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by Rabbi Yaakov Menken

"They shall be holy before their L-rd, and they shall not desecrate the name of their L-rd, for the sacrifices of G-d, the bread of their L-rd do they bring, and they shall be holy." [21:6]

Having discussed last week the commandment for every Jew to be holy, we turn in this parsha to the holiness of the Kohanim, the priests.

Given only a shallow understanding of the laws of Kohanim, we might consider them a higher class, "creatures of privilege." When we had our Land and our Temple, all Jews gave the Kohanim a portion of their crops. Even the children of Levi (the tribe of the Kohanim), who also were given special portions, gave the Kohanim part of what they received. Only Kohanim could enter many parts of the Temple; only they could offer sacrifices; only they could aspire to the position of High Priest, he who performed the special service of Yom Kippur.

A closer examination of the details reveals that the situation is not so simple. The verse above describes the holiness of the Kohanim as not simply a fact, but a command - "they shall be holy," similar to "you shall be holy," the command to all Jews that we discussed last week. Rashi, Rabbi Shlomo Yitzhaki, further notes (according to the Sifsei Chachamim) that unlike the command of last week, this statement is said in the third person, as if there were a commandment upon others to make them holy.

His stunning conclusion: there is indeed such a command! "They shall be holy - By force, the Bais Din [Jewish court] shall make them holy."

This refers to the commandments that precede the above verse. In general, a Kohen is not permitted to enter a building with a dead body, to carry it, or to approach a grave. A Kohen cannot even attend the funeral of his married sister, save from a distance. If he wants to go, the court pushes him away. This is no minor matter: I recently heard that a liberal Rabbi "renounced his priesthood" in order to be able to perform funerals for congregants - the tradition provides no such opportunity.

Reading further, we learn that the Kohanim and Levites receive their designated presents - but unlike the rest of the nation of Israel, they did not receive individual parcels of land. Perhaps they were assured they would have a basic income, but the opportunity to amass individual wealth was greatly reduced. Note, by contrast, that the Catholic church was the largest landholder in Europe in the Middle Ages.

Frequently, we may look at other people, and be jealous. We wonder why this person was born wealthy, this one with a brilliant mind, this one with great looks. Others may also look at the Torah, and wonder why this group is different from that group, or why the Rabbis gave certain responsibilities to one group and not another.

The truth behind the distinctions of the Kohanim should teach us. Jewish thought does not tell us to seek fame and glory. Our lives are not about power and privilege. The Torah tells us that we are here to seek and to serve our G-d, through performance of Mitzvos and good deeds.

G-d gave us the Torah to assist us in our search. We need not wonder why some of us are Kohanim, some Levites, some Israelites, and why our tasks and responsibilities are different - because just as each individual is different, what will help one person to grow could be harmful to another. And when we perform our tasks correctly, and succeed in our mission, then these outside distinctions do not determine who is considered truly worthy: "An ill-begotten scholar is preferable to an ignoramus priest." It is not how we were born that makes us - it is how we die.

Text Copyright © 1996 Rabbi Yaakov Menken and Project Genesis, Inc.

The author is the Director of Project Genesis.



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