In this week’s parsha, the Torah discusses the special status of the Kohen: “And you shall sanctify him, for he sacrifices the bread of your G-d; he shall be holy for you because I, Hashem who sanctifies you, am holy.” (Vayikra 21:8)
Rashi tells us how to treat the Kohen, due to his holiness : “Treat him with kedusha; he shall be the first in everything and he shall be the first one to say the blessing at a meal.”
The possuk above tells us that we “shall sanctify” the Kohen and he should be “holy for you.” This seems like a command to the people, but how can we fulfill it? The Kohen is sanctified by Hashem, not by us, so how can we make the Kohen “holy for us?”
The Torah is telling us that we have the power to make a person holy. It is up to us to sanctify the people around us – not just the Kohanim. When we treat a person as if he is especially holy, even if he is unworthy of such respect, he will eventually grow into being a person worthy of our admiration.
What a powerful message!
The Baal Shem Tov interpreted the famous Mishna “Hevei dan es kal adam l’kaf zechus - you shall judge every person favorably” in an insightful way: We all instinctively judge the people around us according to what they do. When we hear something good or bad about another person, we judge him in our minds, deciding whether he is a tzaddik or a rasha. “When you judge a fellow person,” the Baal Shem Tov would say, “when you are about to pass judgment on kal adam – the entire person, labeling him a tzaddik or rasha, then if you judge him in a favorable light, you will turn him over l’kaf zechus – to righteousness!” The way we think about another person impacts his conduct and personal development. We wield tremendous power over the people around us, and it is up to us to use this power in a beneficial way.
This is the beauty of Rashi’s comment: The Kohen has to be holy because of his unique role. But what if he isn’t holy, as he should be? Treat him with kedusha anyway, making him first in everything and honoring him with the first blessing at every meal, and in the end he will become holy!
“Tell the Kohanim the sons of Aharon… for the [dead] of the people they shall not be defiled.” (Vayikra 21:1)
Although the Kohen has a unique status and is more sanctified than the common people, the Torah is commanding the Kohen not to become arrogant. Hashem chose the Jewish people from among all the nations; he chose the tribe of Levi from all the tribes of Israel; he chose the sons of Aharon over the rest of Shevet Levi. Still, the Kohanim should not say, “We are the chosen ones and the rest of the people are merely defiled commoners.” The verse can be read to mean, “Do not defile the people!” They too are holy and exalted, even if they do not have the distinguished status of Kohanim.
We learn two important concepts in this parsha: a) honor every person, even if he is unworthy, and you will bring him closer to Hashem, and b) on the other hand, the person who is being honored should not become arrogant and disdain others.
Our great Chassidic masters were personal examples of these important traits, as the following poignant anecdote indicates: The tzaddik Reb Dovid’l of Lelov once traveled to the Rebbe Reb Elimelech of Lizensk. Reb Elimelech asked him, “Who is the worst Jew in Lelov?” Reb Dovid’l thought for a moment and replied, “There is a certain individual in Lelov who is very sinful.” Reb Elimelech rebuked him, “If you can say this, you do not belong here! If you feel there is a person in Lelov who is more sinful than you, you have no place in my court!” Reb Dovid’l quickly replied, “Of course, I am the worst person in Lelov, but right now I am in Lizensk, not in Lelov, so that leaves him…” Reb Elimelech accepted this reply and allowed Reb Dovid’l to stay.
We see a similar message in the passage of the Torah regarding Pesach Sheni, where the people who were unclean on Pesach ask for a second opportunity to sacrifice the Pesach Offering. “We are defiled,” they said, yet why shall we be denied a chance to bring the Koran Pesach? When Moshe heard them calling themselves “defiled” he told them to wait until he receives instructions from Hashem. Rashi points out: A worthy thing is brought about through worthy individuals.
People who consider themselves unworthy, are considered worthy by Hashem!