Parshat Acharei Mot: Sincerity, Responsibility & Freedom

Sincerity, Responsibility & Freedom

Chezi Zechariah is the Principal of Neveh Shmuel Yeshiva High School for Boys, Named in Memory of Samuel Pinchas Ehrman

Neveh Shmuel Principal Chezi Zecharia

On sincerity, responsibility and freedom in Bnei Brak: soldiers on duty and the ultra-Orthodox community

During the course of our Home Front brigade’s reserve duty, we found ourselves serving in the city of Bnei Brak.  These were the days of the first COVID wave, and Bnei Brak was top of the list as far as number of COVID cases was concerned.

The ties between the Home Front commanders and the city council remained strong and respectful, despite the huge mentality gaps between the army personnel and the ultra-Orthodox inhabitants of this very crowded city.

At the time, I had the good fortune of commanding an IDF Home Front brigade.  In my military capacity, I turned to the municipal leadership and conveyed the message that the city’s residents were not sufficiently aware of the impact of COVID and how important it was to avoid becoming infected with the virus.  I also pointed out that retirement homes were especially vulnerable, and that the city was not taking any steps to break the chain of infection.  And I additionally explained that the fact that many of the city’s residents were not exposed to the general media might serve to their disadvantage. 

Furthermore, the lockdown imposed on the city led to a disruption of the city’s routine operations. 

“It is best if we, the soldiers, went out to the city’s streets to hand out pamphlets explaining the dangers of the pandemic and how to avoid these,” I said. “We have many soldiers, both men and women, who can raise awareness, encourage people and warn individuals and families, and, in so doing, break the chain of infection in the city.”

Bnei Brak’s mayor replied that it would be best if we went into the retirement homes only, and keep the soldiers off the city streets.  The city was not used to any military presence, the mayor explained. 

We thought otherwise, of course, but we took his sincere words to heart. 

With time, the city got used to our presence and the residents even grew fond of us.  Although there was a small group that would constantly curse and provoke us, and sometimes even tried to hurt us, the mayor still felt that the overall feeling towards the soldiers was a positive one.  He later called me in for a meeting and said he felt the time was now right for us to go out into the streets and start advocating our cause. 

The sincerity which characterized our relationship – the soldiers and the city leadership – had initially evolved around numerous topics of dispute.  Even during times of terror waves, when Israel was attacked by missiles launched from Gaza, there were bitter arguments about whether educational institutions should be closed, or whether the value of learning Torah always takes preference – even or especially in times of peril. 

Despite these disagreements, and the ideological and mental gaps that existed between us, it was sincerity that guided us all – the army commanders as well as the city representatives.  This sincerity led to responsibility; both on our part as well as on the part of the city authorities.  And that, in turn, gave the city residents a sense of freedom – the freedom resulting from clarity.  People felt they had a clear understanding of the situation at hand, and that there were actually ways one could deal with the pandemic. 

This sense of freedom also stemmed from the fact that people felt they could make informed choices and prioritize, instead of just being victims to an unavoidable fate and inevitable infection.  The principal of one of the schools in the city met with me and told me that when saying the daily morning prayer of “Modeh ani” [“Grateful am I”], she also kept the soldiers of the Home Front Command in mind. 

“And Aharon shall present the bull of the sin-offering, which is for himself” – whose bull was it?

Our portion of Acharei-Mot is usually read in close proximity to the Days of Salvation in our own times – Yom HaZikaron (Day of Remembrance) and Yom Ha’Atzma’ut (Independence Day).  This year, the portion is read on the Shabbat which is attached to Zman Cheruteinu: The Time of our Freedom – Pesach’s additional name. 

The sons of Yaakov, as well as Yosef, make use of the word kenim [“sincere”] in their dialogue.  This is how Yosef’s brothers relate their encounter with Yosef to Yaakov: “And we said unto him [Yosef]: We are sincere men; we are no spies” (Bereshit, 42, 31).  They go on, and relate Yosef’s reply to them (ibid. 33): “Hereby shall I know that you are sincere men: leave one of your brethren with me, and take corn for the famine of your houses, and go your way.” 

The apparent sincerity between Yosef and his brothers opens the door to forgiveness and atonement for the jealously that had previously prevailed between them. 

It is my understanding that sincerity is also a key word when it comes to the bull brought as a sin-offering by Aharon HaKohen.  The Talmud in the tractate of Yoma writes as follows of the bull that is offered:  “It is his own bull and not one contributed by the public.” 

Why does he offer his own private bull?  After all, was Aharon HaKohen not a representative of the public when performing the sacred service of Yom Kippur?  Perhaps we can understand from this that the key to achieving forgiveness and atonement through the sacred service of Yom Kippur is the sincerity of the one representing the public.  Such a persona acting in service of others must be completely sincere, both with himself, as well as with his family.  Atonement requires one to be utterly sincere.  Only then can forgiveness ensue.  Sincerity is a prerequisite for Teshuva on Yom Kippur.

