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Peninim on the Torah

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Rabbi A. Leib Scheinbaum
Hebrew Academy of Cleveland


For they are given; they are given to Me from among Bnei Yisrael; instead of all that open the womb, the first-born of all Bnei Yisrael. (8:16)

Rashi notes from the repetition of the word nesunim, they are given, that Shevet Levi was to serve two functions: they had the task of carrying the Mishkan during the nations's travels; and they sang in the Sanctuary. Horav Mordechai Rogov, zl, notes the distinctions between these two areas of service. One demanded physical exertion to lift and carry the heavy weight of the Mishkan along with its various appurtenances. It was not what we would consider to be a pleasant task. The other function, to sing and accompany the service in the Sanctuary, was truly an enjoyable task. Yet, these functions are paralleled by the Torah to indicate that they were both carried out in a similar manner. We must step back to analyze this. On the one hand, the Leviim performed a physically demanding task for the sole purpose of fulfilling a mitzvah. On the other hand, they also carried out a pleasant task for the sole purpose of fulfilling the mitzvah. This really sets a standard of performance that is both sublime and unique. It is one thing to focus in order to maintain a clear and simple perspective of a mitzvah while performing a difficult physical endeavor. It is entirely something else - and quite demanding - to maintain this same focus when personal benefit and pleasure are involved.

Rav Rogov cites the pasuk in Parashas Lech Lecha (Bereishis 12:4), which states that Avraham Avinu traveled to the land of Canaan, "just as Hashem commanded him." The Kesav Sofer notes that although the mission to go to Eretz Yisrael was l'tovascha u'luanaascha, "for your personal benefit and welfare," as stated by Rashi (12:1), nonetheless, the manner in which Avraham carried out the command was selfless, with total dedication and without any personal gain. Our Patriarch acted without any ulterior motive. He was committed to fulfilling the Divine Will - not to seeking personal gratification.

A mitzvah which contains a side benefit that includes personal pleasure or benefit is difficult to perform with pure motivation, solely for the sake of Heaven. We are human beings and, as such, we have desire, that, when satisfied, give us pleasure. It takes incredible devotion and commitment to be able to transcend these emotions in order to concentrate completely on the mitzvah. Indeed, Horav Yisrael Salanter, zl, was wont to say, "It is a greater challenge to perform the mitzvah of eating on Erev Yom Kippur for the sole purpose of carrying out the mitzvah, than it is to actually fast on Yom Kippur." The reason for this is simple. Upon eating, one derives physical pleasure, an unintended benefit one must transcend in order to focus on the mitzvah itself. Fasting, however, has no side benefits.

When Avraham Avinu returned from the battle of the four kings against the five kings, he met the king of Sodom, who offered him the spoils of the war. Avraham refused, declaring, (Bereishis 14:2) "I have lifted my hand in an oath to the G-d most high, Possessor of the Heaven and earth! Not a thread nor a shoelace! I will not take anything that is yours!" The Midrash comments that Avraham's expression, "not a thread," alludes to sacrificial offerings. As we learn in the Mishnah Meseches Middos 3:1, a thread of scarlet girded it (the Altar) around the middle. (This line separated between the upper and lower areas where the sprinkling of the blood would be placed for various offerings.) "Nor a shoelace," alludes to the feet of the (Festival) pilgrims, as it says in Shir HaShirim 7:2, "How beautiful are your steps in sandals."

Rav Rogov explains this Midrash along the same lines. When Avraham Avinu raised his hand in declaration to Hashem, he was asserting that he would sanctify his efforts to acquire within his soul the strength and fortitude to carry out his endeavors only for the sake of Heaven. His goal was to prevent any aspect of personal benefit from becoming a motivating factor of his efforts. The Midrash points this out with regard to his intent in two specific areas. Our Patriarch was acutely aware that there would be times in his descendants' history in which action would have to be taken in order to accomplish a mitzvah. He knew that this action would, at times, involve self-sacrifice. He realized that the blood of his children would be sacrificed on various altars throughout their tumultuous history, as torture and even death would be the consequences of defending our beliefs. These decisions would most certainly be made purely l'shem Shomayim, for the sake of Heaven.

Yet, Avraham also dedicated the annual pilgrimages that his descendants took to Yerushalayim for the Three Festivals. These festive times were accompanied by celebration, joy and camaraderie. Singing, dancing and all other forms of physical enhancements constitutes an important aspect of the travels to Yerushalayim. This set the stage for personal enjoyment, whereby people would benefit from the food, drink and good cheer. Nonetheless, Avraham proclaimed that even these experiences would be l'shem Shomayim. The nation would focus their intentions on the holy mission of rejoicing with Hashem. They would concentrate their efforts on Hashem alone - not on themselves.

