A Pool of Fire: The Kohen Gadol


And G-d said to Moses: … [a kohen] shall not contaminate himself [through contact with] the dead of his people. Except for his closest kin–his mother, father, son, daughter or brother. Or for his virgin sister… who has not married a man—for her, he should contaminate himself…

But the Kohen Gadol, the greater of his brethren… may not come in contact with any dead; [even] for his father or mother, he may not contaminate himself.

Leviticus 21:1-11

A heretic once asked Rabbi Avahu: “Your G-d is a kohen; so in what did He immerse Himself after He buried Moses?” Replied Rabbi Avahu: “He immersed in fire.”

Talmud, Sanhedrin 39a

G-d is the essence of life, and the ultimate definition of “life” is contact with the divine. Our sages have therefore stated that the righteous, even after their physical deaths, are, in truth, alive, while the wicked are dead even in their lifetimes.[1]

Death is thus an aberration, unnatural to a world intrinsically one with its Creator. Indeed, death became part of our reality only after man distanced himself from G-d with his transgression of the divine will. By the same token, the annihilation of evil and the restoration of perfect harmony between G-d and His creation in the era of Moshiach will bring the cessation of death from our experience.[2]

Until that day, contact with the dead (handling a corpse, visiting a grave, etc.) renders a person tameh–ritually impure–until he undergoes a process of purification that includes immersion in a mikvah.[3] A kohen (“priest”—one of Aaron’s descendants, who were chosen by G-d to serve Him in theBeit Hamikdash) is forbidden to become tameh in the first place, unless it is to bury a close relative, as detailed in the verses quoted above. TheKohen Gadol (“High Priest”), who is commanded to maintain an even higher standard of ritual purity, may not contaminate himself even for his closest kin.

Our sages tell us that Torah law (halachah) is more than a divinely ordained behavior pattern for life on earth: it also describes G-d’s own “behavior pattern,” the manner in which He chooses to relate to His creation. In the words of the Midrash, “G-d’s way is not like the way of flesh and blood. The way of flesh and blood is that he instructs others to do, but does not do himself; G-d, however, what He Himself does, that is what He tells Israel to do and observe.”[4]

It would therefore follow that G-d, who ascribes to Himself the halachicstatus of a kohen,[5] is precluded by Torah law from “contaminating” Himself through contact with the impurities of mortality. Yet the Torah tells us that G-d Himself buried Moses, and the Talmud discusses how He subsequently purified Himself in a “pool of fire.”[6] Our sages explain: the people of Israel are “G-d’s children”;[7] Moses is thus one of G-d’s “closest kin,” for whom a kohen is permitted–indeed obligated–to become tameh.[8]

In the same vein, the prophet Isaiah describes G-d’s descent into the impurities of galut to redeem His people: “Who is this, coming from Edom? Of soured and reddened clothes, from Bozrah? … I (replies G-d), who speaks in righteousness, mighty to save… all My garments, I have soiled.”[9] What about the law that forbids a kohen to contaminate himself? The Zohar explains: Israel is G-d’s “virgin sister, who has not married a man”—who has resisted all the alien masters and influences she has been subject to throughout her exile. For her, G-d “contaminates” Himself, entering the morgue of galut to raise her from the dust.[10]

But one thing remains unresolved: surely G-d is no ordinary kohen, but akohen gadol,[11] whose greater holiness proscribes any exposure to impurity, even for the sake of his closest relatives. How, then, could G-d “contaminate” Himself, even for His “children” or His “sister”?

Put another way: if, in His relationship with us, G-d assumes the role of an ordinary kohen, whose lesser holiness allows him contact with impurity for the sake of “Israel, His kin,”[12] G-d certainly transcends this role, possessing also the inviolable sanctity of the kohen gadol. Does this mean that only the kohen in G-d buried Moses? Or that G-d’s involvement in our redemption is limited to a lesser expression of His holiness, while the height of His “priesthood” remains aloof from the mortality of our galut-state?

An Analogous Universe

To address this question, we must first reexamine the very notion of attributing humanly-defined traits and roles to the Almighty. On what basis do we refer to G-d as a kohen or a kohen gadol, as a father or a brother, or, even, as a “being” and “existence”? These are all terms borrowed from the world of human experience and perception—what can they possibly tell us about He who invented this world and created it from naught?

Indeed, as the kabbalists repeatedly caution, none of this refers to G-d Himself, only to His manner of relating to our reality. G-d chooses to continually involve Himself with our existence, assuming the roles of creator, provider, ruler, judge, etc.; it is solely in regard to this dimension of His being that these anthropomorphisms are applicable. Still, the question remains: why should we assume that G-d’s relationship with us can be described in the same (or similar) terms that we perceive ourselves and our relationships? Perhaps G-d relates to us in a manner that has no model or parallel in our experience?