“That the land vomit you not out” – sincerity leads to responsibility for the land

The various laws of adulterous relations mentioned at the end of our portion refer to matters concerning the individual and his own self. 

In most cases, such acts are not done publicly.  Ostensibly, one engaging in such acts of adultery may go about his regular business and none will be the wiser, as such adulterous acts are carried out discretely and in private.  However, the Land of Israel has very sensitive sensors that can easily identify insincerity, even when the outward behavior seems meticulous. “That the land vomit you not out also, when you defile it, as it vomited out the nation that was before you” (Vayikra 18, 28). 

If we conduct ourselves with sincerity, it must follow that we take responsibility for our actions.  However, if we have a dual personality, and the impression we give is not in keeping with our real self, it means we have taken no responsibility – not for ourselves nor for our country.  The sincerity of Yosef’s brothers and the warning of expulsion from the land is one and the same.  In both cases sincerity is the key to responsibility.  Yosef looks for this quality in his brothers so that it may serve as the gateway to Teshuva.  The Land of Israel seeks the sincerity of the upright person who abstains from engaging in the abominations of the gentiles.  Sincerity leads to responsibility even in the case of the High Priest, the Kohen Gadol, who begins his long Yom Kippur journey inside his own soul, with his own family – and with utter sincerity. 

Being free means being responsible

Freedom lies at the core of Pesach, which as we already pointed out is also called Zman Cheruteinu, The Time of Our Freedom.

Freedom is a deeply-embedded human feeling.  It does not only denote emerging from bondage, or becoming free of one’s oppressor; rather, it is also the individual and the nation’s intellectual property, as it were.  One acquires true freedom after gaining deep knowledge of oneself and this is achieved, as previously explained, through sincerity.  A person who constantly “puts on a show” is not a free person, as he is enslaved to another figure or personality.  This quality of freedom is so deeply rooted in man’s heart that it is an immense motivating force and fuels man’s actions. 

I am particularly fond of the words of Natan Sharansky, the former refusenik and Prisoner of Zion who also served as the chair of the Jewish Agency. Sharansky spoke of the importance of freedom when addressing the judge before whom he stood to trial.  Sharansky feared not, and referred to the honorable judge’s insincerity:

“Your honor thinks that he is free!  You believe yourself to be free because the minute my trial is over, you will be free to go home, while I will remain in bondage, and sent to prison for many years.  But take note that of the two of us, I am the one who is truly free.  My body may be imprisoned, but my spirit will remain free because I will know and feel that I did not succumb to your decrees, but remained true to my faith.  However, your words, your honor, have been dictated to you!  Your body may be free, but you are not free to act in accordance with your personal beliefs.  Your spirit is imprisoned and that is far worse.”

The sons of Aharon and the Fear of God

Moshe Rabbeinu chose to begin our portion with the following reference: “And the Lord spoke unto Moses after the death of the sons of Aharon.”  The Netivot Shalom writes that the common denominator of all the sins of the sons of Aharon was love without the fear of God:  “They worshipped God with the quality of love but without the quality of awe.”  However, the sacred service in the Mikdash cannot take place without awe and the fear of God.  Fear of God compels one to be true to oneself and utterly sincere, because God sees into man’s heart and mind. 

What is true freedom?

We are about to enter the Ten Days of Salvation.  These are days requiring sincerity and introspection.  These are days of joy and gratitude for the freedom granted us by God.  But what does true freedom mean for us as individuals and as a nation? 

After two-thousand years of exile, it seems that the bondage has come to an end; however, true freedom is yet to be achieved.  Are all the citizens of our state truly free?  Do we take care of the weak among us?  Will we continue to be free while preserving the Jewish identity of our state?  Will we always know how to be a free people, a light unto ourselves as well as unto other nations?  Will we always remember that our power is in our unity?

The Kohen Gadol starts his service by bringing a personal offering as a sacrifice of atonement.  He is not exempt from saying: “I have erred; I have sinned; I have strayed; I and my family.”  He begins with his own faults and only then turns to all others. 

This may be the reason why the Hebrew word for responsibility – achrayut – begins with the first letter of the Hebrew alphabet, Aleph, and ends with the last letter – tav: true responsibility begins with myself – ani – denoted by the Aleph, and the responsibility I have for my own family.  Only once this is achieved can I move onto the tav, representing the responsibility I have for the public at large.  Furthermore, one can learn from this that true leadership is not afraid of admitting faults and expressing real sincerity. 

May our deeds always be sincere ones, like the Kohen Gadol who offered his own personal sacrifice.  May our ways reflect responsibility, both unto ourselves as well as all those around us.  Let us hope that we always aspire to attain true freedom.

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