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Rabbi A. Leib Scheinbaum
Hebrew Academy of Cleveland


After the death of Aharon's two sons, when they approached before Hashem and they died. (16:1)

The dichotomy between Aharon HaKohen's reaction to the deaths of his sons and the collective grief of the Jewish People is glaring. Earlier, in Parashas Shemini (10:6), when the actual tragedy is recorded, the Torah writes, "And your brethren the entire House of Yisrael shall bewail the conflagration that Hashem ignited." Concerning Aharon, however (10:3), it is stated, "And Aharon was silent." If tears are the correct and appropriate expression of grief, where were Aharon's tears? If weeping for these great tzaddikim, righteous persons, is a realistic expectation, as we see concerning the nation's expression of grief, why was Aharon silent?

Horav Shalom Schwadron, zl, explains this pragmatically, distinguishing between personal and national tragedy. For Aharon, this was a personal blow. He had just lost two diamonds, two sons whose stars of spirituality and holiness shone brilliantly. Yet, they died in a most horrible manner, on a most auspicious day. The blow was overwhelming, the tragedy unspeakable, but it was personal. The time for weeping would come later, in seclusion, with no one around. It was a personal loss; it would be a personal grief.

Concerning the Jewish nation, the tragic passing of Nadav and Avihu was a lesson in spirituality. A great void was left in the spiritual dimension of the nation with the deaths of these two great men. The natural arousal and inspiration that the people manifested in response to this experience were spiritual in nature. It was not a mourning for these two men as people, as friends, but as towering Torah leaders whose passing under such circumstances had to evoke feelings of introspection. Such circumstances impart a compelling lesson and catalyze atonement for the nation. The people must delve into "who" it was that perished and "when," "where," and "how" it occurred, so that the underlying message of this tragedy would have its greatest impact on the living.

To Aharon, however, it was personal. He lost two very special sons under clearly tragic circumstances. It had been destined to be his and their greatest moment. His grief was unlike that sustained by the nation. He was their father. They were his precious sons. Aharon could not permit his personal grief to becloud his mission as Kohen Gadol. He would deal with his personal feelings later, in solitude. Now was the nation's time. He must remain "silent," continuing his service as commanded by Hashem.

Shortly after the conflagration that destroyed most of European Jewry during World War II, the Belzer Rebbe, zl, one of the few surviving Admorim, reached Eretz Yisrael. His first Shabbos was spent in the port city of Haifa. Accompanying him were a few survivors, themselves broken shards of humanity, whose tenacious clinging to their faith preserved their sanity. Spiritually whole, yet physically challenged, they were joined by other survivors who had arrived somewhat earlier. Their common bond was the holy tzaddik, the Belzer Rebbe, whose survival from Europe was miraculous. The emotions ran high that first Shabbos in freedom. Their lives had been shattered by the Holocaust. What words of comfort could the Rebbe give them? The Rebbe began his homily by quoting the pasuk in 13:18, relating the Jewish nation's liberation from Egypt:

Va'chamushim alu Bnei Yisrael mei'eretz Mitzrayim. "Bnei Yisrael were armed when they went up from Egypt." According to the Midrash, the word chamushim is derived from chamesh, five/fifth. This implies that only one fifth of the original Jewish population in Egypt had left. The rest had not been prepared to leave Egypt. It was their home - for better or worse. To adopt a new life in the wilderness, under the aegis of G-d's nation, was too much for them to handle. They perished during the plague of darkness, so that the Egyptians would not see that Jews, as well as Egyptians, were dying.

There is a dispute if the actual number of liberated Jews was one-fifth, one-fifteenth, or even one-five hundredth. In any event, the six hundred thousand Jews who left Egypt represented a small percent of the total number of Jews who had been there. Bearing this in mind, the group of Jews who stood at the Red Sea must have been emotionally drained and heartbroken. With so many Jews left in Egypt, no home was immune from grief. How could these remnants of a once large multitude of people stand at the banks of the Red Sea and sing Shirah? From where did they gather the strength to sing praise amidst grief and devastation?

This was the Rebbe's question. How did Klal Yisrael do it? His reply was powerful, its message profound: "Klal Yisrael was not adversely influenced by the tragedy. A Jew understands that when Hashem strikes, one bends his head down and - with humility and faith - continues to trudge on. He trusts in the Almighty. The survivors move on and sing Shirah as if nothing had ever happened. That is the Jew."

