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Torah Attitude: Parashas Acharei - Kedoshim: Golden threads, sour grapes and stumped teeth
The Kohein Gadol was required to wear four special white linen garments, at the part of the service when he entered the Holy of Holies. Since the Jewish people had sinned by making the golden calf, it would be inappropriate for the High Priest to wear gold as he was entering the Sanctuary to seek forgiveness for the Jewish people. G'd does not punish for a sin for more than three or four generations. The communal sin of serving the golden calf, so soon after the revelation at Mount Sinai, caused such a blemish that it could not be completely erased in just a few generations. Not every stain will disappear after just one cleaning of a soiled garment. If Adam had kept himself back from his one sin, he and all his future generations would not have known of death. The measure of G'd's rewards is exponentially greater than His punishment, at least five hundreds times. In the fox and lion parable, Rabbi Meir quotes, "The fathers eat unripe sour grapes and the teeth of the children are stumped." We do not realize how often we are saved and redeemed in the merit of previous generations.
Four special garments
In the beginning of this week's Torah portion, G'd instructs Moses to speak to Aaron and teach him about the service in the Temple on Yom Kippur. This service, which included entering into the Holy of Holies, could only be performed by the Kohein Gadol, the High Priest. When he entered the Holy of Holies the High Priest would not wear the usual eight garments described in Parashas Tetzaveh (Shemos 28:1-43). Instead, he was required to wear four special white linen garments (see Vayikra 16:4).
No golden threads
Rashi quotes from the Talmud (Rosh Hashanah 26a) that the reason why the High Priest could not wear his usual eight garments was due to the golden threads contained in them. Since the Jewish people had sinned by making the golden calf, it would be inappropriate for the High Priest to wear gold as he entered the Sanctuary to seek forgiveness for the Jewish people. "A prosecutor cannot be made into a defender." The same material which was used to sin cannot be utilized to achieve forgiveness.
Punish four generations
It is incredible to see how a sin done hundreds, if not thousands, of years earlier can have an effect for all generations. When an individual sins G'd does not punish for more than three or four generations. As it says, (Shemos 34:7) "He remembers the sins of the fathers upon children and grandchildren to the third and fourth generation." And as the Talmud (Berachot 7a) explains this will only happen if the children continue to pursue the evil conduct of the father. However, a communal sin causes such a blemish that it cannot be completely erased in just a few generations.
Golden calf so serious
Especially, the sin of the golden calf committed so soon after the revelation at Mount Sinai was such a serious transgression that the whole Jewish nation was almost wiped-out. The intervention of Moses saved them at the time, as G'd in His great mercy accepted his prayers and changed the verdict into a punishment which was broken up and meted out bit by bit throughout the generations. Our sages explain that G'd's statement (Shemos 32:34) "And on the day that I remember [any sin] and I will remember upon them their sin [of the golden calf]" means that whenever G'd punishes the Jewish people for their sins He will at the same time give part of the punishment for the sin of the golden calf.
Rabbeinu Yonah (Gates of Repentance 1:9) explains that every repentance will help achieve forgiveness, but it will not necessarily purify the soul to complete purity as if the sin never took place. When a person sins, says Rabbeinu Yonah, his soul becomes like a soiled garment that needs cleaning. However, not every stain will disappear after just one cleaning. It may need many cleanings for the stain to be completely removed. The stain of the golden calf was so deep that even after generations of yearly services in the Temple on Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement; the stain was still somewhat present. Even after all these years, it would endanger the lives of the Jewish people if the High Priest would enter into the Sanctuary dressed in gold, as this would be a reminder of the nation's previous sin.
Similarly, Rashi (Vayikra 5:17) quotes the Sifra (12:7) where Rabbi Yossi said "If you want to know the reward of the righteous you should go and learn from Adam Harishon. Adam was commanded just one prohibition and transgressed it. See how he was punished with death for himself and all future generations." As we know, Adam had been instructed not to eat from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, and had been warned that if he did he would bring death upon himself and his offspring. If he had kept himself back from this one sin, he and all future generations would not have known of death.
