SALT - Thursday, Yom Ha-Atzamaut, 4 Iyar 5779 - May 9, 2019

  • Rav David Silverberg
            Yesterday, we noted the seeming redundancy in the opening verse of Parashat Emor, in which God commands Moshe to instruct the kohanim to avoid tum’at meit (the impurity resulting from contact with a human corpse).  God tells Moshe, “Speak to the kohanim…and say to them…”  Rashi, based on the Gemara, explains that these two terms (“Speak…say”) refer to two commands – that the kohanim must themselves avoid tum’a, and that they must also keep their children away from tum’a.  In the Gemara’s words, the repetition serves “le-hazhir gedolim al ha-ketanim” – to instruct the adults with regard to the children.
            Rav Zalman Sorotzkin, in his Oznayim La-Torah commentary, suggests an additional explanation for the double command of “emor…ve-amarta” (“speak…and say”).  He notes that generally, caring for the burial needs of a deceased person is regarded as a very important mitzva.  Moreover, attending a funeral to show respect to the deceased is not only permissible, but noble.  And yet, the Torah forbids kohanim from attending funerals and tending to a human corpse, except in the case of a deceased family member and when a kohen is the only person available to bury.  When the Torah forbids something that which is generally deemed admirable, special emphasis is necessary.  For this reason, Rav Sorotzkin writes, God instructed Moshe “emor…ve-amarta,” indicating that this prohibition might be difficult for the kohanim to understand or accept, and that Moshe would therefore need to take the time to clarify and explain this law.
            Rav Sorotzkin creatively suggests that this might be the deeper meaning of the Gemara’s comment that the repeated command was issued “le-hazhir gedolim al ha-ketanim.”  The “gedolim,” those with the knowledge and sophistication to understand how tum’at meit can be a mitzva for some but prohibited for others, must teach this to the “ketanim” – to the simpleminded, who might initially resist the notion that contact with a human corpse should be forbidden for kohanim.  Since tum’at meit is virtuous in many situations, the “ketanim” – those with a simplistic outlook – will need to have it explained by the “gedolim” – the wise – how it is generally forbidden for kohanim to expose themselves to this form of impurity.
            Simplistic labelling of things as “good” or “bad,” without nuance and without considering context and the full range of other factors, is smallminded and childish.  We are expected to live with the perspective of “gedolim,” with maturity and a degree of sophistication, and identify the different angles of every situation and every question, rather than giving simplistic, one-sided answers to complex issues.