This page presents insights by Rabbi Tuvia Bolton on the weekly Torah portion.
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Parshat Acharei (5760)
This week’s section tells us about the Holiest man in Israel, the Cohen Gadol (High Priest) on the holiest day of the year Yom HaKipurim (the day of ‘atonement’).
The Jews are G-d’s chosen people, the Cohenim (Priests) are the chosen of the Jews, and the Cohen Gadol is the chosen, of the chosen, of the chosen!
Therefore he and only he could enter the Holy of Holies on this holy day and actually influence G-d to ignore and even transform the sins of the Jewish people.
If so we can be amazed about what it says in the Talmud (Sanhedrin 49a). There, it discusses the Seven Noahide Commandments and tells us that it is forbidden for a non-Jew to learn Torah (punishable by death!) because the Torah is G-d’s special gift to His people, the Jews, and therefore must be treated differently than any other wisdom.
Nevertheless, continues the Talmud, if a non-Jew learns Torah in order to improve the observance of his seven commandments, he is equal to, (not just a Jew, or even a Cohen but)…. the COHEN GODOL!!!
Even more strangely the Talmud does not seem to prove this idea, it just states it as an obvious fact! It brings a sentence from Leviticus, (18:5)
“Observe My Statutes and laws that if the man does it he will live in them”.
And learns that the term “the man”, implies non-Jews, and the words “Statutes and laws” implies Torah. Hence a non-Jew can also learn Torah. But, surprisingly, it does not bother to explain why he is compared to the Cohen Godol!!!
So we are left with the question we began with: why is a non-Jew who learns Torah properly, compared to the Cohen Godol? I think that the explanation is like this: Our weekly section tells us that the Holy of Holies where Cohen Godol entered on the day of Atonement was such a dangerous place, (because of the intense revelation of G-d there, connected to the Tablets) that the two holy sons of Aaron actually died when they entered therein without the proper preparation (hence the name of our section ‘Acharei Mos’ lit. after the death).
But when a real Cohen Godol entered that same place in a proper manner, he not only lived, he even brought life and blessing to others. Now the main feature of the Holy of Holies was the Torah (i.e. the Tablets upon which were engraved the Ten Commandments.) So, similarly in our case: the non-Jew who learns Torah, if he learns it for the wrong reason he is punishable by death.
But if he learns for the right reason he not only lives, he even enlivens others.
I think we can strengthen this from what it says in the 44th chapter of the Tanya. There it explains that when, for example, one sheep was sacrificed in the Holy Temple it spiritually elevated and gave meaning to all the sheep in the world (because if there were no sheep there could be no offering).
So too here; if a person elevates himself above his natural tendencies and does what G-d created him for i.e. the seven universal commandments, and wants to do them for the proper reason i.e. that G-d commanded them IN HIS TORAH, this brings an elevation and blessing to all mankind, comparable to what the Cohen Godol did on Yom HaKipurim.
Now maybe we can understand why the Talmud brings the above-mentioned sentence to prove that he is like the Cohen Godol; Because from the words “and live in them” we can imply that the Torah brings life when it could have brought the opposite, just as in the case of the Cohen Godol. Incidentally we also see a similar thing in the prayers of Yom Kippur today; one of the high points of the day is ‘Maftir Yona’. (On this day there are five prayers. Before the third, which is in the afternoon, someone is called to read the entire 48 sentence-long story of the Prophet Yona.)
There we read the story of how G-d sends His prophet to a huge metropolis of non-Jews called Ninvei, and how they heeded him and repented. Why should we be so concerned on this holy day about non-Jews repenting? But the answer is the same as the above; when a non-Jew decides to do the will of G-d, he simulates the work of the Cohen Godol, bringing an elevation to all mankind, and a good example to us on this holiest of days.
Here is a story I heard from the Lubavitch Rebbe’s personal secretary, Rabbi Label Groner that somewhat illustrates this idea.
