The impurity of death as a defect which will pass

Prohibition banning a kohen to become defiled by the dead shows the truth of eternity & that death's impurity will one day cease to exist.

Rabbi Shlomo Sobol ,

Rabbi Shlomo Sobol
Rabbi Shlomo Sobol
Guy Taib

One of the issues that many try to push out of their thoughts is death.

Just this week, one of the elders of religious Zionism, Rabbi Nahum Eliezer Rabinovitch, ob”m – the head of Yeshivat Birkat Moshe in Ma'aleh Adumim and author of “Yad Peshuta,” a commentary on Maimonides, was taken from our midst.

Recently, due to the corona crisis, the topic of death is even more common.

One of the most significant times when a person requires support is when one has lost a family member or close friend. In that moment, when that person’s world is crumbling and they feel a devastating sense of loneliness, they are in such need of a friend to feel their pain with them, place their arm around them and be with them during those moments of crisis.

This week's parsha begins with the prohibition for a kohen to become impure by the dead: "And the Lord said unto Moses, ‘Speak to the priests, the sons of Aaron, and say to them: Let none [of you] defile himself for a dead person among his people.”

The Torah calls the kohanim “holy” and they hold very important positions amongst Am Yisrael; they are the emissaries of the Jewish people in the temple work, they are the pipeline that draws down Hashem’s blessings to the people, and they were also those who were involved in the teaching of the Torah and in guiding the people in their service of Hashem - "They shall teach Your ordinances to Jacob, and Your Torah to Israel" (Devarim 33:10), “For a priest's lips shall guard knowledge, and teaching should be sought from his mouth, for he is a messenger of the Lord of Hosts." (Malachi 2:7).

And here, precisely when one’s family member passes away and they are most of all in need of the kohen’s support, to be at their side while accompanying and burying one’s loved one who has just died - the Torah prohibits the kohen from becoming impure and he cannot stand alongside the bereaving. How, then, can it be that the kohen "abandons ship” precisely when the bereaved are in such need? Let us try to follow Rav Kook's explanation of the matter: When the Torah commands the kohanim not to be defiled by the dead, it seeks to convey an important message on the matter of death. Death is the most difficult thing that exists in our world, and that is why it involves weeping and great sorrow, and there is nothing more natural or more Jewish than expressing deep sorrow when a person passes away.

However, according to Jewish belief, death marks the end of the road in this world, for now, but according to Rav Kook: "Death is a false vision, its impurity is a lie," for there is eternal life after death, and eventually, techiyat hameitim, the resurrection of the dead.

By not becoming defiled by the dead, the kohen, as a man who is connected to that which is sacred, actually symbolizes the dimension beyond physical reality, the great truth of eternity and the fact that impurity of death will one day cease to exist.

One of the most remarkable and wonderful characteristics of Judaism is the ability to contain different messages that seem contradictory, but which in fact are complementary. This is also expressed in the Torah regarding death:

On the one hand, all the mitzvot relating to funerals and the condolence of mourners express the part in which society must support the bereaved, feel their pain and carry with them, if only for a while, the unbearable burden of their encounter with death.

On the other hand, the fact that the kohen does not become impure by the dead, symbolizes a world in which all is good and in which death will be eternally swallowed, and according to Rav Kook: "Death is a defect in Creation. Israel is destined to pass it on, it is a disgrace to us - 'and the disgrace of His people He shall remove from upon the entire earth, for the Lord has spoken."

Rabbi Shlomo Sobol serves as Dean and Founder at the Barkai Center for Practical Rabbinics and Community Development, and as rabbi of Kehillat Shaarei Yonah Menachem in Modi’in.




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