If your last name is Cohen or Katz, chances are you are a decedent of Aaron, brother of Moses. Twenty years ago, Dr. Karl Skorecki, a nephrologist and researcher in molecular genetics at University of Toronto, conducted a study using a genetic marker to see if people who claimed to be Kohanim(Cohen; decedent of Aaron) are descended from the same person. His results became public and quoted in science journals at the time. About 98 percent of the subjects-people from Ashkenazic and Sephardic backgrounds-were genetically proven to have been descended from the same person. This priestly tribe has taken pride in its lineage; they alone were permitted to conduct the service in the ancient Temple in Jerusalem. As such, they have certain restrictions placed on them in order to retain and maintain a certain level of purity. One of these restrictions is that they are not permitted to come in contact with a dead body, unless it is immediate family. The Parsha begins with this decree, but it’s done in a peculiar way.
And G-d said to Moses, Say to the Kohanim [priests], the sons of Aaron, and say to them: no one may contaminate himself to a dead person…(21:1)
Moses was told, “say to the Kohanim” and then “say to them.” Why the redundancy (why the second “say”)? The Talmud comments that although elder Kohanim (Cohens) are forbidden to contaminate themselves with a dead body, it doesn’t stop there; they must also ensure that the younger Kohanim do not defile themselves. The same way parents instruct their children to stay away from harmful things, so too the Kohanim are told to instruct their children to stay away from corpses and anything that might contaminate them.
If we asked parents, ‘who educates your child,’ they would most likely answer that they as well as the children’s teachers educate their children. But there is another, often overlooked, educator. Every child is influenced by two major factors, (1) adults (parents and teachers), and (2) the “street,” the outside environment-friends, acquaintances, peers, social media and the media in general. Sensible parents raise their children in a community that is in sync with their value system. Whatever values they instill at home will be consistent to what they hear in school. In addition, parents will be careful to monitor their child’s friends. If a friend is violent, speaks with chutzpah, steals, or shows signs of other significant character defects, the parents will not allow that friendship to continue. Such parents will not have to say the same things over and over again, because the outside environment will support their value system and code of conduct.
We don’t live in a vacuum. The most valiant and well-intended efforts to give our children a good education- one that consists of studying science, math, language, and literature, should also realize that acquiring fine character traits and a refined personality, as well as pride and a commitment to being Jewish and supporting Israel, can be completely undermined if the child is not surrounded by peers who share the same viewpoint. You might assume that because your son or daughter has attended your Passover Seder since childhood, that it’s a no-brainer that it will always be the case. But what happens if (s)he goes to a school where most the students go out and party on the night of the Seder because they don’t have the same Jewish values as your child does? Another example, one we’ve seen too often, is when a child who was reared in a home committed to Israel comes home after a semester or two in college, and calls Israel an apartheid state run by racists, who stole land from an indigenous population and cast them off to be refugees forever. We teach our children the importance of so many things dear to us, values that our own education and life experience has shown us are real and genuine. Therefore, we should be careful to send them to places and institutions where those values are highly regarded.
This is not to say that one who grows up in a flawed environment is sure to veer from the path set forth in his or her home, nor does it mean that one in a good school and social environment is guaranteed that to follow in the right path. There are no assurances, but the odds are obviously more in your favor if your child’s friends and environment support your own value system than one foreign to it. One would be naïve to ignore this.
Thousands of years ago, when the Temple stood in Jerusalem, it must have been a challenge to raise a young Kohen to be careful with regard to bodily purity; it was a daily concern. The laws regulating it are complex and at home, the young Kohen would be taught to exercise caution when getting close to a cemetery or even touching foods or other behaviors that are permitted for all other (non-Kohen) Jews. The challenge was their non-Kohen friends and the other kids they met at the playground, who had no regard for these laws because they weren’t applicable to them. Imagine how difficult it must have been to train the Kohen children not to contaminate themselves, “But Dad, all the other kids don’t have to worry about this stuff, why do I have to?” The adult Kohanim had no choice but to stress over and over again to their children not to become impure, because they couldn’t rely on any help from the outside environment. And this is why the caution regarding the contamination of the Kohanim’s children was stated as “say and say to them.”
If parents want to raise children to be concerned committed Jews to their community and Israel, they need to place them in the right environment. Jewish youth groups, Jewish summer camps, and Jewish education (i.e. after Bar/Bat Mitzvah) are important steps to take, but what if one isn’t in the ideal situation? How do you do to counteract the natural tendency of a child to be influenced by his or her peers? You warn them again and again and again – until you’re absolutely sure they understand your message loud-and- clear. If there are kids in 6th grade smoking cigarettes, parents need to give a clear message and state it over and over. “Megan, don’t ever let me ever catch you with a cigarette; there will be consequences if you do.” “In this house, we don’t smoke; smoking is dangerous.” Whatever your message is, it needs to be stated time and time again and that is why, specifically with regard to the Kohanim, the Torah uses repetitiousness in order to teach its warning regarding the youth. When going against the tide, you have to regularly review the message. When the tide is high, you need to give them something to hold on to.
(Source: Rashi, Vayikra 21:1; Oznayim l’Torah)
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