Wednesday, May 12, 2021

Hakohanim Haleviim

Parshat Emor

Parshat Kedoshim that we read this week dedicates the first perek to the laws of kedusha as they apply to the kohanim. The obligation of the kohanim to retain a state of tahara, a higher level of purity and sanctity, is understandable, given their stature as “attendants” of Hashem in His Mishkan. The selection of this week’s haftarah, the 44th perek in Sefer Yechezkel, mirrors that same theme, describing the higher level of sanctity that the kohanim, serving in the Beit Hamikdash during the messianic era, would be expected to retain. In past years we have discussed the contradictions between the laws found in the Torah and those expounded by Yechezkel, contradictions that troubled Chazal as well, and we offered some possible solutions to those contradictions. This year, however, I would like to focus on the very opening of the haftarah and help illuminate the message of the navi by including the pesukim that precede this haftarah itself.

The haftarah begins with the words “V’Hakohanim Haleviim,” “the kohanim who are leviim,” a rather curious expression, given the fact that all kohanim are part of the tribe of Levi, as they are descended from Aharon, the son of Amram who was the grandson of Levi. Rather, this expression (found in the Torah as well) is meant to depict kohanim who are more than “ritual” leaders. The Ibn Ezra explains that this phrase is used to describe those kohanim who were the Torah educators of the people, while R. Dovid Tzvi Hoffman claims that it is an expression used when underscoring the responsibility of the kohanim to be spiritual leaders and not simply “ritual functionaries.”

So why is this an important point? Because earlier in the perek, Yechezkel HaNavi condemned the kohanim who drifted away from their holy purpose and their elevated stature. They regarded themselves as being ritual functionaries and, by dint of that and their ancestry, saw themselves as national leaders and therefore more important than the rest of Israel. In fact, throughout the books of Ezra and Nechemia—the books that depict the generations that arose soon after Yechezkel’s era—we read of how the kohanim who should have served as models and educators for the people who had returned from the Babylonian exile were the very ones who had intermarried with the surrounding idolatrous nations. For this reason, the navi tells those leviim and kohanim who “strayed” from Hashem and worshipped idols that they could not serve in the Temple as they once did. Rather, “they shall bear their sin” and not be permitted to “approach the holy places” and could only protect the Beit Mikdash and attend to the people who come there.

However, as our haftarah begins, the kohanim from the house of Tzadok, those who remained faithful to God, those who retained a level of morality and sanctity despite what surrounded them, they would be the kohanim who would serve Hashem and His people in the Holy Temple. Yechezkel defines for us was true sanctity is and what it would mean in the ideal world of “Yemot HaMashiach.” As Rav Yissachar Ya’akovson illuminates for us, the parsha delineates the physical blemishes that would disqualify a kohen from serving in the Mishkan, while the haftarah delineates the moral blemishes that would disqualify the kohen: the “ehrel lev,” one with an “uncircumcised spirit,” could not be included among the attendants of Hashem.

True Jewish leadership depends not on “yichus” or even on knowledge but on faithfulness to His God and to her people. The greatest of our gedolim were not those who possessed the greatest minds—but the greatest hearts. Being one with your people and faithful to the Torah, suffering with your nation and consoling them, understanding their pain and soothing it—that defines true leadership.

So reminds us Yechezkel.

And so must we remember.

Rabbi Neil Winkler is the rabbi emeritus of the Young Israel Fort Lee and now lives in Israel.