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Peninim on the Torah

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Rabbi A. Leib Scheinbaum
Hebrew Academy of Cleveland


Take a census of the entire assembly of Bnei Yisrael according to their families, according to their fathers' household. (1:2)

The Torah pays great attention to the individual pedigree of each Jew. Indeed, the Yalkut states that when Klal Yisrael received the Torah, the nations of the world became jealous: "Why did Hashem give the Torah to Klal Yisrael more so than to any other nation?" Hashem responded to them, "Bring Me your Sefer Yuchsin, Book of Lineage, as My children did." This is a reference to pasuk 18, "And they established their genealogy." Since the count was done according to tribe, the people had to establish the tribe to which they belonged either by written documents or valid witnesses. One reason for this strict requirement of family purity was so that the zchus, merit, of their forefathers would bring Hashem's Divine assistance during the impending wars. This is why Klal Yisrael was counted when they came to Midbar Sinai, to teach that the reason they received the Torah was their yichus, pedigree.

The words of Chazal beg elucidation. First, why were the nations envious of Klal Yisrael? They had the same opportunity to receive the Torah as Klal Yisrael. Hashem went to every nation - and they rejected the Torah because it did not coincide with their moral character. Second, what is the meaning of the idea that Klal Yisrael merited the Torah because of their Sefer Yuchsin? Should pedigree play such a critical role in receiving the Torah?

Horav Simchah Hakohen Shepps, zl, in his Sefer, Simchas HaTorah, explains that the nations remonstrated, "Why did Hashem compel Klal Yisrael to accept the Torah and not us?" Chazal describe the scenario as Hashem raising Har Sinai above the heads of Klal Yisrael and declaring, "If you accept the Torah, good. If not, here will be your graves." This is what the gentile nations envied: this unparalleled relationship, this unprecedented love. Why were they not coerced into acceptance?

Hashem responded, "Bring Me your Sefer Yuchsin. Show me that you descend from a lineage of commitment, devotion and self-sacrifice as do the Jewish people. As Bnei Avraham, Yitzchak v'Yaakov, they have kedushah, holiness, in their blood. Mesiras nefesh, self-sacrifice, for Torah and mitzvos, for the lofty ideals represented by Judaism, flows in their veins. They deserve to be encouraged to accept the Torah because it is their heritage implanted in them by their forebears.

Kedushah is an inherent part of our essence. It is an innate component of our psyche, which commenced with Avraham Avinu, was ingrained through Yitzchak Avinu, and subsequently transmitted via Yaakov Avinu and the Shivtei Kah. In order to bring the Jewish potential into fruition, Hashem raised Har Sinai over their heads to engrave in their hearts the legacy of their august lineage.

Each man by his banner according to the insignias of their fathers' household, at a distance surrounding the Ohel Moed shall they encamp. (2:2)

After Klal Yisrael was counted, Hashem instructed Moshe Rabbeinu concerning their order of encampment, each tribe in a specific place with its own individual banner. This order was not merely good advice; it was a Divine edict that no member of the tribe of Zevulun reside next to the tribe of Yissaschar, etc. Hashem determined who should be neighbors with whom. Afterwards, Hashem made known where the ligyono shel Melech, King's legion, Shevet Levi, should camp. The three Levite families are listed according to the place of their encampment - one directly to the north of the Mishkan; one to the west; and one to the south. Every person was placed according to the place most appropriate for him, personally and spiritually.

Yet, in his commentary to pasuk 3:29, Rashi writes that the placement of the family of Kehas, who resided to the north of the Mishkan, near the tribe of Reuven, ultimately was to the detriment of the members of the tribe of Reuven. When Korach, of the family of Kehas, rebelled against Moshe, impugning his leadership, he negatively influenced members of the Tribe of Reuven to follow him in his iniquity. Chazal declare, "Woe is to the wicked, and woe is to his neighbor." We wonder how this could have occurred. If Hashem designated everyone's place of encampment according to what was spiritually correct for them, how did the tragedy of Reuven falling under the influence of Korach occur? Horav Avigdor Halevi Nebentzhal, Shlita, derives from here that even under the most ideal circumstances one must take great care with whom he associates. As soon as Reuven saw Korach's insolence, when he sensed his rebellious nature, he should have immediately approached Moshe Rabbeinu and entreated his help in warding off this dangerous influence.

Chazal demand of us, "Distance yourself from a bad neighbor, and do not associate with a wicked person." This implies that a shochein ra, bad neighbor, is even worse than a rasha, wicked person. Regarding the bad neighbor, Chazal say that we should not even be in his proximity, while concerning the rasha, we are only told not to be his friend. The influence of a bad neighbor has greater constancy and is, therefore, more-enduring. One meets a friend upon occasion - even regularly, but a neighbor - one lives with him! They are together all of the time. I cannot break away from my neighbor unless I move away and he is no longer my neighbor.

