Priests are just like Jews, only more so


By Rabbi Sanford H. Shudnow

Special to WJW

This week’s Torah portion is Emor, Leviticus 21:1 – 24:23.

Emor is known more for its list of Jewish holy days than for any other aspect of its many laws. These days are known as mikraei kodesh — sacred holidays. The emphasis throughout this third book of the Torah is on kedushah — sanctity or holiness.

But the sacred in Judaism is not only the “sanctity of time,” as Dr. Abraham Joshua Heschel, of blessed memory, teaches; or of the Temple’s sanctity of space. It is also the sanctity of people. Human beings aspire to the level of the sacred.

We all know how special God’s creation is. Fundamental to the Jewish understanding of creation is that the One God created humankind in His own image. We all stem from that one act of creation.

Perhaps the reason for the middle book of the Torah, Vayikra, and its unceasing devotion to the topic of holiness, causing some to call it the “holiness code,” is the centrality of making distinctions between any two phenomena. Shabbat heads the list of holy days that appear, one after the other.

Israel as a nation is constantly affirmed and reaffirmed as a distinct nation among the nations of the world. “And you shall be for Me, a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.” Clearly, the Jewish people form a unique nation, in a similar vein to the uniqueness of the One God.

But just as Israel is designated a kingdom of priests, there is a priesthood within the priesthood of Israel. The 19th century Italian rabbi Eliyahu Benamozegh saw a relationship between the kohanim being priests to the Jewish nation, and Israel’s being priests to the nations of the world.

The Jewish priest, the kohen, represents the highest aspirations of humanity. Our Torah reading, in fact, opens with, “God told Moses to declare the following to Aaron’s descendants, the priests: ‘Let no [priest] defile himself [by contact with] the dead among his people, except for such close blood relatives as his mother, father, son, daughter or brother’” [Leviticus 21:1-2].

The overall stress in Judaism is on life. The Torah is known as Torat Chaim — the Way of Life. Priests must keep their distance from contact with death. One might think, who is more qualified to deal with matters of the deceased than a priest? The Torah says the kohen must do everything in his power to remain physically and spiritually pure.

The Torah continues with other standards of behavior, requirements of the priest and no one else. The goal is always the same: “They must be holy to their God, and not profane their God’s name.” God warns his people, “You must keep him holy, since he presents the food offering to God. He must be holy, since I am God — I am holy and I am making you holy” [Leviticus 21:8].

There is a saying, “The Jews are just like everyone else, only more so.” And so it is that all priests are just like all Jews, only more so. Learning the laws of the kohanim serves to raise our awareness to a higher level, of just how proper we are to be in our relationships with God, other nations and one another.

Rabbi Sanford H. Shudnow served 22 years as a Navy chaplain, with his last duty station at what is today Walter Reed National Military Medical Center.

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