A Kohen is a member of a family of priests within the tribe of Levi. The members of this priestly family are the descendants of Aharon, the brother of Moshe Rebbeinu – Moses, our Teacher. Aharon was the first Kohen Gadol – High Priest – of our people. Aharon’s descendants, the Kohanim, were given the responsibility to serve in the Temple, and to also serve as teachers of Torah to the people.
As the classical commentator, Rashi, explains, the word “kohen” means, “one who serves” (commentary to Exodus 29:30). A Kohen is therefore a person who is to be totally dedicated to serving the life-giving purpose of Hashem – the Compassionate One. In fact, each member of our people is to live in the spirit of the Kohen, as when we arrived at Mount Sinai, Hashem told Moshe to convey to us the following message: “You shall be to Me a kingdom of Kohanim” (Exodus 19:6). And as we shall discuss in this letter, Kohanim are to bring to the world the following message regarding the ultimate goal of the human journey: L’Chayim – To Life!
A Kohen cannot go to a funeral or a burial, unless it is for a member of his immediate family. With the exceptions of those close relatives, a Kohen is not allowed to come into contact with a dead body, and the source for this prohibition is found in this week’s Torah’s portion (Leviticus 21:1-3). The “Kohen Gadol” – High Priest – has a stricter standard, as he can not even come into contact with the dead of his immediate family (ibid 21:10,11). If, however, a regular Kohen or a Kohen Gadol encounters a dead body on the road and there is no one else around who could give the body the dignity of a burial, then the Kohen, including the Kohen Gadol, has the responsibility to fulfill this sacred task.
The above teachings reveal a major difference between the role of the Kohen and the role of a “priest” in certain religions. In these religions, a priest is involved with rituals of death. If someone is dying, a priest is called to the bedside; moreover, the priest is involved with the funeral and burial. The involvement of priests with rituals of death was especially strong within those pagan societies that worshiped gods of death which needed to be appeased by the priests. The Kohen, however, is to be involved with life, not death. As Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch explains:
“God, Who instructs the Kohen regarding his position in Israel, is a God of life. The most exalted manifestation of God is not in the power of death, which crushes strength and life. Rather, God reveals himself in the liberating and vitalizing power of life, which elevates the human being to free will and eternal life…Judaism teaches us how to live every moment of earthly life as a moment of eternal life in the service of God.” (Commentary to Leviticus 21:5)
Rabbi Hirsch adds: “When death summons the other members of the people to perform acts of lovingkindness for the physical shell of a soul that has been called home to Hashem, the Kohanim of Hashem must stand back and keep away. By standing back, they raise the banner of life besides the corpse…They reinforce in people’s consciousness the idea of life, so that it not be overshadowed by the idea of death.”
The Kohanim therefore proclaim a message of life, and the major harbinger of this message is the Kohen Gadol, who has no contact at all with death. The Kohen Gadol is to represent the eternal life that is gained through serving the Divine purpose.
With the help of the Living One, I discovered a Midrash which can give us a deeper understanding of the life-affirming role of the Kohen Gadol – the High Priest of the Sanctuary. The Midrash teaches that the Sacred Sanctuary is to serve as a spiritual model of the Universe. The Midrash therefore describes how the process of making the Sanctuary and its vessels corresponds to the process of the creation of the Universe (Numbers Rabbah 12:13). For example, with regard to the creation of the Universe, the Creator said, “Let there be luminaries in the firmament of the heaven” (Genesis 1:14). And with regard to the Sanctuary, the Creator said, “You shall make a Menorah” (Exodus 25:31). The Midrash also teaches that just as the Creator made the human being and placed him in the Garden, so too, the Creator placed Aharon, the Kohen Gadol, in the Sanctuary. A classical commentator on the Midrash, known as the Maharzu, explains the comparison between the first human being and Aharon in the following manner: The Torah states that the Creator placed the human being in the Garden “to serve it and protect it” (Genesis 2:15). And the Creator told Moshe to bring Aharon into the Sanctuary “to serve Me” (Exodus 28:1). According to this explanation, the service of the Kohen Gadol is to correspond to the service of the first human being.
Our tradition teaches that had the first man/woman fulfilled the life-giving mission in the Garden and not sinned, the human being would have lived forever. Ramban (Nachmanides) discusses this ancient teaching, and he explains how the human being has the potential to live forever. He writes, “For the supernal soul given to him would provide him with eternal life” (commentary to 2:17). I would like to suggest that the Kohen Gadol, who corresponds to the first human being in the Garden, is to serve as a reminder of the potential within the human being to live forever. The Kohen Gadol is to therefore avoid any contact with death, for he is to serve as a symbol of eternal life.
May we be blessed with a life-giving Shabbos.
Yosef Ben Shlomo Hakohen (See below)
Related Teachings and Comments:
The Living One proclaimed, “Keep My statutes and My social laws, which a human being shall do and live thereby – I am Hashem” (Leviticus 18:5).
“Live thereby” – The ancient Aramaic translation of the Torah, Targum Onkelos, and the classical commentator, Rashi, explain that these words are referring to eternal life. In addition, the Midrash known as “Toras Kohanim” points out that the above verse does not state, “which an Israelite shall do and live thereby”; instead, it states, “which a human being shall do and live thereby.” The emphasis on a “human being” serves as a reminder that the Torah given to Israel also has a universal moral code for humankind which leads to eternal life. The Midrash therefore concludes with the following comment regarding the fulfillment of the Torah’s universal code:
A non-Jew who fulfills the Torah is compared to the Kohen Gadol.
This statement may be alluding to the idea that a non-Jew who follows the universal code of the Torah connects to the eternal life which is represented by the Kohen Gadol.
2. The Torah is called a “Tree of Life” (Proverbs 3:18). In this spirit, our tradition teaches: “The words of Torah are life for all human beings” (Tana Dvei Eliyahu 18:74).
3. The path of the Torah is to lead to the era when the Living One “will eliminate death forever” and “erase tears from all faces” (Isaiah 25:8). Based on this prophecy, the Midrash states the following teaching in the name of Rabbi Joshua Ben Levi: There will be no death in the future that is to come – neither for Israel, nor for the nations of the world, as it states that Hashem will erase tears from “all” faces. (Genesis Rabbah 26:2 – the version cited in Sefer Chassidim 368)
4. In the previous three letters of our series, we discussed aspects of the eternal life in the World to Come, including the era of the Resurrection when the soul will be reunited with the body. In upcoming letters, we hope to discuss the universal precepts within the Torah which enable humankind to merit this eternal life.