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The High Priest

obormottel Thursday, 16 April 2015

An astonishing and sobering contrast concerning the nature of the human psyche captures our imagination in this week's Torah portion (Emor).

The Torah prohibits a Kohen, a priest (which includes all descendents of Aaron), from marrying a divorced woman. It also prohibits a Kohen Gadol, a High Priest, from marrying a divorcee and a widow (1).

Now, one can perhaps make sense out of the former prohibition: Since a priest served as the spiritual agent of the Jewish people in Divine service, he was required to live a life of complete innocence and purity. Therefore, the Torah did not want him marrying a person involved in strife, innocent or not.

But why could the High Priest not marry a widow? What is it about her husband's death that makes her unqualified to enjoy a blessed relationship with a High Priest?

Several answers have been given to this question (2). In this essay I want to share with you one answer that I have always found extremely disturbing yet comforting, as it depicts how Judaism does not hide its face from the struggles confronting the human being.

Abuse of Spiritual Power

Rabbi Chaim Yosef David Azulaei, an 18th century sage and mystic known in short as the Chida (3), presents the following interpretation in the name of the great 12th century Jewish thinker, Rabbi Yehuda HaChassid (4).

The High Priest of Israel was given many great spiritual powers. The most important of them was his duty on the holiest day of the year, Yom Kippur, to enter into the Temple's Holy of Holies, a place where no other living Jew was ever allowed to enter.

On that charged day, the High Priest would also pronounce the intimate 72-letter name of G-d, which contained very profound powers. (The Jewish Sages intentionally ceased teaching that name during the period of the Roman conquest of Jerusalem, and it has since been forgotten.)

Now, the Torah is concerned that the High Priest may experience infatuation with a particular married woman. What might he do about the fact of her being married? Next Yom Kippur, he will utilize the moment when he utters G-d's ineffable name in order to bring about a decree of death on her husband (5). Thus he would be free to marry the widow.

It is as a result of this concern that the Torah commands that a High Priest may not marry a widow. Even if he succeeds in getting rid of the husband, he would not be able to marry the wife. "Do not try pulling off this one," the Torah informs the High Priest, "it won't get you anywhere."

This is an astonishing idea. On the holiest day of the year, in the holiest place on earth, we are concerned that the holiest man on earth, while uttering the holiest syllables in the world might harbor a craving to eliminate an innocent man so that he can marry his wife!

How can this be?

Angelic Heights

Now, let us contrast this with another biblical statement concerning the High Priest entering into the Sanctuary on Yom Kippur, also from the book of Leviticus:

"No human being shall be in the Tent of Meeting when he [the High Priest] comes to provide atonement in the Sanctuary, until his departure (6)." Not only were there no Blintzes and Knishes allowed during the Yom Kippur service, but also no Cohen's or any other people was allowed to be present at the time.

The Midrash (7), in its never ending sensitivity to biblical nuance, wonders how can the Bible state that no human being should be present at the time of the High Priest's service on Yom Kippur, when the High Priest himself was a human being? At least one man was present!

The Midrash answers that when the High Priest entered the Holy of Holies he was not human indeed; he assumed the status of a Heavenly Angel. Indeed, no human being entered the Sanctuary with him; not even his own.

What is going on here? We are confronted with an uneasy contradiction. One biblical source indicates the potential mind-staggering lowliness of a High Priest, capable of descending into the lowest depths of depraved behavior, while the other biblical source intimates his potential for enormous spiritual heights, capable of transcending the human experience and reaching angelic heights. How do we reconcile the two? Who is the High Priest, the holiest of the holy or the lowliest of the lowly?

Dust and Image

Yet it is here that we encounter, once again, Judaism's moving perspective on the nature of the human being. There are two ways in which the Bible speaks of the creation of man. In the first chapter of Genesis, man is described as having been created in the image and likeness of G-d. In the second chapter, man is described as having been formed out of the dust of the earth.

Together, image and dust express the polarity of the nature of man. He is formed of the most inferior stuff in the most superior image.

The author of life and of mankind knew full well that sexuality holds men -- priests and lay men alike --captive in its enormously powerful grip. Even the greatest of men are capable of falling prey to its momentous temptation. Even a High Priest, on the holiest day of the year, in the holiest space of the world, while uttering the holiest word in the world, is capable of thinking about how he can "bump a man off the road" so that he can marry his wife. Judaism has always been keenly sensitive to the truth that every human being has a demon lurking within. If you don't challenge and tame it, it can turn you into a monster; you are capable of ugliness in the least expected circumstances.

But the author of life also knew that man is capable of incredible greatness.

The soul of man being a "fragment of G-d (8)," he or she is capable of generating infinite goodness and encountering within themselves infinite idealism. As Professor Abraham Joshua Heschel, a scion of the great Chassidic masters, once put it, "Man is a polarity of a divine image and worthless dust. He is a duality of mysterious grandeur and pompous aridity, a vision of G-d and a mountain of dust. It is because of his being dust that his iniquities may be forgiven, and it is because of his being an image that his holiness and idealism is expected."

So, the next time you are overtaken by challenging cravings, addictions, temptations and any negative feelings, do not fall into despair. Remember, you are no worse than the High Priest of Israel! You, too, may struggle against horrible demons. But, you, too, may still enter into the Holy of Holies.

It is up to each of us to define who we are. The rest will become a self fulfilling prophesy.



1) Leviticus 21:7; 14. 2) See, for example, Sefer Hachenuch Parshas Emor; Mai Hasheluach vol. 2 ParshasEmor. 3) 1724-1806. The Chida, author ofmore than 50 volumes on Torah thought, wasoneof thegreat Torah luminariesof hisday. Heresided in Israel, Egyptand Italy. Rabbi Chaim YosefDavid Azulaei was also a Kohen asis evidenced by his nameAzulai, the acronym of "isha zona vachalala lo yikuchu." The Chida quotes this interpretation in his book Penei David. The following explanation is also quoted in MoshavZekanaim Al Hatorah (by theFrench 13th century authorsof theTosefot on theTalmud) in the name of"the Chassid." Parenthetically, in an Emor essayby Rabbi Yissachar Frond hequotes Rabbi Bergman as stating that theabove mentioned "Chassid" quoted in MoshavZekanim refers to The Rokeach (this isthe 13th century German mystic and sage, Rabbi Eliezer Rokeach). Yet, based on theexplicit reference given by the Chida, I think theMoshavZekanim is referring to Reb Yehudah Hachasid. Itshould also benoted thatthe Chida himself rejects this interpretation in Penei David ibid. 4) Rabbi Yehuda HaChassid, who resided in Regensburg, Germany and authored the famed Sefer Chassidim, was known as one of the great kabbalists and Halachik authorities ofhisday. 5) This is what Moses did when hewishesto kill the Egyptian who wasbeating a Jew (Exodus 2:14 and in Rashi ibid.) 6) Leviticus 16:17. 7) Midrash Rabah ibid. 8) See Ramban to Genesis ch. 2; introduction to Shefa Tal (a 17th century major Kabbalisticwork by Rabbi Shabsi Sheptel Horowitz); Tanya ch. 2.