“A sin committed while wearing a rabbinic coat is still a sin.” This phrase humorously describes the human tendency and strategy to hide behind religion in an attempt to conceal or justify endless varieties of unscrupulous behavior and even outright horrific behavior. The Talmud discusses at length (Yevamot Chapter 1) the fact that there actually are times when one is legally permitted to violate one of the Torah’s restrictions, limitations, or prohibitions in order to fulfill one of its positive demands. These cases and situations, however, are very specific and limited. The clear implication of the Talmud is that in the vast majority of situations, one may not do something wrong in an effort or attempt to do something right. But does the Torah itself address this issue and openly condemn the tendency to overlook sins in order to perform Mitzvot?
Rabbi Yeruchom Levovitz (ca. 1873-1936), long-time Mashgiach of the Mir Yeshiva in Pre-World War II Poland, finds a source in Parashat Emor. When the Torah discusses safeguarding the sanctity of the Temple offerings, it sums up the matter by giving a general directive and warning. “[The Kohanim] should protect My charge and not bear a sin thereby” (Leviticus 22:9). This verse must be understood by considering the situation that it addresses. For what reason would a Kohen be spending time in the Temple? He was not there for his own, personal reasons. He did not come for entertainment or enjoyment, nor did he come to pass the time. He was there to perform what he approached as fully obligatory commandments: to carry out the series of rituals that comprised the Temple service. It is specifically in this setting that the Torah warns the Kohen “not to bear a sin thereby.” Meaning, the Torah is saying: “Attention Kohen: Do not allow your engrossment, preoccupation, and involvement in your sacred job, as important as it is, to lead you to assume a carefree attitude about the sin of compromising the offerings’ sanctity (by inadvertently allowing them to become defiled by impurity).” The Torah is not just warning someone in any everyday situation not to sin – it is specifically warning someone who is currently doing a mitzvah not to sin. No Kohen should think that the fact that he is involved in holy work can justify his transgressing any sin, large or small.
The Torah’s message to the Kohen applies to any mitzvah, good act, or project one may engage in. It must be “clean,” free of any sin or harm to others. After all, the Torah doesn’t present exceptions to its negative commandments. It doesn’t say “Don’t eat pork, unless you happen to be performing a mitzvah,” or “Don’t hurt someone’s feelings (see Leviticus 19:33), unless it happens to be a means for doing something good!” If the act cannot be done without the sin, then it is clear that one must completely forgo carrying it out at all in the first place. We should definitely don the “rabbinic coat” and do good and great things. But that coat can never be used as a front to obscure detrimental, injurious, hurtful, or destructive behavior.