Concentric Circles of Duty (and Anxiety)

May 5th: Emor
Rabbi David E. Ostrich

The Kohanim, the descendants of the ancient priests, do not have many priestly duties these days, but there are still some rules that apply to them. In many synagogues, they conduct the duchenen, the ritual of the priestly blessing. In many synagogues, they are given the first Aliyah to the Torah. They are not allowed to marry divorcees. And, they are not supposed to go into cemeteries or funeral homes—except for the funerals of immediate family members.

This last custom is derived from the opening passage in this week’s Torah portion:
“The Lord said to Moses: Speak to the priests, the sons of Aaron, and say to them: None shall defile himself for any dead person among his kin, except for the relatives that are closest to him: his mother, his father, his son, his daughter, and his brother; also for a virgin sister, close to him because she is not married, for her he may defile himself. But he shall not defile himself as a kinsman by marriage, and so profane himself.”

Though the words defile and profane sound harsh, what the Torah is addressing here is the ritual status of someone who officiates at the altar. It is not a sin or disgusting or inappropriate to be a mourner in the proximity of a corpse, but it does render a priest temporarily unfit for priestly duties.

(There are many theories as to why the ancients believed that touching a corpse or having various bodily discharges—semen, menstrual fluid, pus, and various childbirth-related liquids—render one ritually unfit. The best I have heard is from Rabbi Chanan (Herbert) Brichto. He believed that it had to do with dosing of the life force. Officiating at the sacrifices means coming very close to God, and, if someone has recently had a dose of the life force via various bodily emissions or contact with the dead, that person is at risk of an overdose. That is why the Torah requires a waiting period and a ritual bath before re-entry to the worship space.)

One could look at this ritual “fitness” or “unfitness” passage as a delineation of the conditions under which a priest is allowed to be “off-duty.”  As with any job, there are some times when it is okay to miss work and some times when it is not. You may remember from a few weeks ago (in Parshat Shemini in Leviticus 10) when Aaron and his two younger sons were not allowed to be off-duty despite the fact that Nadab and Abihu, Aaron’s two older sons, were killed. Formal mourning would render Aaron, Elazar, and Itamar ritually unfit to officiate at the altar, and so the rest of the community performed the mourning rituals. “Your kinsmen, all the house of Israel, shall bewail the burning that the Lord has wrought.”(Leviticus 10.6) In God’s instructions not to formally mourn—though clearly they grieved, we have an interesting notion. “Do not bare your heads and do not rend your clothes, lest you die and anger strike the whole community.”

The anger would not be because they were mourning. Rather, should anyone sin and draw Divine anger, a mourning Aaron, Elazar, and Itamar would mean that no priests would be available to officiate at the altar and stave off God’s anger. In other words, the spiritual welfare of the whole Israelite nation could not be deferred for their mourning, so they had to remain on-duty despite the great tragedy that had befallen their family.

At this early point in our religion, there were no other priests to take their place. However, as the priesthood developed, there were enough trained priests so that replacements could be found. What we have in this passage is an explanation of which emergencies allow a priest to be off-duty and which ones do not.

This principle of concentric circles of connection to a tragedy may be helpful in other areas of life. Sometimes, we are personally involved or in immediate proximity to a crisis, and sometimes we are a degree or two or three removed. If we are in the immediate circle—as the patient or victim or an immediate family member, it may be a time to be “off duty” from life and fully immerse ourselves in the crisis. However, if we are in a relatively outer circle, then our best role may be to stay “on duty” so that those immediately affected can be temporarily relieved of their responsibilities.

We can also use this principle as we consider the outrages or tragedies of the world—much of which we discover via newspapers or television. Most of the time, we are mere observers to things that are happening far away from us. We can be concerned or saddened, but do we need to let that anxiety or grief take over our lives? Every single day, news reports can provide us dozens of opportunities to experience anxiety or panic or grief, and yet falling apart or being exercised to the point of distraction depletes our strength and our patience—making us less able to deal with the issues that are close to us.

I am not suggesting that we ignore the issues or crises of the outside world, but the lesson of the ancient priests can remind us of the circles of proximity and how close or far we are from the center.

One final thought: Though there is much to admire in the thinking and contributions of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., one of his most famous statements has some troublesome implications. In his famous Letter From a Birmingham Jail, Dr. King writes, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” Sometimes quoted as “Injustice anywhere is injustice everywhere,” this sentiment is very inspiring, but it is an exhortative/rhetorical statement and not a philosophical truth. It is very possible to have justice well-established and secure in one place, while other places are mired in terrible injustice. The one does not necessarily have anything to do with the other. Of course, injustice is always a possibility. Thus does the Holy Yehudi explain the repetitiveness of the phrase from Deuteronomy, “Justice, justice shall you pursue” as a reminder that one instance of justice must be followed by another instance of justice, and another and another. However, Dr. King’s exhortation can make us forget that justice does reign in some places, and that we needn’t live in a state of perpetual panic and anxiety and grief.

Every crisis or tragedy does not have to be our crisis or our tragedy. God may have infinite attention and love, but we humans do not. We need to consider our relative distance from a problem and utilize our emotional and intellectual energies appropriately. Thus can we marshal our resources, think clearly, and figure out what we can do.