Each individual has his own perception of reality, his own view on religion, and his own ideas about leadership. Every religion, as well, has its own perceptions and views on these topics, and just as a person’s views serve as a gateway into understanding his inner beliefs and values, a religion’s views serve as a window into its inner beliefs and value system.
When examining the Jewish approach to leadership, it’s fascinating to note how diametrically opposed Jewish leadership is to other versions of leadership. The Torah states that the Kohen Gadol must be married (Vayikra 21:13). While other religions require spiritual leaders to remain celibate, completely removed from the physical world, Judaism requires the opposite. This seems dangerous, as the temptations of physicality and a physical relationship can distract one from achieving spiritual perfection. Why then do we require our leaders to immerse themselves in something as physical as marriage? Most other religions believe that abstaining from the physical is the sole path toward spirituality. Why and where does our view differ? In order to understand this, we must first understand the nature and role of kohanim.
Three Categories of Leadership
There are three categories of Jewish leadership: The Melech (King), the Sanhedrin (Courts), and the Kohanim (Priests). While all three serve both practical and religious roles, each category maintains its own unique purpose in enabling the Jewish People to connect to Hashem and fulfill their purpose. The melech serves as an embodiment and manifestation of Hashem in this world, completely negating his ego and serving as a transparent vessel to reveal Hashem in this world. The Sanhedrin upholds Jewish ideals in society, ensuring that the Jewish People live up to their lofty purpose and act in accordance with Torah law. The kohanim are charged with helping the Jewish People uplift themselves and connect with Hashem.
The role of the Kohanim is to guide the Jewish People in their spiritual and religious journey, helping them build and perfect their relationship with Hashem. A kohen is therefore responsible for the Jewish People’s spiritual well-being. This is achieved through their avodah in the Beis HaMikdash. In order to understand how their avodah strengthens the connection between the Jewish People and Hashem, let us briefly review the nature of the Beis HaMikdash.
Beis HaMikdash: Place of Connection
Chazal refer to the Beis HaMikdash as the “mouth” of the world. This is because each of the three functions of the mouth serve as a mechanism of connection.
Eating connects the physical body to the angelic soul.
Speaking connects people’s inner worlds together.
Kissing connects two physical bodies together, reflecting a deeper form of internal connection and oneness.
So, too, the Beis HaMikdash serves as the “mouth” of the world, as it is the focal point where Hashem connects to this physical world.
Eating – Just as our physical body needs to eat in order to maintain its connection to our spiritual soul, the physical world needs to “eat” in order to maintain its connection to the spiritual soul of the world, i.e., Hashem. The Ramban explains that the concept of korbanos is embodied in the word karov, which means to bring close. The Nefesh HaChayim (2:9) and Rabbi Yehudah HaLevi (in the Kuzari 2:26) explain that korbanos are the “food” that fuels the connection between Hashem and the physical world. Just as we eat to connect our soul to our body, korbanos connect the spiritual to the physical. This explains why many of the details of the avodah have food-like connotations:
The Mizbei’ach – the Altar where sacrifices were brought – is referred to as the “shulchan gavoah – the high table,” as if this was the table of eating.
The pasuk consistently refers to the korbanos as “korbani lachmi – My bread sacrifice,” as if the sacrifice is a meal.
This also explains why we place salt on the korbanos, something that halachically we do at meals, particularly on Shabbos.
Speaking – Just as people connect with each other through the mechanism of speech, Hashem spoke directly to the Jewish People specifically from the Beis HaMikdash. The pasuk explicitly says that Hashem will speak to Moshe from between the two Keruvim (Sh’mos 25:22).
Kissing – Just as the universal expression of love and connection is kissing, the Beis HaMikdash is also where Hashem “kisses” the world. The Gemara states that the Beis HaMikdash is the point where the spiritual heavens kiss the physical earth (Bava Basra 74a). In other words, this is where the infinite and spiritual meet the finite and physical. This is where Hashem most potently connects to the physical world, where Hashem and klal Yisrael embrace in the closest and most intimate relationship.
