“During my years caring for patients, the most common pathology I saw was not heart disease or diabetes; it was loneliness.”
- Former US Surgeon General Vivek Murthy
Parshat Emor lists the relationships that require a kohen to submit to ritual impurity in caring for a loved one’s burial. A kohen is never allowed to come in contact with the dead except in these circumstances.
כִּ֚י אִם־לִשְׁאֵר֔וֹ הַקָּרֹ֖ב אֵלָ֑יו לְאִמּ֣וֹ וּלְאָבִ֔יו וְלִבְנ֥וֹ וּלְבִתּ֖וֹ וּלְאָחִֽיו׃
Except for the relatives that are closest to him: his mother, his father, his son, his daughter, and his brother. (A sister is included in the next verse)
The use of שְׁאֵר to describe these relationships is significant. In context, the word means a relative. Yet, the root of the word means a person’s self – one’s flesh. We make use of this meaning when we describe brit milah asחק בשארו שם – a mark placed upon his flesh. The Talmud taps into this meaning when expanding the list of relatives for whom a kohen must become impure.
(אֵין שְׁאֵרוֹ אֶלָּא אִשְׁתּוֹ (יבמות כ"ב
One’s flesh is one’s wife.
In his book, A Secular Age, Charles Taylor describes how the modern person differs from those of the past by describing our identities as “buffered.” We see ourselves at a remove from our surroundings and our relationships. To grossly simplify Taylor’s idea, modern people no longer see others as their own flesh.
Much of the conversation surrounding loneliness centres on technology and social structures. Yet, more than anything our philosophical commitment to individualism leads to social isolation. We tell children not to care about what others think of them. We celebrate the person who listens to her heart and follows her own dreams. We don’t let anyone tell us what to do.
The Torah might have asked the kohen to ignore his family and pursue the life of the spirit on his own. Other religions make such demands. Judaism asks us to see ourselves in the context of our relationships. Others are a part of who we are. If we are to respond to social loneliness, we must see ourselves differently. May we expand our identities and celebrate the value of close relationships.