By Rabbi Pinchas Winston
G-d spoke to Moshe [immediately] after the death of Aharon's two sons, who
brought an [unauthorized] offering before G-d and died. (Vayikra 16:1)
Even though almost three parshios have transpired since Nadav and Avihu
were killed for offering their Incense-Offering, the Torah returns back to
that episode as an introduction to the laws of Yom Kippur. We have
discussed the connection between the deaths of Aharon's sons and the laws
of Yom Kippur in the past. However, this year we can ask a different
question, by being precise in the wording of the verse itself.
The deaths of Nadav and Avihu are referred to a few times throughout the
Torah, but usually their names are mentioned. Here, however, their names
are not recalled--why? Furthermore, why must the posuk mention that "two"
of Aharon's sons died, as opposed to just "Aharon's sons"? Is our memory so
short that we would remember otherwise?
The answer to these questions can be found in the following:
"Remaining ones ... From death. We learn that [G-d] was angry even at them
[Elazar and Itamar--Aharon's other two sons], as it says, 'And with Aharon
G-d was angry enough to destroy him,' (Devarim 9:20); the expression
'destroy' usually means complete destruction of one's offspring, as it
says, 'And I destroyed its fruit above ...' (Amos 2:9). Moshe's prayer,
however, nullified half of the decree, as it says, 'I prayed on behalf of
Aharon at that time ...' (Devarim 9:20)." (Rashi, Devarim 10:12)
In other words, says Rashi, the verse from Parashas Shemini is emphasizing
that Aharon's two "remaining" sons were just that: remainders of the
decree. Had Moshe not interceded on behalf of Aharon and his family, all
four sons would have died because their father's involvement in the golden
calf. Moshe's plea for mercy mitigated the Divine response, and only Nadav
and Avihu died, because they were the ones who brought the unauthorized
Based upon this Rashi, we can conclude that the posuk in this week's
parshah is not coming to tell us about the deaths of Nadav and Avihu, and
why they died. Instead, the posuk is coming to tell us that only two out of
the four sons--all of which had been condemned to die--had in fact suffered
the fate of their judgment. In other words, the posuk is phrased as it is,
not to focus on the judgment-aspect of what occurred, but on the
mercy-aspect of what occurred.
If so, then this verse is a wonderful introduction to the laws of Yom
Kippur. After all, though we enter the Ten Days of Repentance with awe and
trepidation (... Who will die and who will live ... who by fire and who by
water ...), the truth is, if any day of the year represented the extent of
G-d's mercy, it is Yom Kippur. As one rabbi has said, "If I were G-d, and I
had to judge myself for the mistakes I personally have made throughout my
lifetime, I wouldn't be here today." Fortunately, G-d is more merciful than
In fact, at the end of the Yom Kippur service (at the end of the Ne'ilah
Shemonah Esrai), we mention how G-d does not desire the destruction of the
evil, but that they repent and live meaningful lives--and He gives them a
long time to come to that decision. How much more so does G-d have patience
with us, who are not evil, waiting for us to return to Him. Suffering is
only the Divine response when all other forms of "communication" have
failed and been exhausted.
However, to start the process of return, we must initiate and make a move
back in the direction of G-d. This means more Torah-learning, improvement
in mitzvah-performance, better manners and more concern for others, and
above all, tefillah. For, as we learn from Moshe, Aharon, and his two
"remaining sons," prayer is a powerful way to avert the "evil decree."
G-d told Moshe, "Tell the Children of Israel, 'I am Hashem, your G-d. Do
not follow the ways of Egypt where you once lived, nor of Canaan to where I
am bringing you. Do not follow their customs. (Vayikra 18:1-3)
According to many, this verse is the source of the specific mitzvah not to
behave like the non-Jewish nations (Avodah Zarah 11a; Rashi; Rambam: Avodas
Cochavim 11:1); according to the Sefer HaMitzvos (Negative Mitzvah 30), the
source for this mitzvah is in the next parshah, Kedoshim (20:23). However,
according to everyone, there is a mitzvah incumbent upon every Jew to not
take on the customs of the non-Jews.
This does not mean, the Talmud makes perfectly clear, that a Jew is allowed
to disobey the laws of a foreign country, especially when living within
that country. If the non-Jewish country is law-abiding and fulfills certain
halachic requirements, then another principle--dinei d'malchusa
dinei--applies (literally, the law of the government is in fact law, if it
is civil law and does not contradict the Torah).
