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A. The Yom Kippur Service. After his sons Nadav and Avihu had died as punishment for their improper service, Aharon was told to enter the Holy of the Holies only on Yom Kippur, at which time atonement was to be made for the sins of the community (including the Priesthood) and the Sanctuary was cleansed because it might have been entered by those who were ritually unclean. On Yom Kippur, the Kohein Godol (High Priest), dressed in white garments rather than gold ones, offered all the sacrifices (i.e., the personal and communal sin and burnt offerings). The ritual included the casting of incense upon coal taken from the Altar, and the sacrificing of one of two male goats provided by the people for their offering. The commandment was given for the Jews to observe Yom Kippur as a most solemn Shabbos (the Shabbos of Shabbosim), to fast and to repent for their misdeeds. The people were again cautioned that sacrifices could only be offered in the Sanctuary (offering sacrifices in one’s own spot was an act of idolatry).
B. Kashrus. The laws forbidding the eating of meat of an animal which wasn’t ritually slaughtered and the in take of blood were given.
C. High Moral Conduct. The people were reminded that Hashem expected of them a high level of moral conduct; thus, adultery and illicit marriages were prohibited (the Torah citing examples of nations destroyed for immoral behavior).
II. Divrei Torah
A. LilMode U’lilamed (Rabbi Mordechai Katz)
Yom Kippur. Yom Kippur is called “Yom HaZikoron” (“Day of Remembrance”) since not only Hashem remembers and reviews our action, but we must also recall and review our actions, learn from our mistakes, atone and decide how to avoid making the same mistakes in the coming year. Yom Kippur is not, however, a complete exoneration of our sins; rather it is the beginning of the process leading to true Teshuvah (repentance) and self-improvement.
B. Growth Through Torah (Rabbi Zelig Pliskin)
1. Use Techniques To Overcome Excessive Concern About What Others Think About You. The Torah teaches that no one was to be in the Tent of Meeting when the High Priest performed the Yom Kippur services. That is, the High Priest was to mentally view the world as if no one else existed. Why? To free himself from the shackles of seeking honor or approval. We, too, should try to implement this illusion at times to free ourselves from the hurt and pain of excessive worry about what others think of us.
2. Do Something for Growth Every Day. “My ordinances shall you do, and My statutes you shall observe, to walk with them, I am the Lord your G-d”. The Ksav Sofer comments that to “walk with them” means that a person needs to walk from one level to the next. That is, one should constantly keep on growing and elevating oneself. It isn’t enough to stay at the same level — we must climb higher than the day before.
C. In the Garden of the Torah (the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, z’tl)
Souls Afire. There is a paradox in this week’s Parsha — Nadav and Avihu’s action were undesirable (as evidenced by their punishment), yet Moshe stated that they were greater than he and Aharon and that through their actions the Sanctuary was consecrated. Chassidic thought states that our love for Hashem must involve 2 phases — (a) ratzu (a yearning for connection with Hashem); and (b) shuv (a commitment to return and express G-d’s will by making this world a dwelling place for Him). As the Or HaChayim explains, Nadav and Avihu reached an all-encompassing level of ratzu, but failed to follow through with shuv by expressing this bond in their lives. Thus, their sin was not the closeness they established with Hashem, but that this connection didn’t bear fruit (i.e., they never expressed the bond in the realm of ordinary experience). There are two lessons: (a) a positive one — that every Jew has the potential to draw as close to G-d as Nadav and Avihu did; and (b) a negative one — that such service alone lacks the vital element of shuv (application within the context of this world). Based on this there are different customs re: the name of the Torah portion — some call it Acharei (“after”), highlighting the potential for spiritual closeness after the height of connection reached by Nadav and Avihu; others call it Acharei Mos, highlighting the failure to complement such closeness with a commitment to developing an awareness of Hashem in the material world. (Lubavitch custom is to call it Acharei, in recognition of the fact that each Jew can achieve closeness with Hashem; for the core of every Jew is at one with G-d, inseparably linked.)
D. Living Each Week (Rabbi Abraham Twerski)
1. G-d is always with us. “[I am G-d] Who rests among them, even amidst their uncleanliness.” Regardless of how far a person may have strayed, regardless of how much a person may have rejected G-d, G-d never rejects anyone. As Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berdichev said, “You can be for G-d, and you can be against G-d. You just cannot be without G-d.”
