Contact with the dead …
Forbidden for Kohanim …
Except for close kin —
“God said to Moses: Speak to the priests, the sons of Aaron, and say to them: None shall defile himself for any dead among his people, except for the relatives that are closest to him: his mother, his father, his son, his daughter, and his brother.”
In Torah Today: A Renewed Encounter With Scripture, Pinchas Peli suggests that keeping the kohanim away from death rituals served to distinguish their job from that of the priests in Egypt, who oversaw “gaudy worship of the dead” with “rituals, processions and incantations to get the body … [ready for] … the next world.”
By contrast, the rules for the Jewish priest “[emphasize] the fact that his job is not to cater to the dead, but to serve as a teacher and model of holiness for the living.” However, because tending to the dead is “a prime human obligation”, the kohen cannot “hide behind his priestly cloak to shirk his responsibilities towards his close relatives”.
From this exception to the rule for the priest’s family we learn that “it is not death that defiles the priest, but the shifting of the weight of his duties from the living to the dead.”
Ed Nickow | The Torah In Haiku