Emor: High Court on the Dock


The prophet Elijah delivers a scathing rebuke to the High Court, the group of the most respected elders of Israel. Their crime? They failed to wander through the shtetls and teach Jewish children.

High Judges or Simple Teachers?

The Midrash states in Tana D’vei Eliyahu Rabbah: “They (the members of the High Court) should have girded themselves…and traveled from town to town…to teach the people.”

Now, to be appointed to the High Court, you needed to be “wise and insightful, with a comprehensive knowledge of Torah and…some knowledge of other disciplines, e.g., medicine, mathematics, the fixation of the calendar, astronomy, astrology, and also the practices of fortune-telling, magic, sorcery—and speak most languages.”

If so, why must the High Court members be the ones to wander through the Jewish settlements to teach Alef Bet etc. and encourage the people to observe Shabbat and the like? How does that role make use of all the knowledge which brought them to be appointed to the High Court?

It Is Your Responsibility!

The Midrash states in Tana D’vei Eliyahu that when the High Court fails to wander through the countryside teaching Torah, they bear responsibility for the death of all those Jews. 

Meaning, their failure to wander through the settlements and teach Torah gave rise to the possibility that a Jew would come to deserve the death penalty, and then they would be defined as a “destructive” court—not for ruling according to law but for failing to prevent a situation where a Jew deserves the death penalty in the first place, by coming to his town and giving him a proper education. Therefore, whenever a Jew transgresses a prohibition of the Torah, the High Court deserves lashes, and if a Jew transgresses a more serious offence which carries the death penalty, the High Court is called destructive; they are to blame for the death of the Jew!

The Lesson:

This is the lesson to every single person: There are those who think that in order that their friends, mechutanim or wife think highly of them, they need to position themselves at the ‘head of the table’ and ‘bloat’ themselves as well… Occasionally, they will deliver some words of inspiration about Torah study and fulfilling mitzvot. 

The message is that this has a precedent: The High Court had phenomenal scholars who were proficient in the Talmudic and esoteric realms of Torah. They knew medicine and law (they were doctors and lawyers) and other fields which were necessary to issue rulings. Nonetheless, what is their primary role according to Torah? To gird themselves and to leave Jerusalem, a center of Jewish learning with four-hundred-eighty Torah study halls, and to travel to the villages to educate Jews, protecting them from the death penalty and from any transgression of G-d’s will.

The only behavior that makes one worthy of sitting in the High Court is one that brings life to the world, not the opposite. 

12 Tammuz 5714-1954
(Toras Menachem 5714 pg. 99)

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