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Peninim on the Torah

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Rabbi A. Leib Scheinbaum
Hebrew Academy of Cleveland


So now - please come and curse this people for me. (22:6)

Humility is much more than a positive character trait. It is a characteristic which is absolutely vital to one's success in life. It is an indicator of adherence to the truth. One who is arrogant is simply not a truthful person. Indeed, life is one long lesson in humility, without which life would be a sham, with the greatest fool being the one who lords himself over others. At the end of the day, he knows that he is only fooling himself.

Having said this, we turn to the Haftorah in Parashas Balak, which recalls Balak's attempt to curse the Jews and cause them to sin with the Midyanite women. To catalyze his nefarious plans, he attempted to hire the evil pagan prophet, Bilaam, a man whose jaundiced "eye" - which looked for the negative in everyone and everything - was the result of, and superseded by, his voracious quest for honor. His arrogance was a lesson in how much and how far one who lacks humility can delude himself.

The Navi Michah (6:6) says: Ba'meh akadem Hashem, "With what shall I approach Hashem?" This pasuk serves as a basis for a thesis on humility rendered by Horav Avraham Pam, zl, and redacted by Rabbi Sholom Smith in his collection of Torah thoughts from the venerable Rosh Yeshivah. The Talmud Chullin 89 compares the humility manifest by Avraham Avinu to that expressed by Moshe Rabbeinu and Aharon HaKohen. Avraham refers to himself as V'anochi afar va'eifer, "I am but dust and ashes" (Bereishis 18:27). Moshe and Aharon indicated an even greater sense of humility when they said, V'nachnu mah, "For what are we?" (Shemos 16:8). Avraham viewed himself as dust and ashes which, after all, is a substance, an entity. Moshe and Aharon viewed themselves as nothing - no substance - no entity - nothing at all.

The Rosh Yeshivah explains the concept of v'nachnu mah, we are nothing. In Sefer Iyov (41:3), the pasuk states: Mi hikdimani vaAshaleim, "Who can precede Me, that I will reward him?" The Yalkut Shimoni explains this pasuk practically. Everything that man does, regardless of its difficulty or ease, is facilitated by Hashem. Man cannot do anything on his own. This applies equally to mitzvah performance. A man performs a mitzvah, for which he anticipates a reward. Does it ever enter his mind that it was Hashem Who gave him the opportunity and ability to execute this mitzvah? An individual is blessed with a son, for whom he performs the mitzvah of Bris Milah. Indeed, this is a mitzvah for which one should receive reward. Does the father, however, realize that it was Hashem Who blessed him with fatherhood? This idea applies to all mitzvos. Tzitzis and Tefillin are mitzvos we perform daily. Likewise, a Mezuzah placed on the doorpost of our house is a mitzvah that, once it is in place, is fulfilled regularly. How did he obtain the Tefillin? The Tzitzis? How did he earn the money to purchase a house? Without Hashem enabling us, we simply cannot perform the mitzvos. Thus, Iyov says, Who can precede Hashem? Whatever we have, whatever we do, is all empowered and enabled by Hashem. He precedes us!

This is a wonderful and pragmatic understanding of mitzvah observance and the correct attitude we should have maintained toward our "expectance" of reward. Whatever we receive is beyond the scope of what we deserve, since, without Hashem, we could not have performed the mitzvah.

The Rosh Yeshivah cites the Chida in his Nachal Sorek commentary to the Haftorah of Parashas Balak, who observes that, indeed, it is possible to apply the power of "mah," "what," as in ba'mah, "with what I will precede Hashem." We note that Moshe and Aharon embodied the character trait of humility, as indicated by their reference to themselves as, V'nachnu mah, "We are nothing." The Chida explains this in the following manner: It is true that the house upon which one places his Mezuzah is given to him by Hashem. Let us say (for argument's sake) that a person says, "I can live without a home. I can sleep in a tent, on the hard ground, on a bench in a shul. I require a house for one purpose: to have a domicile on which I can place a Mezuzah. Otherwise, I need nothing! Thus, the power of mah, "nothing," actually enables a person to precede Hashem. Such a person, who lives only for mitzvah performance, deserves his due reward.

