The first part of our week’s parsha, ‘Emor’ deals with the restrictions placed on the Cohanim (priests) working in the temple. Apparently, this topic is irrelevant for us. About two thousand years have passed since the destruction of the Temple of Jerusalem and none of us are working in the Temple. However, looking at these laws may teach us about the Jewish scale of values that is relevant even today.
These restrictions imposed on the Cohanim, mainly deals with the issue of impurity and purity. What is the definition of impurity according to the Torah? One of the interpretations expounds that the exposure to a dead person’s body deems a Cohen impure. This proximity to death, whether it is actual physical contact or, even so much so, as staying under the same roof with a dead corpse regards that person (the Cohen) as ‘impure’, when the said Cohen attempts to enter the temple or encounter sacrifices and therefore is prohibited from doing so.
Impurity is a definition designed to keep a distance between the difficult and painful side of life and the exalted and sacred aspect of reality. The impure person is not limited in his normal life, and in fact he has no obligation to purify himself, except if he wishes to enter the temple or come into contact with sacrifices.
As mentioned, an ordinary person has no major obligations with the impurity concept, but it is otherwise for the Cohen who is attempting to enter the temple. The Torah says
“Say to the priests the sons of Aaron and say to them: No soul shall be defiled by his people!”
Even in these days, Cohanim are commanded to keep themselves from impurity of the dead, and indeed many Cohanim are wary of participating in funerals, visiting cemetery or any proximity to the dead. What is the ruling of a Cohen whose relative(s) passed away? Will he or she not attend his or her funeral? Will he or she continue his or her work in the temple as usual?
The Torah refers to these cases and specifies a list of seven relatives to whom the priest is exempt from becoming impure: father and mother, son and daughter, unmarried brother and sister, and the wife of the priest. When one of these passes away, the priest is ordered to leave his shift in the temple and take care of all burial needs regardless of the impurity that applies to him. However, afterwards he is required to go through a purification process. In these difficult moments, the work in the temple is postponed because of the closeness of the family.
Although the work in the temple is considered one of the highest spiritual levels that a human being can reach, the value of the family outweighs this importance. There is no place for any spiritual summit without the human basics, such as normal family relations and in this case dealing with the burial of the priest’s relatives.
However, there is one exception to this rule and that applies to the “high priest” or the Cohen Gadol. The Cohen Gadol is the one exceptional and unique person among the people of Israel who is commanded to devote himself completely to the work of the temple. His personal life is pushed aside in the face of his holy work which prevents him from even attending the funeral of his dear parents.
The special religious and national role of the Cohen Gadol imposes on him the obligation to focus on his work, even when this means temporarily putting the family aside. But even for this special person there is one case where he is ordered to leave the temple and take care of the cadaver of a dead person. This is the case of a ‘Met-Mitzvah’: a person who has no one to take care of his burial. In such case, the Cohen Gadol himself abandons the temple, defiles with the dead and deals with the last act of dignity towards that person _ the burial.
The scale of values that the Torah outlines in this verse is unequivocal: the crucial religious role of working in the temple does not override the value of having a normal family relationships, except in a single case of the Cohen, and even then, the dignity of an anonymous person overrules the most essential spiritual summit of the work in the sanctuary of the temple.
Rabbi Refael Cohen