Once, a lady from the Chabad Community in Brooklyn got pulled over by a (non-Jewish) N.Y. traffic cop for some traffic offence. Standing outside her open car window, he was watching her search for her license and registration papers when his eye caught a picture of the Rebbe in her open purse. “Excuse me ma’am, are you one of the followers of this Rabbi?” he asked. When she answered ‘yes’ he said, “Well, in that case I’m not giving you a ticket”. He closed his ticket book and continued, “Do you know why? Because this Rabbi” he pointed to the picture she was already holding in her hand, “Did a very big miracle for me.” “She looked at him gratefully and a bit surprised that she wasn’t getting a ticket, and said,
“Well since you aren’t giving me the ticket, I have time to hear the story.” The policeman smiled and said, “It’s my favorite story, but I haven’t told it to many Jewish people, in fact I think that you are the first.” The cars were wizzing by, behind him and he had to raise his voice slightly. “The story goes like this; I used to be in the police escort that escorted the Rabbi to Montefiore cemetery once a week (where his father-in-law the Previous Rabbi is buried). I got to know a lot of the boys and the people there, and I learned a lot of things. They are very friendly people, which you probably already know, and we talked a lot while the Rabbi was inside praying.
Well, one day I saw that all the fellows there were really talking excitedly to each other so I asked them what happened. So they told me that the Rabbi does a lot of miracles for people, but today he did a miracle that was really something. I didn’t even ask what was the miracle that they were talking about, I just asked them if the Rabbi helps non-Jews also.
‘Sure,’ they answered, ‘The Rebbe helps anyone that asks. Why? Do you want something?’ So I told him, this young fellow, that me and my wife had been married nine years with no children, and a week ago the doctors told us that we had no chance. We had spent a lot of money on treatments, seen all sorts of big professors, we were running around like crazy for the last six or seven years, and now they told us that they tried everything and there is no chance. You can’t imagine how broken we were. My wife would cry all the time and I started crying myself.
So this young man tells me, ‘Listen, the next time that you escort the Rebbe to the cemetery stand near the door of his car and when he gets out ask him for a blessing.’ So that is just what I did. The next time I was in the escort I stood by his door and when he got out I asked him “Excuse me Rabbi, do you only bless Jewish people or non-Jews also.’
So the Rabbi looked at me like a good friend, it was really amazing, and said that he tries to help anyone that he can. So I told him what the doctors said, and he said I should write on a piece of paper my name and my father’s name together with my wife’s and her father ’s name and that he would pray for us. So I did it, my hands were shaking so much I almost couldn’t write, but I did it and, you know what?
My wife became pregnant and in nine months she gave birth to….a boy!!!! It was a baby boy!!! The doctors went crazy, they couldn’t figure it out, and when I told them that it was all the Rabbi’s blessing they just scratched their heads and… Wow! I felt like the champion of the world!!
“But here comes the good part.
Do you know what we called him? I mean what name we gave our baby boy? Just guess!’ When the woman said I don’t know maybe Shawn, Patrick, Michael? Nope! He triumphantly answered. “We called him ‘Mendel!’ after the Rabbi. At first my wife didn’t like the name because it’s not an American name, but I said “No! We are calling him Mendel! I said ‘Each time we call him we should remember that if it weren’t for the Rabbi this boy would not be here’.
But when our parents heard the name they really objected. They said, ‘with a name like that all the kids will think he’s a Jew or something and they will call him names and be cruel to him. Why make the kid suffer for nothing?’ they said. ‘That is just what I want’ I answered them, ‘when he comes home and says that the other kids called him names and beat him up because he has a Jewish name and they hate Jews,
I’ll tell him that I want him to learn from those other kids how NOT to act. They hate the Jews for no reason, but you should love the Jews…you have to help the Jews. You just tell them that without that Jewish Rabbi called Mendel you wouldn’t be here at all, and then maybe they’ll start thinking differently too.’
Snd that is how a non-Jew can also do the work of the Cohen Godol.
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