אמור אל הכהנים בני אהרן ואמרת אליהם לנפש לא יטמא בעמיו
Speak to the priests, the sons of Aaron, and say to them, There shall be none defiled for the dead among his people
In the Midrash (Leviticus Rabbah 26:1) it is written: R. Tanhum son of R. Hannilai opened his discourse with the text (Psalms 12:7), “אמרות ה’ אמרות טהורות” (the words of the Eternal are pure words). Does this mean that only the words of the Eternal are pure words, but not those of mortals? It is the way of the world that when a mortal king visits a province, and all those in the province come to praise him, then, if their praise pleases him, he tells them, “tomorrow I shall build public baths and bathhouses for you, and a canal for you as well.” But should he fall asleep and not awake, then what becomes of him and his words? However, The Holy One Blessed Be He is not so, “וה’ א-להים אמת” (the Eternal is the true God) (Jeremiah 10:10). Why is He true? Because, said R. Abin, He is the living God, and the everlasting King (והוא א-להים חיים ומלך עולם) (Id.)
R. Tanhum properly deduced that the promises of the Eternal are pure, promises that are true and may be relied upon. The promises are called pure, because they come from a pure place and a holy source that is immortal and can therefore never become impure. The promises of flesh and blood, however, are not pure and may not be trusted, because their source is a decaying body that must eventually become a corpse. The promises of such a being are therefore impure.
However, we must still try to understand why R. Tanhum expounded his words here in connection with this verse. And our master explains that R. Tanhum wished to explain the repetitive phrase “אמור ואמרת” (say and you shall say).The word “בעמיו” (among his people) is also redundant after the commandment “לנפש לא יטמא” (shall not defile himself for a dead person) which the Sages understand to refer to an abandoned corpse (מת מצוה).
R. Tanhum therefore teaches us that, since the promises of human beings are impure, one who relies on human promises defiles his soul with a more severe impurity than that occasioned by entering into a tent in which there is a corpse. Now, if someone sees a friend and colleague, with whom only yesterday he spoke face-to-face, today being laid to eternal rest, he will draw the appropriate lesson that he should not place his trust even in mortal princes, whose breath will cease and who will return to dust. But unless he sees this happen with his own eyes, he may not draw that lesson. And this is why the wisest of men said (Eccleisastes 7:2): “טוב ללכת אל־בית־אֵבל מלכת אל־בית משתה באשר הוא סוף כל־האדָם והחַי יתן אל־לבו” (It is better to go to the house of mourning than to the house of feasting, for this is the end of all men, and the living will take it to heart).
Now the priests who have no share in the land and who look for support toward the holy offerings of the Children of Israel, their tithes and heave-offerings, must be especially careful not to place their trust in human beings and not to be overly solicitous of the wealthy. So, because the Eternal commanded them not to defile themselves by coming into contact with a corpse, the priests will have no occasion to see a dead person with their own eyes and will therefore not draw from their own experience the lesson that they should not place their confidence in flesh and blood and not rely on a fragile reed. The priests are, therefore, susceptible to an even greater defilement than that of coming into contact with a corpse — relying on the promises of flesh and blood — thereby incurring a loss greater than their gain.
The Scripture therefore repeats the command to speak to the priests (“אמור ואמרת”) and also includes a redundancy “לנפש לא יטמא בעמיו ” (none of them shall defile himself for the dead among his people) inasmuch as priests may not permit themselves to be physically defiled through contact with any corpse, even that of a Gentile. This teaches that beyond the commandment against physical defilement, the priests must guard their souls against defilement from “בעמיו” (among their people), by placing their trust in the people among whom they live. And that is why the Midrash for Emor begins with the verse “The words of the Eternal are pure words.” (שביבי אש)
לא יטטא בעל בעמיו להחלו
He shall not defile himself as a husband among his people and so profane himself
The Sages deduced that this refers to the prohibited wife of a priest by whom he has been rendered unfit to perform any priestly service. But see the Ibn Ezra who wrote in his commentary that if it were not for the derivation of the Sages, he would have said simply that a priest is not allowed to defile himself even for a legal wife. And he would have explained the verse above (Leviticus 21:2): “כי אם לשארו הקרוב אליו” (except for his nearest of kin) to be a general description that does not include his wife.
But our master explains that the inference of the Sages holds of necessity, because if the verse were interpreted to mean that a priest must not defile himself for his wife whether she be prohibited or permissible, what meaning would we attach to the word “להחלו” (to profane himself)? And even if we interpreted these words, as the Ramban does, to mean that a priest would demean himself in the eyes of the people by involving himself in the burial of his deceased wife, then why was “להחלו” not written above, i.e., : “לנפש לא יטמא בעמיו להחלו (none of them shall defile himself for the dead among his people and so profane himself) instead of the verse as written here “לא יטמא בעל בעמיו להחלו” (he shall not defile himself as a husband and so profane himself)?
Moreover, writing “לנפש לא יטמא בעמיו להחלו” would have been a better indication that a priest may defile himself for an unclaimed corpse (מת מצוה) than writing “לא יטמא בעל בעמיו להחלו”, inasmuch as it could not be supposed that a priest would demean himself by engaging in the burial of a מת מצוה. We would therefore certainly have inferred that a priest is enjoined to defile himself for the sake of a מת מצוה. And even the one that holds that we do not deduce any halakhah from the reason for which a commandment was enjoined concedes that, when the Scripture states the reason for a commandment explicitly, we do make an inference from the stated reason. But it is clear that the word “להחלו” was not intended to explain why a priest may not defile himself through contact with a corpse, but serves only as a reference to a prohibited wife by whom a priest has been profaned. (שביבי אש)