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Success Secrets (Acharei Mot)

Earlier version delivered this past Shabbos at Congregation Ahavas Achim in Highland Park, New Jersey:

“Today, I want to sure with you the secret to success.”

Have you ever heard someone start a sentence that way?

I hear it all the time.

And, you know, when I do — it makes me feel kind of lucky. I mean, for some reason, there are all these people out there these days who seem want to share their secrets with… me. And with you. And with everybody, really.

And some of them have really gained quite the following. Like Jeff Sanders, who you might have heard have, who has this podcast where he insists that the key to success is to begin every day at 5 AM. Or others, who boiled down their secrets to success into best-selling book titles like, quote, “Make Your Bed;” or, quote, “Never Eat Alone;” or, quote, “Leaders Eat Last;” or — and this one’s my favorite — quote: “Eat That Frog.”

(I’m not kidding).

You know — baruch Hashem, there are a lot of successful people out there — and, in all sincerity, they’ve got a whole bunch of excellent suggestions for how we can achieve similar success. But today I want to share with you what I think might actually be the most revolutionary success strategy of all.

Image result for secretIt has to do with the Kohen Gadol — the star of one of the parshas we just read, Acharei Mos. Because, from a Torah perspective, there’s hardly anybody who can claim more kavod than the Kohen Gadol — the High Priest. And you know, at certain points in our history, people literally fought to fill this office. And just to put this in perspective: in the entire span of our people’s approximately 4,000 year history, there weren’t more than, what — 100, maybe 150 people who earned the right to serve as Kohen Gadol? We’re talking about an extremely tiny percentage of the population who ever enjoyed this privilege.

Yet there was one family that produced seven Kohen Gadols.


They were all brothers, and all sons to a little-known woman by the name of “Kimchit.” And as one after the other after the other was appointed to this most prestigious of offices, everyone wanted to know: What was their secret?

So you know what Chazal did?

Well, they couldn’t contain their curiosity. So they tracked down Kimchit — and they asked her directly. And the Talmud in Masechet Yoma records their dialogue:

תנו רבנן — Our sages taught:

שבעה בנים היו לה לקמחית — Kimchit had seven sons

וכולן שמשו בכהנה גדולה — and all of them served as Kohen Gadol!

אמרו לה חכמים — So the sages asked her:

מה עשית שזכית לכך — What have you done to merit this? What’s your secret?

And here’s what Kimchit answered:

אמרה להם — She said to them:

מימי — In all my days,

לא ראו קורות ביתי קלעי שערי — the walls of my house never once saw… the braids of my hair.


“The braids of my hair?”

What is that?

I mean, look — it’s better than “eat that frog.” But seriously — what does covering the “braids of my hair” have to do with raising sons to be Kohen Gadol? It just seems so irrelevant!

In fact, you almost get the sense that Kimchit was answering Chazal in the form of a riddle. So — how do we solve that riddle?

That’s what I want to spend some time working through with you today.

And, you know — one starting point may be to realize that the Kohen Gadol also covered his hair. You might even say that this was his crowning glory; he wore a turban, a mitznefes, and a little golden band over his hairline called a tzitz, which is actually related to the word for “lock of hair,” and which carried the engraved proclamation, “קודש לה” — “Holy to Hashem.” This was one the most prominent ways the Kohen Gadol was distinguished from everybody else. And what it did was, it ensured that his sense of purpose, that his sense of propriety, was always on the top of his mind — literally.

So maybe Kimchit’s practice had something to do with this. Maybe it had a way of instilling in her children this added measure of refinement, this added measure of regality. Maybe what she was telling the Chachamim was that even in her own home, she didn’t “dress down” — she didn’t relax her standards of decorum or dignity, neither in fashion nor in conduct — and that, in that way, she modeled for her children a level of gravitas consistent with the grandeur of Klal Yisrael’s highest office. Maybe that’s the symbolism here.

Or maybe, it’s exactly the opposite. Because, you know, even beyond the tzitz — there are many, many, ways in which the hair serves as an important symbol for the Kohen Gadol. And to just take the most prominent of them — you know that one of the first commands issued to Aharon and his sons was ראשיכם אל תפרעו — “do not leave your hair unkempt.” Even when he loses a relative, the Kohen Gadol isn’t allowed to let his hair grow the way a typical mourner is supposed to. And in fact, the Gemara in Sanhedrin tells us that the Kohen Gadol used to cut his hair once a week.

So if you’re a Kohen Gadol, you would have been pretty busy with your hair. And maybe if you’re an aspiring Kohen Gadol, you would have been pretty busy with your hair, too. But Kimchit — the mother of seven future Kohen Gadols — she kept her hair “under wraps.” And maybe what this did was, it served to put a lid on ambitions or expectations of becoming heir to these honors of the hair. In other words — by letting her kids be kids; by taking the focus away from symbols of status and achievement — by staying out of their hair — maybe that was how Kimchit gave her sons the space to grow, organically, into the leaders they would one day become.

