The Jewish tradition of focusing on this life, in this world, began with the Torah itself. Its first two books, Genesis/Bereishit and Exodus/Shemot, treat death as merely the end of life. People grieve when their loved ones die, but the text shows little interest in what happens to the dead. The next book, Leviticus/Vayikra warns the children of Israel not to succumb to idolatry of the dead. In this week’s Torah portion, Emor (Say), the priests are given additional rules which make it clear that the God of Israel is opposed to worshiping death or those who have died.
While priests in other ancient Middle Eastern religions conducted elaborate funeral rites, the priests of Israel had to minimize their contact with the dead. While ordinary people in other religions followed extreme mourning practices, including gashing themselves and yanking out their hair, the Torah forbids Israelites from making cuts in their skin or bald spots on their heads. These permanent marks would mean that the living survivor has less honor (according to 16th-century rabbi Obadiah Sforno) or less value (according to 19th-century rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch) than the dead.
Furthermore, the Torah says anyone who touches a dead human body, or enters a room containing a corpse, becomes tamei, a state of ritual impurity that prevents one from entering God’s sanctuary until one has completed seven days of purification. Worship of the God of Israel must remain completely separate from the experience of death.
Since proximity to a human corpse makes a person tamei, the priests of the Israelites can only do their jobs if they avoid the dead. (Ironically, the priests’ service inside the sanctuary required slaughtering and butchering animals; but the Torah views the body of a kosher animal differently from the body of a human being.)
The Torah makes two exceptions to this ban against proximity to dead human bodies. If a priest finds an unidentified corpse on the road, he has the same obligation as anyone to take the body away for proper burial. Additionally, this weeks’s portion says that all priests except for the high priest are allowed to become tamei when their closest blood relatives die: mother, father, brother, unwed sister, son, and daughter. (Rabbis through the centuries have assumed that the priest’s wife also counts as a sufficiently close relative, and have devised explanations for her omission from the list.)
Like other Israelites, regular priests are forbidden to mourn by shaving their beards, making bald patches on their heads, or cutting incisions in their skin. But they are allowed to dishevel their hair and rip their clothing as they grieve. The high priest, however, must follow stricter rules.
The high priest over his brothers, who has had the oil of the anointing poured over his head and his hand filled, so as to wear the garments– he shall not dishevel his head, and he shall not rip his garments. And he shall not enter (a room) with any dead body; not even for his father or for his mother shall he become tamei. And he shall not leave the holy place, and he shall not profane the holy place of his God; because the crown of the anointing oil of his God is upon him. (Leviticus/Vayikra 21:10-12)
kohein gadol = great priest, high priest (a lifetime office after anointment, with unique duties)
mikdash = holy place, holiness; that which is set apart as exclusively for God
neizer = crown, headband, head of hair; mark of distinction, ordination, setting apart
On a practical level, if one regular priest becomes tamei because of the death in the family, another priest can substitute for him in his sacred work. But there is only one high priest, who has no substitute. (In this respect, the high priest is like the president of the United States, who is always on call, and can use the vice president as a substitute only if he is seriously incapacitated.)
On another level, the Torah requires all of the priests to serve as public symbols of holiness, and the high priest is the ultimate symbol. He even wears a unique gold medallion on his forehead engraved with the words “Holy to God”. (See my post on “Tetzavveh: Holy Flower”.) All priests, but especially the high priest, represent God’s characteristics to the public. That is why, when they are on duty, they dress in beautiful costumes colored with expensive dyes, dazzling people with their majesty. And that is why, unlike priests in other religions, they avoid corpses. Traditional Jewish commentary agrees that if the priests of the God of Israel engaged in rituals for the dead, God would be viewed as another god of death. Above all, the God of Israel is a god of life.
In fact, one of the names of God in the Hebrew Bible is “God of Life”, a phrase that first appears in the book of Deuteronomy, and occurs in many of the books of the prophets:
For who, of all flesh, heard the voice of Elohim Chayyim speaking from the midst of the fire, as we did, and lived? (Deuteronomy/Devarim 5:23)
Elohim Chayyim = God of Life, Living God (Both translations are valid.)
Because the high priest is distinguished from all other priests by his method of ordination–which includes anointment on the head–and by the additional items he wears with his official garments, he must avoid any appearance of mourning on his head or his garments. As a human being, he will grieve in his heart. But as a symbol of God, he must always stand for life, life in the body in this world. This life is God’s great gift to us, the one that lets us praise and bless God in return.
The dead do not praise God, nor any who go down to silence. But we ourselves will bless God, from now until eternity. (Psalm 155:1718)
Of course, life and death must co-exist in this world; you can’t have one without the other. But we can choose which aspect of reality to focus on and appreciate. When I meet people whose personal religion revolves around an afterlife, I wonder if they are fully appreciating this life, in this world. I find that the more attention I pay to everything that is alive, right now, the more I appreciate life, the more I rejoice in creation, the more I am able to praise God. A god of death would give me a grim outlook.
There is a time for mourning, and I am glad I will never be a high priest! But I am grateful I could choose to become a Jew, and bless the God of Life.