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Everyone Can Be Like a Kohen

This week’s parsha, Emor, concludes a major topic of Sefer Vayikra, the Book of Leviticus. As the Latin word Leviticus indicates, a majority of this third book of the Torah deals with special laws and mitzvot pertaining to the tribe of Levi and its subdivision, the Kohanim. These descendants of Aaron were selected to be the priests in the Holy Temple, to serve “in the presence of God.” Among these mitzvot include the obligation to give special portions of food and agricultural growth, Terumah and Maasar, to the priests. Kohanim together with the entire tribe of Levy were exclude from possessing any portion of land in Israel after it was divided amongst the conquering 12 Tribes of Israel. Their primary domain seems to be the sacrificial service in the Holy Temple.

With regard to service in the Temple, Kohanim, in particular, were prohibited in contact with a dead person unless the deceased was one of seven “close” family members for whom they must mourn. The Kohen Gadol, High Priest, was not only permitted to attend to the needs of a corpse if it was deemed a “mate mitzvah,” a unique case where the dead person had no family members to properly prepare the body for burial. He was obligated to do so

These particular laws pertaining to contact with a corpse, while unique, are necessary. Priests could only perform their service in the Temple when in a certain legal state called “tahor.” Proximity to a dead body or actual contact with one changes the status of the Kohen from “tahor” to “tamay.” (In truth there are no good English terms for these Torah words. All English translations convey incorrect notions) Being “tamay,” no Jew may enter the Temple. In addition any service performed by a Kohen while “tamay” is invalid and is accounted to him as a serious violation of Temple protocol.

Why is there a prohibition for a Kohen to become “tamay?” The “chesed,” kindness shown to a dead person by attending to his or her final needs is considered, par excellance, a “chesed shel emet,” a true act of kindness. Why is that so? On the highest level, chesed should be done for no ulterior motive or expectation of payback. The deceased, of course, has no way to show gratitude for the care taken by those who arrange for and perform his or her burial. Thus the people involved in attending the dead do so without expectation of any return. Even the Kohen Gadol, then, in accordance with Torah law, must become personally involved and relinquish his status of “tahor,” his ability to serve in the Temple, should the situation arise. This act of chesed supersedes protecting the “tahor” status of even the Kohen Gadol.

Generally speaking, though, a regular Kohen and certainly the Kohen Gadol, must always be ready to serve in the Temple. Since a Kohen cannot serve in the Temple when “tamay,” his legal status was always of concern. Kohanim, therefore, could not do something that would purposely make them “not ready to serve in the Temple.” It is for this same reason that even today, even when there is not Temple, Kohanim cannot, willy-nilly, go into a cemetery. To put it in positive terms, Kohanim have the inherent status to “always ready to serve and be in God’s presence in the Temple.”

Notwithstanding this great lesson in “chesed” learned from the rare case of the “mate mitzvah,” it is interesting to note, however, that other than the Kohen Gadol who was always on duty at the Temple, a regular Kohen was only on duty two weeks a year. How so? The entire nation was divided into 24 groups or “mishmarim,” “watches.” Each “mishmar” was on duty at the Temple once every 24 weeks or twice a year. On that week, perhaps a particular Kohen was assigned a specific service for Wednesday at 2 0’clock in the afternoon. What did the Kohen do the rest of the time, the rest of the year? Of course a Kohen could volunteer to serve at the Temple anytime but he may not take away the obligation of a Kohen whose turn it was to serve.

The verse in Malachi (2:7) states “The lips of the Kohen preserve wisdom and they will seek Torah from his mouth.” Moshe Rabbenu describes the function of the Kohanim, “They shall teach Your laws to Jacob and Your Torah to Israel. They shall place incense before You and place offerings on Your altar.” (Devarim 33:10) It is clear from our holy writings that the primary function of the Kohanim is to serve God by teaching others. Due to their dedication to study and learning, they were best suited to be given the secondary role and responsibility as servants in the Temple. What unifies these two roles? Both bring a person to the status of ‘לפני ה’, “being in the presence of God.”

In this sense, every single human being has the opportunity to “be in the presence of God.” First and most important, very single person can learn and come close to God through seeing His wisdom as it is expressed in natural law and in Torah law. This first role of the Kohen, the more primary of the two, is not exclusive to the Kohen. It is available to all who dedicate their life to this pursuit. Second, just by appearing in the Temple one achieves the status of “in the presence of God.” Anyone can properly prepare themselves to enter the Temple. Minimally, 3 times a year every male had to appear in the Holy Temple: Pesach, Shavuot and Sukkot. But every male and female is to be imbued with the majesty and grandeur of the Temple and sacrificial service. Aside from Kohanim and Leviim, representatives of the nation, regular Israelites, also had to be present during the sacrificial service. In these two ways every person can become a Kohen as the Torah states, “You are to be a kingdom of priests and a holy (distinct) nation.” (Exodus 19:6)

May each of us merit the ability to partake in some measure the experience of “being in the presence of God” through learning and study; and may Hashem continue His protecting care over the nation of Israel, Jews and peace loving people the world over.

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Robert Kaplan