Parashat Emor: Aliyah and a “Kingdom of Kohanim”

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Har Sinai
03 May 2007

Part One:

There are those who claim that although the basic message of aliyah to Eretz Yisrael in my writings is important, many people are distracted from the issue because I present it in a blatant and strident form.

Permit to explain why I wrap the beautiful gift of aliyah in sandpaper and not in a lace-topped package wrapped with a pretty ribbon.

1- Rabbis in every generation are required, as was Moshe Rabbeinu, to transmit to the Jewish nation the Torah we received from Hashem at Sinai.

In the uncompromising tug-of-war for the Jewish mind and heart, we are pitted as the disciples of Moshe against today’s disciples of yesteryear’s meraglim. If we should fail to convince the nation to go up to the “Land” in the way of Yehoshua bin Nun and Calev ben Yefuneh, the matter will come before the bet din shel ma’ala (the heavenly court) to the detriment of us all.

My messages, and those of many other rabbanim in Eretz Yisrael who see the hand of God in our present history, will appear as tolerant, benign, gentle, and pale when compared to the same message which Hashem has sent and will send through the tragic events of Jewish history. Is our cajolery to leave the galut more strident than the same message sent by Hashem through the devastating Holocaust and cataclysmic assimilation of our people in the galut?

2- I believe in the sanctity of Eretz Yisrael and the uplifting spiritual effect it has on us who live here. But this is not the primary reason that I call for Aliyah. My reason supercedes even the most essential mitzvot in the Torah – it is the saving of Jewish lives. What would you say if passengers on a sinking ship, listing in the water, refused to climb onto the life rafts because the captain did not say “please”?

In the face of the ultimate question of whether “to be or not to be,” style and form are relegated to secondary status.

Short of tying a rope around the collective bodies of Jews in the galut and pulling them here, I can only shout through the megaphone of words.

How interesting that this matter is included in this week’s parsha.

Our parsha’s prohibition on kohanim from marrying a divorcee has caused great consternation, especially in light of the Torah’s reason for the prohibition based on a kohen’s requirement to be “kadosh” (holy), implying that a divorcee is inappropriate for one who is holy!

Moreover, why does the Torah penalize a woman who had a bad marriage through no fault of her own and has now met a kohen who wants to give her a new life? Did not Miriam and Aharon’s father, Amram, remarry his wife, Yocheved, after divorcing her, who then gave birth to the holy Moshe Rabbeinu!

I suggest:

As we approach the holiday of Shavuot, the midrash pertaining to Hashem’s offer to give the Torah to the nations of the world comes to mind. Prior to presenting the Torah to Am Yisrael, Hashem offered it to the respective nations of the time. The descendants of Eisav, who by tradition make up the nations of Central and Western Europe, rejected the Torah because of the injunction against murder; the descendants of Yishmael, our cousins, rejected it because of the injunction against thievery; and every other civilization rejected the Torah for reasons pertaining to their essence.

When this occurred, Hashem ejected those nations from his spiritual realm, just as a man divorces an unsuitable wife. HaShem will never restore the gentile peoples to an eminent spiritual status, be they Christian, Islam, Hindu, etc. Once divorced, the ultimate “Kohen” of the universe will never take them back.

Hashem singled out the sons of Aharon to be His personal emissaries in this world. This family, known as “Kohanim,” were appointed for the most intimate connections between the Creator and His nation Yisrael. Kohanim maintained the Holy Temple, offered up the sacrifices, redeemed the first born, and were restricted from coming into contact with the dead (because Hashem is the source of life in this and the next worlds), we traditionally comprised the majority of the Sanhedrin, and were the teachers and leaders of the nation.

Hashem ordered the kohanim to refrain from marriage to a divorcee not because of any blemish upon the divorcee – because there is no blemish – but in order that they serve as everlasting reminders that Hashem will never abandon His nation, Israel, in favor of any nation which was rejected at the time of the giving of the Torah.

The conclusion arising from this brings us back to the beginning of this week’s message. If Hashem ordered the kohanim to serve as a reminder of His eternal rejection of the other nations from His spiritual world, how can we, the nation of Yisrael, choose to live with those who were rejected, speak their languages, emulate their ways and eventually marry their daughters?

