Parashat Emor begins with the command that kohanim avoid contact with a human corpse, making an exception in cases of the death of an immediate family member. Immediately thereafter, the Torah commands that kohanim may not make a bald area in the hair on their heads or entirely remove their sideburns (21:5). Many commentators (including Rashi, Ibn Ezra, the Rashbam and Seforno) explain (based on Torat Kohanim, as cited by Seforno) this command as a continuation of the prior discussion concerning contact with corpses. Although the Torah allows kohanim to become tamei (ritually impure) by tending to the remains of a deceased family member, they are forbidden from excessive mourning. The Torah thus adds in this context that when kohanim tend to their deceased family member, they may not follow the extreme mourning practices observed by pagan cults that lived at that time.
Maharil Diskin suggests a different explanation for this prohibition. He writes that the religious figures in other faiths were identifiable solely by their external features – such as unusual haircuts. The kohanim, the priests among Benei Yisrael, were to be identifiable by their conduct, not by their attire or other external features. And thus immediately after this command, the Torah instructs, “Kedoshim yiheyu l-Elokeihem” – that the kohanim must be “sacred.” The kohanim are told that their distinguishing characteristic must be their refined, noble conduct, and not their appearance. Whereas the priests of other peoples acted like everybody else but distinguished themselves superficially, by appearing different and “holy,” the kohanim are to do just the opposite – appear outwardly the same as other people, but conduct themselves in an especially holy manner. Their status of distinction must be reflected by the way they speak and act, and not by the way they look.
Maharil Diskin’s explanation of this verse reminds us of the dangerous trap of vain superficiality, of feeling content with projecting a positive, respectable image, rather than truly building ourselves into the people we should be. While there is certainly a great deal of value in ensuring a respectable appearance, we must always remember that this does not suffice. Looking the way we should does not absolve us of the need to act and speak the way we should. Living lives of kedusha means not only appearing “holy,” but being “holy” in all our actions and our interactions, each and every day.