The kohayn –the priest, is the subject of the first part of this parshah. One of the well-know halachic proscriptions has to do with the priest being forbidden to have contact with the dead, thus preventing the priest from attending funerals except in the case of immediate family members. According to tradition, one’s status as either a kohayn, levi or yisrael is determined by the status of the father.
A humorous story: A man comes to his rabbi;” Rabbi, I want you to make me kohayn?
Rabbi’s reply: “I can’t do it!”
“ I’ll make a donation of $50,000 to the synagogue.”
Rabbi hesitates. “Come back tomorrow-let me think on this.”
The man returns. He’s told that nothing can be done.
“I will give you $100,000,” the man offers desperately.
Rabbi pauses and asks, “Tell me, why do you want to be a kohayn?”
The man answers: “Because my father is a kohayn!”
Priestliness is synonymous with holiness. The Torah suggests that while functionally holiness is vested in a particular group, its embrace is extended to all of Israel-“You shall be for Me a Kingdom of Priests and a holy nation.”(Exodus 19:6)
The Rabbi of Gur, in his masterpiece Sefat Emet-The Language of Truth- interprets the notion of priesthood in a radical, democratic manner. We read in the Torah- “V’kidashto kee lechem elohaucha huh makriv,”-You must treat him-lit. you must sanctify him, since they offer the food of your God.”(Lev.21:8)
God instructs Moses to sanctify Aaron-“The holiness of the priests depends upon that of the people Israel.”(The Language of Truth, Green, Arthur, JPS, 1998,p.193.) Furthermore, the rebbe of Gur takes another passage and transforms its literal meaning into a source of radical understanding with regards to the nature of holiness.
“The priest who is greater than his brothers”-“hakohayn hagadol may echav.”(Lev.21: 10) is read to mean-the priest is made great from or by his brothers.” Instead of understanding the text as a reiteration of a static state of superior holiness among the priests over the rest of Israel, the Gerer rebbe infuses the text with the spiritual challenge that suggests all of Israel is inherently holy and spiritual greatness emerges out of a commitment to share that holiness with others.
From other references regarding the meaning and function of the kohayn in more formal ways, we can arrive at a fuller understanding of holiness. The priest blesses Israel-beahavah-with love; Aaron is known by tradition as a lover and pursuer of peace; the Hebrew word for priest-kohayn-literally means the one who serves; if we rearrange the three letters of khn, we have hkn, which means the one who prepares.
Thus, holiness is constituted by the components of love, peace and service; holiness is not automatic-it demands preparation, inner and outer refinement and discipline.
Israel as a kingdom of priests lives out its destiny when it serves the world with the living messages of love and peace. We have been preparing this holiness for a long time; it will take a little longer.