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Rabbi A. Leib Scheinbaum
Hebrew Academy of Cleveland

Parshas Achrei Mos

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

The Midrash cites a number of causes for the premature deaths of Nadav and Avihu. In the final analysis, were they so bad? Could they have been worse than Titus ha'rasha, who entered the Kodesh Ha'kodoshim and emerged unscathed? Horav Chaim Moshe Schneider, zl, explains that apparently the difference lies in the nature of the individual. One's responsibility to answer for his actions is commensurate with his spiritual level. Nadav and Avihu had reached such a high plateau of closeness to the Al-mighty that even the slightest error in judgment was manifest as a grave sin.

Horav Schneider emphasizes the awesome responsibility of bnei Torah, whose relationship to Hashem is closer than individuals who have not had the opportunity to study Torah. Let us consider as an example two people from similar backgrounds who were separated as teenagers. One devoted himself totally to Torah study, while the other chose a more mundane lifestyle. Imagine that each was to perform the simple act of making an incorrect brachah. The one who did not learn the laws of brachos would probably receive a reward for trying to recite a brachah. The scholar, on the other hand, would be punished for not reciting the correct brachah. He should have been more proficient in the area of brachos!

Many non-observant people today are not responsible for their actions. They are ignorant of the laws of Shabbos, as well as their significance to the Jewish People. It is quite possible that a Torah scholar who transgresses a simple rabbinic law is more liable than the non-observant Jew who does not observe many laws of the Torah. The scholar should have known better, while his non-observant contemporary never had the opportunity to learn.

Once the distinguished rav of a community was walking down the street on his way to shul. As he was walking, he noticed one of the leading members of the Jewish community coming towards him, the police leading him away in shackles. Not wanting to embarrass the other Jew, the rav attempted to cross the street. To his surprise, the Jew had the police take him across the street to come face to face with the rav. The prisoner began to berate the rav, "See what kind of situation I am in? It is all your fault. You are to blame for my miserable predicament." The rav, assuming that the man had lost his mind, tried to calm him down. "Perhaps you are not well. Obviously your ominous future has strained your mind. How can you say that I am the cause of your present situation? Did I tell you to smuggle goods and cheat on the government? How can you blame me for your sin?" The prisoner looked back at the rav with accusing eyes and said, "How many times have I stolen from the government? Did you once bring to my attention the fact that it was wrong? You could have prevented this tragedy by admonishing me. I would have listened. Your indifference caused my downfall. Sure I stole, but you, my dear rabbi, are just as responsible. You could have stopped me, but you did not try. Now I am going to jail. Who knows if I will ever return? My blood and that of my wife and children are on the head of the rav!"

This is more than just a powerful story. It compels us to wake up and think about all that takes place in front of our very own eyes--which we attempt to ignore. Turning our heads away from the transgression that goes on in our own backyards does not mitigate the sin. It only serves to make us an accessory to our neighbor's/friend's sin and -- in some cases -- actually responsible for his transgression.

To those who say, "We will not learn, so that we will not be held liable," Horav Schneider responds, If this is the punishment for those who devote themselves to Torah, can one imagine the onus of guilt carried by the one who refuses to learn, lest he be held liable for the most minor offenses.

We must also consider the converse of this collective responsibility. If we are instrumental in bringing someone back to the fold, if our positive behavior inspires someone to choose an observant lifestyle, then the reward we will receive is boundless.

And his cupped handful of finely ground incense-spices. (16:12)

The Kohen Gadol is finally prepared to appear before Hashem to implore His atonement on behalf of Klal Yisrael. He has said his Viddui and slaughtered his personal Korban Chatas. He is now ready to offer the Ketores, incense, in the Kodesh Ha'kodoshim. The Kohen Gadol enters the Holy of Holies once a year, on Yom Kippur. The first service he performs, the first request he makes of the Al-mighty, is to seek atonement for the sin of lashon hora, speaking gossip and slander.

The Ketores serves as the vehicle for this request. How does the offering of the finely ground incense-spices symbolize lashon hora? Horav David Feinstein, Shlita, offers an insightful explanation. He quotes Rashi, who, in citing the interpretation of Chazal, questions the need for emphasizing that the incense-spices were finely ground. Ketores was brought every day in the Bais Ha'mikdash, and it was finely ground. Why should it be different on Yom Kippur? Chazal conclude that while it is mandatory to finely grind the spices during the year, on Yom Kippur it is essential that they be exceptionally fine. Consequently, the spices are ground again on the day before Yom Kippur.

Ketores was offered twice daily, in the morning and in the afternoon. These offerings served to atone for the sin of lashon hora. The recurrence of this sin is noted by the twice daily offering of Ketores. On Yom Kippur, something more than the average Ketores was needed. On this day, when Klal Yisrael must receive atonement for all sins, it was essential that focus be brought on the form of lashon hora that is the most subtle and most common--avak lashon hora, dust of lashon hora. This "innocuous" form of lashon hora is like fine dust, very elusive, at times even sophisticated and well-meaning, but lashon hora no less. It affects the majority of people. Thus, Klal Yisrael must atone for it on the day when everyone stands in prayer begging for forgiveness.

Avak lashon hora is the source of most sin. Many sins begin with a simple derogatory remark about someone which becomes magnified over time. This "humble" beginning can lead to the most unspeakable forms of behavior. It is, therefore, especially appropriate that we grind up the incense a second time, so that we make it as fine as possible, symbolizing the "fine dust" of lashon hora.

