"The kohen shall go outside the camp"
We all know that the kohen's (priest's) work takes place in the Holy Temple. He is involved from early morning to evening in the daily service. From the moment he rises he purifies his hands and feet at the copper laver. From there he tends to the altar fire, cleans and refurbishes the seven menorah lamps, places the incense offering upon the golden altar, and then prepares the public offerings to be brought to the great stone altar in the Temple courtyard. True, no single kohen would perform all these tasks on a given day. Rather, these daily rituals would be be shared by the twenty-four kohanim (priests) currently on duty in the Holy Temple. In addition to these responsibilities, there were a number of other chores performed by the priests every day. On Shabbat and festivals their work load would increase. But whatever any individual priest's obligations were on any given day, the entirety of their day was spent in the rarified atmosphere of the Holy Temple.
Their work was physical and no doubt exhausting. To perform their duties properly they certainly needed to be in top physical condition. But, as previously stated, they were stationed in the Holy Temple, that unique patch of land where time and space take on and reflect spiritual attributes unknown and unfathomable anywhere else on earth. The air that they breathed, the stone pavements upon which they trod, it was all imbued and infused with the Divine Presence, the Shechinah.
The priests spent their entire days enveloped in the heavenly sound of the Levitical orchestra. The people who ascended to the Holy Temple each day to approach the priests with their offerings were ritually pure, they were dressed in their finest clothes and they were repentant. The priests were immersed in this pristine world, this reflection of the perfection of Eden. If it sounds idyllic that's because it was.
But the priests did have other duties which were presumably less enviable. This week's Torah reading of Metzora deals with a unique responsibility of the kohen, unique in that it required the priest to leave the confines of the Holy Temple and enter into the less spiritually refined environment outside the Holy Temple. Metzora deals with individuals afflicted with leprosy-like lesions, (tzarat), on their skin, on their garments, or upon the walls of their homes. This mysterious malady was a spiritual disorder at its source, which led to a very real physical manifestation. The reason for its existence is not explicitly stated by Torah. Our sages teach us that the affliction was a result of lashon hara - gossip, evil talk and libelous invective.
The priest's job was to visit the afflicted, to determine whether their symptoms were in fact indicative of the tzarat infirmity, and if so, to begin a week-long purifying process. At the conclusion of the week the priest would return to the sufferer, examine him once again, and determine whether his spiritual well-being had been restored, or not. If so, the person would immerse himself in a mikveh (ritual bath), and, with the specified offering, ascend to the Holy Temple, where he would once again meet the kohen, this time in a purified state and back again on more rarified ground.
The priestly activity surrounding the advent of the tzarat sufferer shines a light on an aspect of the priest's relationship to Israel that we rarely consider. Yes, the kohen was blessed with the exclusive privilege of being able to serve G-d in the Holy Temple, far from the madding crowd, as it were. But he was also tasked with serving his people, even in their spiritual and physical distress, far from the purity of the Holy Temple. In truth, the kohen, by ministering to the afflicted individual outside of the Temple confines, was serving G-d every bit as much as when he was fulfilling his role inside the Holy Temple complex. And conversely, by virtue of his daily work in the Holy Temple, the kohen was serving his people who did not share his unique status.
Back in the book of Exodus, when Israel was still in Egypt and a reluctant Moses was demurring the role of savior that G-d was assigning him, G-d told Moses, "Is that not Aharon your brother, the Levite? I know that he will surely speak, and behold, he is coming forth toward you, and when he sees you, he will rejoice in his heart." (Exodus 14:4) Our sages teach us that this very quality of having gladness in his heart upon seeing his brother is what merited Aharon and his descendants to the priesthood. And by having joy in his heart both upon seeing his brother before the altar that stands within the Holy Temple's innermost courtyard, and likewise upon seeing his brother in the much less auspicious circumstances concerning the tzarat affliction, the kohen gives ultimate honor to, and serves both G-d and man.
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