Yetzias Mitzrayim taught us the meaning of Jewish resolution and fortitude. The Jew's inherent ability to continue, despite overcoming the most difficult challenges, is ingrained within our DNA. It is part of our eternal heritage and will serve in the future as our enduring legacy.

The Jewish People were instructed to weep and mourn over the deaths of Aharon's sons, because this incident had impacted the entire nation. Aharon, however, remained silent, continuing his service as Kohen Gadol to Hashem and the People.

When Hashem instructed Klal Yisrael to weep over the conflagration, He was being very specific. They were to focus on the suffering of Aharon and his sons. They had undergone a terrible tragedy. Rashi explains that it was important that the Jewish People be acutely aware of Aharon's pain in order to empathize with him. This is a powerful statement. Weeping during a sad, heartrending occasion is not uncommon. Many people become emotional during a funeral, especially if the person has passed away under tragic circumstances, but do we ever wonder why we cry? Are we crying for the close friends and relatives who have been left bereft of a parent, sibling, child, friend, or are we crying for ourselves? Do we envision this tragedy occurring in our lives and our ensuing reaction? If we think about it, the expressions of emotion are usually for oneself. The Torah is telling us to weep for Aharon and his sons - exclusively. Understand their loss, feel their pain; acknowledge that it was Hashem who sent this fire and think about why He did it. What lesson can you derive from this tragedy? In other words: stay focused; know why you are weeping and for what purpose.

Tears are a powerful emotional expression. They represent true emotion and, when sincere, can be very effective. This is exhibited by the following story. One day, a group of students of the famous Chevron Yeshivah in Eretz Yisrael were sitting on the porch enjoying their lunch break. A young fellow walked up to them and asked to see the Mashgiach, Horav Meir Chodosh, zl. The young man looked "different." He clearly was not dressed yeshivish. He wore a cap and slightly torn shirt and shorts. Something about this young man bespoke sincerity. He was directed to the Mashgiach's apartment. After several minutes, the young man emerged with the Mashgiach, who introduced him as a new student in the Yeshivah. He was given a seat in the bais medrash, to which he promptly proceeded with great excitement. With his Gemorah in his hand, albeit upside down, he seemed to have acquired new life.

The students were sort of taken aback by the new student, but, as we all know, everyone has a story. This young man had an extremely sad story. When the students heard his story, their opinion of him changed radically. He had emerged from the European inferno all alone, having lost his entire family to Hitler's hordes. Family was not all that he had lost. He also had lost his youth. At a time when young boys were studying Talmud in cheder, this young fellow was undergoing the trauma of survival. He ran from one place to another, only to be caught and incarcerated until, finally the war was over, and he realized that he had been spared. He was one of the lucky ones. Whatever patchy education he had received prior to the war, however, was only a memory. He had arrived in Eretz Yisrael in search of a life, but - even more - an education. He was starved for Torah. He hungered to learn.

He wanted the best yeshivah. He wanted to start at the "top" and work his way up. It was easier said than done. Here he was in Chevron, and he could barely read a line of the Gemorah. To make things even more challenging, he was in a room with some of the most accomplished young scholars in the country. The dichotomy between where he was situated on the ladder of Torah knowledge and the level of the other students, was beyond comparison. Yet, the other students were very kind, bending over to be sympathetic, to lend an ear, explain, teach, help. They wished him well, but, deep down, they knew that he had so far to go.

Davening was different. It was his moment with Hashem, when he could pour out his heart - and pour out he did. He would stand at his seat and cry. His davening was an entreaty of pain - pain in not understanding the Gemorah, not being able to read properly. He would stand there with the tears rolling down his cheeks, right onto his siddur. When he finished davening, his siddur was drenched with tears. When a person prays in such a manner to acquire Torah knowledge; if he is in pain because he does not understand, then Hashem intervenes, and the supplicant receives His blessing.

The young man started late, but his goals were clear. He knew where he was going, how far it was to the top, and how to reach it. He succeeded. Horav Shaul Barzam, zl, scaled the mountain and reached its summit. In fact, he caught the eye of the Steipler Rav, zl, whose daughter he married. All this was catalyzed by his tears.

And place them (the "sins") upon the head of the he-goat, and send it with a designated man to the desert. The he-goat will bear upon itself all their iniquities to an uninhabited land. (16:21,22)

The idea of a he-goat carrying away all of the sins of the Jewish People does seem a bit fantastic. The commentators, each in his own manner, offer rationales to explain this anomaly. The Zohar views this as a lesson that we must recognize, so that we are able to repulse the evil forces that surround us. We cannot ignore them, because they are there to encourage our downfall. Various energies work to repel these forces. Yaakov Avinu sent a gift to Eisav. Esther Hamalkah used guile, as she invited the evil Haman to her table. Satan is constantly on the lookout to ensure our collapse. We must contend with him, as well.

The Kli Yakar cites Chazal, who break the word avonosam, their sins, into two words: avonos tam, referring to the sins of he who was called a tam, wholesome person, Yaakov Avinu. He explains that, in reality, whoever is a machati es ha'rabim causes the multitude to sin, chet ha'rabim talui bo, the sins of the multitude are blamed on him. Therefore, Satan, is constantly on guard, looking, searching, conniving, doing everything within his power to bring us to sin, to expel us from our spiritual perch. By placing the sins on the he-goat, we are making a silent declaration. Klal Yisrael's sins are the result of Eisav's machinations. He caused us to sin. Satan and Eisav's archangel are one and the same. Thus, let the seir, he-goat, which represents seir, Eisav, take away the sins of Yaakov, the tam, wholesome person.

Horav Matisyahu Solomon, Shlita, explains this further. On Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the year, when we are divested of all materialism, when we begin to acknowledge the futility of this world and the everlasting nature of Olam Habba, the World to Come, we start introspecting our lives and activities of the past year - and it does not look very promising. We wonder how we could have descended to such infamy. How could we have been so foolish as to sin against the Almighty?

It is at that moment that we realize that it had not purely been our own doing. We had "help." The root of our iniquity lies in Eisav's influence, in the way he presents this world to us, leading us to believe that the greatest pleasures are all available to us in this world. So, why not indulge? We, regrettably, fall for the ruse and abdicate our beliefs.

On Yom Kippur, it all becomes clear. We are not really the ones who have rebelled against Hashem; rather, we have been mislead by Eisav. This is why we send away our sins on the he-goat, who represents Seir / Eisav, to the desolate wilderness. There, amidst the desolation, we imply that all of this world is nothing but empty devastation. This world is nothing. Eisav, who leads us to believe that this world represents Paradise, has returned with the message: we now understand the truth. We erred as a result of being misled. Will You, Hashem, please forgive us?

The Mashgiach explains why the one who leads the seir l'azazel is referred to as ish itee, the designated man. The Chezkuni cites Chazal, who explain that this person is someone whom Bais Din has determined will die during the course of the coming year. It is quoted in the name of Horav Y. Weintraub, zl, of Pinsk that, psychologically, the individual who is aware that his death is imminent despairs from this world and thinks only of Olam Habba. Such an individual is especially suited to represent Klal Yisrael on Yom Kippur and to serve as their advocate. He is the perfect representative to push the he-goat off the cliff, to atone for Klal Yisrael.

Which man shall carry out and by which he shall live. (18:5)

Jewish life is sacrosanct. Its value is reiterated numerous times in the Torah and all ensuing Jewish literature. Chazal teach us that nothing - absolutely nothing - stands in the way of saving a Jewish life. Hashem gives us a gift which we are to cherish, respect and use to the utmost. Three cardinal sins supersede this rule. If an individual's life is threatened unless he either murders, serves an idol, or commits adultery, he must accept death, rather than transgress any of these sins. In contrast, one is to desecrate the Shabbos if another's life is in danger, even if he might be able to save him, even if it will only push off the inevitable for a short while; life takes precedence. While we are all aware of this reality, the following poignant episode underscores the idea, hopefully teaching us all the value of every moment of life that Hashem grants us.

One of the distinguished families in Eretz Yisrael, whose teenage son was stricken with a terminal illness, turned to Horav Ezriel Tauber, Shlita, for solace. Apparently, the end was very near, and the family was coming to terms with what was naturally inevitable. They had one request of Rav Tauber: Their son had shut everyone out of what was left of his life. He lay there with his eyes open, staring at the ceiling, in deep despair. He knew and understood what was occurring. The doctors were concealing nothing from him. He had given up hope and lay there waiting to die. All that his parents wanted was a simple conversation, to talk to him, to say goodbye. He was their child, and they loved him. Why should his last moments be spent alone? The parents wanted to reach out to him with the hope that he would reciprocate and reach out to them. They were certain that the multi-talented Rav Tauber would succeed in infusing their son with "life," albeit it temporarily. Rav Tauber thought about the request; at first he replied in the negative. What could he do? What could he say that would dramatically alter the boy's spirits? How could he make him responsive to his mother, who wanted nothing more than to have her son talk to her? He could not ignore the mother's tears, and he agreed to go to talk to the youth. Perhaps he would be successful.

Arriving at the hospital room, Rav Tauber was not prepared for what he saw. As much as he had attempted to envision the boy, he was ill-prepared for the image which confronted him. The boy was a mass of skin and bones, his face contorted in agony, his eyes staring out into space. Next to his bed sat his mother, whose tear-stained face told the entire story. Amidst her weeping, she would whisper to her son, "Please talk to me. Please say something." There was no response - just staring.

Rav Tauber turned to the boy and quietly said, "Shalom Aleichem." No response - only continued staring. Again, Rav Tauber said, "Shalom Aleichem." Same response, nothing. This continued two more times until, finally, Rav Tauber said, "I came quite a distance to see you. It was not easy. The least you could do is answer me." Suddenly, he saw a glimmer of movement from the boy's eyes. It was not much of a response, but it was certainly much more than he had been receiving earlier. "Let me ask you a question," Rav Tauber began. "You are a yeshivah student, and I am sure that you have studied halachah. Perhaps you can clarify some halachos for me." If a gentile approaches a Jew and demands that he hand over all of his money, unless he transgresses a prohibition of the Torah, what should he do?"

Slowly the boy's lips began to move, as he forced himself to speak. "He gives up his money, but no mitzvah of the Torah may be transgressed." This was incredible! The boy had, up until now, not uttered a word. Now, he was speaking! Rav Tauber continued, "Perhaps this applies only to one who either does not have much to lose or who lives alone and has no one other than himself to support. Let us look at the example of a wealthy man who supports a multitude of organizations and people. In fact, hundreds of families rely on him for sustenance. Will this ruling still apply? Should he be forced to relinquish all of his funds, thereby jeopardizing the livelihood of many people, rather than transgress a prohibition of the Torah?"

"Yes," the boy replied emphatically. "The ruling is in place regardless of the consequences. A Torah law may not be transgressed under any circumstances."

"What would be the law if, rather than having one's wealth threatened, it was his life that hung in the balance?" continued Rav Tauber with his questioning.

"In such a case, human life takes precedence. Under no circumstances may one's life be put in danger (except for the three cardinal sins). Hashem wants us to live - not die," was the boy's response.

"Let us say that in this instance, it does not involve merely one person's chillul Shabbos, desecration of Shabbos, but that of many Jews --in fact, an entire town or country. Will the halachah of safeguarding human life still prevail?" asked Rav Tauber.

The boy was really getting into it, and he responded, "It holds true under all conditions. Human life is sacrosanct. It takes precedence over all prohibitions."

"For instance, if the Shabbos desecration was a surety, but the chance of sustaining life was, at best, doubtful, will life prevail?" asked Rav Tauber.

"Yes," said the boy. "Even the slightest doubt that affects human life renders it more important than any prohibition," he replied.

Rav Tauber was evidently leading up to his coupe de grace, the searing question and answer that would change the playing field. He had a point that he was bent on driving home to this boy, a point that would hopefully change his attitude toward his remaining mortal days.

"Tell me, my young scholar," Rav Tauber began, "What is the halachah in a situation where someone lies deathly ill; indeed, there is no hope for him to live more than a very short time? Can his life be extended, even for a few hours by desecrating Shabbos?"

The boy was no fool. When he heard the question, he understood the answer, its ramifications and personal message. He did not have to reply to Rav Tauber, because Jewish life is G-d's greatest gift, and every moment is holy. One must desecrate Shabbos to keep the patient alive - even for a short time. Man does not fathom the Heavenly significance given to life. The entire Torah is pushed aside to save a moment of Jewish life. The boy had perceived the message. Rav Tauber bent down and kissed the boy on his forehead. As he parted from him, he said, "It is no secret that you are undergoing indescribable pain. Do not give up. The life that still courses through your veins is something of infinite value. Hashem is willing to have His holy Shabbos desecrated even for the slightest chance, albeit doubtful, of sustaining a life. As long as you are alive, embrace that gift."

