KEEP IN TOUCH
The obligation to mourn the loss of a family member appears at the beginning of this week's Torah portion. Although the requirement is undoubtedly incumbent upon all people, the Torah delineates the imperative and rules for mourning in specific context of the Kohanim (priests).
The obligation to mourn the loss of a family member appears at the beginning of this week's Torah portion. Although the requirement is undoubtedly incumbent upon all people, the Torah delineates the imperative and rules for mourning in specific context of the Kohanim (priests). Why is the need to mourn directed explicitly to the Kohanim; couldn't the Torah give the mitzvah to all Jews and, by implication, include the Kohanim in that command?
The Rambam, the great medieval codifier of Jewish law, addresses this issue in his book on mitzvot, explaining: ". . .to ensure their honor and respect, the Torah specifically prohibited the Kohanim from becoming ritually impure through exposure to dead people. And yet, at the same time, the Torah permitted their becoming ritually impure for the death of a close family member. Accordingly, a Kohen (priest) might erroneously conclude that he can choose to either mourn and become ritually impure, or rather preserve his purity and not mourn for their loss. The Torah, therefore, clarifies and obligates the Kohanim to join in mourning and identify with the loss".
The Torah is sensitive to the feelings which people have after a loss. Here the Torah prioritizes the Kohen's concern by demanding his invalidating himself to the point that he will be temporarily prohibited from his service in the Temple. Outside of his being a leader of the Jewish people, the Kohen must not divorce himself from his natural feelings of loss. On a basic human level, a person should feel the loss of a family member, be in touch with his feelings, and express his emotions through the laws of mourning. Despite the counter-pressure of his desire to serve in the Temple and preserve his purity, the Torah insists that the Kohen recognize his loss and express his pain.
Based on the Rambam's explanation for commanding the mitzvah to mourn specifically to the Kohanim, Rabbi Yehudah Amital, the rosh yeshiva (dean) of Yeshivat Har Etzion in Israel, accented the need for the Kohanim to understand the broader community. Not only must the Kohen appreciate the magnitude of his loss, but he must also relate to the common human situation. Mourning expresses the loss that a person naturally feels with the death of a close relative. It is impossible for the Kohen to separate himself from his loss and it is forbidden to try to avoid the feeling. The Torah commands a Kohen to become ritually impure for the sake of his humanity. This humanity, which the Torah is trying to ensure, maintains a common denominator between the Kohanim and the rest of the Jewish nation. To be effective as a leader and a source of emotional and spiritual support for the Jewish people, he must relate to the loss and lifestyles of the common folk. If the Kohen lacks the ability to understand the feelings of the people, he also finds obstacles in relaying his message. The greatness of priesthood does not justify maintaining a distance from the people. In fact, it obligates their sensitizing themselves to the lives of the people, even at the expense of their own ritual purity.
In the midst of religious fervor, people can lose sight of the human element incorporated within halacha (Jewish law). People, incorrectly, perceive that it is more devout to deprive themselves of their emotional reaction. However, halacha requires people to keep in touch with their basic human nature, beyond the obligations stemming from their position in the community. At a time of such loss, life must stop at any level. A Kohen invalidates himself from having the ability to serve in the Temple, thereby offering him the time to reflect on life. In his contemplation, he sees the value to life shared by all people regardless of their occupation or stature. The Kohanim are specifically identified in the Torah's command due to the importance which this lesson plays in their role as leaders of the Jewish people. Both feeling human and understanding the broader community result from the obligation to mourn, demanding from the Kohen a special sensitivity to human nature.
Micah Gimpel, a native Atlantan and alumnus of Yeshiva Atlanta, will be graduating from Yeshiva University in a few weeks.
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