Back to This Week's Parsha

Peninim on the Torah

subscribe.gif (2332 bytes)

Previous issues

Rabbi A. Leib Scheinbaum
Hebrew Academy of Cleveland


If you will follow My decrees and observe My Commandments and perform them. (26:3)

At first glance, the pasuk appears repetitious: follow My decrees; observe My commandments; perform them. The Torah is not written in synonyms. Every word - indeed, every letter - has profound significance. How are we to understand what appear to be variegated nuances for heeding Hashem's word? Rashi explains that the pasuk is teaching us the process by which we proceed from learning to action. The combined meaning of the pasuk is: If you will follow My decrees by engaging in ameilus ba'Torah, intensive Torah study, with the intention that this study will lead to; observe My commandments properly, and, if you will actually elevate potential to reality; and perform them - you will merit the following blessings, which will be detailed in the upcoming pesukim.

Thus, it all reverts back to ameilus ba'Torah, commonly translated as toiling in Torah, or exerting oneself in his studies. Rarely has a pasuk - or actually a term, ameilus - been so expounded upon. The Jewish People, Torah and Hashem are one. If we have no clear understanding of the meaning of limud haTorah, study of Torah, then we are in serious trouble. Sitting in front of a Gemorah as if one is at a country club is not the Torah's idea of ameilus. Yet, on the other hand, we find ourselves reciting daily the blessing, v'Haarev na, "Please, Hashem, sweeten the words of Torah in our mouth." Toil? Sweetness? It would seem that these terms are not mutually consistent with one another.

A certain blessing precedes v'Haarev na, the Bircas HaTorah of Laasok b'divrei Torah, "To busy (occupy) ourselves with the words of Torah." We now have a third term for Torah study: eisak, busy ourselves. An eisak is a business. Literally, the Torah becomes our business, our occupation. The purpose of Torah study is so that we are able to perform the mitzvos properly. Thus, the extended meaning of Laasok b'divrei Torah is to occupy our minds with Torah, so that we are able to implement the words of Torah properly and correctly in actual practice.

We now know that Torah must occupy our minds and our mouths. We acknowledge that physical and mental exertion is an integral part of this process. Where does the "sweetness" enter the picture? Horav Shimon Schwab, zl, explains this pragmatically. Once we have expended the effort to apply ourselves to learning Torah, we ask Hashem to make the Torah sweet for us. He offers a prosaic analogy to one who is reluctant to jump into a pool of cold water. Once he has "broken the ice" and made the plunge, the water is quite soothing and enjoyable. Indeed, there are difficulties in studying Torah. It does not come easily for many people. Obstacles and challenges block the way. For some, it is time; For others, it is acumen, background, study partner, indolence, every excuse in the world. Once one has made the necessary effort, and dispensed the necessary toil and exertion, he asks Hashem to please grant him the enjoyment of the learning. We ask that the words of Torah literally become sweet in our mouths.

I think that there is another aspect to Torah study - one that eludes some of us - one which is a requirement - one that bespeaks ameilus - and one that will certainly define for us the sweetness of Torah. Let me first cite a story which is related by Horav Sholom Schwadron, zl. One day, the Rosh Yeshivah of Ponevez, the veritable gadol hador, Horav Elazar M. Shach, zl, came late for shiur, his Torah lecture. This was not a common occurrence. The Rosh Yeshivah was always on time, because he loved to teach and share his Torah knowledge with his students.

Rav Shach began the shiur without introduction; rather, he began where he had left off the previous day: "Yesterday, we concluded the shiur with a difficult question. Probably, all of you were able to sleep last night. You went to bed at your usual time and you slept calmly, waking up this morning refreshed, rejuvenated, and ready to tackle the next day. I could not function all day. The question troubled me to the point that I could not think of anything else. I could not sleep. Finally, with the break of dawn, I called a taxi and traveled to Yerushalayim to present myself at the apartment of the Brisker Rav, zl. I posed the question to him, and he told me an original answer that was novel and incredible. At this moment, I have just returned from Yerushalayim to share the answer with you."

This is a preamble to understanding eisak haTorah and ameilus baTorah. Nothing else matters; nothing else counts; no sleep - nothing. If I have a question, it must be resolved. Was the Torah sweet to Rav Shach? There is absolutely nothing sweeter than the Torah. It was his life. Let us go one step further, and we will have the entire picture of what is achieved by ameilus and what is meant by sweetness.

Rav Schwadron tells another story. This one concerns the Rebbetzin of Horav Dov m'Yanava. She was a righteous and very astute woman. Her husband had suffered a stroke, and he lay paralyzed. She saw the doctors who were attending to him move to the side and conference with one another. She approached the group and asked that they explain what was going on, as well as their approach toward healing her husband.

