Sefer VaYikra is known as Torat Kohanim because of the preponderance of halachot which pertain to the service of the kohanim in the Mishkan. Our Parsha opens with a different type of halacha pertaining to the kohanim, namely the requirement that they keep themselves pure. Coming on the heels of last week’s reading, Parshat Kedoshim, whose very name stresses the need for all of Am Yisrael to be cognizant of the imperative to strive for purity, it is clear that the Torah seeks to establish a hierarchy of purity within the nation. At the pinnacle sits the Kohen Gadol, whose status dictates that he avoid any contact whatsoever with impurity.
The Sefer HaChinuch explains this hierarchy (Mitzva 266 and 270 in the standard edition) by focusing on the kohen’s responsibility in Avodat Hashem. The basic proposition is that, given that the kohanim have been chosen to perform the avoda in the Beit HaMikdash, they are required to maintain a higher level of kedusha than other individuals who are not called upon to perform this service. This same logic applies to the Kohen Gadol in relation to other kohanim. The Kohen Gadol is called upon to be a spiritual figure, notwithstanding his physicality. As a result he is required to maintain an ongoing level of tahara which will allow, in the words of the Chinuch, his soul to reside with the Heavenly Servants (HaMishartim HaElyonim). This level is attained by removing himself from all forms of tumah, even at the cost of not mourning a close relative, as other kohanim must do. The Chinuch adds an interesting observation to this restriction. Since the Kohen Gadol is supposed to be so focused on spirituality that he has, to a large degree, removed himself from the physical world, it is unnecessary for him to become impure in the course of mourning for a relative. He has in effect already distanced himself from those relatives in the course of achieving the necessary spiritual level to be the Kohen Gadol so there is no longer a place in his world for becoming impure in order to mourn.
While the Chinuch proposes that the kohen’s quest for a higher level of holiness is a function of his obligations to the avoda and the service of Hashem, Ramban suggests a different perspective. In his commentary on our Parsha (21:1) Ramban explicitly rejects the Chinuch’s notion that the commands to the kohanim to keep themselves holy are linked to their service in the Beit HaMikdash. If it were, argues Ramban, then we would have expected the command to be addressed to “Aharon u’banav”, Aharon and his sons. This, after all, is how the Torah always prefaces a command regarding the avoda to the priestly clan. Why then does the Torah address them here as “kohanim” (emor el hakohanim)? One must conclude, Ramban declares, that this form of address is used because the requirement to keep holy is a function of who the kohanim are, not what their duties might be in the Beit HaMikdash. This would also explain why a Kohen must observe this level of kedusha regardless of whether or not he is a performing the avoda.
Ramban provides a fascinating insight to prove his point. We know that, as part of his obligation to maintain a higher level of holiness, a kohen is restricted in his options for a spouse. He may not marry a divorcee or a “zonah”, a woman who has been involved in certain forbidden relationships. A Kohen Gadol is even further restricted as he may not even marry a widow. (Why these restrictions are understood as adding to kedusha is not our concern at the moment.) Should a kohen marry a woman who is forbidden to him the union is valid but any children who are born from this marriage have the status of “challalim”, literally “defiled ones”. Their very lives are an ongoing indictment of their father’s forsaking of the kedusha that he was meant to strive toward. One would expect that this challal status would invalidate any avoda that he were to perform. Interesting enough, as Rambam codifies in Hilchot Biat haMikdash (6:10), this is not the case. Any avoda performed by a kohen challal is valid. This is in distinction to his father, who can not perform the avoda until he divorces his forbidden wife. Not withstanding his ability to do the avoda, a kohen challal does not share the restrictions of avoiding tuma that other kohanim must observe. Given the fact that a kohen challal may become tamei but is still permitted to serve in the Beit HaMikdash, Ramban demonstrates that the stringent requirements of kedusha imposed on kohanim are in fact a function of who they are, not what they do!
The Klei Chemda on Ramban, quoted by Rav Chavel (note #8 in the Chumash Torat Chayim edition), points out that this idea cuts the other way as well. A baal mum, a kohen with certain types of blemishes, is unfit to perform the avoda. Nonetheless, he shares the restrictions of tumah and tahara, whose purpose is to create a higher level of kedusha, with other kohanim. Unlike the kohen challal, a baal mum is still a kohen in good standing. When it comes to who he is, as opposed to what he can do, he is truly unblemished.
Ramban’s position of course merely begs the question. While we can understand why doing the avoda in the Beit HaMikdash should require an enhanced level of kedusha, why should merely “being” a kohen demand that same stringent level of behavior from all members of the tribe?
Our haftara this week may provide us with some direction in finding an answer to this question. Taken from Sefer Yechezkel (44:15-30), the Haftara delineates Yechezkel’s description of the avoda as it will be performed when the Beit HaMikdash is rebuilt. There is much to discuss in this description, especially regarding the differences between the bigdei kehuna described in the Torah and those which Yechezkel envisions, as well as the more stringent kedusha restrictions which Yechezkel decrees for future kohanim. For our purposes, however, we can focus on Yechezkel’s declaration that only kohanim from the family of Tzadok will serve in the Beit HaMikdash in the future. The reason for this, as explained in the passukim preceding the portion that we read in the haftara, is that all the other priestly families had allowed themselves to be drawn into idolatrous behaviors, thus disqualifying themselves from future avoda. While it would be fair to suggest that Bnai Tzadok will continue to do the avoda simply because they have not been disqualified, one could make an argument that they are in fact being rewarded for their steadfast faith and behavior. In this context it is helpful to recall that each year the kohanim spent a precious two weeks doing the avoda in the Beit HaMikdash. At other times they were tasked with being role models and teachers. Thus the mesirat nefesh that Bnei Zadok displayed in resisting outside pressures was doubly influential.
In his commentary on the haftara Rav Mendel Hirsch points out that much like community leaders today, the kohanim in the time of the Mikdash were buffeted by conflicting interests. On the one hand their role as teachers required that they take sometimes unpopular positions and challenge powerful interests. On the other hand their income and status was dependent upon the very community whose behavior they would often have to critique. Just like today, it was easy to rationalize failure to take a stand, and to justify behavior that should have been denounced. No wonder that so many kohanim failed in this test.
On the other hand Bnei Tzadok maintained a principled, unapologetic stance. Like the leviim who rallied to Moshe Rabbenu’s side at the time of Chet HaEgel, they refused to allow social or political pressure to influence their behavior. They truly achieved kedusha because of who they were, not because of what they did. Perhaps this is what Ramban was imagining when he described the kedusha of kohanim being a function of the family that they came from. Based on the example of Bnei Tzadok, one can truly see that what makes the difference is not what we do, but rather who we choose to be.