This week’s Torah portion is Ki Tisa, most famous for its account of the Golden Calf incident. Last year, we addressed some of the major questions surrounding the Golden Calf, including who exactly instigated the catastrophe, why it was done in that particular way, and the mystical reasons behind it. Another set of questions arises from the way Moses dealt with the incident. We read how Moses first had the Golden Calf ground up and mixed with water, a mixture that the populace was forced to drink. Then, he called on the perpetrators to be killed by sword. Finally, God sent an additional plague as punishment for the incident. What is the significance of these three measures?
Rashi comments on Exodus 32:20 that Moses “intended to test them like women suspected of adultery”. This refers to the sotah procedure, described in Numbers 5:11-31, where a woman who may have committed adultery is brought before the priests and tested by having her drink a special mixture of “holy water”. If she is guilty, she would die immediately; if innocent, she would be blessed. Moses did the same by grinding the Golden Calf into a special mixture and having the people drink it. This would identify those who were guilty of idolatry. The symbolism is clear: in the same way that the adulteress cheats on her husband, the Israelites at Sinai “cheated” on God.
Rashi further explains that this procedure was only to identify those who had worshipped the Calf secretly, without any witnesses. However, there were those who had worshipped the Calf openly and publicly. Deuteronomy 13:13-18 states that the punishment for such open displays of idolatry—assuming the idolaters had been given a clear warning—is death by sword. It was these people (three thousand of them) who were killed in this particular way.
The last group were those who had worshipped the Calf openly, but were not given a warning. In Jewish law, the death penalty is not meted out unless the perpetrators were given a clear explanation of their sin and were explicitly warned about the consequences beforehand. Since this last group of people worshipped the Calf openly, but without a warning, they could not be punished. In such cases, it is up to the Heavens to dole out justice. This is why they were punished with a plague.
Rashi’s comments come from the Talmud (Yoma 66b), which also provides us with an alternate explanation for the three types of punishment. Those that were most involved in the idolatry—sacrificing animals and burning incense to the Golden Calf—died by sword. Those who merely “embraced and kissed” the Calf died by plague. And those who only “rejoiced in their hearts” and worshipped the Calf in secret died by drinking the mixture.
The same page of Talmud reminds us that the entire tribe of Levi did not participate in the sin. The Sages explain that this is why the Levites were elevated to the status of priests. Prior to the Golden Calf, it was the firstborn male of every family that was supposed to ascend to the priesthood. After the Calf, the Levites were designated as the priestly class, with the descendants of Aaron serving as the kohanim, the high priests. For this reason, a firstborn male must be “redeemed” from a kohen in a special ceremony known as pidyon haben thirty days (or more) after his birth.
Having said that, we do see a number of exceptions to this rule. Pinchas was a Levite who was elevated to kohen status after his actions brought an end to the immoral affair with the Midianites. He would go on to become the kohel gadol, the High Priest, and hold that position longer than anyone else—over 300 years according to certain opinions!
Another exception was the prophet Samuel. His barren mother, Hannah, promised that if God would give her a child, she would make the child a nazir (loosely translated as “monk”) from birth and dedicate him to the priesthood. After Samuel was weaned, Hannah—considered a prophetess in her own right—left him under the tutelage of the High Priest Eli. The Tanakh tells us that Eli’s own two sons, Hofni and Pinchas (not to be confused with the Pinchas above) were “base men who did not know God” (I Samuel 2:12), and it appears that Samuel filled the void they left, for he “served before Hashem, a youth girded with a linen ephod” (2:18). The ephod was one of the special vestments worn only by the kohanim, as described in last week’s parasha. Despite Samuel being from the tribe of Ephraim, it appears he became a full member of the priesthood. So great was he that Psalms 99:6 famously equates Samuel with Moses (a Levite) and Aaron (a kohen) combined.
In fact, long before Aaron we read how Melchizedek was a “kohen to God” who came to bless Abraham (Genesis 14:18). Melchizedek is identified with Shem, the son of Noah (appropriately his firstborn son, according to many opinions). He was the first person in history to serve as a proper priest, offering sacrifices to God upon an altar upon exiting the Ark following the Great Flood (see Beresheet Rabbah 30:6).
Finally, the Talmud (Sukkah 52a) speaks of a certain “righteous priest” who is one of the four messianic figures prophesied by Zechariah. While Mashiach himself is said to be from the tribe of Judah and a descendent of King David, there are a number of perplexing sources speaking of Mashiach being a kohen! In fact, there are only four places in the entire Torah where the word mashiach (משיח) actually appears. All four cases are in reference to a kohen, mentioned as hakohen hamashiach. While the simple explanation is that this refers to the “anointed” priest, ie. the High Priest, the deeper meaning suggests that Mashiach himself is somehow a kohen.*
In reality, this isn’t so hard to understand. After all, when Mashiach comes everything will revert to the way it was meant to be originally. The sin of the Golden Calf will be rectified, together with all the other tikkunim. Thus, the priesthood will once again belong to the firstborn. And even this will likely be temporary, for God always intended the Jewish people to be a mamlechet kohanim, for each and every Jew to be a priest, as it is written (Exodus 19:5-6):
…If you would but hearken to My voice, and keep My covenant, you shall be My treasure among all peoples, for all the earth is Mine; and you shall be unto me a kingdom of priests, and a holy nation…
*Interestingly, the breakaway sect of priests known as the Essenes—who likely produced the Dead Sea Scrolls—believed in a messianic figure referred to as moreh tzedek, the “Righteous Teacher”. Scholars have suggested this was a high-ranking kohen named Judah who separated from the corrupt Sadducee priests of the Second Temple and founded the ascetic Essene sect. Judah was ultimately killed for apostasy, and the Essenes apparently believed that he would return to life to usher in the Messianic age. It seems early Christians adopted many elements of this legend. The possibility is explored by Michael O. Wise in The First Messiah: Investigating the Savior Before Christ.