2. The spirit of Mitzvos. “You shall observe My ordinances and My laws in order that the person may do them and live by them.” The Talmud cites this verse as the basis for waiving a Torah prohibition when there is a threat to life. Thus, one is required to provide whatever help is necessary on Shabbos to save a life, even though this involves a transgression of the Shabbos. (Yoma 85b) The Rabbi of Kotzk offered another interpretation of this verse: “You shall observe My ordinances . . . and bring life into them.” Performing mitzvos as a matter of rote without joy and excitement is inadequate. Observance of mitzvos must be vibrant and lively. One who fulfills mitzvos by bringing life into them will lead of life of joy of holiness, of forever coming closer to G-d.
E. Peninim on the Torah (Rabbi A. L. Scheinbaum)
Before Hashem we are all the same. “A sacred linen tunic he shall wear.” Upon entering the Holy of Holies, the Kohein Gadol divested himself of his ornate priestly garments and clothed himself in simple, white linen. In public, the Kohein was responsible to maintain the dignity appropriate to his noble station in life. When he went into the Holy of Holies to confess the sins of the Jewish People, however, he dressed as an ordinary Kohein. At the spiritually heightened moment, the most solemn of the year, he became a simple mortal. The facades of dignity and station in life no longer distinguished him from anyone else. This was his moment of truth. All human devices are valueless when a person comes in face-to-face confrontation with his/her maker. Before Hashem, all people are the same. The only distinguishing characteristics are the merits of Torah, service of Hashem, good deeds and acts of kindness which an individual has accrued during his/her lifetime.
A. Achieving a High Spiritual Level. The Children of Israel were told to be “kedoshim” (of an elevated holy nature). To help them achieve this goal, a number of laws are discussed. They include laws designed to achieve holiness, including:
- respecting one’s parents
- observing the Shabbos
- not engaging in idol worship, witchcraft and human sacrifice
- not mutilating or tattooing one’s body
- not causing irregular mixtures, such as interbreeding of animals, and interweaving of wool and linen (“sha’atnes”)
- not eating the fruits of a tree for the first 3 years after planting
B. Laws to encourage compassion towards others (particularly the stranger and the poor), including:
- leaving a corner of the field and stray gleanings for the poor
- dealing honesty with others (e.g., not stealing, lying, etc.)
- a shopkeeper ensuring the accuracy of his weights/scales
- a judge being impartial
- judging others favorably
- not taking another’s possession without his/her permission
- not withholding a worker’s wages
- not giving harmful advice
- not defaming others
- not misleading a blind or naive person
- saving the life of another who is in danger
- admonishing an erring fellow man
- not embarrassing another
- not taking revenge or holding a grudge
- “loving one’s fellow man as one loves oneself”
C. Laws respecting impermissible relationships (e.g., adultery, incest and bestiality)
II. Divrei Torah
A. LilMode U’Lilamed (Rabbi Mordechai Katz)
1. Loving Thy Neighbor. When a gentile told Hillel that he would convert if Hillel could explain the entire Torah while standing on one foot, Hillel responded: “Do not do to others what you would not like them to do to you”. But, isn’t this a lower standard that the one dictated by the Torah (i.e., that one must love another as one loves oneself)? Hillel understood that the Torah’s ideal is a difficult one, but that by using a step-by-step approach (i.e., by starting by avoiding negative acts), one can work towards carrying out positive acts of love.
2. Admonishing Others. We are told to admonish another who is erring since we are responsible for each other. This a sign of true love — helping others when they are in any kind of danger.
B. Love Thy Neighbor (Rabbi Zelig Pliskin)
Living Among People. Hashem told Moshe to speak to the “entire congregation of the Children of Israel . . . ” Hashem commanded Moshe to state this verse to the entire congregation because the majority of the essentials of Torah are summarized here. To attain holiness, one need not be isolated and withdrawn; to the contrary, the admonition was stated in an assembly to show that we must learn to sanctify ourselves by behaving properly among people. (Chasam Sofer)
C. Growth Through Torah (Rabbi Zelig Pliskin)
1. Introspect to gain self-knowledge to strengthen areas that need strengthening. This Parsha teaches that must fear our “mother and father”. Cf. the Ten Commandments which teach that we must honor our “father and mother”. Why is the order reversed in these two references? Since human nature is more likely to fear our father and honor our mother. Introspection allows us to gain greater self-awareness of our natural tendencies and to make an effort to behave in a manner that will strengthen those areas which need strengthening.
2. Only rebuke others with a sincere concern for their welfare. “You shall rebuke your fellow man”. Rebuke must come from the depths of the heart (as Chazal teach, only words which come from the heart enter the heart). Before correcting another, we must search for our true motives — is it coming from our heart or for other reasons (e.g., desiring a feeling of power)?
