If you wanna get blessed, you’ve got to go to the best.
When the Temple’s around, you’ve got to take your cow down to
He’s so high, he’s so high, he’s so high;
When the Torah is read, you’ll find him at the head
And when Benching’s begun, he’s to be number one.
Give him presents and tithes, that’s what keeps him alive.
He’s the holiest Jew, you can be one too.
This week’s Torah portion, Parshas Emor, begins with a discussion of the special laws regarding a Kohein, a priest (plural Kohanim). Kohanim are Jews who are descendants of Aaron the High Priest, brother of Moses, and according to Jewish tradition, have been divinely chosen to work in the Beis HaMikdosh (the Holy Temple) in Jerusalem and to offer the daily and holiday animal (and other) sacrifices on the Altar.
Along with their primary role serving in the Temple, the Kohanim have the responsibility of being knowledgeable in all the laws and nuances of the Torah and to be able to give accurate instruction in those laws to the Jewish people (see Deuteronomy 33:10 and Malachi 2:7).
It is for this reason that the Jewish people were commanded to give various tithes and gifts to the Kohanim, thus freeing them from having to make a living and enabling them to spend much of their time learning Torah and becoming proficient in its laws.
The Kohanim also have a special duty to raise their hands and bless the Jewish people with the “Priestly Blessing” (see Numbers 6:22-27) each day in the Land of Israel and on certain special occasions in the Diaspora.
Additionally, due to their heightened level of holiness, Kohanim are restricted by the Torah to marry someone of blemished lineage (see Leviticus 21:7).
To ensure that the rest of the Jewish people recognize the sanctity of Kohanim, the Torah commands us to show them respect and to give them precedence, as it says in the Torah portion, “You shall sanctify him …” (ibid 21:8). This is why the Kohein is called to the Torah first, is offered the choicest portion of food first, and has priority in leading the assemblage in Grace after Meals (see Talmud Gittin 59b).
So by now most of you (especially the non-Kohanim) are probably wondering what this “Kohein stuff” has to do with you. So just hang in there for a little longer and you’ll see where I am going with all this…
The Talmud in Zevachim 19a relates a story about Rav Huna bar Nosson, a very prominent and wealthy Jew who was also a great Torah scholar. He had close ties to the government and was a frequent visitor at the court of King Izgader, ruler of Babylon. One day Rav Huna entered the king’s chamber with his belt tied around his chest higher than his elbows. King Izgader noticed and proceeded to lower Rav Huna’s belt equal to his elbows (the same place on the body where the avnet, the special belt worn by the kohein while serving in the Holy Temple, was traditionally located). The King then explained his actions. He said to Rav Huna, “Does it not say in your Torah (see Exodus 19:6) that you Jews are to be a Mamleches Kohanim, a ‘Kingdom of Priests’”
We learn from this Talmudic story that although not all of us descend from Aaron the High Priest, we are all to be Kohanim to the rest of the world. This means that the entire nation of Israel is to be dedicated to leading the world toward an understanding and acceptance of G-d’s mission for humanity, much the same as the Kohanim are to serve as teachers of Torah to the Jewish people.
Of course, as was advertised in the 1980’s American Express Card commercial, “membership has its privileges”, and while the Kohanim had a distinctive responsibility to serve in the Holy Temple and to teach Torah to the masses, so, too, did they receive special tithes and gifts and enjoyed a certain elevated status among the Jewish people. The same can also be said for the “Kingdom of Priests” that is the Jewish people as a whole. The “privilege” of being G-d’s Chosen People comes along with our obligation to be an Or L’amim – a “light unto the nations” – and to teach the whole world by moral example what it means to be more holy and G-dlike.
The great mystic Rabbi Tzadok HaKohein Rabinowitz of Lublin (1823-1900) writes in Tzidkas HaTzaddik (#61) that even a Kohein who is on a very low spiritual level, to the point that we cannot detect even the slightest bit of holiness within him, so long as he descends from Aaron, G-d alone sees inside his heart and knows that he possesses great sanctity as does every other Kohein.
So that even if you know of a Kohein who is not exactly “holy” or “elevated’ in the way he leads his life, it doesn’t mean that he lacks the kedushah and sanctity of a Kohein in potential.
And the same can be said for all of us, the “Kingdom of Priests”. Each and every one of us – whether he believes it and feels it or not – is a true ‘Kohein’ blessed with the innate potential and ability to be a shining example of G-d’s Torah and morality and to teach others around him through the way he leads his life.