True, say the chassidic masters. We have no reason to assume that the divine reality parallels ours in any way. Yet we know that it does, for the simple reason that G-d told us so. In His Torah, G-d describes Himself as “merciful,” “benevolent” or “angry”; He states that He “spoke” to Moses, “heard,” the prayers of His people, and took them out of Egypt with a “mighty hand and an outstretched arm”; He tells us that we are His “children,” “servants,” “flock,” and “bride.” For G-d desired that His involvement in our existence should be comprehensible to us[13]—and the human mind comprehends only what it perceives or what it can abstract from what it perceives. So G-d created man “in His image, in His likeness,”[14] modeling us after the traits He assumes to create us and relate to us. He fashioned us, and everything in our world, as metaphors of the divine so that we could refer to our own existence for insight into the nature His presence in our lives.

Chassidic teaching takes this a step further. It’s not just that G-d “planted” analogs of His reality in ours, but that our reality is an offshoot of His, so that everything about it reflects the nature of its source as the grooves in a phonograph record mirror the structure of the sound waves that forged it. So when Job says, “From My own flesh I perceive the divine,”[15] he is not only saying, “G-d created me in such a way that my life should contain models that can be employed as metaphors for the divine reality,” but also that “I, and everything about me, evolved from the ‘self’ that G-d projected to create and relate to our reality. So the nature of this divine projection is imprinted in every detail of my nature and experience.”

The Dross of Translation

The story is told of a first-grade teacher who was experiencing some difficulty in his chumash class. He was attempting to teach a relatively simple verse–“And Noah fathered three sons: Shem, Ham and Japeth”– but one five-year-old mind found the concept too complex to comprehend. Finally, the teacher says: “Berel, you know your next-door neighbors, the Smiths? What’s the father’s name?”
“John,” replies the child.
“And how many sons does John have?”
“Three: Tom, Dick and Harry.”
“Great,” says the teacher. “You see, it’s not that difficult to understand. John Smith has three sons—Tom, Dick and Harry. Now, long ago, there lived a man called Noah, and he, too, had three sons. Their names were: Shem, Ham and Japeth.”
That afternoon, little Berel comes home from cheder. “Mama!” he proudly announces. “Today we learned about the three sons of Noah!”
“That’s wonderful, dear,” says his mother. “And who were the three sons of Noah?”
“Tom, Dick and Harry.”

The metaphor is a powerful and effective teaching tool. A skilled metaphorist can take an idea whose natural language is utterly intelligible to his student and translate it into terms the student can relate to and comprehend. However, unless the student understands how metaphors work–unless he learns knows to distinguish the garments of simile from the concept they enclothe–the metaphor will convey a diminished, or even distorted, version of the concept.

This is manifoldly so in regard to the endeavor to comprehend the Creator via the metaphor of His creation. Imagine a poem, written in a rich, graceful and versatile language, that is translated into a coarse, primitive language. The power of the poem (and of the translator) is such that this grossly inadequate vessel nevertheless conveys something of its beauty and profundity. In reading this poem, one must be ever mindful of the limitations and deficiencies of its adopted language, so as not to attribute them to the flawless original. In the same way, even as we are told that G-d created us in His image, enabling us to perceive His reality from our flesh, we are warned against attributing “a body, or any semblance of the bodily” to Him.[16] Our reality is finite, subjective and deficient, while G-d, and everything about Him (including His projected creator-self) is infinite, utterly free of qualification, and perfect. So the words and models we use when we think and speak of G-d must first be stripped of all the connotations of finiteness and deficiency that their human context imparts to them before we can enlist them to aid our comprehension of the divine.

The Essence of a Prohibition

The same applies to our references to G-d as kohen and kohen gadol.

The human kohen is one who has been imparted a greater measure of holiness than his more mundane fellows. His is a spiritual life, devoid of material endeavor and devoted to the service of the Creator.[17] Thus he is forbidden contact with death, the arch-symptom of the physical world’s distance from its divine source. Nevertheless, his station recognizes that, at times, exceptions must be made and his sanctity violated for the sake of his close kin. The kohen gadol embodies yet a higher level of holiness—a level on which these exceptions are not tenable, on which the kohen’s aloofness from mortality cannot be compromised.

If every physical reality mirrors something of the divine, this is certainly the case with the realities defined by the Torah, G-d’s blueprint for creation. Indeed, the Torah refers to itself as mashal hakadmoni–the “primordial metaphor” or the “metaphor of the Primordial One”[18]–and our sages have stated that every word of Torah is a “name” of G-d,[19] a description of His projected self. Thus, the earthly kohen and kohen gadolare the human analogs of two corresponding truths in the divine reality—the “kohen” and “kohen gadol” in G-d’s relationship with us.