Aharon said to Moshe… "Do not cast a sin upon us, for we have been foolish and we have sinned." (12:11)

The parsha concludes with the incident of Miriam haNeviah speaking lashon hora about Moshe Rabbeinu. Upon discovering that Moshe had separated from Tzipporah, his wife, Miriam told Aharon, and together they criticized their younger brother: "Was it only to Moshe that Hashem spoke? Did He not speak to us as well?" (12:2) They were unaware that Moshe's action was the result of Hashem's command, since Moshe had to be prepared to receive a Nevuah, prophecy, at any time. This possibility demands that a person be in a constant state of ritual purity, a status which is incompatible with normal family life. As Horav Avraham Pam, zl, suggests in the anthology of his ethical discourses on Chumash, Aharon and Miriam failed to realize that Moshe was different than they, that his relationship with Hashem superseded even their own. They thought they were like him. That was their first mistake.

Rav Pam cites the Rambam, Hilchos Yesodei HaTorah 7:6, who distinguishes between the level of Nevuah attained by Moshe and that attained by the other prophets. Moshe was wide-awake and standing when Hashem communicated with him. His prophecy emanated directly from Hashem, as a man speaks with his friend. Other prophets had a vision, fell into a trance, or were visited by an angel who revealed the prophecy in the form of a mashal, analogy, or riddle, which the Navi was to interpret. All prophets had to prepare themselves spiritually for the moment of Nevuah, and, when it would occur, they were in a state of terror or dread. Moshe received his Nevuah at any time he wished, because he was always in a state of preparedness. This status compelled him to separate from his wife.

Realizing their error, Aharon cried out to Moshe, "Do not cast a sin upon us, for we have been foolish, and we have sinned." What was the gist of this sin? The Ohr HaChaim HaKadosh explains that Aharon was acknowledging that their sin consisted of two errors. First, they erred by speaking lashon hora about Moshe. Second, they were guilty of imprudently comparing their level of prophecy to that of Moshe. Indeed, as Rav Pam points out, the infraction of lashon hora paled in comparison with their act of indiscretion in comparing themselves to Moshe.

It happens all of the time. We compare ourselves to rabbanim, roshei yeshivah, Torah scholars of note, all individuals who have spent their lives totally immersed in the sea of Torah. They are people who have perfected middos, character traits, and have devoted themselves selflessly to Hashem's Torah and the way of life it demands. Yet, we do not seem to distinguish between them and us. How often does someone who once studied in a yeshivah - and even received a certificate of rabbinical ordination - think that he has the right to paskin, render a halachic decision, as well as the rav who has spent his life absorbed in halachah?

If Aharon and Miriam, who were kedoshei elyon, holy people of a level above any average mortal, who were themselves Neviim, could err, what should we say? In addition, their minds and perspective were not clouded by arrogance.

Rav Pam cites two episodes that emphasize this idea. The Shaagas Arye was one of the towering spiritual giants of the 18th century. He was a brilliant scholar, whose book of responsa was a Torah classic. While he held a number of rabbinical positions, he is best known in his role as the rav of the city of Metz. While today's rabbis take a sabbatical, in those days a sabbatical was called "praven galus," whereby the rav would leave his position for a short time to endure a period of self-imposed exile. This was a method for perfecting their character traits, especially that of humility. Being with the common people, not being subject to accolades and honor, gave them the opportunity to get in touch with themselves. Their rabbinic garb was exchanged for peasant clothing, as they traveled to distant villages and towns where they were unknown. They would mingle with the poor and homeless, often sleeping on the floor in the back of a shul and sustaining themselves from the community soup kitchen, like the itinerant beggars. This was their way of divesting themselves of the prestige and honor that often accompanied their esteemed rabbinic position.

During one of his "galus trips," the Shaagas Arye had occasion to spend a few nights together with a melamed, Torah teacher, in a hayloft in the barn of a farmer. The melamed worked on the farm on two levels: he taught Torah to the farmer's children; and he helped the farmer with his chores. One morning shortly before dawn, the Shaagas Arye was awakened by the loud, resounding voice of the farmer, "Rebbe, get up and take the cows out to the pasture!" The young melamed jumped out of "bed" and ran to do the farmer's bidding. About an hour later, the farmer's voice once again broke the prevailing silence, "Rebbe, go feed the chickens!" Immediately, the melamed ran to carry out his master's command.

When the young man returned to the barn after completing his daily chores, he turned to the Shaagas Arye who was bent over engrossed in a Talmudic analysis, saying, "Du zest vi mir rabbanim darfen zich mutchen?" "Do you see how we rabbanim have to struggle?" He compared himself to the Shaagas Arye when he said, "we rabbanim," as if they were on a parallel plane. According to the Ohr HaChaim, this was the error of Aharon and Miriam - comparing themselves and their level of prophecy to that of Moshe Rabbeinu. No one is denying their sublime spiritual stature. They were not, however, on the same level as Moshe.

In a second vignette, it is related that Rav Pam once attended the annual dinner of a major Jewish organization. Sitting on the dais next to the venerable gadol hador, preeminent Torah leader of the generation, Horav Aharon Kotler, zl, was a young American rabbi. The rabbi was talking animatedly with Rav Aharon and even patting the rosh yeshivah on the hand, as he repeatedly said, ""No, Rabbi Kotler, that is not the way…" As Rav Pam took in this scenario, the gadol hador with a young rabbi engaged in discussion as if they were equals, he thought of Aharon HaKohen's words, "We have been foolish, and we have sinned."

