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Did You Know That You’re A Kohen?

Dear Friends,

There are twelve tribes of Israel, and the members of the tribe of Levi were appointed to serve as teachers and spiritual guides to the entire nation. They did not receive a portion in the Land of Israel; instead, they dwelt in separate cities that were to serve as centers of Torah. A reference to their special role is found in the following blessing that Moses gave to the tribe of Levi before the nation entered the Promised Land:
“They shall teach Your ordinances to Jacob and Your Torah to Israel; they shall place incense before Your presence, and burnt offerings on Your Altar” (Deut. 33:10.)

A family within the tribe of Levi -the descendants of Aaron -were appointed for a special, priestly role. They are known as “kohanim” -priests or ministers, and they too were assigned special cities that were to serve as centers of Torah. In addition to teaching Torah to the people, they were responsible for the Temple service and its offerings. According to tradition, Aaron merited that he and his descendants would serve as ministers to the people of Israel, since Aaron exemplified the quality that all kohanim should have: a love of shalom -peace and harmony. In this spirit, Hillel, a leading sage of the Second Temple period, taught:
“Be among the disciples of Aaron, loving shalom and pursuing shalom, loving human beings, and bringing them closer to the Torah” (Pirkei Avos 1:12.)

There is a verse in the Torah that reveals that each Jewish man and woman is also a “kohen.” The source of this startling revelation is the verse where Moses proclaims the following Divine message to the men and women of Israel just before the giving of the Torah:
“You shall be to Me a kingdom of kohanim and a holy nation”  (19:6).

Each and every member of the nation of Israel is to be a “kohen.” How are we to understand this role? The root meaning of the word “kohen” is “to serve.” For example, this word appears as a verb in a Divine command that was conveyed to Moses:
“They shall make vestments of sanctity for Aaron your brother and his sons, le-kahan li -to serve Me” (Exodus 28:4).

A kohen is therefore a person who dedicates every aspect of life to the service of Hashem -the Compassionate One.

It was through the giving of the Torah that the people of Israel became a “kingdom of kohanim,” and through fulfilling the mitzvos - the mandates -of the Torah, we dedicate every aspect of our existence -individual and collective -to this Divine service. (For further study, I recommend the classic “Horeb” by Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, which explores how each mitzva of the Torah helps us to serve the Creator and all creation. )

As mentioned earlier, the descendants of Aaron are to serve as ministers to their “congregation” -the people of Israel. Who, however, is to be the “congregation” of the people of Israel -an entire nation of kohanim? In his commentary on the words, “You shall be to Me a kingdom of kohanim,” the classical biblical commentator, Sforno, explains that the people of Israel are “to understand and to teach humankind that all shall proclaim the Name of Hashem and serve Him with a united resolve.” Sforno adds that this will be the recognized role of Israel in the future, as it says: “And you will be called the kohanim of Hashem, ‘ministers of our God’ will be said of you” (Isaiah .)61:6Ibn Ezra, another classical commentator, interprets this prophecy of Isaiah to mean that the relationship of Israel to the peoples of the earth will parallel the relationship of the descendants of Aaron to the tribes of Israel.
In our role as ministers to humanity, are we to go out to all the nations and preach to them? Did not Hillel teach that we are to be the disciples of Aaron, “loving human beings and bringing them closer to the Torah”? 

The beginning of an answer can be found in the following words of the Prophet Malachi: “For the lips of the kohen should safeguard knowledge, and people should seek teaching from his mouth; for he is a messenger of Hashem” (Malachi .)2:7A kohen does not need to seek followers, as people will “seek teaching from his mouth.” They will recognize through his words and deeds that he is a true messenger of Hashem. In this spirit, the Prophet Isaiah tells the people of Israel, “Nations will perceive your tzedek -justice” ,(62:2) and “Nations will go to your light” (60:3); as the primary role of a nation of kohanim is not to serve as a “social critic,” but to serve as a “social model.” The way to bring people closer to Torah is through the spiritual power of our own example.

There is “kohen” potential within each of us, and in a future letter, I hope to explore with you Torah teachings regarding the kohen potential within all human beings. We need to remember that each human being on this earth has the potential to serve, and that one day:
“They will all proclaim the Name of Hashem, to serve Him with a united resolve” (Zephaniah 3:9).

Yosef Ben Shlomo Hakohen