Thursday, May 3, 2012


Rabbi Doniel Staum, LMSW
Rabbi, Kehillat New Hempstead
Social Worker, Yeshiva Bais Hachinuch

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 “During my second month of nursing school, our professor gave us a pop quiz. I was a conscientious student and breezed through the questions, until I read the last one: "What is the first name of the woman who cleans the school?"
 “Surely this was some kind of joke. I had seen the cleaning woman several times She was tall, dark-haired and in her 50s, but how would I know her name? I handed in my paper, leaving the last question blank.
“Before class ended, one student asked if the last question would count. The professor replied that it most definitely would. "In your careers you will meet many people. All are significant. They deserve your attention and care, even if all you do is smile and say 'hello'.”
“I've never forgotten that lesson. I also learned her name was Dorothy.[1]

Parshas Kedoshim commences with a unique encompassing commandment: “Hashem spoke to Moshe saying: Speak to the congregation of B’nei Yisroel and you shall say to them: Holy you shall be for holy am I, Hashem, your G-d.[2]
 Rashi notes that from the fact that the Torah adds the word, “(speak to the) congregation” we know that this injunctive was stated at the time of assembly[3], since many fundamental laws of the Torah were taught in this Parsha. 
What does Rashi mean? There are other parshios in the Torah which mention mitzvos and laws that would seem to play a more central role in the life of a Jew. In what way is Parshas Kedoshim so unique that it had to be related at a time of mass assembly?

The Gemara[4] relates that twelve thousand pairs of Rabbi Akiva’s students died between the holidays of Pesach and Shavuos, because they did not treat each other with proper respect and esteem. The Gemara records that when they died, the world became desolate[5] until Rabbi Akiva gathered five students and imbued them with the Torah that he had taught his deceased disciples. Those five students preserved and promulgated Torah ensuring that it would not be forgotten.
The Manchester Rosh Yeshiva, Rabbi Yehuda Zev Segal zt’l, noted that despite the fact that the demise of the twenty-four thousands students caused the Torah to be in jeopardy of being forgotten completely, G-d still caused them to die. It’s an awesome concept! Torah study, the purpose of all of creation, was almost rendered obsolete because of disrespect among peers.
Mesillas Yesharim writes[6], “Haughtiness, anger, envy, and desire - these are clearly evil character traits and cause evil behavior. All these traits are refractory to intellect and wisdom, and each individual trait can lead a person to severe sin.”
Similarly, Rabbi Chaim Vital wrote[7], “Negative character traits are worse than sin itself! Chazal say that one who loses his temper is tantamount to one who engages in idol-worship, which is tantamount to breaching all 613 commandments. Chazal also say that if one is overly haughty it is like he denied the fundamental principles of Judaism.” He then proceeds to list numerous other sayings of Chazal which prove the severity of negative character traits.
Rabbi Segal continues that the importance of constantly working to improve one’s character traits cannot be overstated. It is sobering to realize that the most severe sins one commits are caused by negative character traits that steer a person toward the abyss of sin and malfeasance.
With this in mind, Rabbi Segal explains why Parshas Kedoshim had to be stated specifically at a time of mass gathering. More than any other parsha in the Torah, Kedoshim contains mitzvos that obligate a person to challenge his natural inclination. Setting aside tithes, rebuking a friend, loving one’s fellow Jew unequivocally, refraining from seeking revenge, or even harboring a grudge, not to be a peddler of gossip, etc. all require inner strength. One must discipline himself to transcend his natural selfish proclivities.

It is intriguing to note the difference between Parshas Achrei Mos and Parshas Kedoshim. Parshas Achrei Mos is chiefly dedicated to discussing the Yom Kippur Service in the Bais Hamikdash. It is the unique sacrifices and rituals of the holiest day of the year, including the entrance of the Kohain Gadol into the Holy of Holies on Yom Kippur[8]. It is a description of the epitome of holiness and sanctity. Parshas Kedoshim, on the other hand discusses laws governing human interaction; the promotion of society and fraternity. Yet, it is the latter parsha that is titled, “Kedoshim- holy”.
It is apropos that these two parshios are often read together, to emphasize that the complete Jew is one who not only serves G-d in meditative and contemplative seclusion, but also as a functioning member of a society, governed by the Torah. Parshas Achrei Mos - the parsha of sublime individual service, in tandem with parshas Kedoshim - the parsha which promotes holiness via interaction and community.
In other words, the perfect Jew is not the “Yom Kippur Jew” who divorces himself from this world and is solely devoted to individual growth. Indeed, on Yom Kippur we seek to raise ourselves to the level of angels. But after Yom Kippur ends, we celebrate the joyous holiday of Succos, eating and drinking and rejoicing together with our fellow Jews. Succos creates an atmosphere of holiness and ‘repentance out of love’ together with “the congregation of B’nei Yisroel”.

Twenty-four thousand students of Rabbi Akiva tragically died because they lacked sufficient respect for each other. The effect of their death and the loss of the Torah that those students could have taught is still palpable today. That is why we still mourn their loss.
My Rebbe, Rabbi Berel Wein, often marvels about the greatness of his European Rebbes and mentors. He mentions that he had one Rebbe who wouldn’t turn his back on the Yeshiva’s Spanish janitor when he finished speaking to him. He would back away from him like we do when we take leave of the Kosel Hama’aravi (the Western Wall). He had an innate appreciation for every human being that was ingrained within him.

It is not sufficient for a Jew to be an “Achrei Mos Jew”; he must be a “Kedoshim Jew” as well. This is a vital prerequisite to accepting the Torah and it is part of the reason why we have forty-nine days of preparation and introspection prior to the holiday of Shavuos.     

“Speak to the congregation”
“Holy you shall be”

[1] Source unkown
[2] (Vayikra 19:1-2)
[3] i.e. when all of Klal Yisroel was gathered
[4] Yevamos 62b
[5] Rashi explains because the Torah was forgotten
[6] chapter 11
[7] Shaarei Kedusha
[8] The holiest man in the holiest place on the holiest day


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