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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 among his people." (21:1)

The Midrash comments, "It is written, 'The fear of Hashem is pure, enduring forever,'" (Tehillim 19:10). Rabbi Levi says, "From the fear that Aharon feared of Hashem, he merited to receive the parsha of taharah, ritual purity, which does not leave his family forever. This is a reference to the parsha that deals with becoming tamei to a corpse. The commentators cite the pasuk in Malachi 2:5, "I gave these to him (the founders of the Priestly line of Levi, Aharon and his great-grandson, Pinchas) for the sake of the fear which he feared Me." This is a reference to Aharon HaKohen who accepted the Torah from Moshe Rabbeinu with trepidation and fear. The Midrash relates that when Moshe anointed Aharon with the anointing oil, Aharon trembled and said, "Woe is me, perhaps I have defiled the holy oil." In other words, Aharon's consummate fear of Heaven was the reason that Hashem chose him to be the Kohen Gadol.

Horav Gedalyah Schorr, zl, suggests an alternative explanation. When Hashem created the attribute of fear, it was so that people would fear danger, frightening people, precarious situations, etc. Some fear calamity, while others fear illness. Some individuals shudder from the thought of a natural disaster, while others stand in trepidation of an evil empire. For the average person, fear is very real, engulfing a person in one way or another. Not so, Aharon HaKohen, the quintessential yarei Shomayim. Instead of wasting Hashem's creation of fear on inconsequential fear, he focused it entirely on Hashem. He feared only Hashem: nothing and no one else. He understood that there is nothing to fear but the Almighty Who controls everything. This is the meaning of the pasuk in Malachi which attributes Kehunah Gedolah, the High Priesthood, to Aharon because of his exceptional sense of yiraas Shomayim: "I gave these to him for the sake of fear - I gave him the ability to fear all that is frightening, and he went and 'he feared Me.'" He took that fear and focused it only on Me.

In truth, this should be the focus for all of us. Of whom are we really afraid? Everything is up to Hashem; everything is controlled by Him. Therefore, we channel our fear towards the incorrect source. If we would fear only Hashem, we would realize that there is nothing else to fear, because everything is in His hands.

In any event, the Midrash is teaching us that, as a result of Aharon's exemplary sense of yiraas Shomayim, he was privileged to have the parsha of tamei meis directed to him and his descendants. This is enigmatic. Is it necessary to have a special merit to warrant having this parsha directed only to the Kohen? Why is it that only a Kohen is prohibited from coming in contact with a corpse? Furthermore, how is it a privilege that one earns through special merit?

Rav Schorr explains that the Kohanim were imbued with a unique koach ha'taharah, power of purity, which is part of their essence, which they must constantly strive to preserve and maintain. It was in the merit of Aharon's fear of Heaven that they originally received this unusual power. It is in their enduring development of--and adherence to--this special virtue that they continue to exemplify taharah.

Each of you shall not contaminate himself to a (dead) person among his people. (21:1)

The word b'amov, "among his people," teaches us a powerful lesson. If the deceased is "among his people," meaning that there are other Jews available to care for the body and take responsibility for a quick and proper burial, then a Kohen may not participate and become tamei, contaminate himself, to the body. If, however, the corpse is isolated, with no one around to arrange a burial, a situation which is referred to as meis mitzvah, then even the Kohen Gadol is required to involve himself in burying the corpse. Let us try to digest this halachah. Tumaas meis, the spiritual defilement that emanates from a corpse, is extremely stringent. It is the highest, most intense form of tumah. It teaches us that the departure of the neshamah, soul, creates a void created in the human body. A human being is the repository of a holy neshamah. While the neshamah is within him, the individual is tahor, ritually pure, clean and holy. The moment the neshamah leaves his body, this all changes and tumah sets in. Thus, even though Kohanim may become tamei to their seven close relatives, the Kohen Gadol, who must maintain a strict standard of holiness and purity, may not become tamei even to his close relatives. He may neither leave the Mikdash, nor may he defile his state of kedushah, holiness.

Nonetheless, this entire exalted level of kedushah is set aside, indeed, abrogated, when it comes into conflict with kavod ha'brios, the respect and dignity to be accorded to a human being. How great is the respect one must demonstrate towards the body of a person which serves as the receptacle for the neshamah, that even the Kohen Gadol who is never permitted to defile himself - even to his close relatives - must be metameh himself for a meis mitzvah. If a Jewish corpse lay in disrespect with no one to bury it, then the Kohen Gadol must do so. From the highest level of kedushah, to the nadir of tumah, all of this is set aside for kavod ha'brios, the dignity of man.