What makes the first law so difficult to obey is that there is a very large
"gray" area between keeping the non-Jewish customs out of Jewish society,
and obeying their laws of civility; it is a gray area that has trapped many
a Jewish family. Rashi sheds light by saying that what is meant by the
verse is to avoid the social customs of the non-Jews, such as visiting
theaters and race-tracks. The Rambam is even more specific:
"One must not go in the statutes of the non-Jews, not in clothing, not in
hair-style, nor in similar things ... it is all one matter and a warning
not to be similar to them. Rather, a Jew should be separate from them, and
be recognizable by his clothing, his actions, and by his ideas, as it says,
'I will separate you from the nations ...' (Vayikra 20:26) ..." (Yad
Chazakah, Hilchos Avodas Cochavim 11:1)
The Rambam is even more specific in the rest of the halachah, but the basic
message has already come through loud and clear: Jews are different, and
must maintain this difference. It is not merely a "Jewish thing" to do--it
is a Torah mitzvah, and a negative one at that.
This does not mean that this difference should create a false sense of
pride, and allow the Jew to lord himself over non-Jews. This does not give
a Jew license to be disrespectful to those not of his faith. This
difference advocated by the Torah is, by no means, a cause of chauvinism.
What it does mean is that, whereas the non-Jew does not have a mitzvah to
focus on living a holy existence, a Jew does, as we are told directly at
the beginning of Parashas Kedoshim:
G-d told Moshe, "Speak to the entire congregation of the Children of Israel
and tell them, 'Be holy, for I, your G-d, am holy.' " (Vayikra 19:1-2)
As history has proven, this is not an easy mitzvah to keep. It is very
hard, living amongst other peoples for long periods of time, working
side-by-side with them, interacting with them, to not want to "fit" in ...
to not want to bury the difference. In fact, I remember reading in a
college campus Jewish weekly one Jewish girl's response to anti-Semitism:
drop everything Jewish, including the word Jew itself. She seemed to think
it was an original idea.
However, as many a ba'al teshuvah has found out, when the emphasis is only
on being "different," a Jew often rebels and fights to fit in. He feels
estranged from the world around him, and yearns to be the same as everyone
else. However, when one increases his learning of Torah, and thereby his
appreciation of Torah and mitzvos, and from there, he learns what holiness
is about and pursues a holy lifestyle, then the changes seem to come quite
This is because certain clothing, and certain appearances support a holy
existence more than others. Fashion becomes less important, and flashiness
tends to become part of the past. Where there is holiness, there is
modesty, and this too changes the attitude of the pursuer of a holy
lifestyle. It is not a forced change, but a desired one--"clothing" that
envelopes a desire to become close to G-d. And it is THIS, ultimately, that
the verse comes to encourage.
Parashas Kedoshim: Holy, Old, and Wise
Rise up before one with a white beard; honor the old, and fear your G-d; I
am G-d. (Vayikra 19:32)
Simply put, this is a mitzvah to show sincere respect to the elderly.
However, there is respect, and then there is respect. The first kind is an
external form of respect, where, inside we don't consider the elderly
useful or that important. However, our love for them, and just a little
sensitivity tells us to give them the impression that they are important to
us and useful in our eyes.
The second form of respect is an internal one, one that grows from knowing
that the elderly ARE important to society--perhaps the most important of
all. But, many may wonder today, how can that be when their bodies no
longer function well and they can't physically "contribute" to society? The
answer to this age-old question about the age-old is obvious: wisdom.
I remember once being in a city, and on one particular Shabbos walking many
miles to shul from where I was staying. Along the way, I had to pass a home
for the elderly. It happened to be a cool but pleasant day, and as I passed
the home and peered past the protective fence, I saw an elderly man sitting
on a bench, with a blanket over his legs. As I walked by, I noticed that he
was not only completely alone, but lonely as well, which I felt from fifty
feet away. It was that pervasive.
I felt drawn to the man in sadness, though I did not go in. However, as I
walked on I thought to myself, "How different is this society from the one
that I am walking towards. I am walking to a shul in which a rabbi, who
must at least be in his seventies, is going to deliver a shiur to anxious
listeners, many of whom are younger by him by several decades. Young and
old alike will make this man the center of their attention. As many others
like him, he will probably never be alone, and never need to suffer from
loneliness. Why? Because he belongs to a society of which wisdom, not
technical ability or financial prowess, is the highest value."
