Teaching the mesorah and bridging generations


The untimely and supernatural death of Aharon’s sons, Nadav and Avihu, is one of the focal points of Shemini, this week’s parasha. Following this narrative passage, we are met with two pasukim that define the kohan’s role outside of the Avodah (Ritual Service) in the Beit HaMikdash: “[In order that you will be able] to distinguish between the holy and profane and between the ritually impure and pure, and [so that you may] instruct the children of Israel regarding all the statutes which the L-rd has spoken to them through Moshe.”

As these verses clearly indicate, the kohan has two crucial functions in addition to the Avodah — he is both a posek (halachic decisor) and an educator for the nation. 

In my estimation, the kohan’s role as posek is clear. He, like all poskim, is obligated to render a halachic decision in those areas in which he has authoritative expertise. The French Tosafist, Rabbi Isaac ben Joseph of Corbeil zatzal, opined that this act should be counted as one of the Taryag Mitzvot (613 Commandments, see Sefer Mitzvot HaKatan, 111). While the vast majority of authorities disagree with this view, all maintain that it is incumbent upon the talmid chacham to issue conclusive rulings whenever his knowledge and experience allow him to do so. As the Rambam rules: “A sage who is worthy of rendering halachic judgments and refrains from doing so holds back [the spread of] Torah and places stumbling blocks before the blind.” (Mishneh Torah, Hilchot Talmud Torah 5:4, translation, Rabbi Eliyahu Touger)

We are now ready to explore the kohan’s obligation as an educator for the entire nation. My rebbe and mentor, the Rav — Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik zatzal — wrote and spoke about this constitutive aspect of his life on a number of occasions. In the main, he discusses two aspects of the teaching experience, namely, the responsibility of the educator and, indeed, all Jews, to serve as exemplary role models, and the role of the rebbe in ensuring the continuation of the mesorah (authentic Jewish religious tradition).

The Rav outlined his vision of the Jew as an educator to the world: “The job of teaching is not fulfilled merely by writing books; it is accomplished by setting an example. That is exactly our task — kiddush shem shamayim, sanctifying G-d’s name … it means that a Jew, in his daily living, in his human relations with his fellow man, should be honest and sincere, and — I wish to emphasize — should act with dignity. (This, and the following quote, “Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, Festival of Freedom: Essays on Pesah and the Haggadah,” Rabbis Joseph B. Wolowelsky and Reuven Ziegler, editors)

At this point, the Rav’s emphasis regarding the obligation of every Jew to be a teacher to the world is reminiscent of Yeshayahu’s famous message to our people “I will make you a light of nations, so that My salvation shall be until the end of the earth” (Sefer Yeshayahu 49:6): “If a Jew commits a crime or a misdeed, he is violating the assignment given him, namely, to teach — and every Jew can teach. Perhaps only the philosopher or the scholar can intellectualize, but Judaism is a living discipline, and therefore, the simplest and most ignorant Jew can teach.”

In the Rav’s worldview, the second role of the Torah educator is to transmit the mesorah to new generations: “The Jew of the mesorah … has a capacity to live in retrospection. Revelation and tradition erase the bonds of time. Distance in time is rendered irrelevant for him. Thousands of years have elapsed, but he walks back and forth from antiquity to modern times. … Upon this phenomenon of an historical continuum was founded the Mesorah, conceived as an historic stream of Jewish spirit whose tributaries of past, present and future merge into each other. (This and the following passages from “Rabbi Abraham R. Besdin, Man of Faith in the Modern World: Reflections of the Rav,” adapted from the Lectures of Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, Volume II)

In sum, the Jew of the mesorah lives beyond time. Ancient sources, as interpreted by the leading scholars of the past and present, excite his imagination and soul as if they were the immediate product of his own time. Time is not a boundary; it is, instead, a bridge to ultimately understanding Hashem’s holy Torah.

We become Jews of the mesorah by studying with, and learning from, masters of the mesorah, for they, like the kohan in the Beit HaMikdash, are the authentic educators of the entire nation. The Rav describes his personal experience as just such an educator, in the following autobiographical vignette:

“The Rebbe introduces the guests [great scholars of earlier generations] to his pupils, and the dialogue commences. The Rambam states a halakah; the Rabad disagrees sharply. … Some students interrupt to defend the Rambam, and they express themselves harshly against the Rabad as young people are apt to do. The Rebbe softly corrects the students and suggests more refrained tones. … Rabbenu Tam is called upon to express his opinion, and suddenly, a symposium of generations comes into existence. Young students debate earlier generations with an air of daring familiarity, and a crescendo of discussion ensues.”

At this juncture, the Rav reveals the definitive goal of great Jewish education: “All speak one language, all pursue one goal, all are committed to a common vision. and all operate with the same categories. A mesorah collegiality is achieved, a friendship, a comradeship of old and young, spanning antiquity, the Middle Ages, and modern times … this merger of identities will ultimately bring about the redemption of the Jewish people. … The Messianic realization will witness the great dialogue of the generations. … Thus, the “old ones” of the past continue their great dialogue of the generations, ensuring an enduring commitment to the mesorah.

May we be zocheh to experience this “historical continuum” and “merger of identities” as Jews of the mesorah, and may the ultimate redemption of the Jewish people come soon and in our days. V’chane yihi ratzon.