One of the doctors looked at her, and, with a chuckle, asked, "Why are you so adamant concerning your husband's therapy? When your husband was speaking about a difficulty in the Rambam which he was learning, were you as determined to inquire concerning the explanation of Rambam?"

Without batting an eyelash, the Rebbetzin told the doctor, "If the Rambam was as important to me as my husband's health, trust me, I would have found a way to explain the Rambam!"

Ameilus avails one baalus, ownership, possession, over the Torah which he studies. Through ameilus he develops an intimate relationship with the Torah, a relationship that is the result of toil and exertion immersed in love. When it becomes his, when he feels the Torah is a part of him - there can be no greater or more heightened sense of joy.

Five of you will pursue a hundred, and a hundred of you will pursue ten thousand. (26:8)

Rashi notes the discrepancy in the ratio of five to one hundred. If five Jews can pursue one hundred, which is a ratio of one to twenty, then a hundred Jews should pursue two thousand - not more. Yet, the Torah states that one hundred will pursue ten thousand. This teaches that when more people are united in serving Hashem, the effectiveness of their actions increase exponentially. The same Reuven and Shimon who had earlier been pursuing one hundred are now able to achieve much more. They have not changed, but their power has, because they are part of a tzibbur, community/group.

In his closing remarks to Shemiras HaLashon, the Chafetz Chaim, zl, quotes this Chazal in his emphasis of the extreme importance of tefillah b'tzibbur, communal prayer, as opposed to private prayer at home. He explains that not only does one increase his personal reward by davening with a minyan, quorum, of at least ten men, but his actual prayer has greater efficacy. He employs a simple rationale. If a person has before him two business propositions; one which could bring him a profit of five dollars and one that will incur a profit which is quadruple that - is there any question which one he will choose?

While this thesis focuses on tefillah b'tzibbur, it applies equally to all mitzvos in which a multitude of people enhance the mitzvah. Furthermore, as the Chafetz Chaim concludes, the three dominant mitzvos associated with tefillah: donning Tefillin; Krias Shema; remembering the exodus from Egypt - are all embellished when a person davens b'tzibbur.

One's inclusion in a group can have both positive and negative consequences. In Sefer Bamidbar 1:49, the Torah repeats a number of times that Shevet Levi was not counted together with the rest of the nation. Rashi explains that Hashem foresaw that one day a Heavenly decree would be issued against those twenty years of age and above, that they all perish in the wilderness. By excluding the Tribe of Levi from the communal census, they were no longer part of the Klal, the larger community, and, hence, not subject to the effects of the decree. When a punishment is issued against a group, all members of the group, regardless of personal merit, are included. While there are exceptions to the rule - they are to be viewed as such.

The inclusion of an individual in a communal group likewise plays itself out in a positive manner. Thus, we find that, when Elisha HaNavi asked the Shunamis woman if she needed any favors, her rely was, bsoch ami anochi yosheves, "Among my people I dwell" (Melachim II 4:13). The Zohar Hakadosh explains that this dialogue occurred on Rosh Hashanah, and Elisha was intimating, "Do you seek any preferential treatment from the Almighty?" She replied, "I wish to be included as a member of the community." She did not want to be singled out as an individual. Horav Chaim Shmuelwitz, zl, explains that one who is judged as part of the community enjoys the same benefits that are granted to the community - regardless of lack of punishment.

This, comments the Rosh Yeshivah, is also the basis for the admonition of Chazal, "A person should always associate himself with the community" (Berachos 30a). Rashi explains this to mean that one's prayers should be articulated in the plural, rather than the singular, form. By praying for the public welfare, one is automatically included with them. Therefore, he does not require personal merit in order to benefit from his personal prayers. The reason for this, explains Rav Chaim, is that the community is not viewed merely as a collection of individuals, but rather, as a new entity exceeding the aggregate of the merits and strengths of the individuals of which it is comprised.

The incredible inclusive power manifest by the community is underscored by Chazal when they advise us: Im paga bach menuvel zeh, mashcheihu l'bais ha'medrash, "If this despicable (abominable) one (the yetzer hora, evil inclination) meets you (if he begins bothering you), draw him into the study hall" (Kedushin 30b). The bais ha'medrash is the communal Torah center, the place where many gather to study Torah individually - and collectively - all under one roof. It is there that the "despicable one" is powerless to dominate over a person. Thus, explains Rav Chaim, the best advice is for a person to unite with the community, remain steadfastly committed to being part of the klal, for the merit of the rabim, multitude, will encompass and benefit all who are found there.

