This week’s Torah reading, parshat Emor, contains laws that govern a Kohen. We read that, with few exceptions, a Kohen cannot be in the same place with the body of someone who has died. It means never attending the funeral of a friend.
The modern questions around this one detail would only amplify the problem. If a Kohen cannot enter a cemetery, would that include being on a plane flying over a cemetery? Is there a height at which we say the presence of the cemetery below is nullified? What about being on a plane with the body of someone being transported to Israel? Can a Kohen ever enter a hospital that has a morgue in the basement? The more we think about it, the more expansive the problem. Can a Kohen walk in New York city where the Twin Towers once stood – not an official cemetery but the ashes of many are buried in the ground there.
It is easy to see that even singular comments in the Torah can sometimes clash with the mundane lives we lead. Throughout Jewish history, we have engaged in the process of finding ways to live with Jewish law and Torah. Not because it’s convenient, but because the Torah itself commands us ‘vichai bahem’, ‘and you shall live by them’. We are to find ways to bring them into our lives meaningfully. In fact, millennia of Jewish thought and texts are the product of our creative ways to not feel imprisoned by our commandments, but to thrive by living within their structures.
Kohanim cannot be present in the same place as the body of a deceased person. We define ‘place’ as the common roof, not the individual rooms of a house. We simultaneously recognize both our need to mourn, and that we live within Torah and Divine revelation. Today, a Jewish funeral home will build a room with a separate roof so any Kohen can attend and honour someone who has passed away.
As is our way, we always search for the place where Divine concepts and our human expressions stand together on common ground.
I’d like to wish everyone a sweet and peaceful Shabbat –our Jewish time to regroup, rest, and reinvigorate.