I’m a Kohen. Yes, I’ve mentioned this fact in previous columns (like HERE and HERE), but I want to elaborate a little about it with you today. What does being a kohen mean, and if you’re not a kohen does it mean anything at all?
Traditionally, Kohanim (plural for Kohen) are called Priests or the Priestly Caste. No doubt for many, reading a word like “caste” will conjure up a sense of hierarchical “Better-than-thou” type thinking. A system where words likerank, title, entitlements, compensation, kowtowing, subservience all saturate the lexicon. A system which most of us have grown to despise (unless we sit at the top of such a food chain) and is generally abhorrent to our Western way of thinking.
So what is the Torah’s attitude to the Kohen? Is the Kohen viewed as better than the rest of the nation? Do we walk around with a sense of superiority and “better-than-thou” attitudes? Put as succinctly as our title: Am I better than you?
For the answer, let us delve into a telling verse and its accompanying commentary of Rashi (the classic medieval commentary on Chumash). Says G-d to Moses, “…And they should make clothing for Aaron to sanctify him and to kohen for Me.” Just reading this verse you may have done a double take. “To kohen for me?!” We’ve verbed a noun!?! (Ironic, isn’t it?) What does it mean tokohen for someone? Rashi, also bothered by the seeming unorthodox usage of the word, jumps in: The word kohen means “to serve.” Telling. Rashi is thus saying that Aaron’s role as the High Priest is that of service. The distinct and regal clothing charge the High Priest “to serve.”
This is a very different picture than how we generally view the proverbial “man at the top.” The one who has the most prominence suddenly becomes the one who has the most responsibility to serve.
And, we should note, this is not taken merely as a cute idea, it is a thread that runs through all aspects of our individual role within the nation.
We find in the Talmud individuals who had unique abilities they shared liberally with others and these individuals go down as heroes, utilizing their gifts in service of others. There were yet others who hoarded their expertise as if they were squirrels, stockpiling acorns away for a long winter (or very long winter if you live in the Land of 10,000 Lakes). Such individuals go down in infamy, squandering the opportunity to share what they’d been blessed with, ultimately trading in G-d’s agenda for their own.
The lesson the kohen teaches us, is that each and every blessing, both materially and spiritually, carries with it a price tag marked “obligation,” an obligation to utilize the gift(s) in the greater service of the nation and ultimately in the context of G-dly worship.
Wisdom, beauty, wealth, charisma, musical talent, art, business acumen, athletics, health and perhaps most importantly, humor (okay it was just a joke), all need to circle back to their main address: How am I putting this blessing to good use for the Jewish people and ultimately to the world? Yes, the more you have going for you, the more responsibility is hoisted upon your shoulders.
So are we to be jealous of the Kohanim? No. But we are to take the lesson from the concept ofkohen, namely, to put “service” as your middle name.