Parashat Emor begins with a series of laws relevant to kohanim, in the context of which the Torah commands, “You shall make him [the kohen] sacred, for he offers the food of his God; he shall be sacred for you, for I, the Lord your God, am sacred” (21:8).
Torat Kohanim interprets the first command in this verse – “ve-kidashto” (“you shall make him sacred”) – as requiring the nation’s leadership to enforce the kohanim’s compliance with the special laws that apply to them. As the kohanim offer the sacrifices in the Beit Ha-mikdash on behalf of the nation, the nation must see to it that they maintain their required standards of sanctity. As for the second command – “kadosh yiheyeh lakh” (“he shall be sacred for you”) – Torat Kohanim explains that this additional clause serves to expand this verse’s command to include ba’alei mum – kohanim with a physical blemish. Even though such kohanim do not tend to the sacrifices, they must nevertheless comply with the special laws of the priesthood.
A more famous explanation of “ve-kidashto” is given by the Gemara in Masekhet Gittin (59b), which explains this command as requiring the rest of the nation to show the kohanim honor. Specifically, other members are to give the kohanim the honor of receiving the first aliya to the Torah in the synagogue, as well as other special privileges.
The second command in this verse is explained by the Talmud Yerushalmi (Horiyot 3:1) to mean that a kohen gadol who commits a transgression nevertheless retains his special status of sanctity. Although he must be punished for his violation, nevertheless, “kadosh yiheyeh lakh” – he nevertheless continues serving as kohen gadol, and does not forfeit his position as a result of his mistake.
The Chozeh of Lublin (in Zikaron Zot) suggested explaining this verse as expressing the need for a certain degree of distance between the kohanim and the rest of the nation. Noting that Chazal associate the term “kedusha” with separation and withdrawal (see Rashi to Vayikra 19:2), the Chozeh proposed that the command of “ve-kidashto” requires somewhat “withdrawing” from the kohen, the religious leader. As the Torah explains, “for he offers the food of God” – righteous leaders need to devote time and attention to their service of God, and so the people must refrain from overburdening them. And lest the people fear that moderation in their direct engagement with the kohen undermines their ability to achieve sanctity, the Torah assures them, “kadosh yiheyeh lakh” – which the Chozeh creatively interprets to mean, “you shall attain sanctity.” The true source of kedusha is God, not any human being, and so the people should not fear maintaining an appropriate degree of distance from the kohanim.
Significantly, the Chozeh found within the verses that speak of the special role of the kohanim an indication of the Torah warning against overestimating this role. As important as religious leadership is, ultimately, our achievements depend on our own work and effort. Certainly, we must seek the guidance, instruction and inspiration of great religious figures. At the same time, however, we must remember that our success depends on us, and not on anybody else. We are to assume full responsibility for what we do and how we live, and never make our behavior dependent on any other human being, even those to whom we rightfully look for guidance and motivation.