Human dignity plays a critical role in life. The dignity of every man is sacred and must, therefore, be preserved. Moshe Rabbeinu carefully weighed each word he said in his final rebuke to Klal Yisrael, in order not to cause anyone any undo embarrassment. Indeed, the obligation to protect the feeling and dignity of our fellow man applies not only to the righteous, or even to the common man, but rather, it applies even to the lowliest and coarsest components of the nation. This is clearly demonstrated in the Talmud Gittin 57a where Rabbi Elazar notes the seriousness of putting a man to shame. Bar Kamtza was a man of exceptionally base character, a man who had no qualms about disparaging his own coreligionists to the Roman emperor, and, as a result, was the vehicle that catalyzed so much death and destruction. Yet, even his dignity was held sacred. The humiliation of this vile person brought upon Klal Yisrael the loss of its Bais Hamikdash, because Hashem espoused the cause of Bar Kamtza.

The list goes on, with Hashem punishing the donkey who rebuked Bilaam. Certainly, Bilaam was not a person who contributed to the value of spiritual life in this world. Yet, he was a human being who was humiliated, and therefore, Hashem championed his cause.

As mentioned earlier, the principle of kavod ha'brios finds expression in the halachah that states, "Rabbinic enactments and various scriptural prohibitions are set aside when they conflict with human respect and dignity" (Berachos 19b). Horav Chaim Shmuelevitz, zl, demonstrates that the concept of kavod ha'brios does not stop at refraining from insulting or degrading one's fellow human being. One is obliged to enhance and even magnify his fellow human being's prestige and honor. The Talmud in Chullin 6b relates that Chizkiyahu HaMelech destroyed the copper snake that Moshe Rabbeinu had fashioned in the wilderness. This was because the people were getting carried away and beginning to worship this copper snake as an idol. The Talmud wonders why none of Chiskiyahu's predecessors destroyed the copper image, especially after they had destroyed all of the other idols. They explain that makom hinichu l'hisgader, "They left him (Chiskiyahu) room for accomplishment!" In other words, they left him the opportunity to enhance his own reputation by destroying what had become an idol. We learn from here that augmenting Chiskiyahu's prestige and allowing for his reputation to achieve lasting fame was more important than destroying a troublesome idol - even at the expense of desecrating Hashem's Name.

Rav Chaim explains that our surprise at the overwhelming significance attributed to kavod ha'brios is the result of our lack of comprehension of the towering stature of a human being. Were we to recognize and appreciate the incredible potential inherent in every human being, we would not marvel at the honor that is due. Man is created in the image of G-d. Thus, he has the ability to scale unfathomable heights. Indeed, it takes a great person to perceive the inherent greatness of man.

The Chazon Ish, zl, was such an individual. His yiraas Shomayim, fear of Heaven, coupled with his emunah, faith, in the Almighty, coalesced to form an individual whose essence was a symphony of praise for Hashem, characterized by an appreciation for the majesty of those who study His Torah and strive to emulate His ways. His love for man was a product of his extreme love for his Creator. He wrote: "I take pleasure in gladdening the hearts of others, and I feel it a great obligation never to cause any discomfort to any man - even for a moment."

This is how he lived his life, as this principle guided his actions and relationships with people. In 1951, a polio epidemic swept across the Holy Land, leaving devastation in its wake. Many children were sacrificed to its effects. One day, one of the rebbeim at the Lomza Yeshivah related to the Chazon Ish about an especially tragic story of a young child who had died. He was an only child to his devastated parents who were inconsolable from grief. In addition, they had received few visitors during the week of shiva, seven-day mourning period, since people were afraid of attracting some of the lingering germs. Immediately, the Chazon Ish asked, "Do you think that my visit will be of some importance to them?" When the rebbe replied in the affirmative, the Chazon Ish immediately rose to leave for the individual's house.

The Chazon Ish was slightly near-sighted, and he often studied without his glasses. Nonetheless, he would never leave his apartment without wearing his glasses, explaining, "Without glasses, I might not notice someone's nod or other form of greeting, which might, chas v'shalom, Heaven forbid, offend them."

A reporter for a secularist newspaper related that he was curious about this great man called the Chazon Ish. He wanted to know what made him so special. After making the trip to Bnei Brak, the Chazon Ish invited the reporter to take a walk with him. They were walking slowly, in silence, when suddenly the Chazon Ish slowed down markedly. When the reporter expressed his wonderment, the Chazon Ish explained, "In front of us walks a cripple. It is not proper to pass by with our sure, healthy steps. Better to slow down and remain behind him." This was a powerful example of the Chazon Ish's greatness. A rosh yeshivah once came to the Chazon Ish and asked to have hataros neder, an annulment of a vow he had made. The Chazon Ish asked a scholar with whom he had been speaking to serve as the second member of a bais din, judicial court of three, and he asked someone to check the street for a third "judge". A third individual joined them shortly. The bais din was convened, and the three judges performed the necessary annulment. After the third judge who had been brought in from the street had left, the Chazon Ish said, "We must do this once again. I know the individual who served as our third judge, and, although he is a wonderful, virtuous person, he is not learned, which is a requisite for being a judge for the annulment of a vow. Once you called him in, I did not want to say anything for fear of humiliating him."

