I’d like to share an old joke, with a new analysis. Harry Schwartz comes to his rabbi and says, ‘Rabbi. I have a favor to ask. I want to you to make me a Kohen.” And, the Rabbi says to Harry, “Harry, you know I love you. But, I cannot make you a Kohen.”
And, Harry says, “Please rabbi, if you can find it in your heart to make me a Kohen, I will donate $10,000 to the synagogue’s annual campaign.” The Rabbi smiled and said, “Harry. Don’t ask me this. You know that I can’t help you.”
Three weeks later, Harry came back to the rabbi, and he said, “Rabbi, I really want to be a Kohen. And, if you make me a Kohen, I will contribute $50 million to the synagogue’s endowment campaign. And, the rabbi says, “Let me check the sources in the Talmud, Harry, and I’ll get back to you.”
Two months later, the rabbi calls Harry on the phone and he says, “Harry, I think I’ve found a way.” So, Harry comes down to the synagogue. He goes through a special ceremony before the Ark. They sign the papers. Harry writes the check. And, the rabbi says to Harry, “Mazal tov, Harry, from this day forward, you are a Kohen.’
And, Harry says, “Rabbi I can’t thank you enough. You can’t imagine what this means to me. You see, my father was also a Kohen and so was my grandfather.”
I thought about this joke again this week, since the life of the Kohen is at the center of today’s parasha. And, it occurred to me that this story has fresh relevance today. This joke became popular when most of the Jews in America were either immigrants or the children of immigrants. And, the core of the American immigrant experience is that in America you can be anything you want to be. Your pedigree is irrelevant.
So, it makes perfect sense for Harry Schwartz to try to break the Kohen barrier by buying into it with the money he earned. America favors change. It is the enemy of permanence. It gives the advantage to people who want to better themselves.
But, here is the interesting thing. Once Harry makes his fortune, he wants to change the rules. Now that he’s got it, he wants to keep it. He’s not thinking so much of change anymore. He’s thinking of security.
By becoming a Kohen, Harry becomes royalty. The children and grandchildren of the Kohen do not have to earn their Kohen-ness. So, this joke raises the question: “Was our hunger for democracy just because we were the have nots? Will we continue to value a society of constant change of fortune when someone else is the immigrant? Or, does the process of democracy stop with us?
This story reflects a creative tension that exists within every human being. We all have a desire to change. And, we all have an equal desire for permanence. We want both. No person can live without both of these values. And, this tension is reflected in the Jewish understanding of holiness.
Our parasha tells us that the Kohen is the human embodiment of holiness. Maybe this is the reason that the Kohen has to avoid death, because death reminds us of our impermanence. And, that which is sacred doesn’t change.
That’s why so many of us find the synagogue a refuge in a world of constant flux. It’s why we get upset if a beloved melody changes. When we say in righteous indignation, “Is nothing sacred?” we mean that a value that we thought stood the test of time is now in question.
That’s why Harry wants to be a Kohen. The Kohen stands the test of time. People who are kohanim can trace their lineage back thousands of years. Through all the changes in history, this is an anchor.
But, this is not the whole story. According to professor Benjamin Sommer, the Biblical concept of holiness contains an escape clause. The space inside the Mishkan, the Sanctuary was holy. The ground on which the Kohen served was sacred ground. But….it was only holy as long as the Mishkan was resting there. The Mishkan moved from place to place in the desert. And, once the Mishkan moved, the ground on which it was resting wasn’t holy anymore.
And, this was quite deliberate. The Bible understands that too much permanence is a problem. It is the enemy of change. That’s why the Bible says that a god stays in one spot is an idol. God represents our hunger for permanence. But, God cannot be the enemy of change.
Our Tradition wants us to live in that in between space between permanence and change. That can be uncomfortable. We like things resolved. But, resolution is a mistake. Harry makes the mistake of trying to eliminate change from the equation. Others make the mistake of trying to eliminate permanence.
George Steiner is regarded as one of the most significant thinkers of the 20thcentury. And, a book was recently published of conversations between Steiner and the French journalist Laurie Adler. In this book, Steiner speaks about why he is an anti-Zionist. Steiner is not a self-hating Jew. He believes, in his words, that Israel “was the miracle necessary for the survival of a portion of the Jewish people.” He loves Israel. It’s just not his first choice. And, here is why.
I’m quoting Steiner now: “For several thousand years…Jews did not have the wherewithal to mistreat….anyone…in the world. For me, it was the single greatest aristocracy that ever existed. When I’m introduced to an English duke, I say to myself, ‘the highest nobility is to have belonged to a people that has never humiliated another people….But, today, Israel must necessarily kill…in order to survive; Israel must behave like the rest of so-called normal humanity….Well, I’m…an ethical snob; by becoming a people like others, the Israelis have forfeited the nobility I had attributed to them.”
And, Steiner continues: “I can only explain what I perceive to be the Jew’s mission: to be the guest of humanity….what must a guest do? He must live among people, wherever they may be. And a good guest….leaves the place where he has been a little bit more beautiful…than he found it. And, if he must leave, he packs his bags and leaves…..The world is incredibly rich. If people don’t learn to be guests of each other, we will have religious wars, terrible racial wars…I believe the task of the Jew is to learn to be the guest of other men and women.”
We could spend a whole hour discussing this passage. I just want to say a few words about why I believe Steiner is wrong. Steiner believes that the only way to avoid xenophobia is to not have your own country. He sees only two possibilities—landless wanderers or a permanent aristocracy that doesn’t let anyone else rise.
But, there is another alternative. It is the Biblical ideal, and it’s one that Israel and America share, and that is to see yourself as a nation of immigrants. This is what God means when God says to our people after we have inherited the land, ‘ki gerim v’toshavim atem imadi’—-you will always be immigrants to me. To be a Jew, as the Bible understands it, is not to be a guest in someone else’s country. It’s to see yourself as a guest in your own country. And, I believe this is what it also means to be an American.
Condeleeza Rice was interviewed on NPR this week. She recalls being sworn in by Ruth Bader Ginzberg in the Ben Franklin room. This was a beautiful moment of American continuity and discontinuity all wrapped into one: Franklin representing the continuity with 1776, and a black woman and a Jewish woman representing just how much our nation has changed since then.
When Moses first caught sight of the burning bush, God said to him, take your shoes off, ki ha’makom asher ata omeid alav admat kodesh hu…..the ground you stand on is sacred. The word omed in Hebrew means to stand. But, it also means to ‘reflect” This is the Biblical ideal. The things in life that make us most secure need the most reflection.
Our relationships, our institutions, our country—these are the things in life that give us a sense of permanence. It’s just for this reason that they require ‘amidah’. They need us to constantly reflect on them and infuse them with new meaning, so that our growth and the growth of others is as important to us as our security.
The true test of our ethics is not when we are guests, but when we are hosts. This is what it means to be permanent guests in our own country. And, this is why we laugh at Harry for convincing the rabbi to make him a Kohen.