The Parsha begins with the special laws governing the personal life of a Kohen and the Kohen Gadol. The priests were restricted in terms of whom they were permitted to marry and with which relatives they were permitted to contaminate themselves in the time of the death of the relative. It would seem that the Kohen was not permitted to fully devote himself to the mourning of a relative because of his larger role as a spiritual role model in a life of purity.
The other subject that is featured in this Parsha is the biblical description of all the national holidays. The overwhelming theme to festivals is one of rejoicing in the presence of the Almighty. The juxtaposition of the law of the Kohen in mourning and the nation in joy is echoed in the halachic practice that governs all of us when a family is confronted with the death of a loved one right before the national simcha of one of the holidays. The holiday takes precedence. The Jewish family is required to curtail its mourning in order to join the universal celebration of the Yom Tov. This is essentially the same situation for the Kohen, and especially for the Kohen Gadol. His dedication to the national spirit of ritual service to the Almighty supersedes his ability to grieve for a loved one.
The Torah commands us to sanctify Hashem’s name among the children of Israel (22:32), which is the biblical mandate for each Jew to ultimately sacrifice himself if required, even to submit to martyrdom in his devotion to Hashem. There have been stories of great Jewish leaders who understood this concept, as in the story of Rabbi Akiva’s martyrdom at the hands of the Romans in the 2nd century, C.E. In the final moments of his life, the Talmud records to us, and the Martyrology reminds us on Yom Kippur, that Rabbi Akiva was joyous in the thought that he was now able to fulfill this mitzvah in the ultimate performance of submission to God’s will. We look at those stories as being ancient history. Unfortunately, the 20th century brought similar stories. It is recorded that when the Nazis were taking Rabbi Elchanan Wasserman to his death in Tammuz 1941, Rav Wasserman engaged the Jews around him to encourage them that they were at that moment the most complete righteous Jews in the world. They were chosen to atone for the sins of all of Israel with their ultimate sacrifice. He motivated them to repent thoroughly in their hearts and minds because they were to become sacrifices on God’s altar. At that moment they were about to fulfill one of the greatest and most difficult mitzvot in the Torah. He quoted for them the special prayer of Minchah on Tisha B’Av where it is recorded that Hashem brings about the fire that now destroys but in the future will be used to build the House of Israel anew for all eternity. Martyrdom is not just for our ancient ancestors, but unfortunately was required of recent ancestors as well.
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