Moshe and Aharon were like that. They had achieved the pinnacle of spiritual service, feeling a sense of nothingness. They asked nothing of Hashem for their personal needs. They lived only to serve Him. Anything that they acquired was used for one purpose: to serve Hashem. Otherwise, they had no use for it.

Rav Pam comments that while this level is a bit extreme - and a difficult one for most people to achieve - one can (and should), however, aspire to attain it. For example: who does not have "some" desire to have money, to somehow become liberated from financial worry. All this is not unusual, and even an expected human impulse. Nonetheless, if a person were to seek money for the sole purpose of giving tzedakah, charity, or performing acts of chesed, kindness, it would conceivably reflect a level of ba'meh akadem Hashem, with mah I will precede Hashem. Such character development takes time to evolve, but, if a person focuses his efforts towards achieving such an elevated spiritual goal, he can quite possibly realize its fruition. In any event, he will see marked improvement in every aspect of his spiritual service to Hashem, and this is, in and of itself, an exemplary accomplishment.

Behold! The people coming out of Egypt has covered the surface of the earth. Now go and curse it for me. (22:11)

In Parashas Balak, we are introduced to a new type of enemy, and, consequently, a battle which is of a completely different nature. Our standard classical enemies, such as Egypt, Amalek and others which followed them, came out to annihilate or persecute us with soldiers, weapons, and a battle plan. Balak and Bilaam did no such thing. Theirs was a battle waged on spiritual terrain, a battle between: the forces of tumah, spiritual defilement, and taharah, spiritual purity. It was the base, immoral Bilaam, a degenerate of epic proportions, who was hired by Balak, an evil misfit in his own merit, to take down the Jews, to curse and mislead them. The ultimate objective was to destroy the Am Hashem, the nation of G-d.

We were unable to fight back, because we were unaware of the enemy. The events and developments described in Parashas Balak were unbeknownst to Moshe Rabbeinu and Klal Yisrael. Thus, they could neither fight back, nor pray to Hashem for salvation. Hashem spared them by turning Bilaam's curse into a blessing. This demonstrates Hashem's abiding love for us. Despite our lack of input, He saw to it that the evil machinations of Balak and Bilaam not only did not achieve fruition, but rather, they became a source of blessing.

This serves as a lesson for us. We are surrounded by a world of enemies, although many of us convince ourselves that we are at peace with the world. Just because the swords are not drawn, the official decrees not overt, the enemies are still there. It is only out of Hashem's love for us that we continue to exist. Therefore, it behooves us to thank and praise the Almighty for everything He does on our behalf.

In his Teshuvos, responsa, the Chasam Sofer presents us with an incredible insight. I take the liberty of paraphrasing from his teshuvah. "I would like to point out that no single event recorded in the Torah was not attested to by Klal Yisrael's personal participation. We witnessed it all - except the episode of Bilaam. The Egyptian exile, with its ensuing persecution of our nation, followed by the Heavenly plagues which devastated the country, were witnessed by millions of Jews. The drowning of the Egyptians in the Red Sea, which was split for the Jews, took place before the eyes of six hundred thousand men over the age of twenty. We know that it is true, because 600,000 men do not lie to their children.

Likewise, Amalek's war with our nation was no secret, having occurred when it did before the eyes of the nation. The Chasam Sofer quotes Ramban, in Sefer Drashos HaRamban, where he writes that everything which occurred in Sefer Bereishis - such as the Creation of the Universe, the episode with the serpent in Gan Eden, Adam and Chavah - was all witnessed by those involved. Adam HaRishon saw himself alone in the world. He understood that he was Hashem's first human creation. He saw and experienced the wonders of Gan Eden and witnessed his own expulsion. Adam spoke directly with Shem ben Noach, who was the Rebbe of Yaakov Avinu. When Shem died, Yaakov was fifty years old, and he was able to receive from him all the events of world history that preceded them: The Flood and the Dispersion. This historical narrative was transmitted from Yaakov to his children. Levi taught Amram, who, in turn, taught his sons, Moshe and Aharon. This holds true for every generation: Every father teaches his son about the events of the past, based on the transmission which he received from his father. It is as if the events transpired before our very own eyes. They are irrefutable, undeniable. This idea applies, as well, to all of the stories and events described in the Torah.

