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Parshas Emor: Even the Greatest Men Fall

אַלְמָנָ֤ה וּגְרוּשָׁה֙ וַֽחֲלָלָ֣ה זֹנָ֔ה אֶת־אֵ֖לֶּה לֹ֣א יִקָּ֑ח כִּ֛י אִם־בְּתוּלָ֥ה מֵֽעַמָּ֖יו יִקַּ֥ח אִשָּֽׁה:

A widow, a divorcee, a woman who is desecrated or a prostitute he shall not marry [any] of these. Only a virgin of his people may he take as a wife. (Vayikra 21:14)


Every halacha gives us an insight into the fundamental truths that govern our world. The halacha is that a Kohen Gadol may not marry a widow. This is indeed a strange halacha. At first glance one would think the opposite ought to be true. A Kohen is the paradigm of chesed. The Kohen Gadol is the paradigmatic Kohen. Could there be a greater act of chesed then the Kohen Gadol marrying a widow? Why is this prohibited?

The Gemara in Pesachim (112a) teaches that when a divorced man marries a divorced woman there are four people in their marital bedroom because the memories of their previous spouses accompany them wherever they go. In light of this some suggest that the Kohen Gadol, who must remain absolutely focused on his avodah in the Beis HaMikdash, cannot spend emotional energy competing with the memory of his wife's late husband. In fact, if the brother of the Kohen Gadol dies childless the Kohen Gadol must perform chalitzah (spitting in the shoe) rather than perform the Mitzvah of Yibum. An ordinary Kohen is permitted to marry a widow because he does not hold the same station as the Kohen Gadol.

However this is not the only answer given and the one that follows is far more troubling. The Chida quotes Rav Yehuda HaChassid who explains that were it permitted for a Kohen Gadol to marry a widow it is possible that the Kohen Gadol would desire a married woman and on Yom Kippur, in the Kodesh HaKedoshim. when mentioning the full 72 letter ineffable name of Hashem, he would use his power to kill her husband (as Moshe Rabbeinu did to the Egyptian). To ensure that the Kohen Gadol would not fall prey to this temptation the Torah prohibits him from marrying a widow.

Could it be that on the holiest day of the year, in the holiest place in the world, the holiest man would utter the holiest words in order to kill a man so he could marry his widow? Is this a real concern? How could the Torah think so little of the Kohen Gadol? The Chida himself rejects this explanation but we are still obligated to explain what Rav Yehuda HaChassid could have meant.


The Greater They Are The Harder They Fall

My Rebbe, Rav Yehuda Parnes shlit"a, taught me that sometimes the best way to answer a question is to turn the question mark into an exclamation point. Yes, the holiest man in the world on the holiest day and in the holiest place is capable of having lust in his heart. We cannot possibly understand the greatness of a Kohen Gadol and in no way do I mean to suggest that the Kohen Gadol is an ordinary person. The Kohen Gadol has reached a level of righteousness that none of us can even imagine. And yet there is a powerful message here. The Talmud Yerushalmi (Kesubos) teaches that even the greatest chassid in the world must safeguard himself when it comes to inappropriate sexual relationships. The Shulchan Aruch (Even HaEzer 22:15) writes,

אין ממנין אפילו אדם נאמן וכשר להיות שומר בחצר שיש בו נשים אע"פ שהוא עומד בחוץ שאין אפוטרופוס לעריות:

"We do not appoint a man -- even a reliable and worthy man -- to be a watchman in a courtyard in which there are women, even if he stands outside, for there is no trustee for arayot (i.e. even pious men may become ensnared."

The Torah does not turn a blind eye to the nature of our humanity. We all have an evil inclination. The Yezter Hora is a powerful tool. אלולי יצר הרע לא בנה אדם בית ולא נשא אשה ולא הוליד בנים, "were it not for the evil inclination, a person would not build houses, would not marry, and would not bear children." (Bereishis Rabbah 9:7) Our desire to build this world comes from the human desire to expand. Sometimes great men make terrible mistakes. The Gemara in Succos (52a) tells us that the greater the man, the great is his evil inclination. The Gemara in Kidushin (81a,b) relates a series of stories that highlight the power of the Yezter Hora even in the greatest of men.


