Follow by Email

Thursday, 25 February 2016

So you want to be a cohen?

Daf Yomi Gittin 59


There’s a famous joke about a fellow who comes to the rabbi and asks the rabbi to make him a cohen.  After much begging and pleading – and a significant pledge to the synagogue building fund – the rabbi finally acquiesces.
After sprinkling him with holy cohen water, the rabbi asks him, ‘But why did you want to be a cohen so badly?’
‘Well, it’s like this,’ replies the man, ‘My father was a cohen, my grandfather was a cohen, my great-grandfather was a cohen.  I also wanted to be a cohen!’

And then there’s the lesser known tale told of the fellow who comes to the rabbi with the same request.  This time, the rabbi asks ahead of time and sure enough, the fellow has no priestly blood in his family whatsoever.  But after all said and done, the building fund’s the building fund – a few sprinkles of priestly water later, and voila, the man is a cohen.
‘Let’s be honest,’ says the rabbi after the procedure is finished, ‘who are you kidding?  Everyone in town knows you’re not a cohen.  Suddenly one day you woke up and discovered you were a cohen?!  Nobody’s going to believe you!  Take my advice: Pack up your belongings and move to another city.  That way, no one will know you and when they ask for a cohen, you can raise your hand!’
The man agrees with the rabbi’s sage wisdom, rents a U-Haul, and moves to a city on the other side of the country.

The big day comes.  It’s a Monday and he’s sitting in shul.  They’re about to take the Torah out of the Ark and the gabbai approaches him.
‘Shalom Aleichem!  You’re new around here,’ says the gabbai. 
‘Aleichem shalom!’ replies the man, ‘yes, I’ve just moved in to town.’
‘Tell me, sir,’ inquires the gabbai, ‘are you a cohen?’
Beaming, the fellow responds, ‘Absolutely!’
The gabbai looks at him apologetically and asks, ‘Do you mind stepping out of the shul?  We have three yahrzeits that need aliyos today!’

It was taught in the academy of Rabbi Yishmael: Concerning the cohen (priest), the Torah states, “And you shall sanctify him,” which means for every matter of sanctity, he should open first, and bless first, and take the nicest portion first.

Amongst our people, we have a tribal subset called cohanim.  The Talmud teaches that the cohen, as the chosen tribe gets to open first, bless first and take the first and nicest portion.

But among the nations of the world, there exists a similar subset.  The Torah calls the nation of Israel, “a kingdom of priests.”   What does that mean?  As a member of the chosen, priestly nation, you open first, you bless first, and you take the first and nicest portion.

But listen to the words of the Gemara.  Everybody wants the first and nicest portion.  But that privilege only comes subsequent to opening first and blessing first.  How do you go about doing that?

In the times of the Holy Temple, the cohanim dedicated their lives to the service of Hashem and Israel and consequently merited the special priestly gifts.   Likewise, being a member of the priestly nation comes with responsibility.   Opening first means being a leader.  Blessing first means caring about people and bringing blessing into their life.

When the Children of Israel stood at the banks of the Red Sea, nobody knew what to do.  Until Nachshon ben Aminadav led the way right into the water.   Leadership takes risks.  Leadership takes going above and beyond the ordinary.   As a member of the priestly people, you have the power to lead.  It takes strength.  It takes commitment.   But you can do it.  By constantly asking yourself what ordinary people would do; and then surpassing the ordinary and becoming extraordinary!

But leadership is not the only distinguishing feature of the cohen.  He is the source of blessing.  What made Avraham and Sarah stand out as the patriarch and matriarch of our nation?   Sure they spread monotheism and taught the world religious morals and ethics.  But the secret to their magnetism was their selfless dedication to others.  In the middle of the desert they pitched tent and offered free food to travellers passing by.   That’s the meaning of being a source of blessing.


You are a priest of the Almighty.  You deserve the finest portion in life.  You shall be given the finest portion in life.  But you must do your part.  Lead the way; don’t be afraid to be the first.   Be a source of blessing by becoming a wellspring of kindness and generosity.  May you merit serving the Almighty and humankind faithfully and receiving the most incredible portion in this world and the next!