Priests of Life
The first duty of the kohanim is to avoid the impurity of death. While the rest of the tribes are commanded to occupy themselves with the burial of the dead — indeed it is considered the one “kindness of truth” — the kohanim alone are obligated to stand back. They may not come in contact with a corpse, nor may they remain under the same roof with one. Other prohibitions repeated specifically in connection with the kohanim, but also applicable to the rest of the nation, include making bald spots and cuts in one’s flesh, also pertaining to the signs one might make upon oneself to mourn the loss of a loved one.
Heathenism, both ancient and modern, tends to associate religion with death. The kingdom of
But the kohen, the Jewish priest, is instructed to stay away from death.
When death calls upon other members of the community to perform acts of loving-kindness by tending to the physical shell of the soul, the kohen must stand back and keep away. In doing so, the kohen raises the banner of life beside the corpse. He awakens within the people’s consciousness the idea of life and reminds them of moral freedom, of man’s
Only when the duty of life requires even the kohen to fulfill his final responsibility as a husband, son, father or brother, or when an unattended corpse requires the kohen to take the place of the father or brother of the deceased — only then is his priestly responsibility superseded by his familial responsibility. In such cases, he is not only permitted, but indeed obligated to attend to the burial of the dead.
- Sources: Commentary, Vayikra 21:1-5