Parashat Emor consists almost entirely of laws and mitzvot. The Sefer Ha’chinuch counts sixty-three mitzvot – out of the six hundred and thirteen in the entire Torah – presented in this parasha. Twenty-four of these mitzvot are categorized as “mitzvot asei” (“positive” commandments), whereas the other thirty-nine are “mitzvot lo-ta’aseh” (“negative” commandments, or prohibitions). The mitzvot mentioned in our parasha include laws concerning tum’a and tahara (ritual purity), arayot (forbidden relations), korbanot (sacrifices), the festivals – including their respective mitzvot and korbanot – and many other areas. The common thread that runs throughout the vast majority of these mitzvot is the difficulty in comprehending their underlying reason. Rav Sa’adya Gaon (892-942) was the first to classify the mitzvot into two categories: “sichliyot” – mitzvot with a clear underlying rationale, and “shimiyot” – those that we cannot, at first glance, understand why they were commanded. In effect, however, this classification is merely the philosophical version of the distinction drawn already by Chazal between “chukim” and “mishpatim.” The term “mishpatim” refers to mitzvot whose reasoning is apparent, while “chukim” are those mitzvot whose reason eludes the human intellect.
In this context, I would like to deal with one mitzva that appears very difficult to understand: the prohibition against a kohen’s becoming tamei through contact with a corpse. Man is, by nature, a social creature. He lives his life, propelled by the powerful stream of day-to-day routine, he awakens in the morning, hears the news, and discovers that the world runs as usual. Little does he know that on the following day he will be informed of the passing of his friend or relative. A person experiences intense pain when a loved one is buried in the ground; it leaves him anguished and distraught. This personal pain merges with a more a general feeling of pain; the pain of death constitutes one of the deepest emotions in a person’s life. The greater the pain, the greater the person’s participation in the pain. The closer the pain connects with the fate of our nation, the more intense it becomes: “If only my head was water, my eye, a fountain of tears; I would then weep day and night for the slain of my poor people” (Yirmiyahu 8:23).
How strange it is, then, that specifically the kohen is commanded, in our parasha, “he shall not become tamei to any soul among his nation.” The question bursts forth from pasuk: how could this be? Our messengers in the Mishkan, sent to serve God on our behalf – do they have no part in national, public mourning? Do they have no share in the broken, anguished nation when tragedy strikes?
In the “Kel malei” prayer recited for a deceased person, we ask the Almighty, “provide a proper resting place beneath the wings of the Shechinah.” These “wings” have accompanied us since Yetziat Mitzrayim and lead us towards Matan Torah: “I have carried you on the wings of eagles, and I have brought you to Me… And you shall be for Me a kingdom of kohanim and a sacred nation.” Each of us possesses within himself a spark of “kehuna” which expresses our nation’s natural, singular quality. What is that quality? The ability to rise above the confines of private life, to contemplate our restricted life out of a sense of connection and association with the world to come. We live within boundaries, but we have pillars of light that teach us that life does not begin or end in this world. A person is like a tall tree: his roots extend deep into the ground, while his branches stretch high into the sky. The kohanim are these pillars of light. They are called upon to live on the wings of the Shechina, in the Bet Hamikdash – which is built around “wings” – the wings of the keruvim in the kodesh ha’kodashim – the innermost sanctum, the heart of the Mikdash.
Though we are confined in this world within the realities of mundane life, we should never despair. The kohanim show us the secret of eternal life. They do not come in contact with the dead, but rather look upon us from up high and guide us along the proper path leading to the love of God.