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Peninim on the Torah

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Rabbi A. Leib Scheinbaum
Hebrew Academy of Cleveland


And they (the Kohanim) shall not take/marry a woman divorced by her husband. (21:7)

It seems like a clearly stated halachah - a Kohen may not marry a divorced woman. Horav Shneur Kotler, zl, related the following story which was cited by Rabbi Pesach Krohn. It is a classic that demonstrates the sincerity of a simple Jew and the depth of understanding a rav or posek, halachik arbiter, must have of both the subject and the petitioner who asks the question. Horav Chaim Ozer Grodzenski, zl, the preeminent gadol hador, leading Torah scholar and leader of Pre-World War II Europe, was once giving a shiur, lecture, to a group of young men in his home, when a man came running in and interrupted. "Rebbe," he asked, "ich bin a Kohen; meg ich nemen a gerushah?" "I am a Kohen; may I take a divorced woman?"

The students were understandably disturbed by this interruption. How does someone have the chutzpah, audacity, to disturb Rav Chaim Ozer's shiur for such an elementary question? The Torah clearly states in no uncertain terms that a Kohen may not marry a divorced woman. What aspect of the prohibition did he not understand?

Rav Chaim Ozer looked up at the man, thought for a moment, and responded: "Ya, ihr mekt nemen a gerushah." "Yes, you may take a divorced woman."

The students were shocked at this response. How could the great sage render such a decision that clearly contradicted the Torah? They were bewildered, to say the least. Yet, Rav Chaim Ozer continued with the shiur as if nothing had occurred. His students, however, were confused. They could not understand how their rebbe could dispense such a psak, decision.

Rav Chaim Ozer noticed that he was giving a shiur to a group of students whose bodies were present, but whose minds were definitely elsewhere. He said to them, "You are probably wondering about my psak. Let me put your minds at rest. Did you notice the man's boots and riding gear? If you did, you would realize that this sincere, simple man was a baal agalah, wagon driver. In his simple mind, he retained that he had once heard that a Kohen may not "take" - that is, marry - a divorced woman. He understood the word "take" literally and, consequently, would not take a divorced woman as a passenger on his wagon. I am certain that a divorced woman wanted a ride someplace, and he was concerned about "taking" her because of her status. He feared violating a prohibition of the Torah.

The students, albeit faithful to their great rebbe, had a difficult time reconciling this explanation with reality. They decided to go outside to see if Rav Chaim's hypothesis was true. Sure enough, they went outside to discover that Rav Chaim had made a brilliant deduction. A woman whom they knew to be divorced was preparing to board the wagon with her packages, because the simple, but pious, wagon driver had finally been permitted to take her as a passenger.

Horav Shneur Kotler supplemented this incredible story with the following addendum. "When a rav deals with his people, he must see beyond the question and examine the questioner. More often than not, the situation is more complex than it seems. One's response is invariably dependent on a number of particular circumstances. A sheilah, religious query, is hardly ever as uncomplicated as it seems. We may add that the personality of the questioner must also be a factor in the halachic quotient. People present questions from their own perspectives, in the manner in which they want to be answered. A sagacious rav will penetrate the psyche of the questioner and perceive the question he is really asking.

If the daughter of a man who is a Kohen will be defiled through having an illicit relationship, she defiles her father. (21:9)

Why does she defile her father more than her mother? Chazal teach us that the father is also punished. If, prior to his daughter's defilement, he had been considered a respected member of the priesthood and the community, he is demoted. It seems that this degradation is due to his status as a Kohen. Why should this "punishment" be limited to Kehunah? Should the Yisrael who does a poor job raising his daughter be different? Last, according to those commentators who translate the phrase "ki seicheil" as "who begins," rather than "who defiles," why is the punishment restricted to the "beginning" of her straying? The Torah should have said, "A Kohen's daughter who defiles herself." What is so special about "the beginning" of her moral and spiritual breakdown?

Horav Zalman Sorotzkin, zl, offers a practical insight into the Kohen's daughter who defiles herself. When a young woman demonstrates a moral breakdown by acting promiscuously, it is usually due to one of two phenomena: she inherited this character flaw, usually from her mother; or, she had a tendency to stray and keep company with the "wrong crowd." In the case of the latter, the father should be held in contempt, since the spiritual education of his children is his primary responsibility. When a young woman begins to act immorally - and we do not know for certain the origins of this depraved activity - we assume that it is inherent in her genes. In other words, we place the onus of guilt upon her mother. If we know for a fact that the mother was virtuous and upright, the blame is transferred to the father.

