The first kohanim were Aaron (Moses' older brother) and his four sons. Together with their future descendents, they were chosen by G‑d to conduct the service in the Sanctuary as representatives of the entire people of Israel. Due to his sanctified position as a minister serving in G‑d’s Temple, the kohen may not come in contact with the dead, his body must be unblemished, certain marriages are prohibited to him, etc.
You may not have heard the story of the fellow who visits his rabbi and begs him to make him a kohen. He just has to belong to the priestly tribe, and he's prepared to pay the rabbi any amount of money for the honor. The rabbi patiently explains that neither he nor anyone else can make the man a kohen. It is simply not in the province of the rabbinate to do these things. The fellow is desperate. He offers the rabbi a huge donation if he would only grant him this one favor. The rabbi is exasperated but intrigued and asks the man why it is so important to him that he be made a kohen. The guy answers: "Rabbi, my father was a kohen, my grandfather was a kohen, I just have to become a kohen!"
The truth is that as funny as a born kohen wanting to buy his way into his own family may sound, being a kohen is no joke.
In my own experience, I have been involved in a number of human tragedies which emanated from Jewish ignorance about the role of a kohen and the regulations which pertain to members of the priestly tribe.
While cemetery conduct and protocol for a male kohen is a very important mitzvah, failure to comply with these regulations is between him and G‑d. It does not affect anyone else, at least not in any earthly, tangible form. However, when it comes to marriage choices there is always someone else involved and, subsequently, very much affected.
Some tragedies are unavoidable. When terror strikes, G‑d forbid, it may be impossible to stay out of harm’s way. Illness is not something any sane person consciously chooses. But the most frustrating tragedy of all is one that was avoidable. And when ignorance of our traditions leads to human pain and anguish, then familiarizing ourselves with those traditions could go a long way towards preventing tragedy from happening in the first place.
Picture the scene. A young man announces his engagement and arrives at the synagogue to book his wedding. The rabbi discovers that he is a kohen and his fiancé is a divorcee, convert, someone previously married out of the faith, or perhaps the daughter of a non-Jewish father. Very sensitively, he advises the young couple that there may be a halachic impediment to their union being solemnized "in accordance with the law of Moses and Israel." This week's parshah gives us the basic laws governing whom a kohen may and may not marry. If he is indeed a genuine kohen and she does, in fact, belong to one of the above-mentioned categories, we have a problem.
Now my question is, why in the two or three years of their relationship did this issue never surface? The answer is ignorance. Nobody ever told them that there was a problem.
Who gets the blame? Why, the rabbi, of course. He is accused of being a religious fundamentalist, intolerant, uncaring, rigid and inflexible. Well, let me assure you that my colleagues and I love to be welcoming and accommodating at all times. There are, however, situations when Jewish law and tradition, which to us is sacred and inviolate, may well appear to be standing in the way of human happiness. And we are not empowered to change the law to suit the occasion.
Personally, I say the responsibility to educate our young people about this particular issue lies with their parents. Especially a father who is a kohen and has passed down that lineage to his son has a moral obligation to advise his son of what it means to be a kohen. True, there are privileges, like being the first to be called to the Torah, but there are also responsibilities, like choosing marriage partners very carefully.
These types of pain and misery are absolutely avoidable if we educate our children. Well before they become romantically involved, parents should inform their kids to be discerning in whom they date. In the same way as no intermarriage ever happened without prior inter-dating, no kohen would suffer disappointment over an unsanctioned marriage if he only dated girls he would be able to marry. He shouldn’t be hearing about it for the first time when he approaches the rabbi with a wedding date.
Marriage today is a tenuous institution. It is an enormous challenge to remain on the right side of the statistics. If the Torah tells us that a particular union is not kosher, rather than resenting the interference we should consider it as if the Almighty Himself came down and whispered a word of loving advice in our ears: "Trust me; this one is not right for you." Sometimes we think the Torah is standing in the way of our happiness when the reverse is true. In the long run, it may well be protecting both parties from making a serious mistake with life-long ramifications.
The priesthood is as old as the Jewish people. To be a kohen is something no money can buy. Space does not allow me to expand on the subject here. Suffice it to say, it is a very special blessing. Let’s make sure that our children never consider that blessing a curse.