Parshat Emor: Shvitzing something epic - the priests at the gate

This week''s parsha opens with the injunction to the Kohanim/priests, “Let none defile himself for a dead person among his people.” Contact with the dead renders the priests impure and unable to serve in the Temple. Although we have no Temple service today, the tradition remains of Kohanim separating themselves from death. And its quite remarkable that this tradition has endured so.
I think of my father, Gary Kaplan (the name Kaplan being one of the most well-known of priestly names, connected to the German word ''chaplain'' or priest.) My father is highly Jewishly involved. He stands as the best of cultural Judaism, passionate about and supporting synagogues, JCCs and Jewish life. And yet when it comes to the actual observance of Jewish law...well, its simply not where he connects. Except, that is, when it comes to this tradition of the Kohain distancing himself from death. Though otherwise unobservant, he “religiously” stands outside the cemetary gate at every funeral. And its not just him. How many times have I seen him and the other kohanim in the community congregate together at the cemetary entrance, quietly conversing with eachother while everyone else enters. Remarkably this is one of the few vestiges of observance that many of these men maintain.
Why has this law so endured? While there is no clear-cut answer to such a query, I do see an interesting parallel. Just as the priest is separated out from the rest of the people, and just as the priest separates himself from death, this very act of observance has been separated out, upheld and kept even while the larger body of Jewish law may not be. It is as if these kohanim at the gate stand as human symbols of something much larger. Their stance of removal is an embodiment of the necessity of making separations. Indeed, the Hebrew word for holy, kadosh, means that which is set aside, dedicated, separated. The High Priest himself wore a silver plate on his forehead that read, “Kodesh l''Hashem”, holy/separated for God. Even in the face of rising tides of assimilation, this ancient tradition of the kohanim separating themselves holds firm.
Outside the Gate
I remember from my youth
Erwin Cohen
in his charcoal mourning suit
Shvitzing something epic
on the melting asphalt
of Rozelle Street
There in the far reaches of South Memphis
where the cemetary chapel
sat doleful
as a rector
reciting Psalms
in a foreign tongue
that no one understood
and no one hummed along
And yet knee-deep in the symbolic soot
of Rozelle Street
Erwin Cohen stood
- outside the gates -
and greeted each approaching face
with moist eyes
and buried smile
And somehow amidst all that anguish
of August scorch and human loss
he made eye-contact
with each individual
in each advancing car
Greeted us all
muted and gracious
with this single tenacious
enactment of a priestly rite
A rite that refused to be left
behind and lost
in the wash of assimilation
there in the marsh
of an increasingly uninterested
generation of Southern Jews
And yet Erwin stood
pious and plaintive
solid as a statue
of a statute
that refused to be
despite time and distance
set adrift, unaffiliated
endangered with disinterest
A human-symbol
of separation
between sacred and profane
between life and lifelessness
between cohort and cohain
A meager reminder
of something meaningful
buried deep in the dirt of
nearly lost
to us all
An inheritance
brought to life
at the brink of death
where the priestly caste
stands intact
in Erwin Cohen''s wilted stance
of black-suit sack-cloth
and sweat
In spite of the numbing haze
of tradition lost
but for DNA
the priests of our people
shvitz something epic
outside the gate
a human symbol
of an obstinant
and enduring faith