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The Torah Learning Library of Yeshivat Chovevei Torah

No Human Can Give All Answers at the Moments of Deepest Despair

by Rabbi Avi Weiss (Posted on May 21, 2016)
Topics: Torah, Sefer Vayikra, Emor

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This week’s Torah portion presents many rules pertaining to the Kohen (Jewish priest). Among these laws is the prohibition against any contact with the dead. Except for his closest family members, the Kohen cannot touch a dead corpse, be present at burial or even be in the same room as a dead body. What is the rationale of this prohibition and what is its relationship to the Kehuna (priesthood)?

Perhaps the reasoning of this law lies with an understanding of the difference between the ultimate goal of life itself. Some faith communities see the ultimate goal of existence the arrival in the life hereafter. Some Christians, for example, insists that redemption is dependent upon the belief that Jesus died for one’s sins. In some strains of Islam, martyrdom is revered, as only through death can one reach the ultimate world.

The Torah, on the other hand, is fundamentally a system that accentuates commitment to God, in this world—the world of the living. While Judaism does believe that the hereafter is of important status, it takes a back seat to this world. As the Psalmist states, “I shall not die but live and proclaim the works of the Lord” (Psalms 118:17), and “The dead cannot praise the Lord…but we (the living) will bless the Lord now and forever” (Psalms 115:17-18).

To teach this point, the Kohen, the teacher par excellence is mandated not to have any contact with the dead. This is a way of imparting the concept that the ultimate sanctification of God is not through death but through life.

My dear friend and teacher, Rabbi Saul Berman, has suggested another approach. It was the priest of old who was often called on to intercede on behalf of the deceased. In ancient times, families hoped that through such intercession, the dead person would receive a better place in the life hereafter. In such situations, the priest may have been tempted to, and sometimes did, take payoffs for intervening.

It is then understandable that the Torah insists that the Kohen have no contact whatsoever with the deceased. This would make it impossible for him to take advantage of people, particularly when they are going through a deep loss, when they are most vulnerable.

Today, the community, whether justified or not, sees the rabbi as the primary intermediary between God and humanity. Although most rabbis are not Kohanim (descendants of priests), I have the great honor of being both a rabbi and a Kohen. Due to my status as a Kohen, it has not always been easy for me to fulfill my role as the rabbi. Due to this limited ability to become involved in the bereavement process, I have gained a unique perspective toward death and mourning. The requirement to not fully engage has taught me that although in their time of most intense grief mourners need the support of family, friends and rabbis, there is such a thing as over involvement. No one fully understands the mystery of death, and no one can solve this age old question for a mourner as s/he sits beside her or his deceased loved one.

Only God knows these answers. Although they must stand as a support and comfort, no rabbi nor priest can serve as a buffer or intermediary between the intense dialogue between a grief stricken mourner and the Almighty One at the deepest moment of loneliness, the moment of loss.