3. Loving Your Fellow Man As Yourself
a. Feel love for other people because it is Hashem’s wish. We are commanded to do so whether it is easy or difficult. Once, while delivering a lecture, Rabbi Pliskin was “interrupted” by a cute dog who entered a room, causing his audience to smile and shower admiration on the dog. Rabbi Pliskin noted that despite the fact that no one had previously seen the dog, everyone had a positive feeling toward it. If we do so with the dog, how much more so should we do so with other people?! By internalizing the awareness that each person is created in Hashem’s image and that Hashem wishes us to love each other, we can learn to have this positive attitude towards our fellow man as well.
b. Share your Torah knowledge. “Love your fellow man as yourself.” The Chasem Sofer explains that this means that we are obligated to take time from our Torah studies to teach others Torah. We must constantly look for opportunities to share our Torah knowledge with others.
c. Your behavior towards others should be a manifestation of your love towards them. Why didn’t Hillel simply repeat the words from the Torah (see above)? R’ Yeruchem Levovitz explains that this teaches us an important principle — from the words “love your fellow man” one might think that one fulfills the obligation by feeling the emotion of love; but just feeling love isn’t sufficient. Rather, the love must motivate us to do positive things for others and refrain from any actions or words that could cause someone pain or suffering.
D. Living Each Week (Rabbi Abraham Twerski)
1. The responsibility of holiness. “Speak unto the entire congregation of Israel and say unto them, You shall be holy, because I, your G-d, am holy.'” Rashi notes that whereas at other times Moshe’s teachings were given to the Elders to transmit to the populace, this time he gathered all the people to hear the words directly from him. Why was this message so important that every Israelite man, woman and child had to hear it firsthand? These words have a two-fold meaning: (a) “You shall be holy” (i.e., Israel was commissioned by G-d to be a unique nation, and this commission carries with it great responsibility); and (b) as a statement of fact, “You are holy” (i.e., each Jew is composed of a unique soul which partakes of G-d’s holiness). This dual meaning is interrelated — because of what we are we must do our utmost to become all that we can be.
2. The infinity of Divine Holiness. “You shall be holy, because I, your G-d, am holy.” The Midrash comments, “My [G-d’s] holiness is superior to your holiness.” Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berdichev inserts a comma so that the verse reads: “My holiness is superior, as a result of your holiness.” How can G-d’s holiness possibly increase? The Bal Shem Tov was once approached by a disciple who complained that he was unable to come closer to G-d. “Each time I feel that I am approaching closer to Him, I find myself father away than ever.” The Bal Shem Tov replied with an example: “When a parent wishes to teach his/her child to walk, he/she waits until the child is sufficiently developed to be able to stand firmly, and he/she then places him/herself close to the child, and stretches out his/her arms within inches of the child. Although the child is afraid to move lest he lose his balance and fall, the closeness of his parent’s protective arms combined with his desire to reach his parent encourages him to take the first step. When this is accomplished, the parent retreats another step, and continues to beckon the child to come. As this process is continued, the child learns to walk. “What is going on here,” the child is undoubtedly thinking. “Each time I make a greater effort to reach my parent, he/she distances his/herself more and more from me.” What is actually happening is that the parent and child have disparate goals. The child’s goal is to reach the parent, whereas the parent’s goal is to teach the child to walk. Allowing the child to reach him/her too soon would terminate the learning process. “Your situation is quite similar,” said the Bal Shem Tov. “You wish to reach G-d. However, G-d’s goal is for you to learn how to search for Him, because that is how you grow in spirituality. If He were to allow you to reach Him as you desire, your growth would come to an end.” This is the meaning of Rabbi Levi Yitzchak’s comment. When we begin to develop a relationship with G-d, our concept of His greatness is limited. As we enhance our spirituality, we have an ever-increasing awareness of the infinity of G-d’s greatness. Thus, it is our perception of the holiness of G-d that increases as our own holiness increases.
E. In the Garden of the Torah (the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, z’tl)
1. Finding the G-dly core. Being holy means that “all of our deeds are for the sake of Heaven” (Pirke Avos). We must not be fixated with superficial material aspects of the world and ignore its G-dly core.
2. Involvement, not abstention. The Torah demands not abstention, but that we interact with our environment and permeate it with holiness. Thus, this Parsha deals not primarily with rituals, but with concerns shared by all people — agriculture, human relations, business, etc. — for it is these “mundane” areas that the holiness of the Jewish people is to be expressed.
