There is a scientific principle called the law of parsimony that asserts that the simplest explanation is most likely the correct one. Likewise, if we have a difficulty in a Torah text, we usually take “the path of least resistance” and go for the resolution that requires the least interpretation. But when we examine Rashi’s comment at the very beginning of our Torah portion, it seems to be an over-complicated explanation.

The verse reads: “The L‑rd said to Moses: Speak to the kohanim (priests), the sons of Aaron, and say to them: Let none [of you] defile himself for a dead person among his people.”1

Rashi notes that the verse repeats itself: “speak to . . . and say to them.” Would it not have been sufficient had the verse said “Say to the kohanim”? Rashi explains that this double expression comes “to admonish the adult [kohanim to be responsible] for the minors.”

Rashi is of course right to note the redundancy in the text. But is Rashi’s explanation the most plausible?

Just a few verses later,2 the Torah warns the kohanim to avoid coming into contact with sacred foods when in a state of ritual impurity. That section opens with the words “Moses told [this to] Aaron and his sons, and to all of the children of Israel.” Rashi is troubled by why the Torah would command “all the children of Israel” about laws pertaining only to kohanim, as only priests come into contact with the sacred foods in the course of their priestly duties. He therefore explains that the reason all of Israel were issued this command was “so that the courts of law should warn kohanim.” In other words, the proper authorities which represent all the Israelites are responsible to ensure the laws of ritual purity are observed. A very reasonable explanation!

But this leaves us perplexed. If indeed Moses instructed courts of law to oversee the kohanim, why would we not assume that in the earlier verse Moses was being told by G‑d to instruct the courts? Why would Rashi offer an entirely different explanation for the extra words “speak to”—saying it involves the responsibility of the older priests toward the younger ones—when we have a much simpler solution readily available: it involves the responsibility of the courts to oversee the kohanim?

The problem is compounded, as Rashi repeatedly mentions oversight of the priests in the following verses. For example, on the words “they should be sanctified to G‑d,”3 Rashi comments: “The courts shall ensure that they are sanctified.” On the words “you shall sanctify [the kohen],”4 Rashi states that the authorities should apply the marriage rules governing kohanim, “[if necessary] against his will.” So, if the courts clearly had this role, why would this not be Rashi’s go-to explanation from the beginning?

It turns out that the answer to this question is simple: Just read the text. The verse reads: “Speak to the kohanim,” not “Speak to the courts” or “Speak to the Israelites.” Clearly then, the instruction is to the priests. If so, Rashi is left with no choice but to cite an explanation that relates to the kohanim themselves, namely the older ones speaking to the younger ones.

But this gives rise to a problem. Had the first verse been referring to the courts, we would have an instruction to Moses to address the courts, and then a verse where Moses does just that. Now that the first verse refers to the older kohanim instructing the younger ones, it seems that Moses’ instruction to the court was entirely of his own accord. Moses clearly thought this was a great idea—and it does indeed seem logical, as the laws governing the priesthood were both complex and onerous—so why did the Al-mighty not command Moses to do so? Why was it left for Moses to decide on this himself?

The Rebbe adopts a common strategy, his trademark approach to addressing these kinds of difficulties. The reason this is not making sense to us, the Rebbe shows, is because we do not have a clear idea of the broader matter.

It turns out that there is a problem with turning to the courts to govern the kohanim: Why would it be necessary to have the courts enforce ritual purity laws as if we are dealing with a bunch of criminals? We are talking here about kohanim, people raised and educated in the ways of purity.

The Talmud5 offers a broad principle on this matter: “Priests are vigilant.” Priests grew up in and around the Temple, and all they ever knew was reverence for what is sacred. There was no reason to doubt them and impose the courts on them. It is one thing to give the courts powers to enforce specific infringements, but why ask the courts to provide oversight for such a diligent and meticulous group of people?

This question would explain why G‑d did not instruct Moses to command the courts to assume this oversight role—because it was unnecessary. So why then did Moses do so? The Rebbe offers an explanation that not only provides a satisfactory answer to our problem, but also offers guidance for our own lives. What made the kohanim so meticulous? It was in part because of how they were raised, educated and trained. It was also because of where they worked—in the holiest place on earth.

Operating in the most sacred of areas, the kohanim were filled with “awe of the holy.” The presence of the Almighty was palpable in the Temple, and this induced extreme alacrity in all that they did. However, the kohanim had obligations that they carried with them when they left the Temple precinct. Regardless of where they were, kohanim had demanding responsibilities, such as strict avoidance of any impurity. They had to keep up the same standards of dedication even when not in holy surroundings.

Moses was the first rabbi, and rabbis are supposed to “make a fence around the Torah,”6 setting stricter boundaries to protect the core commandments. It was in this vein that Moses approached the courts. He felt something could be done to bolster the priests’ observance when they were not in the Temple.

This was Moses’ psychological insight: notwithstanding the confidence that kohanim would act properly, it would be difficult for some of them to keep up the intense exactitude when not engaged in official duties. So that they would receive support and encouragement, Moses sought the input of the courts to provide an extra level of protection.

Maimonides7 famously wrote that every person can become like a kohen by dedicating his life to a higher purpose and divine service. Even if we consider ourselves highly dedicated and committed—that, like the kohanim, we are “vigilant”—we need to be aware of the possibility of being distracted. We may need to have the support mechanism to keep us focused and motivated, much like Moses’ arranging for the kohanim to receive the oversight of the courts.

However, the best way to ensure that one’s dedication and focus never falter is to always feel that we are in the presence of the L‑rd. When on the Temple grounds, the kohanim were inspired to perform their holy duties with the highest level of devotion because they felt G‑d’s presence. When each of us genuinely experiences the Al-mighty in our lives, we will be similarly uplifted to the state of being in “awe of holiness.”

Adapted from Likkutei Sichot vol. 37, Emor I (pg. 61-66)