Parashat Emor begins with the command forbidding kohanim from exposing themselves to tum’at meit – the impurity resulting from direct contact with a human corpse. The Torah formulates this command by saying, “Le-nefesh lo yitama be-amav” – “He [a kohen] shall not become defiled to any soul among his people” (21:1). The word “be-amav” (“among his people”) is explained by Seforno as a sort of introduction to the next verse, in which the Torah makes an exception for a kohen’s immediate family members. The Torah forbids a kohen from coming in contact with the remains of people who were just “be-amav” – ordinary members of the nation, but not those who were part of the kohen’s immediate family. Rashi, citing Torat Kohanim, explains the term “be-amav” differently, suggesting that it refers not to the kohen, but to the deceased person with whom the kohen may not come in contact. This prohibition applies only to the remains of a person who is “among his people” – meaning, who has people caring for his burial needs. In the case, however, of a “meit mitzva” – a deceased person whom nobody cares to bury, this prohibition does not apply, and a kohen who is in a position to bury the body is allowed (and in fact required) to do so.
The word “be-amav” in this verse led one classic Chassidic commentator – the Yismach Moshe (Rav Moshe Teitelbaum of Ujhel) – to a fascinating and meaningful secondary interpretation of this command. The Yismach Moshe suggests that the Torah here warns the kohanim – representing religious leaders in general – not to expose themselves to the impurity of sin when working “be-amav,” with the people, tending to communal affairs and shepherding their flocks. Within the sacred confines of the Beit Ha-mikdash, and, more generally, when devoting themselves to study and prayer, there is less risk of “impurity,” of spiritual contamination. But when religious leaders work “be-amav,” with the commoners, as they are expected and required to do, they are vulnerable to the contamination of arrogance, anger, and petty fighting. The Torah here commands the kohanim to ensure not to defile the “nefesh,” their own exalted souls, the pure character and spirit they’ve worked so hard to nurture, through inappropriate conduct in their interpersonal affairs and communal involvement. Displaying anger and impatience, humiliating people, and instigating fights are sources of “impurity” that is no less damaging than that resulting from contact with a human corpse, and these forms of impurities can easily surface when even sincere, well-intentioned religious leaders work to lead, elevate and inspire the masses. The Yismach Moshe thus teaches that just as kohanim are required to avoid tum’at meit, so are they – and all religious figures – expected to steer clear of the impurity of misconduct in their social and public roles, and ensure that the lofty spiritual ideals they represent are reflected in all their interpersonal dealings.