Klal, community, is determined by daas Torah, the wisdom developed by those whose entire lives are steeped in Torah study and erudition. It takes a mind honed by Torah to develop such an acute perspective that one sees what eludes others. Horav Elazar M. Shach, zl, relates that when Horav Meir Simchah, zl, of Dvinsk, author of the Or Sameach and Meshech Chochmah, became gravely ill with his final illness, another distinguished Rav wanted to send telegrams to every Jewish community and leader to recite Tehillim for the Or Sameach. The Or Sameach demurred and resisted efforts at disseminating his need for communal prayer. He explained that, as long as people consider him to be part of the large communal collective, he is part of the wider community. Once his illness is publicized, and he becomes the exclusive subject of prayer, he will be judged differently. He felt that this would intensify the critical and grave nature of his illness.

The Chafetz Chaim proposes another reason for the importance of praying with a minyan, the incredible reward in store for answering Amen, Borchu, and Amen, Yehei Shmei Rabba, with all of his kochos, might: all of his sins are forgiven. Imagine atonement for all of our sins, and all that is expected of us is to daven with passion, and answer Amen as if we mean it.

Regrettably, we do not acknowledge the importance of answering Amen to Kaddish, and blessings in general. As a result, we either ignore the blessing, or answer Amen half-heartedly. Clearly, our reluctance to "do it right" is due to a lack of awareness of the overriding significance of tefillah b'tzibur. The following episode was related by the Levush, Horav Mordechai Yoffe, zl, who went to learn Torah from a great Sephardic gadol, Torah leader, whose name was Rabbi Abohav. Once, Rabbi Abohav's son made a bracha, and Rabbi Yoffe, for some reason, did not answer Amen. Rabbi Abohav became so angry with his student that he put him in cherem, excommunicated him. When the prodigious student looked at his Rebbe with a stunned image, the Rebbe told him the following story which depicts the severe punishment one receives for neglecting to answer Amen. Perhaps if he "listened" to the story, he would understand why his Rebbe was exceedingly careful about answering Amen properly.

Prior to the Spanish Inquisition and eventual expulsion of 1492, Spain was replete with a number of holy Jewish communities. The king had a number of times attempted to free himself and his community from the Jews, but, due to the efforts of a pious Jew whom the king admired, the Jews had always been spared. Following the latest edict calling for the Jews' expulsion from Spain, the community leaders once again approached this righteous fellow and implored him to intercede on their behalf. He, of course, agreed, but asked to first daven Minchah. They persuaded him to go immediately, since it was a matter of life or death.

The king was pleased to see his friend, and they began to talk about the decree. Meanwhile, a priest entered the king's office and immediately began to bless the king in Latin. It was a lengthy litany, so the Jew saw an opportunity to move to the side and daven Minchah. Regrettably, the priest concluded his blessing while the Jew was still reciting Shemoneh Esrai. The priest called upon all those assembled to answer Amen to his blessing of the king. Everyone responded except for the pious Jew, who was answering to a Higher Authority. When the priest saw that the Jew had not affirmed his blessing with a resounding Amen, he went into a frenzy. He screamed that now his blessing of the king would not be fulfilled, because someone had not responded with Amen. Hearing this, the king also became infuriated and ordered that the Jew immediately be put to death and his body be mutilated and quartered and sent to his home. He then expelled all of the Jews from his kingdom. Why? Why did this Jew receive such a terrible death? Why were all the Jews exiled? One of the closest friends of the deceased fasted to be allowed to know what sin it was that catalyzed this gruesome punishment. The dead Jew appeared to his friend in a dream and explained that once he had neglected to say Amen to a child's brachah. Until then, the Heavenly Court had set aside his punishment. When the priest became angry over his not saying Amen to his blessing, the Heavenly Tribunal decided to prosecute him and sentenced him to this horrible death. Rav Abohav concluded the story, saying, "I will forgive you if you will publicize the story and warn everyone to be meticulous concerning answering Amen."

In Sparks of Glory, Rabbi Moshe Prager, zl, relates the poignant story of a young boy named Shmulik. His father risked his life daily to pray with a secret makeshift minyan in a basement, in Warsaw. Shmulik, too, wanted to attend the minyan. His father flatly refused. It was too dangerous. It meant putting everyone at risk. There could only be so many people there. As the "congregation" was praying, they heard a soft knock at the door. They had established a code, which was a series of knocks. This knock did not fit with the code. With great trepidation and fear, they slowly opened the door - prepared for the worst. All they saw was little Shmulik. When Shmulik's father saw his young child at the door, he became quite upset, and he screamed, "What are you doing here? I told you never to come here! Why did you disobey my orders?" The father then proceeded to slap Shmulik across the face.

