Hands and Voices – Acharei Mot


In a leap year parshat Acharei Mot follows Pesach (in חוץ לארץ Acharei Mot is not this Shabbat, but next week, due to the 8th day of Pesach galuyot falling on Shabbat). Almost all of Acharei Mot deals with Yom Kippur. On the morning of Yom Kippur, after Shacharit, we read the first half of the parsha that describes the avodah of the Kohen Gadol and in the afternoon, in Mincha, we read the second half that lists the arayot, the forbidden relationships.

At first glance it seems that Pesach and Yom Kippur are diametric opposites - they could not be more dissimilar.

On erev Pesach we are forbidden to eat matza and are urged to minimize eating in general, so that we will reach the seder with an appetite. If you are a firstborn and do not partake in a seudat mitzvah, you have to fast on erev Pesach. Contrast this with erev Yom Kippur. The halacha (שו”ע תרד, א) is that we have to eat more in the seudat mafseket than we normally would in a seudah and Chazal (Yoma 81b) equate the importance of someone who eats a lot on erev Yom Kippur with someone who fasts on Yom Kippur.

On Pesach night and day we eat, a LOT! Four cups of wine, karpas, three kzeitim of matza, maror, charoset, chicken soup with kneidlach (OK, that’s not a halacha but most “consider” it to be :) and obviously – ב"ה soon, korban Pesach (today we eat the afikoman in its memory). The following day we have another seudah including meat and wine to be יוצא the commandment of ושמחת בחגיך, (ספר החינוך תפח). On the night and day of Yom Kippur we fast.

The proximity of parshat Acharei Mot (describing Yom Kippur) immediately following Pesach is not incidental. Some say, jokingly, that after eating so much on Pesach we need to “fast” to lose all the weight we gained during Pesach, much like Tzom Gedalyiah after Rosh Hashana. We obviously cannot fast because it is Shabbat, but psychologically we can “imagine” shedding those excess kilograms (I have never tried that, maybe it works!). But, obviously that is not the true reason for the juxtaposition.

By positioning the two topics in close proximity, the Torah is trying to teach us that Pesach and Yom Kippur have a common denominator.  To understand what it is, we will begin with two stories related in the Midrash.

Our first story is about a man named Yakum ish Tzrorot who assimilated and converted to Hellinism in the time of גלות יוון. Breishit Rabbah (65, 22) tells us that he was the nephew of Rebi Yosi ben Yo’ezer ish Tzreida (mentioned in Pirkei Avot 1,4), a tzaddik, who defied the Greek decree and continue to teach Torah. The Greeks subsequently sentenced Rebi Yosi to death.

On Shabbat, as Rebi Yossi was being dragged by a horse to his execution, his nephew Yakum, riding atop a magnificent steed, mocked him.  “Where is your G-d now uncle? Look at the fancy horse I am riding on and look at the miserable horse dragging you to your death!” Rebi Yosi replied “If Hashem rewards evil people in this world by allowing them to ride upon magnificent horses, imagine how much more magnificent will be the reward, in the world to come, for those who do His will”. Yakum retorted, “Is there someone in this world who does G-d’s will more than you uncle? Where did it get you? Look how you are being punished!” Rebi Yosi replied “If this is how G-d punishes those He loves, then just imagine how He will punish those who anger Him!”

Rebi Yosi’s words penetrated Yakum ish Tzrorot’s mind like a snake’s poison and he did tshuva. The Midrash says he killed himself using all four methods of punishment of a beit din, סקילה, שריפה, הרג וחנק. He erected a tall pole in the ground with a hangman’s noose on it.  Around this he spread logs with a sword protruding upwards among the logs. Around the logs he built a stone wall. He first set fire to the logs and then hung himself on the rope. As he was being strangled, the fire burnt through the rope and he fell on the sword amidst the burning logs and the wall of stones collapsed over him. As he was dying, Rebi Yosi saw his nephew’s neshama ascending to Olam Habah and he said “At the last minute, my nephew has beaten me to Gan Eden!”

