Los Angeles Jewish Home's Blog

Word of Torah – Emor

Last week’s reading is known simply as “Holiness”, applying laws for every person to live a moral life. This week, we read about laws of holiness specifically for the priests.

But, the very first verse is peculiar:

The Lord said to Moses, “Say to the priests, the sons of Aaron, and say to them…”

Three times in this one verse the verb “to say” is used, and calling Aaron’s sons “the priests” appears to be redundant.

The Rabbis of the Talmud suggest that “saying” is much gentler than “speaking”, which is harsh and judgmental.   Perhaps what we have here is a gentle question for the kohanim.

The Talmud in Nedariis m 32b describes the kohanim as sheluchei didan. The kohanim act as our agents or emissaries as they perform the Temple service. Yet this idea - that the kohanim act as agents for the Jewish people - appears to violate the legal definition of the powers of a shaliach. An agent acts on behalf of the one sending him, executing his wishes. The agent cannot do that which the principal himself is incapable of doing for himself. So how can the kohanim perform the Temple service on our behalf, when non-kohanim are not permitted to serve in the Beit HaMikdash?

The parashah also opens with special directives for kohanim: "God spoke to Moses: Tell the kohanim, the sons of Aaron..." (Lev. 21:1). Yet the text appears repetitive — do we not know that the kohanim are descended from Aaron?

According to Rav Kook, these two terms — 'kohanim' and 'sons of Aaron' — indicate two different aspects of the special sanctity of kohanim. The first is an intrinsic holiness, inherited from one’s father. The phrase "sons of Aaron" refers to this inherent sanctity.

The second aspect is an additional layer of holiness — one’s actual functioning as a kohen. This aspect is designated by the term 'kohanim.' (The verb lechahein means 'to serve,' so the word 'kohanim' indicates their actual service.) Thus, the term "sons of Aaron" refers to their inherited potential, while 'kohanim' refers to their realized state of priestly service.

Usually a kohen will have both potential and actual kohanic-holiness.  This intrinsic sanctity cannot be revoked.

Perhaps we may now understand the description of kohanim as 'our agents.' How can they be our emissaries in their Temple service when we ourselves are forbidden to perform this service?

In fact, the Torah speaks of the entire Jewish people as "a kingdom of kohanim" (Ex. 19:6).

Non-kohanim may not serve in the Beit HaMikdash, for they lack the holiness of actual priesthood. Yet every Jew has a quality of potential kohanic-holiness. Because this inner holiness will be revealed in the future, the entire people of Israel are called 'God's kohanim.' And it is due to this potential holiness that the kohanim are able to serve as our agents in the Temple service.

This understanding of the role of kohanim sheds a new light on the ceremony of birkat kohanim. The significance of their daily blessing is to awaken the latent kohanic-holiness that resides within the entire Jewish people. As the kohanim extend their arms to bless the people, they reach out to Israel's future state of holiness. Their outstretched arms point to a future era, but whose seeds are planted in the present.

This week we are gently reminded of our potentiality of holiness. Just as Aaron’s sons must strive to be deserving of their special status, likewise we strive to live holy lives in accordance with kedoshim.

Shabbat Shalom

Rabbi Sheldon PennesRabbi Sheldon Pennes is the Jack H. Skirball Director of Spiritual Life at the Los Angeles Jewish Home, where he oversees the many services and activities that educate, illuminate, and enrich the spiritual life and needs of those living in, or served by, the Home.

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