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Peninim on the Torah

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Rabbi A. Leib Scheinbaum
Hebrew Academy of Cleveland


Balak ben Tzipor saw. (22:2)

The Midrash relates that Hashem foresaw that the gentile nations might claim that they adopted their lifestyle because they were lacking leadership. He, therefore, provided them with leadership that was both powerful and brilliant. When he established Shlomo Hamelech as monarch, he provided the pagans with Nevuchadnezer. Shlomo built the Bais Hamikdash, while his counterpart destroyed it. He gave great wealth to David Hamelech, who used it to build the Bais Hamikdash. Hashem also provided Haman with great wealth, which he used in an attempt to destroy the Jewish nation. Hashem provided the Jewish People with a great navi, prophet, Moshe Rabbeinu. The pagans were also afforded a distinguished prophet, Bilaam, who did everything possible to catalyze the downfall of Klal Yisrael. This all demonstrates that, despite what Hashem did for the nations, they were not able to sustain it. In fact, they extirpated whatever opportunities Hashem granted them. Yet, when we consider the situation, they still have a legitimate reason to gripe about their circumstances. They could postulate that while Hashem provided the Jewish nation with righteous and noble leadership, He supplied the other nations with leadership that was wicked, evil and immoral. How could the pagans be expected to repent under the leadership of a man with the character of Bilaam, who redefined hedonism and took evil to a new low?

Otzros HaTorah cites the Lev Aharon who explains that prior to giving the Torah to Klal Yisrael, Hashem first went to every other nation and offered it to them. They flatly refused to accept it for various reasons, basically that the values of Torah were not consistent with their weltenshauung, world perspective, and national character. Nonetheless, they still demanded a prophet of the calibre of Moshe. They received what they had requested - a prophet without Torah. Bilaam probably had some incredible qualities, but, without Torah, they were meaningless. Hashem's response to the nations of the world is simple, "You want to repent and change your ways without the Torah? Impossible!" No prophet or any leader can create a lasting spiritual metamorphosis unless it is preceded by Torah.

He (Bilaam) said to them, "Spend the night here and I will give you a response, as Hashem will speak to me." (22:8)

Bilaam, the consummate liar, presents himself as a saint. He will do nothing without the express permission of G-d. Typical of his sinful demeanor, he continues reiterating his total deference to the Almighty. Indeed, his bogus personality, his ersatz character, is his greatest mark of evil. It is one thing to carry out evil, but to dress it up as an act of piety and virtuosity is the nadir of shamelessness. At least Bilaam was following in the legacy bestowed upon him by his ancestor Lavan HoArami, the virtuosic swindler who transformed evil into an art. Bilaam had no qualms about cursing Klal Yisrael. His hatred for Hashem's People burned with an intensity within him. Yet, he would never go against Hashem. He had to find a way to demonstrate his iniquity while preserving his sense of righteousness. It was necessary for him to find a heter, dispensation, to destroy our nation.

Bilaam though that he could get away with his swindling. In the end, however, whom did he really succeed in fooling? Only one person - himself. When one lies enough, he begins to believe his own lies. When one attempts to fool those around him, by presenting himself as a righteous person, when, in reality, he is nothing more than a chameleon, he fools himself. He begins to believe that he is righteous! Bilaam asked to die as a righteous and just person. That is hypocrisy at its lowest point! He actually believed that he was worthy of sainthood.

Horav Avigdor Halevi Nebentzhal, Shlita, posits that the reason the Torah relates the episode about Bilaam is that a little bit of Bilaam lurks within the recesses of each one of us. Each of us has to contend with his own hypocritical nature and inconsistencies. The "Bilaam factor" is alive and well within all of us. The only question is: How much? We fool ourselves - for what purpose? It is related that an Admor, chassidic Rebbe, once asked one of his chassidim who had sinned and attempted to gloss over his iniquity, "Whom do you think you are fooling? You cannot fool Hashem. You also cannot fool all of the people around you. Apparently the only person whom you might succeed in fooling is yourself. What do you gain by fooling a fool?" This idea is regrettably true concerning each one of us.