Shmulik held his own and cried out, "Will you beat me, too? Have I not had my share of blows? I, too, am a Jew. I, too, want to pray!"

I included this story, so that the next time we are in our warm beds, too lazy to get up for minyan, or at home at night and too "busy" to go to Minchah/Maariv, perhaps we will think about the Jews who, throughout the ages, risked their lives to daven with a minyan. Let us not forget Shmulik's clarion call, "We, too, are Jews!"

And he shall pay the evaluation of that day, it is holy to Hashem. (27: 23)
Every valuation shall be in the sacred shekel. (27:25)

In the Talmud Arachin 24a, Chazal state, Ein l'hekdesh ela mekomo u'sheato, "Hekdesh has only its place and time." This means that, if a man makes an erech - vow, but lacks the means to pay for it, the gizbar of Hekdesh, the Sanctuary's treasurer, must assess his possessions to establish the amount that the donor can really afford. The assessment of value is commensurate with the place and time in which the vow occurred. For example, if the donor possesses a slave who is worth twenty dinarim, but when he is dressed up in a thirty dinar outfit, his value would appreciate considerably, adding one hundred dinarim to his worth, which now stands at one hundred twenty dinarim, we value him according to his original value of twenty dinarim. For the purpose of the erech, the assessment, the slave is valued at his current worth.

Likewise, if the donor possesses a diamond, which in the donor's home city - a larger city - would fetch a price of one hundred dinarim, but, in the village where diamonds are scarce, would fetch twice as much, we value the diamond according to its current time and place.

Horav Lazer Brody, Shlita, suggests a powerful lesson to be derived from the fact that the jewel's value is determined by the present time and location. What will be tomorrow or how much its value increases elsewhere is of no concern. It is the present which matters. Every minute of a person's life is an invaluable jewel which is worthy of being sanctified - if the person acts immediately. If he waits, pushes it off, claims that he will act later or elsewhere - it will be too late. This minute has vanished.

We have three opportunities for spiritual ascendency: Torah study; tefillah, prayer; tzedakah, charity/acts of lovingkindness. Anything else, however mundane, becomes sanctified if it benefits, enhances, empowers the performance of these three. Otherwise, the mundane is a waste of precious time, the destruction and ultimate loss of a jewel whose value is incalcuble. Why? Because we cannot discern the value of an individual's potential. Who knows, if properly motivated, how far a person can excel; how much he can achieve? Before one realizes what he is - or is not - doing, however, that moment is gone. It is fleeting and does not wait for us to become properly motivated or to have all the "conditions" in place before we declare "all systems go." That "moment" begins now, and it is over before we know it.

As the Kohen is not permitted to delay exchanging the diamond with the hope that its value will increase, so, too, are we not allowed to delay in "cashing in" our personal diamond. Our neshamah, soul, is a diamond whose potential value is attained by our actions. For the most part, we know what is right and proper, how to act and what we should do. Along the road to success, however, we encounter self-imposed challenges that impede our ability to grow properly. We fabricate excuses, establishing time lines for when we will make time to learn, to daven, to give tzedakah. Hillel HaZakein says, "Do not say, 'When I am free I will study,' for perhaps you will not become free." How can we push it off until tomorrow, when we are not guaranteed that we will "complete" today?

A second lesson which may be derived from the laws of Arachin is that every valuation should be in the sacred shekel. The Torah is teaching us that our goals and objectives, our destiny, must be bound up in the sacred shekel; our assessment of anything valuable should be: How holy is it? How will this promote/help holiness/spirituality? It is not about how many material possessions with which one has been blessed; it is how he uses said abundance. Wealth which is used only for self-promoting purposes, luxury, control, arrogance - is a waste and, ultimately, destructive. Wealth that is used for kedushah, holiness - is valuable.

We should measure every activity, thought, and speech by the following barometer: What value does this have to Hashem? How does it promote increased spiritual affiliation? Will it glorify G-d? If it does not measure up to these criteria - then the action is not worth doing. Hashem has given us a body with various capabilities for one purpose: to serve Him. This is how we should evaluate our actions - indeed, our life.

Any tithe of cattle or flock, any that passes under the staff, the tenth of one shall be holy to Hashem. (27:32)

Every tenth animal of those born during the current season must be consecrated as an offering to Hashem. This is Maaser beheimah, the tithe of cattle or flock. All of the animals are put into a large corral and allowed to leave individually. Every tenth animal is marked with a dab of paint to distinguish it from the other animals.

