Comprehending the Confines of Gadol Me’Echav

“A hero can be anyone- Even a man doing something as simple and reassuring as putting a coat around a young boy’s shoulders to let him know that the world hadn’t ended.” – Bruce Wayne (Dark Knight Rises, 2012)

A few weeks ago, I had the unique opportunity to attend a brit in Bnei Brak. While the brit itself was not so unique (B”H, this was the family’s eighth child and fifth baby boy), the venue was another story — it was located at the home of a 102-year-old well-known gadol in the Haredi world, with this Rav serving as the sandek, considered to be a great zechut by many in those circles.

As the appointed hour for the ceremony came and went without any sign of the sanctified sandek, many of the guests in the waiting rooms (separate ones for men and women, obviously), including myself, began to feel the mid-morning Merkaz heat and humidity seeping into the apartment. Sitting among screaming siblings and sweating older relatives, I began to wonder why the dwelling of such a great, well-known, and influential tzadik would be so poorly ventilated.

I posited this question to a young man dressed in traditional yeshiva’ish garb to my right. With a smile of admiration filling his face, he replied: “The Rav is so immersed in his Torah learning that he doesn’t need air conditioning or a fan- he doesn’t even notice the physical world around him.” This response left me no doubt that the bachur sitting next to me, in 80 years, would like nothing better than to be sitting in an unventilated apartment learning Torah all day to the discomfort of those around him.

In our sedra (Emor), we start out by reading of the spiritual responsibilities of every Kohen– which relatives they may become tamei to be involved in their burial, under what conditions they may enter the Mikdash. Then, we move onto the higher responsibilities of the Kohen Gadol, who is introduced as:

וְהַכֹּהֵן הַגָּדוֹל מֵאֶחָיו אֲשֶׁר־יוּצַק עַל־רֹאשׁוֹ שֶׁמֶן הַמִּשְׁחָה

And the Kohen who is greater than his brothers, onto whose shoulders the anointing oil was poured… (ויקרא כא:י)

This head Kohen is held to a higher standard because of his initiation- he is anointed with the special anointing oil reserved only for him and the Jewish king- and his greater responsibility ofavoda in the Mishkan. Yet, here we are given another contrast between him and his Aaronic brethren- he is “greater than them.”

Oddly enough, none of the commentators in the Mikra’ot Gedolot ask about this unusual wording. Even the Targum Unkelos, a mysterious translation of the Torah’s text to Babylonian Aramaic dating back to the second century CE whose unknown author never shies away from putting his own “two cents” into the targum, translates these two words literally into “דיתרבא מאחוהי,” identical in meaning to the ancient Hebrew original.

So, it is left to us to try to answer our question; what could be the significance of calling the Kohen Gadol “הגדול מאחיו?”

I believe that this special name is given to the Kohen Gadol out of recognition of his national stature. The Kohen Gadol is dressed in a unique way, which lets him be easily identified no matter where he is. Wherever he walks, when he wears the tzitz with the words “קודש לה’,” everyone looks at those words and realizes the greatness of the man before them, the higher standard he lives his life by and the commitment he has to avodat Hashem. He represents the greatest level of holiness that any mortal being can possibly reach.

Yet, despite this, he is called “גדול מאחיו” as an important reminder- that there is only one Kohen Gadol, and he is supposed to be “greater than his brothers.” He is the holiest Jew in the world, even greater than other kohanim, and keeps tremendously strict lifestyle standards that no other person can or should ever try to reach. “גדול מאחיו” reminds us that while we should very much be in awe of the holiness of the Kohen Gadol, and we can even use him as motivation to be the very best ovdei Hashem possible, we should never ever try to emulate him. Why? Because there is only one Kohen Gadol and he is “גדול מאחיו”- his lifestyle is not for us.

Talib Kweli, a well-known rapper originating from Brooklyn, NY, once said:

“I think once you’re in the public eye, whether you’re a boss, a teacher or whatever you do, that you’re automatically in the position of role model. You have people looking up to you, so whether you choose to accept it or not is a different question.”

In developmental theory, Psychologists have shown that a child’s development and life vision is often based on those of their parents. However, public figures, particularly religious ones, can often have a tremendous influence on a child’s future decisions as well. In an article published a few years ago in Psychology Today [1] , Dr. Nancy Darling writes that it is very difficult to document the exact affect that societal role models have on people around them. But, there are two factors that have been shown to cause influence: (1) a role model shows that something, no matter how difficult it seems, can be done, and (2) a role model needs to be able to convey that anyone can do what he does- not just him.

It seems that based on our interpretation of the Kohen Gadol’s description as “גדול מאחיו,” he would only qualify as the first of these two conditions. His purpose as “קודש לה’,” aside from doing the avoda, is to inspire the Jewish People, to show them that a purely holy lifestyle is possible. However, the inherent meaning of “גדול מאחיו” limits this influence to only the first of Dr. Darling’s two conditions- a Kohen Gadol should not, under any circumstances, convey that every Jew could do what he does, for he is supposed to be holier than his brothers. The Kohen Gadol’s influence on his constituents should be limited to what is called a motivational role model, one who shows that greatness is possible without encouraging others to follow his specific path to kedusha.

I believe that, returning to the sweaty late-March morning in Bnei Brak, the Rav’s influence should also be limited to being a motivational role model. The Haredi World, whose culture is loosely based on the lifestyle of Pre-WWII Eastern European Shtetls, thrives on feel-good stories of gedolim to keep their culture strong. There is nothing inherently wrong with this- it is a great way to ensure that the next generation feels as committed to Judaism and being an oved Hashem as the previous one.

The problem is that, with the advent and mainstreaming of Da’as Torah, the line becomes blurred between stories that motivate and stories that educate. It became clear after my conversation at the brit and more recent ones with my cousins, that this specific story is not incorrectly perceived as the latter- all of the aforementioned see this as a life goal, despite the danger of trying to live a purely spiritual life and the sad reality that not everyone will be the next Gadol Hador.

These Haredi youth must learn from the lesson of the Kohen Gadol and apply it to their own role models- to objectively appreciate their lifestyles as “קודש לה’” and gain motivation, while still remembering that they are “גדול מאחיו,” whose extreme existences should never be emulated by any of us.

Even for those of us who haven’t secluded ourselves in the Torah world can take strength from this message. Barry Bonds, former Left Fielder for the San Francisco Giants who allegedly took steroids to boost performance and later perjured himself on the stand, once said:

“Everyone in society should be a role model, not only for their own self-respect, but for respect from others.”

Bonds’s quote has an important message for us. Each and every one of us can work to help others around us- by going out into the world and holding ourselves to the highest standards, we embody the spirit of the Kohen Gadol and allow others to learn from us as well. Whether we do this as a parent, teacher, businessman, or as a simple Jew, we can make change, as long as we strive to be the best ovdei Hashem that we can be, to try to be “קודש לה’.”

With Hashem’s help, Jews who are under-motivated will gain strength from the everyday heroes around them, and those who are over-motivated will realize their limits and stop trying to be “גדול מאחיו”- with this balance, we will hopefully merit the complete ge’ulah very very soon. Shabbat Shalom.



[1] “I Could Do That: Why Role Models Matter”, Nancy Darling PhD- Published May 23, 2012 on Psychology Today

About the Author
Born and raised in Teaneck NJ, Tzvi Silver moved to Israel in 2012 after catching aliyah fever while learning abroad. Tzvi is now pursuing a degree in Engineering from the Jerusalem College of Technology, and works on the side as a contributor for local newspapers in the New York Area. Tzvi's interests include learning Torah, rabble-rousing, and finding creative ways of mixing the two.
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