Likewise, the details and procedures for performing the mitzvos were all clearly delineated. If someone were to attempt to usurp the teachings of Moshe Rabbeinu by wearing Tefillin in a different way than the one prescribed by Moshe - he would be stoned. The people would contend that we have a mesorah, tradition, heralding back to Har Sinai, accompanied by Moshe Rabbeinu and Yehoshua bin Nun and the Elders and Prophets after him. Nothing was concocted. Everything was real, seen through the eyes of the Jews. No one could deviate from the protocols practiced every day before the Elders and Prophets of every generation. Everything that we do today has remained dedicated to the mesorah that has been transmitted throughout the generations. This is a mesorah in which our forebears, our transmitters, played an active and participating role.

We now come to the "punch line." We witnessed all of the events recorded in the Torah with our own eyes, except for one: the episode of Bilaam. How do we know what took place between Bilaam and Balak, what their evil intentions were? How do we know why Bilaam visited Balak, who sent for him, who brought him? Who knew that he built altars, attempted to curse the Jews, only to have his curses reversed into blessings? How did the people know? How did Moshe know? The answer to all of these questions is that these events were recorded from the Mouth of Hashem. Hashem taught it all to Moshe. This is no different than any other aspect of Torah.

The Chasam Sofer, thus, explains the underlying message conveyed by the Navi Michah (which is read in the Haftorah, Michah 6:5). Ami, z'chor na man yaatz, "My people, please remember what Balak, King of Moav, schemed, and what Bilaam ben Beor answered him, from Shittim to Gilgag - in order to recognize the benevolence from Hashem." The Navi teaches us that it is a mitzvah to remember the episode of Bilaam, the negotiations that ensued between Balak and Bilaam. We must recall Balak's treachery and Bilaam's scheme to turn us away from Hashem. Why? Because, as the Chasam Sofer says, it is Torah. Indeed, if an individual believes in the entire Torah and its mitzvos, but questions the veracity of the Bilaam incident, he demonstrates that he does not believe in Hashem, Our G-d.

With the above in mind, Horav Pinchas Friedman, Shlita, explains the uniqueness of the salvation which Hashem provided during the Balak/Bilaam debacle. The other miracles which Hashem wrought for us followed our supplication, our passionate and sincere entreaty, subsequent to the persecution and suffering which we sustained at the hands of our oppressors, the Egyptians. Likewise, Amalek was an enemy that was not unbeknownst to us. We saw him attacking and we responded with prayer to Hashem. The fact t

hat Hashem listened to our prayers is not a novel idea. It is natural for a loving Father to respond favorably to his child's painful plea. With regards to Balak/Bilaam, it was an altogether different battle. Klal Yisrael was unaware of their nefarious intentions to spiritually harm us. It was not a physical battle as evinced by Egypt and Amalek; it was a spiritual war, to turn us against Hashem. Despite our ignorance of the enemy, Hashem, nonetheless, came to our rescue, by revealing His love for us. How little we know of the many challenges to our faith and person from which Hashem spares us. We should take the story of Balak/Bilaam as a lesson in remembering that, if we are safe, it is only because Hashem provides the safeguards.

And (the) Yisrael dwelled in Shittim, and began to sin with the daughters of Moav. (Bamidbar 25:1)

One of society's more difficult anomalies is interfaith marriage. We live in a time when even marriages which seem perfect on paper fail dismally. Why would anyone in his right mind start married life with someone who is of an opposing faith? I use the word opposing by design, since, for the most part, the Jews have been the world's sacrificial lamb, having been abused, persecuted, tortured, hounded and murdered by anyone who felt they had the right to lord over them. Why would anyone marry into a religion whose elders and doctrine revile us? They say love conquers all - but, is it love, physical infatuation, or just plain foolishness?

