Haftarah Parashat Emor (outside Israel)
May 5, 2018 | 20 Iyyar 5778
After the formation of the people as a nation at Sinai and the establishment of the Mishkan (Sanctuary) in the desert, the Kohanim (priests) acted as the religious leaders of the people of Israel. Both this week’s Torah portion and its designated haftarah from Ezekiel set very strict standards of behavior for regular priests (Kohen Hedyot) and, in particular, for the Kohen Gadol (the High Priest), regulating their marital choices, how they wore their hair, and over whom and how they would mourn their dead.
These regulations had two intended purposes. One, was to cultivate in these religious leaders a sensitivity to holiness so that they might better serve God; and the other was to create models of holiness for the people to look up to as their leaders. This elevated status was further reinforced by their dress, with particular outfits required for specific duties or when in certain areas. Ezekiel makes note of this when he says: “And when [the priests] go out to the outer courtyard – the outer court where the people are – they shall remove their vestments in which they minister and shall deposit them in the inner chamber; they shall put on other garments, lest they make the people consecrated by [contact with] their vestments.” (44:19) According to Ezekiel, the garments were so holy that, like other holy objects, contact with them by a regular Israelite would transfer some of the kohanic restrictions. But why is this a problem?
Rabbi Naftali Zvi Berlin (19th century Lithuania), the last head of the famed Volozhin Yeshiva, gave an inspired answer: “If the priests would go around in their priestly clothing, people would avoid them… [This would create a problem] because their sanctity (elevated status) from the people was intended exclusively for God – for the glory of Heaven and not for their own [the priests’] personal glory.” Berlin feared that if the priests walked around in their special vestments, and people avoided them to avoid the serious inconvenience of being sanctified, the kohanim might get caught up in their special status and forget that their role was to cultivate the people’s relationship to God.
This is an important message not only for religious leaders but for all who lead. Leaders, though they are often set apart, held up, and held to a higher standard, must remember not to put on airs, as the purpose of their elevation is service. When the specific trappings of leadership are not necessary, the leader must be humble and approachable to be an effective bridge between the masses and their higher purpose.
For Discussion: Have you ever gotten so caught up in “being a leader” that it impaired your leadership? How can a leader be both accessible and hold himself/herself to a higher standard?
This study piece is offered as a service of the United Synagogue Conservative Yeshiva. It is prepared by Rabbi Mordechai (Mitchell) Silverstein, senior lecturer in Talmud and Midrash at the Conservative Yeshiva. He is a graduate of the Jewish Theological Seminary of America.
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