Striking At the Heart of What the Jewish People are All About
This week’s contains the tragic event of the death of Aharon’s two oldest sons. At the height of the joy of the dedication of the Mishkan, Nadav and Avihu were consumed by a ‘foreign fire’ which came down from Hashem and killed them.
The Talmud says [Eruvin 63a] “Aharon’s sons did not die until they issued a halachic ruling before Moshe their teacher”. There are different interpretations among the Sages exactly what Nadav and Avihu did to warrant this terrible punishment. One of the opinions expressed in the Medrash and the Talmud was this teaching that they issued their own ruling in front of their teacher.
According to Halacha, a student may not issue a ruling in the presence of his teacher. One who does so is deserving of the death penalty. This is the interpretation given to the Biblical expression “they offered a foreign fire”. The crime was not the offering of the sacrifice per say; the crime was that they took independent action without consulting with Moshe their teacher.
The Gemara in Eruvin further relates that Rav Eliezer had a student who issued a halachic ruling in Rav Eliezer’s presence. Rav Eliezer announced that this student would not live out the year — which is exactly what happened.
If we think about this, it is very difficult to comprehend. What is so terrible about ruling on a halachic question in front of one’s teacher? We understand that there is a matter of honoring a Rabbi (Kavod haRav) or of a Torah scholar. But it is difficult to understand that this should be a capital offense. Moreover, we also know the rule that a Rabbi has a right to “forgive his honor” (Rav she’machal al k’vodo, k’vodo machul). A teacher can say “You do n0t have to stand up for me”. We would think that any time a student rules in front of his teacher, the teacher should forgive. Why was Rav Eliezer not more compassionate? Why did he say with certitude that this student would die within the year?
Apparently, in these situations forgiving (mechila) does not help. The teacher does not have the ability to forgive. Why not?
Rav Chaim Shmuelevitz, the Mir Rosh Yeshiva, zt”l, explains that the aveira [sin] of issuing a halachic ruling in one’s teacher’s presence is a much more basic sin that merely not showing this teacher the proper respect.
The Talmud relates in tractate Chagiga (14a) that the prophet Isaiah came to the Jewish people before the destruction of the Bais HaMikdash and he gave them 18 curses. He told them of the terrible things that would befall them. Included in these things was that “there would not be found in Israel one versed in Chumash or in Mishna, in Talmud or in Aggadah; there would be no Judges and no Prophets and no one capable of sitting in a Yeshiva.” But the ultimate curse he gave them was that “… they shall behave haughtily, the youth against the elder and the base against the honorable.” [Isaiah 3:5].
We can somehow live with ignorance and with the absence of Prophets, but when does Klal Yisroel descend to the deepest of pits? When do they hit rock bottom? When there is no honor given to elders. The reason for that is because the Medrash says that Israel is compared to a bird. Just as a bird cannot fly without wings, the Jewish people cannot exist without their elders. Elephants can exist without wings, cats can exist without wings, all animals can exist without wings — except birds.
The rest of the world can exist without their elders. For the Egyptians, the Romans, the French, the Americans, and the Italians, it is nice to have elders — but it is not crucial to their very being. But the Jewish people are not a Jewish people without their elders. Just as a bird cannot exist without its wings, that which keeps Klal Yisroel afloat is its elders.
Therefore, the curse of curses that Isaiah gave to the Jewish people before the Churban was that they will reach the stage that the young people will be disrespectful to the elders.
This, said Rav Chaim Shmulevitz, is the terrible crime of issuing a ruling in front of one’s teacher. When people issue opinions and comment on every aspect of life or Halacha without consulting their elders, they are doing a terrible injustice to all of us. They are stripping us of our Gedolim. That is the crime of Moreh Halacha lifnei Rabo, making a ruling in front of one’s teacher. It is not an affront to the Rebbi per say, it is something that strikes at the heart of what the Jewish people are all about.
We are a nation of tradition. “Ask your father and he will tell you; your elders and they will say to you” [Devorim 32:7]. Without that tradition of consulting the elders, the Talmidei Chachomim, the older generation, we will not exist. Therefore, when a student teaches a law in front of his teacher, he is stripping the Jewish people of something that is essential to their whole being. For this reason, there is no forgiving on the teacher’s part of this terrible sin.
And for this reason, the joy at the assembly of the Mishkan had to be dampened with the death of Aharon’s two sons — because this lesson had to be learnt. We are not a nation without our elders.
This write-up was adapted from the hashkafa portion of Rabbi Yissocher Frand’s Commuter Chavrusah Torah Tape series on the weekly Torah portion. The complete list of halachic topics covered in this series for Parshas Shmini are provided below:
The Insects-in-Vegetables Controversy #006
The Tuna Fish Controversy #050
Melacha Before Havdalah #093
Using a Mikveh for Non-Orthodox Conversion s#141
Netials Yadayimfor Bread and Fruit #188
Netilas Yadayim at Breakfast #234
Netilas Yadayim and Chatzizah #278
Sefiras Ha’omer #324
Minhagim of the Days of Sefira #412
Gelatin: Is It Kosher? #456
Is Turkey Kosher? #500
Bedikas Chometz #544
Sh’mini 14 – The Aveail and the Haircut #588
CD or MP3:
Sh’mini 15 – Baal Teshaktzu- Abstaining From Unpleasant Behavior #632
Sh’mini 16 -Buffalo and Giraffe – Are They Kosher #676
Sh’mini 17 – A Guf Naki for Davening #720
Sh’mini 18 – Loaig Le’rosh – Respecting the Dead #764
Sh’mini 19 – New York City – Don’t Drink the Water #808
Sh’mini 20 – Pesach – Four Questions You Probably Never Asked #852
Sh’mini 21 – Women and Havdalah – Second Thoughts #896
Sh’mini 22 – Mayim Acharonim – Is It Necessary? #941
Sh’mini 23 – Pesach – Thoughts on the Hagaddah Vol 2 #983
Sh’mini 25 – The Fly That Fell into the Soup #cc1072
Sh’mini 26 – Can You Change YoOur Minhag of When to Keep Sefira? #cc1114
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