Therefore, it is requisite upon anyone who can, to cajole, beg, implore, threaten and all else, in order to release the Jewish nation from its psychological and spiritual incarceration in the galut, even at the risk of sounding “unfriendly”.

Part two:

The book of Vayikra is also called “the testament of the kohanim” – because it deals essentially with the laws of the Temple and those appointed to officiate – the kohanim. With this, one fifth (twenty percent) of the Torah is dedicated to that part of the nation which constitutes only about five percent of the entire nation. This is an apparent unbalanced distribution of mitzvot.

However, on a deeper level, we will find that the proportions are quite right.

In parshat Yitro, Hashem commands Moshe to deliver a message to the People of Israel, that they are to become a “kingdom of kohanim”. This is a strange command, since only five percent of us are kohanim.

Kohanim, as a unique group within Am Yisrael and vis-a-vis the Jewish nation as a whole, are limited in the seven basic activities of life: diet, clothing, speech, dwelling, marriage, ritual purity and social status.

Diet: A kohen may eat truma and other sanctified foods; but if he does so while tamay, he is liable for the death penalty meted out from the heavenly court. In addition, the very act of eating the sacrificial meat is part of the atonement process for the person bringing the sacrifice, as the gemara states “the kohanim eat and the owners are forgiven”. These laws do not apply to a Jew who is not a kohen.

Clothing: If a kohen performs the temple duty while not wearing the kohanic garments, he is liable for punishment from the heavenly court, both the common kohen with regards to his four garments and the kohen gadol with regards to his eight garments. There is no law which is so punishable regarding clothing with one who is not a kohen.

Speech: A kohen must be very fastidious in his speech, for as the prophet Malachi says, “the lips of the kohen shall define the law and seek Torah from him.” Hashem graced the kohanim with the power to bless. It was for this reason that the Torah states that when Aharon heard of the death of his two sons, he did not utter a sound; because he was aware of the ramifications of a kohanic utterance at that sad time. And even though all Jews are prohibited from speaking lashon hara and other forbidden expressions of speech, the violation by a kohen is more severe.

Dwelling: Kohanim are limited to kohanic towns such as Nov and Anatot for reasons of purity, whereas a Jew may live anywhere in Eretz Yisrael from the Euphrates to the Nile.

Marriage: Kohanim are far more limited than non-kohanim with whom they may marry.

Ritual purity: The laws of tumah and tahara follow a kohen his whole life; non-kohanim are less affected.

Social status: The kohen must be respected and receive priority in many aspects of life.

Thus, we find that kohanim are unique within Am Yisrael in seven ways, and these very same seven differences exist between Jews and gentiles:

Diet: A Jew is limited by the laws of kashrut, whereas a non-Jew may eat whatever he wishes.

Clothing: A Jew may not wear shatnez and must put tzitzit on a four-cornered garment. Non-Jews have no laws regarding wearing apparel.

Speech: A Jew must be careful not to utter prohibited statements, whereas a non-Jew has no such limitations.

Dwelling: A Jew is required to live in Eretz Yisrael. A non-Jew may live anywhere on the globe.

Marriage: A Jew is limited to whom he may marry, whereas Non-Jews are much less restricted.

Ritual purity: Jews have laws governing ritual purity. Non-Jews have no tumah during their lifetime.

Social status: We have a unique status in the world as God’s chosen people and God shines his countenance upon us, whereas he does not do so with non-Jews.

From here, we discern that the seven areas which set kohanim apart from other Jews are the same seven areas where Jews are set apart from the nations of the world.

This is the meaning of a “kingdom of kohanim” – the Jewish nation is to the nations of the world what the kohanim are to the Jewish nation.

Thus, the book of Vayikra, although directed mainly to kohanim, is indirectly speaking to the entire nation. From this book, Am Yisrael learns that they are also kohanim vis-a-vis the nations of the world.

The knowledge that we are unique in Hashem’s world is indeed the most comforting feeling one can experience. When in the course of one’s life situations may take a depressing turn, one need only remember that he was born a Jew, a son of Hashem.

Last Yom HaShoah, I heard a story about a woman in a German death camp who would murmur through her lips all day without uttering a sound. When asked by the other victims what she was repeating all the time, she replied, “I say

Blessed are You, King of the Universe, for not having me born a non-Jew

Shabbat Shalom

Nachman Kahana

The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.