What is the Kohen’s most important role? Whenever we think of a Kohen (a priest) our thoughts immediately go to the cultic, the sacrifices and the Temple. Most associate the priest’s role with the ritual. While these responsibilities are critical, Parshat Shmini teaches us that the Kohen has what is, perhaps, an even more fundamental role.
Two verses in the portion delineate this role. After God commands Aaron that he and his children are not to enter into the Tent of Meeting after having drunk wine, He continues: “You are to distinguish between the holy and the profane, and between the unclean and the clean, and you are to teach the people of Israel all the statutes that the Lord has spoken to them by Moses [Leviticus 10:10-11]. The Kohanim are meant to be, foremost, teachers and instructors and not simply religious functionaries. Other biblical verses make this very point. In Deuteronomy 33:10, Moses blesses the tribe of Levi (from whom the Kohanim are descendants), “They shall teach Jacob Your rules and Israel Your law; they shall put incense before You and whole burnt offerings on your altar.” The function of instruction in the law is first, only then followed by the ritual role.
Malachi 2:7 states “For the lips of a Kohen should guard knowledge and people should seek instruction from his mouth for he is the messenger of the Lord of Hosts.” The most basic instruction that needs to occur, according to our portion, is the ability to differentiate between that which is holy and that which is not, between that which is pure and that which is not. Judaism believes that there is a right way and a wrong way. In the overly relativistic world of modernity, where being judgmental is frowned upon and where all is accepted, Judaism provides an anchor by reminding us that there are standards by which a person is judged and that there are things that must be rejected.
It is often said that this role of the Kohen has been taken over today by the rabbi. Whether this role belongs to the Kohen or to the rabbi it is, unfortunately, very easy to read these verses and think that they are not talking to all of us. But they are. The Jewish people are all Kohanim. We were all commanded at the giving of the Torah to be a “Kingdom of priests and a holy nation [Exodus 19:6].” The use of the term Kohanim in this verse is certainly not random and is instructive. It is the sacred duty of the Jewish people to be the Kohanim for the entire world. The Jewish people must instruct the entire world as to what is holy and what is profane. The Jewish people must demonstrate that there are aspects of our world and of our culture that must be rejected without any compromise.
Maimonides, at the conclusion of the Book of Agriculture of his Mishneh Torah informs us that anyone has the ability to become a “Kohen.” It seems according to Maimonides that while the ritual role of the Kohen may be dependent on genealogy, the teaching role is dependent simply on desire. There, he explains that the Levites do not receive a portion in the inheritance of the Land of Israel, “because they were set aside to serve God and minister unto Him and to instruct people at-large in His just paths and righteous judgments,” as stated in Deuteronomy 33:10. Maimonides then says: “Not only the tribe of Levi, but any one of the inhabitants of the world whose spirit generously motivates him, and he understands with his wisdom to set himself aside and stand before God, to serve Him and minister to Him and to know God, proceeding justly as God made him…. he is sanctified as holy of holies. God will be His portion and heritage forever and will provide what is sufficient for him in this world like He provides for the priests and the Levites.”
In today’s world, every Jew has the obligation to take upon themselves this essential duty of teaching, to differentiate between the holy and the profane.
I once heard the following story from Rabbi Berel Wein. In the 1920s the sainted Rabbi Meir Shapiro of Lublin went to the United States to fundraise for his Hachmei Lublin Yeshiva. He was treated like a celebrity by American Jewry and was able to raise significant funds. After his return to Poland, when asked to describe the American Jewish community, he said, “American Jewry has learned to make Kiddush but it has not yet learned how to make Havdalah!”
Havdalah, the ability to differentiate and to reject what is impure and unholy is immeasurably more difficult than sipping from Kiddush.
May we all take upon ourselves the role of the Kohen and enable ourselves and the entire world to make Havdalah.
Rabbi David Fine is the director of communal and rabbinic relations at the Eretz Hemdah Advanced Institute for Jewish Studies in Jerusalem and the facilitator for Jewish identity at the Givat Ze’ev Community Center.
Signup for our weekly email newsletter here.