In memory of my exalted older brother ר' שמחה דוד בן ר' משה ע"ה

We are introduced this week to the special requirements and obligations associated with that special cadre among our nation known as the family of Kohanim — the descendants of Aharon HaKohen.

The very first law enumerated relates to their need to disassociate from any contact with the dead, except for close relatives and an abandoned corpse.

Their elevated status to remain untainted from any halachic impurity that might hinder their ability to perform the service in the Temple or be attentive to their unique role, is certainly a primary goal of this restriction.

Yet, the Torah not only affords them, but obligates them, to grieve and tend to their closest deceased relatives, tendering to them the honor they deserve. 

But the Kohen Gadol — the High Priest, is to refrain even from any contact with his most cherished kin.

Is it possible the Torah is denying him the opportunity to display his deep love and appreciation to those closest to him?

Is the Kohen Gadol being denied the therapeutic mourning period that is so helpful in overcoming the trauma of personal loss?

The Sefer HaChinuch suggests that a Kohen Gadol is so bound up in his ecstatic devotion to G-d that he is detached from worldly affairs and relationships, and thus has no emotional need for cathartic grieving. 

The Ramban — Nachmanedes, asserts that it is not a lack of emotional need but rather his calling as the High Priest to display that the honor and love to G-d and devotion to His Temple supersedes the honor and affection due to man. The Kohen Gadol’s role as the promoter of the Honor of Heaven requires his sacrificing that emotional need.

Rabbeinu Asher — the Rosh, offers a fascinating idea as to why the Kohen Gadol is exempt and in fact prohibited from mourning fully.

He writes: דשמחת קדושתו מונעת מלחול עליו אבילות המת — the joy of his holiness prevents the impact of mourning over the dead have an effect on him.

(תוס' הרא"ש מוע"ק יד:)

Is the Rosh simply implying that the obligation of the Kohen to rejoice in his role as a Kohen Gadol disallows the interference of mourning to douse that joy, like the law that prohibits aveilus — mourning during Yom Tov, that at times even exempts one completely from even sitting shiva? Is there even a command for the Kohen Gadol to ‘rejoice’ in his role?

The illustrious Gaon and Lover of Israel, Rav A.Y. Kook in a poignant letter written to one of his most beloved disciples, Rav Yaakov Moshe Charlop, upon the death of his mother, writes remarkable words of consolation.

After the Rav asserts that it is unnecessary to state how much he shares in his pain and grief equally, he writes:

I am confident in my most honored friend, a wise man with strength, that he is aware that even in the inevitable times of judgment — with the strength of the spirit of G-d that directs him, he will know to restrain his grief, and with the light of the Love of Hashem, may He be blessed, and the joy of His salvation, he will know how to sweeten also the bitterness of his mourning.

וידע נאנמה שגם בכל אדם בישראל בעת אשר קרבת ד' תעודדהו לשמחה בלב ונפש, יתנוצץ עליו קו זוהר מזקן אהרן תכונת כהן גדולה מתעלה מעל כל דאבונות ואבל, אשר אך ביסודם עפר ,וקל וחומר תלמיד חכם אשר תורת ד' תשעשעהו...

And know clearly that also with every individual in Klal Yisroel at the moment when the closeness of Hashem encourages him to rejoice in heart and soul a beam of radiance will gleam upon him from the beard of Aharon, a trait of the high priesthood that will elevate him above all grief and mourning, the source of which is in the dust, and how much more so a wise student for whom the Torah of Hashem preoccupies him.

The reason we fear death and grieve is due to our skewed view of the world, as Rav Kook states, ‘grief and mourning, the source of which is in the dust’. We fail to perceive accurately our specific charge in the context of our collective mission. We are blinded by the material world, i.e., dust, and all its lures, that distract us from our inspired role and unique mission. It was after all succumbing to physical instinct that brought death upon the world. 

Were we to rejoice authentically in the privilege we are each bestowed to dedicate our specific strengths and singular talents in bringing the world toward its spiritual fruition, overcoming the clouds of mortality, we would never grieve, for we would understand that in that process we overcome death and achieve a greater closeness in the realm beyond.

Perhaps it is the Kohen Gadol who remains the paradigm of that perspective. He fathoms as no other that thrill of closeness to Hashem, regaling in the joy of that which he is so devoted to. The root word קדש more accurately implies ‘dedicated’ to something. It is from that vantage point one can see a world of purpose and direction, with all the failures and successes of man as part of a master plan that will ultimately benefit all.

This is what the Rosh means when he describes the Kohen Gadol’s שמחת קדושתו — joy in his dedicated role, that prevents the effects of mourning to take any hold of him.

I have recently sat shiva for my beloved brother Dovid. His full name is Simcha Dovid. He often joked that wherever he went he was b’simcha because he is SIMCHA Dovid. Although he kidded, it was the truth. He always projected calm and delight in all his interactions with client and friend alike. He maintained a fifty-four-year chavrusashaft, with his closest friend and all those who lived in Flatbush and observed them learning would attest to the שמחת קדושתו — the ‘joy in their dedication’ to Torah. That attitude pervaded his influence upon all who met him. His clients in his practice as a C.P.A. would seek his advice, guidance, and encouragement in all their lives matters. Even when his health was waning, and was bedridden in a medical facility, when he observed a stressed and worried look on his beloved wife’s face, he would lift the corners of his mouth with his finger signaling and encouraging her to smile and not be sad.

He understood his mission, devoted himself to it and never grieved over his plight, always expressing he accepts his fate with positivity.

At the shiva a dear old friend shared with me a thought in the name of Rav Chaim Brisker.

We recite in the house of mourning chapter 49 of Psalms. The very last verse reads: אדם ביקר — Man is glorious, ולא יבין — but [if he] understands not, נמשל — he is compared, כבהמות נדמו — to the animals that are without speech.

A horse can weigh up to a ton. It is a mass of powerful muscles. Yet a human who could be flicked off like a flea ride atop him, whipping him and driving him on. Why doesn’t the horse assert himself? Because he is a ferd — a dumb animal. A person who lives his life without realizing how ‘glorious’ he truly is will travel through life beaten and unenthused.

We all have something to offer, a talent that is our unique mission. If we undertake our roles we can live as inspired as the Kohen Gadol and never be downed by grief. Utilizing our talents in bringing the world to its purpose will bring us vitality and enthusiasm in all our endeavors.

A long standing talmid of the great and inimitable Rosh Yeshiva, Rav Yitzchok Hutner, shared that at the onset of his Rebbe’s career as the legendary mechanech of the generation, he undertook to master the english language so he would be able to effectively communicate and fully understand the talmidim. In one of the notebooks, he used to practice his writing skills — that the talmid discovered many years later — he found the following quote:

Youth is a temporary talent. Talent is eternal youth.

The Torah describes the Kohen Gadol as a Kohen הגדול מאחיוexalted above his brethren.

How fortunate I was to have a ‘big’ brother who was a virtual ‘Kohen Gadol’, who lived with a sense of mission, utilizing his talent, and retaining his spiritual ‘vitality’ to the very end, never letting himself or others get down. יהי זכרו ברוך


צבי יהודה טייכמאן