A Kohen may not marry a woman of questionable repute. Hence, the Kohen's daughter who defiles herself achieved her notoriety as a result of her father's lack of supervision. The father permitted her to cavort with anyone, thereby leading her astray. According to Chazal, the law concerning a promiscuous bas Kohen applies to one who is married. Thus, the daughter of a Yisrael is punished with death by chenek, strangulation, and the Kohen's daughter receives the more stringent punishment of sereifah, death by burning. We wonder why a woman who has already left her father's home and is married should still bring shame upon her father. After all, she is no longer a part of his home. Her development began in her father's home.. He is to blamed. This is the Torah's intent when it states, "ki'seichal liznos," "who begins to stray." It is her beginning - in her father's home - that catalyzed this tragedy. Her father should pay now, for not having paid attention earlier.

And you shall rejoice before Hashem, your G-d, for a seven-day period. (23:40)

The mitzvah of joy on the festival of Succos is intrinsic to the chag. It is an integral aspect of the festival's identity. It occurred on one of the days of Succos that the daughter of Horav Meir, zl, m'Premishlan became gravely ill. On Simchas Torah, the situation had deteriorated to the point that the young woman was at death's door. Yet, Rav Meir Premishlaner danced the hakafos, traditional Simchas Torah dance, with the Torah, with his usual joy and devotion. His chassidim were aghast at the Rebbe's behavior. How could he exhibit such jubilation at a time like this? They cried out to him, "Rebbe!" do something for your daughter!"

Rav Meir went into his daughter's room, observed her laying comatose, near death, and walked out. He turned his eyes Heavenward and exclaimed, "Ribono Shel Olam, You commanded us to blow Shofar on Rosh Hashanah, and Meirel did as You asked. You commanded us to fast on Yom Kippur, and Meirel listened and fasted. You commanded us to be joyous and dance on Simchas Torah,and Meirel listened and danced. You made my daughter ill, and you commanded that we should accept even a harsh decree with joy. "One is obligated to bless (Hashem) for a misfortune just as he blesses (Hashem) for a good occurrence." Chazal interpret this to mean that one should accept the raah, misfortune, with joy. But, Ribono Shel Olam, there is a halachah that states, 'Ein mearvin simchah besimchah,' 'One may not mix one simchah with another.' How can I serve You properly in both of these circumstances at the same time?" Immediately, when he said this, his daughter's fever broke, indicating that she was on the road to recovery.

This story demonstrates the profound sincerity this great tzaddik demonstrated in fulfilling mitzvos and adhering to Chazal's words. He understood that misfortune is from Hashem, oriented towards a specific purpose. Our lack of understanding the ways of the Almighty neither precludes nor changes their inherent value, meaning, or purpose. If Chazal say that one must bless Hashem for misfortune in the same manner that one blesses Him for a happy occasion, Rav Meir did just that. He blessed Him in the same manner, to the point that he equated blessing Hashem regarding his daughter's illness with dancing on Simchas Torah. How far we are from the spiritual plateau of our ancestors!

Aharon shall arrange it, from evening to morning. (24:3)

The Torah tells us in this pasuk that Aharon HaKohen was responsible for arranging the lamps of the Menorah. In Parashas Tetzaveh, when the Torah records this ritual, it mentions that Aharon's sons also arranged the lamps of the Menorah. Why is only Aharon's name mentioned here? The Baal HaTurim explains that after Nadav and Avihu died in the Sanctuary, Aharon no longer permitted his remaining sons to enter alone. He always accompanied them into the Sanctuary. These are amazing words! The Baal HaTurim's penetrating insight into Aharon's behavior is both profound and pragmatic. How are we to understand this? Elazar and Isamar, Aharon's remaining sons, were not children. They were grown men, erudite and pious. Why would Aharon deem it necessary to accompany them into the Sanctuary?

Horav Yitzchak Zilberstein, Shlita, feels that Aharon's action implies a profound truth in regard to child-rearing. Parents should not leave their children unsupervised, even in Hashem's Sanctuary! Being a parent denotes tremendous responsibility; one that cannot and should not be delegated to the street or to friends and neighbors. Parents should personally observe and supervise their child's growth and development.

Is the Sanctuary sacrosanct to the point that it is impossible to be adversely influenced? First, how does one know that the child arrived at the bais ha'medrash? Perhaps he was waylaid along the way. Furthermore, who is to say that a bais ha'medrash that is open to everyone, whose policy is to reach out to the wide spectrum of Jewish society, will not contain within its walls someone of unsavory character and belief? Indeed, even in the sheltered walls of those batei medrash that are exclusionary by nature and principle, who is to know what festers in the inner heart and mind of all those in its midst?

