So, You Want to be a Kohen

Many are acquainted with the well-known rabbinic joke in which a man approaches a rabbi and asks the rabbi to turn him into a Kohen (a Jewish priest). The rabbi explains there is no such spiritual procedure. After the man tries to convince, offer donations, and even beg to become a Kohen, the rabbi asks quizzically, “Why do you want to be a Kohen so badly?” The punchline is, the man answers with pride, “Well, my father was a Kohen, my grandfather was a Kohen, and I’d like to be a Kohen too.”

At the core of this humorous story is the truism that sometimes people want to achieve more sanctity and spirituality in their lives. Although there is an explicit verse in the Torah that prohibits adding or subtracting mitzvoth from the Torah, in our Parsha this week we learn about a structured pathway to piety, an actual ascent to spiritual heights.

In Parshat Naso (Chapter 6), the Torah introduces the concept of becoming a Nazarite:

דַּבֵּר֙ אֶל־בְּנֵ֣י יִשְׂרָאֵ֔ל וְאָמַרְתָּ֖ אֲלֵהֶ֑ם אִ֣ישׁ אֽוֹ־אִשָּׁ֗ה כִּ֤י יַפְלִא֙ לִנְדֹּר֙ נֶ֣דֶר נָזִ֔יר לְהַזִּ֖יר לַֽיוָֽה׃

Speak to the Israelites and say to them: If any man or woman explicitly utter a Nazirite’s vow, to set themselves apart for G-d

The verses go on to explain that when a man or woman becomes a Nazarite three prohibitions apply: no wine, no haircutting, and no contact or proximity with the dead.

The questions to consider are, “Why would anyone ever want to become a Nazirite? There is no obligation whatsoever to become a Nazirite, so why engage in this pursuit of holiness?”

The answer seems to be as is written above, namely, that there are times in life when one strives to reach higher and climb the ladder of spirituality. The mitzvah of becoming a Nazir fills that role.

In our generation it is quite uncommon for even the most religious people to take upon themselves the mitzvah of being a Nazirite. When one wants to engage spiritually, the traditional methods would be to increase prayer, study, and acts of kindness. If you, or someone you know longs for increased spirituality, seek counsel from your rabbi or email me at Shabbat is an excellent time to pursue spiritual growth. Shabbat Shalom.

Rabbi Ephraim Epstein

Community Scholar in Residence