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Shabbat Parashat Chayei Sarah 5776

Parashat Hashavua: Kohanim and Power

Harav Yosef Carmel

Our matriarch Sarah’s name (literally and roughly, female officer) hints that she was far more than an excellent wife and mother; she was a leader in her own right. The other name attributed to her, Yiska (see Bereishit 11:29 with Rashi), may also be connected to the word nesicha (princess). However, this week we want to focus on a different type of position of power, as seen in the haftara.

While we are familiar with the title kohen, we might not be aware of its implication of authority. Indeed, the pasuk that says that “the sons of David were kohanim” (Shmuel II:8:18) refers to positions of power, as they were not descendants of Aharon.

Actually, the kohanim in the Beit Hamikdash had authority, all the more so the Kohen Gadol, who was in charge of a huge operation in the Temple. While this included great spiritual responsibility, it also included control over a tremendous budget, which, incidentally, was independent of the king’s control and had a built-in system for raising funds. The Kohen Gadol was also in charge of a limited judicial system, known as beit din shel kohanim (see mishna, Ketubot 1:5). This system led at times to severe corruption, such as at the time of the sons of Eili or of the bribe-paying candidates for the job in the time of the Second Temple. In the haftara we are witness to a power struggle of a different kind between two prominent kohanim.

Toward the end of David’s reign, it was clear to most citizens that his successor would be the oldest son of David’s wife Chagit – Adoniya. Nevertheless, Bat Sheva held David to his promise that her son Shlomo would ascend to the crown. Two Kohanim Gedolim who shared the post arose on the two sides of this dispute. Tzadok, who represented the house of Aharon’s son Elazar, stood behind Shlomo, whereas Evyatar, who represented the house of Itamar, threw his support behind Adoniya. At the end of the process, Evyatar and his family were banished to their village of Anatot and removed from prominence (Melachim I:2:26), and Tzadok became the sole leader of the tribe.

Why was Tzadok’s involvement in the dispute deemed proper while Evyatar’s was not? What is wrong with supporting Adoniya? We can use the opportunity of looking at the p’sukim to learn more generally when it is right for religious leaders to get involved in political debate. Adoniya is described as approaching Evyatar, who agreed to support him (ibid. 7). Adoniya should have acted with humility and waited for David to decide, after consultation with the prophet, who would succeed him. Evyatar’s involvement in this improper political maneuvering is an example of an improper attempt to decide the matter of the kingdom and perhaps also an attempt to insure his position of power under the new regime. Tzadok, in contrast, did not take a stand but brought the matter to David to decide, only after which did he add his blessing to the decision.

The prophets, while also holy people like the kohanim, do have a role that makes it appropriate to get involved in political matters. After all, their job is not to determine halachic policy for the generations but to educate the people as to what to do in the present, which can include “political” steps.

We take the opportunity to urge rabbis, the scholars of Torah, to distance themselves from the political arena. Even in our times, the confusion between the religious realm and the political one has caused much damage.

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