According to Jewish Law, if a kohain (a descendent of the family of Aaron, the first High Priest of Israel) is present at a Torah Reading, he is entitled to the first aliyah (the honor of being called to the first portion being read). The Mishnah explains that the rational for this practice is to preserve the peace. Why would preferential treatment for a member of the priestly caste help preserve the peace?
The Talmud answers first by pointing out that Moses initially gave the Torah to the kohanim (Deut. 31:9), so inviting a kohain to be first preserves this original order as we reenact the drama of receiving the Torah when we read it today. A second answer points out that it is the kohanim who are called upon to first approach the victim of an unsolved murder (Deut. 21:5). If the kohain attempts to restore peace by stepping up first to address the epitome of a lack of peace in a community, unsolved murder, then it would seem fitting to be first to the Torah, the laws and teachings of which are called the “ways of peace.” Yet another answer is offered, based upon a verse from this week’s Torah portion, “You shall sanctify him [the kohain.]” (Lev. 21:8).
Drawing attention to the biblical admonition to regard the kohain as (literally!) holier than thou, would seem to be the opposite of preserving the peace. We can make sense of this by remembering that it is the office not the person which triggers the special status. Going first is not an honor which has been earned but a privilege which reflects the honor we accord the official who represented our faith and served God as our representative in the Holy Temple. The Talmud offers the additional insight that whereas extending deserved honors in a more intimate setting works just fine; in a public gathering, such as a synagogue service, there will be discord since inevitably people will disagree over who truly merits the honor. Someone has to be first. As long as it’s not about being most worthy there can be no implication some are more worthy than others. Peace is preserved.
Rabbi Mitch Levine