man and woman is chosen to keep and to transmit G‑d's teachings -- the 613 mitzvot for the Jewish people, and the Seven Noachide Laws for the nations of the world. The responsibility of each Jew is the goal to change the world for good, in one's own life and surroundings, yet ultimately with a chain effect which will affect all existence, bringing the Redemption for the Jewish people and all humanity.