Sunday, May 11, 2008

The Virgin, The Widow, but not the Gerusha

There has been much controversy over the years as Kohanim marry later in life, and consequently encounter a dearth of permissible marriage partners. Let's face it: if you had to wait until your thirties to marry, the majority of "singles" are in fact divorcees. Given this reality, many Kohanim resort to "giving up" the kehuna in order to marry women who are ineligible to Kohanim for marriage.

I use this controversy as a starting point for discussing Parshah Emor, because much of the talk surrounding this passuk in that parshah is about the psychological reasons why Kohanim cannot marry a gerusha. However, I humbly suggest that this prevailing focus is perhaps misplaced. Certainly, most men in general are hesitant to contemplate dating the gerusha, and the reasons for this are psychological. However, I think that it sells Kohanim short to speculate that they would be preoccupied with the status of their wife if she was a gerusha; if the Kohen exhibits a level of consideration for his fellow yid, such "judgmental" behaviour is incongruous with the true nature of a Kohen. Indeed, if the issue is that their wife has a "history", why would the same hesitation be absent in the case of the widow?

That question, I believe, touches upon the true reason for why a Kohen is unable to marry a gerusha. If we look at what precedes the list of eligible versus ineligible partners in the parshah, we note that the parshah starts with the description of how the Kohen who is metamay from the passing of his closest relatives can eat first bread after one week and mikvah before moving on on the eighth day to korbanos.

Why is the point underlying this description? The Kohen has had to separate himself from his priestly duties, and in the timeframe between mikvah and resuming his duties in the Beit Hamigdash, he can eat bread. He has been, in other words, on a lower level spiritually, and prior to returning to his full spiritual level as exemplified by korbanos, he partakes of bread. However, during his week of separation from service, the Kohen also ate bread. Thus, this emphasizes the three spiritual levels that the Kohen experiences under these unfortunate circumstances. This second bread, to rephrase, emphasizes the fact that this second bread is a segue between the tumah of his relative's passing and his resumption of his temple duties.

This juxtaposition of the food consumed by the Kohen and the women that a Kohen can marry accentuates that the reason for the gerusha being unsuitable for a Kohen is predominantly spiritual. In brief, a Kohen personifies ahavah, and his duties rely upon his always evidencing a phenomenal degree of love for his brethren. A virgin obviously represents a clean slate, someone that the Kohen can have a fresh start in his journey into married life. Such a connection is conducive to the Kohen and his spouse developing a pure love for each other. A widow, while not physically pure, represents devotion, in that she still maintains positive feelings for her prior spouse; their separation was physical, and she has only fond memories of this prior partner. Such a connection is similarly rooted in ahavah, and therefore renders the widow suitable for marriage to the Kohen.

But the gerusha, unfortunately, will always have a tiny smudge, albeit possibly imperceptible even to her, on her emotionally with regards to her previous relationship. No matter how amicable her divorce, the gerusha became separated from her previous spouse because of their incompatibility. By extension, even when the warmest feelings still remain, a disconnect between the two prior spouses is apparent due to this incompatibility. And, on a spiritual level, a divorce is precisely the severing of two neshamas that were united.

It is this severing, both emotional and spiritual, that is spiritually damaging to the Kohen. The Kohen cannot be with a woman who has encountered this negative separation, since the Kohen must always bridge the gap between people. To be spiritually connected to animosity, even minutely, is inappropriate for the Kohen.

Thus, this parshah underscores not only the sad state of affairs for Kohanim in terms of finding a suitable partner, but also the tragic spiritual blemish that divorce places on people. With Hashem's help, this parshah should act as a cautionary reminder and prevent us from becoming blase about the ever-increasing number of divorced individuals in our communities.

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