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On Vayikra

by David Deutsch

So by my d’var Torah standards, Vayikra is right in the middle—no inspirational story involving Israelite slaves freeing themselves, but no cringy parts involving Israelites enslaving others, either. What we do have are a lot of descriptions of what “Aaron’s descendants, the kohanim” do with assorted bits of innards and offal.

And in trying to figure out what to say about this parsha, it was that phrase that jumped out me. Not the “innards and offal,” but “Aaron’s descendants, the kohanim.” We know who Aaron’s descendants are (they are kohanim), and we know who the kohanim are (they are Aaron’s descendants). So if there are no unnecessary words in the
Torah, why the reminder, and not once, but several times?

What makes a kohen a kohen? The most obvious answer (and we all know the joke about the guy who offers a donation to the shul to become a kohen) is simple lineage. A kohen is a descendant of Aaron. Simple enough.

But if that’s all kohanim were, then the Torah would have done nothing other than create an aristocracy, an elite caste who can simply lord it over us lesser Leviim and Yisroelim. But a kohen is more than just a descendant of Aaron—a descendant of Aaron is also a kohen, i.e., somebody who has specific responsibilities to serve God in the
in the Temple. It is an important thing to consider. The role of a descendant of Aaron is not one of privilege, but of duty. Yes, we may say it is an honor to serve in the Temple, and so forth, but it is an honor that comes from service. And aside from the service in the Temple, the life of a kohen is marked, not by privilege, but restrictions and obligations—the things a kohen can’t do, and must do. There is really nothing other than those things
associated with the Temple service that only the kohen may do that other Jews may not. All the unique elements of the kohen’s status are a product of the need for the kohen to serve in the Temple. Without that, the kohen is simply a “descendant of Aaron.”

I think this offers us some really valuable insight into how we should understand our responsibilities as Jews, as both members of a tribe whose identity stems from lineage, but also as a people who must choose to perform the actions obligatory on us.
It may be contrary to our understanding of the world as products of the Enlightenment, but there are differences between people. Perhaps it is unfair that only the kohen can serve in the Beit Hamikdosh, or that there are restrictions on whom the kohen may marry. But is that any more unfair than the very notion that there are things only Jews can do to serve God, or things that Jews can’t do for the same reason? Sure, one can become a Jew, but a Jew can’t become anything else—like the descendants of Aaron, we are what are. But what are we? Does being God’s Chosen People mean that we are an aristocracy, entitled to lord it over the other Nations of the World?

Sadly, there are Jews who thinks so. Happily, they are wrong.

Like “the descendants of Aaron, the kohanim,” our birthright is not one of privilege, but of responsibility. By virtue of being the descendants of Yaakov, we don’t have the right to claim other peoples are subordinate to us; rather, we have the obligation to subordinate ourselves to the Kodosh Boroch Hu. Ours is a unique status, but like the kohen’s it is not simply because we were born into it. Rather, by being born into it—or choosing to join—we have the opportunity to achieve holiness through serving God properly. And, I would argue, if you’re among those who believe that we are an aristocracy of birth, entitled by virtue of our membership in the Tribe to lord it over the other Nations of the World, you’re already failing that “serving God properly” test.

And with that, I bid you a gut Shabbos.

Fri, January 28 2022 26 Shevat 5782