While in other faiths the men of the cloth preside over death and dying by administering last rites, the priestly class of Klal Yisrael—the Kohanim—were to avoid even being in the same room as the dead and dying.
The task of the Kohen follows the path of Aaron, the original Kohen Gadol, who loved and pursued peace (Avos 1:12; Avos d’Rabbi Natan 12:3). Everything Aaron did was focused on creating harmony and wholeness, whether outside the Mikdash where he sought to reconcile and bring together people who had been feuding, or inside the Mikdash where he brought the people closer to God and the physical closer to the divine.
The focus on harmony and wholeness is the reason that the altar could not be made of cut stones, as the altar is a vehicle for connection that cannot be formed with a tool that divides and destroys (Shemos 20:22; Rashi). The term korban, Hebrew for an offering, though often translated as sacrifice, actually relates to its root karov, close, as the offering is a vehicle through which the physical and the spiritual worlds are brought together, offering the earthy animal on the altar of ascent to the heavenly God.
Death is therefore not the place for Aaron and his sons. Death is the ultimate moment of separation, where the body returns to the earth and the soul to its maker. The Kohen—tasked with bringing everything together—has no place at that moment of the ultimate separation.
This goal of forging connection was a valuable part of the ultimate legacy of Rav Shimon bar Yochai, whose memory is celebrated on Lag B’Omer at his burial place in Meiron. Rav Shimon was the most intense of the sages, who dedicated his life to intensive study to the exclusion of virtually all else. He dismissed the need to work for a living, seeing it as a neglect of the eternal for the sake of the temporal (Brachos 35b). At one point his views were so strong that he condemned the simple working Jews around him (Shabbos 33b). Ultimately, however, he came to realize that not everyone was meant to live with his spiritual intensity and sophistication in Torah study and began to appreciate the totality of the people and the simple love of Jewish life expressed in the practices of the masses: “Do you see my son, how precious mitzvot are to the Jewish people?!”
It is therefore striking that Rav Shimon’s day—Lag B’Omer—is not celebrated by the intense study that was his personal hallmark but is instead a popular holiday for people to come together to celebrate the warmth and love of Jewish life. The original Rav Shimon would have condemned the celebration as a colossal waste of time that could have been spent studying. He would have been critical of other aspects of the celebration that challenge common sense. But ultimately he may have seen all the Jews gathered to celebrate Jewish life, its past and its future, and declared: “Do you see how precious mitzvot are to the Jewish people?”
Rabbi Moshe Hauer is executive vice president of the Orthodox Union (OU), the nation’s largest Orthodox Jewish umbrella organization.