In closing, I quote Horav Yitzchak Zilberstein, Shlita, who cites the Talmud in Bava Metzia 86b that recounts how Avraham Avinu welcomed the three wayfarers to his tent: "Let some water be brought and wash your feet" (Bereishis 18:4). Avraham did not know that they were really angels. He thought they were Arabs who worshipped the dust of their feet, and he refused to permit an object of idolatry to enter his home. Chazal relate that the angels responded to Avraham, "Do you suspect us of being Arabs who bow down to the dust of their feet?" Because of Avraham's error, because he wrongly suspected the angels of being Arabs, Yishmael descended from him! Imagine how much pain Avraham must have been experiencing post Bris Milah, yet he served the guests. Due to one error in judgment, he was punished with a son like Yishmael. This is the lesson of kavod ha'brios, human dignity - human potential: never belittle it.

He (the Kohen Gadol) shall not marry a widow, a divorcee, a desecrated woman, or a harlot. (21:14)

The Torah has already prohibited a Kohen from marrying a divorcee, a desecrated woman, or a harlot. Why does it repeat itself concerning the Kohen Gadol? After all, the Kohen Gadol is a regular Kohen with some added mitzvos. Horav Mordechai Gifter, zl, explains that added mitzvos elevate and transform the individual to the point that he becomes an entirely new being. Thus, since a Kohen possesses more mitzvos than the rest of Klal Yisrael, his relationship to mitzvos - even those that apply to the rest of the Jewish nation - is different. His Shabbos is different than the Shabbos of other Jews. When the Torah states the mitzvos that apply to the common Kohen and retools them for the Kohen Gadol, they are not simply added mitzvos - they are a completely new application for an entirely different person. The prohibition that applied to the Kohen in general is not the same as the one which applies to the Kohen Gadol, because the Kohen Gadol is a different entity as a result of his additional mitzvos. The Kohen Gadol's relationship with all mitzvos is different than that of other Kohanim, due to his unique and exalted status.

We must remember that when we say the words asher kideshanu b'mitzvosav, 'Who sanctified us through His commandments," we mean just that. Every time we perform a mitzvah, we become elevated to a higher status and become different people than we were before we performed the mitzvah.

When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not remove completely the corners of your field… and you shall gather the gleanings of your harvest; for the poor and the proselyte shall you leave them. (23:22)

The Sifri notes this pasuk's placement in middle of the chapter dealing with the Moadim, Festivals. They explain that the Torah is teaching us the significance of leaving gifts for the poor. It is regarded as if one had shared in the rebuilding of the Bais Hamikdash and brought his korbanos, sacrifices, there. This explains the placement of this pasuk amidst the Moadim, but it does not address its location right in middle of the Festival of Shavuous, celebrating the Giving of the Torah. Horav Yerachmiel Krom, Shlita, distinguishes the mitzvos sichlios, "common sense" mitzvos--which are basically humanitarian in nature, easy to understand and accept, those that quite possibly one could figure out on his own--from those that are beyond human cognition.

It is important for a Jew to understand that the Torah has 613 mitzvos, all of which were given to us by Hashem, and that the only reason for us to carry out these mitzvos, regardless of their rationale, is that Hashem commanded us to do so. The only protection against the yetzer hora, evil inclination, is the Torah and the yiraas Shomayim, fear of Heaven, generated by our adherence to its precepts. When we perform certain mitzvos because they "seem right" or they are humanitarian, we fall into the trap of allowing our minds to decide what is important and what is not. In a lecture to the student body of the Rabbiner Seminar in Berlin, a yeshivah comprised of students who were both G-d-fearing and erudite, the Rosh Hayeshivah of Baranovitz, Horav Elchanan Wasserman, zl, explained the significance of yiraas Shomayim as the only factor in determining and motivating one's proper behavior. Ethics, culture, refinement and intelligence do not protect the individual from falling into the abyss of immorality, cruelty and behavior fitting for the lowest of the low.

