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Rabbi A. Leib Scheinbaum
Hebrew Academy of Cleveland


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

The Midrash teaches us that the Torah was given through three media: wilderness; fire; and water. We will focus on the medium of wilderness and the lessons to be derived herein. Interestingly, Klal Yisrael was commanded in numerous mitzvos while they were in the Sinai desert, prior to entering Eretz Yisrael. While it was not unique to be commanded to perform mitzvos in the wilderness, it does seem unusual that some of these mitzvos did not apply until the Jews entered Eretz Yisrael. This is especially true of mitzvos ha'tluyos ba'eretz, mitzvos that are dependent on the land. The mitzvos to select a king, build the Bais Hamikdash, and destroy the nation of Amalek were commanded to them as they were about to enter the land. According to the Tanna D'bei Rabbi Yishmael, they were not obliged to carry out these mitzvos until after the land had been captured, divided and settled. If this is the case, why was it necessary to be commanded concerning these mitzvos while the nation was still traveling in the wilderness? Why impose mitzvos that will not take effect until quite some time later?

Horav Sholom Yosef Elyashiv, Shlita, explains that this is the significance of midbar, wilderness. The desert is a dangerous place. In fact, a human being cannot exist in the desert unless by miracle. It is an arid place which is populated by creatures that are inhospitable to human interaction. It is a place that is fraught with danger; yet, Hashem chose to give us the Torah there. Why? Furthermore, the actual giving of the Torah was done through a miraculous phenomenon in which fire and water coalesced, as the heavens gave forth water and the mountains were steaming with flame and smoke. Why was it given in such a manner? Would it not have been more effective had they waited until the nation reached the land and was settled, calm and relaxed?

No! The only way for Moshe Rabbeinu to inspire the people to accept the Torah unequivocally was through this awe-inspiring mysterium tremendum. Had he waited until they were settled in Eretz Yisrael, the inspiration would not have catalyzed a change within them. This is why the Rambam renders that the obligation to study Torah applied to everyone, regardless of his financial situation, his physical condition, or his emotional circumstance, i.e., in intense pain. The Torah was not given to us when we were in a relaxed position, so that we would understand that Torah is to be studied at all times, under all conditions, amidst every circumstance. Torah transcends the parameters of this world, and we must rise up to embrace it.

We today are, for the most part, beneficiaries of a Torah education facilitated by remnants of a world of Torah that was: the Torah world of Pre-World War II Europe. The survivors of the European yeshivos struggled through years of misery and pain, maintaining their regimen of Torah study under the most brutal and trying conditions, coming to this country with the goal of transplanting the seeds of Torah on American soil. They succeeded, and Torah flourishes in the United States as a result of their superhuman efforts.

The largest block of yeshivah students were the students of the Mirrer Yeshivah, whose unyielding dedication to Torah gave them the ability to cope with suffocating humidity and burning heat in Shanghai as they continued their Torah study in the yeshivah they had established there. All this took place under the guidance and inspiration of the venerable Mashgiach, Horav Yechezkel Levenstein, zl, whose uncompromising spirit energized the students, imbuing them with the ability to cope with misery and pain. Constantly reiterating that Torah is the elixir of life, he encouraged them to persevere.

In the words of a student, as cited by Rabbi Yitzchak Kasnett in his biography of the Mashgiach, Reb Chatzkel, "The Mashgiach breathed the spirit of life within us and revived us with his words of encouragement, his care, his concern, and his indomitable spirit. He infected us with the will to strive and accomplish. The more diligence a talmid exhibited, the more others tried to emulate his efforts, until the entire yeshivah was in a state of elevated inspiration." Shanghai was the crucible that tempered the spirit of these scholars, preparing them to become the Torah luminaries of our generation.

This was not enough. They suffered and they persevered, but it still was not enough. The Mashgiach encouraged them to go one step further. Despite the searing heat and debilitating humidity, he asked them to wear their hats and jackets while learning - at least, when humanly possible. His reasoning was that the greater mesiras nefesh, dedication to the point of self-sacrifice, on their part, the greater the merit that they created for those suffering in Europe. It was not enough to learn; one had to empathize with the pain of others.

In the Purim story, we find Mordechai wearing sackcloth standing outside the palace. Mordechai instructed Hasach to inform Esther that she must go to the king and speak on behalf of the Jewish nation. Why did Mordechai send a message through an intermediary? Why did he himself not go to Esther? If the reason is that he was wearing sackcloth, he easily could have removed his sackcloth.