This shall be to you an eternal decree to bring atonement upon Bnei Yisrael...And (Aharon) did as Hashem commanded Moshe. (16:34)

Rashi comments that when Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the Jewish calendar, arrives, Aharon was to carry out the service in the prescribed manner. The emphasis is placed upon the fact that when Aharon performed the Avodah, garbed in the regal vestments of the Kohen Gadol, his attitude was completely selfless; he did it only because it was the command of Hashem. Horav Simcha Zissel Broide, Shlita, notes the compelling nature of this statement. We are taught that Rav Chanina ben Dosa was once immersed in prayer. So profound was his devotion during tefillah that when a snake bit him, he remained unaware of it. Ostensibly, Aharon Ha'kohen manifested a similar level of devotion during his encounter with the Al-mighty, especially on Yom Kippur in the Kodoshei Ha'kodoshim. Yet, Chazal claim that Aharon should be praised for not deferring to his human nature, as he did not gloat about his magnificent clothes and noble position! It is easier to ignore the physical pain of a snake bite than to disregard the demands of one's middos, character traits. The innate penchant towards arrogance, jealousy, anger, and a host of other offensive middos is so forceful that it can override even the most determined individual.

Aharon's ability to triumph over his natural proclivity to exult in his position, to express a degree of haughtiness about wearing the Bigdei Kehunah Gedolah, earned him the great appellation--"And (Aharon) did as Hashem commanded Moshe."

You shall safeguard My charge not to do any of the abominable traditions that were done before you. (18:30)

This pasuk is enigmatic. One would think that the purpose of observing mitzvos, of safeguarding the Torah's dictate, would be to develop a closer relationship with Hashem. We attain a level of spiritual ascendancy commensurate with our commitment to observe. That, however, is not what the Torah says. We are adjured to safeguard the Torah ,so that we will decline to perform the abominable practices of the heathens into whose land we are entering! While these seem to be pretty strong words, it is not uncommon to find such statements throughout the Torah. One who observes, grows. In contrast, one who rejects the Torah is apt to fall to the nadir of depravity. Indeed, in the Talmud Chagigah 5b, Chazal refer to this sudden descent as falling "from a high roof to a deep pit."

It has happened to so many. The first one in the Torah was Kayin, who slew his brother after Hashem rejected his sacrifice. Imagine, one who converses with the Al-mighty and understands the meaning of sacrifices. In a fit of anger and depression he transforms himself into a blasphemer who kills his brother! Such is the effect of the yetzer hora, evil inclination, on one who is susceptible. Klal Yisrael did it with the Golden Calf. Immediately after receiving the Torah and achieving an unparalleled plateau of closeness to Hashem, they fell to the depths and made an idol. What happened? They were distraught and scared. Moshe was late in returning. What did these people who had experienced the revelation of Hashem do? They made a golden calf. Is that a well thought-out reaction or is it weakness exemplified? There is also the story of Rus and Orpah who were willing to sacrifice everything in order to embrace Judaism. Orpah decided, however, to return home. What happened to her? Did she retain her present level of commitment? No--once she returned home, she stooped to harlotry! Overnight, she fell from a high roof to a deep pit.

Horav Chaim Shmulevitz, zl, cites these and other instances in which people suddenly fell from the heights of spirituality to the nadir of blasphemy. He explains that a person must constantly be on guard when he feels that he is undergoing a spiritual descent. He must immediately "cushion" the fall, ultimately limiting the damage produced by the fall. Actually, the plunge itself is far more damaging than the specific level to which one has descended. Only a person who does not lose control, regardless of his present predicament, will succeed in regaining his former spiritual position. Indeed, he might even inadvertently benefit from the experience.

The key to spiritual survival is not simply surviving the depths into which one has fallen. It is the ability to endure the actual plunge, to be able to overcome the sudden effect of descending from the high to the low, to accept the challenge to maintain one's self control: that is the prime test.

Horav Shmulevitz suggests that Shlomo Ha'melech serves as the paradigm of inner strength and self-control in the face of adversity. Shlomo ruled the world; his brilliance was manifest in his every endeavor. He literally was on top of the world. However, he fell; he fell from the zenith of success to the depth of failure. Chazal tell us that in the end, all that Shlomo Ha'melech ruled over was his own cane! He was left with nothing but a cane! Yet, he reigned over this cane. Until the very end, Shlomo Ha'melech was a melech; he did not succumb to depression. He maintained mastery over himself, despite tremendous challenges. He remained regal, dignified and noble, even under the most degrading circumstances. He fell--but bounced back and became the king of Klal Yisrael once again. If one cushions the fall, the damage can be but temporary.


1. In the pasuk, what is the numerical equivalent of the word "? What is its significance?

2. A. What is a Kohen Mashuach?

B. What is a Kohen Merubeh Begadim?

3. Who is first "in line" to take over the Kehunah Gedolah after the passing of the Kohen Gadol?

4. Does one who slaughters an unclean (tamei) fowl have to perform Kisui Ha'dam?

5. Which ervah becomes permissible after the death of the woman who is the source of the prohibition?


1. The gematria, numerical equivalent, of is 410. This number signifies the tenure of the first Bais Hamikdash. This is the length of time that the Kohen Gadol went into the Kodoshei Kodoshim.

2. During the time of the first Bais Hamikdash, shemen ha'mishchah was still available. Hence, the Kohanim were anointed with oil and were referred to as Kohen Mashuach. During the period of the second Bais Hamikdash, however, there was no longer any oil. Consequently, the only distinction of the Kohen Gadol was that he was merubah begadim; he wore four extra vestments.

3. The Kohen Gadol's son--if he is fit for the position.

4. No

5. Achos ishto; the sister of one's wife is forbidden only during his wife's lifetime.

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