Parashat Emor commences with a pronouncement that the Kohanim (Priests) are not to allow themselves to become tamei (ritually impure) through contact with a corpse. In ancient times, this was a pretty common type of impurity. However, the priests are specifically warned against coming into contact with a corpse under any circumstances.
There is, however, one important exception: priests can and, in fact, are obligated to, tend to their immediate blood relatives when they have died: parents, children and siblings (spouses were added to this list by the later sages). While tending to the dead is an important obligation for everyone, it does render one impure, and therefore unable to participate in the ritual life of the community. This may not be a huge issue for most Israelites, especially when confronted with the passing of a loved one. But for a priest this is very serious; this means they are not able to fulfill their primary role as the facilitators of worship.
One of my favorite modern commentators, the late Rabbi Pinchas Peli, reminds us that back in Egypt, death was big business. All of life in ancient Egypt, especially for the aristocracy, revolved around building one’s “house of eternity.” This house of eternity referred to both one’s legacy in this world and one’s place in the world to come. For many Egyptian and other pagan priests, the preparation of tombs and the rituals of the dead were their main preoccupation. Egyptian priests focused much more on the dead than the living.
But not so for the Israelite priest. The Kohen’s duty was to serve the living — to serve as a teacher and model of holiness for the people. By prohibiting a priest from coming into contact with the dead – preventing him from becoming impure – he is preserved to be able to fulfill his priestly responsibilities to the living.
“Impurity” is not transmitted from the corpse. The Torah is not telling us that there is anything intrinsically dirty or evil about a dead person. Death is, so to speak, a part of life. To emphasize this point, the exemption is stated to allow the Kohen to take care of the preparation and burial of those closest to him. This is the obligation of every Jew and no one, even a Kohen, is precluded.
This mitzvah, the obligation of Livayat ha-met, the accompanying of the dead to their final burial place, is considered one of the most important of all the mitzvot. Why? Because it is considered to be the only truly selfless act. Helping to prepare another for burial is the only “favor” you can do for another without any expectation or possibility of the favor being returned. Helping another in their transition from this world to the next is the supreme human act of compassion. Death will happen to us all, yet no one truly understands how this transition takes place. We can only speculate, and try our best to help ease the process.
So important is this act that no one, including the high priest, can shirk this responsibility toward close relatives, or even towards the lonely or poor who have no one else to bury them.
It is not death that defiles the priest and renders him incapable of tending to his duties. Rather, it is the shifting of the focus of his duties from the living to the dead that distracts the priest from his obligation to the holiness of life.
We respect and mourn our dead, but Judaism is primarily about life. As it says in the Psalms, “The dead cannot praise the Eternal” (Psalm 115:17). Death is, indeed, a part of life. It is because of this respect for life that taking care of our dead is considered such an important duty. We don’t abdicate the responsibility to priests or professional undertakers. We take care of it ourselves. This principle is why the Chevra Kadisha (literally “holy fellowship” — the traditional Jewish burial society) exists, to help us meet this need. We bring holiness into our lives through our respect for life. Even after death, we continue to honor the relationships of our life.