Inconsistent Defense

May 4, 2020

5 min read


Emor (Leviticus 21-24 )

The Midrash tells us that Hashem showed Moshe each generation and its judges, each generation and its kings, each generation and its sages, each generation and its robbers. Hashem also showed Moshe the image of King Shaul and his son Yonasan dying by the sword during a battle with the Philistines.

Moshe asked, “Why should the very first king of the Jewish people die by the sword?”

Hashem replied, “Why complain to me? Shaul massacred Nov, the city of Kohanim. Speak to the Kohanim!”

This, concludes the Midrash, is the implication of the verse “Speak to the Kohanim.”

The commentators are exceedingly puzzled by this Midrash, which seems to run counter to the reasons the Torah gives for Shaul’s premature death. We read in Sefer Shmuel that Shaul disobeyed the prophet Shmuel’s command to exterminate the Amalekites, men, women and children. Shaul took mercy on Agag, the Amalekite king, and spared him. The result of this misguided kindness was the career of Agag’s descendant Haman, the implacable enemy of the Jews, centuries later. When Shmuel arrived and saw what Shaul had done, he specifically told him that Hashem would rip his kingdom from him. How then can the Midrash connect Shaul’s death to his massacre of the Kohanim of Nov?

The Reisher Rav, in his Hadrash Veha’iyun, explains that Shaul’s primary sin was indeed his failure to wipe out Amalek, but he might have been given a less painful form of death. For Shaul really could have argued convincingly in his defense. He could have said, “I didn’t mean to be disobedient. But I guess I have a soft heart. I’m just too compassionate. I couldn’t bring myself to kill Agag.” Such a defense would not have excused him, but it might have mitigated his guilt somewhat.

But the massacre of the Kohanim of Nov slammed the door in the face of any such defense. Where was his soft heart when he attacked Nov? Where was his compassion when he exterminated all the Kohanim? No, the failure to kill Agag did not stem from uncontrollable compassion. Shaul’s guilt was not mitigated. Why did Shaul die such a violent death? “Speak to the Kohanim.”

Many commentators write that exactly this should be our greatest concern when we are brought to judgment before the Heavenly Court after one hundred twenty years. We may have all kinds of arguments in our defense, but who knows if our own actions won’t refute them.

Hashem may listen to our arguments and say, “Oh, is that the reason why? You didn’t have any money. But for that thing you did have money? You say you didn’t have any time. But for that other thing you did have time? You say you were not smart enough. But for that thing you were smart enough?” And that is when all the defenses of the inconsistent people will crumble and fall.

Teach the Children

God told Moshe to "Speak to the Kohanim" and “say to them” to avoid contact with the dead. These two phrases seem redundant. “Speaking to the Kohanim” obviously includes “saying to them” whatever needs to be said. What is the purpose of these additional words?

The Talmud infers (Yevamos 114a) that it comes “lehazhir hagedolim al haketanim, to caution the adults regarding the children.” There is a special obligation on adult Kohanim to train the young Kohanim to maintain the purity of their persons. Accordingly, the verse is stating, “Speak to the Kohanim,” meaning the adults, that they should “say to them,” the minors, that a Kohein must avoid contact with the dead.

The only problem with this interpretation is that it doesn’t seem to fit into the words. There is no hint in the verse that the Kohanim are meant to repeat what they hear to others. The plain meaning of the words is that the objective pronoun “them” refers back to the object “Kohanim.”

The Beis Av suggests that the Torah is indeed talking only to the adults, once for themselves and the second time for the benefit of the children.

We all know how to teach children to do mitzvos. When a boy is young, we buy him a pair of tzitzis. When he gets a little older, we learn Torah with him. We teach our daughters to make blessings, to pray, to appreciate Shabbos. This is all relatively simple. We can condition our children to do the acts, but how can we inspire them? How can we instill in them a true yiras shamayim, a true awe of living in the presence of the Almighty so that they should love to do mitzvos and find sins abhorrent?

The only way this can be accomplished is if the children see yiras shamayim in the parents. Teach them by example. Children must see their parents recoil from food whose kosher status is questionable. They must see their parents suffused with the joy of a mitzvah. They must see their parents trembling in awe of the Almighty. Only then will yiras shamayim become real to them. They too will be caught up in the mood and the atmosphere of the home, and they too will become accustomed to living in the presence of the Almighty.

Here is just one example of what I consider true yiras shamayim. When the Steipler Gaon was a young man, he once went to meet with a young lady who was a prospective match. While they were sitting at the table and talking, he nodded off and fell asleep.

The young lady let him sleep and just sat there waiting patiently. Presently, he awoke and realized where he was and what had happened.

“You must excuse me,” he said.

“Oh, it is nothing,” said the young lady. “Don’t worry about it.”

“No, it is something. I must explain. You see, I was very tired.”

The young lady smiled. “Well, that was obvious.”

He cleared his throat. “Look, you know I had to travel twelve hours by train today to get here.”

“Yes, I know. Twelve hours on a train can make anyone tired.”

“No, it is not so simple. I knew that I could not learn that much traveling on a train, so I stayed up and learned all last night. I expected I would be able to catch a few hours’ sleep on the train and come here reasonably rested. But when I saw the upholstered seats on the train, it seemed to me that the material might have shaatnez. I couldn’t very well take a chance, could I? So I remained standing for the whole journey. And of course, I didn’t get any sleep at all. So you must forgive me for falling asleep in your company. Please don’t take offense.”

Incidentally, the young lady married him.

To remain standing for twelve hours on a train — after having stayed up the entire night — because of a suspicion that there might be shaatnez in the train’s seats, this is yiras shamayim.

Now we can understand the seemingly redundant words of the Torah. First, Hashem told Moshe to “speak to the Kohanim” and inform them of the mitzvah. Then He told Moshe to “say it to them” again, to impress on them that it would not be enough simply to obey and fulfill. A higher level of performance was required of them, a type of performance that would carry forward to the next generation when the children see the diligence, inspiration and awe with which the adults embrace the mitzvah.

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