Back to This Week's Parsha

Peninim on the Torah

subscribe.gif (2332 bytes)

Previous issues

Rabbi A. Leib Scheinbaum
Hebrew Academy of Cleveland


A leader among his people may not become defiled. (21:4)

Kohanim are bnei Aharon HaKohen, descendants of Aharon, who is the father of Kehunah, the Priesthood. Aharon was famous for his love of all Jews, his unparalleled commitment to promoting peace and harmony among all. As the ohaiv shalom v'rodeif shalom, lover of peace and pursuer of peace, Aharon was the quintessential baal chesed, acting with loving-kindness to all. It is, therefore, surprising that he and his family are excluded from performing the ultimate act of chesed - chesed shel emes, true kindness, without expecting any recompense. The kindness one performs with the dead is chesed shel emes. There is no physical reward. This is in the Kohen's "bailiwick," something that he would want to do. The Torah, however, has other plans.

A worthy Jew has passed. Everyone in the community shares in his funeral. They all accompany his coffin to its final resting place. The Kohanim may not attend. They can only participate from a distance. Coming in contact with the corpse will defile them. They must remain pure and holy. Ramban and Sforno explain that, as leaders of the people, they may not defile themselves. This would lower their status in the eyes of the people. The Kohen is to lead, to understand and to teach. It is proper that an individual who occupies such a high station in life, whose function is significant and exalted, must conduct himself in a dignified and regal manner, so that when he speaks, people will listen. The Kohen is permitted to defile himself for his seven closest relatives, because their honor is his honor.

Let us view the situation from the perspective of the grieving family. They are in great pain, having just lost someone very close, whom they admired and loved. The void in their life is currently extremely significant. Clearly, the Kohen's presence would, in some way, ameliorate some of their pain, give them some level of comfort. In addition, it would be a considerable honor for the deceased to have someone of the Kohen's stature participate in the funeral, involve himself in the taharah, purification of the body, lend a hand during the interment. Yet, the dignity of the Kohen may not be impugned. The Torah feels that it would lessen his stature in the eyes of the people. We wonder: How much dignity will the Kohen lose by becoming ritually contaminated? Will people lose respect for him because he has become spiritually tainted in the course of performing a mitzvah and reaching out to a grieving family? Surely, even the most obtuse person will understand that it had been necessary for the Kohen to defile himself in order to perform such a critical mitzvah. The impact on the people's receptivity to the teachings of the Kohen, due to a perceived lowering of his dignity, is, if anything, quite small. Should it make such a difference?

Horav A. Chenach Leibowitz, zl, derives a powerful lesson from this halachah. Yes, the negative effect on the dignity of the Kohen is insignificant. Yes, the significance of the mitzvah is substantial. One does not cancel out the other. The significance of this mitzvah does not abrogate the possible negative effect because it invokes Torah education and leadership which are paramount to the Jewish People. Any loss of effectiveness, regardless of how miniscule, is a loss too great to bear, too heavy to accept. The eternal nature of our People depends on the faithful transmission of Torah from one generation to the next. If the teaching ability of a Torah leader is impaired - even slightly - future generations will suffer in their inheritance of this priceless legacy. The Kohen is to accept and understand that this legacy is too important for our nation. One cannot tamper with it, because Torah education may not be compromised. One who comprehends the value of Torah education to our people understands that the Kohen's commitment to remain pure and holy takes precedence over everything.

Those who are charged with the privilege of impacting Torah values to others have enormous merit, but an equally awesome responsibility to reflect the Torah standards for moral and ethical behavior in their own personal lives. We are always "teaching" Torah, either actively or by example. Thus, we must always be on guard for any failing on our part that may convey the wrong message. Any lowering of our esteem in the eyes of others will ultimately distort and damage their receptivity to our Torah lessons. The converse is simple: When we act with the rectitude intrinsic to one who studies Torah, when we set an impeccable standard of devotion and adherence to Torah and mitzvos, the greater and more enduring will be the impact of our lessons. We must represent what we seek to convey - or - we fail. The stakes are high; the reward limitless. Nothing of infinite value comes easily. If we realize this, we have already achieved part of our goal.