The kohen in G-d is G-d’s “holiness”—His transcendence of the earthly, the finite, the mundane. And yet, as with the ephemeral model of His priesthood, there are “exceptions”: times that He permits Himself to “soil His garments” for the sake of His close kin, times of which G-d says, “I Am with him in his affliction, [to] redeem him.”[20]

Yet G-d is also a kohen gadol, possessing a holiness that cannot be compromised. However, this is not to say that the kohen gadol in G-d is “forbidden” contact with the material reality. As emphasized above, we must always divest our earthly metaphors for the divine of all shortcomings of the physical state before applying their quintessential significance to our understanding of their supernal source. Terms such as “permissible” and “forbidden” are part of a creature’s lexicon, not of an omnipotent Creator’s. We must therefore distinguish between the uncontaminatability of the divine kohen gadol and its not-to-be-contaminated earthly metaphor.

In other words, a kohen gadol is one who cannot be contaminated. Applied to a human being, the holiest of whom is still mortal and vulnerable to mortality’s tumah, this translates as a prohibition to come in contact with those elements that would contaminate him. But in its original, quintessential sense, G-d’s kohengadol-ness connotes His immunity from contamination, His utter transcendence of the material even as He pervades the most corporeal corner of His creation. It is only with its evolvement into a human state that the “cannot be contaminated” of the divine kohen gadol becomes the “may not contaminate himself” of a contaminatable son of Aaron.

Double Identity

Yet G-d chooses to relate to us not only as a kohen gadol but also as a “regular” kohen. If G-d had assumed His kohen gadol “self” to bury Moses, there would have been no need for Him to immerse in a mikvah of fire to purify Himself. If it were only the kohen gadol in G-d who “dwells amongst [Israel], in the midst of their impurities,” there would be no need to “atone for the divine holiness” over this.[21] If it were only the divine kohen gadolwho empowered Moses to effect the redemption of Israel from Egyptian slavery, He would not have appeared in a thornbush in participation in His children’s suffering.[22] Had Isaiah beheld the divine kohen gadol coming from Edom, he would not have seen a figure in blood-stained garments. Askohen gadol, G-d effects all without being affected, pervading the lowliest tiers of His creation without being tainted by their deficiencies. Yet G-d chooses to also assume the more vulnerable holiness of the divine “ordinary kohen” (which translates, on the human level, into the ordinarykohen’s permission to contaminate himself in certain circumstances): to contaminate Himself by His burial of Moses, to suffer along with His people, to bloody Himself in the process of extricating them from exile. He wants us to know that He is not only there with us wherever we are, but that He also subjects Himself to everything that we are subject to.

At the same time, He is also there with us as a kohen gadol: transcending it all, and empowering us to also attain something of His inviolable sanctity.

Based on an address by the Rebbe, Shabbat Parshat Emor, 5724 (May 2, 1964)[23].
Adapted from the teachings of the Rebbe by Yanki Tauber.

[1] Talmud, Brachot 18a-b; cf. Deuteronomy 4:4: “You who cleave to G-d are alive this day.”

[2] Isaiah 25:8.

[3] A pool of water that meets the special criteria for ritual purification. For the laws governing the tumah state and its purification, see Encyclopedia Talmudit under Tameh Met.

[4] Midrash Rabba, Shmot 30:4.

[5] Exodus 25:2, as per Talmud, Sanhedrin 39a.

[6] Deuteronomy 34:6, as per Talmud, Sotah 9b; Talmud, Sanhedrin 39a.

[7] Deuteronomy 14:1.

[8] Tosafot on Talmud, ibid.

[9] Isaiah 63:1-3.

[10] Zohar part III, p. 89a; cf. Rashi on Deuteronomy 30:3.

[11] See Zohar,  part III, p. 17b.

[12] Psalms 148:14.

[13] Thus we are commanded to not only believe in the existence of G-d but also to “Know today, and take unto your heart, that G-d is the L-rd, in the heavens above and the earth below, there is none else” (Deuteronomy 4:39); “Know the G-d of your fathers, and serve Him with a whole heart” (I Chronicles 28:9); “Know that there is a First Existence, who brought all existences into being” (Mishneh Torah, Laws of the Fundamentals of Torah, 1:1. See Derech Mitzvotecha, Mitzvat Haamanat Elokut).

[14] Genesis 1:26.

[15] Job 19:26.

[16] “Yigdal” prayer. Cf. Deuteronomy 4:15; Maimonides Thirteen Principles of Faith, Principle #3.

[17] See Deuteronomy 18:1; Mishneh Torah, Laws of Sabbatical and Jubilee Years, 13:13.

[18] II Samuel 24:13; Rashi, ibid.

[19] Nachmanides in his opening to the Torah

[20] Psalms 91:15.

[21] Leviticus 16:16.

[22] See Rashi on Exodus 3:2.

[23] Likkutei Sichot, vol. VII p. 153-157


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lynette douglas
14 years ago

a thought-provoking and useful analysis.
i live in a place in south africa where there is not much learning available and this was a wonderful find
thankyou to all involved in bringing this to the world at large

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