A Kohen Must Care for the Dead
“Emor el ha-kohanim benei aharon ve-amarta aleihem lenefesh lo yitama be-amav. Say to the priests, the sons of Aaron, you may not come in contact with the dead” (Vayikra, 21:1).
Our portion opens up with the idea that a kohen as spiritual representative of the people is not allowed to interact with the dead and thereby become spiritually impure (tamei).
There is something about death that pollutes us spiritually and if we come into contact we cannot enter into the temple until we purify ourselves. There are spiritual dangers involved with touching the dead and therefore a kohen may not become tamei by touching the dead.
However, if we just focus on that first verse of the chapter we are not seeing the whole picture.
For the Torah continues, “ki im le-she-eiro hakarov elav…lah yitameh. Only for his wife, his mother and father, his son and daughter, and his unmarried sister, for them he can (must?) be tamei” (v.2-3).
The sages of the Talmud dispute the proper way to understand this verse. R. Yishmael says that a kohen may become tamei by tending to his relatives. However, R. Akiva says chovah; i.e. the verse is obligating a kohen to become tamei when one of his relatives dies.
The Shulchan Arukh explicitly follows the ruling of R. Akiva.
“Kol ha-meitim ha-amurim be-parashah she-kohen metameh lahem, mitzvah she-metameh lahem. Ve-im lo ratzah metameh lahem baal korkho. Any kohen who the Torah allows them to become tamei for, it is a mitzvah for them to become tamei. And if they do not want to become tamei, we force them against their will” (Yoreh Deah, 373:3).
If the kohen who is generally required to avoid tumah, must become tamei for a relative, how much more so, must the rest of us non-kohanim become tamei and get involved with caring for the dead bodies of those closest to us!
Furthermore, if the kohen must suspend his priestly duties on occasion in order to become tamei met, it indicates to us that we too, must engage with the concept of death as part of our own spirituality.
While it is true that if we become tamei met we must go through a purification process, it is also true that at times we must become tamei.
What this means is that we have a spiritual obligation to think about death and prepare for death.
As part of our daf yomi cycle we are now beginning the study of the chapter called yesh nochalin, the eighth chapter of Bava Batra, this chapter deals with death and the laws of inheritance. In this light I would like to share three short points about death and dying. Two are insights from the daf yomi cycle and the third stems from a local church.
The Talmud (111b) is searching for the idea that when a wife dies her husband inherits her property. The Talmud cites a verse, “And Elazar the son of Aharon died and they buried him in the hills of Pinchas, his son” (Joshua 24:33). Asks the Talmud, since Pinchas is a kohen, and kohanim did not get an inheritance in the land, from where would Pinchas have property to bury his own father? Thus, Pinchas must have inherited the property from his wife!
But asks the Talmud, maybe Pinchas had bought the property on his own and then buried his father there. The Talmud rejects this, because such land would have to be returned in the Jubilee year, and since we would not exhume a body, the result would be, tzaddik kavur be-kever she-eino shelo, a righteous man would never be buried in a grave that does not belong to him!
A grave must belong to a person.
The Sefer Kav Hayashar extends this idea of making the grave our own (chapter 6). He writes that the pious people of Israel would buy their graves when they were in the prime of their lives. They would then go to the spot of their grave and recite prayers and words of Torah and make pledges to charity. In this manner they would purify the place that would eventually be their grave.
This is a powerful custom. How many of us could actually bring ourselves to do it? I would like to do it myself; to reserve a spot in our shul cemetery and sanctify this spot with prayers every time I visit our cemetery.
More than that this custom is about the idea that death should not be something distant to our lives. It must be something that we think about and prepare for even at a young age—even in the prime of our lives.
If we live our life cognizant of our coming death, our actions will be more goal- oriented. We will waste less time on frivolous activities. All of our actions will be part of our mission plan.
Point # 2
The Mishnah (108a) tells us, “yesh nochalin umanchilin,” there are certain categories of people who both inherit and bequeath to others. An example of that is, “ha-av et habanim, ve-habanim et ha-av.” A father inherits from his children (if the children predecease him), and the children inherit from their father.
The Talmud wonders why does the Mishnah first say that the father inherits from the children and only then does it say that the children inherit their parents. Says the Talmud, “atchulei be-puranuta lo matchilin, it is not normal for the Talmud to begin with a tragedy.”
Implicit in the Talmud’s question (which we won’t answer here) is that when a parent inherits a child it is a tragedy, but when a child inherits a parent, then it is sad, but it is the normal way of the world.
The Shulkhan Arukh tells us that when a parent or distinguished person dies we are required to recite a blessing, Barukh dayan ha-emet, blessed are You the True Judge (Orach Chaim 223:2). This is an acknowledgment that we accept the rulings of Hashem over our lives.
But the Shulkhan Arukh then tells us another law. If the parent who died left us money then we are required to recite the blessing of she-hechiyanu or ha-tov ve-hameitiv.
These blessings are normally only recited on joyous occasions. And now we are being told to recite them because we have inherited money!
When I first saw this halakha, I was taken aback. It almost seemed crass.
