Why is contact with the dead prohibited to kohanim?
Why would Divine Providence create a kohen with a congenital mum-blemish; that disqualifies him from serving?
The Megadeph was apparently motivated by the holy yearning to “belong” to K’lal Yisrael-the Jewish People. Why was he so severely punished?
[Still, in spite of the kohen being physically blemished] he may eat the bread [i.e. food sacrifices] of his G-d, both from the holy of holies, and from the holy. But he shall not come to the cloth partition, nor approach the altar, for he has a blemish …
And the son of an Israelite woman, whose father was an Egyptian man, went out among the children of Israel; and the son of the Israelite woman had a quarrel with a man of Israel in the camp. And then the son of the Israelite woman blasphemed the Name, with a curse. The people brought him to Moshe[’s court]. And his mother’s name was Shlomis, the daughter of Divri, of the tribe of Dan.
the son of an Israelite woman…went out: Where did he go out from? … He “went out” of Moshe’s court [with a] losing [verdict. How so?] He came into the encampment of the tribe of Dan [attempting] to pitch his own tent. So [a man of this tribe] said to him, “What right do you have to be here?” Said he, “I am of the descendants of Dan,” [claiming lineage through his mother] he said to him, “[But Torah says (Bemidbar 2:2): ‘The children of Israel shall encamp] each person near the flag-banner bearing his paternal family’s insignia,’” [thereby refuting his maternal claim]. He entered Moshe’s court [where his lawsuit against the tribesmen of Dan was tried], and he “came out” defeated. Then, he stood up and cursed. (Vayikra Rabbah 32:3)
Rabi Eliezer son of Rabi Shimon was coming from Migdal Gedor … and was feeling … elated because he had studied much Torah . There he happened to meet an exceedingly ugly man who greeted him, “Peace be upon you, Sir”. He, however, did not return his welcome but instead said to him, “Empty one, how ugly you are! Are all your fellow citizens as ugly as you are?’’ The man replied: “I don’t know, but go and tell the Craftsman who made me, ‘How Ugly is the vessel which You have made’ “.
—Taanis 20 A-B
As it was taught, Shimon HaAmsoni … interpreted every [word] “es” in the Torah; [but] as soon as he came to, “You shall fear [es] HaShem your Elokim” he abstained [from interpreting the word]. His disciples said to him, “Master, what is to happen with all the esin which you have interpreted?” [Stumped by how to interpret the current ‘es’ Shimon HaAmsoni renounced the legitimacy of all his prior es readings. He taught his students … ] “Just as I received reward for interpreting all these words so too will I receive reward for retracting them [my elucidations.]”
In Parshas Emor the Izhbitzer concentrates a great deal on the issue of תרעומות כלפי מעלה tarumos k’lapee ma’alah–grievances against G-d. When comparing and contrasting the Izhbitzers understanding of the kohen ba’al mum–who is physically blemished or disabled; and the Megadeph-he who cursed; i.e. the defeated litigant in a lawsuit in Moshe Rabenu’s court who cursed G-d; we find that their diverse approaches to tarumos addresses a trait central to the core of Jewish identity.
When a kohen becomes tamei-ritually impure; more often than not the cause is his carelessness or other human error. Moreover, being tamei is a temporary condition. In cases of tumah-ritual impurity; there is no permanent loss of the privilege of serving HaShem in the Mikdash. While a kohen tamei may be miffed at losing his turn at serving in, or even entering, the Mikdash, relatively speaking it is easy for him to accept and come to terms with his disappointment and frustration. However, many of the physical blemishes or disabilities that render a kohen a ba’al mum are congenital birth-defects. A kohen ba’al mum places the responsibility for his permanent ineligibility to perform the Divine service in the Mikdash squarely on Hashems shoulders kivyachol-as it were. After all, as in the case of the ugly man whom Rabi Eliezer verbally abused, the kohen a ba’al mum considers HaShem “the Craftsman who made me”. He is bewildered over why his Creator/ Craftsmen would have brought him thisclose to the Divine Mikdash service by having been born into the patrilineal Ahronic line yet, ultimately, excluded him and distanced him from Divine Mikdash service through “crafting” a “defective product”. In short, the kohen ba’al mum bears tarumos-heartfelt grievances; towards G-d.
