By Rav Hanan Schlesinger
Former Shaliach in Boca Raton (1998-2000)
Currently Director of International Relations, Roots/Shorashimה
These days, one of the most common points of contact between Jews and rabbis is at funerals. But it shouldn’t be that way. Rabbis and death actually don’t mix too well. This week’s Torah portion explains why.
Contact with a human corpse is the strongest source of ritual impurity (tumah) according to the Torah. One who is ritually impure may not approach God in the Holy Temple without first purifying himself. There is however, no prohibition against becoming ritually impure to begin with, as long as one refrains from entrance into the Temple.
For the priest (kohen) on the other hand, the situation is different. This week’s Torah reading tells us that with the exception of the bodies of deceased first-degree relatives, the priests are absolutely forbidden from coming into any contact with the dead. They must do nothing to knowingly make themselves ritually impure.
The priests must retain a high degree of holiness, and apparently holiness and death are polar opposites. Judaism abhors death. It is seen as an obstacle and even as an enemy. There is nothing good about being ten feet under. Judaism never glorifies death, never sees it as an eagerly anticipated portal and passage to a better world. Our mission is in the here and now, to toil and to struggle to fulfill God’s standards of behavior in this physical world, in order to make this world a more pleasant and a more perfect place. We bring Heaven down to earth, and do not yearn to leave this earth to rise up to Heaven.
As I learned from my mentor and role model, Rav Yitz Greenberg, the closest thing to a Jewish definition of holiness might simply be life. The dynamic exhilaration that is life on earth is holy. Death is not. The physical world of change and development, of movement and process, of potential and construction – that is holiness. Death signals the end of process and is therefore inherently profane.
The Jew embraces life. Therefore those who are meant to be totally consecrated to God are to avoid death like the plague.
This is such a contrast to so many ancient polytheistic cultures in which one of the primary functions of the priests was to preside over elaborate funeral ceremonies and to minister to the dead. Our priests (kohenim) on the other hand, never had anything to do with funeral arrangements. They ministered to life and not to death.
Today’s rabbis serve in the stead of our ancient kohenim. The rabbinic leadership that heads our congregations has taken the place of those priests of yore. They are here to lead us in life, to accompany us on our holy journey and to help us to make it worthwhile and meaningful. They are here for us not for the end of life, but for all of life. Not just for life-cycle events, but for life itself.
We don’t want to wait to avail ourselves of their succor and comfort until the point at which life is already behind us. To relegate their insight and guidance to the circumstances surrounding death is to tragically squander one of our most precious resources.
The last place we want to meet the rabbi, pun most certainly intended, is at a funeral.
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