Sages, Be Careful With Your Words

It is written, “Say to the kohanim, the sons of Aaron, and you shall say to them: Each of you shall not contaminate himself for the dead among his people” (Vayikra 21:1). Rashi states that the term “say” is repeated in order to warn the adults about the children. The Ramban writes, “The meaning of this warning is to state that we are not to assist with our hands in the defilement of children. There are many warnings in the Torah of this nature…such as the prohibition against eating blood and swarming things…and from them we learn that…we must not assist children to ever transgress the law.”

We need to understand this. If throughout the Torah the rule is that adults cannot push children to commit a sin, then why does the Torah only reveal this to us concerning the impurity of the dead? We may explain this from a moral perspective, by citing a passage from the Mishnah: “Ben Zoma said, ‘Who is wise? He who learns from every person, as it is written: “From all my teachers I grew wise” [Tehillim 119:99]. … Who is strong? He who subdues his inclination, as it is said: “He who is slow to anger is better than a strong man, and he who masters his passions is better than a conqueror of a city” [Mishlei 16:32]. Who is rich? He who is happy with his lot, as it is said: “When you eat of the labor of your hands, happy are you and it shall be well with you” [Tehillim 128:2]. “Happy are you” – in this world; “and it shall be well with you” – in the World to Come. Who is honored? He who honors others, as it is stated: “I honor those who honor Me, and those who scorn Me will be accursed” [I Samuel 2:30]’ ” (Pirkei Avoth 4:1).

We also find the following remark in the Midrash: “Even so, ‘In Gibeon Hashem appeared to Solomon in a dream of the night, and G-d said: “Request what I should give to you” ’ [I Kings 3:5]. Solomon thought: If I ask for silver and gold and precious stones and pearls, He will give them to me. But what I will do is to ask for wisdom, and that will include everything’ ” (Shir HaShirim Rabba 1:9).

As a result, a person with wisdom possesses everything. The Gemara states, “He who has [wisdom] has everything. He who lacks this, what does he have?” (Nedarim 41a). Now wisdom is nothing other than the fear of G-d, as it is written: “The fear of Hashem is the beginning of wisdom” (Mishlei 1:7) and “The beginning of wisdom is the fear of Hashem” (Tehillim 111:10). It follows that not only does a wise person possess wisdom, but that all other virtues are found in him. Wisdom contains power, wealth, and the fear of Heaven, for a wise person is happy with his lot, subdues his inclination, learns from all men, never grows proud, and does not say, “What do I have to learn from this student? I’ve studied much more than him!” Instead he controls himself and learns from him. Yet he rejoices in his lot only with things that belong to him personally. In terms of spiritual matters, he is never satisfied with his lot, and during his entire life he tries to study and learn from every person.

Similar to this idea, the Mishnah recounts that Rabbi Yehoshua had calculated that Yom Kippur would take place on a certain day, but Rabban Gamliel pushed it to the following day. Rabban Gamliel sent him a message in which he said, “I order you to appear before me with your staff and money on the day that, according to your calculations, should be Yom Kippur” (Rosh Hashanah 25a). Rabbi Yehoshua therefore took his staff and his money and went to see Rabban Gamliel in Yavneh on the day that he calculated to be Yom Kippur. When Rabban Gamliel saw him, he arose from his chair, kissed him on the head, and said: “Come in peace, my teacher and my disciple. My teacher in wisdom and my disciple because you have accepted my decision.” The Gemara adds, “Happy is the generation in which the greater defer to the lesser, and all the more so the lesser to the greater” (Rosh Hashanah 25b).

Hence in the passage concerning the impurity of the dead, we read: “Say…and say” – warn the adults regarding the children. In fact one who exhibits pride resembles the dead, those who have left this world, since it is said: “Every man in whom pride dwells, the Holy One, blessed be He, declares: I and he cannot both dwell in the world” (Sotah 5a). Since there is no place for him in this world, it is fitting for him to leave the world and die. However the Holy One, blessed be He, is patient with him and gives him time to repent.

The Torah clearly teaches us that the young learn just how vile pride is from the Kohen Gadol. The Kohen Gadol alludes to the great figures of the generation, and the Torah warns them against pride. It prohibits them from rendering themselves impure through the dead, meaning that they do not have the right to grow proud. When the young see that the adults are careful regarding pride, they will conclude: If the adults, who have something to be proud of, are prohibited by the Torah from exhibiting pride, then how much more are we prohibited from exhibiting pride, since we have nothing to be proud of!

Abraham himself fulfilled the verse, “From all my teachers I grew wise,” for the Midrash states that the Holy One, blessed be He, made his two kidneys his two teachers, instructing him Torah and wisdom (Bereshith Rabba 61:1). Furthermore, he went to study Torah with Shem the son of Noah (Pirkei D’Rabbi Eliezer 7). Now this is difficult to understand, for if the Holy One, blessed be He, gave Abraham two kidneys from which to learn Torah, why did he have to go and learn with Shem? The answer is that Abraham was afraid of growing proud. He was afraid of thinking, “All that I have learned, I did not learn from a teacher or from my father, but from myself!” He went to study with a teacher so he would have no reason to grow proud. After all, can a student stand before his teacher and say, “All that I learned, I learned by myself, not from you”? Therefore Abraham thought: “Up to now, everything I learned, I could say that I learned it from myself. From now on, since I will be studying Torah from a teacher, I will understand nothing on my own, and everything that I learn, I will only learn from my teacher.”

Likewise King David said, “From all my teachers I grew wise,” and our Sages state that in everything King David did, he consulted his teacher Mephiboshet by asking: “My teacher Mephiboshet, is my decision right? Did I correctly convict, correctly acquit, correctly declare clean, correctly declare unclean,” and Mephiboshet humiliated David in the Halachah (Berachot 4a). It is also said that David went from group to group in order to fulfill the verse, “From all my teachers I grew wise” (Midrash Tehillim 1). On the other hand, we also learn the opposite from the kohen. What does this mean? It means that a kohen is forbidden to render himself impure for the dead and exhibit pride with regards to his own possessions. However in regards to spirituality, he is permitted to render himself impure, and in fact he is obligated to render himself impure and exhibit pride, as it is written: “His heart was lifted up in the ways of Hashem” (II Chronicles 17:6). Before dying, Rabbeinu HaKadosh said to his son Rabban Gamliel, “Conduct your rule with men of high standing, and cast bile among the students” (Ketubot 103b). Likewise, the Torah has permitted the Kohen Gadol to render himself impure for a dead body that nobody has buried, meaning for a mitzvah. He is also permitted to render himself impure for his wife, as it is written: “Except for the relative who is closest to him” – and a wife designates the Torah (Midrash Mishlei 31:10). This teaches us that it is a duty for the great figures of the generation to exhibit pride and demand that people honor the Torah in them, an honor that they cannot forego, as the Gemara states (Kiddushin 32a).


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