Parashat Emor begins with the prohibition of tum’at kohanim, which forbids kohanim from coming in contact with a corpse. Rashi, citing the Gemara (Yevamot 114a), notes the unusual, redundant phraseology in the opening verse of the parasha – “Speak to the kohanim…and say to them,” and explains, “Le-hazhir gedolim al ha-ketanim” – “To warn the adults with regard to the minors.” The plain meaning of this remark is that the Torah here turns to the adult kohanim and instructs them to instruct the young kohanim to abide by this restriction and avoid contact with human corpses.
A Chassidic reading of this verse is suggested by the Tolna Rebbe. The phrase “Le-hazhir gedolim al ha-ketanim” could be understood to mean that the “gedolim,” the distinguished members of the nation, are to be warned to treat the “ketanim” – the commoners – with respect and dignity. According to this reading, Chazal embedded within this halakha an allusion to the need for the kohanim not to allow their prestigious position to result in condescension and arrogance. Although there were elevated to the distinction of the kehuna (priesthood), and held a special status in Am Yisrael, they were to treat all people with respect, without looking down on any individual or belittling his or her importance.
In truth, these two readings of the Gemara’s comment are very much related. In order to effectively train youngsters in mitzva observance, we must try to admonish and instruct them in a manner that preserves their dignity. “Le-hazhir gedolim al ha-ketanim” requires the adults to educate minors to observe the Torah’s laws, and the way this should be done is through respect and consideration, not arrogance and disdain. The more we succeed in maintaining a respectful and dignified tone and demeanor in our efforts to educate, the better chance these efforts have of succeeding and achieving the goal of inspiring the next generation to embrace and cherish the mitzvot.