The people of Sodom exemplified this form of evil. Chazal tell us that the Sodomites were very clever. They invited poor people to their community. They even gave freely of their money to the poor, making sure to mark each one of the coins that they gave to the poor. There was one clause in their charity policy: No one was allowed to sell food to a poor man. Consequently, when the man perished from starvation, they would retrieve their coins. Then there is the story of the bed that was set aside for guests. If the traveler was too tall for the bed, his legs were shortened. If he was too short, they would stretch him. Rav Nebentzhal contends that some of us use the Sodom bed as an analogy to the Torah. The Torah has to fit into our lifestyle. When its mitzvos are too much, we shorten the Torah. We make it fit into our purvue, consistent with our needs and values. In the end, we are only fooling ourselves.

Behold! The people will rise like a lion cub and raise itself like a lion; it will not lie down until it consumes prey. (23:24)

The Holocaust transformed the proud Jewish nation into homeless wanderers. Throughout his powerful homilies, The Piazsesner Rebbe, zl, attempts to console and sustain his broken-hearted chassidim with the ideas that their present circumstance was already foreshadowed in the very manner that the Torah was given; and that the opportunity to serve Hashem is available anywhere, even in the ghetto. Inclusive in his derashos, homilies, are a number of themes to strengthen the inner resources of his people. He focuses on the nobility which the Jewish heritage confers on us. Our pedigree must remind us that we are princes and, even when the Nazi dogs beat and attempt to degrade us, we are still nobility and should act in a consistent manner. He writes that not only is the Jewish spirit holy, even the very body of a Jew is unique in its sanctity.

In his derashah to Parashas Balak, he posits that - unlike the rest of creation, which was created by the Divine word - Klal Yisrael was created directly by the hands of Hashem. Therefore, a Jew's holiness extends to all levels of his existence, even the physical. Actually, in his commentary to Bereishis 1:27, "And G-d created man in His image," Rashi says, "Everything else was created by the Divine word, but man was created by the Divine hands." What does this mean? One would think that being created by Divine speech is a higher level than being created by the physical action of hands. How is it then that man who stands at the pinnacle of creation was created by hand, while the rest of creation was created by Divine speech?

The Piazsesner explains that for all other creatures, the holiness did not extend from Above all the way to their very essence; it remained in the realm of words. For the Jew, however, holiness extended into his lowest level, the level of physicality and action. He was created by the Divine hands, so that he is entirely holy.

This is also why Klal Yisrael is considered to be the eternal people. Everything was created by Divine speech, by means of a word that remains above and beyond them, which shines upon them only from afar. The light is not permanently available within them; it flashes like lightning, giving temporary illumination. Klal Yisrael however, was created with the Divine hands, so that the Divine sanctity penetrates to their level of physical action and to whatever place they may be found. Hence, as a nation, we are eternal and even the individual physical body of the Jew is eternal. When he expends his energies for Torah study and mitzvah observance, that physical energy becomes integrated with the Torah and Divine source. Thus, his body rises to the world of eternity and remains eternal. Only the foods which the individual ate throughout his life - and which are added onto his body -are subject to decomposition and decay.

Thus, the Jew is able to strengthen himself during periods of travail, so that even when he lies down, he is not fallen. Even in his low state, he is still able to vanquish his enemies. He was created with the Divine hands which causes his holiness to extend to his Jewish essence. This is the underlying meaning of Bilaam's blessing. The Jew rises and strengthens himself like a lion. He does not fall down completely; he just crouches. Even in this position, he can triumph over his enemies. He rises like a lion, even during the most difficult troubles; under the most compelling duress, he leaps up like the king of beasts.

At a time when the Jew's body was both attacked and maligned, the Rebbe emphasizes the solid affirmation of the corporeal holiness of the Jew. In both his physical and spiritual essence, the Jew is holy and eternal; he represents the Divine light hidden in all reality. It is specifically for this reason that he is despised, such that attempts are constantly made to destroy him. It is precisely for this same reason, however, that the Jew's dignity is inviolable, his nobility is sacrosanct, and his survival and ultimate triumph is assured: Mi k'amcha Yisrael. "Who is like Your Nation - Yisrael?"

Jewish resilience is a character trait endemic to Klal Yisrael. The ability to pick oneself up, shake off the dirt and go on, is something inherently Jewish. In Moed Katan 9b the Talmud cites the following story. Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai told his son to approach two of his disciples and ask them for a blessing. His son was puzzled with the blessings he received. They began with what seemed to be an ambiguous blessing, such as, "May you plant and not harvest," which, after explanation was interpreted as, "May you have children, and may they not die." In the Sefer HaChaim, the brother of the Maharal m'Prague wonders why these wise men gave a blessing which sounded like a curse. Why did they not give an unambiguous blessing? He explains that this world is the world of hardship and yissurim, anguish. It is normal for every individual to experience vicissitude in life. When the wise men said, "May it be the will," they were not referring to Hashem's will, but rather, "May this be your will," namely, that you should desire these problems and prepare yourself for any eventuality that may arise, because that is the way of the world.

