Jeffrey Kobrin
Looking to the Parasha to Inspire Our Parenting

Being Careful

Can a role model take a break from role modeling? My initial reaction to seeing Will Smith smack Chris Rock in the face at Sunday’s Oscars was to think like a parent and a teacher: such a moment sets us back years in teaching our kids. Messages like “use your words,” or “keep your hands to yourself” go out the window when our kids see a violent outburst tolerated – and then, worse, soon after see the attacker rewarded with one of Hollywood’s highest honors. I’m all for defending people’s honor, but surely there are other and more effective ways to do so.
We can’t turn off the role model aspects of our lives: kids watch absolutely everything we do and say, and they remember everything. It may not seem fair, but there it is. These past few weeks we’ve been reading about the role models of the people of Israel, the kohanim. This title is usually translated as “priests,” but more accurately means something like “worker” or even “servant.” My teacher Rabbi Saul Berman has said that the Torah is careful to limit the power and influence of the kohen, understanding that absolute power can corrupt (or, in the words of Denzel Washington, “At your highest moment, be careful, that’s when the devil comes for you”).
Rabbi Berman notes that the kohen, unlike the priests of other nations, is prohibited from owning land; the kohen gadol is required to humble himself by bowing at every blessing of the amida, far often than everyone else (who only bow four times); and the kohen is not allowed contact with the dead. When a person has suffered the loss of a loved one, Rabbi Berman once explained to me, they are at their most vulnerable. It is far too easy for someone in a position of power and influence to take advantage in such a situation. This was true in ancient times, when priests were asked to intercede on behalf of the deceased, and is true today as well, when people reach out to clergy at such moments and all kinds of inappropriate interactions can occur.
We are all flawed; that’s okay. But we put limits on ourselves to keep those flaws from spiraling out of control. This message is especially resonant these days as so many people seem to be acting “weird,” in the words of journalist Olga Khazan. The metzora, in our Torah reading of Tazria, contracts physical symptoms because of a spiritual mistake. We commonly think that tzara’at is the punishment for gossip, lashon hara. But Resh Lakish in Masechet Shabbat offers another theory: ha-choshed bechsherim lokeh be-gufo, “one who suspects someone innocent of wrongdoing is bodily afflicted.” Rav Kook explains that when we suspect another person, it can only be because we must be focusing on their physicality rather than the spiritual or ethical facets of their personality. Torah pushes us to make the everyday holy, “not only in the world around us, but also vis-à-vis our very selves,” writes my teacher Rabbi Yaakov Bieler. The only way we could think badly of another is if we relate to him or her “in a purely physical, crass manner, and consequently… we should suffer a physical consequence as a result of having acted and thought badly.” The punishment comes to make us stop and think about how we’ve been behaving.
Chris Rock made a tasteless joke (about a physical feature, no less), which was wrong. But to assume the worst and go on the attack only added injury to insult; it helped no one. We must be conscious at all times that, like it or not, we are models of behavior and speech for our kids. “Moderation in temper,” wrote Thomas Paine, “is always a virtue.”  This is what we need to model, and of which we cannot lose sight.
As we serve as role models, we think of other, more positive, albeit tragic ones.  Our tefilot this week go out to the families of the Israeli victims of terror.  May they find strength at this terrible time, and may peace and redemption arrive – for us all – in the new month of Nisan.
Shabbat Shalom.
About the Author
Jeffrey Kobrin is the Rosh HaYeshiva/Head of School at the North Shore Hebrew Academy in Great Neck, New York. He has bachelors and masters degrees in English literature from Columbia University, semikha from RIETS at Yeshiva University, and a PhD in English education from Columbia University’s Teachers College. He lives in Riverdale, New York, with his wife, Michelle Greenberg-Kobrin, and their daughters.
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