April 30, 2021

Yoma 19

Today’s daf (Yoma 19a-b) raises the fascinating question – one that is also addressed in numerous other places in the Talmud – whether Kohanim are primarily שלוחי דרחמנא (an agent of God), or שלוחי דידן (an agent of us, i.e. the Jewish people).
Significantly, this discussion arises from a statement in the Mishna (Yoma 1:5) where we are told that just prior to Yom Kippur, the Kohen Gadol was addressed by the elders of the Beit Din who told him: “we are agents of the court, and you are our agent and the agent of the court”. As the Gemara then points out, these words imply that the Kohen Gadol was שלוחי דידן (an agent of us). Yet if this were so, this would mean that the members of the court were able to do the avodah of the Kohen Gadol (nb. the concept of agency requires that the person appointing an agent is capable of fulfilling the task they are asking someone else to do) – which is not the case. Ultimately, what these words further highlight is the fact that the Kohen operates on both levels; that he is both the emissary of God, and of the Jewish people.
Sadly, it can often be the case that those in religious leadership positions feel that they are primarily an agent of the community which they are serving, or the board to whom they are (seemingly) answerable, and they forget that they are also שלוחי דרחמנא – agents of God. And this is why it was inspiring to hear Rabbi Berel Wein in a recent interview* observe that notwithstanding being a communal Rabbi for over 65 years, “I always felt that I did not work for the synagogue. Instead, I worked so-to-speak for Klal Yisrael, for God, for tradition. I wasn’t working for them.”
Admittedly, not every individual in a religious leadership position has this outlook, and it generally only comes when those individuals become firmly aware of their mission as a שליח of both God and the Jewish people – which is the case with a number of people I know and especially the case with shluchei Chabad. And a few years ago I happened to read an incredibly powerful story (in Rabbi Krohn’s “Illuminations of the Maggid”) which explains the origins of this perspective of Rabbi Wein, and which also serves as a source of inspiration for many of the things that I do. As he explained:
“I was raised in Chicago. I am a ben yachid, an only child. One day in 1946 – I was eleven years old – my father said, ‘Berel, we’re going to the airport.’ I asked why. He told me that a great tzaddik was coming to town, and that all the rabbis were going to greet him and escort him to the shul where he would speak. I asked who the tzaddik was; and he told me it was Rabbi Isaac HaLevi Herzog, the Chief Rabbi of Eretz Yisrael. So I went with my father.
In the shul, not only were the rabbanim present, but all the yeshivah bachurim of Chicago and Skokie were there as well. At that time, there were about 200 yeshivah boys, from elementary school and from the mesivta in Skokie. Many baalei batim were there too.
Rav Herzog gave a shiur and when it was over he said, ‘And now, I want to talk to all of you, especially the bachurim. I just returned from Rome, where I went to visit Pope Pius. I had with me the names of 10,000 Jewish boys and girls, many whose parents had placed them with Catholic families and institutions to save them from the Nazis. I said to him, ‘Give me back these children! These are our children and you know it! I have the names of 10,000 Jewish boys and girls. Many of them were kidnapped by your people. And in truth many of our people gave you their children because they didn’t think any of them would survive the war otherwise. But you have them now, and we want them back. They are our Jewish children!’.
‘And the pope said, ‘I can’t give you even one child.’ I pleaded with him, but he said, ‘We have a rule that if a child is baptized, we can never return him to another religion – and all these children were baptized.’ I pleaded with him to return them, but he refused.
And then, suddenly, Rabbi Herzog started to cry. He put his head down on the podium and he wept! I was never so frightened in my life. Everyone in the shul was silent, listening to him cry.
When he raised his head again, his face was red and he looked like a lion. He called out to all of us, ‘I cannot do anything for those 10,000 children, but what are you going to do for the children of Klal Yisrael? You have the responsibility to help raise the future children of Klal Yisrael – what are you going to do about it? Are you going to remember that? Are you going to forget what I said?’ He repeated himself with emphasis, ‘What are you going to do for the children of Klal Yisrael? Are you going to remember that? Don’t ever forget what I said!’
Rabbi Herzog stopped. Then all the boys got up and marched forward, to shake his hand. When he took my hand he looked me straight in the eye, and asked, ‘Are you going to forget what I said? Will you remember what I said? What are you going to do for the children of Klal Yisrael?’
Rabbi Wein paused for a moment; then he said, ‘Every time I am tired, every time I want to put my pen down, I am haunted by those words, ‘What are you going to do for the children of Klal Yisrael?’”
Oftentimes we think about the people who pay our salary as our boss. But like the Kohen, our boss is both God – whose laws and values we should keep and promote, and the people – whose needs must be our concern. And if we are able to remember this, then whatever happens in our lives, we will always recognize that we each have a mission, a calling, and a purpose.
[nb. Given the tragic death and significant injury of so many last night in Meron, I wish all those who lost loved ones תנחומין – words of comfort, and רפואה שלמה – a speedy recovery – to all those who are injured. They are all in my thoughts and prayers.]
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