Adapted by Shaul Barth
Translated by Kaeren Fish
God spoke to Moshe: Tell the kohanim, the sons of Aharon, and say to them: None of them shall be defiled for the dead among his people. But for his kin that are close to him – for his mother and for his father, and for his son and for his daughter and for his brother… They shall be holy to their God, and shall not profane the Name of God, for they offer the sacrifices of God made by fire, so they shall be holy. (Vayikra 21:1, 6)
Our parasha speaks about the sanctity of the kohanim, continuing the theme of the previous parasha, which speaks about the sanctity of every person – "You shall be holy." But what the Torah means by the term "holy" is different from its commonly accepted significance today.
Today, when the general public speaks of "holy people," they refer to miracle-workers, mystics, people who exist on a higher plane and are cut off from the reality of our world and its challenges. But if we investigate what the Torah defines as holiness, we see that it is something entirely different.
"Each person shall fear his mother and his father, and you shall observe My Sabbaths; I am the Lord your God" (Vayikra 19:3). The Torah mentions observing Shabbat along with honoring parents. Further on, we read: "You shall not steal, nor deal falsely… You shall not curse the deaf, nor shall you place a stumbling block before the blind… You shall not hate your brother in your heart" (ibid., verses 11, 14, 17). This parasha goes on to list almost all of the commandments between man and his fellow. The Torah emphasizes that there is no difference between the commandment of Shabbat – with its Divine rationale, aimed at separating man from his labor – and honoring parents, which arises from a person's natural morality. Both commandments lead a person to holiness.
The Torah explains that what makes a person holy is not all kinds of ethereal, lofty things, but rather the simplest foundations of inter-personal relationships: the prohibition against stealing, the prohibition against speaking falsely, the prohibition against hating one's fellow. This is true holiness: being connected to the world and behaving in accordance with fundamental morality towards others - not isolating oneself and engaging in "higher" matters.
"New Age" philosophy rejects this approach. We see that these days everyone is looking for a connection to Kabbala and to some higher form of spirituality. A great many rabbis are referred to as "ha-Rav ha-Mekubal ha-E-loki," the divine kabbalist rabbi. If there is a rabbi who is not a kabbalist but just a regular person, then some regard him as no rabbi.
Even those who are not looking for otherworldly mystics are looking for their rabbis to be superhuman. Once I attended a wedding where I was supposed to be reciting one of the sheva berakhot under the chuppa. For the first blessing, they called upon "ha-Gaon" so-and-so; likewise for the second and third blessings. I whispered to one of my relatives, who was standing close by, that by the looks of it we had returned to the period of the Geonim. I told him that if I was called up as "ha-Gaon," I would not go; I am not a "gaon" - I am an ordinary person, a rabbi. Fortunately, since this was a Haredi wedding and I am a Zionist, I was summoned by a less illustrious title, and so I felt able to acquiesce. In any event, this represents the trend today: anyone, in order to be a "rav," must be extraordinary, outstanding, because people are not satisfied with what is usual and natural; they seek the unusual and the supernatural. The Kotzker Rebbe once commented on the verse, "You shall be holy people unto Me" (Shemot 22:30), that the Holy One, blessed be He, does not need more angels; He has enough of them. He is looking for "holy people" – they can be holy while being human and not angelic.
In the yeshiva, I have declared on many occasions that I am a normal person, and therefore I don't mind receiving honor. Angels do not like honor, but I am a regular person. One of the South African students approached me a few days after I made this statement and asked me what I had meant. I told him that the fact that I am a rabbi does not mean that I am not human, that I am above human emotions. I like honor just as much as any other person does. He refused to accept this. Much later, in a meeting before he returned to overseas, he told me that one of the things he had learned from me was that there are rabbis who enjoy honor…
In any event, this is what the Torah is trying to tell us in our parasha, too: kohanim must defile themselves for the sake of burying their close relatives. The law could have been that kohanim, the holy people of the nation who are dedicated exclusively to Divine service, are beyond all the regular emotions associated with mourning, and therefore are not required to defile themselves. Instead, the Torah insists that even they – especially they – must be defiled for this purpose.
In my youth, I used to study in the beit midrash of the Vizhnitzer chassidim. The chassidim told me that the Rebbe had in his possession a challa from the time of the Ba'al Shem Tov, and that a continual miracle had kept it fresh. I asked them what the Rebbe did with this challa on Pesach. They thought about it, and then admitted that the story was probably not true. After this, I understood better the prohibition of "notar" in the Torah (leftover sacrificial meat) – i.e., that after a day and a night the meat must be burned. One could say that regular meat begins to rot, but holy meat that lay upon the altar – surely that cannot rot? But the Torah teaches that even sacrificial meat rots and dries; there is no difference between regular meat and sacred meat. In Judaism, holiness is no different from the regular rules of nature. In fact, holiness means acting specifically within the bounds of nature, in a correct and worthy manner.
It is for this reason that one of the commandments that appears in the parasha is, "You shall not turn to [pagan] deities, nor shall you make for yourself molten gods" (19:4). In other words, the Torah does not want us to turn either to deities – to supernal, mystical things – nor to "molten gods" – charms and amulets and various other superstitions. The Torah teaches us that sanctity specifically means connection to reality and proper behavior within its boundaries. Thus even the kohanim, holy people, must not ignore their healthy, natural emotions; they are required to defile themselves for relatives who have died.
This idea connects with another one that appears in the parasha. Commenting on the first verse of the parasha, the Midrash (Vayikra Rabba 26:2) recounts that during the time of King David, even the young children were very knowledgeable in Torah, but the nation was nevertheless defeated in battle. In contrast, in the days of King Achav – who was not a paragon of piety and under whose reign idolatry flourished – Israel was victorious in war. The Midrash explains that the reason for this was that in the first case Am Yisrael was knowledgeable in Torah, but there were informers among them. During the reign of Achav, on the other hand, the nation was united. Beyond studying and knowing Torah, it is also necessary that the nation be united, that we behave civilly towards each other. This is what caused victory in the wars – even more than the knowledge of Torah.
We recently celebrated Yom ha-Atzma'ut and recalled the miracles that took place at the time of the establishment of the State. At that time, there were disagreements amongst people, but ultimately all were united around the idea of the State and understood its importance. Because of that unity, we merited victory. Heaven forbid that we now allow that unity to fall apart, inviting disasters – even though the Torah-study situation is far better today than it was then.
The sanctity that the Torah demands of a person is human sanctity: proper behavior between people, and not mystical sanctity. When we reach that level, we will be worthy of the commandment, "You shall be holy."
(This sicha was delivered at seuda shelishit, Shabbat parashat Emor 5765 .)