The second story (also in Breishit Rabbah 65, 22) is about a man named Yosef Meshita, in the time of the Roman occupation. Yosef Meshita was an evil, greedy Jew who collaborated with the Romans. Even after they had captured the Beit Hamikdash, the Romans were afraid to go into the Heichal and loot it, so they asked for a volunteer, a Jew, to go in and bring out the treasures of the Mikdash. Yosef Meshita volunteered, but not before he made an agreement with the Romans that the first vessel that he extracted from the Heichal, would be his to keep.

After a few minutes inside the Heichal, Yosef ben Meshita emerged straining under the burden of the Menorah! “Wait a few minutes while I just place this in my house”, he said. The Romans saw the magnificent Menorah and had second thoughts “What are you going to do with such a huge candelabra, it is higher than the roof of your house! This treasure is much more befitting the palace of the Emperor, give it to us!” “No, we have an agreement – the first thing I bring out is mine!” Yosef ben Meshita angrily responded. “Go inside and take something else instead” the Romans said. Yosef ben Meshita refused “It’s not enough that I angered my Creator once, you want me to do it again?!!“ “Look, you leave the Menorah with us and we will amply reward you for it”, the Romans replied. “All the taxes from the entire country for the next three years are yours! That is surely more than this Menorah is worth!” But Yosef Meshita was indignant “An agreement is an agreement – I want the Menorah!” The Romans were also unbending “There is no way you are going to leave with the Menorah!” and they tortured him by stringing him up between donkeys and stretching him, followed by amputating limb after limb. As he died Yosef Meshita wailed “Oy is me, that I angered my Creator!”

Although Pesach and Yom Kippur are like opposite poles of a magnet, they have one thing in common. 

On the night of Pesach we read the hagadah. One of the prominent features in the hagadah is the Four Sons – החכם, הרשע, התם, ושאינו יודע לשאול. On the night of Pesach all four are invited to participate in the seder. It is easy to understand why we invite the חכם. The Pesach seder is “made” for him  – staying up all night recounting and studying the story of יציאת מצרים. We can also understand why we invite the תם and the שאינו יודע לשאול. They are both in need of chizuk and by inviting them to the seder we are being mekarev them. What is incredible however, is why we invite the רשע! He doesn’t want to be there, it is clear from his question. He excludes himself from everyone else, and doesn’t feel part of it at all. He would be much more comfortable partying in a bar and singing karaoke! And it is not as if we embrace him either. We angrily berate him הקהה את שיניו – knock his teeth out as it were! The entire affair is an unpleasant experience, both for us and also for him. So what is the point? But no! Chazal tell us - we have to also invite him and get him to come, it is imperative that he be there, unpleasant as it may be!

On erev Yom Kippur we change out of our leather shoes, don our kittel and tallit and go to shul, where we spend the first 15 minutes fervently reciting Tfila Zakah. As the Aron Kodesh opens and the sifrei Torah are removed and the procession leads up to the bimah, the atmosphere of holiness and the awesome enormity of the day is so tangible in the air, you can almost cut it with a knife! The natural and appropriate thing to do next would be to launch directly into Kol Nidrei with its haunting melody, to further uplift the spirit. But no!  We have piqued the tension and awe, but before we continue - “Hang on folks, we will be right back after this brief ‘commercial break’!” And then amazingly we launch into-

עַל דַּעַת הַמָּקוֹם וְעַל דַּעַת הַקָּהָל בִּישִׁיבָה שֶׁל מַעְלָה וּבִישִׁיבָה שֶׁל מַטָּה, אָנוּ מַתִּירִין לְהִתְפַּלֵּל עִם הָעֲבַרְיָנִים.

One minute ago we were floating up there, almost with the angels and suddenly you are talking to me about evil “criminals”???! And it’s not a 15 second commercial either. The chazan spends at least 20 seconds belting it out with all the “silsulim” and then repeats it again twice more after that!

“OK! We will now resume with the scheduled program ……….. Kohhhhl nidreiiiiiiii, ve’esareiiiiiiiiiii, …….”

Excuse me? What is this? What were our sages thinking when they inserted this strange, "out of place” excerpt into the start of the holiest day of the year?

This verse is a declaration, a היתר – we have been given a special dispensation “just for today” that we are permitted to daven with the sinners. If we are given a special היתר, then that must mean that under normal circumstances we are not allowed to daven with the רשעים ! (not referring to the goyim, but to the Jewish רשעים).

