(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
At the beginning of this week’s Torah portion, Emor, we read about the special limitations placed on the kohanim (priests): They are forbidden from approaching the body of a dead person, a closeness defined by the Torah as “tum’a,” impurity. This prohibition is true for any dead person other than a limited list of seven relatives: father, mother, brother, sister, wife, son and daughter, for whom kohanim can become impure. Another person’s dead body to whom kohanim can get close is a corpse with no one seeing to his burial.
In this case, defined in Halacha (Jewish law) as “met mitzva,” the kohanim must take care of the abandoned body and bury it.
The reason for the prohibition of impurity from the dead is written in the Torah, but it demands analysis: “They shall be holy to their God, and they shall not desecrate their God’s Name, for they offer up the fire offerings of the Lord, the food offering of their God, so they shall be holy.” (Leviticus 21:6) Meaning, since the kohanim are those who work in the Temple, they must be holy. This holiness does not allow them to become impure from a corpse. Or in other words: Death contradicts holiness, and therefore they must distance themselves from it as much as they can.
Incidentally, this prohibition exists until today despite the Temple having been destroyed for almost two thousand years. The holiness of the kohanim has to be preserved so that we never forget their original purpose; a purpose that we anticipate will be fulfilled again – working in the Temple. And indeed, kohanim are careful not to get close to dead bodies or even enter a building that has a corpse in it. This makes it difficult for them to enter a hospital where there are usually corpses awaiting burial. In modern hospitals built after consulting with halachic authorities, a solution was that the morgue was built specially and not connected to the other hospital buildings. In rare cases, the kohanim are warned not to enter the hospital altogether.
But why does death contradict holiness? One of the important Jewish philosophers of the 19th century was Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch. Rabbi Hirsch lived in Germany and stood for the integration of Torah with “derech eretz,” literally – the way of the land; Torah education and deep religious experience alongside general education. In his commentary on the Torah, he emphasizes this point and infers from it one of the discerning observations at the root of Judaism.
There is a point of view, he says, that holds that God’s sovereignty can exist only when the person is erased. In a place where there is death, pity and helplessness, religion can exist. Religion offers consolation and serenity where man discovers his insignificance and powerlessness.
Man’s bad hours, says this viewpoint, are the good hours for God.
Judaism vehemently disagrees with this viewpoint.
God is “the God of life” and we refer to Him as “the King Who desires life.” God’s sovereignty does not grow only during man’s difficult hours, but also during his positive ones. When man is alive and kicking, when man is active and constructive, and even when man is mistaken, human activity is God’s glory.
When God created man, he placed him in the Garden of Eden. There, man could rest and enjoy all the good the garden had to offer. But he was also commanded to work and preserve the garden. The creative, vibrant and enjoyable life is the embodiment of God’s will in the world.
For this reason, kohanim must distance themselves from death. Holiness has no connection with death. The kohen who stands near a corpse could create the impression that here, near the still body, is where religion takes place. But there can be no greater mistake.
Religion contracts near death; holiness retreats from nothingness.
And despite this important principle, in “met mitzva,” the kohanim must take care of the abandoned corpse and desecrate their holiness. Why? Rabbi Hirsch says: To teach us that the Torah’s ultimate purpose is to educate a person to be a person.The writer is rabbi of the Western Wall and holy sites.