Every Jew Can Become A Kohen

Rabbi Reuven Mann

Parshat Emor continues the theme of holiness which was introduced in Kedoshim. All Jews are commanded to be holy on the individual and communal level. Our national mission is contained in the injunction to become “a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.” There are, however, different levels of sanctification. Emor deals with the special laws that pertain to the “sons of Aaron,” the Kohanim who bless the people and perform the service in the Temple. As the spiritual elite of Israel they were required to adhere to a higher level of holiness. This is primarily expressed through the prohibition of coming in contact with a corpse. A Kohen may not attend a funeral or enter a building in which there might be a dead body. There are, however, exceptions to the general rule. The “ordinary Kohen” must defile himself for the seven close relatives for whom one is obligated to mourn. The Kohen Gadol (chief Kohen) must observe an even higher level of kedusha. He cannot become tamei (impure), even for his closest relatives. The lone exception is the case of the “meit mitzvah” i.e. one who has died with no relatives to bury him. If the Kohen Gadol should chance upon such a corpse he is obligated to become personally involved in the burial.

At first glance, the prohibition of tumat meit and its association with holiness is difficult to comprehend. Judaism regards honoring of the dead through participation in the funeral as a great mitzvah which it characterizes as “compassion of truth.” In addition, providing for the needs of a meit has a humbling effect on a person, arousing thoughts of his own mortality which can stimulate him to improve his ways. In what way does the encounter with death compromise the kedusha of the Kohen?

Many reasons have been offered for this most complicated question. In my opinion, we need to understand the mission of the Kohen in its broadest sense.

The pasuk in Malachi [2:7] says “Sifsei Kohen yishmaru daat v’Torah yivakshu mipiyhu” (The lips of the Kohen preserve wisdom and they will seek Torah from his mouth). The most essential function of the Kohen was spelled out by Moshe Rabbenu, who said “they shall teach your laws to Jacob and your Torah to Israel. They shall place incense before you and burnt offerings upon your altar.” The pasuk makes clear that their qualification to perform the Temple service on behalf of Klal Yisrael stemmed from their absolute commitment to studying Torah and teaching it to the nation. The kedusha of Shevet Levi is derived from its absolute dedication to Torah study. This “occupation” requires that a person put all his energy into learning and removal from all distractions. The Kohen had to keep himself in the best possible state, physically and emotionally for the mission at hand. He did not learn Torah only for himself but for the wellbeing of the entire nation. Because of this, he was enjoined from going to funerals and visiting cemeteries. He had to protect himself from being affected by the powerful emotions of grief and sorrow which could distract his focus and hamper his concentration. Exception was only made for the seven close relatives because of the significance of honoring parents and other members of one’s family. The Kohen Gadol who was always “in the presence of HaShem” could not interrupt his service even for his closest relatives. Only for the “abandoned corpse” who had no one to bury him did the Kohen Gadol become impure in order to demonstrate the supreme significance of man who was “created in His image.” To leave this body unattended would constitute desecration of the “divine soul” and indirectly of the Creator, Himself.

In his commentary to Parshat Emor, Rav Yosef Dov Soloveitchik Z”tl (as cited in Divrei Harav by Rav Hershel Schachter) asks why the Parsha of festivals is juxtaposed to the special prohibitions that pertain to Kohanim. He answers that the primary task of the Kohen was not to minister in the Temple but to serve as a Rabbi and teacher for Klal Yisroel. The most fundamental time which was designated to publicly expound the Torah before the entire community was Shabbos and the festivals. Since the principal task of the Kohen was fulfilled on the moadim it was only natural to transition from the subject of kedushat kehuna to that of the holidays.

This idea is fully elucidated by the Rambam at the conclusion of the Laws of Shmitta and Yovel. In explaining why the tribe of Levi was separated from the nation, in terms of not inheriting a portion of the land and being excused from war and other responsibilities, he says “they were set aside to serve HaShem and minister before Him to teach His correct ways and righteous ordinances to the people as it says ‘they will teach your laws to Jacob and your Torah to Israel.’” The Rambam concludes on a most inspiring note saying that this special status is not limited to members of the tribe of Levi. Any Jew who is motivated to detach himself from those who are preoccupied with mundane earthly pursuits and devotes himself exclusively to the study and teaching of Torah attains a special status. “He is sanctified as holy of holies. HaShem will be his portion and provide what is sufficient for him in this world as He provides for the priests and Levites.”

Every Jew can aspire to partake of the kedusha of the Kohen. In Hilchot Talmud Torah 3:1 Rambam says that three crowns were conferred upon the Jews, that of Torah, priesthood and kingship. Priesthood was limited to the descendants of Aaron and kingship to those of King David. However, the greatest crown of all, that of Torah is not restricted to any elite but is available to all Jews. One of the first verses taught to Jewish children expresses this idea: “Torah tziva lanu Moshe morasha kehilat Yaakov” (The Torah which Moshe commanded to us is the inheritance of the congregation of Jacob.) In the words of Rambam, “whoever desires it may come and take it.”

May HaShem grant us the wisdom to appreciate our inheritance and the inspiration to elevate our holiness by immersing ourselves in the study of His Torah, performance of His mitzvot and emulation of His ways of kindness and compassion.

Shabbat Shalom