The Death of an Icon

25 Feb 2016

Natan Sharansky is going to be at Beth Tfiloh on March 14.  At the beginning of his book “Fear No Evil,” he recalls a memory from his childhood, the day that Joseph Stalin died.  Solemn music filled the streets form loudspeakers.  Everyone wore black arm bands.  Enormous portraits of Stalin were everywhere.  Sharansky was 5 years old at the time and he remembers his kindergarten teacher telling the children that there would be no laughing and playing that day, because our great leader and teacher had died.

The name Stalin didn’t mean much to little Natan, other than being a line in the many songs that the and the other children were taught as part of their indoctrination.  But the message was clear.  It was a sad day.

Then he got home.  His father, who was a journalist and had his own ideas, told Sharansky and his older brother the truth.  He told them that the man who died was an evil man who had murdered millions of innocent people and in his final years he had specifically targeted the Jews.  They should feel happy that Stalin was dead, but they were forbidden from telling this to ANYONE!

That was the day that Natan Sharansky said that he learned that in order to survive in Soviet Society you had to function on two levels at once: what you really thought and what you allowed yourself to tell other people.

Something this week made me think about this.  The death of Antonin Scalia, an American icon, contrasted with the death of Stalin made me appreciate how great it is to live in America.

I didn’t think of this when I read about Scalia’s unfortunate passing.  I thought about it when I read a story about the relationship that Scalia shared with his fellow Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg.  They disagreed on virtually every conceivable issue, and yet they managed to be friends.

How fortunate are we to live in a country where we can disagree with one another and yet still live together not just with civility, but with friendship, and most importantly, with mutual respect.
Unfortunately, not everyone who disagreed with Scalia shared Ruth Bader Ginsberg’s respect for him.

All over the Internet you could read people posting in celebration that a man whom they considered to be evil incarnate was dead.  They were saying, “I disagreed with him, so I’m happy he’s dead.”

Sometimes it seems that we are so polarized that it is as if there are two Americas.  The divide between conservatives and liberals in this country seems insurmountable.

And it goes both ways.  How many of us have been the only conservative in a room full of liberals talking politics.  When they talk of some conservative icon and his immoral and evil ideas, we think to ourselves, “If I told them that I shared those ideas what would they say about me?”

And how many of us have been the only liberal in a room full of conservatives talking politics.  When they talk about some liberal icon and her naive and idiotic ideas, we think to ourselves, “If I told them that I shared those ideas, what would they say about me?”

So we keep our mouths shut, and we function on two levels at once: what we really think and what we allow ourselves to tell others.

Jews love to argue.  From our forty years in the desert until today we were never shy to express our disagreements.  The Torah actually views this as a virtue, but it provides a system to facilitate these disagreements.

Achad Ha’am wrote a seminal essay called Kohen vinavi – Priest and prophet – two different types of leaders.

This week’s parshah, Titzaveh, is all about the Kohen.   The kohen worked in the Beit Hamikdash for two weeks out of every year, plus on the holidays.  The rest of the year the kohen would live amongst the people.  His job was to teach Torah to young and old.  He fostered peace between friends and neighbors.  He loved peace and pursued peace.  He celebrated with you at happy occasions.  He comforted you when you grieved.  He was there for the people – all of the people.  That was his role and we elevated him with fancy inauguration ceremonies, and he dons the royal garments of fine linen and gold that can only be worn by the kohen gadol – for honor and glory.

When he dies all of the people mourn for him.  The Torah tells us that the one who kills accidentally seeks refuge in the city of refuge so that the families of the victim cannot take vengeance on him.  But the killer goes free upon the death of the Kohen Gadol.  Some say this is because upon the death of the Kohen the whole nation mourns and the national loss causes all past grievances to be left in the past.  The Kohen was loved by the masses and he brought the people together.

Then there was the other type of leader.  The Navi.  He served a very different role. While the Kohen provided comfort to the afflicted, the Navi afflicted the comfortable.  The navi sees the world exclusively from the point of view of his own ideas, and he fights with all of his might for the attainment of those ideas.  The Kohen creates compromise, the Navi refuses to compromise.  The Kohen sees in shades of grey, the Navi sees only black and white.  “His gaze is fixed on what ought to be in accordance with his own convictions, never on what can be consistently with the general condition of things outside of himself.”

