Letter and Spirit

For the week ending 1 May 2021 / 19 Iyar 5781

Priests of Life

by Rabbi Yosef Hershman
Library Library Library

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 G-d begins only where man ends. Death and dying are the main manifestations of divinity in that view. The deity is a god of death, a god who kills and never revives, who sends death and its harbingers — illness and poverty — so that man, mindful of his power and his own helplessness, should fear him. For this reason, heathen temples stood beside graves, and the foremost place of heathen priests is beside a corpse. There, where the eyes are dimmed and the heart is broken, they find fertile soil for the dissemination of religion. He who bears on his flesh a mark of death — a symbol of death’s power to conquer all — remains mindful of death, and performs the religious act par excellence.

But the kohen, the Jewish priest, is instructed to stay away from death. G-d is exalted not in the crushing power of death, but in the vibrant power of life, which has the power to elevate man, through his free choice, to eternal life. Judaism teaches how to live, so that in life we may overcome death — the enslavement to physical forces, to moral weakness. Judaism teaches how to live every moment of earthly life as a moment of eternal life, and how to live each moment marked by moral freedom, a life of thought and will, of creativity and achievement, and also pleasure.

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 G-dly existence, which is not subjugated to the bodily forces that suppress all moral freedom.

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

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