Parashat Emor begins with several laws relevant to the kohanim, including the restrictions on whom they may marry. An ordinary kohen is forbidden to marry a divorcee or a woman who had engaged in a forbidden relationship (21:7), whereas the kohen gadol may not marry even a widow; he is permitted to marry only a virgin woman (21:13-14).
The Tosafists (in Moshav Zekeinim) cite a startling explanation for why a kohen gadol, unlike other kohanim, is forbidden from marrying a widow. They write that if this were permissible, then the kohen gadol might desire a married woman and then wish for her husband to die as he recites the divine Name during the Yom Kippur service, so he can marry her. By forbidding the kohen gadol from marrying a widow, the Torah ensures that he would not seek to use his “influence” as the people’s emissary before God to have a man killed so his wife would become eligible for marriage.
This comment is striking on several levels, revealing how even the kohanim gedolim serving in the inner sanctum of the Temple on Yom Kippur were not immune to sinful thoughts and nefarious schemes. But the main concept underlying the Tosafists’ theory, it would seem, is that the kohen gadol needed to stand before God and petition on the people’s behalf with nothing other than their best interests in mind. The Torah did not want the kohen gadol to be in a position of feeling any sort of envy or seeing himself in competition with any member of Am Yisrael. His role was to plead to God to bless each and every member of the nation, and thus it was critical for him not to have any reason to wish harm upon anyone. This might also be the reason for the law requiring the kohanim to ensure that the kohen gadol was wealthy (“gadleihu mi-shel echav”), as Chazal in Torat Kohanim infer from a verse earlier in Parashat Emor (21:10). The kohen gadol needed to be financially secure so he would not need to compete with any other members of the nation, and could thus stand before the Almighty and sincerely and wholeheartedly pray for the wellbeing of each and every one of them, without any exceptions.
The kohen gadol represented the model of extreme piety that is to be followed in more moderate fashion by the rest of the nation. While it might be unrealistic to reach the standard expected of the kohen gadol, who was to wholeheartedly wish for the success and wellbeing of each and every member of Am Yisrael without exception, we are nevertheless required to strive towards this ideal, to the best of our ability. The reality of the world is such that we compete with one another for all our needs, whether it’s for job, a seat, a parking spot or a marriage partner, and this competition can, at times, lead to a degree of friction and to all-out conflicts. The model of the kohen gadol teaches us that we must try, even as we compete with one another as necessary, to sincerely wish for the wellbeing of all our fellow Jews. We must firmly believe that God is fully capable of providing each and every one of us with everything we need to attain true happiness, such that there is no reason for normal competition to cause resentment and friction. This lofty standard of the kohen gadol is accessible, on one level or another, to each and every one of us, and is something which we should all strive to achieve.