3. Acharei and Kedoshim. As noted above, Acharei focuses on the “afterwards” — that the bond with Hashem should not be an insular experience, but should continue and spread outwards. Kedoshim highlights the possibility of living a life connected to Hashem amidst the realities of ordinary existence. To do so, one must focus on the G-dly life force which maintains existence and is manifest in its physical elements — this enables us to infuse holiness into every aspect of our life.
F. Peninim on the Torah (Rabbi A.L. Scheinbaum)
Collective holiness. “Speak to the entire assembly of B’nei Yisrael and say to them to be holy.” Why was each member of K’lal Yisrael required to be present to hear this instruction? Horav E. Munk, z’tl notes that this teaches us that the ideal goal of holiness can only be achieved through the collective efforts of all K’lal Yisrael. We cannot achieve holiness in isolation or solitude; it requires interaction with others. Divrei Shaarei Hayyim also notes that this reminds us that we cannot be holy merely in the privacy of our home, but ashamed of our faith in public. We must be holy “in full assembly,” in public, out in the open, in society.
G. Kol Dodi on the Torah (Rabbi David Feinstein)
Hashem keeps His promise. The Torah prohibits eating or otherwise benefiting from orlah, any fruit of the first three years after a tree has been planted. The fruit of the fourth year (neta revai) must be taken to Jerusalem and eaten there in a state of purity. Then, the Torah says that the fruit of the fifth year and onwards may be eaten normally and it promises that if we observe the restrictions of orlah, we will be blessed with abundant crops. Rashi comments that the verse ends with the words “I am Hashem, your G-d,” to remind us that He can be trusted to fulfill His promises. Why would someone need special assurances on this point? If he observed this commandment and therefore reaped tangible benefits, he would need no assurances; if, however, he failed to realize any benefit, all assurances would be meaningless to him. The Torah is telling us not to harbor doubts about Hashem’s promises. Even if His blessings come in ways that are not clearly obvious to us, Hashem never fails to keep every promise that He makes.
H. Wellsprings of Torah (Rabbi Alexander Zusia Friedman)
Be righteous in judging others. When Nathan the Prophet came before King David to rebuke him, he told the King the story of a poor man who was robbed of his only lamb. Deeply affected by the report, David ordered the thief put to death. Only then did Nathan tell him that the story had only been a parable illustrating what David himself had done and that, in condemning the alleged thief to death, David had pronounced his own sentence. (II Samuel, Chapter 12). G-d proceeds in a similar manner with any person due to be condemned to punishment for a transgression. His is told the story of his own sin in slightly disguised form, as if it had been committed by another person. When, outraged by the report, he harshly condemns the alleged sinner, he actually pronounces his own sentence. Thus, Chazal teach, “judge thy fellow man with an inclination in his favor.” As Rabbi Yisroel Salanter said, “When I first started learning mussar (moral/ethical teachings) I became angry at the whole world, but not at myself. Afterward, I became angry at myself also. Finally, I became angry only at myself and I judged the world “l’chaf zchus” [to the side of merit].”
I. A Lesson From Pirkei Avos
1. Introduction: Our Rabbis ordained that Pirkei Avos should be studied on the Shabbosos between Pesach and Shavuos in preparation for the giving of the Torah. (The Alter Rebbe, z’tl and others initiated the custom of studying Pirkei Avos throughout the entire summer.) Thus, I’ve summarized below a few thoughts on Pirke Avos from the Lubavitcher Rebbe Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, z’tl and the Pirkei Avos Treasury (Artscroll).
2. “Hillel says: Do not separate yourself from the community; do not believe in yourself until the day you die; do not judge a fellow until you have reached his place . . . ” (Pirke Avos 2:5).
a. “Do not separate yourself from the community” — One must participate emotionally [and physically] in the concerns of the community, bearing its pains and difficulties.
b. “Do not believe in yourself until the day your die”. Never rely on the fact that a good character trait is permanently ingrained in your personality. Until death, one must be afraid of ethical backsliding. (Rambam). As the Lubavitcher Rebbe, z’tl noted, without detracting from one’s positive self-image, one must guard against overconfidence.
c. “Do no judge a fellow until you have reached his place.” According to R’Yonah, this is a continuation of the previous clause: one should not believe that he is better able to withstand temptation that others who succumbed, for one never knows how one would react in the same predicament. The Lubavitcher Rebbe, z’tl notes that one should never criticize another until he establishes a commonalty with him. Even when a person’s conduct seems worth of reproof, one should not talk to him with a condescending attitude. By focusing instead on the essential connection which all people share, we can nurture the positive qualities in others and enable them to surface.