Kohanim – Agents of God or Man?
-Rabbi Moshe Pinchuk-
Parahsat Emor is rife with questions. The Talmud lists eight passages that were related to Moshe upon the consecration of the Tabernacle, on the first of the month of Nissan. The appropriate place for these passages is in the parasha of Shemini, which opens with the dedication of the Tabernacle: “Eight sections were given forthon the day on which the Tabernacle was set up. They are: the section of the priests,the section of the Levites,the section of the ritually unclean,the section of the sending of the ritually unclean [out of the camp],the section commencing ‘After the death’…” Several of these passages are set forth in this week’s parasha, Emor:
The key to answering these questions and understanding the parasha as a whole can be found in the words of the Sforno (16th century Italy) at the beginning of the parasha: “that they shall separate themselves from the holy [sacrifices] of the children of Israel” – that their elevated stature shall not cause them to think of the holy sacrifices as ordinary.” The kohanim merit special treatment and an elevated status in relation to the rest of the People. The parashot of Tetzave and Tzav set forth the details of the ceremonies in which the kohanim were consecrated and separated from the People. The kohanim received an elevated position at Mount Sinai, when the children of Israel received the Torah. The beginning of Emor, full of detail regarding the limitations and prohibitions that are unique to the kohanim, emphasizes and widens the social divide between the kohanim and the rest of the People.
It is for this reason that the kohanim may come to develop feelings of superiority and estrangement with respect to the People, while at the same time develop feelings of exaggerated closeness to Hashem. There is reason to fear that the kohanim will misunderstand their role and status. They may see themselves as being distinct from the People, even as sons of God. They may come to view the Temple as their personal home, where they are the lords of the house, thus leading them to treat the holy sacrifices with contempt and disrespect. The anthropologist Mary Douglas described a state of relative holiness in other societies: what is ritually clean in one respect is considered ritually unclean in another respect, and vice versa.
The most common method for showing respect entailed the use of cow dung as a means of ritual cleanliness. People worship cows. Simple types of ritual uncleanliness are removed through water. More serious types of ritual uncleanliness are removed through water and cow dung. At its core, cow dung, like the dung of other animals, is ritually unclean and contaminating, and will in fact ritually contaminate the gods. However, with respect to humans, cow dung is considered ritually clean. The most unclean part of the cow is considered sufficiently clean and pure to remove all ritual uncleanliness even from a Brahmanian priest.
The thrust of Parashat Emor is to dispute the notion of relative purity and to solidify the notion that all of the children of Israel belong to one legal and social framework. In the words of the Sforno: “that their elevated stature shall not cause them to think of the holy sacrifices as ordinary.” Immediately following the “section of the priests,” regarding the sanctity of the kohanim, the Torah sets forth the “section of the ritually unclean,” which clearly defines the status of the kohanim. The kohanim must understand that they are not sons of God, that the Temple is not their personal home and that the holy sacrifices are just as holy to them as they are to the rest of Israel. The aforementioned passage in the Talmud views the “section of the priests” and the “section of the ritually unclean” as two distinct passages, as they have conflicting agendas: the “section of the priests” formalizes the elevated and unique status of the kohanim, while the “section of the ritually unclean” serves to “bring the kohanim back down to ground.”
This is the reason that these passages were uprooted from their natural context in Parashat Shemini, which tells of the consecration of the Tabernacle. The day the Tabernacle was dedicated was the day the kohanim were consecrated. That event served to emphasize and reinforce their
elevated status. It was not an appropriate moment to simultaneously convey the opposite message. This is the reason for the name of this week’s parasha. “Emor” is a word that lacks substance and its selection over the word “kohanim” clearly conveys the aforementioned message. In this manner we can also understand the reasoning behind the placement in Emor of the section dealing with the festivals. The kohanim must not be under the impression that the festivals are their own private holidays. The festivals have equal meaning to all of the children of Israel. This is why the Torah in Emor emphasizes the shared elements of the festivals, while the sacrifices, whose laws pertain mainly to the kohanim, are relatively marginalized. In the words of Nachmanides: “the festivals do not have more significance to the kohanim than they do to the rest of Israel.”
Rabbi Moshe Pinchuk is the director of the Israel Heritage Center and the campus rabbi at the Netanya Academic College