This week’s parsha includes a number of laws that are unique to the kohein. For example, kohanim are not allowed to come into contact with dead bodies and tumah. Further, there are special marital laws that apply only to the kohein, namely that they are not allowed to marry a divorcee or widow. These laws do not seem to make a whole lot of sense if one really thinks about them. The general assumption would be that a kohein is not allowed to come into contact with tumah since he has to serve in the Beis HaMikdash and cannot enter in a state of tumah. As such, the kohein has to live by a higher standard than the rest of the nation, and remain always pure due to his obligation to serve in the Beis HaMikdash.
How, though, can we really construe these restrictions of the kohein as being a higher standard? A widow has surely done nothing wrong and may well be a lovely person. This very widow, however, a kohein is prohibited from marrying, while there is no explicit prohibition of marrying, say, a murderer. Indeed, if we are truly speaking of higher standards, we would expect specifically the kohein to go out of his way to marry someone like a widow. Yet, we find the opposite to be the case.
We must ask, then, if the Torah is here transmitting some deep, esoteric values that are beyond human comprehension. Should no one ideally marry a widow? Should no one, ideally, become tamei by attending funerals? Are these really values of the Torah, the disregarding of which we simply tolerate for the simple Jew, but expect of the holier and more refined kohein?
One could suggest that this is not, in fact, the case. Rather, these laws that are unique to the kohein are actually simply laws pertaining to the Beis HaMikdash. Those that are expected to work there on an regular basis simply cannot become tamei as they please.
There are, however, two major problems with such a suggestion. For one, does this not simply move our problem back a step? Why, we can then ask, is the lack of tumah a value of the Beis HaMikdash? Why can you not enter if you’ve just attended someone’s funeral? Is that not supposed to teach us a general value of the Torah? Further, and perhaps more damning, is the fact that such a solution only works at all for the prohibition of a kohein coming into contact with tumah. It does nothing to explain why a kohein cannot marry a divorcee or widow.
R. Shimshon Raphael Hirsch, in his commentary to the Chumash, proposes a solution that a question of this strength deserves. A kohein, according to R. Hirsch, possesses a dual identity — an individual identity and a national identity. He is, of course, his own person and is required to have a relationship with God at that level, but he also represents the people and the nation as a whole. The kohein is at once a public and a private individual. Thus, R. Hirsch goes on to explain, as an individual the kohein can absolutely become tamei just like the rest of the Jewish people, but as the representative of the nation, he cannot. A kohein simply cannot deface in anyway his national identity. This explains most beautifully why a kohein is allowed to become tamei for his seven closest relatives. It is because at such a moment the dominant part of his identity is his individual identity. Usually, though, when his national identity looms large, things are different. The national identity is one of ideals, and since this ideal national identity is incompatible with death — as it cannot itself die — the kohein, who represents the nation, cannot encounter death. An idea cannot die, nor become dirtied, so long as it is preserved in its pristine fashion by those that protect said idea. This is the duty of the kohein.
To shift the language here slightly, we can also understand this idea from the perspective of the Ideal versus the Practical. The individual must, by definition, grapple with practicalities and imperfections. The nation, however, is based on ideals that must remain untainted and perfect. A healthy individual — kohein or not — is constantly aware of two planes operating within him: the Ideal and the Practical. The Practical life is dominated by compromise and failure. This is the Real World. There is also, however, an Ideal World; what we know that we should be doing, and strive and works towards despite our failures and compromises in the Real World. There cannot ever exist one without the other, and it is the kohein’s job to remind us all that the Ideal World exists as well.
The Real World is full of imperfection — including even the marrying of a widow or divorcee, an imperfect union due to the fact that such a woman was once betrothed to and in love with another. As it is the kohein that represents the Ideal of the nation he may not become involved with such imperfection. Those that live solely in the Real World, though, have every right to — and must — grapple with such imperfection, but we must do so with an awareness that there is such a thing as perfection and the Ideal as well.
For the individual, as soon as he or she glorifies imperfection — as soon as a l’chatchilah is made out of a bediavad — things become problematic. For the individual, to pretend that death does not exist is a failure — it is not realistic and is not at all in touch with the Real or Practical. Indeed, the individual must attend funerals and be cognizant of a humans’ mortality and imperfection. For one to claim that in reality we possess the perfection that would preclude one’s association with a widow is a terrible thing. We must instead concede that we are all the imperfect amongst the imperfect; all while keeping one eye on the kohein and the national ideal that he represents.