Met Mitzvah and the Vulnerability of Life
This week's parashah begins addressing the Cohanim, telling them that they should not corrupt themselves through contact with a dead person. The priests, responsible for the most sacred tasks –the sacrifices at the Beit Ha'Mikdash– had to be very careful of their purity in order to aptly perform their chores. A dead person, according to tradition, is a source of maximum impurity, and this was why priests could not involve themselves with corpses.
There are situations in which the cohen is allowed to deal with the dead, as is the case of his closest relatives, such as mother, father, son, daughter, brother, and single sister.
However, it is interesting to know that the sages deduced, from the first verse of this parashah, one more exception wherein the cohen could consciously corrupt himself. Such is the case of the Met Mitzvah.
What is a Met Mitzvah? Met Mitzvah is when a person dies and there is no one to deal with their burial. It could be because he or she was alone in the world and has no family around. If one finds a dead person and nobody is handling the burial, the Mitzvah is to handle it yourself.
According to the Halachah, one should bury the body in the place where it was found, even if the owner of the land does not agree, because the Met Mitzvah has the right to be interred in the place where he/she was found, as if they had bought that place (Shulchan Aruch, Yore De'ah 364:3).
In Jewish tradition, to give a person a proper burial is important. It is considered an act of kindness, a good deed (Guemilut Hasadim) and, furthermore, it is important for the burial to take place as soon as possible. That is why it would be considered disrespectful to move the Met Mitzvah from the place where he or she was found.
Therefore, as I said earlier, the cohen could not corrupt himself for the people of his community, but could do so on behalf of a Met Mitzvah. Even the Cohen Ha'Gadol, the “High Priest”, who could not deal with his own relatives, could do so in the event of a Met Mitzvah. This shows us the importance of dealing with a dead person who is found alone on his/her death.
Another example that shows the importance of dealing with the Met Mitzvah is the Halachah written in the Shulchan Aruch, which says that if one must participate in a Brit Milah and deal with a dead person at the same time, the Brit Milah comes first. But if the case involves a Met Mitzvah, the dead person is considered the priority (Shulchan Aruch, Yore De'ah 360).
This value in our tradition makes me reflect not only upon the case of a person who has died but upon life in general. I believe there is nothing sadder than dying alone, with no one knowing about our death nor caring for one's burial. Perhaps we can consider this case as the archetype of maximum loneliness, vulnerability, and abandonment of a human being. In this case, the society, the community, is responsible for providing the support, care, and dedication needed by any human being.
And this is, in my opinion, one of the major challenges faced by a community. To be present and give strong support at the times when a person is feeling vulnerable, alone, and abandoned. Even more so in communities where most of its members are immigrants and do not have their wider family at their side.
It is our duty to “impurify” ourselves, to leave our daily tasks once in a while, in order to turn to our fellow human beings who live in deep solitude and vulnerability.
May we be able to internalize this valuable concept of Met Mitzvah in our own lives and in our daily deeds.
Rabbi Daniela Szuster
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Forwarded by Rabbi Gustavo Kraselnik, from Kol Shearith Israel Congregation, Panama.
Translated by Inés Baum and proofread by Ellen Zindler, from B’nei Israel Congregation, Costa Rica.