Or maybe it was something else still. See, the reason that hair was such an important symbol for the Kohen Gadol to handle vigilantly was because hair represents death — whereas the Kohen Gadol is supposed to serve as a minister of life. This, by the way, explains why the Kohen Gadol’s chief opponent was a man named Korach — a name which literally means “the bald one,” and which is connected to the practice of pulling out one’s hair over the dead, known as “korchah.” It also explains why the dark forces whose worship the Kohen Gadol was supposed to wean Klal Yisrael off of are called, in this week’s parshah, “seirim” — literally, the “hairy ones.”  

And so, maybe the symbolism of covering the hair has something to do with this as well. Maybe — in the same way that the Kohen isn’t allowed to come under the same roof as a dead body — maybe, Kimchit kept the hair covered under her own roof as a way of declaring: death; darkness; negativity; gloominess — to the extent that it’s possible, those things don’t enter this house. This house will be a place of optimism; a place of hope; a place of life, and of light, and of possibility. And maybe it was precisely by focusing almost obsessively, almost relentlessly, on all the good that life has to offer, that Kimchit empowered her sons to dream big — and, with time, to achieve those dreams. So that’s yet a third interpretation for what Kimchit might have been hinting at.

And, you know — I think they’re all pretty good. But I think we’re still going to have to do better. Because let’s be real here. Let’s be honest. As many connections as we can find between the Kohen Gadol and the hair – and there are a lot of them — and as many success strategies as we could possibly derive from this connection — are any of us ultimately convinced that Kimchit’s success — that the success of Kimchit’s children — really had anything to do with her hair?

I’m not.

And I’ll tell you something else: the Chachamim weren’t either.

Because you know what they said, when Kimchit told them that this was the secret to her success? Here’s the rest of the story, as it appears in the Talmud:

אמרו לה — the Sages said to Kimchit:

 הרבה עשו כן — lots of people cover their hair–just like you do; both in and out of the house–and both women and men, for that matter.

And you know what?

לא הועילו — it didn’t work for them. It didn’t yield them seven Kohen Gadols.

And that’s it. That’s how the medrash ends.

And now we’ve really got to think. Because the Chachamim have a really good point, don’t they? Lots of us try lots of ways to find success — and some succeed, and some try the very same ways, and they don’t. So what was Kimchit thinking? How could she seriously say, “My success comes from covering my hair?” Didn’t she know that הרבה עשו — that lots of others tried the hair covering thing, ולא הועילו — and it didn’t work for them?

Of course she knew that.

And, actually — I think that this is where the real depth of this medrash lies.

You see, I think we’re reading this medrash wrong if we think that the covering of Kimchit’s hair represents the secret of her success. I don’t think it does. I think it represents exactly the opposite; that Kimchit mentions her hair not to answer the Chachamim’s question, but to avoid it. Because as curious as the Chachamim may be, Kimchit doesn’t want to discuss the so-called “secret” of her success — if such a “secret” even exists. And that’s what she’s hinting at with her cryptic reply. What she’s really telling them is: Lookbaruch Hashem, I’ve been very blessed. But I don’t want to go broadcasting my success around. I don’t want to make a big deal out of it. Even in my own house, she tells them, I’m careful to cover my hair — even among friends and family, I value privacy and discretion. So I’m certainly not about to share with the entire nation personal details about my children, and my relationship with them. That stuff is between me and them. It’s just not for public consumption.

Kimchit’s success secret, in other words, is simply this: that it’s OK to keep your success a secret. It’s OK not to share it with everybody who asks — and certainly, it’s OK not to share it with everybody who didn’t ask. It might even be better that way.

And few messages could actually be more important for us today. Few lessons could be more relevant than the profound insight hiding within this little-know medrash — the medrash of Kimchit. Because at a time when all sorts of social media bid us to craft carefully curated digital profiles, on which we photograph, tweet, post and share our every success — at a time when our first instinct, so often, when we experience a highlight in our personal relationships or in our careers, when we finish a good book or attend a great concert or complete a workout or host a get together, has become, more and more, not to savor it, or just enjoy it, or journal about it, or thank Hashem for it — but to post about it on Facebook or WhatsApp, so we can prove that it really happened — in times like these, Kimchit reminds us to take a step back; to consider the fact that life’s successes mean so much more when we share them, first, with love and modesty, among those closest to us, rather than rushing to convert them into “likes and “re-tweets.”

There’s nothing wrong with cultivating a public presence. It’s a good thing when we use the tools of modernity to connect with others, build stronger communities, and promote the causes and values which matter to us. On the holiest day of the year, the Kohen Gadol, as we read about in this week’s parshah, was followed almost everywhere he went by a large audience of worshipers eager to glean from his inspiration and influence.

But the climax of the Yom Kippur service — the highest point in the day – that was conducted in privacy. When it came time to enter the kodesh kodashim — the Kohen Gadol went alone. When it came time to sacrifice the se’ir ha-mishtaleach — the Kohen who did so went alone. Out of sight. Out of reach. Just one person, standing before one God, connecting deeply, without the need for any fanfare, or any Facebook.

And, here’s a secret: that’s what made it so special.

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