Horav Gedalya Eiseman, Shlita, comments that most of the damage caused by hardship results from a lack of anticipating it. If people would prepare themselves for possible hardship, accepting the fact that life is tough and that trials and tribulations are to be expected as part of normal living, and realizing that everyone suffers in one way or another, they would have an easier time coping with adversity.

Intellectual awareness of the truth is not enough. It is necessary that one live his life feeling this awareness in his psyche. This requires self-discipline and practice. Indeed, the Alter, zl, m'Kelm listed among his goals for character perfection the resolution to train himself not to expect everything to go his way.

Water will flow from their wells. (24:7)

In the Talmud Nedarim 81a, Chazal say, "Take heed with the sons of the poor, for from them Torah will go forth, as it is stated, "Water shall flow midalyo, 'from his wells,' which can alternatively be read mi dalav, 'from his poor.' The pasuk thus means: Torah, which is compared to water, shall flow from Klal Yisrael's poor. Horav Eliezer M. Shach, zl, would relate the story concerning a very wealthy and powerful man from a town near Kovno who sought a husband for his daughter. He was prepared to offer complete support, so that the young man could become a posek, halachic arbitrator, of such a calibre that he ascend to a distinguished pulpit.

He was presented with two young men, both brilliant and erudite, but from diverse backgrounds. One was descended from an illustrious lineage of famous rabbinic scholars. The other young scholar came from a simple home, simple pedigree and simple surroundings. Not knowing what to do, he went to the preeminent Torah scholar and rav of Kovno, Horav Yitzchak Elchanan Spektor, asking for guidance in this dilemma. He described both young men, adding that his personal choice was the one whose background was most impressive, despite the fact that this young man's parents insisted on receiving a very hefty dowry.

Rav Yitzchak Elchanan told him, "If you ask my opinion, I suggest that you select the young man who hails from a simple background. Why? Because the young man who descends from Torah elite grew up in a home where Torah reigned paramount and its study and erudition was a way of life. His parents devoted their lives to raising him from day one to grow in Torah. It is no wonder that he is a Torah scholar. He simply followed in the manner of his breeding. If he were to be torn away from his parents' influence and would have to assume the yoke of family support on his own shoulders, would he be able to withstand the pressure? I do not know. The other young man, however, had to fight his entire life to overcome one obstacle after another, triumphing over life's challenges, in order to study Torah with proficiency and diligence. Such a young man is assured of a position.

Va'ani Tefillah

Matir asurim - Who releases the bound.

With this brachah, we pay gratitude to Hashem for literally releasing those that are bound. Our ability to move - to run, to jump, to raise our hand in any direction - is a gift that we should not take for granted. One has only to look at a person who is ill and see that he makes every movement with great difficulty. We should also take into consideration that what we do with our hands and feet does not necessarily coincide with Hashem's purpose in their creation. Thus, when we thank Hashem for His gift to us, we should simultaneously take a moment to affirm our commitment to use these wonderful gifts for the appropriate purpose. Horav Shimon Schwab asserts that included in this brachah is our gratitude to the Almighty for providing us with the power of speech and hearing. During the night, as we slept, these abilities were also "bound up" and not functioning.

This brachah applies even to an individual who due, to illness or injury, is left bereft of these abilities. Even one who is too sick to get out of bed makes these brachos, because they were composed for those who have normal human functions, and they can be of assistance to those who unfortunately do not have them.

In an alternative explanation, the Gaon, zl, m'Vilna, explains that Hashem places the neshamah, soul, of a person in another creation, so that it can atone for its misdeeds committed in this world. The gilgul, reincarnation, of a soul could have taken place in any one of Hashem's creation, even an animal or an inanimate object. The fact that Hashem has released our bonds and placed our soul in the body of a human should catalyze an expression of gratitude.

Moshe Shimon and Tibor
in memory of their father
Pinchas ben Shimon Rosenberg z'l

Peninim on the Torah is in its 14th year of publication. The first nine years have been published in book form.

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