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Lech Lecha

And Malki Tzedek, king of Shalem, brought out bread and wine; he was a priest of G-d, the Most High. He blessed him saying, "Blessed is Avram of G-d, the Most High, Maker of heaven and earth. And blessed be G-d, the Most High, Who has delivered your foes into your hand"; and he gave him a tenth of everything (Bereishis 14:18-20).
Rashi brings the words of the Sages that Malki Tzedek was actually Shem, the son of Noach, who served as a priest of Hashem. But the Gemara (Nedarim 32b) says that he lost the priesthood because of his blunder in blessing Avram:

The Holy One, Blessed is He, wanted the priesthood to emanate from Shem, as it says, "he was a priest of G-d, the Most High." But because he preceded the blessing of Avraham to the blessing of the Almighty, He caused it to emanate from Avraham instead, as it says, "Blessed is Avram of G-d, the Most High, Maker of heaven and earth, and blessed be G-d, the Most High." Avraham said to him, "Is it proper to precede the blessing of a servant to the blessing of his creator?" Immediately, it (the priesthood) was given to Avraham….
We find a similar thought expressed in Halachah (Jewish Law). One who is informed that his wife gave birth to a baby boy is required to recite a prayer of thanksgiving: Blessed are You, Hashem…Who is good and does good to others. We all know how natural it is to first thank the nurse who told us the good news and then recite the berachah. Nevertheless, it is brought (in Eliyahu Rabbah, Orach Chaim, siman 223) in the name of the Sefer Chassidim that one should not thank the one who told him the good news until he has thanked the One Who granted him a son.

When a king is successful in battle, it is customary for him to toast all those who made his victory possible. These include his strategists, his generals, his soldiers and everyone else who took part in his triumph. But King David understood that before he thanks them he must thank the One Who made him victorious. "How shall I repay Hashem for all his benefits toward me? I will raise the cup of salvation, and call upon the Name of Hashem. I will pay my vows to Hashem now in the presence of all his people" (Tehillim 116:12-14).

At banquets, it is customary for the guests of honor to thank their wives, their friends and all those who helped them succeed. Before concluding, they mention ("Last, but certainly not least") their gratitude to Hashem Who made it all possible. But scrupulous people know to thank Hashem first and foremost, before they mention the important people on their list.

The Sages, as we have seen, linked this significant principal with the priesthood and declared that Shem forfeited it to Avraham as a consequence. This is because the very essence of a priest is to be a close servant of G-d at all times. He, more than anyone else, should know to attribute one's success to Hashem and thank Him first, before acknowledging appreciation to a mortal man of flesh and blood.

The truth is, however, that when it comes to priesthood, Judaism is different from other religions. Although we, too, have specific people who are designated as priests, distinctively the Tribe of Levi, and there are certain services which only they can perform, nevertheless, in the Preamble to the Ten Commandments, Hashem declared the entire Jewish People to be "A Kingdom of Priests" (Shemos 19:6).

There is a fascinating book, published by Ktav Publishing Co., called Ordained to be a Jew, by John David Scalamonti, a Catholic priest who converted to Judaism. The author relates that he was disillusioned with his colleagues who were not as dedicated and idealistic as he was and took a "leave of absence" during which he served as a waiter in a restaurant. On his new job, he met a Jewish girl who eventually took him home to her parents in Baltimore for Shabbos. It was the first time he had experienced Shabbos in a religious home and he noticed things that we take for granted.

As the head of the household made kiddush and then hamotzie on the challah, he was amazed at how similar the prayers were to those which the priests recite during their Sunday Mass. He then realized that while in his religion only certain people could be especially close to the Creator, and everyone else was a passive observer who could, at best, be included in his devotions; in Judaism, everyone was a priest in his own right who could get as close to Hashem as he desired. Indeed, the Torah declares (Devarim 4:7), "For which is a great nation that has a G-d Who is close to it, as is Hashem, our G-d, whenever we call to Him." Similarly, the Rambam writes (Hilchos Shemittah Veyovail 13:13), "And not only the Tribe of Levi, but every man and woman…whose spirit encouraged him and whose sense made him understand to separate himself to stand before Hashem and serve Him…he becomes hallowed with the holy of holies, and Hashem will be his lot and inheritance forever…just like the Kohanim and Levi'im…".

How lucky we are to be Jews. Let's appreciate our lot and take full advantage of it; getting as close to Hashem as we possibly can and recognizing His salvation first before attributing it to others. Then we will surely be happy, in this world and in the World-to-Come.

Shema Yisrael Torah Network
Jerusalem, Israel