Haftarat Emor: The People's Cohain


[Yechezkel 44:15-31]

 

Aside from holidays, the Cohanim would only work in the Temple for two weeks a year.  So what was their role during the rest of the year?

 

"But the Cohanim, who are Levi'im, descendants of Tzadok, who faithfully carried out the duties of My Temple when the Children of Israel went astray from Me, are to come near to minister before Me.  They are to stand before Me to offer sacrifices of fat and blood, declares Hashem, G-d.  They are to enter My Temple and to come near My table to minister before Me and perform My service" (Yechezkel 44:15-16).

 

There are four fundamental positions among the Nation of Israel: King, Sage, Prophet, and Cohain.  Compared to the well-defined public roles of the other three, the Cohain seems to have been secluded in the Temple - away from the concrete reality which surrounds us.  The fact that the Cohanim wore distinct clothing only further separated them from the rest of the Nation.  "When they enter the gates of the inner court, they are to wear linen clothes.  They must not wear any woolen garment while ministering at the gates of the inner court or inside the Temple.  They are to wear linen turbans on their heads and linen pants around their waists. They must not wear anything that makes them perspire" (ibid. v. 17-18).

 

But when we continue reading, we see that the next verse points out that this is not so: "When they go out into the outer court to the Nation, they are to take off the clothes they have been ministering in and are to leave them in the sacred chambers, and wear other clothes, so that they do not mingle with the Nation in their special garments" (ibid. v. 19).  At the time of the Divine service in the Temple, the Cohain would separate himself and wear the appropriate uniform for his special role.  But immediately after completing his task and leaving the confines of the Temple's walls, he would not be different in appearance from the rest of the Nation.

 

Do not think that the Cohain was only a "man of the Temple."  The Divine service was not quantitatively the largest part of his life.  Each Cohain would, in addition to the holidays, serve only two weeks a year in the Temple.  And even on the holidays, he was on standby in the event that there was extra work to perform.  The Cohanim and Levi'im would spend the remainder of the year traveling throughout the length and breadth of Israel teaching Torah.  They served as the spiritual guides of the Nation, providing personal and communal counsel.  They therefore were also involved in rulings in the area of Halachah.  The Cohanim did not wait until people turned to them - rather they went out to the Nation.  A few times during the year, when people visited the Temple on the holidays, they saw the Cohanim in their full glory in their impressive clothing.  The meetings with the Cohanim outside of the Temple may have been more frequent, but meeting them at the Temple was qualitatively the greatest experience (see Orot, Orot Ha-Techiya 4-5).

 

The Cohain did not own land, have a profession, or items to sell.  He dedicated himself day and night to teaching.  He would travel around and make a livelihood from the tithes (Terumot and Ma'asrot) which each Jew would separate from his produce for the Cohanim and Levi'im.

 

It is interesting to point out that when the movement to return to Zion began more than 120 years ago, there were all types of people who became concerned about the material concerns of the Nation of Israel – in politics, agriculture, industry, etc. – while others saw Judaism as a theoretical religion.  Two extremes emerged: on the one side were great Torah scholars aspired to have the religion completely detached from this world; on the other side were secular thinkers who recommended a solely intellectual Judaism.

 

This dilemma was not new.  The spies, sent by Moshe Rabbenu, refused to enter the Land.  They did not fear a military defeat, but rather a spiritual decline. When they describe the Land as one "which devours its inhabitants" (Bemidbar 13:32), they are voicing their fear that the Nation would become pre-occupied with daily existence and lose its spiritual bearings.

      

But we must ask: How can we ensure a religious and spiritual existence when we are involved in the day-to-day material reality?  An individual might be able to detach himself from the physical world, exist on the minimum amount necessary, and dedicate himself to learning Torah and Divine service, but this is impossible for an entire Nation.  What then is the solution?  It is the Cohanim, who are in constant contact with the Nation and are responsible for its spirituality.  This is explained by Maran Ha-Rav Kook in his book "Orot".  He used a parable of a man who wants to cleave to Hashem not through the physical but through his mind, spirit and heart.  When his thoughts are dedicated to Hashem, they illuminate his entire body.  The same applies to human society.  In the merit of the Cohanim, who dedicate their lives to Hashem, the entire Nation takes a part in the spiritual reality (Orot, Orot Ha-Techiya 4).

 

When the Nation met the Cohanim in the Temple – the very men from whose rulings, teachings, and counsel they have benefited – there is no need to describe the sublime spiritual experience that occurred!