The Bostoner Rebbe, zl, stood at the forefront of Judaism's struggle with interfaith incursion. He asks: "Why would anyone begin their married life with someone who has a completely different past, present and future? Is it due to a lack of Jewish education and home observance of Torah and mitzvos? Is it a lack of parental restraint, or long term perspective, a lack of concern for one's future Jewish children?" Those who have fallen prey to the scourge of intermarriage either were not thinking, or lack the ability to think rationally and recognize cause and effect.

The home becomes the battleground between the religions - or, worse, the Jew just reneges his religion completely. Why not? What does he care? As in all battles, the defenseless and weak are the ones who become the victims of this battle. In this case, it is the children, whose parents manifested a lack of caring, a total disdain for the future of their offspring.

For two thousand years our enemies have attempted to destroy us: massacres; crusades; pogroms; inquisitions; culminating with the Holocaust. As the Rebbe sadly notes, however, the persecuted marries the persecutor, and together they disappear from history. Indeed, intermarriage has achieved what the stake and the Holocaust could not. Perhaps, we can say it differently. When "we" are our worst enemy - "we" succeed.

The battleground for the future of our children is both in the public and private sphere. Many a young Jew or Jewess, whose knowledge of his/her heritage is quite limited as a result of his/her parents' ineptitude, becomes a victim every time he or she is exposed to alien cultures. He or she cannot argue, since he/she knows little about his/her own.

The Bostoner Rebbe focused on teaching, reaching out to the college students and professionals who crossed his door. For the most part, he was successful with those whom he enlightened. For some, however, it was too late. He writes about Massachusetts State Attorney General, George Fingold, who was the Republican candidate for governor. He was doing fantastic in primary polls, with the vision of a Jewish governor for the state of Massachusetts becoming more and more a reality. As the old adage goes, "Man plans and G-d laughs." All of the best laid plans came to an abrupt end, when the Republican nominee sustained a massive coronary which killed him at the age of 43. It made national headlines because of its ripple effect on the country. Behind the scenes, a large battle was brewing between his family and the candidate's non-Jewish wife, who wanted him buried in her family cemetery adjacent to her church. The old Jewish mother of the deceased wanted her Jewish son to have a Jewish burial. (It is an interesting phenomenon how Jews who do not want to live as Jews insist on being buried as Jews.) Massachusetts state law granted precedence to the wife's wishes. The way it appeared, the Jewish body did not belong to the deceased. Mr. Fingold was relegated to spending an eternity in a Christian cemetery, with a cross, no less, ensconced above his head. (He certainly did not think of this when he married his wife - but then no one does. They are too infatuated to think of natural consequences.)

It did not end there. Fingold was a Jew, who, although not very religious, still had never parted with Judaism by converting. His mother (would you believe?) regularly attended the Orthodox shul in Malden - weekly. She was supported by the shul's membership who felt that the deceased was one of their own (now he was one of their own). The judge sided with the Fingold family. Their errant son would be brought home.

The funeral was a tense affair, especially because it followed after a hotly contested court battle. The various family members took sides based upon their position vis-?-vis the feud. The venom that permeated the air was palpable. As one friend of the family put it, "If you ever want to see the consequences of intermarriage - this is it."

The Rebbe notes that the crowing irony of the entire ordeal was the presence of the body of the deceased, the late George Fingold. He just lay there, unable to finally speak up and say what he wanted for himself. He had made a choice during his life - a choice with which he had lived and later died. During his lifetime, he controlled so much; he was so powerful. In death, he controlled nothing - not even his own corpse. Had he lived, he might have become governor, and who knows where he would go on from there. Now, he controlled nothing - not even himself.

