It Ain’t Easy Being a Kohen

          There’s a guy who set up an urgent meeting with his rabbi. He said, “Rabbi, I’ll give you $1000 if you make me a Kohen.” The rabbi looks at him and says, “I’m sorry Bernie, but I can’t do that.” Bernie, thinking the money was the issue, says “Rabbi I’ll give you $10000.” The rabbi strokes his beard and says, “Still can’t do it.” Finally, Bernie says “Ok, Rabbi, you win. I’ll give you $100,000.” The rabbi, considering this, says “Ok, but Bernie why do you want to be a Kohen?” Bernie replies, “Because my father was a Kohen.”

          The grass always appears greener on the other side. As a child I wanted to be a Kohen. While I enjoyed hearing the priestly blessing from under my father’s tallit, I yearned to be one who blessed the people, as well as who received the first Aliyah on Shabbat. Upon reading Parshat Emor, I rethought this, recognizing, as Kermit the Frog would say, “It ain’t easy being a Kohen.”

          As the priestly holiness code in Emor details, Kohanim are limited as to who they can marry,[1] whose funerals they can attend[2] and could not serve with a broken limb or deformed body part.[3] These limits were strictly enforced as a Kohen, God’s servant, needed to follow rules and restrictions to keep him in a state of טהרה, or purity.

          The Conservative Movement has lessened the restrictions on a Kohen in terms of marriage. Rabbi Arnold Goodman wrote responsa allowing a Kohen to marry a convert[4] and a divorcee.[5] In the latter paper he uprooted from the Torah the prohibition on a Kohen marrying a divorcee. On the other extreme, I know of Orthodox Kohanim who will not enter a public or natural history museum because of the existence of mummies. The museum itself is considered an ohel, or tent, and the impurity of the bones can transmit themselves to the kohen, rendering him impure.

          This is another lesson in being happy with who you are. Wanting the honor or privilege someone else has can come without recognizing the restrictions they have to live by. There’s the story of people who took all their צרות, their troubles, put them in a package and set them down a river, prepared to exchange with someone else. When they saw what the others had, they quickly ran after and picked up their own package. When we crave honor or another position, let us recognize that things often appear better than they are and let us rejoice within our portion.


[1] Leviticus 21:13

[2] Leviticus 21:11-12. In the Torah a Kohen could not even attend his parent’s funeral. Rabbinic law allowed a Kohen to “become טמאby attending the funeral of anyone for whom he is a direct mourner. Now most cemeteries have a separate section right outside the cemetery, where the Kohen stands

[3] Leviticus 21:21

[4] Goodman – Marriage Convert (rabbinicalassembly.org)

[5] Goodman – Marriage Divorcee (rabbinicalassembly.org)

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