MEANING IN MITZVOT by Rabbi Asher Meir
Each week we discuss one familiar halakhic practice and try to show its beauty and meaning. The columns are based on Rabbi Meir's commentary Meaning in Mitzvot on Kitzur Shulchan Arukh.
TUM'A OF A KOHEN
Our parsha begins with the warning to Kohanim that they must not defile themselves through contact or proximity to a dead person. The exception is that they may – and indeed must – defile themselves in mourning for their closest relatives (Vayikra 21:1-3).
PROHIBITION ON A KOHEN TO BECOME TAMEI
The divine Presence, the Shechina, is like the soul of the world. The world without holiness, like the human body without its Divinely-given soul, is just a meaningless collection of matter. Just as the soul doesn’t dwell equally in every part of the body but rather is particularly focused in the brain, so the world’s holiness is focused in the Mikdash.
To emphasize the fact that the Mikdash is the embodiment of life, of matter which is enlivened by holiness, we must keep away from it when we are affected by contact with death, matter which has been emptied of holiness.
FUSION OF MATTER AND SPIRIT
Grief also tends to preoccupy us and attenuate our emotional connection with our environment. So a Kohen in this state may not serve in the Mikdash.
These laws should remind us that ideally we also should serve HaShem through connection with the world, and not through severing ourselves from it.
DEFILING FOR RELATIVES
This law hints at a profound connection between mourning and tuma.
Renewal and repentance are also a recurring theme in the laws of mourning. Mourning moves us to introspection, and helps us internalize the meaning of life. “It is better to go to a place of mourning than to a place of rejoicing; for this is the end of every person, and the living will take it to heart” (Mishlei 7:2).
The missing loved one is an inherent part of the old personality of the mourner; his or departure compels the mourning relative to take stock and create a new self. We can find this symbolism in the mourner’s obligation to tear his clothes, discarding his old persona and ultimately creating a new one – especially in the case of mourning for a parent, when the old clothes may never be repaired (see last year’s column on Shemini). Growing the hair and then cutting it in response to rebuke has a similar message.
For the Kohen, defilement for a dead relative amounts to an actual alteration of his personal status, since when defiled he can not serve in the Mikdash, nor eat trumah or challah. So this change is an integral part of the overall process of mourning, in which the mourner’s self is undermined and then recreated. This idea is extended to all of us: the mourner should not resist the feeling that the death of a relative undermines his identity; rather, he should acknowledge this fact and use it to gradually rebuild his identity in the new reality created by his loss.
Rabbi Meir is in the process of writing a monumental companion to Kitzur Shulchan Aruch which beautifully presents the meanings in our mitzvot and halacha.
Rabbi Meir authors a popular weekly on-line Q&A column, "The Jewish Ethicist", which gives Jewish guidance on everyday ethical dilemmas in the workplace. The column is a joint project of the JCT Center for Business Ethics, Jerusalem College of Technology - Machon Lev; and Aish HaTorah. You can see the Jewish Ethicist, and submit your own questions, at www.jewishethicist.com or at www.aish.com.