Leviticus 21:1 – 24:23
In last week’s parasha, Kedoshim, we read the Holiness Code. Kedoshim is for all of Israel, it details how each of us can strive for holiness. This week the exploration of holiness continues, but the focus shifts from all of Israel to the priests, and especially, to the high priest. Emor details a whole slew of additional requirements for the priests, such as prohibitions regarding contact with the dead and who priests may or may not marry. However, early in the parasha, we encounter a verse with startling implications:
“You shall sanctify him [the priest], for he offers up the food offering of your God; he shall be holy to you, for I the Lord Who sanctifies you am holy.” (Lev. 21:8)
This verse is different than the others in this section because it is directed to us, not to the priests. We, not Moses, not the other priests, are commanded to sanctify the priest.
The tradition interprets this verse to mean that the first reading from the Torah scroll in synagogue is reserved for the priest. The Talmudic rabbis underline the importance of this practice by legislating that if no kohen (priest) is found then the honor may not be transferred to anyone else. The first reading is for the kohen alone. (Talmud Bavli, Gittin 59b)
The first aliyah, the first reading from Torah is a very high honor, and since kadosh (the Hebrew word for holy) literally means ‘set apart for God,’ setting aside the first aliyah for the kohen technically fulfills the commandment: every synagogue that follows this practice is setting aside the kohen for God during the Torah service.
That said, is this enough to fulfill the commandment? Is setting aside the first aliyah truly a meaningful sanctification? Even more, what does it mean to sanctify the priests when we no longer offer sacrifices? Is it simply to maintain the holiness/purity of the line in the hope that one day the sacrificial cult will be reestablished?
For those who daily pray for the rebuilding of a Third Temple, the maintenance of the first aliyah for the kohanim by the synagogue is enough - so long as the kohanim themselves continue to follow the other holiness restrictions that have remained for them following the destruction of the Second Temple.
Yet regardless of our specific hopes for a messianic future, there is another possibility that bubbles to the surface. Emor is clearly about the priests, rather than all of Israel. It clearly lays out a whole slew of additional restrictions to further separate the kohanim from Israel so that they can maintain an even higher level of holiness. And, in order for the kohanim to succeed in maintaining their higher level of holiness it is necessary not only for the priests to live within specific boundaries, but for Israel as a whole to make the priests holy. Without the help of the entire community, the priests will never truly be holy. We, the collective of Israel, are their guarantors.
But wait, there’s more.
Earlier in Torah, at the top of Mount Sinai, God commanded Moses to teach Israel the importance of staying true to the Covenant. If we do so, the result for us is definitive: “You shall be to me a kingdom of priests, and a holy nation.” (Ex. 19:6)
Following Torah makes us a kingdom of priests – we are all on a path towards holiness. Yes, most of us are not genetically kohanim, but we are nevertheless rodfei kodesh, pursuers of holiness. And, like the priestly caste, none of us can succeed on our own. Each of us needs the help of our tradition and our friends and neighbors; each of us needs to be sanctified through the many mays we are supported in holy community.
The High Priest and the institutions of the Temple in Jerusalem may be no more, but we can and must sanctify each other, help each other on our sacred paths of Torah.
There is no other way forward.
Hi there! I am the senior rabbi at Temple Beth Ami in Rockville, Maryland, where I have served since 2016.
(c) copyright 2018 by Rabbi Gary Pokras