The Kohen Gadol and the Simchah of Chessed

During the dancing at most weddings, one of my favorite niggunim is “Mareh Kohen.” First, it invokes fond memories of my childhood, when my brother and I often enjoyed this classic selection among many others from the London School of Jewish Song album. Second, and more important, with the proper hergesh, I get a moment to feel the inspiration of Yom Kippur, as while davening for the amud this is the niggun the tzibbur sings along with me with much enthusiasm during Mussaf, at the end of the avodah.

Why has this become a classic chasunah niggun? The answer is found in one line of this piyut. In portraying the appearance of the Kohen Gadol when he completed his tefillos upon leaving the Kodesh Kodashim b’shalom bli pega (in peace without injury) — the paytan notes that the appearance of the Kohen Gadol was k’chessed hanitan al pnei chassan — like the graciousness granted to the chassan’s face. Although, ironically, this line from the piyut is not sung at weddings, the piyut teaches us that if you want to understand what the Kohen Gadol looked like — something none of us have merited to see — just look at the radiance of the chassan. This is a great event to have a picture of, as just a few lines later, in Mussaf, we state, “Ashrei ayin raasah kol eileh (Lucky is the eye that saw all this).”

Harav Shraga Neuberger, shlita, asks in his sefer Yo’atzei Shalom (based on his shalom bayis vaadim delivered to kollel yungeleit in Yeshivas Ner Yisroel): “What does ‘k’chessed hanitan’ signify? Just simply state k’pnei chassan?” Rav Neuberger answers that the chessed hanitan alludes to the greatness of giving — nitan — to others. This is the greatest simchah and this is the basis of comparing the chassan to the Kohen Gadol. The Kohen Gadol has just risked his life to beseech the Ribbono shel Olam on behalf of the Jewish People. The impact of this unique tefillah recited by the holy Kohen Gadol on the holiest day of the year, in the holiest place in the world, was far-reaching for every Jew in Klal Yisrael. It is considered not only the greatest tefillah but one of the greatest acts of gemilus chassadim. The Kohen Gadol was elated because he had the merit to serve his people like no others since the past Yom Kippur and like no one will do until the next Yom Kippur. So, too, on the chasunah night, the chassan is also b’simchah as he is now embarking on the greatest act of chessed — from this night and on he will give selflessly to his wife and, be”H, to their children that will one day be born into this family. Like the Kohen Gadol, he now becomes the far-reaching nosein chessed as his home will, be”H, grow into a Kodesh Kodashim as a place of Torah, hachnasas orchim and tzedakah. Therefore the chassan has this special joy. Of course, the kallah experiences this great simchah as well, as she begins her partnership with the chassan in a life of Torah, avodah, u’gemilus chassadim. As we sing these beautiful words of Mareh Kohen on Yom Kippur, we must ask ourselves if we have followed in the illustrious footsteps of the Kohen Gadol, who cared for so many others with the utmost joy — b’simchah u’v’tuv leivav.

As we state later in Mussaf, because of our aveiros, we have no more Beis Hamikdash. Yom Kippur is the time that we especially need to feel this void and daven on behalf of others. We say in Ne’ilah to the Ribbono shel Olam: “Merubim tzorchei amcha — The needs of Your nation (Klal Yisrael) are great.” When we daven for others, we at least partially replace the tefillah of the Kohen Gadol. There are so many individuals in need of refuah (health), parnassah (livelihood), shalom bayis, shidduchim, and an array of other needs. Before Yom Tov, jot down a list of such people and you will discover that your list is longer than you imagined. Davening for them is a great act of chessed. Assisting such individuals spiritually, emotionally and financially is another way of increasing our chessed on their behalf — thereby not only emulating the Kohen Gadol but also the Ribbono shel Olam, b’chvodo u’v’atzmo.

This is further amplified on Hoshana Rabbah and Simchas Torah after the first hakafah when we say “Olam chesed yibaneh — The world shall be built on chessed/kindness.” To explain this, my close friend Rabbi Aaron Dov Friedman from Los Angeles has a keen insight in the yud gimmel middos she’Torah nidreshes found in the siddur before Pesukei d’Zimrah (“Rabi Yishmael omer”). Of the 13 listed — eight are based on a “klal” of which four of these eight deal with both “klal” and “prat.” “Klal” is when the Torah makes a general statement (e.g., animals — an overall category that has many examples). “Prat” is a specific item (e.g., “sheep,” a specific type of animal). Depending how the klalim and pratim are stated in the Torah determines which method of drashah is employed. Al pi drush, Rabbi Friedman notes that perhaps the Torah is teaching us to ask, “Mah Hashem doresh mimcha” — examine these rules on a deeper level and see what the Ribbono shel Olam wants from us. The prat is listed with the klal to teach us that more important than focusing on one’s personal needs (i.e., those of the individual, or “prat”), a Yid must devote himself to others — to the klal; in other words, to Klal Yisrael at large. Yom Kippur is the time to ask ourselves, “What do we do for the Klal?” This includes our spouses, our children, our parents, our extended family, our neighbors, our friends, and any other Yid or Torah or chessed institution in need.

We recognize our shortcomings in this regard in the last “Al cheit.” We ask Hakadosh Baruch Hu to forgive us for our aveiros when sinning b’simhon leivav. What does this mean? Rabbi Moshe Sherer, zt”l, explained that Rashi in the tochachah of Parashas Ki Savo (28:28) says b’simhon leivav means otem halev — clogging of the heart. This means we ask for forgiveness for closing our hearts to the needs of fellow Yidden in their time of need. We must ask ourselves, “Am I self-centered or do I earnestly care about others? What actions do I need to do to proudly carry the banner of Klal Yisrael — as rachmanim, baishanim, v’gomlei chassadim?

In the zechus of our following the ways of our Creator by opening our hearts with our tefillos, time, money, and actions al pi derech haTorah, and caring for others in a meaningful and tangible way — with the simchah of the Kohen Gadol on Yom Kippur and the chassan and kallah at their wedding — may the Eibershter bestow upon us, our families, communities and all of Klal Yisrael a gmar chasimah tovah.


Rabbi Dovid Heber is the Rav of KAYTT in Baltimore and is the Kashrus Administrator at Star-K Kosher Certification.