Without this declaration we cannot begin Yom Kippur! In order for Yom Kippur to commence, the רשע must be present!

Who needs them, both on Pesach and on Yom Kippur? Let them stay away and do what they do and leave us be. They will be in the bar and we will be around the seder table, in shul with our kittel! That is where they belong and that is where we belong!

But NO! Chazal teach us that on both Pesach and Yom Kippur, participation for the רשע is obligatory!

To understand this, we need to go back to the first Pesach seder in history. We know Avraham ate matzos when the three angels came to visit and Chazal tell us it was Pesach, but the description of the first “Pesach seder” in the Torah, as we know it, is described when Yitzchak blessed Yaakov, thinking he was Eisav.

The psukkim and Midrashim go into detail why Rivka prepared two goats to serve Yitzchak - one for Korban Pesach and the other for Korban Chagiga. The psukkim mention bread and wine which the Midrash explains were matzot and the four cups. When Eisav returns (too late) Yitzchak says “Sorry Eisav my son, your brother Yaakov came במרמה and I can now no longer give you a blessing”. Chazal explain that Yaakov came במרמה meaning בחכמה and fed Yitzchak the korban Pesach – the afikoman, after which you cannot eat anything else. So Yitzchak could not eat Eisav’s food and bless him. So the afikoman is also mentioned.

This whole episode is surreal! Anyone who reads it cannot but ask themselves “What is wrong with these people? What a dysfunctional family! Is there no communication between the husband and the wife, the son and the father?”

Yitzchak understood the principle that presence of the רשע at the Pesach seder is obligatory. Yitzchak may have been blind, but he was not that blind. He knew that Eisav was the רשע. He heard the townspeople speaking in whispers behind his back about the hanky panky behavior of his wayward son. He smelled the sticks of incense burning in the next room, lit by Eisav’s idol serving wives – in his own house! But Yitzchak knew that there was a reason the רשע had to be present at the Pesach seder, because that night had special power. It had the power to strip away all the illusions and make even the רשע recognize the truth and prompt him to do tshuva. Yitzchak using Ruach Hakodesh looked into the future and saw, that even though Eisav was a רשע, from his descendants there would be converts who would be pivotal for the future of Am Yisrael, descendants like Shmaya and Avtalyon, Rebi Akiva! So Yitzchak, thinking that Eisav was to be part of the future Am Yisrael, invited him to the seder.

Rivka however had received a נבואה that Yitzchak did not. She understood that Eisav was never to be part of the future Am Yisrael. Yes some of his descendants would eventually convert and become part of our nation, but Eisav essentially was not Am Yisrael, he represented the goyim who would subjugate Am Yisrael. Rivka knew this prophecy because Shem explained it to her when she was pregnant with Eisav and Yaakov – two nations, not disparate parts of one nation.

So why the charade? Why didn’t Rivka, after overhearing Yitzchak telling Eisav to bring him food so that he may bless him, pull Yitzchak aside and say “My dear husband, I haven’t told you this before, but now I’m telling you. I had a נבואה that it is Yaakov who should be getting the blessing, not Eisav”. Yitzchak who loved and respected his wife would then have blessed Yaakov straight out, with no need for deception, which Yaakov was afraid and reluctant to be a part of anyway!

But no! The blessing of Yaakov had to be performed exactly the way it was. Yaakov had to reluctantly dress up in Eisav’s clothing and pretend to be Eisav. Only then would the blessings achieve the true purpose for which they were intended.

When Yaakov entered Yitzchak’s tent, the first words that left his mouth betrayed him. Yitzchak immediately recognized הַקֹּל קוֹל יַעֲקֹב. Then he felt Yaakov’s arm and what he felt were Eisav’s clothes. So the voice was that of Yaakov, but הַיָּדַיִם יְדֵי עֵשָׂו. Yitzchak was confused. Who was this? On the one hand it seemed like Yaakov, but on the other it seemed like Eisav!

