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Peninim on the Torah

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Rabbi A. Leib Scheinbaum
Hebrew Academy of Cleveland

Parshas Bamidbar

Hashem spoke to Moshe in the wilderness of Sinai, in the Ohel Moed…in the second year after their exodus from the land of Egypt. (1:1)

Hashem purposely gave us the Torah in the wilderness, a place devoid of all material comfort. We are to glean from the "setting" in which the Revelation took place that we must liken ourselves to a midbar, wilderness, in our quest to gain proficiency in Torah. An individual should place no value on material comforts. If he becomes like a wilderness, he will succeed. He must make priorities in life. For a Jew, Torah study is the highest priority. Everything else -- all material and secular achievements -- comprises a distant second.

In our daily endeavor, we must distinguish between what is major and what is relatively minor. Otherwise, we might waste our time on trivia, neglecting major issues. Wanting to teach his employees the importance of time management, an executive of a large firm hired an instructor whose success in this field was impressive. The instructor walked into the makeshift classroom with a large wide-mouthed jar. He then proceeded to fill it with large rocks. "Is this jar full?" he asked the group. They all quickly responded in the affirmative. He then took a few fistfuls of small stones and poured them into the jar. Once again, he asked if the jar was full. "Of course," they all responded. He then picked up a small bag of gravel and poured it into the jar. "Is it now full ?" he asked. "Yes," they responded in unison. Continuing, he poured sand into the jar to demonstrate to them how full the jar really was. "Now is it full?" he asked. "Yes! It is finally full," they answered. Well, this did not deter the instructor, who took out a pitcher of water and poured it into the jar. "Now it is full," he said. "Can you tell me the lesson I taught you today?" he challenged. Knowing full well the purpose of his lecture, they all responded, "You taught us about time management." "No," he said, "the lesson I taught you is that you should always put the large rocks in first." This lesson applies equally to us as well. We must learn to prioritize our time, our values, our focus in life. Hashem tells us what is important. He shows which are the large rocks. Regrettably, at times we confuse our priorities.

Nachlas Tzvi relates a powerful story that demonstrates the devotion and commitment which a young yeshivah student demonstrated, as well as the reward he achieved for his sacrifice in order to facilitate his Torah study. During World War I, Horav Isser Zalman Meltzer, zl, decided to close his yeshivah in Kletzk, stating that he could not take responsibility for the safety of his students. He, therefore, sent everyone home for their own benefit. Upon returning home, one young student was asked by his mother, "Why have you come home?" He said, "The Rosh Yeshivah sent everyone home for their own safety." The mother began to raise her voice, "Do you think that you are safer here than in the yeshivah? I want you to return to the yeshivah to study Torah." "But Mother, I have no money with which to purchase a ticket," he said. "Then you will walk," retorted the mother. "Return immediately to the yeshivah; the Torah will protect you!"

The young student listened to his mother, and he began to walk the few hundred kilometers back to the yeshivah. After almost a week of walking, the young student appeared before Rav Isser Zalman and said, "Rebbe, I have come to study Torah!" "Why are you here?" asked the Rosh Yeshivah. When the student related his dialogue with his mother, and his walk back to the yeshivah, Rav Isser Zalman became overcome with emotion. He was impressed with a Jewish mother's self-sacrifice to risk her child's life for the sake of Torah; to have such amazing faith in the Almighty was incredible. To see this devotion transmitted to her son, who was willing to walk hundreds of kilometers to learn Torah, was overwhelming. Rav Isser Zalmen turned to the student and said, "I wish to purchase your shoes. I will treasure the shoes that were worn by a young yeshivah student who evinced such remarkable devotion for Torah study."

Hashem repaid this student for his unparalleled devotion to Torah study. Indeed, he became the gadol hador, preeminent Torah sage of our generation, Horav Elazar Menachem Man Shach, Shlita. This is but one vignette of the nature of the devotion one must manifest for Torah study. If one models his life to be like a wilderness in order to study Torah, he will one day merit to see the wilderness bloom!

Hashem spoke to Moshe in the wilderness of Sinai. (1:1)

Chazal attribute great significance to the fact that the Torah was given in the midbar, wilderness. In one statement, they say that Hashem selected the wilderness to teach us that unless one makes himself like a desert, completely devoid of all material benefits, he is not able to acquire the essence of Torah. Indeed, in his commentary to Sefer Shemos 19:2, the Ohr Ha'Chaim Ha'Kadosh, emphasizes that one of the primary criteria which refine and prepare a person for Torah study is the tempering of his arrogance. One must make himself as humble and unpretentious as a wilderness, ready to accept Hashem's special gift. The medium for receiving the Torah is humility; in fact, it is a necessary condition for its acceptance.