How do we make sense of it?
First of all, R. Akiva Eiger says that this blessing is only recited when a child inherits a parent, but never when a parent inherits a child.
Second, I think it is important to acknowledge the financial help we received from our beloved ancestors. For example, every time we walk into this shul we should recite a blessing of gratitude to our ancestors who poured in their time and money to build this structure for us. None of the builders are alive today. And how many of us know any of them. But we must be grateful every day!
Second, the poskim overwhelmingly say that it is no longer the practice to recite a blessing upon inheriting money (see teshuvot ve-hanhagot, 3:140).
Third, this law means different things to me:
Sometimes there are conflicting feelings accompanying a death. Maybe the patient was in a lot of pain and it was exceedingly difficult to see him suffer. Maybe the caregiver’s life was being destroyed through the toll of caring for the person. Maybe those feelings are worthy of a blessing.
Last Shabbat we had a visitor from Ghana at our home. He told us that in his region of Ghana the funeral is a week-long party—a celebration of the life and the spiritual legacy that the deceased has left behind.
That’s another reason why perhaps the shehechiyanu is recited. When death comes we are supposed to acknowledge the enormous spiritual gifts that our loved ones have left for us. This is easy to say and hard to do. By reciting a blessing we are forcing ourselves to acknowledge the tremendous gifts that the deceased soul has left for us.
Point # 3
So far we have said that we must prepare for death while we are alive and that when a death comes we must acknowledge the blessings that we have been left.
A third point to emphasize is that our responsibility to the soul extends even beyond physical death.
While we know that a kohen gadol cannot even become tamei for his own relative, there is an exception to this rule. Even if the kohen gadol is on his way to lead Yom Kippur services, if he should encounter an untended to dead body (met mitzvah) he must prioritize caring for this body and he must become tamei. As Rashi teaches, lo yitamah—yatzah met mitzvah (Rashi, 21:1).
This teaching was driven home to me by a recent incident in the news regarding The Macedonian Baptist Church in Bethesda. This church is fighting with a large developer to protect their ancestral graveyards from being turned into a fancy Bethesda development. When I read about their struggle this week I said to myself that their struggle is a holy one as they are fulfilling the commandment of serving a met mitzvah. So I immediately reached out and offered my assistance, should it be wanted or needed.
The Talmud in Bava Batra takes it as a given that we are required to safeguard the dignity of the dead body. Thus, to bury someone vertically is called kevurat chamorim, a donkey’s burial (101b). So too, two graves are not allowed to touch each other, or be buried directly on top of one another (101b), and we are not allowed to walk over another grave (101a). If we find a dead body isolated from other graves we are required to move it, otherwise we are not allowed to move it (102a).
All of these laws are intended to protect the dignity of the dead and to reinforce the idea that the dead remain a part of our lives even after their neshamot have ascended. One of the ways in which we demonstrate this is by caring deeply about their graves.
There was a beautiful video that I saw this week of a delegation of Hasidic Jews singing to the Pope a popular Hebrew song with the Pope rocking along to the beat. Many people commented on the sweetness of the video.
Indeed, after a history of so much religious persecution we must be grateful that the current Pope is a true man of God and is an inspiring and benevolent leader.
The delegation that came to the Pope asked him for his help in protecting Jewish cemeteries in Europe.
This is also a concern of mine.
Recently I have had several meetings with high-ranking officials of the Catholic church regarding the desecration of the largest Jewish cemetery in the world—Auschwitz-Birkenau.
There is currently a parish church on the grounds of Auschwitz Birkenau. The building in the church has a very dark history. It was the place of unspeakable evil. It was the headquarters of the commandant of Auschwitz and the place where the murders of Jews were plotted. Jews were tortured in this building.
When I met this past week with a very senior member of the church he told me, “There should not be a church in a commandant’s building. You cannot take an evil place like that and turn it into a church. It is wrong. The commandant’s building is a guilty center of hell.”
He committed to help us in our efforts to move the church, but he promised me that it would not be quick or easy. He suggested that in his estimation the continued presence of this church at Auschwitz was part of a larger attempt to de-Judaize the holocaust.
He said to me, “Several weeks ago when I was in Poland, I noticed the remnants of the two oldest gas chambers—one has been wiped out completely and the other has been left to wither away. The new placards have carefully removed the mention of Jews at all.”
Here was a senior member of the Catholic Church deeply familiar with the politics of the Holocaust and Eastern Europe warning me that there is a serious effort to remove the Jewish people from Holocaust memory.
I cried in his presence and I thanked him. I told him that it was a holy commandment for us to make sure that the dead are treated properly and to preserve for history the way that they were brutally murdered.
Emor el hakohanim benei aharon.
The point is not that the kohanim are not allowed to come in contact with the dead. But rather that when it comes to our relatives the kohanim must come in contact. We must preserve the memory of our loved ones.
When we prepare properly for death, when we acknowledge the spiritual and material bequests of our deceased loved ones, and when we act on behalf of the memory of our holy ancestors, then it is we who are the true kohanim of the modern era.
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