In every group, there is one person who stands out as special. In childhood, it is often the kid with the greatest athletic prowess. Later in life, different attributes begin to qualify a person to become the group’s star.
In my post-high school peer group, many years ago on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, we had one such towering figure. I use the word “towering” literally, because he was well over six feet tall. He had jet-black hair, which turned the heads of all the young ladies who passed him by. He had an outstanding academic record and seemed to earn his grades effortlessly.
As our group began to disperse with each of us going off to different colleges and yeshivot, he announced that he was accepted into a very prestigious university across the country. He was so distinctive and distinguished that, although he was not born into the priestly tribe, we called him “the Kohen”.
In this week’s Torah portion, Emor, we learn about the priests, or kohanim, and their special role in the Jewish nation. This is certainly not the first time that we have encountered them in our Torah readings. We already know that they stem from the tribe of Levi and descend from Aaron, brother of Moses. We have learned that they were charged with the performance of the sacrificial rites and other Temple practices. But this week, for the first time, we learn about the restrictions that are imposed upon them, especially with regard to their permission to come into contact with the dead.
We also learn that the rest of us, not born into the kohen’s tribe, are required to “sanctify” them, and to treat them deferentially. “And you must treat them as holy…” (Leviticus 21:8) “To be first in every way, and to offer the first blessing at the meal.” (Rashi, ibid.) They are to receive the honor of being first in many activities, especially in the ceremonies of leading Birkat HaMazon (Grace After Meals), and being called to the Torah.
Sociologists distinguish between two kinds of roles in society; those which are “ascribed” to us by others, and those which we “achieve” ourselves by virtue of our own efforts and accomplishments. The kohen’s role is clearly an ascribed one. Once a kohen, always a kohen, and unless he is guilty of truly egregious behaviors, he does not lose his status or forfeit his privileges.
One of the most remarkable features of our people is that we still have kohanim. So proud were the kohanim over all the generations that the “kohanic” identity has been passed from father to son for millennia. Indeed, genetic evidence seems to confirm the validity of this verbal communication down the ages by isolating a “kohen gene”.
But Judaism also recognizes other paths to privileged status that depend upon personal achievements and hard work, and are not ascribed at birth. These are statuses that must be earned and are not determined by one’s genetic endowment. Indeed, the Talmud recognizes the equality, if not superiority, of the talmid chacham to the kohen gadol. Greater respect is shown for the person whose piety and erudition earned him his status than to one who gained the role of High Priest by virtue of his genealogy.
During the past few weeks, many of us have been transfixed by the events surrounding the wedding of a member of the British royal family; a perfect example of how prominence, grandeur, and glory redound to an individual whose position is “ascribed” by his lineage, and not achieved by his accomplishments. It would seem that even in our day and age, we are captivated by those who are born to their positions.
But how much more deserving of our reverence and respect is the “low-born” person who has achieved his prominence by virtue of his hard work. In this sense, all of us are potentially kohanim, even if our genealogy is not comprised of ancestors from the tribe of Levi and who are not descendent from Moses or Aaron.
As is often the case, it was Maimonides who said it best: “Not just the tribe of Levi, but every inhabitant of the world whose inspiration and intellect guide him to stand before the Almighty, to serve Him and to know Him… is elevated to sanctity and holiness… and deserves the same material privileges as the kohanim…” (Mishneh Torah, Laws of the Sabbatical Year and Jubilee, 13:13)