The Kohen Gadol, the High Priest in ancient Israel, was subject to great privilege. He led a family that lived off the foodstuff of the masses, he wore special clothes, and he had extraordinary access to God through ritual and the sacred precincts of the Temple. In theory, he would never have to worry about his legacy, for the office would pass to his eldest son after he died. In a religious cult of aristocracy, the Kohen Gadol was the ultimate in royalty.
But with such power came one unfortunate caveat. In Parshat Emor, we learn that the average priest could not come into contact with the dead, which was considered the epicenter of ritual impurity. The only exceptions were for one’s parents, children, brother and unmarried sister. The Kohen Gadol was different, though. He was not even permitted to attend to his father or mother when they died. In modern parlance, he’d have to absent himself from his parents’ funerals.
The Hasidic master Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Kotsk, known as the Kotsker Rebbe, explained that the Kohen Gadol had to distance himself from all tangible matters, to the point that he would sense no personal relationships. Rather, in fulfilling his exalted tasks, he had to pay total and undivided attention to Klal Yisrael, the entire People of Israel. They, and not his blood relatives, were to be his family. That required him to uproot natural emotional ties, even to those who gave him life.
I am grateful that I am not the Kohen Gadol. I am grateful that I am merely a rabbi, cognizant of the truth that while I am afforded tremendous honor by virtue of my position, I need not uproot natural emotional ties. I am grateful that when the time came to care for and bury my father, I was not only commanded and permitted to do so by our tradition, but I was supported by a loving community. I am much more accustomed to giving comfort than receiving it, so this is a learning process for me. Normally, a significant portion of my attention is on this community, this small slice of Klal Yisrael. You are my extended family, but you blessed me as I chose to be with my blood, my natural emotional ties. On behalf of my mother, sisters and aunts, my fellow aveilim, as well as our families, I express my profound gratitude for your kindness, this past month and going forward.