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Parshat Emor: No Dead Allowed Here

This week’s parsha, Emor outlines mitzvot about 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 – more restrictive than the average Jew – physical abnormalities that may disqualify him from serving in the Beit HaMikdash/Temple, and that he must remain in a state of spiritual purity – Taharah in Hebrew. Its opposite, Tumah is a form of spiritual imperfection. 

Tumah is associated with coming in contact with a corpse and if a Kohen touches the dead or is even in the same room as the deceased, he thereby becomes ineligible to perform the Temple service. Although we don’t have the Beit HaMikdash 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’s impossible to feel, smell or sense when one is or is not in a state of spiritual impurity. We fully understand when we speak of things in terms of being right or wrong, or true or false. But Tumah and it counterpart, Taharah – “impurity and purity” – are a different story altogether. And despite the poor translations of the respective words it has nothing to do with something being gross or yucky but has everything to do with Death. As we noted, one becomes Tumah when coming near or touching a corpse. 

More perplexing is a seemingly heartless and insensitive aspect of the Tumah laws. One would think the priestly class should be allowed 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 makes it difficult for him to perform this function and demands that he avoid such scenarios altogether lest he find himself in the same room as a corpse. The harshest expression of the law applies to the Kohen Gadol – 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 that 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 connection with God is 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 shouldn’t 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 punishment for them and all their offspring thereafter. But had they not eaten from that tree – Death, destruction and everything negative in the world would not have existed and we would have remained in the Garden of Eden and Paradise forever.  

To take a bit of a philosophical approach: 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 expression 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 a state of prophecy 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. This is why prophets would often have musicians play for them to help them get in the proper positive frame of mind for prophecy. 

Yes it’s 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 for connection to 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 God when we are healthy, happy and successful. Its precisely those times when one shouldn’t ignore God and merely bask in the good feelings, as we are often wont to do. The good times are the best times when we should thank, welcome and be one with God. 

The main place to find God is in Life and not in Death. 

Hava Nagilah
I’m breathin’, yeah…

Ain’t tryna hurt nobody
We just came here to party
Like it’s 5999*
They gone see us in our prime, yeah
Big House comin’ down, yeah
From thе sky to the crowd, yeah
-Nissim Black

(*Mashiach arrives by the year 6000 when, according to Jewish tradition, The 3rdTemple – “Big House” – will descend from the Heavens.)

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