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."

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.

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. A Kohen ("priest"--one of Araon's descendents, who were chosen by G‑d to serve Him in the Holy Temple) is forbidden to become tameh in the first place, unless it is to bury a close relative, as detailed in the verses quoted above. The Kohen 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. When we order our lives after Torah's directives, we are not only fulfilling G‑d's will—we are also emulating His "behavior," translating the divine relationship with creation into human/physical terms. In the words of the Midrash, "G‑d's manner is not like the manner of flesh and blood. The manner 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."

It would therefore follow that G‑d, who ascribes to Himself the Halachic status of a Kohen (see Talmud, Sanhedrin 39a) 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." Our sages explain: The people of Israel are "G‑d's children"; Moses is thus one of G‑d's "closest kin," for whom a Kohen is permitted—indeed obligated—to become tameh.

In the same vein, the prophet Isaiah describes G‑d's descent into the impurities of galut ("exile") 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" (Isaiah 63:1-3). 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.

But one thing remains unresolved: surely G‑d is no ordinary Kohen, but a Kohen Gadol, 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," 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 holinesss, while the height of His "priesthood" remains aloof from the mortality of our galut-state?

An Analagous 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?

Indeed, 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—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" (Genesis 1:26) modeling us after the traits He assumes in order to create us and relate to us. He fashioned us as metaphors of the divine so that we could refer to our own existence for insight into the nature of 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. Thus the kabbalists speak of a seder histalshelut, a "chain of evolution," in which the ten divine attributes (sefirot) that G‑d projected from Himself to define His relationship with us evolve into the essence of creation, into the spiritual "DNA" that determines the nature of every created thing.

So when Job says, "From My own flesh I perceive the divine," 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"; he is also saying: "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."

This explains the numerous Talmudic and Midrashic passages that "trace" the origins of various elements of the physical world. "From what was the earth created?" asks the Talmud. "From the snow under G‑d's throne of glory." "How was light created?" queries the Midrash. "G‑d wrapped Himself in a white tallit and glistened the radiance of His splendor." At first glance, these are puzzling statements: does not the Torah clearly state that G‑d created the heavens and the earth, and everything they contain, out of a prior state of utter non-existence? G‑d said, "Let there be light!" and light came into being! Indeed, the concept of creation ex nihilo (something from nothing) is central to the Jewish view of G‑d's relationship with the created reality. How does supernal snow or a white tallit come into the picture?

But our sages are not speaking of the physical substance of the earth or of the physical phenomenon of light: these were created ex nihilo by G‑d. What they are discussing is the nature and significance of these creations: what aspect of the divine reality do they reflect? from which divine attribute did they evolve? Ask an artist about the source of one of his paintings, and he'll tell you about an experience he had, the emotions it roused in him, and how these feelings matured over time until his talent translated them into the particular creation before you. Obviously, he is not speaking of the source of the physical material of the painting—the canvas and paints he acquired in an art-supply store—but of the vision they embody. Similarly, while the physical substance of earth and light were brought into being from naught, their spiritual essence developed through the "chain of evolution" that G‑d generated in order to provide us with a link to His reality. G‑d's "white tallit" is the kabbalistic term for a certain feature of the divine projection, as is the "snow under the divine throne"; light and earth are their physical incarnations and earthly metaphors.

The Translation of Light

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 make tangible the most ethereal abstractions and familiarize the most foreign concepts, taking an idea that is utterly intelligible to his student and translating it into terms the student can relate to and comprehend. However, unless the student understands how metaphors are to be assimilated—unless he learns to distinguish the garments of simile from the concept they encloth—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 primitive tongue. 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 such a translation, 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, after His likeness," enabling us to perceive His reality from our flesh, we are warned against attributing "a body, or any semblance of the bodily" to Him. 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.

Let us illustrate both the power and the limitation of metaphor with the example of the first creation of the physical reality—light.

Light is an oft-employed metaphor in discussing the divine. Kabbalistic and Chassidic teaching speak of the "light of wisdom," the "light of benevolence," the "light of harmony," etc., that G‑d bestows on His creation. It describes the various dimensions of G‑d's relationship with reality as "pervading light," "encompassing light," or "quintessential light." And its general term for the original, all inclusive divine projection is or ein sof, "infinite light" (or "light of the Infinite").

Why "light"? There are many reasons why light is deemed the appropriate metaphor to connote the flow of influence and sustenance we receive from G‑d. Light evokes associations of spirituality, intangibility, purity, power (it travels faster, further, and with greater effect on the things it reaches than anything else we know), essentiality to life, dependence on its source (light is never disconnected from it emitter), and many other "divine" qualities.

Another of these qualities, discussed at great length in the Chassidic writings, is light's spontaneity. When a teacher imparts an idea to his student, a builder raises a wall, or a river carries water from a snowcap to the ocean, there is effort, expenditure and involvement: the teacher must cease all other (overt) mental activity and focus on the particular idea and the student's particular mind; the builder exhausts himself; water must be removed from mountaintop if it is to be emptied into the ocean. On the other hand, the sun's (or any other luminous body's) emission of light is spontaneous and effortless. When you open a window on a sunny day, the sun does not have to work harder, expend more energy, or shift focus to fill your room with light. A lamp in a room is utterly unaffected by the number of sighted eyes in the room, by the amount or size or color of the objects it illuminates, or by the uses to which its light is put.

To say that G‑d "created" a world is to imply that He toiled, or at least "applied" Himself to the task, as an artisan might expend himself, mind, heart and muscle, to produce a work. The Kabbalists therefore prefer to say that G‑d emanated a divine "light"--that He effected a world without Himself being affected in any way.

And, as explained above, this is not merely a convenient metaphor we have discovered tucked in some corner of our experience: the spontaneity that characterizes the emission of physical light is the direct descendent of the "spontaneity" of G‑d's manner of creation.

But to say that an act is spontaneous implies not only that it is effortless and non-involving, but also that it is unconscious and non-elective. The sun has no choice but to emit light—such is its nature. Indeed, in our experience, anything spontaneous is also unchosen: if we can choose to do something, then it takes involvement on our part. Obviously, this aspect of the light model cannot be attributed to G‑d, who has no "nature" to define and dictate to Him, and whose every "emanation" is an act of choice.

In other words, when employing light as the metaphor for divine bestowal we must distinguish between the essence of its spontaneity—its effortlessness—and the limitations of its spontaneity—limitations that stem not from its supernal source and analog but from its translation into the finiteness and imperfection of physicality.

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. Therefore 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"--and our sages have stated that every word of Torah is a "name" of G‑d, a description of His projected self. Thus, the earthly Kohen and Kohen Gadol are 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" (Psalms 91:15).

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; and 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 Kohen-Gadol-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 in 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 (as per Leviticus 16:16). If it were only the divine Kohen Gadol who 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. Had Isaiah beheld the divine Kohen Gadol coming from Edom, he would not have seen a figure in blood-stained garments.

As "Kohen 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 ordinary Kohen'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 extracting 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 "Kohen Gadol": transcending it all, and empowering us to also attain something of His inviolable sanctity.