“Death and the Kohanim–the Children of Aaron”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

In this coming week’s parasha, parashat Emor, the parasha begins with the laws of the sanctity of the Kohanim, the priests, those male descendants of Aaron, brother of Moses.

Leviticus 21:1 reads: “Va’yomer Hashem el Moshe: Emor el ha’Cohanim b’nei Aharon, v’ah’mar’tah ah’lay’hem: L’nefesh lo yee’tah’mah b’ah’mav.” G-d spoke to Moses: Speak onto the priests, the Kohanim, the sons of Aaron and say onto them: “None of you shall defile himself to a dead person among his people.” The Torah continues to explain that, despite this prohibition, a Kohain may contaminate himself to attend the funeral and burial for one of the Kohain’s seven closest relatives–mother, father, son, daughter, brother, virgin sister and wife.

In Leviticus 21:6, the Torah explains the reason for these severe restrictions: “Kedoshim yeeh’yoo lay’loh’kay’hem, v’lo y’chal’l’loo shaim Eh’lo’kay’hem.” They [the priests] shall be holy to their G-d, and they shall not desecrate the name of their G-d. This verse explains that because priests are involved in the holy preparations of the temple, they must remain holy, and not defile themselves.

As I have said many times, I believe that the bottom line of all of Judaism is the sanctity of human life, and that every single mitzvah of the Torah can be traced back to that principle. Since life is the great sanctifier, death is the great defiler. Death is the great defiler because it often renders those who survive inured to human life, especially when they come in contact with death on a constant basis. Through the constancy of death, the human being becomes indifferent to human life. That is why the menstruant woman, who experiences the death of the ovum in her body, must reaffirm life by going to the primordial source of water, the Mikvah, to purify herself.

Let us try to understand the source of the special sanctity of the priests. The Kohanim–the priests, represent a utopian fantasy, a world in which there is no death, no divorce, no mentally or physically challenged people, where there is no pain. Consequently, the priest is not to be involved with death, because death does not apply to his world.

Of course, in reality death does mar the priest’s world. Consequently, for his seven closest relatives the priest may attend the funeral and the burial. A high priest, on the other hand, because of his exalted sanctity, is not even permitted to attend the funeral of his seven closest relatives. However, if there is a Jew suffering from a terminal illness who has no one else to care for him or attend to his burial, the High Priest, even in the week before Yom Kippur, must defile himself and care for this forsaken person. The High Priest must do this even if it means that as a result, he may be unable to perform the Yom Kippur service on the holiest day of the year.

There is, however, perhaps another reason why priests are not permitted to be involved with death and burial. The priests of course, are the equivalent to the contemporary clergymen. According to a view expressed by Rabbi Saul Berman, the priests, who act as clergy, are not permitted to be involved with death, so that they would not be in a position to exploit the vulnerability of their flock at the time of death. The priest is permitted to counsel, console, and advise, but is forbidden from attending the funeral or the burial of the deceased. Of course, these vulnerable moments are often a time that people turn to spirituality. Priests and/or religious leaders should not exploit this vulnerability to advance their own personal causes, no matter how noble, by seeking donations, contributions or memorial buildings, but should rather distance themselves from the survivors.

Perhaps, by distancing the clergy, the Torah is also saying that one need not be a member of the clergy in order to be sensitive and to care for the mourners. Perhaps this is the Torah’s way of encouraging lay people to be there for the terminally ill. In that sense, all the Jewish people become clergy people. No one is free from the obligation to comfort, encourage and attend to the needs of the mourner or the family of one who is terminally ill. It is at that vulnerable time of need that every Jew is expected to act like a rabbi or clergy person.

What a sensitive and fascinating idea!

May you be blessed.