Allergic to Death
Always go to other people’s funerals, otherwise they won’t come to yours. -Yogi Berra
Ancient civilizations, believing in the mysterious afterworld, gave much honor and respect to the priestly caste that kept its secrets. These priests, always charged with caring for the dead, were held in high esteem and perhaps even fear and trepidation, for they held the very keys to eternal life. The rituals they performed, the incantations they chanted, the diligent yet inexplicable preparations they undertook all created an impenetrable fog of religious inscrutability that forever divided the uneducated superstitious masses from the elite clergy that grew fat and rich off of the naiveté and trust of their congregants.
Rabbi Hirsch on Leviticus 21:5 explains that the Torah takes a diametrically opposed view of the role of priests within Judaism, which can be seen in the laws that guide their conduct. Starting with the establishment of the line of Kohens, with Aaron the High Priest as its founding member, he and his sons are prescribed with rules and strictures that are the antithesis of other priestly castes in the world.
A Kohen not only doesn’t tend to the dead – he is strictly forbidden to even have any contact with the dead (except for his own immediate family). This ingrained aversion or even allergy that a Kohen has to death ensures that the Jewish priestly elite would be much more preoccupied with life and the living than with death and the dying. In Rabbi Hirsch’s words:
“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 everlasting God.”
Judaism takes death seriously, but it takes life even more seriously. May we live it to its fullest potential.
In honor of V Day which was commemorated this week, and all the men and woman who sacrificed their lives for freedom.