Parshat Emor

Separation of Tomorrow.

Separation. Distance. Sanctification via differentiation. Purity and impurity. These are common themes in Judaism. While most nations are proselytic, Judaism prides itself on its uniqueness. In the past, Jewish communities kept aloof and apart from society, watching over the borders that separated them from their host nations.

This idea of separation is especially prevalent in the parshiot Kedoshim and Emor. G-d first speaks of his adoption of the Jewish people, and their consequential differentiation from all other nationalities (Kedoshim 20:24). Instructions are then given to separate the pure and impure among the animals. Only the pure may be eaten by G-d’s chosen nation (Kedoshim 20:25).

The idea continues in Emor, where yet another separation is made- between kohanim and the rest of Am Yisrael. The commandment given is, like the commandment in Kedoshim, based on issues of purity; the kohanim may not become impure via contact with death (Emor 21:1).

On the surface, the commandment merely continues the theme of purity and separation that encompasses much of Sefer Vayikra. At a closer glance, however, one must ask the question…why? Why are the kohanim separated in this manner? Why must only they distance themselves from impurity of this nature? And why, of all possible impurities, does G-d order separation from death, a natural, innocent part of the life cycle?

One must also wonder at the purpose of keeping this halacha today. Devoid of a Beit HaMikdash, kohanim no longer take shifts in the service of G-d. Even if we understood this halacha in terms of the past- what place does it have in modern society? Coming from a family of kohanim, I see firsthand the lengths to which my father, brothers, and cousins go to avoid tum’at meit. I’ve seen them frustrated at not being able to attend funerals or visit the grave sites of loved ones. I’ve spoken with cousins who love medicine, but may not be able to pursue it due to their lineage. Why, then, do we hold fast to this inexplicable commandment, when we have lost so many others?

Here are many commandments instituted to maintain difference, imposed on the nation as a whole; many of these I understand. Likewise, there are many kinds of impurity that are sensible to distance oneself from. Yet…death? Death is not shrouded in secrecy or sin. Death is not accompanied by guilt, filth, or impropriety of any kind. Death is not fodder for gossip. It is not a source of shame. Death is simply the natural step that follows life.

Perhaps the answer to all of these questions lies in the remaining responsibility of the kohanim. The contemporary kohen does not walk across the stone floors of the Mikdash clothed in white, serving G-d according to ancient tradition. He does not assist his brethren in atonement, their sacrifice the conduit of their teshuva. He does not eat terumah, does not reside in a state of constant purity.

But he does bless the people. Daily in Israel, several times annually outside it. I grew up hearing my father reciting the bracha in a haunting tune, hands outstretched beneath his tallit. In this, he is G-d’s accomplice. For several moments, he seems almost immortal. He and the other kohanim bestowing a blessing upon us, standing before the aaron kodesh, are G-d’s conduits for the deliverance of his love and protection to the people. They are saint-like, draped in white. As a child, I thought they became angels for the short period in which they blessed us. And perhaps I wasn’t that far off.

Death has no place in this environment. Death is the very basis of mortality, and this deep connection to G-d is anything but. To be G-d’s vessel is to catch a glimpse of something beyond the realm of humanity.

Additionally, ruminating over the bracha, I see a blessing full of life and continuity. “Yivarechecha”- G-d should bless you; “v’yishmirecha”- and watch over you and the blessings he has bestowed on you. Such a pronunciation indicates the expectation of a tomorrow, a future. Death is an end. A lack of a tomorrow. Devoid of a future. As such, death is at odds with both kohanim and the bracha they give over to the people. Therefore, as often as possible, kohanim must avoid interaction with this contradiction of their holy work.
To the best of their ability, they must live in a reality of life; of blessing; of tomorrow.

Student Studying in Migdal Oz