Emor - The Bottom Line
By Rabbi Aron Tendler
Question: Should we or should we not mourn for the death of a loved one?
Allow me to explain.
Our belief and trust in G-d frames our lives in discipline and security. We
believe in G-d, therefore we study His Torah and do His Mitzvos. G-d's
Mitzvos direct our actions and thoughts in every arena of life and living.
We believe in the G-d Who is creator and master of all things. We believe
in the G-d Who created and does all things for reasons known fully only to
Him. We believe that those reasons are by definition good and beneficial
regardless of our limited comprehension or agreement. Therefore, illness
and death must be good, not bad.
The myriads of questions that this line of impractical reasoning raises are
obvious. If illness is good, why seek medical therapies and interventions?
If all things are "by definition good," how about the Holocaust? Why work
for an income? Why do anything except sit around praying and believing?
However, regardless of the impractical nature of this line of reasoning,
the question still remains.
Our belief in G-d extends way beyond the limits of our mortal time frame.
Fundamental to our belief in G-d is our belief in reward and punishment in
an afterlife of relative eternal duration. Therefore, why mourn the passing
of our mortal beings from this world when the eternal qualities of our
spiritual existence and potential in the World To Come are limitless? Why
mourn the passing of limited comprehension, physical pain, mental
deterioration, hatred, jealousy, war, conflict, and selfishness? In fact,
we should rejoice the passing of mortality with song, gladness, and good
However, the Rambam in the Laws of Mourning 13:12 states, " Anyone who does
not mourn in the manner commanded by the Rabbis is an Achzari - a person
without compassion or conscience." It is important to note that there is a
specific Mitzvah in the Torah to mourn for one day. Moshe Rabbeinu was the
"Rabbi" who added the additional days constituting the Shivah period. This
makes the laws of Aveylus - mourning among the oldest of our traditions.
Clearly, G-d and the Rabbis expected us to mourn the death of our loved
ones and not rejoice!
The beginning of this week's Parsha seems to say differently. After stating
that the regular Kohain - priest is allowed to attend the burials of his
seven closest relatives, the Torah turns its attention to the restrictions
placed upon the Kohain Gadol - High Priest. "The Kohain who is exalted
above his brethren… shall not leave his head unshorn and shall not rend
his garments… He shall not contaminate himself to his father or his
mother… he shall not desecrate the sanctuary of his G-d…" (21:10-12)
The regular Kohain is not permitted to "contaminate" himself by
participating in burials and funerals except with his seven closest
relatives: father, mother, brother, unmarried sister, son and daughter.
However, the Kohain Gadol is restricted from participating in the burials
of his seven closest relatives as well.
At first glance this appears to be somewhat cruel and insensitive. Why
should the Torah restrict a son from participating in the burial of a
parent or G-d forbid child? Why restrict a regular Kohain from ever
visiting the graves of his family? More so, the Kohanim and the Kohain
Gadol are the quintessential paradigms of who we are supposed to be as
G-d's kingdom of priests. It suggests that not mourning is a higher form of
service than mourning. It suggests that the Torah made allowances for our
human emotional needs and limitations. However, as represented by the
restrictions imposed upon the Kohain Gadol, we should aim to be above the
natural emotional demands and practices of mourning. Yet, the Rambam says
that to not mourn is to be an Achzari?
