SALT - Sunday, Rosh Chodesh, 30 Nisan 5776, Omer 15 - May 8, 2016

  • Rav David Silverberg

            Yesterday, we noted the comment of the Midrash (Vayikra Rabba 26:5) explaining a seemingly repetitious expression in the opening verse of Parashat Emor.  When God instructs Moshe to convey to the kohanim the special laws that apply to them, He says, “Speak to the kohanim…and say to them,” suggesting that the command needed to be repeated.  The Midrash explains that as human beings must struggle against their negative inclinations, commands must be repeated for us to comply.  This is in contrast to the angels, who respond immediately and instinctively, without any hesitation or struggle.

            In yesterday’s discussion, we raised the question of why this concept is expressed specifically here, in the context of tum’at kohanim – the prohibition that forbids kohanim from coming in contact with a human corpse.  Why is the message of “Emor…ve-amarta,” the need to struggle against our negative tendencies, presented specifically in this context?

            One possibility, perhaps, is that this command offers a classic example of two legitimate and important values that conflict.  Our tradition has always ranked tending to the needs of the deceased and attending burials among the most significant acts of kindness that a person can perform.  For this reason, even kohanim are allowed to bury immediate family members, and even a kohen gadol, who may not bury family members, may bury a person who has no one else to bury him.  In all other instances, however, despite the value of giving honor to the deceased by participating in burials, kohanim may not attend, due to the need for them to maintain their special status of purity.  Kohanim are prohibited to become tamei not because tending to the needs of a deceased person is not important, but rather because the need to preserve their special sanctity overrides the value of attending a burial (except in the cases noted above).

            For this reason, perhaps, the Torah specifically in this context alludes to the struggles and hesitation we often experience with regard to mitzva observance.  Often, the most difficult “yetzer ha-ra” is a legitimate conflicting value or concern, those times when the choice is not between good and evil, but between one form of good and another form of good, and Halakha requires us to favor one over the other.  For angels, there is only right and wrong; the division is clear and unambiguous, and so they act immediately.  We, however, live in a far more complex and confusing world, where important values and concerns often conflict with one another.  And it is specifically for such instances, perhaps, that Chazal in the Midrash remind us of “Emor…ve-amarta,” of the difficulties and challenges entailed in doing the right thing.

Just as a kohen may not expose himself to tum’a despite the value of giving honor to a deceased person, similarly, we are often times required to favor one important value over another, and this marks one of the numerous difficult challenges that we confront as we try to live our lives as committed and faithful servants of our Creator.