Then Yitzchak smelled Yaakov dressed in Eisav’s clothes and the smell reminded him of the smell of Gan Eden, which Yitzchak recognized, since he had briefly been there - during the Akeida. It was then, as the Israelis say, נפל האסימון, Yitzchak finally realized the truth. The passuk says וַיָּרַח אֶת רֵיחַ בְּגָדָיו, the Midrash (same as above Breishit Rabbah 65, 22) says don’t read the word as בְּגָדָיו meaning “clothes”, but בֹּגדָיו meaning “traitors”.

The Midrash says that Yitzchak saw with Ruach Hakodesh, that among the descendants of Yaakov would be people like Yakum ish Tzrorot and people like Yosef Meshita, who were both undoubtedly רשעים גמורים. However, the fact that they had the neshama of Yaakov and were an integral part of Am Yisrael, meant that they were not a lost case. Even though they were so far gone, all that was needed was some extraordinary trigger to ignite the spark that was deeply repressed within them, to turn it from a dying ember into a flame. In the case of Yakum ish Tzrorot, it was the cutting words of his uncle Rebi Yosi ben Yo’ezer ish Tzreida. In the case of Yosef Meshita it was entering the holy atmosphere of the Heichal. Both these extraordinary triggers stripped away all illusion and allowed them to recognize the truth and do tshuva.

Yitzchak then understood that descended from Yaakov there would be people who הַקֹּל קוֹל יַעֲקֹב וְהַיָּדַיִם יְדֵי עֵשָׂו, that their exterior appearance would appear to be evil, like the hands of Eisav, but deep down inside, they were truly the voice of Yaakov. All it needed was an extraordinary trigger to bring it out.

If Rivka would have told Yitzchak about her prophecy, Yitzchak would have listened to her and blessed Yaakov, but that blessing would not have been adequate. It would have blessed all the descendants of Yaakov who were like Yaakov! The charade was necessary! It was essential that blessing be given also to those in the future Am Yisrael whose hands appeared to be like those of Eisav.

Pesach is one of these extraordinary triggers. On the night of Pesach the רשע must be present, because davka on this night there is a faint chance that we can bring him back. This is the special power of Pesach - just like Yitzchak Avinu recognized back then with Ruach Hakodesh and also today.

Another of these extraordinary triggers is Yom Kippur. There is something about Yom Kippur that reaches down to the depths and touches even those farthest removed from Yiddishkeit. Yom Kippur presents a unique opportunity to strip away all the illusions and allow one to recognize the truth. Before we can begin, we have to go all out, make a special dispensation, open the doors and let even the רשעים in to be part of this unique opportunity.

Am Yisrael does not have an obligation to embrace the goyim and reignite any spark within them.  That is the responsibility of HKB”H in the time of the Geulah, where all illusions will be stripped away כִּי מָלְאָה הָאָרֶץ דֵּעָה אֶת ה', everyone will recognize the true Master of the Universe and serve Him.

Am Yisrael does have an obligation to embrace the רשעים amongst us, not to agree with and condone their evil deeds, but to try ignite the spark within them.  None of us are מגלה עמוקות ובוחן לבבות, we do not have the unique ability of HKB”H to see within and know what it is that will bring the רשע away from the brink and do tshuva. We have to do whatever hishtadlut we can.

Sometimes the hishtadlut takes the form of speaking harshly and reprimanding, like on Pesach ואף אתה הקהה את שיניו and sometimes the approach is more gentle, like inviting the רשעים into shul on Yom Kippur with a loving embrace rather than with an expression of animosity and suspicion. Even on Pesach, after breaking the teeth of the רשע, we still invite him to sit with us and eat kneidlach (perhaps this is why we eat soft kneidlach on Pesach, so they can be eaten by even someone with no teeth!).

One thing is for sure, the hishtadlut is not to exclude the rasha, especially on a special “trigger day” like Pesach. When one hears statements by politicians about certain other politicians that “they should not be allowed in shul” (however emotional they may be and prompted by extreme frustration), they betray a lack of understanding what Yahadut is. In Judaism we do not exclude the רשע on Pesach. We make sure he is present, firstly to tell him what we think of him and secondly to feed him a kneidel. We do not know which one will work its magic, the reprimand or the kneidel, or both.

All we know is that with every Jew there are “hands” and there is the “voice”. Even if the hands look like those of Eisav, somewhere deep down inside, there is the voice of Yaakov. We have to try find the way to reach the voice.

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