“You’re not invited to my funeral,” would ordinarily be seen as a harsh statement. Imagine the strained relationship that would generate such a strong reaction between two people. We could well envision the irreparable damage a relationship may have suffered to illicit such a response. We might think of a husband and wife who divorce and the reverberating pain and strife that may last an entire lifetime between the ex-couple. There are times that family feuds erupt like a volcano, leaving emotional ash and soot in its virulent wake. But what would lead a close friend to utter such words (if indeed they were uttered at all).
The answer begins, in part, with comic book heroes. Whether it was Batman, Superman or Captain America, each hero had a particular weakness or vice. Whether it’s the Green Lantern’s aversion to the color yellow or Superman’s weakness near Kryptonite, these protagonists are not impenetrable.
I’ll attempt to formulate the question you may have been thinking: So what? What, if anything, has this to do with our portion and the difficult statement my friend has made to begin our article?
And the answer is: Much of our upcoming Torah portion deals with the laws of the Kohen-the Priestly caste of our people. (The people who have last names like: Cohen, Kohen, Kahn, Katz, Kaplan, as well as a host of others). So what is unique about these individuals who are the Kohanim? One of the many unique laws that apply to the kohanim (though in the case under discussion, specifically to male kohanim), is their interaction with the dead. Namely: Save for their 7 close relatives (parents, wife, children and siblings) they may have no contact with the dead. This means, among other things, that the kohen may not go to graveside funerals.
Now, I expect a reaction. That’s not fair?! What an imposition! What if the person that passes is very close to you!? These are very valid questions and things I’ve thought about…and fortunately, so have the scholarly among the Jewish people. If I may use my own metaphor to relate how our Sages describe a kohen’s relationship with the dead: It is similar to the relationship Superman has to Kryptonite. In short: Its makeup is antithetical to the health and well-being of the kohen. Why?
One of the jobs that the kohen has been charged with, is to be a conduit of life to the Jewish people. Whether this be in the form of facilitating atonement (the stain of sin and disconnect from G-d is, in a form, death) as well as the study and teaching of Torah that the kohanim were responsible for, are considered the elixir of life that a kohen must uphold. Any contact to death, causes the spiritual equivalent of an anaphylactic shock to the kohen’s entire system.
Let us circle back to my friend’s curious statement. Since he is mindful of my kohen status (indeed, Fredman is another kohen last name, though not as popular, but authentic nonetheless) he would never want me to jeopardize my spiritual well-being for his sake.
With this in mind, we can readily appreciate that if we know of kohanim, it becomes our duty to appreciate the significant role they play among our nation today, and, with the rebuilding of the Holy Temple, will greatly play in the future.