A widow and a divorcee…he shall not marry these; only a virgin of his people shall he take as a wife. (21:14)

A Kohen Hedyot, ordinary Kohen, is prohibited from marrying a divorcee. The Kohen Gadol, High Priest, is further forbidden from marrying a widow. What distinction between the Kohen Gadol and the Kohen Hedyot effects the differential in their ability to marry? Does the Kohen Gadol's added kedushah, holiness, make such a difference?

The Moshav Zekeinim from the Baalei Tosfos asks this question in the name of the Chasid, a probable reference to Rabbi Yehudah HaChasid, who was the author of Sefer Chassidim and the leader of the Chasidei Ashkenaz, Pietist movement in Germany, during the thirteenth century. He explains that the Kohen Gadol was commanded to marry a besulah, virgin, because the Kohen Gadol pronounced the Shem Hashem, Divine Name, on Yom Kippur. It is remotely possible that the Kohen Gadol had cast his eye on a married woman, and, while he was pronouncing Hashem's Name, he did so with the subconscious intent that her husband would die, rendering her available to him for marriage. Therefore, the Torah forbids the Kohen Gadol from marrying a widow.

I am sure that anyone reading this is shocked. We are talking about the Kohen Gadol, the holiest Jew! Yet, he is suspected of having inappropriate thoughts at a time when he could effectively "do something" about these thoughts. To prevent this from ever occurring, the Torah demands that he marry a virgin. How are we to understand this?

Horav Meir Bergman, Shlita, explains that the workings of the heart of man are very complex, and only Hashem, its Creator, knows it foibles and capabilities. Man can learn the depths of his heart only from the Torah, which is the treasure trove of Hashem's wisdom. It is through the study of Tanach and Talmud that we are accorded but a glimpse into the secrets of the universe - man included. Thus, when Chazal intimate something, even though it may not coincide with "our" line of thinking, it is an absolute reality. They know and understand the "score" much better than we ever will.

With the "aid" of Chazal, Rav Bergman explains what Rabbi Yehudah HaChassid is teaching us. Let us put the statement into perspective. On the holiest day of the year, the holiest Jew will enter the Holy of Holies, which is the holiest place on this earth. During this august day, a special moment, the holiest moment in some manner, occurs, when the Kohen Gadol will utter Hashem's Name. Can one imagine a more exalted moment than this? All of these "holies" integrate together during one awesome moment. Yet, specifically at this monumental moment, the Kohen Gadol might entertain thoughts of adultery, even thoughts of murder (in a sense) that would make a certain woman accessible to him. Can anyone imagine a more despicable case than this? Interestingly, it is the Chasid, a man known for his extreme piety, who paints this appalling picture!

Rav Bergman retorts to this with the notion that no one else but one who is the paragon of piety, could paint such a picture. A lesser person would have deluded himself concerning human nature, convincing himself that it could never be. Is that not what we are all guilty of, convincing ourselves that such a travesty could never happen? It is specifically someone of the caliber of Rabbi Yehudah HaChasid, an individual possessed of such unprecedented integrity and objectivity, who could look down to the bottom of man's heart to confront unflinchingly the reality of whatever is lurking down there. As scandalous as it may sound, this then must be the underlying reason for the Torah's prohibition of an almanah, widow, to a Kohen Gadol.

As usual, there is a flip-side. The Midrash depicts the greatness of the Kohen Gadol on Yom Kippur in the most glowing terms. Equally astonishing is Chazal's depicture of the holiness of the Kohen Gadol on Yom Kippur when the Ruach HaKodesh, Divine Inspiration, rests heavily upon him: "He burns with a Heavenly flame similar to that of the holy Seraphim that stand before the Kisei HaKavod, Throne of Glory." Indeed, on that holy day, the Kohen Gadol transcends the realm of humanity. He is no longer a human being. Imagine such greatness, such sanctity; yet, the Chasid feels him capable of the most abhorrent thoughts. How can we reconcile these two seemingly contradictory statements?

The Rosh Yeshivah explains that actually these two antitheses are, in fact, intimately connected. It is as a result of man's bestial, primitive human nature that on Yom Kippur the Torah demands of the Kohen Gadol the direct opposite: consummate holiness. In fact, if not for this lowly nature, the Kohen Gadol could not achieve such a sublime level of holiness, for he would not be able to shed from himself the name of "man" as he surged upward in holiness.