Horav Zalman Sorotzkin, zl, explains that Mordechai sought to teach us the importance of empathy. Mordechai's preoccupation with Klal Yisrael's pain and peril was of greater significance than all of Esther's efforts before the king. The primary source of an individual's success lies in his ability to identify with the needs of Klal Yisrael.

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

Parashas Bamidbar is usually read on the Shabbos preceding the Festival of Shavuous. Moshe Rabbeinu is instructed by Hashem to count the Jewish People. The Torah uses the words se'u es rosh, which literally means, "lift up the head," to describe the taking of the census. Rabbeinu Bachya elaborates on this unusual choice of words. He explains that Klal Yisrael's distinction is only through their observance of Torah. This is what elevates them. Hence, the word se'u, lift up, which has a dual connotation. It can mean that the people should be elevated to an exalted level, or it can literally mean that their heads should be raised/removed from their bodies. This is similar to the term Yosef used when he informed the royal baker of his impending execution. The term implies that if the people are worthy, they will be uplifted. If, Heaven forbid, they are not, they could be in store for great suffering.

The commentators reiterated the idea that Klal Yisrael's reason for exalting is only the spiritual uplift that they receive as a result of their commitment to the Torah. We take the Torah for granted. Educational institutions abound where Torah is taught by qualified rebbeim under circumstances conducive to learning. This environment certainly increases Torah knowledge. I think, however, that Klal Yisrael's distinction is not simply due to our erudition. It goes much farther and deeper. It is based upon our love of Torah, our understanding of its sweetness to the point that we taste it with every fibre of our being. One individual in whom this emotion was palpable was the Rosh Hayeshivah of Telshe, Horav Mordechai Gifter, zl. Watching him interact with his students during a shiur, lecture, was an experience to be cherished. The love that he manifested for the Torah was not only seen, it was sensed and felt by everyone in the room. In contrast, when the Rosh Hayeshivah was ill and unable to learn with his usual vigor, the misery and pain that he experienced was similarily sensed and felt by everyone.

Rav Gifter imparted this love of Torah to his students and to all those who relished his word. In a letter that he sent to an eighth-grade rebbe, he writes: "Praiseworthy is his honor's lot, to have merited to become a teacher of Torah to the youth of Hashem's nation, thereby becoming a member in that exalted group of which Hashem Yisborach stands at the helm: As it says in the morning Bircas HaTorah, Ha'melamed Torah l'amo Yisrael, 'Who teaches Torah to His people, Yisrael.'

"A primary ingredient in a student's spiritual development is the love for Torah and the cognition of its value which his teachers imparted to him. It is worthwhile for the rebbe to relate stories of gedolim, Torah luminaries, in all generations, for this is greatly beneficial for acquiring love and fear of Hashem. I am in the habit of relating the following episode:

"When Horav Eliezer Gordon, zl, founder and rav of Telshe, was rav of Kelm, he once walked by a bais ha'medrash and overheard a student ask his friend a question relating to the Talmud. Rav 'Leizer' was so excited that he jumped through the window in his desire to answer the question! He would often say concerning himself, Ich bin mit Torah vi a shikur mit branfun, 'I am with Torah like a drunkard is with whiskey.' In other words, the Rosh Hayeshivah's love and desire for Torah was so compelling that he had no control over himself when the opportunity to learn presented itself.

"Likewise, similar incidents are recorded concerning the great Torah luminaries of previous generations. This awareness stimulates one's love of Hashem and pure awe of Him, which flows from the love one has for the Torah. It is only through love of Torah that one can attain love of Hashem, as Chazal have said in the Yerushalmi Chagigah 1:7, 'If only they would have forsaken Me and safeguarded My Torah, for its light would have returned them to the good path.'"

While there are many that love Torah and love to excel in Torah, what about those who have not been gifted with a prodigious mind? Are they to be excluded from the ranks of Torah achievers, simply because they lack the ability to comprehend on a level that ensures growth and erudition? The Steipler Rav, zl, addresses this question and explains that anyone who invests great effort in the study of Torah will merit siyata diShmaya, Divine assistance, and grow into a gadol, Torah giant, commensurate with his diligence. Accomplishment in Torah has nothing to do with acumen. Torah is Divinely authored and, thus, the very fact that we even begin to understand it is only due to the reality that Hashem grants us the ability to comprehend. He grants achievement to those who sincerely seek it - not merely to those who have a superior mind. The Steipler relates a story found in the Sefer Chut HaMeshulash, a biography of the three great gedolim: Chasam Sofer, K'sav Sofer and Rav Akiva Eiger.

