Thoughts to Ponder Number 97

Educating Cohanim

In honor of the brit mila of my twin grandsons
Reuven Yona Ha-Cohen Atlas
Elazar Menachem Ha-Cohen Atlas
May they soon serve in the Temple!
(Part of drasha said at their berit)

And the Lord spoke to Moshe:" Tell the cohanim (priests), the children of Aaron and say to them: "For a corpse among his people, he shall not defile himself." (Vayikra 21:1) With these words the Torah introduces a complex set of laws which apply to those who are instructed to serve in the Temple as priests. The most notable law is the one which tells the cohanim not to defile themselves (with some exceptions) by coming into contact with the dead. This means that they are not allowed to touch a dead corpse, to come too close to it or be involved in its burial.

Remarkable is the fact that this prohibition is introduced in a compound way: First it says: "Speak to the priests, the children of Aaron" and then it continues with: "and say to them" Why the repetition? Would it not have been sufficient to say: "Speak to the priests, the children of Aaron: "For a corpse among his people, he shall not defile himself?"

Rashi in his commentary mentions a statement by the Talmud (Yebamoth, 114a) which explains this twofold expression by stating that it speaks about fathers and children. "To warn the elders concerning the younger ones" This means that the older cohanim have an obligation to make sure that the younger ones, those who are not yet 13 years and one day old (Bar Mitzvah) and therefore not yet fully responsible, do not defile themselves either.
The problem with this explanation is that it does not seem to fully explain the twofold expression. First of all, Jewish Law always obligates parents to warn their children not to transgress a law even when their children have not yet reached 13 years and one day (or in the case of girls, 12 years and one day (Bat Mitzvah).) This is part of their Jewish education. Children should get used to observing the laws of the Torah so that by the time that they have grown up they will be fully committed. Secondly, in two other cases the sages make use of the expression: "To warn the elders concerning the younger ones." In neither case; the prohibition against eating insects (Yayikra 11:42) nor the prohibition against consuming blood (ibid 17:12) is there the repetition ("tell them" and "say to them") as in our case.

Rabbi Zalman Sorotzkin (1881-1966) z.l., the famous rabbi of Lutsk offered a most remarkable answer to our question: In the case of the prohibition not to eat insects and blood it seems to mean that the parents must make sure that they do not cause their children to eat insects or blood even when the children would have no knowledge of this when they do.*

But in the case of the children of Cohanim we are confronted with a completely different kind of educational problem. After all, a child is not only educated by his parents and teachers. He or she is also greatly affected by the so called "street" which is often far removed from the values of the home. Even when parents and teachers expend great efforts to educate a child, the "street" is capable of undoing it all. Children are after all most impressionable. Therefore parents should consider themselves greatly blessed when they are able to secure an environment for their child which sends the same message to the child as the one he or she receives at home. This is the reason why religious Jews throughout the ages did everything in their power to makes sure that their children would be educated in Jewish schools and within a Jewish neighborhood. As such when parents tell their children to eat kosher, to observe shabbath, and not to speak evil about their fellowmen, they are supported by the environment. But educating a child in an alien environment which is not conducive to Jewish values, is a much more difficult task and can be detrimental.

The parents of a child who is a cohen have however an even more difficult task. Even when they have chosen a fully Jewish committed environment for their children, they still have a major problem in educating their child as a cohen. There is, after all, no support-system. Most religious children or neighbors do not belong to a community of cohanim. They are "just" Israelites and do not have, for example, any obligation to stay away from the dead. In fact they are obligated to attend to the dead and bury them as fast as possible! As such the cohen-parent cannot fall back on a support system offered by the "street". There is none. Consequently such parents have a special and difficult task to make sure that the child will indeed observe all the laws relating to the cohanim. This is the reason why the Torah repeats itself. "Tell the cohanim, the children of Aaron" and "say to them", teaching these parents that they have constantly to emphasize and repeat to their children that they are cohanim and that they are not for example allowed to defile themselves by touching the dead.

This observation is of great profundity for Jewish education in general. On one hand every Jewish child should be surrounded by proper Jewish values and learning. Nothing is as crucial as that. Especially during its younger years, the child must be educated in a full and uncompromising Jewish environment. But at the same time this education must teach him or her to be extremely proud concerning his or her own personal distinctiveness. After all nowhere does the Torah suggest that the cohanim should live on their own so as to make sure that there will be a "closed" support-system for young cohanim which does not allow for any influence from without, not even from a religious environment of non-cohanim.**

In our case parents and teachers are expected to educate a child in such a way that the knowledge of being a cohen increases his pride in being different and without making him feel handicapped because he is a cohen. After all the child-cohen does encounter the outer and other world. Proper and profound Jewish education should be able to inspire the child to live up to his priesthood even when he is surrounded by those who are not.

Somehow the child-cohen is therefore educated by two opposing philosophies. On one hand he receives the support system. He needs to live in a full Jewish environment. On the other hand he needs to be able to stand on his own and greatly treasure his being distinct. In other words, the Torah is only prepared to grant the child a certain protection, but is not willing to go all the way. It is, after all, this distinction of living surrounded by different people, which develops the child's self respect.

The same is true concerning every other child. They need a strong environment, conducive to their development as a Jew. But at the same time Jewish education has to provide the child with so much pride that in later life he/she is also able to deal with the outside world and be a fully committed Jew. They need to know the art of integration without becoming part of another culture. To achieve this goal in their children is the great task of parents and teachers. An awesome responsibility.

Nathan Lopes Cardozo

*This is my understanding of the words of Rabbi Sorotzkin, alternative explanations are possible.
** In biblical times the cohanim used to live together with the levites in special towns. Levites have however no obligation to stay away from the dead or observe other laws related to the status of a cohen.

Reproduction of this essay is permitted when printed in full.

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