The Levitical Priests: Their Function and Role in the Holy Temple
"And it shall be for them an appointment as priests forever, for all generations." (Ex. 40:15)"For HaShem your G-d has chosen him out of all your tribes, to stand to serve in the name of HaShem, him and his sons forever." (Deut. 18:5)
Who are the Priests?
The first kohen, the founder of the priestly clan, was Aharon, brother of Moshe, of the tribe of Levi. All of Israel are descended from the twelve sons of Yaakov. Yaakov's third son was Levi, and Aharon was a fourth generation descendant of Levi.
Aharon and his four sons were designated as the first kohanim; Aharon served as the first Kohen Gadol. All of his male descendants were chosen by G-d to be kohanim forever; it is an eternal covenant. Thus even today, a kohen amongst the Jewish people is genealogically a direct descendant of Aharon.
The Role of the Priests
The Holy One chose these men to be in a position of spiritual leadership. In the days of the Temple, they were responsible for the sacred service. The Hebrew word kohen actually means "to serve," and a deeper linguistic connection can be found in the word ken, meaning "yes," itself related to kivvun, "to direct." Thus a kohen is called upon to direct himself, and others, in the proper service of G-d: "And you, separate your brother Aharon and his sons from among the Israelites, and bring them close to you... so they can serve me." (Ex. 28:1)
A Conduit for the Reception of Divine Blessing
The reader is undoubtedly most familiar with the primary role which the kohanim perform in the Temple, that of officiating at the offerings and other parts of the service. But more importantly, by attending to the various aspects of the Divine service, the kohanim serve as a conduit to bring down G-d's radiant blessing and influence into this world. In fact, it is on this account that they are commanded to deliver G-d's blessing of peace and love to the people, as well: "Say to Aharon and his sons... Thus shall you bless the people of Israel: 'May HaShem bless you and protect you. May HaShem shine His face upon you, and be gracious unto you. May HaShem lift up His face to you and may He grant you peace'." (Numbers 6:22 - 26)
The Priestly Blessing is Delivered Daily in the Temple
Every day in the Temple, at the conclusion of the morning service, this blessing was performed by the officiating kohanim, standing on the steps leading up to the sanctuary. Thus while it is only G-d who has the power to bestow blessing upon people, the function of the kohanim was to serve as a vehicle, a medium, through which the Divine influence may descend.
"... He stands behind our wall... "
This concept of the kohanim "directing" the flow of Divine blessing is alluded to by a verse in the Song of Songs (2:9 - 10): "Behold, He stands behind our wall, watching through the windows, glancing through the cracks."
The sages of the Midrash interpret these words to mean that it is G-d who stands behind the priests as they deliver His blessing. The illumination of His Presence shines through their hands, which are outstretched as they utter the priestly blessing.
The Priests Possess Special Qualities
The kohanim represent kindness, and the focusing of life's energies on sanctity and Divine purpose. It was the attribute of kindness, understanding and love for all which Aharon, the first Kohen Gadol, was best known for, and his descendants are entrusted to exemplify Hillel's famous dictum in the Chapters of the Fathers (Avot 1:12): "Be of the disciples of Aharon, loving peace and pursuing peace, loving your fellow-creatures, and drawing them near to the Torah." This quality was highly visible and crucially instrumental following the rebellion of Korach, when it was Aharon who saved the people from the full extent of Divine wrath (see Numbers 17).
Because of their ability to invoke Heavenly influence, the sages even record that the priestly families possess distinctive character traits and qualities which are part of their special spiritual heritage: they are known to be joyful, giving, and driven by a loftier nature. In the era of the Temple, they were praised for their zeal and dedication to fulfill the commandments and give honor to the Creator.
Later, through the ensuing course of history, it was generally the tribe of Levi and the priestly family in particular that were exemplary in their zealousness for the honor of G-d. Thus it was the priestly family of the Hasmonaim - the famous "Maccabees" - who led the revolt against foreign idolatrous influence and rededicated the Holy Temple, events marked by the holiday of Chanukah.
The daily blessing of the priests in the Temple serves to open the Heavenly gates of mercy. Through it, the people of Israel merit not only material well-being - including offspring and longevity - but spiritual blessings as well; mercy, Divine protection and the greatest blessing of all... true peace. Since the priests themselves represent the attribute of kindness, their service brings the flow of G-d's blessing down to His people.
General Rules of Priestly Conduct
"The kohen must be holy to his G-d. You must keep him holy, for he presents the offering to your G-d... He must be holy, for I am G-d - I am holy and I am making you holy" (Lev. 21).
G-d Has Sanctified The Kohanim Above All Men
The Holy One ordained special laws which effect the lives of the kohanim. The fundamental understanding behind these principles is that the status of the kohen is different than that of other men. Their lot is one of dedication, of separation - for they are the servants of HaShem and the custodians of His service. "... For he presents the offering to your G-d... "
Because of this, "... he must be holy, for I am G-d - I am holy and I am making you holy." The Creator has sanctified these men above the rest for all time, and drawn them to Himself through unique commandments.
These laws are recorded in the book of Leviticus, and by way of an introduction, let us examine the verse quoted above. The kohanim are expected and commanded to keep holy... but what is meant by "holiness?" What is the Bible's intention?