In Dresnitz, a teenager of about sixteen or seventeen presented himself before the Chasam Sofer, claiming that he desired to study Torah and that his soul yearned for it. When the yeshivah students who were present heard this, they laughed, wondering how someone who had heretofore had no knowledge whatsoever of Torah could achieve erudition in such complex material as Talmud. Hearing this, the Chasam Sofer immediately chastised them, "Why do you laugh? Whoever desires to study Torah may come and learn."

The Chasam Sofer took the boy under his wing and instructed his students to take turns studying with him at different intervals. The new student presented a number of challenges in the learning process: Aside from the fact that his background was basically nil, he was also extremely slow to comprehend and his retention was even worse. He would learn a Mishnah one hundred times and, by the next day, quickly forget it. It was as if he had never learned it! Nonetheless, his craving for the Torah never waned. He kept up the pace, pushing harder until he was granted the gift of Torah knowledge from Hashem. His progress was slow, but steady. As his diligence continued, so did his success, until his efforts bore spiritual fruit. He became an outstanding scholar and was appointed dayan, judge, in the city of Mattersdorf, the domain of the Chasam Sofer. His success continued as he later became Rav in Shleiming and then Av Bais Din, Head of the Rabbinical Court, of Neizotz. His Torah knowledge was exceptional, as was his piety. Cited numerous times in the works of the Chasam Sofer, he is an indication of Torah achievement through desire, diligence and love of Torah.

But you shall not count the tribe of Levi, and you shall not take a census of them among the Bnei Yisrael. (1:49)

Rashi explains that Shevet Levi's exalted status mandated that they be counted separately. In an alternative explanation, Hashem knew that all those who were included in the general census would perish in the wilderness. He wanted to exclude them from this collective fate in order to acknowledge their fidelity to Him during the sin of the Golden Calf. This statement is enigmatic. Actually, most of the Jewish People had not sinned at all. Nonetheless, they were all counted in the census. Why could not the tribe of Levi likewise be included in the census? It is not as if they were the only Jews who had not sinned. The sin of the Golden Calf was executed by a small minority of rabble rousers.

Furthermore, the Torah informs us that three-thousand Jews died as a result of the Golden Calf. The Midrash makes a fascinating statement concerning their punishment. It first cites the pasuk in Shemos 21:37 regarding payment for stealing livestock. If the thief sells or slaughters an ox, he is fined by having to pay five times the value of the ox: "He shall pay five cattle in place of the ox." The Gaon m'Vilna explains why the Midrash quotes this pasuk in connection to the Golden Calf. One of the figures etched on the Heavenly Chariot is the image of an ox. When Klal Yisrael sinned with a calf, they created a spiritual blemish in the Heavenly image of the ox. Essentially, only one out of every thousand men sinned, totaling six-hundred men who were involved in the Golden Calf. The Midrash is "asking" if only six-hundred sinned, why were three-thousand punished? It replies to this question by explaining that by blemishing the Heavenly ox, they became guilty to the level that they were required to repay five times the amount, which is five times six-hundred men, or three thousand men! This makes the original question stronger, since only six-hundred men had sinned. Why, then, did Shevet Levi receive the distinction of being saved from death when most of Klal Yisrael was innocent?

Horav Eliyahu Schlesinger, Shlita, derives a powerful lesson from this. Yes, the majority of the Jewish People did not sin, and the individuals who actually sinned were punished. The only group that remained distinct, however, separating themselves collectively from the sinners, were the members of Shevet Levi. Most of the Jews did not sin, but they also did not disenfranchise themselves as a group from the sinners. The tribe of Levi did. That is why they were saved from death. They, as a group, were different. They stood together, isolated from the sinners. Shevet Levi were an organization unto themselves. This is why they were not counted with the rest of the nation. If they were to be counted with everyone else, then they would have had to die in the wilderness because they were a part of the nation--just like everyone else. Hashem wanted them separate, distinct, above, away from everyone else. This teaches us the overriding significance of a group of Jews who band together to divorce themselves collectively from those who choose to live a life of abandon.

