The Humaneness of the Mitzvot

  • Harav Yehuda Amital

Sicha for Shabbat from the Roshei Yeshiva
Yeshivat Har Etzion



The Humaneness of the Mitzvot

Summarized by Danny Orenbuch

Translated by Kaeren Fish


"And God said to Moshe, Say to the kohanim, sons of Aharon, and say to them: He (the kohen) shall not be defiled for the dead of his people (i.e., a kohen is forbidden from coming into contact with a dead body), except for his close relatives - for his mother, his father, his son, his daughter and his brother. And for his virgin sister who is close to him, who has not been married, for her he may be defiled." (Vayikra 21:1-3)

"'For her he may be defiled' - This is a command." (Rashi, ibid.)

The biblical source for the laws of mourning is found in our parasha, and it is mentioned specifically in connection with kohanim. The Rambam, however, brings an additional source: Following the death of Aharon's sons Nadav and Avihu on the eighth day of the ceremonies consecrating the Mishkan, we find Moshe asking Aharon why he did not eat the sin-offering as he should have. Aharon answers, "[Since these things have happened to me,] if I had eaten the sin-offering today, would it have been good in God's eyes?" On the basis of Aharon's question, the Rambam deduces that it is a positive mitzva to mourn for one's immediate relatives. (See Hilkhot Avel 1:1.)

This latter source, too, involves the context of kohanim. Hence we must ask ourselves why in fact the laws of mourning are given with specific reference to the kohanim.

The Rambam, in Sefer Ha-mitzvot (Positive Commandment no. 37), explains as follows:

"The kohanim are commanded to defile themselves for those relatives mentioned in the Torah, because since the Torah forbids them - for the sake of their status - from defiling themselves for any dead person, but permitted them to become defiled for their close relatives, they may think that the decision is up to them: if they want to become defiled [for relatives] then they may, and if they do not so desire, then they can choose not to. Therefore the Torah commands and obligates them, and that is why the Holy One, Blessed be He, says, 'For her he shall become defiled' - i.e., for his sister..."

The kohen, despite his lofty stature and special status, is obligated in this instance to become defiled. Mourning is a human phenomenon common to anyone who experiences the death of a close relative, and therefore it is both impossible and undesirable for a person to distance himself from it. Even the kohen is obligated to defile his spiritual status and attend to the burial of his relatives.

In fact, the command is given specifically to the kohen because if he is not possessed of simple humanity, he will not be able be an effective teacher of the people. The kohen's status does not justify his cutting himself off from the human emotions that every individual must feel.

The Rambam continues:

"And the Sifra explains, 'for her he shall become defiled' - this is a mitzva. Even if he doesn't wish to defile himself, he is forced [to do so] against his will. The story is told of Yosef HaKohen whose wife died on Erev Pesach and he did not wish to become defiled [and thereby become disqualified from offering the Korban Pesach], but the Sages forced him against his will. And this in itself is the mitzva of mourning; in other words, every individual of Israel is obligated to mourn for his relatives... In order to reinforce this obligation, God commanded it in the context of the kohen, who is given special warnings against becoming defiled. Nevertheless, [in this instance] he must become defiled like any other member of the nation in order that the observances of mourning not be disconnnected from him."

Yosef HaKohen, like the other kohanim, was looking forward to the arrival of Pesach so that he could sacrifice the Korban Pesach. For this reason he wanted to avoid becoming defiled. But the Sages forced him to become defiled against his will, because one may not use the pretext of a mitzva in order to avoid the natural emotion of mourning.

Sometimes we accept horrible and tragic events - even on a personal level - with an inner conviction (which is in fact justified) that these events "had to be so." But at times this leads some people to the erroneous conclusion that there is therefore no need to mourn. Although the world is directed from on High and all of history is a Divine process, we are nevertheless obligated to mourn - to feel and experience the emotion, to be human.

At the end of parashat Emor we read:

"And the son of an Israelite woman, whose father was Egyptian, went out among Bnei Yisrael, and this son of the Israelite woman fought in the camp with the son of an Israelite man. And the son of the Israelite woman cursed God's name, and they brought him to Moshe, and his mother's name was Shlomit bat Divri of the tribe of Dan... And God spoke to Moshe, saying, 'Take the blasphemer outside of the camp, and let all those who heard him place their hands on his head, and let the whole congregation stone him.'" (Vayikra 24:10-14)

Rashi quotes the Torat Kohanim as follows:

"We learn: He (the son of the Israelite woman and the Egyptian man) wanted to pitch his tent in the midst of the camp of Dan. They said to him, 'What are you doing here?' He said to them, 'I am descended from a daughter of the tribe of Dan.' They said to him, 'It is written: Each person shall pitch his tent by his flag, with the symbols of their fathers' house' (Bamidbar 2:2). He went to plead his case in Moshe's court, but the decision was not in his favor. And so he stood and blasphemed."

This story reflects the tragedy of a person who is unaffiliated, trying by force to join one of the tribes. Each of us belongs to someone - to a family, a society; this person had nothing and no one. The verdict was against him, and he blasphemed. Now, it would seem that Chazal could have left out the background of the story and simply indicated that this is the punishment fit for someone who curses God. But, as we have mentioned above, God indeed issues commandments and decrees, but that does not permit us to ignore human emotion and to suppress the feelings of sorrow, pain and sympathy which we should feel in this instance. True, he was justly sentenced to death; but we must nevertheless feel bad for him.

Similarly, in the case of Nadav and Avihu, the sons of Aharon, we are told, "And all of Bnei Yisrael shall weep over the fire [which killed Nadav and Avihu]." Once again, we may ask: Why must they cry? After all, their death was clearly a Divine decree. Nevertheless, the Torah is teaching us here to be careful not to wear the disguise of piety and thereby cut ourselves off from human emotion and from the sorrow and pain which we should feel. Human emotion does not contradict fulfillment of the mitzvot; on the contrary, it augments and increases their worth.

(Originally delivered on Leil Shabbat Parashat Emor 5753 [1993].)



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