We have a tendency to view the torah portions as organic units, often being separate and complete in themselves. This is easy to do, considering we study a portion for a week and then move on to the next. However, sometimes the answers to our questions are found in adjacent passages, or even passages on the other side of the calendar. For instance, Parasha Kedoshim ended with, “A man or a woman who is a medium or a necromancer shall surely be put to death. They shall be stoned with stones; their blood shall be upon them.” In keeping with this theme of death, our portion begins with: And Hashem said to Moses, “Speak to the priests, the sons of Aaron, and say to them, No one shall make himself unclean for the dead among his people…
One commentator I’ve read in the past suggests that the juxtaposition of the restriction against consulting necromancers applies more so to the priest. The priest cannot be like the mediums and religious zealots of the nations who throw bones for divination, drink from the skulls of their enemies to reveal secrets, or what have you. [In fact, the phrase, “roll the bones,” has been adopted into modern culture as figurative language for someone throwing dice, though dice are now used in games of chance or Yahtzee and have nothing to do with divination.] The practice of necromancy would cause the priest to be unclean and he would be unable to perform the tabernacle service until he subjected himself to the ritual that renders him clean, which includes the ashes of the parah adumah (red heifer).
We already know that uncleanness from the dead prohibits someone from entering the courtyard of the Tabernacle, so why do we have this here? If the people cannot enter on account of a dead body, how much more are the sons of Aaron prohibited, being they serve Hashem at the altar. This passage lets us know that the Cohanim are further restricted from tumah met. They are not allowed to care for the dead nor attend funerals or visit grave sites except the care and funerals for his kin who is near unto him, his mother, his father, his son, his daughter, his brother, or his unwed sister (who is near to him because she has had no husband).
Two anomalies are present in this text. Why only his unwed or virgin sister, and where is his wife in this list? Two answer the question of the priest’s wife is to likewise answer the question of why his unwed sister.
When two people become married, the text says they become vashar echad – one flesh. Therefore, when the text says the priest cam become unclean over the death of his kin who is near unto him, it means specifically his wife. The priest is able to attend the funeral for his sister until she weds because she becomes vashar echad to a man and she is no longer “near to him because she has no husband.”
That being said, we need to look at a passage in Parsha Shemini:
Now Nadab and Abihu, the sons of Aaron, each took his censer and put fire in it and laid incense on it and offered unauthorized fire before the LORD, which he had not commanded them. And fire came out from before the LORD and consumed them, and they died before the LORD. Then Moses said to Aaron, “This is what the LORD has said: ‘Among those who are near me I will be sanctified, and before all the people I will be glorified.’” And Aaron held his peace. And Moses called Mishael and Elzaphan, the sons of Uzziel the uncle of Aaron, and said to them, “Come near; carry your brothers away from the front of the sanctuary and out of the camp.” So they came near and carried them in their coats out of the camp, as Moses had said. And Moses said to Aaron and to Eleazar and Ithamar his sons, “Do not let the hair of your heads hang loose, and do not tear your clothes, lest you die, and wrath come upon all the congregation; but let your brothers, the whole house of Israel, bewail the burning that the LORD has kindled. And do not go outside the entrance of the tent of meeting, lest you die, for the anointing oil of the LORD is upon you.” And they did according to the word of Moses.
So what’s different? Why is Aaron allowed to grieve and render himself unclean for his sons, but not when two of his sons are, basically, turned into whole-burnt offerings? In Leviticus 8:33, the text says:
And you shall not go outside the entrance of the tent of meeting for seven days, until the days of your ordination are completed, for it will take seven days to ordain you. As has been done today, the LORD has commanded to be done to make atonement for you. At the entrance of the tent of meeting you shall remain day and night for seven days, performing what Hashem has charged, so that you do not die, for so I have been commanded.” And Aaron and his sons did all the things that Hashem commanded by Moses.
On the eight day after the ordination of the priesthood, the consecration of the Tabernacle began, and these gifts and sacrifices are detailed in Numbers chapter 7. So on that first day, in which Nachshon b’Amminadav of Yehudah presented his offerings and gifts for the dedication of the sons of Aaron died. Since this was the first of twelve consecutive days of dedication, Aaron and his sons were unable to conduct themselves in a normally proper period of mourning. Instead, Hashem says, “Do not let the hair of your heads hang loose, and do not tear your clothes, lest you die, and wrath come upon all the congregation; but let your brothers, the whole house of Israel, bewail the burning that Hashem had kindled.”