The Closeness of the Fallen

Monday morning, I sat in a Yom HaZikaron assembly at my daughter’s Jewish day school, tears on my cheeks as she and her classmates sang a song, the words of which were from a young soldier’s last letter to his family. He was killed in battle in 2014. In the parents’ section of the auditorium, I could see other parents wiping their eyes, all of us imagining our tweens on stage writing us that letter.

Death is so very present to our people this year. Friends and family and loved ones. Video and photographs. The stories of martyrs. The necessity to record and recount. The young, the older, the grandparents, the dancers, the soldiers on their first day of service, the taxi drivers delivering young people back to their parents. Not only that — a media comparison of whose death counts more. The deaths Israel has suffered. The deaths of innocent Palestinians. Of internationals. Even indifference to death. 

We couldn’t separate ourselves from the dead, even if we tried. There is no insulating from their stories.

Many objects in Biblical times were understood to convey impurity, toom’ah, and a person who touched them or was in a room with them needed to undergo a physio-spiritual purification ritual, which varied depending on the type of impurity. This week’s Torah portion, Emor, begins with the commandment to the priests: They shouldn’t impurify themselves by being physically close to the dead. It then continues with a variety of laws for the priests and for sacrifices.

Today, the death toom’ah continues to influence Jewish life in several ways. At the end of a funeral, it is traditional to wash hands when leaving the cemetery or before entering the home, to separate from that close proximity to the dead. Those with priestly ancestry – who know themselves to be Cohanim, descendants of the priests addressed in this Torah portion – will traditionally attend funerals from a separate room, technically not part of the funeral room, which holds the deceased. We are careful to navigate how we enter and leave spaces of death.

What does it mean to be in a state of ritual impurity, toom’ah, due to a close encounter with the dead? It means to carry their death so closely that it is inescapable in any moment. It renders us incapable of performing our duties. It changes our state of being. 

So then, what is it about serving as a priest, a ritual and spiritual leader of the Israelite people, that requires this separation from death? The topic tugs at me this week as we commemorate Yom HaZikaron and Yom Ha’atzmaut – Israel Remembrance Day and Israel Independence Day. Perhaps a leader like the priests needs to remain more clear-eyed, less impacted by death, in order to serve purely. Perhaps there is something about close encounters with death that prevents us from being able to go about our regular business – the daily sacrifices, the daily tasks – but the priests need to retain that important ability.

At the same time that the Torah commandment is given about priests avoiding the dead, an exception is made: A priest can do so in order to be with his closest relatives – his mother, father, children, brother, or unmarried sister. Sometimes we need to let in the grief and the mourning.

The two days of Yom HaZikaron and Yom Ha’atzmaut come together as a pair – the memorial day and the celebration of what the fallen were fighting for. The former is our close encounter with death; perhaps we take on some amount of toom’ah as a result. The latter is our ritual to leave behind the immediateness of death, and for us to find meaning in it, that it wasn’t in vain. To look forward and build, day by day, that which the fallen were fighting for.

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