Kohanim: Creating This Connection
The role of the kohanim is to foster the connection between Hashem and this world, and between Hashem and the Jewish People. Through their avodah in the Beis HaMikdash, the place of connection, the kohanim connect the physical to the spiritual and the Jewish People to their Source. This idea is actually expressed in the word “kohen” itself. The gematria of “kohen” is 75, halfway between 70 and 80. The Maharal explains that seven is the number of the natural (Tiferes Yisrael, chaps. 1-2, 25); this is why all physical and natural components of this world are built off of sevens: seven days in the week, seven notes in the musical scale, seven colors in the spectrum of light, etc. Eight represents going beyond the natural, which is why bris milah is done on the eighth day. We take the most physical and potentially animalistic organ and use it to transcend. This is also why the miracle of Chanukah lasted eight days, and why it came through shemen (oil), the same shoresh (root) as sh’monah, the number eight. It is therefore no surprise that the gematria of “kohen” is 75, the number directly between 70 and 80. The kohen’s role is to connect the lower with the higher, the physical to the spiritual, and the finite to the infinite. This is achieved specifically in the Beis HaMikdash (or Mishkan), the ultimate place of connection.
The Kohen Gadol Must Be Married
We can now understand why the Kohen Gadol must be married. The Kohen Gadol embodies the ultimate paradigm of k’hunah; he is the paragon of connecting klal Yisrael to Hashem, connecting the infinite to the finite. In order to impact others, we must first invest in ourselves. This is why Aharon first brought a korban for himself, and only afterwards brought one for all of klal Yisrael. In order to help klal Yisrael connect with Hashem through a korban of connection, he must first ensure that his own personal connection with Hashem is properly established. So, too, before helping klal Yisrael connect with Hashem – a relationship that Chazal refer to as a marriage – Aharon had to first develop his own marriage, his own experience of connection and oneness.
Marriage Is the Paradigm of Expanding Your Sense of Self
Marriage is the ultimate opportunity to give ourselves fully over to another person. This is why the Gemara (Kiddushin 41a) presents marriage as the paradigm for fulfilling V’ahavta l’rei’acha kamocha (one should love his neighbor as he loves himself). Marriage is the first opportunity we have to completely give ourselves over to someone else. Once we love ourselves, we can expand our sense of self to include our spouse, our family, our friends, our community, and then all of klal Yisrael. We can then expand outwards even further to connect with all of humanity, the entire world, and eventually the entire universe. Ultimately, we can root ourselves back to the source of all self, i.e., Hashem. And while Hashem is the root of all existence and is therefore the last step in this process, He is also manifest within everything in this world and is therefore present within every stage. The goal, therefore, is to be aware of Hashem within every relationship we build: within ourselves, our friendships, our marriage, and our connection with all of klal Yisrael.
The Next Step
The Kohen Gadol must first undergo the process of marriage himself, experiencing the transformative effects of an expanded sense of self, before he can then progress to include all of klal Yisrael within this sense of self. Only once he has achieved this is he ready to help klal Yisrael build the ultimate connection and “marriage” with Hashem. The Kohen Gadol now understands the meaning of true connection, oneness, and love in his own personal marriage, and through doing so, he can build a deeper love and connection with all of klal Yisrael, as well. Now, he is able to help klal Yisrael connect with Hashem.
We now come full circle. In Parshas K’doshim, we read the words: “K’doshim tih’yu – You shall be holy.” This is not a call to be transcendent, angelic beings – lofty and perfect, completely beyond the struggle innate to the human condition. This is not permission to deny our humanity and restrict our sense of self. This is a calling to be human, to be the ultimate human, to bring transcendence and spirituality into this world. We don’t aim to escape this world; we aim to transform it. K’dushah is not transcendence or escapism but is found in the meeting between the transcendent and the immanent.
The same is true for our spiritual leaders. We don’t seek leaders who transcend human struggle and temptation, who sit on mountaintops meditating on their navels. Our leaders are individuals who embrace the physical, uplift it, and connect it to the infinite. Each of us is a leader in his own way; each of us has a unique mission in this world.
May we be inspired to build something powerful, sensational, and transformative within ourselves, and then seek to impact the lives of others with our unique talents, helping to build connection and oneness in this world.
Rabbi Shmuel Reichman is the author of the bestselling book, The Journey to Your Ultimate Self, which serves as an inspiring gateway into deeper Jewish thought. He is an international speaker, educator, and the CEO of Self-Mastery Academy. After obtaining his BA from Yeshiva University, he received s’micha from RIETS, a master’s degree in education, a master’s degree in Jewish Thought, and then spent a year studying at Harvard. He is currently pursuing a PhD at UChicago. To invite Rabbi Reichman to speak in your community or to enjoy more of his deep and inspiring content, visit his website: www.ShmuelReichman.com.