Therefore, this mitzvah to honor the elderly is also a mitzvah to cherish
wisdom above and beyond all other values. We have other mitzvos, including
"love your neighbor as yourself" (also in this week's parshah; 19:18) that
instruct us to value all people, and to treat them as special and
important, as we ourselves would like to be treated by others. However,
such mitzvos do not directly focus us on the centrality of wisdom to a
moral society, as does the mitzvah to honor the elderly--people who
symbolize learning and "earned" wisdom.
The following quote from Rabbi Chaim Vital substantiates this idea:
"We have a tradition that the resurrection of the dead will take place in
Eretz Yisroel forty years earlier than it will outside of Israel. However,
anyone who died [and was buried] outside of Israel but who has a relative
in Israel, who, halachically, would be obligated to mourn for him, that
relative will have the ability to revive the one outside of Israel [at the
same time as those in Eretz Yisroel]. This mystery is alluded to in
Tractate Pesachim (of the Talmud Bavli) in the chapter, 'Tamid Nishchat,'
where it says, 'In the future the righteous will revive the dead ...'
(Pesachim 68a). This is also what is written, 'So says G-d, "There still
dwells elderly men and women in the streets of Jerusalem, each with his
staff in his hand..."' (Zechariah 8:4), and it is written, '... Place my
staff on the lad's face.' (II Melachim 4:29; i.e., we see from this verse
that 'staff' alludes to the ability to revive the dead). Why does
resurrection of the dead depend upon the elderly and the righteous?
Because, all those who live in Eretz Yisroel are called 'righteous,' as it
says, 'All your people are righteous; they shall inherit the land forever
...' (Yeshayahu 60:21). But, at the time of the redemption of the
resurrection, they will also need to be B'nei Torah (those who learn and
live by Torah), who are called 'zekeinim' (i.e., 'elderly'), as it says,
'Honor the old' (Hebrew: zakein--zayin-kuf-nun). And, as the rabbis teach,
['zakein' stands for] 'zeh sh'kanah chochmah'--this one who acquired
wisdom." (Yalkut Reuveini, Kedoshim 64)
And lest we forget, we too, with G-d's help and as a fact of nature, will
become elderly one day. But, it is now, during our youth, that we ought to
spend much time acquiring our wisdom (read: Torah).
You must not emulate the customs of the nations which I will throw out
before you. They did all these things, and therefore I was disgusted with
them. I have told you that you will possess their land; I will give it to
you as a possession. [It is] a land flowing with milk and honey. I am G-d,
your G-d, who has separated you from the [other] peoples. (Vayikra
The truth is, this d'var Torah could have been given over on the previous
parshah as well, because it says in Acharei Mos:
"Do not defile yourself with any of these things, because these things
defiled the nations which I am sending out before you. The land is defiled,
and therefore I visited her sin upon her and the land spit out its
inhabitants. Be careful with My statutes and My judgments and do not do any
of these revolting things, neither the native nor the stranger that lives
among you. All of these abominations the men of the land before you did,
and the land is defiled; that the land not spit you out also from your
defiling it, as it spit the nations out before you ..." (Vayikra 18:24)
However, it is in this week's parshah, on the following verse:
"I have separated you from the peoples that you should be Mine ..."
--that Rashi comments:
"If you hold yourselves apart from them, then you will be Mine, but if not,
you will become subject to Nebuchadnetzar and others like him ..." (Rashi)
What is the vort? It goes something like this:
After discussing the merit of living in Eretz Yisroel even (read:
especially) in our generations on many an occasion, I have often later
received the following response:
"Oh no, I wouldn't want to live in Eretz Yisroel, at least not now ..."
ME: Is it that you are worried about earning a living? Let me explain ...
THEM: No, it's not that, though it is a concern ...
ME: Oh, you mean you're worried about the security problem there, terrorism
THEM: Well, that is definitely something to be nervous about. But, I have
enough trust in G-d to know that when my number is up, it doesn't make a
difference where I will be or what I'll be doing.
ME: I don't get it. If you're not worried about making a living there, or
about Middle-East dangers, then what is holding you back from moving to
THEM: Living in Israel is spiritually "dangerous."
