Acharei Mot-Kedoshim: Why Did They Cry?

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This week’s lesson is in honor of Rabbi Sholom Ber & Chaya Mushka Shuchat and their children, Brocho Lifsha, Aliza & Shaindel.

In the Second Temple era, tensions between the Sadducees and the Pharisees would come to a head when the leading rabbis would coach the High Priest for his worship on Yom Kippur. They would all leave in tears. What exactly was going on?

Why Were They All Crying?

Maimonides writes: 

“Heresy sprung up in Israel in the Second Temple era, and the Sadducees emerged—may they speedily perish—who rejected the Oral Law. They maintained that the Yom Kippur incense is first placed on coals in the Sanctuary, outside the curtain [of the Holy of Holies] and when its smoke rises, it is brought into the Holy of Holies. Their rationale was based on Torah’s phrase, ‘For in a cloud I will appear on the ark’s cover.’ They understood this as a reference to the cloud of incense. But our sages learned from the Oral Tradition that the incense is to be placed [on the coals] in the Holy of Holies, before the Ark, as the verse states: ‘And he shall place the incense on the fire before G-d.’

“Since the High Priests of the Second Temple era were suspect of heresy, the elders would have him take an oath on the day preceding Yom Kippur. They would tell him: ‘My sir, the High Priest, we are agents of the court and you are our agent and an agent of the court. We administer an oath to you in the name of “He Who causes His name to dwell in this house” that you not deviate from our instructions.’ He would turn away and cry for being suspected of heresy and they would turn away and cry, because they suspected a person without knowing his opinions. Maybe he had no such thoughts in his heart.”

This is quite puzzling. Why do they force the High Priest to swear that he won’t deviate and then cry for suspecting him!? If it is considered undesirable behavior to suspect him, why did they administer the oath without investigating his opinions? And if Torah rules that the oath must be administered regardless, why cry? They had merely fulfilled G-d’s instructions!

Another question: Why would the High Priest cry for being administered the oath? Was he responsible for being suspected?

They Didn’t Ease Their Conscience

The explanation:

“The High Priest would turn away and cry,” because, as our sages taught, “a person won’t be suspect unless…” In other words, if you are suspected, you clearly are somewhat capable of it. If it was indeed out of the question, you would never have been suspected of it.

“They would turn away and cry, because they suspected a person without knowing his opinions. Maybe he had no such thoughts in his heart.”

They were compelled to administer the oath (despite the unpleasantness of the exchange) to ensure that the Yom Kippur service in the Holy of Holies was executed properly.  

For, the ketoret-service of the High Priest in the Holy of Holies was a most important service that had profound implications for the Jewish people’s upcoming year.  

The High Priest’s bull and ram had various levels of significance. There was the sacrifice of the High Priest, of his household and of his tribe, and of the entire People of Israel, and other sacrifices as well. However, the ketoret service on Yom Kippur was a singular service that was carried out only once a year, on the holiest day, in the holiest spot—the Holy of Holies, and by the most sanctified Jew in the nation, the “Holy Nation,” as the verse states, “And Aaron was separated to be sanctified as holy of holy.”

Because of the lofty nature of this service, it was important to do everything possible to ensure that it was carried out correctly, even if it would imply that we suspect another Jew.

Nonetheless, they retained their feelings of Ahavat Yisrael. They were profoundly disturbed by the fact that they needed to suspect another Jew, even by the command of the Torah, to the point that they were moved to tears, which, [according to Kabbalah] represent extensions of our intellect. In other words, the more they contemplated the matter, the more they could not contain their distress, to the point that it was expressed through tears.

Take a Lesson From the Elders

Here we see the great value of loving your fellow: The teaching speaks of the day before Yom Kippur, when everyone is occupied with their preparations for the holy day of forgiveness. The elders of the court were making the final preparations to ensure that the Yom Kippur ketoret offering in the Holy of Holies would be carried out properly, and they therefore administered the oath to the High Priest. And after they had fulfilled their Torah-given obligation, in a matter to significant and so vital, they would leave in tears, because they were forced to suspect another Jew. And this was canonized as a ruling by Maimonides regarding the Yom Kippur service!

If we need a lesson about the significance of loving your fellow, this one law will do.  

As said, the physical Temple no longer exists, but nevertheless, it is represented in a spiritual form through our thoughts and speech (in prayer) and even in action, by fulfilling deeds that aren’t limited to the Temple era. The same is true here—we learn a powerful lesson about the significance of loving your fellow.

This all connects to Simchat Torah:

We see that on Simchat Torah, a situation might arise in which you do not properly respect another person’s dignity, and it is even possible that you will push him. The above lesson teaches us how careful we must be to preserve another person’s dignity. Even when the elders of the court fulfill their obligation, administering the oath of the High Priest to fulfill their instructions [without adding anything else], it still brought them to tears. 

We raised this subject because of this situation. If someone suspects that he may have pushed a fellow without pure intentions… everything will be forgiven if you’ll apologize to the individual. But it needs to bother you to the point of tears…

Shabbat Beraishis 5745-1984
(Toras Menachem 5745 vol. I pg. 447)

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