Those who encamped before the Mishkan to the front, before the Ohel Moed to the east, were Moshe and Aharon, guardians of the charge of the Sanctuary. (3:38)

The Midrash Tanchuma, as cited by Rashi, comments, "Fortunate is a tzaddik, righteous person, and fortunate is his neighbor." Because the tribes of Yehudah, Issachar and Zevullun encamped on the east near Moshe, who was engaged in Torah study, they became great in Torah." Horav Moshe Shapiro, zl, sees a profound lesson in this Midrash. The mere fact that these tribes lived in Moshe Rabbeinu's proximity made an unusual difference in their lives. They became gedolei Torah. In fact, the Maharal states in his Gur Arye, that they achieved a status of gadlus, greatness and proficiency in Torah, equal to Moshe! All this was achieved despite the fact that Moshe did not teach them. He just lived near them.

We derive from here the prodigious effect and the outstanding influence of viewing an adam gadol, great man. These tribes did not interact with Moshe any more than any other tribe did. Yet, they achieved an enormous plateau in Torah erudition. Why? Because they had the unique opportunity to gaze at Moshe and that, in itself, influenced their lives. It imbued them with a will, a desire, a striving for greatness. Just by looking at him!

In the Talmud Eiruvin 13b, Rabbi declares, "The only reason that I am keener than my colleagues is that I saw but the back of Rabbi Meir. Had I had a frontal view of him, I would have been keener still, as it says in Yeshayah 30:20, "And your eyes will behold your teacher." We see from Chazal that a gaze, a look, a view, has a powerful impact upon a person. It is an impression that becomes indelibly engraved in our hearts and minds, which motivates us to strive higher and plumb deeper into the profundities of the Torah.

In addition, in the Tanchuma on Parashas Vayeishev, we find the following comment: When Yosef was confronted with the wife of Potiphar, he almost capitulated to her blandishments, so great was her ability to entice him. He did not give in, because, at the very last moment, he saw an image of his father, the saintly Patriarch, Yaakov. Here was an individual whose righteousness was unsurpassed, who had spent time studying Torah with his father. Yet, the years of study and ascestism were not able to protect him in his moment of need. It was when he saw the image of his father that he was able to overcome his yetzer hora, evil inclination, and be saved from the clutches of this would-be adulteress.

Horav Chaim Ozer Grodzensky, zl, once said that from simply looking at the Chofetz Chaim one could readily recognize the many things he had merited. Horav Shmuel Greineman, zl, reiterated these same words, applying them to his saintly brother-in-law, the Chazon Ish, zl. One merely had to gaze at his virtuous features, radiating wisdom, purity and kindness, to see that one who studies Torah lishmah, for its/Hashem's sake alone, possesses qualities that are beyond description.

Va'ani Tefillah

V'hu rachum yechaper avonů v'hirbah l'hashiv apo v'lo yair kol chamaso.

The pasuk of V'Hu rachum is recited thrice daily in Tefillas Shacharis: In the Hodu prayer, in Yehi kavod; and U'Va l'Tzion Goel. The Yesod Yosef explains that there are thirteen words in this pasuk. When it is multiplied by three, we have a total of thirty-nine words. We, thus, allude to our request of Hashem: please atone for those sins for which we have incurred the punishment of malkus, thirty-nine lashes. May our heartfelt prayers be regarded as if we have already experienced the punishment. Alternatively, the thirteen words correspond with the Thirteen Attributes of Mercy. We hope that in their merit, Hashem will wipe away our sins.

In the pasuk, we note the words used to describe anger: apo and chamaso. The Malbim distinguishes between the two. Apo is a reference to external anger, while chamaso denotes internal rage which is concealed. One seethes with cheimah, while one demonstrates his af. If the two forms of anger ever combine, such as we find in Devarim 9:19, "For I terrified of the wrath and blazing anger with which Hashem has been provoked against you to destroy you."

We now understand the sequence of the pasuk. When the kaas ha'chitzoni, external anger, apo, is provoked, Hashem, in His infinite mercy, holds it back, and, therefore, chamaso, the internal anger, is not even aroused. If the external anger would have been allowed to flame, there would be no way to stifle His inner anger.

l'zechar nishmas
R' Menachem Mendel ben Baruch
niftar 26 Iyar 5764
Maras Feiga bas R' Moshe HaLevi
niftar 27 Iyar 5767

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David and Cecile Wieder

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