Parshat Emor begins with laws that are unique to cohanim. The cohanim must avoid tum’at met (impurity from the dead), and there are certain women that they may not marry. The Torah calls upon the rest of Am Yisrael: “You must [strive to] keep him holy, since he represents the food offering to G-d. He must be holy, since I am G-d – I am holy and I am making you holy” (21:8).
The Talmud (Yevamot 88) explains that “You must keep him holy,” obligates Bnei Yisrael to enforce the kedusha of the cohanim. We are required to ensure that the cohanim adhere to the guidelines of kedusha that the Torah gives them, since their kedusha is not a private matter between the cohen and G-d, but it is important to all of Bnei Yisrael.
In addition, “You must keep him holy” obligates us to honor the cohanim. The Talmud explains (Gittin59) that this involves honoring the cohanim in religious matters, such as being given the honor of speaking first and leading the blessings after meals, as well as serving him a choice portion and before others.
To summarize, “You must keep him holy” teaches us two things: we must prevent the cohen from defiling himself, and we have to honor him.
The Torah states the reason for the unique status of the cohanim: “…He must be holy, since I am G-d – I am holy and I am making you holy.” It would seem that the Torah should have written: “since I am G-d – I am holy and I am making them (the cohanim) holy.” Instead the Torah says, “I am making you holy.” The Torah is teaching us that the cohanim aren’t a separate elitist entity. Privileged groups whose members are entitled to do what they wish and no one can stop them exist in other nations (as an aside we’ll mention that privileged classes do not only exist in dictatorial or monarchal settings. Even in democratic countries where all people are equal, there are those who are “more equal” than others). The Torah stresses that the kedusha of the cohanim emanates from the Divinely granted kedusha of Am Yisrael. The moment the cohanim view themselves as an elitist, separate class, they are destroying the basis of their own kedusha. The cohanim merit representing of Am Yisrael if they understand their role as a part of Am Yisrael. This concept humbles them and creates a desire on their part to help and serve the rest of Bnei Yisrael.
The parsha begins “G-d told Moshe to declare the following to Aharon’s descendants, the priests…” We already know that the cohanim are Aharon’s descendents. Why are these words added? Rashi explains that this addition teaches us that even those amongst the descendents of Aharon who are blemished maintain the priestly kedusha (based on Chaza”l).
Perhaps we can offer an additional explanation. By stressing the relationship of the cohanim to Aharon the Torah is reminding them of Aharon’s special traits. The cohanim should learn from Aharon how to be humble, modest, and dedicated to the unity and welfare of Bnei Yisrael. As Hillel said: “Be of the disciples of Aharon. Loving peace and pursuing peace, loving your fellow man and bringing them closer to the Torah” (Avot 1:12). When Aharon died the Torah tells us that all of Bnei Yisrael, men and women, mourned. His pursuit of peace was what unified all of Bnei Yisrael without exception to mourn his passing. By saying “Aharon’s descendents” the Torah is again teaching that the sanctity of the cohanim stems from their relationship with the rest of Bnei Yisrael. Their task is meant to benefit all of Bnei Yisrael, just as Aharon their forefather did.
The cohen gadol, Eli, had two sons who are described in Sefer Shmuel as wicked men (Shmuel I 2:12). Chaza”l relate that they misused their positions to take extra portions from korbanot that people brought to the mishkan, and they caused “bureaucratic” delays in the offering of the korbanot of women after birth. As a result of their misbehavior the prophet foresaw the destruction of their family and their replacement as leaders of the priesthood by other cohanim.
The verse, “They must be holy to their G-d, and not profane their G-d’s name…” (21:6), again stresses that the sanctity of the cohanim is for the sake of G-d. The Netziv* explains that the cohanim must excel in morality and modesty. They can not separate themselves from other people in a manner that displays haughtiness and elitism.
Only people who see themselves as servants of the community and follow the leadership path of Aharon are worthy of representing the community and serving as its leaders.
The cohanim serving in the Beit Hamikdash must lead their lives in a manner that reflects their role of performing tasks on behalf of Bnei Yisrael. When they do so the korbanot bring us closer to G-d, and raise the entire world to spiritual heights. If they permit their status to separate them from Bnei Yisrael, then their service in the Mikdash becomes a meaningless ritual.
One of the most misleading events in this world is death. It causes people to understand the world in a superficial manner. When we see a living, creative and influential individual die, it appears that life is defined only by the creativity and activity that are apparent when a person is living.
This is misleading, because the real definition of life is in our souls and spiritual existence. Tzaddikim are considered living even after death, because in their lives they were involved in a world beyond their physical existence and beyond this limited, physical world. This involvement in the spiritual world continues after death, and even reaches new levels when there is no physical body to encumber the soul.
Rav Kook explained (Orot Hakodesh II) “Death is a deception, a lie of impurity. The event that people call death is actually a renewal of life.” Rav Kook is saying that the impurity caused by death is intended to correct the misconception that everything ends with death, as death is a process that leads man to a higher spiritual plane (depending upon his actions in this world).
Rav Kook continues, “The cohanim uplift themselves by separating themselves from the deception of death. In this physical world it is impossible to be totally insulated from the misleading effect of death, and therefore the cohanim are instructed: ‘He shall not come in contact with any dead body’” (21:11). The influence of death is so strong, that the cohanim who serve Hashem must distance themselves from the dead.
Amongst the laws of the cohanim, the Torah adds, “Let no priest shave off patches of hair from his head. Let them not shave the edges of their beards and not make gouges in their skin” (21:5). The laws listed in this pasuk are not unique to cohanim, they apply to all of Bnei Yisrael. Why does the Torah mention them here?
Rabbi Shimshon Refael Hirsh explained that G-d is mistakenly perceived as the G-d of death, and that death is meant to cause man to fear G-d. Shaving patches of hair on the head, and gouging the skin are ancient rites that were done following a death. They were considered religious symbols of death. The cohanim are servants of G-d, the Lord of life. G-d doesn’t instruct us how to die, but rather how to lead eternal lives through serving him. The Cohen is entrusted with the task of revealing the spiritual truth of life, and may not partake in such symbols of death. So although these prohibitions apply to all Jews, they are mentioned within the laws of the cohanim because of their added meaning for servants of G-d.
We’ve seen how the parsha teaches us the importance of understanding the real meaning of life, and the terrible consequences of leading a life devoid of spiritual meaning and understanding. Hashem wishes us to lead lives of sanctity and purity, since “I am holy and I am making you holy.”
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