The Rosh Yeshivah cited Avraham Avinu's excuse to Avimelech, explaining why he had claimed that Sarah Imeinu was his sister. He said, "Because I said there is but no fear of G-d in this place and they will slay me because of my wife" (Bereishis 20:11). The word rak, but, seems superfluous. He should have simply said, "There is no fear of G-d in this place." Why does he add the word "but"? Rav Elchanan replied with the same reply that is presented by the Malbim in his commentary to the Chumash: Avraham was teaching Avimelech that intellect and ethics, character refinement and proper demeanor, if motivated by one's logic, are no guarantee that this person will not act totally paradoxical if his lust is aroused or if his intellect is "turned off." Seichal, common sense and logic do not protect one from sin. Only yiraas Shomayim, fear of Heaven, of the Divine supervisor, Who oversees every one of our actions, protects us from falling into the nadir of depravity. The fear of Hashem and the overwhelming shame associated with sinning in His Presence, knowing that He watches what we do and knows what goes on in our minds, are the only real deterrents from sin.

This is what Avraham told Avimelech: "Whereas I have noted that your nation is advanced in their intellect, their character traits are refined, and their demeanor is graceful and impressive. Indeed, there is rak, but only one, deficiency that I notice: there is no yiraas Elokim, fear of G-d, imbedded in your people. It is this one virtue which is most important to me, because, without it, the other attributes are inconsequential. My life is not secure in such a place. They would easily kill me to get at my wife.

Rav Elchanan gave this lecture on the eve of World War II, when the most cultured European nation, Germany, was about to unleash a war of terror that would demonstrate beyond any shadow of a doubt the veracity of the above statement: without yiraas Shomayim one can become a monster.

Horav Meir Simchah HaKohen, zl, m'Dvinsk explains the pesukim with which we commenced our thought. The Torah tells us in the beginning of this chapter about the Festival of Shavuous, "You shall convoke on this very day - there shall be a holy convocation for yourselves - you shall do no laborious work; it is an eternal decree in your dwelling places for all generations." Why? Because this is the day on which the Torah was given to us. It is the day that Hashem selected us to become His holy nation. One might think that the joy of receiving the Torah is applicable only concerning those mitzvos that are not clearly rational, such as Tefillin, mixing wool and linen, circumcision, etc. No! On Shavuous we received all the mitzvos, the entire Torah - even, the mitzvos that are seemingly rational, as tzedakah, loving the proselyte, performing acts of loving-kindness. It all came to us from Hashem. Unless one believes that a mitzvah such as honoring one's parents is founded and based in the Torah, and that is the reason for carrying it out, he can eventually disregard even such a rational mitzvah - when it does not "agree" with him. This is why the mitzvah of tzedakah is placed right in middle of the Festival of the Giving of the Torah; to teach us that the reason for giving tzedakah is the Torah - nothing else. In fact, in a shmuess, ethical discourse, Horav Chaim Shmuelevitz, zl, commented that although a person's natural instinct is to love to give charity and despise usury, once the Torah commands it, the mitzvah should become our primary motivation for fulfilling the giving of tzedakah and abhorring the taking of usury.

Rav Chaim gives a powerful mashal, analogy, to help us better understand this concept. Imagine, before us on the table is a spoiled, disgusting plate of food. In addition, someone has placed a powerful poison into the food that would immediately kill whoever eats it. Obviously, nobody will touch the plate. The question is: Why? Is it because it is disgusting, or is it because it is poison? The correct answer should be: Naturally, one would not eat it because of its loathsome condition, but now that it is poison, its foul taste is secondary to its lethal properties. This is what the Torah has done for us. We now understand that mitzvah observance is therapeutic, and transgression is detrimental to our spiritual health. We also know that the only determining factor for success is Torah adherence. Otherwise, we are like everybody else. For those who do not understand what that means: Look around contemporary society.

Va'ani Tefillah

Ki Hu amar vayehi, Hu tzivah va'yaamod.
For He spoke and it was; He commanded and it stood.

We must endeavor to understand the reason for what seems to be a redundancy in the text. The Shaar Bas Rabim explains that essentially the koach ha'briah, power to create, and koach ha'kiyum, power to sustain, are two unique and distinct forces. In order for the world to exist, however, both are essential. Horav Avigdor Miller, zl, takes a somewhat alternate approach. He understands, "He spoke and it was," as referring to Creation ex-Nihillo from nothing. The second part of the pasuk, "He commanded and it stood," denotes the principle that the continuous existence of the universe is totally dependent upon Hashem's continuous command that it continue to exist.

Horav S.R. Hirsch, zl, comments that all of the acts of G-d at the time of yetzias Mitzrayim, the exodus from Egypt-- and particularly the miracle of the splitting of the Red Sea--have demonstrated that He Who "Spoke and it was" is also the One Who "commanded and it stood still." These miracles have shown the world that His will reigns supreme in the word which He "called" into being. With only one signal from Him, the entire world order--which He Himself has created and upon whose alleged blind, masterless constancy men base their plans--comes to an utter standstill.

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