Caring For The Dead
Despite their focus on life, priests are permitted to attend to their closest relatives in death, emphasizing the importance of caring for the dead.
Provided by KOLEL--The Adult Centre for Liberal Jewish Learning, which is affiliated with Canada's Reform movement.
This week's parashah begins with specific restrictions directed at the kohanim, the priests. These restrictions pertain to marriages, sexuality and mourning. Kohanim must not come into contact with the dead, except for immediate blood relatives. They are only allowed to marry certain partners, and some kinds of physical abnormalities disqualify them from service. The food that the kohanim eat may not be shared with "regular" Israelites. And, just as the sacrificial offerings must be perfect, so too the priests themselves must be physically unblemished.
In chapter 23, all of the "set times" or holy days are listed and described, beginning with Shabbat and continuing with Pesach, the Omer period, Shavuot, Rosh HaShanah, Yom Kippur, and Sukkot. The portion ends with a review of the laws pertaining to the menorah, the bread of the altar, and the punishment for murder, maiming and blasphemy.
Continuing from the previous week's instructions to the priests, focusing on matters of holiness, parashat Emor commences with a pronouncement that the kohanim are not to allow themselves to become tamei (ritually impure) through contact with a corpse. This is a pretty common type of impurity, which the priests are specifically warned against.
However, the passage continues with an exception: Priests can (and, in fact, are obligated to) tend to their immediate blood relatives (parents, children and siblings--spouses were added to this list by the later sages) when they have died. While tending to the dead is an important obligation for everyone, it does render one impure, and therefore unable to participate in the ritual life of the community. While this may not be a huge issue for most Israelites, especially when compared to the passing of a loved one, for the priests, this means they are not able to fulfill their role as the facilitators of worship.
One of my favorite modern commentators, Pinchas Peli (z"l) (may his memory be a blessing) reminds us that back in Egypt, death was big business. All of life in ancient Egypt, especially for the aristocracy, revolved around building one's "house of eternity." This "house of eternity" referred to both one's legacy in this world and one's place in the world to come. For many Egyptian and other pagan priests, the preparation of tombs and the rituals of the dead were their main preoccupation. Egyptian priests focused much more on the dead then the living.