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Rabbi Sydni's Shabbat Sermons

פרשת קרח, תש״פ

Parshat Korah, 5780

by Rabbi Sydni

Saturday, June 27th, 2020

Kohanim, Leviim, and Modern Sacred Space

In our modern worship, we no longer bring animal sacrifices; instead, we pray. We no longer give tithes to one central tabernacle or Temple; instead, we pay dues to our local synagogues. In days of old, the kohanim would do the time-consuming, messy work of offering the sacrifices. The leviim would act as assistants to the kohanim, carrying and setting up the needed equipment in the tabernacle, and later, in the Temple itself. Both accepted tithes as their pay; they were not able to own their own property or work their own jobs.

Today, even when our kohanim and leviim act as contractors and dentists and insurance agents, many still carry on the practices of their ancestors. They still come up to the bimah at their designated times during the Torah service, and many still follow the practice of dukhening during the repetition of the Amidah each morning in Israel. Many kohanim today still participate in the service of redeeming a firstborn son and avoid visiting cemeteries. Certain synagogues no longer recognize this practice of designating the kohanim and leviim as separate from the rest of the congregation, but for those of us who do, why preserve such an outdated designation? Why preserve such a social status that no longer has the practical relevance it did in times of sacrifice and communal tithes?

Parashat Korah focuses on a rebellion against those designations, and after the rebellion is quelled, one of God’s responses that is repeated over and over again is that these kohanim and leviim will keep their positions as a hok olam, an everlasting law. Today, we cling to these traditions of old to remind ourselves of the continuity of our tradition, of our commitment to the everlasting relevance of our teachings. Although the Jewish people no longer worship at one central location, we preserve many of the traditions of that location to remind ourselves that we can encounter the physical Presence of God that once existed in the mikdash, whether we’re in New York, Tulsa, or even Shreveport. We invite the kohen to the bimah as a reminder that we are still a tradition rooted in Torah, even if our sacrifice looks a little bit different today. And the kohen reminds us that even through thousands of years of struggle and persecution, our ancestors embraced their determination and faith, raising generation after generation in the Jewish tradition and proudly passing down that ancestral distinction. Just like the ner tamid that hangs over our ark, the artistic menorot that hang above my head, and the grand ark that holds our Torot, the distinctions of kohen and levi help to transform a contemporary space of concrete and wood and carpet into an eternally ancient home for God.

Next week, as we begin to reenter this sanctuary space, we will have the opportunity to come face to face with that symbolism once more. And yet, many of us cannot or should not be in the presence of a dozen or so others at this point in time. For those of you listening now, it is essential that you find a way to create sacred space at home when it’s time for attending services online, to create an ancient sanctuary out of a bedroom or an office. You may not have access to a seven-branched menorah or an eternal light, but I hope you have the ability to close the door, to block out external distractions at 10:00 a.m. on Saturday mornings. You have the ability to leave your cell phone in another room and to close all of the other windows on your computer. You can dress up like you’re heading to services, and you can pray from a book rather than your computer screen. If you don’t have a siddur at home, I am more than happy to bring you one. You can even bedeck the room you are preparing for yourself with your favorite artwork and Judaice to create a space of comfort and intimacy with God.

Changing times have made the distinctions of kohen and levi look different - in many sanctuaries today, women proudly walk up to the bimah as bat kohen or bat levi. In all sanctuaries, we have developed communal positions outside of the traditional designations so that others may be honored. So too, our services, even our Shabbat services will continue to look different for the foreseeable future. We will sit further apart, our contact with the Torah will be limited, and our liturgy will be just slightly shortened. It takes a lot of effort and creativity to maintain continuity with the past, whether it’s been thousands of years or just a few months. And yet, we persist in finding these connections to times past so that we can bring our best values from that past forward in the present and in time to come. I look forward to either seeing you next week or hearing how you have constructed your own sacred space at home. Shabbat Shalom.