The Izhbitzer understands the mitzvah addressed to the kohanim ba’alei mumim of eating of the korbanos– sacrificial offerings; as a way of appeasing them and addressing their tarumos. Their pnimiyus-their inner essence; even physically, is equivalent to all other kohanim. While the kohen ba’al mum may be blemished externally and superficially, his inner core lacks nothing. More pointedly; his internal organs become another vehicle for intimacy with HaShem. HaShem is Just and determines precisely how many kohanim ba’alei mumim there must be and which particular souls will be implanted into these “defective” bodies. Through the mitzvah of eating of the korbanos the kohen ba’al mum achieves intimacy with the Divine and, while being kept at arm’s length, kivyachol, in terms of service in the Mikdash, comes to realize that this too is a fulfillment if HaShems Will. In achieving this consciousness the bitterness of his tarumos are sweetened; transformed into wistful, brokenhearted yearnings for the closeness achieved through service in the Mikdash. In turn these yearnings engender the closeness and intimacy that HaShem has with the heartbroken “HaShem is close to the brokenhearted” (Tehillim 34:19 cp Zohar VaYesheiv page181A)
In contradistinction to the letting go of tarumos of the kohanim ba’alei mumim; the Megadeph allowed his tarumos to become his undoing. Per the Izhbitzer the inclusion of the narrative of the Megadeph in the Torah is only to serve as a cautionary tale of just how much we all need to rid ourselves of tarumos k’lapee ma’alah, even those rooted in the most noble of yearnings.
It’s essential to recall that the tarumos of the Megadeph also stemmed from his perception of being unjustly distanced from HaShem. He cursed G-d because he had lost his lawsuit against the tribesmen of Dan and had been excluded from pitching his tent within the Camp of Israel. His yearning for closeness stemmed from his being an Ish Yisraeli-an Israelite man; based on matrilineal descent. Nevertheless his being the son of an Egyptian man caused him to act upon his tarumos and curse G-d for robbing him of his opportunity for closeness.
The Izhbitzer asserts that the ability to accept HaShem’s Will for maintaining distance and boundaries with equanimity is one of the defining characteristics of the Jewish soul and psyche. While the Megadeph was halachically Jewish his Egyptians fathers input into the totality of his spiritual/ genetic makeup is what caused him to react in a distinctly non-Jewish way, metastasizing his grievance at the perceived injustice of being denied proximity with HaShem and His people; into a curse of
This is the key to understanding the Gemara (Avodah Zarah 3A) which teaches that in Times to Come the nations of the world will complain to HaShem that they did not have the opportunity to observe the Torah. HaShem will then challenge them to observe the mitzvah of sukkah. Then, He will manipulate the sun to turn the weather unbearably hot. Each non-Jew, furious over the “fix-being-in” that made observing the mitzvah impossible, will kick his sukkah down on the way out of it. The Gemara asks that even a Jew under such circumstances is exempt from the mitzvah; so why should the non-Jews departure from the sukkah be deemed a non-compliance/ non-fulfillment of the mitzvah? The Gemara answers that while Jews would depart from their sukkahs under the same circumstances as well, they would not react furiously and kick their sukkahs down. In other words, concludes the Izhbitzer; the litmus test distinguishing Jews from non-Jews is whether or not violence-inducing tarumos k’lapee ma’alah develop.
If there is a silver lining to tarumos k’lapee ma’alah it is that they are indicative of a deep-seated faith in Divine Providence. When explaining the prohibition for kohanim to become tamei through contact with the dead, the Izhbitzer teaches that the greater ones belief in HaShems full control of all that occurs the more susceptible they become to tarumos k’lapee ma’alah. Those who believe in natural causality and happenstance will never direct their ire towards HaShem when things don’t go their way. Such people merely shrug their shoulders and think “bad break” or “strange coincidence”.
The behavior of Shimon Ha’Amsoni sets a precedent for the Jewish capacity for avoiding tarumos k’lapee ma’alah. He was willing to accept the distancing from the Torah that renouncing all his previous interpretations of the word “es” would mean as he had decided that this must be HaShems Will. “As HaShem rewarded me for the dreeshah-the interpretations of ‘es’; so too will He reward me for the preeshah-withdrawing from ‘es’; and renouncing the validity of all my prior interpretations.” Whether seeking Divine proximity through Torah or Avodah, Jews possess a genius for letting go of their grievances, for accepting Divinely mandated detachment and, oddly enough, for sensing a imminence in the remoteness.
An installment in the series of adaptations
From the Waters of the Shiloah: Plumbing the Depths of the Izhbitzer School
By Rabbi Dovid Schwartz-Mara D’Asra Cong Sfard of Midwood