הנך שבוייתא דאתאי לנהרדעא אסקינהו לבי רב עמרם חסידא אשקולו דרגא מקמייהו בהדי דקא חלפה חדא מנייהו נפל נהורא באיפומא שקליה רב עמרם לדרגא דלא הוו יכלין בי עשרה למדלייא דלייא לחודיה סליק ואזיל כי מטא לפלגא דרגא איפשח רמא קלא נורא בי עמרם אתו רבנן אמרו ליה כסיפתינן אמר להו מוטב תיכספו בי עמרם בעלמא הדין ולא תיכספו מיניה לעלמא דאתי אשבעיה דינפק מיניה נפק מיניה כי עמודא דנורא אמר ליה חזי דאת נורא ואנא בישרא ואנא עדיפנא מינך

Those captive women who were brought to Neharde’a, where they were redeemed, were brought up to the house of Rav Amram the Pious. They removed the ladder from before them to prevent men from climbing up after them to the attic where they were to sleep. When one of them passed by the entrance to the upper chamber, it was as though a light shone in the aperture due to her great beauty. Out of his desire for her, Rav Amram grabbed a ladder that ten men together could not lift, lifted it on his own and began climbing. When he was halfway up the ladder, he strengthened his legs against the sides of the ladder to stop himself from climbing further, raised his voice, and cried out: There is a fire in the house of Amram. Upon hearing this, the Sages came and found him in that position. They said to him: You have embarrassed us, since everyone sees what you had intended to do. Rav Amram said to them: It is better that you be shamed in Amram’s house in this world, and not be ashamed of him in the World-to-Come. He took an oath that his evil inclination should emerge from him, and an apparition similar to a pillar of fire emerged from him. He said to his evil inclination: See, as you are fire and I am mere flesh, and yet, I am still superior to you, as I was able to overcome you.

רבי מאיר הוה מתלוצץ בעוברי עבירה יומא חד אידמי ליה שטן כאיתתא בהך גיסא דנהרא לא הוה מברא נקט מצרא וקא עבר כי מטא פלגא מצרא שבקיה אמר אי לאו דקא מכרזי ברקיעא הזהרו בר' מאיר ותורתו שויתיה לדמך תרתי מעי

Rabbi Meir would ridicule transgressors by saying it is easy to avoid temptation. One day, Satan appeared to him as a woman standing on the other side of the river. Since there was no ferry to cross the river, he took hold of a rope bridge and crossed the river. When he reached halfway across the rope bridge, the evil inclination left him and said to him: Were it not for the fact that they proclaim about you in heaven: Be careful with regard to Rabbi Meir and his Torah, I would have made your blood like two ma’a, i.e., completely worthless, since you would have fallen completely from your spiritual level.

ר' עקיבא הוה מתלוצץ בעוברי עבירה יומא חד אידמי ליה שטן כאיתתא בריש דיקלא נקטיה לדיקלא וקסליק ואזיל כי מטא לפלגיה דדיקלא שבקיה אמר אי לאו דמכרזי ברקיעא הזהרו ברבי עקיבא ותורתו שויתיה לדמך תרתי מעי

Rabbi Akiva would likewise ridicule transgressors. One day, Satan appeared to him as a woman at the top of a palm tree. Rabbi Akiva grabbed hold of the palm tree and began climbing. When he was halfway up the palm tree,the evil inclination left him and said to him: Were it not for the fact that they proclaim about you in heaven: Be careful with regard to Rabbi Akiva and his Torah, I would have made your blood like two ma’a.


The Gemara continues with several more stories that continue in this theme but the bottom line is clear. Even our greatest of Sages, our most pious of men, fell prey to the temptations of the Yezter Hora. In our generation Mike Pence, the Vice President of the United States, has been criticized for his policy of not being alone in a room with a woman. Perhaps unknowingly he is following the dictums of Chazal that a man should not seclude himself with a woman (issur yichud found in Kiddushin 81a, Shulchan Aruch Even HaEzer 22). We live in a world of rampant temptation. We can close our eyes and pretend it doesn't exist or we can confront the reality of human nature. God gave us the inclination to expand and build this world but there is also a negative impact to that inclination and it is important for us to engage the reality. Even the Kohen Gadol on Yom Kippur can fall prey to his more base self. And if a tzaddik like the Kohen Gadol has the capacity to make such a terrible mistake it ought to be a powerful lesson to us who struggle with our yetzer hora on a more consistent basis to be self aware and vigilant so that we can conduct ourselves in a way that brings nachas to the Master of the Universe.




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