Parashat Emor

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.

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But not so for the Israelite priest. The koheyn’s duty is to serve the living; to serve as a teacher and model of holiness for the people. The priest is actually prohibited from even coming into contact with the dead. Doing so makes him tamei (impure) and therefore unable to fulfill his priestly responsibilities.

But this "impurity" is not transmitted from the corpse. The Torah is not telling us that there is anything intrinsically dirty or evil about a dead person. Death is, so to speak, a part of life. To emphasize this point, the exemption is stated to allow the koheyn to take care of the preparation and burial of those closest to him: parents, siblings and children. This is, in fact, the obligation of every Jew.

The mitzvah, commandment, of Livayat HaMet, the accompanying of the dead to their final burial place, is considered one of the most important of all the mitzvot. Why? Because it is considered to be the only truly selfless act; it is the only "favor" you can do for another without any expectation of the favor being returned. Helping another in their transition from this world to the next is the supreme human obligation. It will happen to us all, yet no one truly understands how this transition takes place. We can only guess, and try our best to help.

So important is this act that no one, including the high priest, can shirk this responsibility toward close relatives, or even towards the lonely or poor (met mitzvah) who have no one else to bury them. However, we must realize that it is not death that defiles the priest and renders him incapable of tending to his duties. Rather, it is the shifting of the focus of his duties from the living to the dead that distracts the priest from his obligation to the living.

We respect and mourn our dead, but Judaism is primarily about life. As it says in the Psalms, "The dead cannot mourn the Eternal" (Psalm 115). Death is a part of life. Because of this respect for life, taking care of the dead is considered such an important duty. We don't abdicate the responsibility to priests or professional undertakers--we take care of it ourselves. This is why the Hevra Kadisha (literally "holy fellowship"--the traditional Jewish burial society) exists, to help us meet this need. We bring holiness into our lives through our respect for life. Even after death, we continue to honor the relationships of our life.

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Rabbi Jordan D. Cohen

Jordan D. Cohen is the rabbi of Temple Anshe Sholom in Hamilton, Ontario. Previously, he worked as Associate Director of KOLEL - The Adult Centre for Liberal Jewish Learning in Toronto, Canada. Prior to his return to Canada, Rabbi Cohen served as Rabbi of the United Jewish Congregation of Hong Kong, and Associate Rabbi of the North Shore Temple Emanuel in Sydney, Australia.