In memory of Hugo Tassara, my grandfather, who passed away last Shabbat in company of his children and many of his grandchildren. May his memory be a blessing.
All of you with a family name Cohen, Katz, Kahana and others, you are the last link to a prestigious dynasty, the closest thing the Jewish People has to nobility. Your ancestry, the blue blood in your veins, has a start in this Parashah, Tetzaveh.
It is true that until now the People of Israel did fine without a priest class, thank you very much. It is true that the tribe of Levi, that the cohanim are part of it, has a problematic past, with violence and deception on it. Therefore, it is surprising that suddenly they are chosen for this task. Even Moses gives them the main stage this week, as this is the only Parashah from Shmot that his name is not mentioned.
Last week’s Parashah was about the commandment to build the Mishkan, a Sanctuary for G-d and the predecessor of the Holy Temple in Jerusalem. This week it is about the staff of that Sanctuary: the cohanim. This is quite challenging! Last week we were surprised that G-d requests a tent for Himself, to “dwell” there as it were. Now G-d is requesting intermediaries! Furthermore, for the first time in the Torah we have a special class. In contrast to the prophets, the priesthood is hereditary, from fathers to sons, without any regard to the abilities, skills, personality or values of the son.
So… what is a priest? What is a cohen? The cohen is the character that brings people closer to their G-d. The cohen is the big expert on the hidden ways to the “heart” of G-d. It is who meets the lost person and takes his thanksgiving, his regrets, pain, guilt, his longing for the living G-d, and send all this “up”, makes it holy. The cohen takes the goat, or the sheep, or the pigeon, or the flour with oil that the person brings with excitement, and raises them in sacrifice on the right altar, at the right time, in the right way.
Not everyone can be a cohen! The cohen must be able to see inside the soul of people. Because it is not the goat what matters, but the intention and internal process of the person that brings it.
It is told about a famous rabbi in Israel in the time of the Tzena, the first years of Israel’s existence, when the living conditions in the country were very hard. Comes to him a wealthy woman, at least by the standards of the time, and brings a dead chicken in her hands. The rabbi examines the chicken for a long time and declares that it is treif, was not slaughtered properly, and therefore it cannot be eaten. Immediately afterwards comes to him another woman, poor and with hungry children. She also has a chicken in the same condition. The rabbi examines, not the chicken, but the woman and her children, and declares the chicken kosher.
The greatness of the cohen was not on his proficiency around the altar, how good was he on the slaughtering, the bleeding, the handling of the organs after the slaughtering, the correct arrangement of the wood or the sacrifice on the fire. His greatness was in his special ability to see: to look at the person in front of him, the beating heart, the intention and feelings that brought him or her to the Sanctuary, and his longing for being connected to G-d.
The prophet “sees” the invisible G-d. The priest “sees” the heart of the people, that it is also invisible to the regular eye.
Two thousand years ago, however, the cohanim were taken off the stage of our history. By G-d? By the romans? By the Pharisees? By history? Maybe all of them together? In any case, that was the end of their place in the history of our People. Looking back, it seems that corruption, ambition, politics and ego struggles contaminated the role of the cohen until it was not relevant anymore. The cohanim were occupied with self-benefit and not with bringing hearts closer to G-d.
The Temple maybe was destroyed, but we weren’t. We are still here. We still need to give thanksgiving, to express regret, pain, guilt and mostly, to feel closer!
So who are our cohanim today? Who helps us to feel closer? And why? And to whom? And how? Maybe the psychologists and therapists? The rabbis or other religious figures? Some guru? Ourselves? And how will we be sure that we are getting closer to that thing that we are really longing for and not to something else, maybe attractive but not real nonetheless. Cohen is one that knows how to bring closer the heart of the people to the heart of G-d. We all need a Cohen.