The Danger of Arrogance

Va’teitzei aish mi’lifnei Hashem va’tochal osam va’yamusu lifnei Hashem (Vayikra 10:2)

The Gemara in Sanhedrin (52a) teaches that while Moshe and Aharon were leading the way at Mount Sinai, Nadav and Avihu followed behind them and wondered aloud to one another when Moshe and Aharon might die so that they could assume the mantle of leadership. Hashem replied, “We’ll see who will bury whom.” Rashi explains that the Gemara is coming to teach that it was for this act of seeking power that they died prematurely. This is difficult to understand for two reasons. First, the Torah gives an alternative reason for their death (10:1–2): they brought an offering which they weren’t commanded to bring. Second, nowhere do we find that the pursuit of power is a capital crime.

The Steipler beautifully resolves these questions based on a Gemara in Rosh Hashanah (17a–b). The Gemara teaches that if a person acts humble and unassuming, Hashem overlooks his sins and gives him time to repent. In light of this, the Steipler explains that the Gemara in Sanhedrin doesn’t mean to say that Nadav and Avihu were put to death for seeking honor. Rather, it is bothered that Hashem normally gives a person an opportunity to repent and doesn’t punish him on the spot. Why were Nadav and Avihu immediately killed for their erroneous actions?

The Gemara answers that almost one year previously they expressed their jealous desire for power. As a result, they didn’t receive Divine mercy to give them time to repent. The actual cause of their deaths was the foreign sacrifice, as the Torah explicitly says. The reason that Hashem judged them so strictly was because they invited it upon themselves by coveting the leadership.

Based on the Steipler’s explanation, we may now resolve an apparent difficulty in “Elokai Netzor,” the prayer added at the end of Shemoneh Esrei. Seemingly, the most important requests contained therein are “P’sach libi b’Torasecha uv’mitzvosecha tirdof nafshi” — Hashem should open our hearts to His Torah and help us pursue the performance of mitzvos. If so, why don’t we begin the paragraph with these petitions?

The aforementioned Gemara in Rosh Hashanah mentions that there is one other way to merit Divine leniency: to overlook wrongs done to us and not respond to insults. If Hashem grants our request to help us excel in our Torah study and mitzvos but judges them strictly, we don’t stand much of a chance. Many times they are performed without full concentration or for ulterior motives. We first ask for help in obtaining the two keys to eliciting Hashem’s mercy: “V’lim’kal’lai nafshi sidom v’nafshi k’afar lakol tihiyeh” — To those who curse me, let my soul be silent, and let my soul be like dust to everyone. Only after we have the tools to merit Hashem’s compassionate judgment are we able to continue with our primary request.

Parashah Q & A

Q: The Torah permits (11:3) the consumption of any land animal which chews its cud and has split hooves. Do these signs or their absence cause the permissibility or prohibition of consuming an animal, or are they simply signs indicating whether a species is kosher?

Q: The Gemara in Brachos (53b) derives from 11:44 the requirement to wash one’s hands at the end of a meal (mayim acharonim). Are women obligated in this mitzvah?

A: The Rambam writes that these signs do not directly cause an animal to be permissible or forbidden, but rather reveal its status. Harav Aharon Leib Steinman, shlita, concurs, although he notes that the Lev Aryeh maintains that the signs do determine the animal’s status. Harav Elchanan Wasserman, zt”l, argues that the position of one Tanna (Rabi Shimon) can only be explained if he agrees with the Lev Aryeh. As for the Sages who disagree with Rabi Shimon, he maintains that it is a dispute between two different comments of Tosefos (Chullin 62b and Niddah 50b) whether their disagreement with Rabi Shimon is because they agree to the position of the Rambam or for other unrelated reasons.

A: Many legal decisors, including Harav Yosef Chaim Sonnenfeld, zt”l, Harav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach, zt”l, and, ybl”c, Harav Shmuel Wosner, shlita, and Harav Moshe Sternbuch, shlita, rule that the reasons for this mitzvah apply equally to both genders and women are indeed obligated. However, the prevalent custom is that women do not wash mayim acharonim, and the commentators struggle to understand why this is. Harav Shlomo Zalman suggests that it may come from a mistaken understanding of a Gemara in Yoma (83b), in which this mitzvah indirectly resulted in a woman’s death. Harav Wosner and Harav Sternbuch posit that because the primary original purpose of this mitzvah — to rinse one’s hands from the salt that they used during the meal, which could cause blindness if it came into contact with the eyes — is no longer applicable, the primary reason that men continue to perform this mitzvah is based on its Kabbalistic origins, a practice which wasn’t accepted by women. The Yaavetz posits that women are careful to eat without directly touching the food; because their hands remain clean, they have no need to wash them at the end of the meal. However, the Yaavetz and Harav Sternbuch add that if their hands are dirty for any reason, they are obligated to wash them before saying the blessing at the end of the meal, although Harav Sternbuch adds that they should not do so in a manner that appears overly pious and haughty.


Originally from Kansas City, Rabbi Ozer Alport graduated from Harvard, learned in Mir Yerushalayim for five years, and now lives in Brooklyn, where he learns in Yeshivas Beis Yosef, is the author of the recently-published sefer Parsha Potpourri, and gives weekly shiurim. To send comments to the author or to receive his divrei Torah weekly, please email