By Rabbi Yoni Birnbaum
Some of the most well-known laws of the Kohanim concern the various restrictions preventing their contact with the deceased, as detailed in this week’s sedrah.
The great German-Jewish scholar of the 19th century, Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, sees in these laws a powerful representation of the Jewish perspective on life and death.
In ancient pagan cultures, religion and religious matters were often associated with death. One example of this is the ancient Egyptian funerary text known as the Book of the Dead, which dramatically depicts the journey of the deceased into the netherworld.
Not surprisingly, therefore, the foremost place of the priest in these cultures was often portrayed as being at the side of those who were about to pass away, as death and dying were seen as the primary focus of their belief system.
This stands in stark contrast to the role of the Kohen, the Jewish priest, who is actually even forbidden to be in the same room as a dead body. According to Rabbi Hirsch, the reason for this relates to the very essence of the Jewish concept of religion, and indeed God Himself. In the stirring words of Rabbi Hirsch: “[God’s] sublimest manifestation is the elevating power of life – freeing, animating, raising man to free will and eternal life – not the crushing power of death.
“Not how one is to die, but how one is to live – how living one is to victoriously conquer death – death in life… enslaved by one’s physical urges [and] moral weaknesses.
“How one has to live every second of a morally free, thinking, desiring, working and accomplishing life – and also enjoying all the pleasures of life – as a moment of service to God.” It is this teaching that the Temple itself was dedicated to, and it is the transmission of this key message that constitutes a primary role of the Kohanim, as the priests and teachers of the people.
That is why, when death summons a person, the Kohanim have to stand away. By doing so, they prevent thoughts of death from overpowering the truth that people are morally free and always have the power to live life to the full, in which every moment of life – if utilised properly – can itself become part of the service of God.
Yoni Birnbaum is the rabbi of Hadley Wood Jewish community