G'd's rewards five hundred times greater
Continues the Sifra, "G'd's measure of goodness is much greater than His measure of punishment." As mentioned above, G'd in general punishes only for four generations. On the other hand, G'd dispenses reward for thousands of generations, as it says, (Shemos 34:7) "He will preserve kindness for thousands of generations." Our sages point out that the proportion of four generations to two thousand generations is five hundred. In the same way, say our sages, the measure of G'd's rewards is at least five hundreds times greater, than His punishments. Concludes the Sifra, "If the small measure of punishment brought about death for Adam and all future generations, how much more will the larger measure of goodness bring about rewards for anyone who just refrains from eating prohibited foods or from eating on Yom Kippur, both for himself and for all future generations."
Fox and the lion
The above words of our sages teach us how our actions not only affect ourselves but also make a difference for generations to come. In this connection we find an interesting and enlightening fox parable by Rabbi Meir. The Talmud (Sanhedrin 38b) relates that Rabbi Meir had three hundred fox parables, but as Rabbi Yochanan said, we only know three of them. The Talmud does not elaborate on the parables but quotes three verses. The first verse is from Yechezkel (18:2) where it says: "The fathers eat unripe sour grapes and the teeth of the children are stumped." Rav Hai Gaon was once asked to explain this obscure Talmudic passage. He answered (Responsa of the Gaonim by Rabbi Yaacov Mustafia 30) that the parables were used by Rabbi Meir to teach and chastise his students and each one was based on a verse from Tanach. This particular parable is referring to a fox that was attacked by a lion and was about to be devoured by the hungry beast. The shrewd fox said to his attacker, "How satisfied can you be already by consuming me? Come, let me show you a person you can tear apart who will satisfy your hunger." When the lion saw the person, it said, "I am scared that this pious person will bring me down with his prayers." The fox put the lion at ease and said to him, "Don't worry. Nothing will happen to you or to your son. Your misdeed will not be punished until the time of your grandson. Now go and satisfy your hunger. It will be a long time before your grandson is born." The lion accepted the fox's reasoning and jumped to attack the innocent person. As it moved in for the kill, it fell into a deep pit which had been covered up by branches. As the fox caught up with the captured lion and looked down into the pit, the lion said, "Didn't you assure me that the punishment would not affect me and my son, but would only affect my grandson?" Answered the fox, "That's true. You were not captured because of your misdeed but because of the misdeed of your grandfather." The lion protested and said, "That's not fair. The fathers eat the unripe sour grapes and the teeth of the children are stumped." The fox smirked and said, "Why did you not make that consideration before?"
The lesson is very clear. At the same that we complain about being punished for the transgressions of previous generations, we forget to take into account how our deeds can have repercussions for generations to come. In general, G'd does not punish children for the sins of their ancestors. As it says, (Devarim 24:16) "Fathers shall not die because of children, and children shall not die because of fathers. A man shall (only) die for his own sins." As mentioned above, the Talmud (Berachot 7a) explains that this applies as long as the children do not continue to sin as the father. However, as in the parable where the lion did the same kind of misdeed as his grandfather, in that case the punishment will also continue.
Merit of previous generations
In the beginning of the Shemona Esrei, we express how G'd remembers the kindness of the fathers and brings the redeemer to their children's children. This does not only refer to the final redemption but to every time our enemies' plans are foiled and we are saved from their schemes. We do not realize how often we are saved and redeemed in the merit of previous generations, right back to our Patriarchs. It is but our obligation to ensure that future generations will be able to access our merits to save and redeem them in their times of difficulty. And in due time this will help to bring about that G'd will send Mashiach to herald the final redemption.
These words were based on a talk given by Rabbi Avraham Kahn, the Rosh Yeshiva and Founder of Yeshivas Keser Torah in Toronto.
Shema Yisrael Torah Network