It is for this reason that parents have an overriding responsibility to be cognizant of everything that involves their children. They must be sure that their children have responsible and spiritually refined friends and that they adhere to the parameters set forth by the institution to which they are sent to learn Torah. This is true for those children who have made the sanctuary their home. How much more so should we devote our attention and efforts on behalf of those children, who for a number of reasons, are not availed this opportunity?

Horav Zilberstein decries those parents who permit their children to "hang around," either on foot or riding around on their bikes a good part of the day, riding in circles with nowhere to go. (We must bear in mind that Horav Zilberstein is a rav in Bnei Brak - not in an American metropolis.) When children - regardless of their age - spend quality time, hours and hours unsupervised, aimlessly wandering, parents are asking for trouble. Parents must realize - and I paraphrase Horav Zilberstein - that just because they are tired and they need the necessary rest and relaxation, they do not have an excuse for permitting their children to be unsupervised. Would they chance losing an expensive diamond because they were too tired to take care of it? Our children are our greatest and most valuable treasure. We should treat them as such. Accordingly, if parents are to spend as much time as feasible in the supervision of their children, it would be logical that these same parents should themselves display the highest ideals and character traits, in order to imbue these values and attributes into their children. Would it not be foolish - and, in fact, hypocritical and self-defeating - to delude ourselves with the notion that we each teach our children to become masters in an area where we ourselves have failed in the amateur stage? Should we not study and perfect all of the moral skills and virtues in which we hope our children will perfect themselves, so that we can model for them what is acceptable and what is not? Prior to attempting to rid our children of their faults and bad habits, should we not first begin by examining ourselves, seeking to purge these vices from our own demeanor? Should we not scrutinize our own words and actions to insure our children do not emulate and - even outdo - us? To paraphrase Horav S. R. Hirsch, zl, "At the moment G-d places our very first child into our arms, we should solemnly pledge in His presence that, before attempting to become the educators of His pupils in His spirit, we will first proceed to the task of educating ourselves."

Horav Hirsch explains that to educate means to guide or lead someone else toward oneself. This is based upon the idea that the word "educate" is derived from the Latin "ex"=(out) and "ducere" - (to lead or to guide). The German term popularized by Horav Hirsch for defining education is "erziehen," which literally means "to draw" one's pupil up towards one's own level. The educator's/parent's function is to "bring his pupil/child up" to the level that the educator/parent has himself attained. Our children learn to walk by watching us walk. They subsequently learn patience, equanimity, gentleness, sensitivity, integrity, humility, moderation, justice and loving-kindness from us. We have a responsibility to provide them with a positive example.

The love we demonstrate for our children should motivate us to triumph over our shortcomings, to root out the evil that has plagued us, and to eliminate the faults that have been an unfortunate part of our existence. In conclusion, the maxim "docendo discimus," "we learn by teaching," may be applicable to other fields of endeavor. In regard to raising Jewish children in the derech Hashem, way of Hashem, we should read instead, "Let us learn in order that we may teach."

Vignettes on the Parsha

pbkHe shall not become impure among his people. (21:1)

The Kohen is the spiritual mentor of the people. He is the individual upon whom rests the responsibility to rebuke, to guide, to set the people straight. When he is b'amov, among the people, mentoring, offering words of encouragement and, at times, words of rebuke, there is always the possibility that this position might go to the Kohen's head. Therefore, says the Mezrichter Maggid, zl, the Kohen who is b'amov, directing his people, should be careful not to contaminate himself by allowing his function to overwhelm his personality.


The Kohen is exalted above his brethren. (21:10)

According to the Chozeh m'Lublin, this pasuk implies that the Kohen Gadol should be from among his brethren. He must be as sensitive to the needs of the people as a brother is to his brothers' needs.


You shall not defile My holy Name. (22:32)

The Sefer Yereim states that this is one of the most powerful and demanding pesukim. One should shudder when he reads it, for the concept of chillul Hashem, desecrating Hashem's Name, is overwhelming due to its all-encompassing nature.

The Chafetz Chaim, zl, would say that one who either speaks or listens to lashon hora, slandering speech, transgresses this sin. This is an aveirah, sin, in which no one receives any tangible, physical or spiritual benefit. Yet, he ignores Hashem's enjoinment and does as he pleases. Is there a greater defamation of Hashem's Name than this?


The son of an Israelite woman went out…they contended in the camp. (24:10)

The Kli Yakar observes that the Torah always details the individual's ancestry, except when he is a baal machlokes, one who is involved in dispute and controversy. It is better not to mention the pedigree of such people.

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