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