Photo Credit:
Rabbi Avi Weiss

This week’s Torah portion presents many rules pertaining to the kohen. Among these laws is the prohibition against any contact with the dead. Except for his closest family members, the kohen cannot touch a 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 priesthood?

Perhaps the reasoning of this law lies with an understanding of the ultimate goal of life itself. Some faith communities see the ultimate goal of existence as arrival in the life hereafter. 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 believes 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).

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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 therefore understandable that the Torah insists 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 and 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, 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 he or she sits beside his or her deceased loved one.

Only God knows these answers. Although they must stand as a support and comfort, no rabbi or kohen can serve as a buffer or intermediary when it comes to the intense dialogue between a grief-stricken mourner and the Almighty at the deepest moment of loneliness, the moment of loss.

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Rabbi Avi Weiss is founding president of Yeshivat Chovevei Torah and senior rabbi of the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale. His memoir of the Soviet Jewry movement, “Open Up the Iron Door,” was recently published by Toby Press.