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Parshas Acharei Mos/ Family First

“And no man shall be in the Tent of Meeting when [the Kohen Gadol] comes to atone in the Holy, until he comes out; and he shall atone for himself, his household, and the entire congregation of Israel” (Vayikra 16:17).

This week’s parshah describes the atonement process on Yom Kippur in the Mishkan (and later in the Beis HaMikdash). On this holy day, the Kohen Gadol offers various sacrifices – changing his clothes and immersing in a mikveh after each one – and enters the Holy of Holies (for the only time all year) with a special incense offering.

Chazal (Yoma 44a) tell us, as our pasuk suggests, that the Kohen Gadol’s own atonement precedes that of his household, that of his household precedes that of his fellow Kohanim, and theirs precedes that of the entire congregation of Israel.

Some explain that it is the Kohen Gadol’s personal confession that precedes his household’s, etc. Others say that his personal korban comes first, then that of his household, etc. (Chiddushei HaRitva ad loc.)

You and Yours

In any case, the Kohen Gadol’s “schedule” on Yom Kippur teaches us two important lessons about our own service of Hashem:

Some functionaries assume that the merit of their positive influence on the community stands them in such good stead that they needn’t work on themselves. But the Torah explicitly states that even the Kohen Gadol had to atone for himself and his household. Furthermore, he had to do so before atoning for anyone else. So too, one should first educate himself and his household in Torah and fear of Heaven and only then devote himself to the Jewish people. (Ta’am VeDa’as, Acharei Mos, p. 97)

Much as we want to reach out to our fellow Jew, we have to solidify our own foundations first, making sure we practice what we preach. As Chazal say, “Chop down your own tree, then chop down others’”(Bava Basra 60b).

Priority Parenting

Rabbi Meir Goldvicht maintains that when kids are younger, parents should concentrate on them rather than on the community. In fact, only once his own children grew up and were more independent did he start teaching throughout New York and Israel and even worldwide.

Rabbi and Rebbetzin Goldvicht’s focus on family surely helped their children grown into the wonderful people they are.

Question for Discussion:

When have you had to choose between family and friends, between something going on at home and a school or shul activity? What did you decide to do, and why?

Parshas Kedoshim/ Best Foot Forward

“Love your neighbor as yourself” (Vayikra 19:18).

This week’s parshah is all about how to be kedoshim, holy people. To that end, Kedoshim contains numerous laws governing our relationships. Perhaps the most famous of these mitzvos is the one cited above.

Rashi here quotes Rabbi Akiva: Loving your neighbor is “a great principle of the Torah.” The Sifsei Chachamim elaborates that this mitzvah encompasses the entire Torah. He then refers to a famous story in the Gemara (Shabbos 31a):

A gentile once said to Shammai, “Convert me to Judaism by teaching me the entire Torah while I’m standing on one foot.” Understandably, Shammai refused. But when the fellow made the same request of Hillel, he converted him. Hillel simply told him: “Whatever you hate, don’t do to your fellow – that’s the entire Torah. All the rest is commentary.”

The Big Picture

Although asking to learn the entire Torah on one foot may sound disrespectful, Hillel understood that this non-Jew sincerely wanted to convert. As the Kli Yakar explains, this fellow merely sought to distill the Torah into one fundamental principle, the “foot” on which the entire corpus stands. By bearing this basic directive in mind, he’d be less likely to forget any of the Torah’s many mitzvos, as people coming to Judaism later in life are prone to do.

Aside from teaching us the essence of Judaism, Hillel’s response is a lesson for educators (as we all are at various times): Always tune in to where a questioner’s coming from and what he’s really asking.

Behaving and Being

Practically speaking, how can we love our fellow Jews as much as we love ourselves? Isn’t that impossible? The Chizkuni answers that this commandment is not about how we feel, but about how we act toward others. If we treat them lovingly, we’ll come to actually love them. As the Sefer HaChinuch (mitzvah 324) famously observes, man is influenced by his actions. What we do makes us who we are.

Interestingly, our parshah also commands us to love the stranger as ourselves (Vayikra 19:34), and in the story above, Hillel shows us how to do that too!

Question for Discussion:

The Torah teaches us to do the right thing even when we don’t feel like it. When have you not felt loving toward someone, but you acted kindly toward him anyway?

Parshas Emor

Tragedy Averted

“A widow, a divorcée, a desecrated woman [born to a Kohen and a woman forbidden to him]… – [the Kohen Gadol] shall not marry [any] of these…” (Vayikra 21:14).

Parshas Emor opens with a long list of laws pertaining to the Kohanim, who, because they served in the Mishkan (and later in the Beis HaMikdash), were to conduct themselves with utmost sanctity.

The Torah forbids a regular Kohen to marry most of the women listed in our pasuk – except a widow. That extra restriction applies to the Kohen Gadol alone. The Moshav Zekeinim explains why.

Abuse of Power

On Yom Kippur the Kohen Gadol entered the Holy of Holies in the Beis HaMikdash. On this holiest day of the year, in this holiest site on earth, he would pronounce the sacred name of G-d,which we otherwise never articulate. This Divine name has great power, including – Heaven forbid – the power to kill (see Rashi, Shemos 2:14).

Theoretically, if the Kohen Gadol were interested in a married woman and would be free to marry her if her husband died, he might cause the husband’s death by having him in mind when he uttered Hashem’s name. Tragedies like this were averted by the Torah’s prohibition, says the Moshav Zekeinim. Knowing he could never marry a widow, the Kohen Gadol had no reason to harm another woman’s husband.

Top to Bottom

How, on the holiest day of the year, in the holiest place on earth, could the holiest man in the world contemplate such terrible things? We see from here how low even the most exalted people can sink.

On the other hand, the Midrash (Vayikra Rabbah, Acharei Mos 21:12) says that Hashem Himself accompanied the Kohen Gadol into the Holy of Holies, transforming him into an angel. As the Torah states, “no man shall be in the Tent of Meeting when he comes to effect atonement in the Holy” (Vayikra 16:17). At this point, the Kohen Gadol was no longer mortal!

So how could the Kohen Gadol simultaneously think murderous, licentious thoughts and be an angel?!

Fortunately and unfortunately, it’s quite possible. If we adhere to the Torah, we can rise to the greatest heights. But if we violate it, we can plummet to the lowest depths. (Rabbi Yissocher Frand, “Kohen Gadol in the Holy of Holies: High Potential Versus High Risk”)

Question for Discussion:

The greater the responsibility, the greater the restrictions. The Kohen Gadol’s marital limitations kept him from misuing his special position. What mitzvah or practice keeps you “on track,” moving in the right direction rather than straying or regressing?


Avi, a Jerusalem-based educator, writes: Every year around the High Holy Days, Rabbi Yissocher Frand speaks very powerfully about teshuvah. I listen to recordings of these derashos all year, so my head is constantly “in the game,” thinking about self-improvement, rather than being a “last-minute shopper” come Rosh HaShanah. As a friend of mine jokes, “Do teshuvah now; avoid the Yom Kippur rush!”