Shadow of Grief

Shadow of Grief

Parshat Emor* sets out extreme purity rules for priests (cohanim).

Each cohen must be physically  perfect and emotionally stoic.

As my teacher Judy Abrams would say, “It must have been hard to be a kid in a priestly family. Parents would say:  Don’t touch that football! If you break your leg, you can’t work in the family business! And don’t feel too much emotion, because when you grow up, you won’t be allowed to.”

The cohen’s professional role is to facilitate rituals that help others celebrate and heal.

But here in Parshat Emor we learn that the cohanim are limited in their opportunities to express two of life’s biggest emotions, love and grief.

A woman from a priestly family cannot choose her own lover; that would reflect poorly on her father. A man from a priestly family cannot marry a widow or a divorcee; that would reflect poorly on his children.

A bereaved cohen may not participate in key rituals that comfort the bereaved. No contact with the dead body of a close relative. No participation in the burial. No marking grief on his own body in any way that others could perceive – not even the fashionable “I am bereaved” haircut. Not even a day off from service in the sanctuary when his mother or father dies.  No one will see him, no one will know what happened, no one will comfort him.

What does a cohen do with these emotions? They don’t suit his professional or cultural identity. Perhaps he learns not to feel them. To hide them from his everyday consciousness. To tuck them away in what depth psychologists would call the “shadow” part of his psyche. The part of himself that he does not acknowledge but still sees everywhere – when he looks at other people.

In theory, it’s not a bad strategy for the cohanim. It lets them empathize with the grief of others without being consumed by it. As long as they don’t get distracted by transference. As long as they don’t half-consciously point rituals towards their own healing. As long as their emotions stay underground.

If emotions are real energies, where do they go? Do they transform into passion for God? Do they come out in strange and inappropriate ways? Is there any ritual for dealing with them?

An earlier Torah passage, Leviticus chapter 5, actually tells us.

Sometimes a person doesn’t honestly testify to what they experienced. Sometimes a person’s own impurity is hidden from them. Sometimes a person doesn’t even know what they said. And other people have to call their attention to the truth. Then, they can bring a purification offering. The priest on duty will listen to their confession, accept the offering, and attest to their healing.

This ritual, Torah says, is available to every person. Cohanim included.

Thank you, God.

*Leviticus 21:1-24:23

Image: artwork by Laura Duhan Kaplan

For more perspectives on Parshat Emor (Leviticus 21:1-24:23), click here.

Leave a reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *