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Rabbi A. Leib Scheinbaum
Hebrew Academy of Cleveland


Say to the Kohanim, the sons of Aharon…each of you shall not contaminate himself to a (dead) person. (21:1)

Burying the dead is a great kindness in which the Kohen is prohibited to be involved. Tumah, ritual contamination, and the unique kedushah of the Kohen are mutually exclusive. There is, however, another act of kindness for the deceased that a Kohen - and every other Jew - can and should perform: to feel his pain and share it emotionally. The deceased is facing a reckoning of his actions while in his earthly abode. Whether he will achieve Heavenly repose or not depends on the results of this judgment. When one empathizes with the soul of the departed, he decreases the severity of his punishment.

Horav Yechiel Michel Stern, Shlita, relates how Horav Simcha zl, M'Kelm would go out of his way to consider the welfare of his fellow Jew. It is noted that on Shabbos, Rav Simcha Zissel's countenance radiated brilliantly from the holiness of the day. One Shabbos, however, this unique brilliance was not manifest. This mystified his students. Yet, out of deep respect for their venerable rebbe, they did not question him, waiting for him to enlighten them.

As soon as Shabbos was over and Rav Simcha Zissel recited Havdalah, he sighed deeply. He explained, "Peretz Smolenskin has passed away." [A proponent of the Haskalah, Enlightenment, he was notorious for his virulent animosity towards Torah and its disseminators.] "Can anyone fathom the agony of his soul upon arriving in the Olam HaEmes, to face judgment for its sins?"

Horav Moshe Aharon Stern, zl, the Kamenitzer Mashgiach in Eretz Yisrael, demonstrated a similar sensitivity. He recited Kaddish for a number of people who left this world childless. Often, he would arrange to have a minyan visit the graves of those who had no one to visit them. He had more than once even purchased a burial site and monument for those who had no one to care for them. This is the kind of chesed that even a Kohen can perform.

We suggest another area in which our act of kindness is not only helpful, it is crucial. Perhaps the greatest fear that a Jew has is the fear of dying alone. The thought of facing life's challenges without family or friends can have a tragic effect upon a person. One only has to visit the elderly in a hospital, many of whom are alone without family and friends, to witness this phenomenon. The look of dejection upon their faces is overwhelming. They just lie there, alone, filled with fear - waiting to die. Is this the way we should treat those who have survived life's vicissitudes - to die alone? Everybody needs somebody with whom to share his fears, his uncertainty, his anxiety. Many of these elderly Jews have children who cannot be with them for a variety of reasons. They might be unable to be there, or - regrettably - they are not very interested. Whatever the reason, it should have no bearing on our responsibility to act as Jews. No Jew should ever be subjected to the emotional trauma of being alone during this most traumatic time.

Say to the Kohanim, the sons of Aharon, and you will say to them. (21:1)

The Torah seems to emphasize the power of chinuch, education, predicting tragic consequences when a proper Jewish education is not administered.

Our parsha begins with an enjoinment to the Kohanim to see to it that their young are not metameh, do not ritually defile themselves by coming into contact with a dead body. Emor v'omarta; the Torah uses the redundant wording of "say" followed by "and you shall say," "l'hazhir gedolim al ha'ketanim," to enjoin adults with regard to minors. The adult Kohanim are to train and educate their young in the laws of tumah v'taharah, ritual contamination and purity, if they hope to see them grow into adults that adhere to the law.

Similarly, at the end of the parsha, the Torah relates the tragic episode of the megadef, one who blasphemed. The Torah does not mention his name; it only alludes to his tainted lineage - an Egyptian father and a Jewish mother whose name bespeaks her immodest conduct. Instead of staying home and attending to her son's upbringing, his mother was a chatterbox who involved herself in everyone's business. Her constant prattling led to immoral activities. Interestingly, his mother's name is mentioned only after he has sinned. Horav S.R. Hirsch, zl, explains that only after we take note of the sin of the son do we begin to question the activity of his mother. We wonder how such a sin occurred. What was its origin?

Education in the home plays a pivotal role in the development of a child. It leaves an indelible imprint upon his character and attitude toward life - religiously, socially, and philosophically. Education begins at an early age. Indeed, it should begin with the parents. L'hazhir gedolim al ha'ketanim; the adults should be enjoined in regard to the young. They must first educate themselves as gedolim - before they begin to educate the ketanim. A noted educator was once speaking to a group of mothers regarding parental responsibility in educating children. One mother raised her hand and asked, "From what age should a parent begin to educate their child?" "When will the child be born?" asked/responded the educator. "Born?" she questioned emphatically, "He is already five years old!" "Why are you wasting your time here talking?" asked the educator. "You have already let five crucial years go by!"

Horav Simcha Wasserman, zl, and his rebbetzin never had children. Yet, Rav Simcha was considered by many to be a leading authority on the subject of child-rearing. One would think that an expert speaks from personal experience. "How did you do it?" he was once asked. His unforgettable reply is a profound lesson to us. He said, "I do have personal experience. I have the experience of observing how my parents raised me." Our parents are our first mentors, who teach the correct manner for raising a child by example and by instruction. A child is like an immigrant to a new country. He picks up what he sees, and it becomes assimilated into his lifestyle. A child makes observations and develops his weltenshauung based much upon what he has experienced in his own home. If his parents were happy, and love and warmth permeated their home, the child will grow up with a similar attitude.

I present here some of Rav Simcha's ideas concerning child-raising. Hopefully, it will be of value and a source of encouragement. When Rav Simcha noticed a number of children from one family going along together, he would take note of the way they interacted. If they were all sharing in an errand, the older ones looking out for the younger ones, it showed that they were raised in a home where the parents cared for each other. They saw love and harmony, not strife and discord. When parents fight, the children pick up the art!

By the time a child is old enough to take on some responsibility, we should train him to help out, to assume responsibility. There is nothing wrong with a three- year- old helping out with a younger brother or sister. We think of education primarily in terms of a structured environment. While we need educational institutions, education at home is an extension of the mitzvah of "Pru U'Revu," "Be fruitful and multiply." The Torah enjoins us to reproduce. The Torah tells us that reproduction does not end with begetting a child. It continues with raising him to become a decent human being. In order for a child to grow into a responsible "giving" adult, it is important that he sees this modeled at a home. People think that everything in this world is here for the purpose of enjoyment - even one's own children. We coerce our child to do what we want, so that we will be happy. Are we thinking of the child or of ourselves? We give the child a toy so that he will smile. In essence, we want to "take" the smile from the child for ourselves. It is not for the child; it is for our own satisfaction. As he grows, the child will also look to take from his parents. Hence, we have raised a "taker" not a "giver."

A parent who understands his obligation will do everything for the child - and not for his own vested interests. How many of us have ambitions for our children which are beneficial to us, which do not serve the best interest of our child? The greater degree of concern for the child, the more success we experience in raising him.

This idea applies equally in the "other" world of education, Torah chinuch in the yeshiva/day school movement. If one's motivation is purely for the student, he will succeed. A G-d -given intuition within us enables us to reach out and mold a child into a successful human being. This intuition works for those who really care about the student - not the job.

Relationship is an important factor in a child accepting the lesson, at home as well as in school. A child needs to feel unconditionally accepted and loved. While this might be easier to convey at home, because all parents love their children, some might find it difficult to display their love. This is a serious problem for both parent and child.

Teachers/rebbeim/moros should also manifest a similar attitude towards their students. It is clearly much easier to learn values from a teacher with whom a student has a pleasant relationship. Rebbeim in yeshivos often have this type of relationship with their students, a phenomenon which is seldom found in the secular world.

Rav Simcha relates that a man who had been dean of the history department in a large secular university for fifty years, came to the yeshivah to recite Kaddish. After davening, he came over to Rav Simcha and said, "Rabbi, I am a lonely man at this point in my life." Surprised, Rav Simcha asked him, "How many students have you taught in your life?"

They made an approximate accounting, arriving at the figure of 30,000 students! Rav Simcha then turned to the professor and asked, "Out of the 30,000 students, how many invited you to their wedding?" The professor responded, somewhat disheartened, "Not a single one."

Imagine a talmid, student in yeshivah, not inviting his Rosh HaYeshivah or his rebbe muvhak, primary teacher, to his wedding. It is unheard of, because Torah is taught with love, and it creates a bond of love between the rebbe and talmid. A rebbe views his talmidim as his children. A close relationship is a natural consequence of this attitude.

Say to the Kohanim, the sons of Aharon…each of you shall not contaminate himself to a (dead) person…(21:1)

The parsha begins with an injunction against the Kohen being metameh, ritually defiling himself, to a dead body, unless it is one of his seven close relatives. The Kohen Gadol's level of sanctity is on a greater level in that even these relatives are "off limits" for him. One wonders how the Kohen, a descendent of Aharon HaKohen, the paradigm of ohaiv shalom, a man who loved and pursued peace, would go about reaching out at this most difficult time. A person whose overwhelming love for his fellow Jew is an integral part of his psyche, who has inherited from his illustrious ancestor an innate sensitivity towards his fellow, must find it very emotionally debilitating when he is prohibited from participating in this chesed shel emes, true kindness. Yet, I feel one can compensate for this - by comforting and consoling the living. Bringing comfort to the bereaved is most difficult. In fact, many people, as a result of their inability to convey their feelings, simply do not do it. They will come for davening and quickly mutter "Hamakom," the traditional phrase of consolation made at the home of a mourner, and promptly leave, the circumstances becoming increasingly difficult with the magnitude of the tragedy. Veritably, when tragedy strikes, there is nothing to say. Just being there, lending a helping hand, letting the mourner know that he is not alone, is probably the most important form of consolation.

While the Kohen may not attend to the deceased, he can and should be present for the living. His sensitivity to the needs and emotions of his fellow Jew should be especially manifest at this most difficult time. How does one comfort the bereaved if the tragedy is great? I recently read an account, related by his widow, of how Rabbi Meshulam Jungreis,zl comforted a couple who had tragically lost their only child in a terrible car accident. In the words of the bereaved father, "When the Rabbi entered our house, he walked straight up to me, put his arms around me and broke down and cried with me. No one cried with me like that, except my wife. He did not say anything. He just cried. He hardly knew us, but he took us into his heart. Just knowing that he was there made it easier. He was so compassionate. He let us know that our hurt was his hurt, our pain was his pain, our grief was his grief."

This is the underlying meaning of compassion - empathizing with our friend as if his pain is our pain. We are all one in more than name - or, at least, we should be. We should be able to describe the Jewish people as two hearts beating as one. One might ask the purpose of empathizing if you cannot do anything about it? Why cause oneself unnecessary distress? The question itself indicates that one does not comprehend the value of empathy. When we identify with another person's misery, we relieve part of his distress. When someone realizes that he is not alone, the circumstance becomes less overwhelming and easier to surmount. In truth, the one who asks such a question does not really seek an answer; he is only concerned about justifying his own inactivity.

You shall afflict yourselves; on the ninth of the month in the evening. (23:32)

In the Talmud Berachos 8b, Chazal wonder why the Torah mentions the ninth day when we actually fast on the tenth day? They respond that we derive from here that when one eats on the ninth day with specific intention to have strength to properly fast on the tenth, he is considered as if he fasted both on the ninth and tenth day. One can harness the mundane and consecrate it for Hashem. Indeed, since it is probably more difficult to sanctify a mundane activity, one receives greater reward for his actions.

There is a well-known story concerning the Baal Shem Tov, who once prayed that his partner in Gan Eden be revealed to him. He was given the name of an individual who lived in a small village far away. His curiosity piqued, the Baal Shem Tov decided to travel to the village to meet this person. Expecting to find a devout, pious scholarly Jew, he was somewhat taken aback to meet a boor who did nothing but eat, drink and labor all day. Learning was certainly not his priority. After all, between working and eating, little time was left for anything else.v Determined to find out the secret behind this individual's worthiness, the Baal Shem Tov, decided to remain for a few days to study his behavior and perhaps gain a deeper insight into his personality. After two days of observation, the Baal Shem Tov was no closer to understanding this person than he had been when he came. He then decided to confront him directly. "Tell me about yourself,"he requested, "Who are you, and who were your teachers?" "I do not understand your question," he responded. "I am a simple lumberjack who never learned anything beyond the words of the Siddur." "Why do you eat so gluttonously?" the Baal Shem Tov asked. "You eat enough to feed a small group of people."

"Let me explain to you why I have such gross eating habits. My father was a servant to an evil feudal landlord. One day he insisted that all of his vassals convert to his faith. My father, of course, refused to renege his religion. As a result, he was severely beaten to death. Because my father was a very thin, weak man, he could not offer much resistance. Who knows? Had he not died quickly, he might have yielded to the landlord's demand. Right then and there, I decided that this would never happen to me. I eat voraciously, so that I will be big and strong, so that if anyone attempts to force me to deny Hashem, he will have a difficult time succeeding."

The Baal Shem Tov now understood what kind of tzaddik stood before him. He was a person for whom every morsel of food represented an opportunity to sanctify Hashem's Name. The man lived Kiddush Shem Shomayim daily. He truly merited a lofty position in Gan Eden. We also may note from here how easy it is to underestimate people and misconstrue their actions. Clearly, when Chazal said to judge all people favorably, their intention went beyond good advice. They understand that not everything we see is as it seems to be.

Questions & Answers

1) Is there an obligation for a Kohen to become tamei to a close relative?

2) What punishment does a Kohen receive if he eats Terumah while he was in a state of tumah? Does this halachah change if the Terumah were also to be tamei?

3) When do we have a halachah which seems to treat the eved Canaani, non-Jewish slave, with a higher degree of sanctity than an ordinary Jew?

4) Was the blasphemer in jail by himself?


1) There is a dispute among Chazal whether a Kohen has an obligation to bury his relatives or not. The obligation would apply even if there are others who can bury the relative. (Sotah 3a)

2) The Kohen who eats Terumah while he is in a state of tumah, receives kareis, Heavenly excision, premature death. If the Terumah that he had eaten was itself tamei, he is not liable for kareis. There is, however, a position held by some of the Rishonim that posits if the Terumah became tamei after the Kohen became tamei, he is liable for kareis. (Sanhedrin 83a, Tosfos)

3) An eved Canaani who belongs to a Kohen may partake of his master's Terumah, while a ben Yisrael may not.

4) While the mekalel, blasphemer, was held in jail, the mekoshesh, one who gathered twigs on Shabbos, was also held, albeit not together with the mekalel.

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