Upon his return from rescuing Lot from captivity, Avraham is greeted by Malkitzedek, the king and priest of the city of Shaleim, better known as Yerushalayim. The Pasuk states, “UMalki-tzedek Melech Shaleim Hotzi Lechem VaYayin VeHu Chohein LeKeil Elyon,” “And Malkitzedek, king of Shaleim, brought bread and wine; and he was the priest of God above” (BeReishit 14:18). At first glance this meeting is rather enigmatic. Who is this Malkitzedek, and why was this encounter worthy of being recorded in the Torah?
The Gemara (Nedarim 32b) offers some insight, stating that Malkitzedek was Sheim, Noach’s son. Hashem intended for him to be His priest; however, in this encounter with Avraham, Sheim made a crucial error. He blessed Avraham before blessing God, to which Avraham asked if it was proper to bless a servant before the master. The Gemara states that after that, HaKadosh Baruch Hu transferred the priesthood to Avraham and his descendants. That is why the Torah goes out of its way to state that he was a priest of God; it is stressing that after this encounter he was a priest to Hashem, but his descendants never would be.
Upon closer inspection, there is a powerful message to be learned from this transfer of priesthood. To Sheim, God was an abstract idea, “Keil Elyon,” a Being that is higher than we are, and on a plane of understanding that we are incapable of fathoming. However, Avraham had a more sophisticated understanding of the connection between HaKadosh Baruch Hu and human beings, as we see in his response to Sheim. Avraham immediately asks if a servant should be blessed before the master. This relationship of a servant and master is a very powerful one to invoke. A servant is an extension of his master, performing tasks that are incumbent upon his master, and in return, the master is responsible for the actions of the servant. By invoking this relationship, Avraham is exemplifying the close connection we have to Hashem, saying we are an extension of God like a servant is an extension of his master.
This idea is furthered by the alias chosen for Sheim. He is referred to as Malkitzedek, the king of justice, or judgment. Sheim viewed humans as needing to be evaluated and then dealt with. Only select few intermediaries such as he and Avraham were capable of a connection with the far away and abstract Almighty, while everyone else was judged unworthy. However, Avraham is remembered as a man of Chesed, pervasive kindness. He saw the Godliness that every human contained, and treated everyone equally with unwavering benevolence and generosity, going to all ends to meet their needs. Rambam states (Hilchot Avodah Zarah 1:3) that people from the nations of the world used to crowd around Avraham asking him questions about Hashem, and he would answer each and every one.
Rav Kook points to two of the Mitzvot Avraham accomplished in Parashat Lech Lecha as further proof of Avraham’s philosophy. The Mitzvot of Brit Mila and settling Eretz Yisrael were both geared towards ensuring that Bnei Yisrael retains its connections with Hashem, and doesn’t mistakenly follow the ideas of Sheim. Brit Milah serves as an ever-constant reminder of the Brit, or treaty, that we have with God, while Eretz Yisrael is the “Holy Land” and is brimming with the presence of Hashem. We see from Rambam and Rav Kook an image of Avraham as an enabler, helping others achieve a connection with Hashem.
Avraham’s life was devoted towards ensuring others understood and retained a connection with Hashem, and that is why he and his descendants were granted the priesthood. The role of a Kohein, a priest, in Judaism isn’t to be God’s sole emissary to the people, having the only connection and contact with Hashem. Rather, the Kohein serves as an enabler for Bnei Yisrael, advising them on how to remain pure, and atoning for their sins every year by Yom Kippur, to make sure nothing distances them from God.
This philosophy of Avraham is an essential message for all of us to internalize. We need to realize the powerful and personal connection we can achieve with Hashem. One cannot say that they are not great enough or important enough to matter to God. During the period of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, it is easy to focus on one’s connection with Hashem, but now, with the holiday season at a close, the need to stay connected to Hashem is easily forgotten amid the commotion of daily life. However, Avraham teaches us that we all have a direct connection with Hashem and we must take advantage of it. Furthermore, Avraham exemplified the principle of Or LaGoyim, which states that Bnei Yisrael is supposed to serve as a light to the nations of the world, enlightening them to Hashem’s validity. No person, regardless of the nation they came from, was deemed unworthy of Avraham’s time and resources as he stood answering all of their questions. Hopefully, we can set an example to the world by maintaining a strong connection with HaKadosh Baruch Hu, expediting the coming of the Mashiach, speedily and in our days.