May 8, 2020
Here we are, finishing up the eighth week of our self-quarantine to protect both ourselves and so many around us. I know it has been challenging for many of us, especially for those who are physically alone. The outpouring of compassion and love that I have seen all of us share with one another has been a beautiful testament to the sacredness of the Temple Shalom community. Nevertheless, one of the most challenging aspects of this Coronavirus Pandemic has been dealing with the deaths of our loved ones and friends. Aside from the tragic losses of lives, current protocols have prevented loved ones from physically connecting with their dying family members, burials are restricted by both attendance and normal ritual participation, and even the act of gathering the community to comfort the mourners is lacking the personal touch.
This week, in Parashat Emor (Leviticus 21:1-24:23), we learn the rules that govern the sanctity of the priesthood, how to observe and practice holy days and festivals, and how to deal with the blasphemers in our midst. In the beginning of the portion, we read: “God said to Moses: “Say to the Kohanim, the sons of Aaron, and say to them: ‘To a [dead] body, he may not become impure among his people, except to a close relative …'” (21:1ff) The law is fairly clear, but the exception to the law reveals that contact with the dead was not inherently prohibited, after all, contact with a dead body and for the sake of the immediate relatives is explicitly permitted. So why does the Torah go out of its way to prohibit Kohanim from such contact for non-relatives?
Traditionally, to ensure that the Kohanim remained in a state of ritual purity so they could do their jobs, the law of this text eliminated the role of funerals for the priesthood. It can also be assumed that since worship of the dead was a widespread phenomenon in the ancient Near East, as it was elsewhere; and priests, as officiants in religious cults, usually had a prominent funerary role – as was not the case in the monotheistic religion of ancient Israel. In other words, while many religions did, and still do, make death central to their religious belief and direct its clergy accordingly, the Jewish tradition, following the lead of the Torah, does not. A too intimate connection between religious leadership and death distorts the higher aims of Torah.
Death, of course, can motivate people to appreciate life. And we, too, preserve a number of religious teachings which make this point. But human beings are susceptible to defining religious leadership by death. Indeed, there are many individuals whose prime contact with rabbis is when death occurs. Many unaffiliated Jews, year after year, contribute nothing to supporting the living Jewish community, the synagogue and its ideals; yet when death occurs, they scramble to find a rabbi. Even a good number of affiliated Jews primarily connect with the rabbi and synagogue for funerals, and for Yizkor and Yahrzeit, to say kaddish.
The disassociation of death and clergy in ancient Israel must have given Kohanim a fuller role as promoters of a living Jewish life – worship of God, sanctity of life, teaching of ritual and ethical practices, and an emphasis on life itself in this world, along with a view ahead to life after life. So too now, even in the midst of this pandemic, my role is to lessen the emphasis on the connection between rabbis and death, and strengthening of our relationship with rabbis as teachers of Torah. My calling during these challenging times is to comfort and reaffirm that we will celebrate the lives of our loved ones who are no more as we will also enrich our personal lives, the live of our families, and the Jewish people and we affirm life.
In some ways, on account of this pandemic, our behaviors surrounding the death of loved ones and their burials, make all of us Kohanim, sacred vessels of holiness.