Why may the Kohanim (priests) not attend to the dead? The most obvious answer is that it would render them impure, which prevents them from serving in the Temple. And even though today the Temple service is not functioning, we need to remember its dictates to be ready for its renewal at any time. If that is the case, it should be essentially no different from avoiding contact with other impurities, and have nothing to do with death per se.
Yet Rav S. R. Hirsch notes the mention of other priestly prohibitions associated with death. These are making bald spots on one’s head and producing gashes in one’s skin, practices that are mentioned (21:5) immediately after the prohibition of coming into contact with the dead (21:1-4). It is true that these practices are made forbidden to all Jews elsewhere. But its repetition here with the Kohanim leads Rav Hirsch to understand that the Torah is trying to make a point: For him, one of the reasons for this repetition is because we might have thought that death is specifically the province of the priests.
But why would we think that? He answers that there was a strong correlation between death and religion in the pagan world. Hence cultic temples were often interspersed with tombs. In that worldview, death was a force of the gods that had to be accepted and appeased. While this may not have been true about all pagan religions, there is no denying the centrality of death in ancient Egyptian culture – the culture that serves as the backdrop and foil for many of the Torah’s teachings. It is true that the Egyptians also believed in the immortality of the soul, but only if the dead body was properly preserved. And consciously or not, this could only have reinforced awareness of death and decay and the frailty of the human body. That being the case, Egyptians became understandably obsessed with death.
Rav Hirsch feels that the Torah sought to present a revolutionary message here: That the realm of religion is not death, but life. That is to say that even if eternal life only comes after death, focus on this grisly portal has a terribly negative influence on our conception of life. For death is one of the few things that humans can do nothing to control. And that lack of control from the forces of nature can too easily lead to a more general surrender to nature, and to our natural drives in particular. This is obviously the opposite of what God wants. Rather, He wants us to lead lives that make full use of the free choice that He has given us to control and properly channel our natural drives.
And so the Torah determined that the Jews most involved with religion should have as little to do with death as possible. Burial of the dead and consolation of their relatives has a place in the Jewish religion. But it is designed to be a very secondary one. A certain respect has to be offered the body after it has finished carrying the soul, but absent our priests. This is to show that in the same way that when body and soul are together, the Torah’s mains concern is with the soul, so too must that be the case after they separate. Hence even in the face of death, we are nevertheless prodded by looking at our priests to choose life.
Rather than obsessing with the dead body that only reinforces death’s destructive specter over the living, the Torah tells to focus on life. Given the eternality of the soul, such focus is not only spiritually healthier, it is actually more accurate. And so together with the famous 17th century poet, John Donne, we can more easily realize that the power of death is ultimately just an illusion:
One short sleep past, we wake eternally
And death shall be no more; Death, thou shalt die.
Listen to the accompanying podcast, The Problem with Death – and it’s not what you think, by clicking here.