OpinionTorah Portion

Holy, holy and holier

Is sanctity born or bred?

Jewish worshippers pray in front of the Western Wall in Jerusalem's Old City during the Kohen Benediction, the priestly blessing at the Jewish holiday of Passover, which commemorates the Israelites' hasty departure from Egypt, April 25, 2024. Photo by Chaim Goldbergl/Flash90.
Jewish worshippers pray in front of the Western Wall in Jerusalem's Old City during the Kohen Benediction, the priestly blessing at the Jewish holiday of Passover, which commemorates the Israelites' hasty departure from Egypt, April 25, 2024. Photo by Chaim Goldbergl/Flash90.
Rabbi Yossy Goldman
Rabbi Yossy Goldman
Rabbi Yossy Goldman is Life Rabbi Emeritus of Sydenham Shul in Johannesburg and president of the South African Rabbinical Association. He is the author of From Where I Stand, on the weekly Torah readings, available from Ktav.com and Amazon.

Hymie Cohen was trying desperately to assimilate and leave all his Jewish baggage behind. So, the now-renamed Horatio Cowen applied to a very posh, pucker, waspish country club where no Jews were allowed to join as members. Before his application for membership was accepted, Cowen (formerly Cohen) was required to have an interview with the chairman, Mr James Christopher Buckingham III. At the interview, Horatio (formerly Hymie) is looking intently at the chairman’s face and it seems to him that, surprisingly, he has some distinctly Jewish features. So, after much pondering, he finally plucks up the courage and asks him directly, “Mr. Buckingham, umm … by any chance … umm … might there possibly be some Jewish blood in your family?”

Buckingham stands up to his full height, pounds his desk and shouts: “I beg your pardon! I’ll have you know I am a proud Presbyterian! And my father before me was a proud Presbyterian! And my zayde, olov hasholom, before him was a proud Presbyterian!”

So, I guess Presbyterianism is transmitted from father to son. And so, as we know, is the priesthood. A Kohen is a Kohen because his father before him was a Kohen.

This Shabbat, we will read the Birkat Kohanim, the Priestly Blessing: “May G-d bless you and protect you … grant you favor … and peace.” And in this same Torah portion, Naso, we also read about the Nazirite (Nazir), one who takes a vow of abstinence from wine, haircutting and certain other physical pleasures. And, like the Kohen, the Nazirite, too, may not come into direct contact with the dead.

So a Kohen and a Nazir walked into a bar … just joking. Not quite. But let me quote the Mishnah.

A Kohen and a Nazirite are walking down the road and come across a meit mitzvah. A Jew is discovered lying dead on the roadside. In such a case, it is a big mitzvah to bury him right there where he was found. Granting dignity to the deceased is considered so important in Judaism that even a Kohen Gadol, the High Priest himself, must knowingly defile himself to bury this poor man.

So the Mishnah poses the case of a Kohen and a Nazirite who encounter such a dead body. Under ordinary circumstances, both these two individuals are prohibited from having contact with the dead. But here there is no one else to do the job. So, the Mishnah asks, which one of them should do the burial? Only one needs to become tamei and allow himself to become defiled by contact with the corpse. So which one should it be, the Kohen or the Nazirite? In other words, which one enjoys a holier status? Clearly, it is the less holy one who should allow himself to become defiled by doing the burial, while the holier one should keep his distance and retain his elevated degree of sanctity.

The Talmud answers that it is the Nazirite who should do the burial. Why? Because a born Kohen stands higher than an individual who only assumed a position of holiness. The Nazirite took his status upon himself as an optional extra of his own accord. Another suggested answer is because the Kohen is holy by birth, as per G-d’s instructions, while the Nazirite is self-appointed. He took a voluntary vow of sanctity. To be born a Kohen is perfectly natural, whereas to pronounce oneself holy may appear sanctimonious, self-righteous and thus somewhat suspect.

Then there is also the idea that a Nazirite may have taken the vow because he felt insecure with his own level of piety and wanted to ensure that he stayed far away from temptation. Too much wine has landed many people in deep trouble and many more in rather embarrassing situations.

At the end of the day, both positions have merit and demerit. Being born holy is wonderful, but we need to make ourselves holy, too, and not just rely on our parents’ and grandparents’ pedigree, status or yichus. To try and bring upon oneself additional holiness, like the Nazirite, is praiseworthy and honorable—provided it is done with humility and not arrogance.

Way back at the Burning Bush, not only Kohanim but the entire nation of Israel was charged by God to be “a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.” We fulfill this calling by our day-to-day practices and commitments. May we be men and women of stature who will transmit our noble national character to be embraced by our children and grandchildren for generations to come.

Whether by birth or by practice, may we all strive to be holy and live with honor, distinctiveness and sanctity.

The opinions and facts presented in this article are those of the author, and neither JNS nor its partners assume any responsibility for them.
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