The Torah doesn’t make it easy to be a Cohen. Cohanim are required to reign in their emotions more than the Levites and Israelites. The Cohen is restricted in his ability to mourn: the Torah permits him to mourn only for his seven closest relatives: his wife, mother, father, son, daughter, brother and unmarried sister. And the Cohen Gadol, the High Priest, is forbidden to come near any dead person – even his closest relatives.
And not only during his mourning period, but even in the happiness of matrimony the Torah limits the Cohen: he may not marry a divorcee, and in the case of the High Priest, he may not even marry a widow.
How are we to understand these restrictions? Are the Cohanim in general, and the High Priest in particular, really meant to totally devoid themselves of their emotions, of all their attachments to their near and dear ones?
When the Torah states that an ordinary Cohen buries his close relatives, does this mean that a Cohen is merely permitted to bury these relatives, or is he actually obligated to do so? The Gemara answers that a Cohen is obligated to bury his relatives. And the Gemara brings an incident to prove this, from Yosef HaCohen, whose wife died on the day before Pesach, and he did not want to become impure, which would mean he would not be able to eat the Pesach sacrifice that evening! However, his fellow Cohanim took a vote and decided to compel him to personally bury his wife on the day before Pesach.
The Gemara teaches us that even though the Cohanim are generally forbidden to contract impurity from a human corpse – this does not apply to close relatives. Because if, God forbid, a person’s wife dies, he must mourn for her, and not be engrossed in other worlds – even those involving the performance of a mitzvah!
But what about the Cohen Gadol? He is forbidden to become impure for anyone – even his closest relatives! Perhaps we can conclude from this that at least a person who is on a very high spiritual level is required to rise above his emotions? This is not the case, my Rosh Yeshiva, Rav Yehuda Amital z”l, argued, who explained that we learn out the laws of mourning specifically from Aharon the High Priest!
Aharon, it is true, refused to eat of the sin offering after the death of his two oldest sons. However, he still offered up the he-goat of the sin-offering, even though he was in the most intense stage of mourning for his sons.
We see from here that Aharon mourned the loss of his two sons – even while continuing to perform the Temple service!
In contrast to a regular Cohen, the Cohen Gadol does not need the external expressions of mourning. It is sufficient for him to mourn his losses inwardly. However, even he is not exempt from mourning! He is still required to have emotions and be kind and empathetic to others!
The Kotzker Rebbe put it best on the verse in the book of Shemot: “People of holiness you shall be to Me.” The Kotzker Rebbe interprets this to mean that Hashem is saying, as it were: “I have enough Angels, I need people, to be a holy nation here on earth!” People who find favor in the eyes of God and mankind, who sanctify the mundane and who do good deeds in this world, thus making the world a better place to live in, and for the Shechina to reside amongst us.