The parsha of Emor centers on the sanctity of the Kohanim: their obligation not to become impure, restrictions on whom they can marry, and the conditions under which they can serve in the Temple and eat its sacrifices. The end of the parsha enumerates all the festivals of the year and the special sacrifices brought on each.
The Torah forbids a Kohen to become impure to a dead body for both pragmatic and metaphysical reasons. From a pragmatic perspective, impurity would prevent the Kohen from fulfilling his primary function, serving in the Temple. On a metaphysical level, a Kohen is called kadosh, holy, a term that denotes an elevation above the physical world and a closeness to God. Tumah, impurity, results from contact with dead bodies, with physical bodies devoid of life and soul. Impurity is thus the antithesis of holiness. An impure person is a person of the physical world; a holy person is a person of God’s world.
A Kohen is thus obligated to protect his holiness and his state of purity. There is, however, one case that is an exception: the death of a close relative. The Torah states that if an immediate relative dies, “to her [his sister] he shall become impure.” The Talmud states that this verse is not merely permitting him to become impure, but obligating him to do such. “To her he shall become impure – this is a mitzvah.” The Talmud relates that a Kohen by the name of Joseph did not want to bury his wife who died the day before Pesach, so that he would be able to bring his Paschal sacrifice. His fellow Kohanim would not countenance this and forced him to become impure.
We might think that this obligation to become impure is to ensure that the body is buried. This is not the case. If there is no one else to bury a body, a Kohen must become impure regardless of his relationship to the deceased. The special mitzvah to become impure to his relative is in a situation where there is someone else to arrange the burial? What then is the purpose of this mitzvah?
I believe that this mitzvah demonstrates our obligation not to ignore our own personal needs for the sake of performing a public role or “serving God.” We must always make tradeoffs between our public life and our private one. It is often hard to know how much to sacrifice in one sphere for a gain in the other. More time with one’s family is less time helping the public. A person who serves a public role, particularly a religious one, can easily convince himself that his public, religious obligations should always take precedence over his private, personal needs and the needs of his family. On the other hand, if one spends all one’s time serving the public, not only does his family suffer, but he does as well. He sacrifices a part of himself and his identity when those closest to him stop mattering.
This, then, is the mitzvah to become impure. We cannot ignore our personal needs at critical times. In order to remain pure, to remain holy, there are times we must leave God’s realm, times that we must leave the Temple and become impure, so that we can go back to God’s place as a whole person. The colleagues of the Kohen Joseph recognized his desire to remain pure when his wife died for what it was: a twisted sense of priorities and a perverted religiosity. To be truly religious, truly holy, there a time one must leave the Temple and take care of his private needs. Only this will allow a person be able to remain in God’s Temple with integrity.