In this week’s parsha, Parshat Shoftim, we learn the following: “If a Levite would go from any of the settlements throughout Israel where he has been residing, to the place that the Lord has chosen, he may do so whenever he pleases. He may serve in the name of the Lord, his God, like all his fellow Levites who are there in attendance before the Lord” (Devarim 18: 6-7). What are these verses trying to teach us? First, Rashi explains that these verses are not speaking about a Levite per se, but rather, a Kohen, as the verse states, “He may serve in the name of the Lord, his God.” That being said, he goes on to quote the Talmud (Bava Kamma 109b), saying, “This teaches that a Kohen may come and offer his free-will and obligatory sacrifices even at a time when a priestly shift is in charge to which he does not belong.”
Every Kohen had a two-week shift requiring him to leave his home and serve in the Beit HaMikdash (kind of like reserve duty). While ministering in the Beit HaMikdash, all of their actions and words would be focused solely on performing their holy tasks, while helping others to fulfill their ritual obligations. One might think, though, that once their term of service has ended, they could just go home and forget all about it. They’re off! They’re free! See you next time! However, here our parsha is telling us that living proper religious lives, serving God with sincerity and love, was not just something the Kohanim reserved for their shifts. Rather, they always sought to serve God, even when they were technically “off the clock.” The Kohanim knew that they were the teachers of their people – the symbols of moral righteousness, the ambassadors of the Most High, and that in order to advance the people spiritually, they had to serve as positive role-models for them, not only when they were ministering in the Beit HaMikdash in an official capacity, but even and especially when they were not. As the Prophet Zecharia says, “If you walk in My paths and keep My charge, you in turn will rule My House and guard My courts, and I will permit you to move about among the immoveable ones” (3:6-7). The Kohanim knew that in order to truly instill a love of serving God with alacrity, honesty and joy, they had to communicate that attitude to the people who were watching them, especially on their “days off.” Thus, the notion of a Kohen going to Jerusalem to bring his own sacrifice when he did not have to be there sends a clear message to all: Serving God is not a job, it is a way of life, it is an attitude, and that service does not just fall upon Kohanim, it falls upon every single Jew.
It is easy to feel fully invested in something when we are obligated. What is more difficult is to have that same level of enthusiasm for that thing, whatever it is – our work, our spiritual lives, our relationships, when we think we’re “off the clock.” The Kohanim were showing the people that their love for serving God did not depend upon them “being the big shots,” it did not depend upon them being the teachers, the guides, the officials in charge. Rather, their desire for serving God came from the simple love they felt for God as Jews, and by showing that simple love to others by joining the masses in bringing their sacrifices to Jerusalem - even though yes, they were still Kohanim and had an elevated position, they demonstrated the importance of desiring a genuine spiritual life, and the significance of striving for ever greater closeness with God, making a better, healthier, and happier Jewish people.
This Shabbat, as we consider the work we do and the obligations we have, let us ask ourselves, “If no one was watching me, would I still be as committed? If I was not being compensated, would I still care as much?” The Kohanim taught the people that Judaism is not a job, and they are teaching all of us that the way we approach our spiritual lives has an impact on those around us. As Mr. Rogers once said, “Attitudes aren’t taught, they’re caught!”