The Torah states, in Bamidbar 21:18, "U'mimidbar matanah," "A gift from the wilderness." Chazal derive herein that when one is like a midbar, the Torah becomes a matanah, a gift from the Almighty. In the Sichos Mussar, ethical discourses, of Yeshivas Bais Shalom Mordechai, it is explained that the Torah is referred to as a matanah, gift; therefore, the act of transferring the Torah from Hashem to Klal Yisrael is called nesinah, giving. Logically, in order to "accept" a "gift" one must be a keili, receptacle, so that he can retain this gift. Hence, by devoiding himself of all arrogance, the individual makes room within himself to accept the Torah, to become a container, prepared and dedicated to assimilate its inspiration. One who is "filled" with himself has no "room" for the Torah. He has no place in which to contain Hashem's gift.

Pirkei Avos begins, "Moshe received the Torah from (Hashem at) Sinai, and handed it over / transmitted it to Yehoshua." In order to "give over" the Torah in its pristine, complete essence, it was essential that its receiver be divested of anything that would impede this transfer. Thus, Hashem selected Har Sinai, the smallest mountain, to be the place where He would give the Torah. Hashem appropriately chose Moshe Rabbeinu, the quintessential leader of Klal Yisrael, and also the "anav mikol adam," humblest man on the earth, to accept the Torah, to be the Lawgiver.

Moshe transmitted the Torah in its entirety, as he received it from the Almighty, to his disciple, Yehoshua, the one who "never left the tent," who was always near Moshe, thirsting for more Torah, for deeper insight, for more penetrating lessons. Yehoshua transformed himself into an empty vessel in order to receive the Torah from Moshe. Chazal compare Yehoshua to the moon, while they liken Moshe to the sun. Like the moon which does not have its own illumination and receives its light from the sun, Yehoshua negated himself in order to prepare to transmit the Torah to Klal Yisrael. He viewed himself as nothing more than a tzinor, conduit, to pass on the Torah he received from Moshe to the next generation.

Horav Mordechai Gifter, Shlita, distinguishes between a heritage and an inheritance: an inheritance is a bequest that belongs to the recipient, while a heritage is something that one acquires for one purpose - to pass it on to the next generation. "Torah tzivah lanu Moshe morashah kehillas Yaakov," "The Torah that Moshe commanded us is the heritage of the congregation of Yaakov;" (Devarim 33:4) is a well-known pasuk with a profound message. The Torah is our heritage to be handed down from generation to generation in the pristine, unaltered form in which we received it at Har Sinai. This occurs through the rebbe-talmid, teacher-student, relationship in which the student divests himself of any character trait that would impede the smooth flow of this transmission.

Horav Chaim Shmuelevitz, zl, once remarked regarding two incidents that occurred in his life: one was the happiest night in his life; and the other was the happiest day of his life. The first incident happened as he was travelling through Poland. As nightfall approached, he found himself in a small town with no hotel. He was obliged to stay overnight at the home of an alumnus of the Mirrer Yeshivah. As was his nature, Rav Chaim began speaking in learning with the host. As he began to relate a mussar, ethical thought, he noticed that the host had closed his eyes. Rav Chaim quickly stopped speaking and said, "If you are tired, I will not continue." "No, no rebbe please go on," said the host. Rav Chaim continued with his ethical discourse only to see that his host had once again closed his eyes. "Please let me stop, so that you may rest," implored Rav Chaim. "Rebbe, please go on," reiterated the host. This continued for a little while. Rav Chaim spoke, and the man closed his eyes, always refusing to let Rav Chaim end his lecture. Finally, when Rav Chaim completed his lecture, the alumnus told him, "It is not because of weariness that I closed my eyes. It was because of concentration. When the Rosh Hayeshivah spoke and I closed my eyes, I envisioned before me that I was listening to the Rebbe." He was referring to Horav Yerucham Levovitz, zl, the legendary Mashgiach, spiritual advisor and mentor of the Mirrer Yeshivah. "This," said Rav Chaim, was the happiest night of my life. I was a conduit to transmit Rav Yeruchem's mussar shmuess, ethical discourse, to this talmid."

The second incident occurred in Eretz Yisrael when a student related to Rav Chaim a profound shiur, lecture, that he had himself delivered a while back. "Do you think," asked Rav Chaim, "that this student had the nerve to review my shiur and relate it back to me as if it was his own original novella? No, he heard the shiur from me and interpreted the Talmud in accordance with the way I taught him. He did not discern what I had contributed to the thought process, but after awhile, it was ingrained in his mind. He 'arrived' at this interpretation on 'his own'. This was the happiest day of my life, because I had discovered a talmid; I had seen how my shiur had been integrated into this student's thought process." This constituted joy to Rav Chaim. To be able to transmit Torah from teacher to student in the manner that Moshe handed it over to Yehoshua; to see Torah ingrained in a student in its totality, exactly as it was taught by the rebbe - that was joy. May we all one day appreciate and experience this form of simchas haTorah.

And they established their genealogy according to their families. (1:18)

The Yalkut Shimoni relates that when Klal Yisrael received the Torah, they became the envy of the gentile nations. Why should they have been more deserving of this unique gift than all of the other nations of the world? Hashem quieted them when He asked them to bring forth their sefer yuchsin, book containing their lineage. Klal Yisrael established their pedigree; their lineage was not only impressive, it was an essential component in their individual and national character. Sforno writes that this strict requirement of family purity was essential, so that the merit of their forefathers could be invoked before Hashem in order to protect them during the impending wars.

