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 There are numerous thoughts in rabbinic literature expressed as to the intent of the Torah in banning kohanim – the priestly male descendants of Aharon – from  coming into contact with the deceased. Ramban exposits that it is the “ordinary” Jew, so to speak, the non-kohein, who is immersed in the daily material existence of competitive life that requires constant reminders of one’s own mortality in order to temper excessive desires and evil acts. Not so the kohein, the priest who serves in the Temple and who is thereby removed from the daily spiritually debilitating struggles of mundane society.

Such a kohein needs no such reminders since the closeness to God’s spirit so to speak, which service in the Temple brings with it, is sufficient to have the kohein not needing to experience the lesson of seeing death at close hand. This idea of the Ramban certainly spoke to the milieu of his times – the late Middle Ages of Christian Europe.
I am reminded by it of the great, almost bizarre, clock tower that overlooks the main town square in Prague. In a graphic exhibition of medieval art and then technical ingenuity it portrays a hideous Angel of Death that strikes the hour bell and thereby marks the passage of time. That clock tower certainly spoke to its original generations of observers whose life spans were short. Medicine was primitive, plagues and unending violence abounded and death was an everyday event and companion in the lives of most. But today, the clock tower of Prague is mainly a tourist attraction, bizarrely curious and not really real in the message that it once intended to convey and represent.
Certainly, death has not been banished from our world. Its inevitability has not abated. But its impression upon us is far different than it was for our ancestors of a few centuries ago. There is almost a casualness regarding it in our modern society. And I notice that even in the span of my own lifetime, the attitude towards it even by kohanim has changed. In today's world kohanim do attend funerals though they are careful to technically avoid violating the legal halachic restrictions regarding being present within the confines of the area where the dead body itself is present.
I remember that in my youth, kohanim stayed away from any and all funeral attendance in all circumstances and almost at all costs. For a long period of time in Jewish history, communities and synagogues were reluctant to hire as their rabbi someone who was a kohein since he would be unable to officiate at funerals or monument/stone settings.
Modern technology and using halachic ingenuity and legalities has alleviated much of these problems for the modern rabbi today who is a kohein. I think that this is an example of how the thinking of our modern generations towards death has changed. We know that it occurs in that all are doomed eventually to succumb to its presence. Nevertheless, it is not a serious matter to be discussed and should not be allowed to overly burden or disturb our lifestyle and mental attitudes. This parsha always brings home to me this great change in our view towards life and death. The insight of Ramban reminds me of this vast change in our thoughts and actions.
Shabbat shalom
Rabbi Berel Wein

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