If you are on one side of a controversial issue you want a Navi fighting on your side, and heaven help you if he is against you.

But the Navi pays a price for his unyielding posture.  He is usually not very popular.  There is no fancy ceremony to inaugurate the Navi.  He is scorned and hated by those with whom he expresses his disagreement.  When he dies his adversaries celebrate his death.

We want to have disagreements.  Disagreements are healthy.  We need the navi, but we also need the Kohen to unite us despite our disagreements.

His clothing symbolizes this.  Although the Torah forbids the wearing of wool and linen together, the Kohen Gadol wears the Ephod, the apron that is made of intertwined wool and linen.

One understanding is because the prohibition against wearing wool and linen is meant to remind us of the first conflict in the history of mankind.  Two brothers, Kayin and Hevel.  One brought an offering from the wool of his sheep.  The other brought something that came from the ground that he could find no use for – the midrash says he brought flax as his offering.  When the two were brought together it caused a conflict that lead to the first murder.  So we keep these two elements separate as a reminder.

But the Kohen Gadol is the man who symbolizes peace and harmony.  These two elements that are forever in conflict are brought together in a multicolor garment that bears the breastplate with the multicolored stones that have engraved upon them the names of all of the tribes of our diverse nation.  The ephod is a physical representation of the role that the Kohen plays.  He allows for the different ideas to maintain their integrity and compete with each other, but he unifies them and facilitates mutual respect.

There is a place for both the Kohen and the Navi.  In America we certainly have our controversial and divisive icons in the tradition of the Navi.  But we lack the unifying figures in the tradition of the Kohen.

England has both.  They have a divisive parliament just like our government.  But they also have the institution of the royal family.  When I was younger it always puzzled me why a modern western country would want to have a monarchy.  I think it is because the country likes to have an institution that stands above the fray of politics and can represent all of the people.

We definitely lack something in America without such an institution.

It is great to have the kohen who wears the breast plate with all of our names on it when he goes into the holy of holies to pray for us on Yom Kippur.  He represents each and every one of us, and each of us feels truly represented.  He leads us into battle and inspires all of us to put aside our differences, uniting us in times that we need to face our common enemies, the real enemies who threaten our lives and our way of life.

It would be nice if our unelected judges could serve as Kohanim, but unfortunately there are no illusions that they are.  We know exactly what we are getting depending on which side of the aisle appoints the judge.

While we have a surplus of profits, we are suffering from a Kohen deficit.  There are those occasional icons who unify us, Natan Sharansky comes to mind as a great example which is why we should all come to hear him speak on March 14th.  But such icons are few and far between.

Even so, better to live in a world with only prophets and no priest, than to live in a world with only priests and no prophets.

While it sounds nice to have only Kohanim, everyone united, it would really be a form of extreme political correctness.  It starts out as well intentioned, but the suppression of any form of arguments is by definition tyranny.  Just look at our college campuses that seek to create “safe spaces” so that nobody is ever offended.  Professors can’t teach what they want, comedians can’t tell jokes, and students can’t question or challenge.

Nevertheless, we need Kohanim.  So in a place where there are no Kohanim, we must stand up and be the Kohen.  At Mount Sinai Hashem did not command us to be a nation of Navis. He said we should be a kingdom of Kohanim.

Each of us in our personal lives needs to where the mantel of the ephod of the Kohen.  We need to allow for people to express their opinions, create healthy debate and conversations, and when the conversation is over put it aside and unite to address the common issues that affect us all.

Every day in davening we say multiple times Oseh shalom bimromav – May the One who makes peace in the heavens make peace among us and all of Israel.  What does this mean?

When the author of this most famous line looked up at the sky he saw that stars and clouds, fire and water, somehow both exist in the heavens together.  The water of the clouds doesn’t extinguish the stars, and the fire of the stars does not evaporate the clouds.  They both express themselves fully, and yet coexist in harmony.

May we learn to do the same, vi’imiru, Amen.


The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.