This week’s sidra, Parshat Emor (Leviticus 21-24), opens with a corpse and closes with a corpse. Between the bodies, we find an entire circus sideshow: animals and kohanim with bizarrely malformed bodies, priestly daughters who go a-whoring, a year’s worth of festive butchery, oil for turning on the lights, and challah for the lechem ha-panim (often translated as “showbread”). All that’s missing are the calliope music, the peanuts, and the cotton candy!
The first dead body we encounter is a hypothetical relative of a hypothetical kohen. We read of the divine command to Moses to speak to his relatives, the kohanim (sons of his brother Aaron), instructing them not to become impure by being in the presence of the dead. We wonder, of course, at such a rule. The family members are warned about burying their own relatives (other than the immediate relatives for whom mourning rituals are required – parent, offspring, sibling) or even being in the presence of their lifeless bodies. This, we read, is to prevent the kohen from becoming tamei, impure. Of course, buried within the portion, we read that there are other purveyors of impurity: eating food that we would today call non-kosher, having sex (even of the normal, everyday sort), intermarrying, and more. That these factors might be much more common in the life of the typical kohen than accidental death begs the question: Why mention the dead relative first?
Although separated by many weeks and chapters in our annual reading (and thus our experience) of the text, the immediate preceding chronological event to this section is none other than Leviticus 10, the death of Aaron’s two sons, Nadav and Avihu, as they eagerly entered the Tent of Meeting with firepans at the ready. At that time, their cousins Mishael and Elzaphan were instructed to remove the corpses touching only their clothes. Their father and brothers, having been in a state of ritual purity at the time, were not permitted to come in contact with them or take their bodies outside the tent “lest they die.” In short, we see a direct line between the specific narrative and its abstracted law, albeit separated by reams of both parchment and verbiage (the Torah thus hedging its bets on what precipitated the boys’ deaths). If you put yourself in Aaron’s family’s shiva slippers, you might understandably be touchy regarding rules of impurity and death.
What seems even more intense is the realization that, despite the editorializing, the Torah text inserts at that point (“[Nadav and Avihu] brought strange fire that [God] had not commanded” Lev 10:1), those who were actually there would have had absolutely no idea why the brothers were suddenly struck dead by an otherworldly tongue of flame! To know that not long afterwards, Moses tells the grieving family that they must be very careful of becoming impure lest they die, must have been like the dropping of the other shoe. Picture an oncologist warning the kin of a recently deceased patient that there is a high probability they too could die if they are not careful, and you may begin to understand that the life of privilege we most commonly associate with kohanim may miss the mark completely. It is very much more likely that Aaron and his offspring may have understood kehunah (priesthood) as a burden and a (genetic?) defect, rather than the gift or privilege we often imagine it to be. As Sookie Stackhouse from the TV series “TrueBlood” (and the novels by Charlaine Harris) sees it, being unique (she is able to read minds) is a burdensome and frightening defect, no matter how many well-meaning friends try to convince her that she has a “gift.” In the same way, the Tanach describes with candor the “burden (masa)” of prophecy. From Moses, who deflects God’s first invitation to go to Egypt (at the burning bush) down through Jonah (I’ll run away on a ship!), Amos, Isaiah, and Ezekiel (Who would like to eat dung cakes or lie on his side by a model of Jerusalem for a year…. Let’s not all raise our hands at once!), the life of a true biblical prophet was never understood as a “gift of prophecy,” as many Christians refer to it.
No, in our Torah portion the absurdity and perhaps even the horror of the priestly inheritance are driven home, again and again, by talk about priestly daughters who shame their fathers by prostitution, talk of blind or maimed priests, by mention of castrated kohanim or those who have one leg longer than the other. The Torah discusses, so matter-of-factly, every genetic or social or birth defect that can afflict humankind, and cautions the nascent priestly family that they are always in danger of instant death. Being a son of Aaron must have seemed like the ultimate pre-existing condition for which there seemed to be no rational cure. Knowing, as we now do, that there is a definitive Cohen Modal Haplotype – a group of genetic markers that putative descendents of Aaron share – should scare any Aronsons or Cohens or Kaplans, for our Torah portion (if it is to be trusted) paints a horrific picture of the family’s inherited health prospects.
So what, we might ask, is the antidote to the prospect of such a life? Is it the great honor of being called first to the Torah or leading birkat ha-mazon (blessing after meals), or even the permission to eat trumah (the portion of every crop that all Israelites had to give to the kohanim) when nobody else could? Perhaps every few hundred years when a powerful famine raged through the land, the Coens would be grateful for who they are. But otherwise, might there be any compensation to brighten the lives of “the doomed”?
I’d like to suggest that the remainder of Parshat Emor limns a transformative picture of life. What, after all, is the yearly cycle of holidays if not a counterbalance to a life that might otherwise be nasty, brutish, and short? What are we to make of the use of pure olive oil in a menorah other than a “lifting up (of) a lamp, always (Lev. 24:2),” a clear visual reminder of the constant presence of God, of light, of uplifting meaning, of a transcendence that raises life to a higher plane? And looking at the arrangement of challot that the kohanim themselves prepared and set in place before God each Shabbat, it would be hard for the priests to miss the symbolism of God’s desire to feed the people and their own crucial role in making that happen. As is taught in tractate Menachot, the kohanim immediately distributed the lechem ha-panim that was removed from the golden table, from which they learned that God is not selfish, like human rulers, but desires to entice people slated for death to the ways of life (Menachot 99b-100a).
Finally, and crucially, the endangered kohanim must know that they are not alone. The Israelites are called a “mamlechet kohanim ve-goy kadosh,” a nation of priests and a unique/holy people, and the death at the end of the portion reinforces this tendency. We read there (Leviticus 24:10-23) about a half-Jew (father Egyptian, mother Israelite) who gets into a fight against a (full) Jew. During the course of the contretemps, the half-Jew curses God’s name and the crowd turns against him, bringing him to Moses to find out what should be done with him.
Moses has no idea, either, so he inquires of God, who answers that the man should be stoned by everyone who heard the blasphemy. They take the fellow outside the camp and stone him to death, demonstrating their fealty to God’s law and their desire to defend God’s name. What a startling conclusion to this Torah portion and, as well, to the entire “story” of Leviticus (the final two portions set out more anthologies of laws of various sorts).
Contrary to the bleak portrait of a life ruled by genetics and yichus (as the “first corpse” indicated), the “final corpse” in Parshat Emor demonstrates the ultimate freedom that God enables. The fate of a person is not determined by his parentage but by his actions. Those who follow God’s desires and God’s laws carve out for themselves a life uplifted, a life of light and meaning, a life of sacrifice that feeds the stomach and the soul and reaches beyond the “pre-existing condition” of mortality. Those who curse that world view, who use God’s name as a cudgel in battle or as a pretext to subjugate others, they lose out on the benefits of the uplifting nature of kehuna, of priesthood. It is not, after all, the honor of getting the first aliyah to the Torah that makes kohanim special. Rather, it is and has always been the vocation of priesthood – a life of service to the greater scheme of things – that ennobles the entire enterprise of Torah. Because we all have a stake in generating the light that shines and the bread that feeds, we all share the blessings and the dangers of the precarious life of the kohanim. What better task could there be?