After Abraham defeated Chedarla'omer and his allied kings, he was greeted by Malkhi-tzedek, the priest-king of Jerusalem:
“Malkhi-tzedek, king of Salem, brought forth bread and wine. He was a priest to God, the Most High.” (Gen. 14:18)
Who was Malkhi-tzedek? What is the significance of this encounter?
The Sages identified the priest-king of Salem as Shem, the son of Noah. With his ill-fated greeting of Abraham, however, Shem forever lost the priesthood.
“The Holy One wanted the priesthood to originate from Shem. But when Shem blessed Abraham before he blessed God, the priesthood was transferred to Abraham. Abraham asked: “Is it proper to bless the servant before blessing his Master?” God immediately gave the priesthood to Abraham. ...
“That is what is written, “He was a priest to God.” He [Malkhi-tzedek] was a priest, but his descendants were not.” (Nedarim 32b)
This transfer of the priesthood is deeply significant, as it contrasts the different approaches of these two great individuals, Shem and Abraham.
Shem was called Malkhi-tzedek, literally, “the just king.” He stressed the trait of tzedek — justice and worthiness. Abraham, on the hand, excelled in chesed and kindness. He sought to reach out to others, to influence and help them even beyond what they deserved.
Shem emphasized God’s quality of transcendence. He was a priest “to God, the Most High.” His God was exalted far beyond the realm of humanity. Finite and insignificant, we cannot begin to emulate God, and Godliness cannot directly influence us. For Shem, in order to approach God it is necessary to choose a worthy intermediary. Therefore, the text emphasizes that only he was a priest. Only a holy individual of Shem’s stature could serve as a bridge between God and His creatures. Since Shem’s descendants did not attain the necessary spiritual level, they were unable to inherit Shem’s priesthood.
The Torah, on the other hand, views every individual as a being created in God’s image. We all are capable of connecting with our Creator. What then is the function of the kohen (priest)? The kohen not an intermediary, but rather atones for and purifies the people, enabling them to approach God directly. This form of priesthood could only originate from Abraham, from his attribute of chesed and sincere desire to help others.
Abraham developed his special trait of chesed through the two mitzvot mentioned in the Torah portion: brit milah (circumcision), and settling the Land of Israel. Both commandments strengthened his connection with future generations — “This is My covenant that you must keep, between Me and you and your descendants” (Gen. 17:10). They enabled Abraham to focus on his primary goal: concern for others and preparing the way for future generations.
In general, mitzvot serve to connect and unite. The word mitzvah comes from the root 'tzevet,' meaning ‘togetherness’ or ‘team.’ The mitzvot focused Abraham’s lifework towards the future community of his descendants, and through them, to the entire world.
A careful reading of the text reveals a major shift that occurred in Abraham’s service of God. When Abraham first arrived in the Land of Israel, he built an altar and dedicated it “to God Who appeared to him” (Gen. 12:7). This dedication expressed Abraham’s gratitude for his own personal spiritual attainments. “To God who appeared to him” — just to Abraham, the holy prophet in his own private spiritual world.
After fulfilling God’s command and traveling through the Land, Abraham returned to the altar he had built. This time, however, Abraham “called out in God’s Name” (Gen. 13:4). As Maimonides explained,
“The people would gather around him and question him about his words, and he would explain to each one according to his capabilities” (Laws of Idolatry 1:13).
Now Abraham “called out in God’s Name.” He publicized the belief in one God. This reflects the essence of Abraham’s new prophetic mission: reaching out to others in God’s Name.
Shem/Malkhi-tzedek, on the other hand, remained on the level of tzedek, without a public calling. “He was a priest to God.” He was a priest, but not the priest. Lacking the definitive article, the prefix letter hey, Shem was only a priest for himself, without a connection to others. Instead, the letter hey was added to Abraham’s name, indicating the universal nature of his mission. From Avram he became Avraham — “Av hamon goyim,” the father of many nations — bringing the entire world closer to God.
“God has sworn and will not retract: you are a priest forever, due to the words of Malkhi-tzedek.” (Psalms 110:4)
(Adapted from Shemu'ot HaRe’iyah 8: Lech Lecha 5690 (1929))