ALL IN THE FAMILY
According to the social structure delineated in the Torah, the Kohanim (priests), the group who constantly serve Hashem in the Temple, must live a restricted life in many ways to avoid exposure to situations not befitting their stature.
According to the social structure delineated in the Torah, the Kohanim (priests), the group who constantly serve Hashem in the Temple, must live a restricted life in many ways to avoid exposure to situations not befitting their stature. Their position within the Jewish community holds such significance that all measures are taken to guarantee its purity. Accordingly, if serving in the Temple, the Kohen (priest) must exemplify perfection as much as the Temple itself does. For example, a Kohen with a blemish in his body may not serve in the Temple. Everything must be perfect; the integrity of the Temple, the very pulse of all Jewish life, is at stake. Similarly, a Kohen must avoid any exposure to what is antithetical to the life and world that Hashem, in the story of creation, called "very good" (Genesis 1:31). The holy status of the Kohanim cannot be compromised through exposure to the deceased and the importance to maintaining its holiness obviates almost any justification for compromise. However, the beginning of this week's Torah portion finds a select group of people who somehow justify compromise, and therefore the Kohen is commanded to disregard his status, defile himself, and temporarily lose the opportunity to serve in the Temple. If death challenges the integrity of the Temple and its priesthood, then to what or whom does the Torah value so much that the stature of the priesthood comes in second place? In light of the value the Torah places on the stature of the priesthood, what could be more important?
To determine the identity of this group, one simply has to read the text: "Hashem spoke to Moses, 'Tell the priests, Aaron's children. . .to no one in the nation shall they become defiled [through exposure to the deceased]; except to his closest relative [spouse], his mother, father, son, daughter, brother and sister. . .to these he must defile himself'" (Leviticus 21:1-3). His family overrides his communal status and responsibility, at least temporarily, and the Kohen must attend the funeral. This allowance reveals important perspectives the Torah promotes in the life of every Jew.
First, the Torah addresses here a basic need in human nature. Despite his priestly responsibilities, the Torah commands a person to deal with his loss. A person naturally feels the need to do as much as possible for a dearly departed relative. Accordingly, the Torah sets aside the particular public responsibilities of this Kohen to express his feelings and take part in escorting the deceased out of this world. In short, the Torah is showing an understanding and sensitivity to human nature.
However, the Torah specifies exactly to whom a Kohen may compromise his position; not to any loved one or dear friend, but only family members command such respect in the eyes of the Torah. This distinction reveals the Torah's perspective on the family unit. The Torah seems concerned with the immediate family. Close friends and distant relatives fall by the wayside. Although friends and family are valuable and contribute to a happier and healthier life, the Torah expects a person to foster a qualitatively closer bond with the immediate family. Spouses, parents, children, and siblings make up the nucleus of the family and they stand together in facing the world. Therefore, the Torah here is not only showing the importance of family in allowing the Kohanim to defile themselves to only these people, but it is also defining the term family and the bonds the Torah considers true family bonds.
Micah Gimpel, a native Atlantan and alumnus of Yeshiva Atlanta, is studying in the MBA program at Bar Ilan University in Israel.
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