Horav Eliezer Gordon, zl, founding Rosh Yeshivah of Telshe, visited Kiev in order to solicit funds for his growing yeshivah. He came to the home of one of the wealthiest men in Russia and presented his case on behalf of his yeshivah. He asked the man for five hundred rubles. This was an enormous sum of money, and the man pointed this out to him. "Indeed," he said, "when a fire ravaged Radin, Poland, (home of the Chafetz Chaim), it destroyed the entire Jewish quarter. The Chafetz Chaim made an appeal, and, with great effort, was able to raise two hundred ruble, which was used to rebuild half the community. Rebbe, you are asking for more than double of that sum - and for only one yeshivah! You must be joking."

The Rosh Yeshivah replied, "No, I am quite serious. I think that you are capable of contributing this amount.

"Let me explain" began Rav Leizer. "I look at everything from two perspectives. This is the way we analyze a sugya, topic, in the Talmud. There are two approaches, and we decide which one to use in order to understand the given issue. The same concept may be applied to charity: how much charity one should give; and why you and I have contrasting viewpoints concerning your ability to contribute five hundred ruble to my yeshivah.

"The Torah teaches us the process for separating Maaser beheimah, whereby each animal must pass through a narrow pathway and every tenth one is marked. What does the wealthy man who has ten thousand head of cattle do? Does he stand there all day - perhaps even a few days - marking off his Maaser? Apparently, he does. It could have been executed in a much simpler and more convenient manner by separating one thousand animals. Why go through such a prolonged process?

"As I explained earlier, there are two ways to look at a given situation. Imagine, approaching a wealthy landowner and demanding, 'I want one thousands cows to be used as sacrifices for your Maaser beheimah. There is no question that the wealthy man will hem and haw in an attempt to bargain his way out of such a hefty sum. If, however, he goes down to the corral and begins to count, one for me, two for me, three for me, when he finally reaches the tenth animal, he is no longer troubled about giving away the tenth animal. After all, he retains the other nine. He has been blessed with so much. The experience might take much longer, but the lesson the wealthy man derives is invaluable.

"Likewise, you and I have discrepant approaches to your contribution to the yeshivah's building fund. Five hundred rubles is no doubt a considerable sum, but why not take a moment to review all of your assets? Is five hundred rubles such an exorbitant amount?"

Va'ani Tefillah

Hishamru lachem pen yifteh levavchem…
v'charah Af Hashem bachem, v'atzar es ha'Shamayim.
Beware, lest your heart be seduced… then the anger of Hashem will burn against you, He will restrain the Heavens.

The change of speaker from the first person is notable, as Hashem speaks directly to the nation. In contrast with the introduction of the possibility of Klal Yisrael's swerving from the correct path of observance, we note Moshe Rabbeinu speaking to the nation, and referring to Hashem in the third person. In his Baruch Sheamar, Horav Baruch Epstein, zl, explains the transformation from the positive rewards that Hashem would grant the people, during which Hashem aligns Himself in the first person as their Benefactor; to the negative aspect of sin and punishment, during which Moshe Rabbeinu is the primary speaker. He quotes the Midrash at the beginning of Sefer Bereishis, which focuses on the pasuk, Vayikra Elokim l'or yom, u'le'choshech kara laylah, "And Elokim called to the light, day, and to the darkness He called night" (Bereishis 1:5). Should it not have been the other way around, with night/darkness preceding day/light, similar to, "And there was evening and there was morning, one day" (Ibid 1:5)? Chazal explain that darkness - in contrast to light - has a negative connotation. Thus, Hashem aligns His Name with the light.

Likewise, the opening verses of Shema are all positive, reflecting Hashem's reward for those who observe His commandments. Hishamru lachem initiates a new phase, a phase of negativity, sin and punishment. At this point, Moshe addresses the nation.

In honor of
Dr. Dennis and Marriane Glazer

Peninim on the Torah is in its 20th year of publication. The first fifteen years have been published in book form.

The Fifteenth volume is available at your local book seller or directly from Rabbi Scheinbaum.

He can be contacted at 216-321-5838 ext. 165 or by fax at 216-321-0588

Discounts are available for bulk orders or Chinuch/Kiruv organizations.


This article is provided as part of Shema Yisrael Torah Network
Permission is granted to redistribute electronically or on paper,
provided that this notice is included intact.
For information on subscriptions, archives, and
other Shema Yisrael Classes,
send mail to
Jerusalem, Israel