Galvanizing Gestures

Summary by Channie Koplowitz Stein

The beginning of Parshat Emor deals with laws that are directed at the kohanim, the priests, and  then focus on the even more stringent restrictions on the High Priest. He is called the kohain gadol, the "great"priest who is above his brothers. What constitutes this greatness that should elevate him above his brother priests? Why can the other priests, for example, go to the funerals of the seven members of their immediate family, for example, while he cannot contaminate himself even with the death of his parents? How do we define greatness, especially since at a bris we wish the little infant that he should become "gadol/big/great".

The medrash tells us the kohain gadol needed to embody five qualities: Chochma/wisdom, koach/strength, noi/beauty, ashirut/wealth, and shanim/mature years. While these may not all seem self evident necessities for a leader, we will nevertheless discuss the Torah perspective on some of them and how they relate to greatness and specifically to the High Priest. As Rabbi Belsky zt"l points out, whom we admire says a lot about ourselves and what we hope to become in the future. Do we admire the beauty queen and the sports superstar? These may be what the world admires, but Jews tend to admire wise men and people of great character. Whom one admires and praises tells us what the person values and what he hopes to achieve in his own life.

Let us begin with beauty. Certainly this does not refer to the image of a magazine model. Nevertheless, appearances are important, especially first impressions. If a leader or a rabbi is to have influence over others, continues Rabbi Belsky z”l, he must present himself in a dignified manner engendering respect, as befits his station. A Jewish hero is one who devotes himself to Hashem, who tries to emulate His ways, and comports himself along these lines.

Man has three partners in his creation. His two parents provide the physical body and Hashem provides the spiritual soul. It is a difficult synthesis that is often in conflict. The kohain is meant to act as a bridge between the physical world and the spiritual world. The Kohain Gadol's role is so important in this undertaking that he must stay in the Beit Hamikdosh itself the entire time of his service. As Rav Aryea Leib Heiman z”l in Chikrei Lev writes, the kohain gadol was more spiritual than physical; the Torah commands that no man may enter Hashem's Holy of Holies, yet on Yom Kippur the Kohain Gadol performs the service to atone for Bnei Yisroel precisely in the Kadosh Kadashim/Holy of Holies. How is that possible? Because the Kohain Gadol himself was more angel than human, more spiritual than physical. It is in this role as Hashem's representative that he interacts with people in this world. As Hashem brings shalom v'reut/peace and congeniality into the world, so must the Kohain Gadol strive to foster love among individuals and in humanity, who relates to others from his spiritual core. In this respect, Aharon, the patriarch of the priestly dynasty, was the supreme role model, "A lover of peace and a pursuer of peace, a lover of humanity and [a man] who brings others closer to God."

The Tallelei Chaim takes this theme one step further. Since the Kohain Gadol strives to reconnect the body to its soul, there is no room for death in his world. As Rabbi Rivlin notes, the life of the kohain gadol was a totally spiritual, inner life. His entire focus was Torah. His service was not just a job, but the essence of his being. He was the Great Priest because he was on a higher spiritual level and tried to raise others to that level. In fact, writes Rabbi Sternbach in Taam Vodaath, his greatness emanates from his helping others and influencing them. He does not seek the title as an ego boost. The title is conferred upon him because he always tries to answer the needs of his brothers.

So, besides the dignity of his bearing, how else is beauty manifest in the appearance of the kohain gadol? Rabbi Tachtel z”l in Mishnat Sachir speaks of the inner beauty manifesting itself in the Kohain Gadol's outer appearance through his constant smile. He, as the true talmid chacham/Jewish scholar, never exhibits signs of anger or upset. His charisma emanates from the radiance of his inner joy. As Rebbetzin Smiles reminds us, these traits of greatness are not limited to men. Rebbetzin Henny Machlis, a truly great woman, was noted for her warm heart and her warm chicken soup which she served to over a hundred guests every Shabbos, guests from every strip of life. She greeted each with a smile, recognized the tzelem Elokhim and Yiddishe neshama in each, and influenced many who were not Orthodox or of the mainstream to return to their Jewish roots.

