They shall not make a bald spot on their heads, and they shall not shave
a corner of their beard. In their flesh they shall not cut a cutting. They
shall be holy to their G-d…for the fire-offerings of Hashem…they offer, so
they must remain holy.
There is not much new here. All of these prohibitions have been stated
before, and apply to everyone, including the vast majority of people who are
not kohanim. Why does the Torah need to carve out a special place for
these laws in regard to kohanim?
Two of the three prohibitions deal with our reaction to death. Many
religions, old as well as new, have a special relationship with death. Death
is where G-d takes over. G-d asserts His power specifically in overcoming
life, which He abandons to the whims of Man. By dealing illness, death and
destruction, G-d forces Man to recognize Him and fear Him. He remains,
however, foreign to life, from which He is excluded as an active force.
Even faiths that theoretically involve G-d in all matters of life are often
unsuccessful in having adherents pay much attention to anything but the
finality of death. Priests are called upon by people to minister to the dead
or dying who had no use for them in the bloom of life. The most impressive
ceremonies address the aftermath of life rather than life itself; places of
worship are often literally juxtaposed to graveyards. Sometimes, the
ceremonies for the dead will compel the faithful to think of their mortality
while they are still living, and concern themselves with their hope for
immortality – of life after death.
The Torah wants us to preoccupy ourselves with life, not with death. The
kohen must serve as representative of the values of a full, rich life,
enjoying its myriad blessings in the context of service of Hashem while
elevating them towards His values. The kohen is the symbol of living to our
fullest capacity, of avoiding the countless half-deaths we inflict upon
ourselves when we remain limited and bound by our physical urges and flaws
of character. The Torah insists that the kohen remove himself from the
entire arena of death.
When the living gather to perform the final acts of chesed to a lifeless
body whose soul had departed for the next world, the kohen does not preside.
Moreover, he stays away entirely. He makes only two exceptions. When a close
relative dies, the bonds and responsibilities of family trump those of
responsibility to the rest of the community. He therefore participates in
the burial of parents, siblings, children and spouse. If he should chance
upon lifeless remains that no one else attends to – a meis mitzvah – he
foregoes his priestly role and takes up the primary role of fellow human
being, responding to the image of G-d that would otherwise be desecrated.
Others reacted to death by proclaiming that they were irrevocably diminished
through their loss. They did this by tearing out hair and creating bald
spots, or by cutting into their flesh. Both of these practices are forbidden
to ordinary Jews. Our pasuk tells us that they are doubly forbidden to the
kohen. He can never wear messages about death upon his body. Whatever he
broadcasts has to be a message about life.
Ancient religions also paid homage to the very human foibles of their gods,
who often lost themselves in hedonic abandon to their sensuality. Glorifying
the sensual thus celebrated the various gods. Some of this preoccupation
with the sensual has survived thousands of years of history and remains part
of some modern faiths.
Here, too, the Torah wants the kohen to have nothing to do with such
mistaken deviance. It is forbidden for all Jewish men to shave the “corners
of the head,” the boundaries that separate between the various bones of the
head. The upper bones encase the more cerebral and intellectual functions;
the lower ones participate in eating, the most common form of sensual
gratification. The prohibiting against shaving keeps the lower bone, symbol
of more animal-like behavior, modestly concealed and covered. Here too, the
Torah wishes this emphasized in the appearance of the kohen. He must remain
a symbol of devotion to higher concerns that generate elevation rather than
capitulation, and life rather than death.
You shall count for yourselves from the morrow of the Shabbos…seven
weeks…fifty day. You shall convoke on this very day…you shall do no
laborious work…When you reap in the harvest of your land, you shall not
remove completely the corners of your field as you reap, and you shall not
gather the gleanings of your harvest. For the poor and the ger shall you
leave them. I am Hashem your G-d.
Why do some of the laws of the mandatory gifts to the poor appear just at
this point, as if forgotten somewhere else, and dropped in to a long section
that deals with the holidays alone?
In getting us to Shavuos, the Torah has twice brought home an essential idea
about the entitlement of individuals to sustenance and happiness. Through
the avodah of the omer on Pesach and that of the shtei ha-lechem on Shavuos,
the Torah reinforces the idea that the source of each individual’s
contentment and prosperity is the Torah and its relationship to the Nation
of Israel. The Jewish People carry the message of the Torah into the larger
world; each of its members derives his portion from his connection to the Torah.
This might seem so obvious that it scarcely is worthy of mention.
Practically, however, this assertion is a sea-change from the realities of
both the ancient and modern worlds.
The gap between the haves and the have-nots is not just quantitative. The
very difference between life and death of have-nots often lodges in the
whims of the haves. Those who have provide, at their pleasure, enough for
the have-nots to sustain themselves. They offer this as a form of noblesse
oblige, and don’t take kindly to suggestions that this can be demanded of
them. What they offer is charity, not fulfillment of a human duty.
In the ancient world (as well as across major swaths of the modern globe),
the distinction between the two kinds of people concerned land. Those who
had land were the haves. Those who lacked it lived at the mercy of the
landowner. What they received was accompanied by feelings of insufficiency,
inadequacy and humiliation.
The omer and shtei ha-lechem offerings told a different story. It was not
land (or what modern society would call access to the means of production)
that provided sustenance, but connection to the Torah. Those who received
more had to see themselves as custodians of plenty on behalf of those who
had less. The harvest did not belong to the rich and the landed, but to
everyone. The landed citizens were simply conduits to direct G-d’s blessing
to a wider group of end-users.
Precisely after the section of the shtei ha-lechem the Torah details some of
the matnos aniyim. Our pasuk stands in stark relief to the reality that the
poor of other cultures are fed though the good will of the rich. Here, the
Torah sends the poor into the fields at harvest, to help themselves to what
Hashem has ordered the earth to yield up. The harvest is for them as much as
for the landowner. It follows neatly from the message of the shtei ha-lechem, and is the perfect postscript to it.
1. Based on the Hirsch Chumash, Vayikra 21:5
2. Vayikra 21:5-6
3. In the case of two of them, Makos 20A-21A derives certain details in which the prohibition to kohanim varies slightly. The basic prohibitions, however, apply to all