Jewish Journal

Appearance and Reality

Parashat Emor (Leviticus 21:1-24:23)

by Rabbi Elazar Muskin

Posted on May. 10, 2001 at 8:00 pm

In April 1999, the Wall Street Journal ran a front-page article about growing etrogim, the citron fruit used during Sukkot, in Northern California. The paper reported that in 1980 an entrepreneurial Orthodox teenager from Brooklyn decided to develop a domestic source of etrogim, rather than depend exclusively on supplies from Israel, Italy and Morocco. This teenager contacted a citrus farmer in California, John Kirkpatrick, and convinced him to grow a fruit that looks like a lemon but is 200 times more valuable.

Over the years they seem to have mastered the art. Kirkpatrick and his farm worker, Jesús Serrano, have become very attached to their etrogim; so much so that one year Jesús nurtured a perfect unblemished etrog that he took great pride in. In recognition of this, Kirkpatrick decided to write Jesús' name on the inside of the etrog box. That gesture, however, caused some trouble when the box was sold to an owner of a Judaica shop in New York. When he opened the box, not only did he find a beautiful etrog, but staring at him from the inside flap, the name "Jesus." The confused storeowner soon learned that the name in the box was that of a Latino farm worker, not the other Jesus. Despite its container, the etrog was perfectly kosher.

The confusion that often exists between appearance and reality is implied in the very first law taught in this week's Torah portion. The Torah insists that the kohanim, the priests who served in the Holy Temple, must be holy men because they serve God and the community. "They shall be holy to their God and they shall not profane the Name of their God, for it is the fire-offerings of God, the bread of their God that they offer, and they must therefore be holy" (Leviticus 21:6).

The great 19th-century Lithuanian commentator, the Netziv, Rabbi Naftali Zvi Yehuda Berlin, wonders whether the kohanim's holiness was conditional or nonconditional. Are the kohanim holy by the mere fact that this is their natural state, or must they do something to attain holiness? Does just being born a kohen make a person holy?

The Netziv believes that no kohen is born holy. Instead, he becomes holy if his behavior demonstrates it. The kohen must not regard himself as holy; he must regard himself as obligated to be holy.

The Netziv proves his contention by quoting the haftarah read from the Book of Ezekiel in conjunction with our Torah portion. The prophet maintains that after "the priests return from the sacrificial service ... they must take off the clothes they wear during the sacrificial service and put on other clothes, and they will not imply holiness to the people by their clothes" (Ezekiel 44:19).

The Netziv explains that the kohanim had to change to everyday clothing when they left the sanctuary and went out in public because they were not to impute holiness to themselves by wearing special garments. The prophet warns that if they attempt to look holy, rather than being truly holy, they desecrate rather than honor God.

This message still applies today. In an address delivered on the state of religion in America, one speaker recently remarked that in order to be spiritual role models for fellow Jews, rabbis cannot rely on clerical garb but, instead, must incorporate "a sense of kedusha, holiness into their own lives."

Basically, there remains a difference between appearance and reality. Clothes don't make the man; clerical garb doesn't make a spiritual leader; the container doesn't affect the etrog.

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