Rav Nebentzahl elaborates on the damage sustained by a bad neighbor and how it plays out. Regarding Amalek's incursion against Klal Yisrael, the Torah writes, Asher karcha baderech, "That he happened upon you on the way." (Devarim 25:18) The word karcha can also be derived from kar, cold/to cool off. Amalek suppressed the great enthusiasm Klal Yisrael had for Hashem. He also cooled off the fear that the surrounding nations had of Klal Yisrael. How did he do it? By attacking us, by demonstrating to the world that the Jewish people can be attacked. True, Amalek lost the battle, but the damage was done. The awe and fear of Hashem that was imbued in Klal Yisrael, that overwhelmed the nations, was mitigated by Amalek's aggression.

A similar phenomenon takes place when one is exposed to the evil perpetrated by a bad neighbor. Imagine living in a neighborhood that is not observant. When my neighbor decides to wash the car on Shabbos or takes a spin with the family - it leaves an impression. My Shabbos is no longer the same. My attitude towards Shabbos has been cooled. Suddenly, I see another lifestyle - one much different than the one to which I have dedicated my life.

We wonder if this is so bad. Whoever said that serving Hashem would be easy? There are challenges that must be overcome, and a bad neighbor is one of those challenges. Rav Nebentzhal explains that rather than garnering together one's strength to overcome evil, it would be much more appropriate to elevate one's spiritual status by focusing on the positive. When we are exposed to the negative, it wears down our resolve. The story is told that when an episode of chillul Shabbos once occurred in Radin, the Chafetz Chaim assembled the community in the Bais hamedrash and poured forth his heart with bitter tears. A while later when another instance of chillul Shabbos occurred, the Chafetz Chaim once again called together the community and wept as he spoke about the holiness of Shabbos. Yet, as the Chafetz Chaim himself attested, it was not the same weeping. He did not cry as bitterly the second time - because his affront at chillul Shabbos had been reduced.

A bad neighbor can have an influence on even the most devout and committed Jew. Avraham Avinu was told by Hashem to distance himself from his nephew, Lot, because Lot was a bad influence. Lot was not even that bad. He was a baal chesed, kind and caring person. Avraham Avinu was his rebbe, his spiritual mentor. He was effective, but it was not sufficient for Hashem. The Almighty did not want Lot's misconstrued perspective of religion to rub off on Avraham. Lot did not show his true colors until after Avraham had separated from him. He declared, "I want not Avraham, nor his G-d." Lot wanted to separate himself from kedushah. Avraham clung to kedushah. This dichotomy was not repaired until a descendant of Lot came along with a burning desire to cling to Hashem. Her name was Rus, the mother of monarchy, matriarch of Malchus Bais David and Moshiach Tzidkeinu. A shachein ra wants to undermine kedushah. A shachein tov seeks to embrace it. Rus exemplified this concept.

Those who encamped before the Mishkan to the front, before the Ohel Moed to the east, were Moshe and Aharon and his sons. (3:38)

Rashi cites the Midrash Tanchuma which declares, "Fortunate is a tzaddik and fortunate is his neighbor." Because the tribes of Yehudah, Yissachar and Zevulun encamped on the east near Moshe Rabbeinu, who was constantly engaged in Torah study, they themselves became great in Torah.

A tzaddik has the ability to leave an indelible impression upon those who are in his proximity. Chazal address the concept of a neighbor with whom one spends quite some time, one who, while in a tzaddik's presence, falls under the impression and influence of a tzaddik. This is a phenomenon that occurs even during a short meeting.

The Ahavas Yisrael of Vizhnitz was known for his love of all Jews and his ability to reach out to even the most assimilated Jew. His warmth and love, his sensitivity and caring for a person - regardless of his level of observance - would find their way into a person's heart. Many Jews who had acculturated and turned their backs on the religion their ancestors had died for returned as a direct result of his "open-heart" policy. One Shabbos, Rav Yisrael was in a small town and was joined by many townspeople for his Friday night Tish, table, which he conducted in the local shul. A free-thinking member of the community decided to attend out of curiosity. When he came close to the Rebbe, one of the chasidim attempted to discourage the Rebbe from getting too friendly with him. "Rumor has it that he smokes on Shabbos," the Rebbe was told by a zealous chasid. When the man came forward to greet the Rebbe, another chasid asked, "What are you doing here?" As soon as the Rebbe heard this, he immediately silenced the indignant chasid and personally greeted the Jew with a warm smile. Years later, the now-observant Jew would relate that every time his desire to light up a cigarette on Shabbos began to ignite within him, he reminded himself of the Rebbe's warm, friendly smile that night. After that, he could no longer smoke. That was the genesis of his return to observance.