[On a personal note: I was privileged to have Rebbetzin Sarah Friefeld as a teacher for several years in Esther Schoenfeld High School. Every one of the girls in her classes was awed by her beauty. It was a radiance that emanated from within her and shone in the smile she extended to each of us. I still feel its warmth. When she told us she would not be returning to teach us the following September because she needed to help her husband as he was establishing his yeshivah, we were devastated. That yeshivah is Shor Yoshuv founded by Rabbi Shlomo Friefeld whose books Rebbetzin Smiles often cites.  And the initial "founding", at least in idea, was no later than 1959 or 1960, not 1966 as appears on Google. She too was a "great" lady who left a tremendous legacy. CKS]

It is the sensitivity and joy for others that earns the kohain gadol the right to wear the Choshen/breastplate. As Rabbi Mattisyahu Salomon writes, Moshe was afraid that Aharon would resent  Hashem's chosing Moshe to lead Bnei Yisroel rather than himself. Hashem reassured Moshe that Aharon will feel joy "in his heart". The heart which can feel the joy of another and be sensitive to the pain of another is the heart upon which the urim vetumim can rest. This sensitivity to others is what is necessary to properly interpret the message of the urim vetumim, writes Rabbi Chaim Shmulevitz. Without that sensitivity, one can misinterpret the letters that are being lit up as shikorah/drunk rather than as keshayrah/pure. Eli initially lacked some sensitivity to Chanah's pain as he witnessed her silent prayer. That insensitivity led him to the wrong reading of the Urim VeTumim's message.

The Kohain Gadol needed to focus on the internal, soul of his fellow Jews continues the Tallelei Cheim. He could not be involved in externals. Therefore, once a man has died and the internal soul has left leaving only the external shell, the interaction with the outer, dead body would contaminate the inner purity, the essence of self the kohanim represent.

But how are we to define self? Rabbi Leff in Insight and Outlook notes that the definition of self changes and grows over time. A baby enters the world with clenched fist. It's all about him. Yet as he grows, self expands to include family, especially after he marries and "cleaves" to his wife and children. The truly great "self" incorporates the needs and emotions of others into his own sense of self, and he emulates Hashem Himself Who feels the emotions of and sees the gadlus/greatness in every human being.

Self is defined in three areas. First, how one connects with Hashem, how he connects with others and finally how he connects with himself, his inner essence. The Great Priest must excel in each of these relationships and must be willing to learn from greatness he sees in others. Rabbi Friefeld relates that the great Chofetz Chaim would travel with difficulty to another town to observe and learn from Reb Nechumke, not a fellow Rav, but the shamash of the shul who was renowned for his life of chesed. Ego obviously played no role, but a desire to emulate Hashem in chesed and an openness to see the value of others as role models prompted his actions.

A man who is strong may indeed be physically strong even in Torah terms. Indeed Aharon lifted the other leviem and swayed them about as part of the service. But the greater aspect of strength is inner strength, to be able to restrain oneself and overcome one's natural tendencies. Man is naturally lazy, a being often drawn towards inertia. The great man fights this tendency writes Rabbi Chaim Shmulevits z”l. The most common excuse for not acting is that one lacks the ability necessary for completing the task, whether it's the performance of a specific mitzvah or even the time to pray. However, strength is all about concentrating one's efforts and one's desires to completing the task at hand. [Have you ever seen a weightlifter's concentration and heard his grunts?] Aharon needed this concentration to physically perform his service, and Bezalel and the builders of the Mishkan/Tabernacle needed the concentration of their will. Then Hashem gave them the ability to. With alacrity and zealousness we can all achieve great things.

Hashem answers our desire, even to declaring an extra "holiday", a Pesach Sheni, as he did for those in the desert who could not observe the first Pesach, writes Areshet Sefaseinu. On the other hand, when we do not push ourselves, we do not grow. The leaders of Bnei Yisroel felt a great loss when Yehoshua was compared to a moon in comparison to Moshe being the sun. The moon is also great, but they had not worked had enough to achieve that level. A gadol achieves that status because Hashem rewards him for his extra effort. What Hashem wants from us at a minimum is to exert ourselves to our maximum. Then Hashem will do the rest, as He did to Pharaoh's daughter. She extended her arm as far as it would go, and Hashem saw to it that it reached Moshe's basket.

When there was a task at hand, the Saba of Navarodk would not ask himself if he is able to do it. He would ask himself if it needed to be done. That is how he was able to accomplish so much, as Hashem helped him build many yeshivot.

Every person must take inventory on himself, writes Rabbi Friefeld. If he feels he is lacking in prayer, he should make an added effort to daven regularly with a minyan. If he lacks in performing chesed, he should resolve to do an act of chesed every day. Every person's inventory is different, and only he can determine where to exert his effort.

When growth stops, writes Rabbi Akiva Tatz, we experience death. The neshamah may die earlier, with stagnation and depression.

The Kohain Gadol, as the spiritual leader of Bnei Yisroel, must continue to grow , to improve himself, and connect with others. But each of us has a point of greatness within ourselves, and each of us must continue to challenge ourselves to grow within ourselves, with our sensitivity to others, and with our relationship to Hakodosh Boruch Hu.