Menachem Tzion notes that the words "sefer" yuchsin, book of their lineage/genealogical document, have special meaning. Klal Yisrael does not just view their pedigree as something to discern, to fall back on, to transmit eminence. Rather, it is to glean a "sefer," book from which to study, to draw inspiration and to glean lessons for the future. We learn from our ancestors. Their lives serve as our book of lessons that guide and influence our lives. Moreover, it is a book to which we also add our own chapters, the stories of our life's successes and achievements.

This may be the underlying meaning of the pasuk in Bereishis 5:1, "Zeh sefer toldos Adam," "This is the account (book) of the descendants of Adam." Man's life of endeavor, his activities and deeds, should be so virtuous that they are appropriate for inclusion in a sefer from which people study to attain inspiration. Throughout life, man should prepare himself for the day when ultimately, "All your deeds are written in a book." The book that is inscribed with our deeds should be worthy of being read and emulated. Is there a greater legacy to transmit to our children?

We should not be satisfied only with the sefer yuchsin of our forebears. We should live our lives in such a manner that we bequeath to our children our own book, our own yichus. Thus, when they are confronted with the challenges that life has to offer, they will have a place to turn, and standards to live up to. In this manner they, too, will be encouraged to add their own chapters to the book recording their family tree.

Each Jew is instructed to write his own Sefer Torah. Indeed, Chazal say that even if one's father wrote a Sefer Torah which the son inherited, the son should nonetheless write his own Torah. In accordance with our thesis, this would suggest that a son must add to his father's Sefer Torah. He must record his Torah, his life's story, in his family's sefer yuchsin.

The story is told that when Horav Yisrael m'Ruzin's daughter became a kallah to Horav David Halperin, the mechutan, Horav Yaakov Yosef Halperin, spoke very highly of his family's prolific pedigree. This did not faze the Ruziner, who said, "In many families it is not unusual for one to glorify himself with his exemplary yichus avos, ancestral pedigree. Our custom is to speak about our yichus banim, the pedigree of our sons.

Indeed, my great-grandfather, the Mezricher Maggid, would be meyaches, attribute his illustrious lineage to his son, the famous "Malach." My grandfather, the "Malach," would be meyaches himself to his son, my father. I, too, exalt myself in my yichus - my son, who will one day be a great leader." Indeed, his son became the great tzadik of Sadigere. The Ruziner was wont to relate in the name of his father, "From my sons you will know who I am." This is the type of yichus to which we should all aspire.

Each one by its standard with signs according to their father's house. (2:2)

Each tribe had a flag upon which was a design that indicated the character of that tribe. Yehudah had a lion, the king of the animals, on his flag. Yehudah was king of the shevatim, tribes, and Jewish monarchy descended from him. Yissachar's flag showed the sun, moon and the stars, because Yissachar's descendants were heads of the Sanhedrin, who made the astronomical calculations on which the Jewish calendar was based. Zevullun's occupation was sailing and seafaring, which enabled him to support Yissachar. Hence, a ship was depicted on Zevullun's flag.

We may note that Zevullun received great reward for his support of Yissachar. This would ostensibly indicate that he was a very special righteous person. Why was it necessary for him to earn a living through such dangerous means? Why did he have to be alone on the high seas, away from his family, away from his friends, at the mercy of the weather and prone to various hazards?

Horav David Feinstein, Shlita, cites Chazal in the Talmud Kiddushin 82a who say that sailors, because of the nature of their work, tend to be G-d-fearing. Because their lives are constantly in peril, they are reminded often that they are in the Almighty's Hands. This catalyzes prayer and devotion on their part. People who are close to G-d have a greater appreciation of Torah and all things spiritual. This is why Zevullun was so generous in his support of Yissachar. He had a profound understanding of Yissachar's achievements on behalf of Klal Yisrael. One who, because of his profession, comes in daily contact with the Almighty, should have a greater awareness of what life's really all about. Therefore, he should hold dear those whose affiliation with Torah sustain their brethren. Zevullun understood - do we?


1) At what age was a man eligible for the Jewish army?
2) What is the punishment for a Yisrael who does the prescribed service of the Leviim, i.e. dismantling and erecting the Mishkan?
3) The color of each tribe's flag corresponded to the color of their ________ on the __________________.
4) The distance between the tribes and the Mishkan was no more than_______ _________which is the __________ __________.
5) The Leviim were counted from the age of ________ ______ and up.
6) The Leviim who were involved in avodas masah, work of carrying, were from the age of ___________ to _______.


1) 20 years old.
2) Misah b'yedei Shomayim, Heavenly excision.
3) Stone, Choshen
4) 2000 amos, techum Shabbos
5) One month
6) 30, 50

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Sam Silverman


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