By Moshe Bogomilsky
Say to the kohanim, the sons of Aharon, and tell them: none of them shall defile himself to a [dead] person among his people. (21:1)
Question: Why wasn’t Moshe commanded to convey this also to Aharon himself?
Answer: The Midrash1 states that if the Jews would have waited for Moshe to return (from heaven) and would not have made the golden calf, there would not have been any exile and the angel of death would not have had any power over them. When the Jews proclaimed at Sinai that they would “do and listen,” G-d said that they were worthy to live forever. However, when they proclaimed a few weeks later, “This is your god, O Israel,” death returned to them.
Since the phenomenon of death returned to the Jewish people through the worshipping of the golden calf, which was made with Aaron’s assistance, the laws of defilement by a corpse were said to his children and not to him in order not to cause him any pain. In reality Aaron did not personally violate any Torah law, and adamantly opposed the worship of the calf,2 but the thought that death was related in some way to his actions would have hurt him immensely.
Except for the relative that is closest to him. (21:2)
Question: The commentator Rashi says that “closest” means “his wife.” Why is the term “closest” used?
Answer: It is through the children a wife bears that the continuity of a man’s memory is assured. Otherwise, a short time after his passing, his memory is gone and forgotten. The root of the word “closest” in Hebrew (she’eir) also occurs in the expression in Genesis,3 “survival in the land” (she’eirit ba’aretz). Through his family he continues to survive, even when he is physically no longer present.
The festivals of G-d, which you shall proclaim them to be holy convocations, these are My festivals. (23:2)
Question: Is not the word “them” superfluous?
Answer: According to Maimonides,4 on holidays we are obligated to rejoice, but G-d is not content with one who celebrates privately with his family. We must invite the needy to our festive meals and make sure that they too rejoice.
The word “them” in this verse refers to the underprivileged who need to be invited. G-d told Moshe to tell the people of Israel, “I consider it My festival when you will call them, i.e., the needy, to participate in your festive meal and rejoice together with you.”
Except for his relative that is closest to him, to his mother, and to his father [shall he defile himself]… [The High Priest] shall not come near any dead person; for his father or his mother he shall not defile himself (21:2,11).
Question: Why in the case of the High Priest, who is forbidden to become impure for anyone, does the Torah first cite the father and then the mother, while for the regular priest, who is permitted to become impure for certain relatives, the mother is mentioned first?
Answer: The Torah seeks to emphasize the more striking aspects of the law. Since the sanctity of the High Priest is inherited from his father, one would presume that he may become impure for him even though he is not permitted to become impure for his mother. However, in the instance of an ordinary priest, since his mother need not be of priestly origin, we would think that he is forbidden to defile himself for her, whereas he may defile himself for his father because of his father’s priestly pedigree.
It is for this reason that the Torah expresses these two laws with the variation in sequence. In the case of the High Priest the prohibition to defile himself for his father is mentioned first to emphasize that even to his father, from whom he inherited his position, he is forbidden to defile himself. And in the case of an ordinary priest, his permission to defile himself for his mother is mentioned first to tell us that he may defile himself to her, even if she was not of priestly pedigree.