Let us approach this on a scale of zero to ten. Given that man - in his unimproved nature - is primitive, bestial and lowly, when he begins to ascend the ladder of spirituality his point of commencement is zero, since before he began he had been nothing. Now, if man in his primitive nature were to have some innate element of value, then his spiritual efforts would have a point of commencement that is one. Since man is "something," the level above that of his basic humanity is one. Thus, however far man may rise, however exalted his level of spirituality and holiness, the basis that he had at his point of commencement would always be present and would, therefore, form the foundation of his later distinction. To put it simply: if man is zero, then every bit of holiness that he acquires is pure sanctity with no humanity mixed in. If man is a one, then as great as he becomes, he always retains an element of humanity in the mix.

Thus, if being human means something, it always means something, regardless of how far and how high one has risen. Since man, at his point of initiation is - in spiritual terms - absolutely nothing, it is then conceivable for him to rise to such a zenith that nothing is left of his original lowliness. How can this be?

The Torah in Iyov 11:12 proclaims: V'ayir pera adam yivaleid, "Let one who is (like) a wild donkey be reborn as a man." In other words, all that seems good about man at his start, before the purifying effect of Torah and mitzvos takes hold, is only a fa?ade, a meretricious veneer concealing a core of raw animalism. We now understand how those who do not have the benefit of a Torah experience can be so base, so crude, so cruel and self-centered with absolutely no regard for anything or anyone. It is not that they are bad; rather, they are human! An unrefined human is an animal - at best! This is why even the Kohen Gadol on Yom Kippur can harbor thoughts of adultery and even murder in his heart, as he pronounces Hashem's Name. He is only human.

Having said this, we once again look at the flip-side. Since in his primeval state man is only a hollow shell, a great fa?ade, he now has the ability to build himself anew from the bottom up. He can divest himself completely of his humanity and soar among the angels. As he studies Torah, he infuses himself with a new life that goes to the very core of his being. He can build a new edifice comprised totally of spirituality, infused with Ruach HaKodesh. The Kohen Gadol is the finished product. He stands on Yom Kippur as an angel, as a burning torch of holiness, ministering before the Almighty. He has completed the edifice in all its glory.

Two antitheses: A Kohen Gadol who has achieved Seraphim status; a Kohen Gadol who, on Yom Kippur, can contemplate adultery and murder without long and arduous labor to "build himself anew." Applying the bricks and mortar of Torah and mussar, ethical character refinement, the Kohen Gadol can stand in the Holy of Holies and contemplate the unthinkable. It is frightening - but also encouraging. It all depends on one's perspective.

And I shall be sanctified among the Bnei Yisrael. (22:32)

Certain people go through life triumphing over what many would consider insurmountable challenges; yet, they make it. It is almost as if they actually thrive on challenge and adversity. The individual who is prepared to sanctify Hashem's Name is a person who, despite undergoing a number of challenges to his faith, transcends it all and sanctifies Hashem by affirming his belief in Him. What makes this person tick? How does he do it? From where does he gather the strength, the courage, the resolution to ignore the pain, travail and adversity and declare his belief in Hashem? Some inner source of energy inspires these people to greatness. The truth of the matter is that the more these people are challenged, the greater the travail they experience, the stronger and more resolute they become. How is this to be understood?

The Baal Shem Tov presents the following analogy. A talmid, disciple, once asked him why the more he tries to get closer to Hashem, the more distant he feels himself to be. The reply came in the way of an example. A father who wishes to teach his son how to walk will first wait until the child matures and becomes strong and firm. Once the child's stability has been established, the father will place himself close to him, stretch out his arms and encourage the child to take steps towards him. While the child may be nervous about taking his first steps without his father's support, the encouraging, loving arms seem to do the trick. The child moves forward, at first haltingly, but then, with greater fortitude, he takes his first steps. As soon as he comes close to his father, his father immediately retreats and the child is no longer "home free." He must start over once again.

Understandably, the child is frustrated. After all, every time he reaches the goal, he is almost touching his father, he discovers that his father has altered the game plan. The playing field changes every time the child comes close to his father. What the child does not realize is that his goal is to reach his father. The father's goal is to teach his son how to walk, how to make it on his own. This can be achieved only if every time the child comes close, the father retreats. Actually allowing the child to achieve his goal would be to undermine the father's goal of teaching the child to walk independently.