What a sad story, one that plays itself out often in the life and times of the alienated. It is the story of human tragedy, of parents who made bad choices, thus raising children who likewise had no choices. It is not only the story of a human tragedy; it is a reminder to those who have executed the ultimate stray from Judaism. You may think that you are powerful and that you are in control of your destiny. Perhaps you might have a point for the present. The future, however, does not belong to you. When you buried your children's faith, denied them their heritage, you lost your say. They have their own wretched life which you created for them.

I am sure that there are those among Peninim's large readership who are wondering why I wrote this article and what it has to do with the Torah world. Sadly, those people are in for a rude wake-up call. Also, because of Peninim's wide global readership, its readers may not all be practicing Orthodox Jews.

Yisrael became attached to Baal Peor. (25:3)

The attachment of Klal Yisrael to the Peor idol is described by Chazal (Talmud Sanhedrin 64a) as k'tzamid pasil, "Like a lid clings to a jar." They become one with the pagan god. This is highly unusual and something which we would never expect from an intelligent people. The worship of Peor was carried out by degrading oneself in its presence, such as relieving oneself in front of the idol. Is there anything more humiliating for the idol than this? A Jew who worshipped Peor in such a manner was liable for the death penalty. What kind of person would do this? How could members of the holy nation act with such vulgarity as to "attach" themselves to the idol?

Horav Shimon Schwab, zl, suggests that the vulgarity was a ploy conjured up by the Midyanite women, who convinced the Jews that they were humiliating and degrading their god. They were not worshipping it; they were performing a mitzvah! Thus, the Jews became so attached to the idol, because they foolishly thought that they were acting appropriately. These women employed guile and deceit to ensnare the unsuspecting Jewish men, thus luring them into sin.

With this idea, Rav Schwab illuminates what seems to be a difficulty in understanding the prohibition of Bal Tosif, do not add to the mitzvos. The Torah (Devarim 4:2,3) says: "You shall not add to the word that I commanded you… your eyes have seen what Hashem did with Baal Peor, for every man that followed Baal Peor - Hashem - Your G-d destroyed him." The commentators wonder what the connection between adding mitzvos and worshipping the Peor god is. In light of the Rav's explanation of the sin of Peor, we have a new perspective on sin. Not all sin begins as such. The sin of Peor was originally, in the minds of the perpetrators, a mitzvah! They thought they were doing a good thing - only to find out later that they had been duped into worshipping an idol. Thus, those who wished to add to the mitzvos by saying that it was a mitzvah to denigrate Baal Peor, ended up transgressing the cardinal sin of idol worship.

This is perhaps the most difficult form of sin to escape from the grip of the tentacles of the yetzer hora, evil-inclination. The average "sinner" does not seek out a path towards sinful behavior. He is lured into a trap with the notion that he is performing a mitzvah. Likewise, the person who is "convinced" that he must add to the Torah, thus making it more perfect, is already on the road to infamy. The Torah is Divine and, therefore, by its very nature, the essence of perfection. To add to the Torah is to blemish its exquisiteness.

Interestingly, the one who thinks that he is degrading Peor is actually venerating it, since this is its manner of worship. Similarly, the one who is adding mitzvos thinks he is enhancing the Torah, when, in fact, he is impugning its integrity and demeaning its perfection. When people "play G-d," they demonstrate how far removed they are from anything Divine.

Va'ani Tefillah

Emes Atah hu Adon l'amecha,
u'Melech gibor la'riv rivam.
True - You are the Master for Your People, and a mighty King to take up their grievance.

Hashem is described in dual "functions": as Master; and King. As Master, He provides for our daily needs, our health and welfare, much like a parent who is always on the lookout for whatever their child might need. Hashem is also our King, Who, in times of adversity, when our nation is challenged from without, is present to protect us. Once again, the "parent" description seems to apply even at this phase. Even a king rests, sleeps, takes a vacation. Not so a parent. A parent never sleeps when it concerns his child. The child is often unaware of his parent's guiding/helping hand. The child sleeps, but, the parent is awake. Thus, Hashem will fight our battles. When they are overt and when they are behind the scenes, active machinations to destroy us while we "slumber," He is there to protect us. Hashem does not sleep.

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