Rav Hirsch explained why the Kohain and the Kohain Gadol are set apart from
the rest of the nation when it comes to burial and mourning. "Pagans, both
ancient and modern, have a predilection for associating religion and
religious matters with death and thoughts of death. For them the kingdom of
G-d begins only where man ends. They view death and dying as the true
manifestation of their deity, whom they see as a god of death, not of
life… Not so the priests in Judaism… Judaism teaches us not how to die
but how to live so that, even in life, we may overcome death, lack of
freedom, the enslavement to physical things and moral weakness. Judaism
teaches us how to spend every moment of a life marked by moral freedom,
thought, aspirations, creativity and achievement, along with the enjoyment
of physical pleasures, as one more moment in life's constant service to the
When death summons the other members of his people to perform the final
acts of loving-kindness, the priests of G-d must stay away in order to
keep aloft the thought that man has been endowed with moral freedom,
that he is g-dly and not subject to physical forces that seek to crush
moral freedom Only when the realities of life require even the priest to
perform his final duty as a husband, son, father, or brother, does his
priestly function yield to his calling as a human being and as a member of
a family. (21:5)
In explaining the restrictions of the Kohain Gadol, Rav Hirsch adds the
following. "He (the Kohain Gadol) has received his personal consecration
with the anointing oil from the Sanhedrin, the supreme representative body
of the nation, and he has been authorized to wear the high priestly
garments so that he may represent the symbolic expression of the highest
moral ideal which Israel is to translate into reality. Such a man has
ceased to be an ordinary individual; he must now perceive and value also
his personal relationships primarily from the standpoint of the ideals of
the nation, ideals which should be in his mind so vividly that, if he must
give personal expression to them, they will override any personal mood or
emotion that could interfere with them." (21:10-12)
On a purely theoretical level the ideal would be to never feel loss or
sadness with the passing of a loved one. However, as the Talmud in Brachos
explains, we do not make the blessing of "G-d Who is Good and Does Good
Things" on the occasion of a tragedy or loss. Instead, we acknowledge G-d
with the blessing, "Blessed be the Truthful Judge." The ability to see the
absolute goodness and benefit of G-d's actions is a function of
timelessness and immortality. We hope and pray to witness the day when the
panorama of history will be explained to us in all its complexities,
contradictions and seeming injustices. However, the Torah was given to
humans, not angels. Humans are time bound and limited. Humans have feelings
of loss and sadness. Humans are obligated to mourn for their loved ones.
The restrictions regarding death and mourning that are imposed upon the
Kohanim and specifically the Kohain Gadol is not the ideal. The Kohain
Gadol is not restricted from feeling sadness or loss. In fact, just the
opposite! It is inevitable and essential that the Kohain Gadol feels and
emotes, if not he is an Achzari and unworthy of representing the nation.
One of the defining characteristics of our people, the children of Avraham
and Sarah is Rachmanim - merciful and compassionate. How much more
compassionate must the paradigm of our people be as he stands before G-d in
the Holy of Holies on Yom Kippur asking for G-d's compassion and mercy!
However, as Aharon Hakohain modeled for all future generations when Nadav
and Avihu died, the sadness and the loss must be borne in silence. The
Kohain Gadol represents much more than himself. He represents the nation,
and at all times, regardless of personal concerns, he must bear that
designation upon his person.
Regarding the Torah's view of death I would like to make one more
observation. We are told that death was introduced into this world with the
sin of Adam and Chava eating from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and
Evil. At the same time, clothing was also introduced into the equation of
society. Clothing is the external representation of humanity's divine
quality that was marred by Adam and Chava's sinning. Death is the ultimate
triumph of the physical world over the spiritual. Just as Adam and Chava
gave into their physical desires and ignored their divine, immortal
calling, so too the physical limitations of the human ultimately triumph
over the spiritual soul in this world.
Upon death we return the body to the earth "from which it was formed."
However, we do not return the body unclothed, which would make perfect
sense. Instead, considerable care is extended to the body of the deceased
in cleaning and clothing it for burial.
The message is very clear. Our function in this world is to emulate G-d and
proclaim His reality through our actions. The world of Adam and Chava is no
more. We live in the post-sin world of death and clothing. However, the
manner in which we treat our physical selves expresses the appreciation we
have for the opportunities of living in a physical world and willfully
serving G-d. The manner in which we treat the dead should be a mere shadow
of the concern and compassion we extend to the living. The dead are cleaned
and clothed because they were created in G-d's image. The dead are mourned
and remembered because to do any less is to loose our compassion and mercy
- to loose our humanity - to become an Achzari. However, as Rav Hirsch
explained regarding the restrictions of the Kohanim, we are a religion of
life. The concern we show our deceased is reflective of the value we
attribute to the living. We must always remember that death was never the
ideal. Life was supposed to be eternal. As the Pasuk in Tehilim 118:17
states, "I will live, I will not die, so that I can relate the greatness of
Copyright © 2002 by Rabbi Aron Tendler
and Project Genesis, Inc.
The author is Rabbi of Shaarey Zedek Congregation,
Valley Village, CA.