I have a similar story to relate, one for which I can vouch. Twenty-five years ago, I assumed my first position in Torah chinuch, Jewish education, by opening a yeshivah high school in a community which was then far from the beaten Torah path. For the most part, the students - although very sweet - were far-removed from Yiddishkeit. It was our hope and goal to introduce them to Torah, and the Torah would do the rest. Baruch Hashem, we achieved moderate success. There was one student who hailed from a small community in southern California, who had heretofore a minimal knowledge of Yiddishkeit. Yet, he acclimated nicely and became a frum ben Torah - despite the objections of his parents.

Towards the end of the school year, there was a pseudo contest whereby a number of the yeshivah high schools in the West Coast would submit the name of a student whom they felt would receive the greatest inspiration from a trip to New York with a special visit with the gadol hador, the preeminent Torah leader of the generation, Horav Moshe Feinstein, zl. This young man, who was sixteen years old at the time, won the prize, and off to New York he went. I might add that his parents, especially his mother, were far from overjoyed with this trip. We were endangering their child. He might become frum. The trip was a success. The high point of the journey, meeting Rav Moshe, was an experience that changed his life and forever remained indelibly ingrained in his psyche.

He graduated and went on to a yeshivah gedolah, regrettably without his parents' best wishes, and he began to shteig, succeed, as a ben Torah and yeshivah man. I subsequently lost touch with him as we both moved on - I to Cleveland and he to greater heights in Torah learning. Then, tragedy struck. While in yeshivah, he was diagnosed with Hodgkins disease. The prognosis was hopeful, but he would have to undergo serious and, at times, very painful treatments. Hashem Yisborach sent him a refuah sheleimah, and after months of treatment, the doctors felt that he had reached survivor status.

A number of years later, during one of my trips with school, I had occasion to be in his yeshivah, where he was now a distinguished member of the kollel, a post-graduate fellow, and lo and behold we met. The meeting was emotional, as we recounted the many years that had gone by since graduation. He excitedly told me that his parents had become frum and were very supportive of his current lifestyle, as well as his desire to pursue a lifelong career in Torah chinuch. I then asked him what had given him the courage to undergo the pain and travail of his treatment, while still maintaining the steadfast belief and trust in Hashem? He said that it had not been easy. What made it more difficult was that his mother, who was not a fan of yeshivah and frumkeit at the time, would stand by his bed in the hospital, when he was partially comatose and ask, "Where are your rabbis now?" He said that every time the pain became unbearable or the nausea was too much to handle, and the anger welled up in his mind, he saw Rav Moshe in his study shaking his hand and giving him a berachah, blessing, to excel in Torah study. Rav Moshe's eyes pierced through the pain and gave him hope and courage to go on!

This young man is today a successful principal and mashpiah. He has inspired and helped many children of all ages and backgrounds. He overcame scorn, despair, and pain, all because of that one meeting with the gadol hador. He never forgot those eyes; he never forgot that look.


Take a census of the entire assembly of Bnei Yisrael. (1:2)

Se'u es rosh can also be translated as, "Raise the heads of." The Koznitzer Maggid, zl, explains that concerning Klal Yisrael, the head is primary, while in regard to the gentile nations, the other organs of the body play a pivotal role. If one seeks the "head," an individual to whom the head plays a critical role, look for it in the Jewish people.


And with you shall be one man from each tribe; a man who is a leader of his father's household. (1:4)

Minchas Ani interprets the pasuk homiletically. A man who considers himself l'mateh, on the bottom, below others, who does not call attention to himself, is truly a rosh, leader, among men.


The Ohel Moed, the camp of the Leviim, shall journey in the middle of the camps. (2:17)

The Chafetz Chaim explains that since the Ohel Moed contained within it the Torah, it was essential that it travel in the middle of the camps - not closer to any one group. The Torah must be equally accessible to all.


As they encamp, so shall they journey. (2:17)

Otzar Chaim comments that one who never rests ultimately does not benefit from his hard work. It is necessary to rest and rejuvenate oneself. "As they encamped" - commensurate with the rest, "shall they journey" - so is their achievement when they journey.


Bnei Yisrael did everything that Hashem had commanded Moshe, so they encamped according to their banner. (2:34)

Oznaim la'Torah notes that there was no dispute concerning where anyone belonged. No one questioned who traveled first, who sat "up front," as is regrettably so common today. They all willingly accepted Hashem's decision.

L'Zechus refuah sheleima
Meir ben Chana-
Meir Bedziner
from the
Baltimore Peninim Readers


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