ME: Spiritually dangerous? What does that mean?
THEM: Well, if you do a sin there, it counts for a lot more against you. It
is better to live outside of Israel where sins count for less ... at least
until Moshiach comes and our yetzer haros are reduced.
ME: (Incredulously) You're kidding, aren't you?
THEM: No, I'm a hundred percent serious.
After recovering from this conversation, I gave it some more thought, and
you know what, maybe it is not so far from the truth. In fact, the above
possukim (not to mention all the many, many midrashim--in the Talmud and
Zohar alike) illustrate the spiritual superiority of Eretz Yisroel over all
other lands in the world. If so, then one can assume that the moral
expectations of Heaven of one living in Eretz Yisroel are greater than of
those not living in the "King's Palace."
Typically, the answer to this question is a definitive yes, and no. Living
within the borders of Eretz Yisroel does carry added responsibilities for
the Jew--as does wearing tefillin, or any other mitzvah. And what if a
Jewish male says, "I don't know if I can stop my mind from wandering today
while I'm wearing tefillin, and who knows where it will end up!" Do we
answer such a person,
"Really? Then don't wear your tefillin today!"
No, that is not the answer we tell the person. Instead, we answer him,
"Well, do the best you can to keep your mind on what you're doing, and when
it wanders, bring it back to wear it belongs."
So, the person answered me,
"But tefillin is a once-a-day-mitzvah (barring Shabbos and Yom Tov), that
may last an hour or even less. Living in Eretz Yisroel is a 24-hour-a-day,
seven-day-a-week mitzvah! At some point in time, you can just take off your
tefillin if you can't control your thoughts. However, you can't simply go
to Egypt every time your mind and yetzer hara wander to places they don't
Well, that is what, according to Torah, spiritual growth is all about. One
is expected to take on new mitzvos, and then work hard to live up to their
spiritual demands and to grow into them. In the words of Rav Dessler, zt"l,
"If you don't shoot for the stars, then how can you pull yourself out of
However, there is an added dimension to this idea that seems to go
unnoticed, even though it is a crucial factor in this entire discussion.
What is it? It is that there is a special Divine Providence for those who
live in Eretz Yisroel--or at least yearn to--and it is to this which the
One who lives in Eretz Yisroel lives without transgression. (Kesuvos 111a)
What does this mean? To whom does this refer? If it refers to a righteous
person, then no matter where he lives, he lives without transgression. And
if it does not refer to completely righteous people, then it must refer to
people who do transgress, in which case, what does the Talmud mean?
The answer to this question was already mentioned in the previous d'var
Torah, though it was not brought out. It says:
"... Because, all those who live in Eretz Yisroel are called 'righteous,'
as it says, 'All your people are righteous; they shall inherit the land
forever ...' (Yeshayahu 60:21) ..." (Yalkut Reuveini, Kedoshim 64)
In other words (and to make a long d'var Torah shorter), living in Eretz
Yisroel is a special merit. It is such a special merit that it acts as
"purifying" agent for those who live there. Well, not exactly for everyone
who lives there, as last week's and this week's parshah warns.
Then for whom is Eretz Yisroel a miniature Yom Kippur?
For those who choose to live there for Torah ideological reasons, and try
to fulfill the Torah according to the best of their ability. For such
people, who are bound to err and transgress, the merit of Eretz Yisroel
atones for them--automatically--something that does not happen for those
who live outside the land.
There are many Kabbalistic sources to support this idea, such as:
"240 years before the seventh millennium (i.e., the year 6000 from
creation), the lower waters will rise and cover the entire world, and only
Eretz Yisroel will remain, which will float on the surface of the water
like Noach's Ark; they will approach Gan Aiden, the place from which the
four rivers leave. The people who survive will be completely righteous, and
there they will be whitened, purified, and made spiritual." (Yalkut
Reuveini, Shichechus Leket, "Eretz Yisroel v'Chutz L'Aretz," 6; in the name
of the Rokeach--Gali Razyah)
This is something to keep in mind at this time of year (it says that the
Final Redemption will begin in Nissan and end on Shavuos), and at this
critical point in history. As we have mentioned on numerous occasions,
moving to Eretz Yisroel is a major decision that must be made and carried
out with wisdom and sound Torah-advice. But yearning to live there is
something every Jew can do anywhere, and at any time.
Have a great, holy, and contemplative Shabbos,