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A husband may not contaminate himself among his people, through whom he becomes profaned (Vayikra 21:4).
The baalei tosofos homiletically interpret this posuk as saying that an ordinary kohen may not contaminate himself for the honor of the kohen gadol. The posuk would thus read One may not contaminate himself - even for the master of the people, i.e. the kohen gadol. This halachah needs explanation. It is certainly not self-evident. Consider that the kohen gadol is the leader of the kohanim. Should the kohanim not be permitted, and yes, even be obligated to show respect for their leader and contaminate themselves for him when he dies? Moreover, in defining the kohen gadol, the Torah refers to him as the kohen who is greatest from his brethren. (Vayikra 21:10) What this tells us, in chazals understanding, is that the sanctity of the kohen gadol derives from the will and acceptance of the ordinary kohanim. Further, chazal teach us that one must respect and fear his teacher just as he respects and fears his parents, for his parents have brought him into this world, whereas his teacher brings him into the world to come. Yet, despite the above the Torah does teach us that an ordinary Kohen may not contaminate himself for the sake of the kohen gadal.
Let us now make the following observation. It is a severe sin for any kohen to contaminate himself, yet for an ordinary relative one is obligated to do so. This is true even if others can attend to his or her needs. However, a kohen is forbidden to contaminate himself for the sake of the kohen gadal, who is the spiritual leader of the Jewish people.Why are the kohanim forbidden to contaminate themselves for the sake of their leader?
The answer begins with the recognition that the kohen gadol is not just a leader among men, but rather is the quintessence of spiritual leadership.In contrast to the King who is entrusted with the Jewish peoples material needs, the kohen gadals role is to look after the Jewish peoples spiritual needs. Effective leadership is challenging. On one hand the leader must empathize with the people on a personal level, but on the other hand must also keep a distance. Without maintaining a distance from the people the kohen gadol cannot expect to command respect and to wield power. The difficult job of any Jewish leader is how to balance the two. There will be times when a leader wishes to enact decrees that are unpopular among his constituents but are desperately needed for their ultimate good. If a leader is too close with his people he may be prevented from enacting what is in the interest of their ultimate good. The Torah was aware of this danger and wished to convey that the kohen gadal, the spiritual leader of the Jewish people is indeed separate and apart. If an ordinary kohen would be required to contaminate himself for the sake of the kohen gadol this would convey that the kohen gadal is like any other ordinary relative. This may take away from the aura of the kohen gadal. Respect requires distance. By teaching that the kohen gadal is not to be treated as a relative but rather as a non-relative the Torah conveys that he is not one of the boys, but rather stands apart as a powerful leader who can guide his people by using his judgment to decide what Hashems Will is.
© Efraim Levine 5761/2001