"He must be holy, for I, God, am holy." How are we to understand this state of holiness? How can we best explain such a concept? It seems intangible at best - for in the context of this verse, it seems that the kohen is called upon to be holy in the same sense that G-d Himself is holy.
It would surely be instructive at this point for us to attempt a definition for the word "holy." For we can see that Torah uses this word quite emphatically in the context of the kohanim: they are actually mandated to be holy, to lead holy lives, because G-d is holy. But how can a person be holy like G-d?
Many people seem to equate the concept of holiness with spirituality in general; anything ethereal or mystical is presumed to be holy. According to this mentality, one supposes that holiness is a matter of secret knowledge, or simply a question of allegiance to any proscribed ritual claimed by its adherents to bring the devotee closer to fulfillment.
To Be Spiritual Does Not Automatically Imply Holiness
This is a serious misconception, one which is completely out of tune with the Torah idea of holiness as exemplified by the "holiness" which is expected and required of Aharon's descendants. For holy and spiritual are not the same things and they are certainly not equal.
Consulting Webster's Dictionary, we find that the word "spiritual" is derived from the Latin spiritualis, "of breathing; of wind; relating to or consisting of spirit." Thus: "INCORPOREAL," (fortunately, we are also given "of or relating to sacred matters,") and since the primary meaning of this word seems to be that which is non-physical, we end with "of or relating to ghosts or similar supernatural beings(!)"
Thus many people, disciplines, philosophies and the like may be considered spiritual in nature, they may concern themselves with the esoteric, they may even occupy themselves with the service of G-d - but this does not necessarily imply that they are holy in any way.
Forbidden Spiritual Pursuits
In fact, some spiritual paths can most definitely be the absolute epitome of unholiness:
The Torah is clear in its prohibition of spiritualism which has not been authorized by G-d. "Do not act on the basis of omens... do not act on the basis of auspicious times" (Lev. 19:26), we are warned. These forbidden practices include one who acts on the basis of a superstitious omen, and those who seek out auspicious times through astrology.
When the Children of Israel were preparing to end their desert wanderings and enter into the Promised Land, they were specifically warned by G-d to uproot the perverted spiritual practices of the former inhabitants from the land, and to be particularly cautious not to be tempted to experiment with mystical occult practices. "When HaShem your G-d excises the nations to which you are coming, and drives them away before you, you shall dispossess them and live in their land. Be very careful not to fall into a trap by following after them, after they have been wiped out from before you. Do not try to find out about their gods, saying, 'How did these nations worship their gods? I would also like to try this.' Do not worship HaShem your G-d with such practices. In worshiping their gods, these nations committed all manner of perversions hated by HaShem... " (Deut. 12:29 - 31).
Reaching levels of inspiration and revelation that are not rooted in holiness, as personified by the wicked heathen prophet Balaam, King Balak, and the elders of Moav and Midian, are all equally reprehensible (these practiced various forms of divination and occult arts in order to bring about prophetic revelation. See Numbers 22).
So, while other nations may have their own routes to connect with the "Divine," or their own conception thereof; or, perhaps they merely delude themselves and others into thinking that they are serving G-d, and the side of holiness - clearly, the Torah's prohibitions instruct Israel that these other ways are not for her. There may be other paths of spirituality, but they are not for Israel; she is to be "a kingdom of priests and a holy nation" (Ex. 19:6).
But we have not yet come any closer to an understanding of the kohanim's exhortation to live holy lives "because G-d is holy;" neither have we come any closer to a grasp on how an individual can be holy like G-d. If God is incorporeal, if G-d is spirit, is a man therefore commanded to be spirit? Spirituality is clearly a separate concept, and one that is not necessarily pure, at that.
Holiness Means Separation
By contrast to the concept of "spiritual" - which seems to be rather unstable for our liking, since it can actually apply to things quite far from all which we have considered sacred - we find that the primary definition of "holy" is "set apart to the service of G-d."
G-d Himself is called holy because He is completely separate; unique and unequaled in all of His creation. Nothing can be compared to Him because He is peerless; He is the Creator of the universe and all existence, and absolutely different from anything else that exists. It is in this light that Israel is collectively called upon to be a "holy nation" - that is, a nation set apart from all others, completely different from any other, whose Divinely-mandated lifestyle serves as living proof that an entire nation can walk with G-d in its midst... "it is a nation dwelling alone in peace; not counting itself among other nations" (Numbers 23:9).
This separation is the true Torah view of holiness. This is why the opposite of something holy is said to be mundane or profane; ordinary. To be holy is to be removed from the realm of the ordinary. Israel lives separately, according to the Torah's commandments, precisely because G-d is separate... for the highest form of religious experience is to reflect, to imitate the Divine. Man must strive to be a reflection of his Creator.
So too, the priests in the Holy Temple "must be holy for I, G-d, am holy." If Jewish life is to be holy, then the kohanim must take care to be especially holy. They have been distinctively sanctified by the Creator Himself for all time and singled out for a life dedicated to Him. The vehicle that accomplishes this sanctification is the commandments, which obligate them to their Creator. These commandments reflect their unique status.