The boy gave a weak smile, as if to say, "I know what you are intimating. I understand the message. I will make the most of whatever time I have left."

A few days later, the boy passed from this world. When Rav Tauber visited the family during the shivah, seven-day mourning period, the mother told him, "From the time that you spoke with my son, until the bitter end, he was a different person. He was no longer just lying there waiting for the Malach HaMaves, Angel of Death, to come and take him. He spoke; we spoke; we said good-bye. Thank you for what you have done."

Which man shall carry out and by which he shall live. (18:5)

The Talmud Yoma 85a derives from here that pikuach nefesh, saving of human life, overrides the prohibition of Shabbos. Nonetheless, we note that, throughout the generations, Shabbos has been one staple which Torah Jews have refused to abrogate - even when it has clashed with personal preservation. Life is important, but Shabbos takes precedence. What is it about Shabbos that has incurred such tenacious reactions to its observance? Horav Shimshon Pincus, zl, explains that, halachic ramifications notwithstanding, Shabbos maintains a uniformity with the three cardinal sins which do prevail over human life.

A Jew who is confronted with the decision of "his life" or worshipping an idol, murdering a fellow Jew or committing adultery, the V'chai bahem does not apply, and one should give up his life, rather than transgress. The singularity of these prohibitions stand out because they represent the neshamah of a Jew, and one cannot save a life by destroying a "life." The Jewish soul is bound up with these mitzvos. The sanctity of Hashem, human life and morality are the pillars upon which society cannot be maintained, without an unequivocal commitment to these tenets of our faith. This may be compared to someone who falls into a pot which had been cooking on the flame. He certainly does not jump out of the pot into the fire! Likewise, a Jew does not preserve his life at the expense of his neshamah.

This, suggests Rav Pincus, is what went through the minds of those for whom Shabbos took precedence - even over their own lives. While halachah does not demand self-sacrifice under such circumstances, their inner voice clamored forth: "How can I desecrate Shabbos? Better I should die than abrogate Shabbos!" This thesis clearly does not advocate adding another prohibition to the original three cardinal sins. Its purpose is to emphasize the overriding significance of Shabbos to the select few. Perhaps the next time one is tempted to be lax in his Shabbos observance, he should remind himself of those who have sacrificed themselves rather than desecrate the holy Shabbos.

Va'ani Tefillah

Natisa yemincha tivlaeimo aretz. You stretched out Your right hand, the earth swallowed them.

Chazal tell us that a "tug of war" ensued between the sea and the land. First, the sea flung the Egyptian bodies onto the land. The land did not oblige, and it flung them back at the sea. The land supported its action with a logical hypothesis. "When I accepted the blood of Hevel, who was only one person, it was said about me, Arurah atah min ha'adamah, "Cursed are you more than the ground," (Bereishis 4:11). How can I possibly accept such a large population? Finally, Hashem promised the earth that it would not be held in contempt for accepting the Egyptian bodies. This is what is meant by, "You stretched out Your right hand." The right hand is a reference to Hashem taking an oath. Addressing this Yalkut, Horav Elazar M. Schach, zl, connects this pasuk to the next one. Nachisa b'chasdecha am zu go'alta, "With Your kindness, you guided this people that you redeemed." He asks why was the ground inclined to accept the Egyptian bodies? After all, the only reason that it had originally refused was its fear of punishment. Otherwise, it was more than willing to accept them. Why? What did the ground owe the Egyptians?

Rav Shach answers that, indeed, the ground owed the Egyptians nothing. It was acting out of a sense of altruism. Olam chesed yibaneh; Hashem created the world with kindness. It was an act of altruism. Thus, our whole world is, by nature, imbued with kindness. The only reason the land had to refrain from acting kindly was the fear of punishment. Once that was allayed, the ground was ready to open up for the Egyptians. The second pasuk, Nachisa b'chasdecha, which is a reference to Hashem's kindness, explains why He raised His right hand in oath, so that even the wicked Egyptians would merit burial. It was all out of a sense of Divine kindness.

The Rosh Yeshivah concludes with a powerful lesson: Hashem acts kindly to the righteous and to the wicked; so should we. While there are certainly times when we must vehemently protest their behavior, eschew their evil and distance ourselves from them, we are permitted neither to hurt them unnecessarily, nor to hold back kindness from them.

In loving memory of
Mrs. Fanny Brunner Feldman
by her family

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