Thursday, November 13, 2014

What do Kohanim and their required state of purity have in common with CEOs and their required state of focus?

I have always been somewhat bothered by and thus reticent to learn about the Kohanim and specifically the Kohen HaGadol (the priests and the High Priest of the ancient Jewish community respectively) and their needed state of purest purity, with all of the accompanying prohibitions regarding involvements that could potentially divert their attention from the tasks of their office. Specifically, many of these laws have to do with their need to separate from their wives during times of service as well as additional restrictions regarding whom they can marry. To be sure there are other proscriptions regarding their lives, many of which are laid out in Masechet Yoma, dedicated primarily to the complicated and intensely detailed service of the High Priest as we narrate (at least part of it) during the Avodah prayers of Yom Kippur.

Then when I think again about these restrictions in terms of our modern lives, it occurs to me that people are making these decisions all of the time. How many people are “workaholics” forgoing family functions and personal relations and connections for the sake of their profession in our world today? These are choices that are made for individual and defined goal achievement, for the greater good of an institution and so on. It is often considered a noble choice and at times, perceived as a great deal of self-sacrifice in our contemporary society. Think about the CEO today who has such great responsibility for the positions of others, the maintaining of institutions they have either created or taken the reins of control for, and the volumes of hours they spend away from family life and personal involvements for the sake of these institutions. Then there is the research scientist, the medical doctor, the lawyer, the statesman, the public official, the educator, and so many others. We have indeed on many levels become a society of workaholics, all dedicated to important causes and professional goals. The ultimate betterment of our society as a result of these decisions, and degrees of dedication varies, as does the element of personal gain in terms of monetary benefits and reputation. The difference is that in the case of the Kohanim, their focus was required for the sake of the entire community and therefore their single-mindedness and dedication to the task at hand was critical; the very well-being of an entire nation depends on it and G-d commands it.

We often comment on how our leaders tend to age before our eyes. Golda Meir, herself, bemoaned how while she is considered by the world to be the mother of a nation, she was not the mother she should have been to and for her own children. We all know those people who are on 24/7 call and yet try to balance their lives to insure that other important facets of their existence are included and hopefully not slighted. In our lives today, more and more of us are the ultimate jugglers, balancing many different facets of our existence simultaneously. We also note that with the best and most sincere and honest of intentions, mistakes are made and focus is lost. We are mere human beings and this is just the reality of who and what we are – flawed humans.

This was not an option for the Kohanim and the Kohen HaGadol. In fact, if there was a flaw, a “moom,” that Kohen had to be excused from service. No flaws and no lapse of attention was a possibility for this important service. Therefore, the Kohanim could not go to work with various worries on their mind so to speak. They had to be single-minded and solely dedicated to their service, on behalf of them, but more importantly, the entire community. Perhaps these restrictions were there to insure, as much as possible, that this would be the case.

Further, the Kohanim and Kohen HaGadol had to be pure and as “perfect” as possible in their being and in their service. It was acknowledged that the Kohanim, and even the Kohen HaGadol, did not have to be, nor were they always the most intelligent or the most honorable of the population. Nonetheless, they had to be above reproach and laws and dictates are set in place to insure that this would be the situation as much as possible. This had a significant impact on whom they married, what they did and where they went.

Being a Kohen or a Kohen HaGadol in our Jewish past was clearly a calling that was so demanding it went far above and beyond the normal rhythm of life. Therefore, those that held these positions had to be protected from a lot of the potential downfalls of that normal life. I think that there is a lesson here for all of us. We, too, need to acknowledge our flaws as human beings and navigate the many different demands on our time and energy in a way that is respectful and honoring the many different aspects of our responsibilities. The point is that the Kohen and yes, even the Kohen HaGadol WAS PERMITTED and in fact WAS SUPPOSED to have a family and be part of the larger society and then have restrictions set in place to enable that experience of his own humanity in a reasonable way, given the importance of his office. Perhaps, for him this was to keep perspective in that no matter how important his WORK was, he was also a human being. All the more, we must remember this about ourselves.

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