The Baal Shem Tov explained to his student, "Your situation is quite similar to the father and child. Your goal is to reach Hashem. Clearly, this is a highly commendable goal, but it does not coincide with Hashem's goal for you. Hashem wants you to search for Him, because the search catalyzes your spiritual growth. The more you seek Him, the stronger the yearning for closeness, the more admirable your spiritual achievements. In spirituality, growth is determined by how large and how intense is one's effort."

Some individuals understand this concept. Thus, the more they are "rebuffed," the greater and stronger becomes their love for Hashem. Deep down, they understand that Hashem is only testing them as a way of concretizing and strengthening their faith. Thus, they do not become frustrated every time He "retreats" from them. They return for "more." Horav Yitzchak Zilberstein, Shlita, relates an intriguing story which sheds light on this awesome faith in Hashem. Amidst the rubble of the Holocaust, an old siddur with a message written on its cover was discovered. The message was compelling, but what struck the reader the most was the "ink" in which it was written. It was blood! The individual who wrote his dying message, his last will and testament, wrote it with the only ink available: blood. Yes, the man took blood and wrote his last plea, a message that conveys a Jew's relationship with the Almighty - despite the travail that he had experienced. He was sanctifying Hashem's Name.

Moshe Kaminka, as he signed his name, wrote: Tatte in Himmel, nemt nekamah far mein klein tochter, Sara Leah, un mein tyereh froi, Sheindel. Nekom nikmas dam avadecha ha'shafuch. "My Father in Heaven, avenge the blood of my young daughter, Sara Leah, and of my wife, Sheindel. Avenge the spilled blood of Your servants."

The vengeance will demonstrate to the world that there is a G-d Who will judge those who spill innocent blood. The world is not hefker, ownerless. One must account for his actions. On the cover of the siddur, the man signed his name: Moshe Kaminka; and his current address: Treblinka. The infamous death camp, in which the Nazi beasts brutally murdered 870,000 Jewish men, women and children, was Moshe Kaminka's last address. This man, like so many others, had sustained indescribable pain and suffering, and, before he died, he wanted to proclaim his faith in Hashem, his Father in Heaven, and plead with Him that He demonstrate to the world Who He is.

No one else but Jews would read or care what Moshe Kaminka had written. He scrawled his few letters in blood for us to see, for his Jewish brothers and sisters sixty, seventy years later, when he would be long gone. Why did he do it? What did he benefit from this deed? It was Kiddush Hashem b'soch Bnei Yisrael. He was sanctifying Hashem's Name among the Jewish People, so that we should know, we should remember, we should maintain our faith in Hashem.

And I shall be sanctified among the Bnei Yisrael. (22:32)

Kiddush Hashem, sanctifying Hashem's Name, does not have to be an earth shattering act. One does not have to be a martyr to achieve this sublime level. When we inspire others to act in a Torah way, to live a committed life of obedience to Torah and mitzvos, that is a Kiddush Hashem. When we act appropriately - as a Jew is supposed to act, when our moral and ethical rectitude coincides with the Torah's perspective of right and wrong, then we set a positive example of what Judaism teaches. This glorifies Hashem's Name. In other words, just acting properly in a Torah way can be a Kiddush Hashem, if it positively reflects on another Jew. Regrettably, we only hear about the negativity and scorn hurled at us by those who thrive on impugning Torah Judaism. A multitude of episodes accentuate the positive, indicate how the simple, daily actions of a Torah Jew impacted a secular family, so that they gladly - of their own free will - altered their lifestyle to become observant Jews.

A young Torah scholar was vacationing in Northern Eretz Yisrael with his family. It was bein ha'zemanim, intercession, at his Kollel. This would be a great time to do some sightseeing with his family. One morning, on their way to Miron, they stopped at a rest area on the grounds of a secular Moshav. As the man was parking his van, he moved too fast, and, as a result, nicked the right taillight of a car that was parked there. Understandably, the young man immediately left his vehicle to check on the damage. Assessing the damage as minimal, the young man proceeded to write down his name, address and phone number on a piece of paper and stuck it in between the door and chasis. He signed his name to the note, adding that he looked forward to the owner's visit when they would settle the claim. The young man had no desire to owe another Jew any money, fully aware of the Torah's exhortations against such behavior.

Four hours elapsed, and the young man heard a knock at the door of his hotel room. He opened the door to be greeted by a young, secular Jew, about thirty-five years old. As he swung open the door to allow the visitor to enter, the fellow took out a pocket camera and proceeded to take a snapshot of him. No conversation - no hello - no mention of the damage to his car - just a snapshot.

