Happy, High and Holy
This week’s Torah portion outlines mitzvot pertaining to the priestly class, the Kohanim. There is a greater level of spirituality demanded from the Kohen illustrated by laws that govern whom he may marry, physical abnormalities that may disqualify him from serving in the Temple, and that he must remain in a state of spiritual purity, avoiding tumah – spiritual imperfection. The Kohen must avoid coming in contact with a corpse lest he be rendered tumah and become ineligible to perform the Temple service. Although we do not have a Temple today, some of these laws are still in effect such as the prohibition of a Kohen entering a cemetery unless it is to attend the funeral of an immediate family member.
The notion of tumah is hard to understand inasmuch as it is impossible to feel, smell or sense when one is or is not in a state of spiritual impurity. We understand when we speak of things being right vs. wrong or true vs. false. But tumah and taharah – purity and impurity – is a different story altogether and has nothing to do with something being gross or yucky.
More perplexing is a seemingly heartless and insensitve aspect of the tumah laws. One would think that the priestly class should be able to be within proximity of death since the priests were the spiritual leaders of the people. This would demand that the Kohen be available for individuals in a state of grief or serious illness, where the Kohen might be called upon in near-death situations much the way a rabbi would function as a supportive clergy member today. Yet oddly, the Torah does not allow him to perform that function and demands that he avoid them altogether since he is forbidden from even being in the same room as a corpse. (The only exception being a met mitzvah – if he happens upon the deceased who needs attending to.) The harshest expression of the law applies to the High Priest who cannot even attend the funeral of his own mother or father!
To understand this anomaly we need to reassess some of our views of the role religion plays in our lives. Many find religion when they are having difficulties in life. When serious illness strikes or someone dies, people who may not have had anything to do with their religion suddenly find themselves turning to it for answers and comfort. This is not a bad thing and in fact many people make their way back to a synagogue that they would seldom visit to say Kaddish.
However, the fact that Judaism demands that a Kohen must avoid the dead sends a very different message about which moments in our lives are the greatest opportunities to relate to God. Whereas it is true that during life’s difficult times people turn to God, the Torah views this as a lesser expression of our relationship with Him. The greater connections with God are in moments of joy, happiness and life, and not in sadness, grief and death.
And while it is true that life isn’t filled with only happy moments and events, we should not forget that this was the initial goal and the original normative state that God had in mind when He created the world in the first place. Death was only introduced as “Plan B” after Adam and Eve had eaten from the Tree of Knowledge. It was the punishment for them and all their offspring forever. Had they not eaten from that tree – death, destruction and everything negative in the world would not have existed and mankind would have remained in the Garden of Eden and Paradise forever.
To take it from a bit of a philosophical angle, God Himself being Infinite has no beginning and no end, and hence Death is in no way truly tied and associated with His essence. Life is where we see the greatest expressions of who and what God really is. God is more readily found in Life and not in Death. And that’s why the Kohen, being the servants and representatives of God, must avoid anything that smacks of death. The Kohen must symbolize the highest relationship with God – one of happiness, joy and life, and not the lesser one of grief, sadness and death.
In a similar vein we find that a prophet could not reach his or her state of prophecy (direct communication with God) if he or she were unhappy or depressed. The Shechinah, the Divine Presence would not be available to the prophet unless he or she was filled with joy and happiness and often prophets would have musicians play for them to help them reach that state.
Yes it is impossible to avoid sadness or grief in the course of our lives. But we must never lose sight of the fact that the greatest times of opportunity for a relationship with God are not during times of melancholy or gloom, but in the celebration of the joys of life, love and happiness. It’s no big deal to be in a religious frame of mind and to look for God when death or illness unfortunately strike. It is a much greater challenge and opportunity to feel close to the Almighty when we are healthy, happy and successful. It is in these times where one should not ignore God as we often do, but instead should thank, welcome and be one with Him for these are the holiest times of our lives.
I wanna know did you get the feelin’
Did you get it down in your soul
I begin to realise
Magic in my life
See it manifest in oh, so many ways
Every day is gettin’ better and better
Rabbi Tzvi Nightingale
Aish South Florida