The Higher Standard

June 24, 2009

3 min read


Emor (Leviticus 21-24 )

We still have people today who can trace their lineage back to biblical times. You can even find them in the phone book, under the name Cohen. Of course not all Cohens are from the lineage of Aaron, and not all people descended from Aaron have the last name Cohen. Nonetheless, it is more often the case than not that a person named Cohen can trace his lineage back directly 3,300 years.

This is a testament to the truth of the Torah, and the unbroken chain of tradition that the Jewish people have kept all these years. But are these Cohens living up to their mandate?

We don't have a Holy Temple and we don't have offerings. We don't have many of the gifts that would be going to Mr. Cohen. Yet we still give a kohen five silver coins when performing the mitzvah of "pidyon haben," redeeming the firstborn son.

From the standpoint of the Torah, the kohanim are still holy, as the verse states, "They should be holy for their God, and they should not profane the name of their God..." (Leviticus 21:6) In general, a kohen should be accorded special honor, as in the synagogue when they are called up first to the Torah reading. In Israel, the kohanim bless the people every morning.

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One aspect of being holy is taking on responsibilities that others don't take on. For example, a kohen has marital restrictions that other Jews don't have.

All Jews, kohen or not, have responsibilities that define our holiness. On the secular stage, the world holds us to a higher standard. They don't complain when our enemies purposely kill civilians, but they complain loud and clear when Israel accidentally kills a civilian.

We don't like it when they hold us to a higher standard, and in secular terms this is obviously unfair. But from the perspective of the Torah, we do want to keep to a higher standard of morality than the rest of the nations.

We are all commanded to sanctify God's name, and not to desecrate or profane His name (Leviticus 22:32). In some ways, this is considered the most important mitzvah in the entire Torah.

Because of this commandment, many people are careful not to put anything with God's name into the garbage, even if it's an English name, and even if it's printed as opposed to being written by a scribe. These are holy customs.

Yet a more important sanctification is having behavior that exemplifies your relationship with God. By acting holy, you give honor the Creator. Nobody is perfect, and when striving for holiness, you are not faulted for every little mistake you make. The main thing is that your actions generally reflect a refined and moral character. If not, there is something for you to work on.

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Most people are uncomfortable with being judged to a higher standard. We want to relax and be judged just like everyone else. But that doesn't help connect the universe with its Creator. When we behave in a way that expresses our devotion to God, and acceptance of His Torah's precepts, we are directly binding God and the universe together.

You can blend into the woodwork of history and leave no mark on humanity, or you can stand for something, and be a symbol of the Almighty.

That is the purpose of creation.

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Spiritual Exercise:

This week think of one thing that expresses holding yourself to a higher standard. Return a lost object. Let a car pass yours instead of speeding up to be ahead. Offer to assist someone even when you're in a hurry. Look for an opportunity, and see how good it feels to be a little holy.

Next Steps