After this strange introduction, the man introduced himself as the man whose taillight was damaged. He explained that he wanted the picture to show others that there still existed ethical people in the world. Apparently, he could not believe that, in today's day and age, individuals existed who would leave a note for a scratch on a car. He felt that he must take the man's picture and save it. Imagine, people respected the law and other people's property. G-d must truly rule the world. When the Torah scholar heard these comments, he decided to engage the man in further conversation. He said to him, "I am somewhat taken aback that you would suspect me - or anyone, for that matter - of leaving the scene of an accident without notifying the vehicle's owner of our identity. Just because one is unaware does not absolve him of blame. What about Hashem? The Almighty will surely demand my payment for the damage to your car. We answer to a Higher Authority."

"This is specifically why I wanted your picture," explained the other fellow. "I have lived my life in an entirely different milieu. In my environment, we do not volunteer information that could cost us money. Our primary concern is getting away and not getting caught. I never knew that observant people were like that. In fact, I never knew the meaning of observance."

The man whose car was damaged was so incredulous that he embraced the scholar and said, "Now I know that there is a Ribbono Shel Olam." They settled the claim and bid each other goodbye.

Four weeks later, during the month of Elul, the Torah scholar heard knocking at his apartment door. He opened the door to find the fellow whose car he had damaged, and with him was his wife. "After much soul-searching and family discussion, we have decided to alter our lifestyle completely. We are moving from the moshav and relocating to an Orthodox environment. We want to become observant. The conversation which we had a month ago started me thinking that I want to live a life which is guided by faith and belief in Hashem, a life in which ethics and morals play leading roles, a life of decency and sanctity. I want to be like you!"

The lesson of this story is obvious; repeating its message - superfluous.

Hashem yimloch l'olam va'ed. Hashem shall reign for all eternity.

Veritably, Klal Yisrael's stay in the wilderness following their acceptance of the Torah should have lasted a mere eleven days. We all know that circumstances precluded their early arrival in the Promised Land. As Horav Shimon Schwab, zl, explains, the concluding verses of the Shirah set the stage and reflect the original plan following their exodus from Egypt. Something happened, however, which altered the course of history. This occurred when Klal Yisrael declared, Hashem yimloch l'olam va'ed. The Mechilta states: "Had Yisrael exclaimed, Hashem Melech l'olam va'ed, Hashem is King forever, no nation would have had the power to dominate over there. Since they said only, 'Hashem will be King,' which is a reference to the future, they undermined their chances for redemption." At that moment, their conceptualization of Hashem was so great that it was expected of them to declare His Kingship at that time, rather than express their wish that he reign in the future. What happened?

Rav Schwab explains that by proclaiming Hashem as Melech, Klal Yisrael would have gained immediate access to Eretz Yisrael, and the euphoric period of the Days of Moshiach would have been ushered in. This would have precluded their ability to choose between right and wrong. Bechirah is the ultimate gift which enables us to receive reward commensurate with the sacrifices we make to serve Hashem. If it would all be "clear" and easy, the opportunity for reward would be greatly diminished. Yes, we want to withstand the trials, overcome the challenges and transcend the obstacles, in order to be true ovdei Hashem, servants of the Almighty. We did not want the easy way out, in order to enable our success to garner greater reward.

l'ilui nishmas
R' Chaim Tzvi ben Betzalel haCohen Katz zt"l
niftar 5 Iyar 5738
"Ohev Shalom v'Rodef Shalom Ohev es Habriyos u'mekorvan la'Torah"
Sponsored in memory of my Rebbe
Charles & Debby Zuchowski and Family

Peninim on the Torah is in its 20th year of publication. The first fifteen years have been published in book form.

The Fifteenth volume is available at your local book seller or directly from Rabbi Scheinbaum.

He can be contacted at 216-321-5838 ext. 165 or by fax at 216-321-0588

Discounts are available for bulk orders or Chinuch/Kiruv organizations.


This article is provided as part of Shema Yisrael Torah Network
Permission is granted to redistribute electronically or on paper,
provided that this notice is included intact.
For information on subscriptions, archives, and
other Shema Yisrael Classes,
send mail to
Jerusalem, Israel