Our Gemara on Amud Aleph refers to the verse in Vayikra (21:1) that discusses the Priestly code of conduct, but uses an unusually verbose phrase:

“Speak to the priests, the sons of Aaron, and say to them: None shall become impure for the dead souls among his people” (Leviticus 21:1).

What does “speak to them”, and then “say to them” come to include? להזהיר גדולים על הקטנים That the adults are responsible to instruct and ensure that the children follow the code.

The Ketones Pasim (Emor 46) explains the directive on the Gedolim to instruct the Ketanim in an allegorical fashion. He starts with the well known story brought down in Masehes Berachos (10a):

There were these hooligans in Rabbi Meir’s neighborhood who caused him a great deal of anguish. Rabbi Meir prayed for God to have mercy on them, that they should die. Rabbi Meir’s wife, Berurya, said to him: What is your thinking? On what basis do you pray for the death of these hooligans? Do you base yourself on the verse, as it is written: “Let sins cease from the land” (Psalms 104:35), which you interpret to mean that the world would be better if the wicked were destroyed? But is it written, let sinners cease?” Let sins cease, is written. One should pray for an end to their transgressions, not for the demise of the transgressors themselves.

…Pray for God to have mercy on them, that they should repent, as if they repent, then the wicked will be no more, as they will have repented.

Rabbi Meir saw that Berurya was correct and he prayed for God to have mercy on them, and they repented.

Maharsha asks, of what value is Rabbi Meir’s prayer? In order to repent, a person must make the initial steps on his own, which is in the realm of human choice. How is it appropriate to pray that God should change the person’s attitude? No one wants the person’s repentence more than God, but God Himself would not interfere, so what was Rabbi Meir doing?

The Kesones Passim answers that there is a spiritual union between the souls of the leaders of the generation and the people. He means this literally. The leaders are called the Eynei Haedah the “Eyes of the People.” If so, when Rabbi Meir was praying for these people to repent, he was praying for a part of himself.

This conjoinment is only possible when there is a certain degree of unity. Therefore, the disagreement between Rabbi Meir was deeper. He felt that since these hooligans had no regard for him, there was not sufficient closeness between his soul and theirs for him to use this link. However, Beruriya intuited that there was still a tenuous connection that could be utilized.

This is the deeper meaning of the verse and the derasha. “One should not become impure for the dead souls amongst his people…only for the flesh that is close to him.” And the gedolim are responsible for the ketanim. That is the Gedolim’s souls are linked and responsible for the regular folk, so long as they have some closeness and connection.

Now this is a fancy derasha, but it still has to make sense morally and psychologically . How can someone else’s prayers for repentance really work on the will and attitude of another? In truth, it really is not so illogical when you do think of it psychologically. Whether we like it or not, we all influence each other in subtle ways. A rabbi could have made a passing comment or action five years ago that seemed innocuous could have had a major impact, positively or negatively. Likewise, even Tzaddikim are subject to influence. Attendance at a Shiur or filling out a Shul with congregants gives moral strength and inspiration to the leader. Therefore, in a psychological sense, the Tzaddik is praying for his soul and his part in the system of influence.

We only know the result; that the hooligans repented. The Gemara does not give us a timetable nor an explanation of the process. Like most aggados, the structure is deceptively simple as a basic moral tale which is true and inspiring. The full story might be more nuanced. Who knows how many years it took and what the actual process was? Maybe one day when Rabbi Meir was out for a stroll, he gave a small friendly smile to one of these hooligans, shall we say as a result of emotionally investing more in these people because of his prayers. This led to him going to Shul one time to day Kaddish for his father, which led others from the group to soften their stance a bit. You get the idea. Psychologically, we are more connected than we think.

 

Translations Courtesy of Sefaria, (except when, sometimes, I disagree with the translation cool.)