During the 1950's, the gedolei hador, the Brisker Rav, zl, and the Chazon Ish, zl, issued a strong ruling with regard to the religious issues facing the Torah community in Eretz Yisrael and their involvement vis-?-vis the government. There were those, of course, who had the temerity to challenge the rulings of the gedolei hador. These were rabbis who unquestionably had strong followings and prestigious credentials, but they were a far cry from these two Torah luminaries. They had the nerve to defend their actions by saying, "We are also rabbis."

If there is one lesson that should be derived from the incident of Aharon and Miriam, it is to be able to step back and reflect upon the preeminence of gedolei Yisrael. Regardless of how we view ourselves, we are a far cry from them. Too often do we hear the utter foolishness of those who have accomplished "somewhat" when they say, "We are also daas Torah! We are expositors of Torah wisdom. We can render halachic arbitration on the same level as any gadol." These mindless statements only validate the obvious: "We have been foolish, and we have sinned."

Miriam was quarantined outside the camp for seven days, and the people did not journey until Miriam was brought in. (12:15)

Miriam was punished for speaking against her brother, Moshe Rabbeinu. For seven days she was quarantined,as per the law applying to one who is afflicted with tzaraas, spiritual leprosy. She was left alone to contemplate her error for seven days, during which time the entire nation waited for her release from quarantine before they continued their journey. Miriam's episode teaches us a powerful lesson concerning reward and punishment: Hashem does not ignore the good that one accomplishes. The good is not erased as a result of the bad. Furthermore, when Hashem judges a person's infraction, He takes into account the entire person - not just the sin that he has committed.

We are instructed to "remember what Hashem did to Miriam on the road traveling from Egypt." We are to derive from this incident a lesson regarding the evils of lashon hora, evil speech. Miriam, the most righteous woman, the person who saved Moshe Rabbeinu's life, made a grave error, and she was punished. What can we say? There is more, however, to the lesson that Miriam's episode teaches us. Horav Chaim Shmuelevitz, zl, asserts that Miriam's incident goes beyond teaching us the effects of lashon hora. It teaches us a powerful lesson concerning our interrelationships with people. Miriam was punished, but she simultaneously received tremendous honor, as the entire nation waited for her recuperation. We derive from here that we are to take the entire individual into consideration before judging a situation. Because of the lashon hora that she spoke, Miriam was punished. On the other hand, because she waited by the river to watch over her baby brother, Moshe, she was rewarded. We are to take everything into account.

Hashem judges the person - not simply his actions. I recently read about an individual who had inflicted an immeasurable amount of emotional damage on a number of people. This was a man that people had trusted, that people had looked to for guidance and inspiration, and he violated their trust. While he certainly deserved to be censured for the evil that he wrought, people quickly seemed to forget many of the wonderful things that he had done. They forget how many lives he saved, how many families he inspired, how many lost youth he helped. That is how human beings function, however. We see only the action before us at the moment. We do not view the action in the context of the entire individual and his positive contributions to society. While one's positive actions certainly do not negate his evil deeds, they should not be ignored as if they had not occurred. One should be recognized for the good that he has accomplished and censured for the evil that he has caused.

To be able to include both reward and punishment in one retribution, to recognize one's positive contribution as well as to punish one's malevolence, is Divine. We are taught in Pirkei Avos, Hevei dan es kol ha'adam l'kaf z'chus, "Judge every man favorably." This seems difficult at times, especially when the iniquity is glaring at us and seems unpardonable. How do you judge corruption favorably? The answer is that you do not find anything positive about the corruption. The favorable verdict is to be focused on kol ha'adam, the entire person. Do not judge the action; judge the person. You might see him and his compelling circumstances in a different light.

Va'ani Tefillah

Baruch She'amar - Blessed is He Who spoke.

There are eighty-seven words in Baruch She'amar, corresponding with the pasuk, Rosho kesem paz, "His opening words were finest gold" (Shir Hashirim 5:11). This is a reference to the "head," opening words of the Pesukei d'Zimra which is composed of paz, whose gematria, numerical equivalent, is 87, alluding to the 87 words of this prayer. It also includes ten forms of praise, coinciding with the Asarah Maamaros, Ten Emanations, through which the world came into being. The Aruch HaShulchan observes that the word baruch, blessed, is mentioned thirteen times in this prayer. This corresponds to the Yud Gimel Middos, Thirteen Attributes of Mercy. Furthermore, Pesukei d'Zimra contains thirteen forms of praise: Hodu, Mizmor L'Todah, Yehi Kavod, Ashrei, Five Hallelukahs, Baruch Hashem l'olam, Va'yevarech David, V'charos imo ha'bris, Az Yashir.

What is the significance of the words, Baruch She'amar? Tenuvas Baruch cites Chazal who say that the words, Bereishis bara Elokim, allude to the fact that Hashem originally wanted to create the world with Middas haDin, the Attribute of Strict Justice. Hence, the tefillah uses the word Elokim, which is the name of Hashem associated with Din. When Hashem observed that the world could not exist under the rigors of Din, He included Rachamim, the Attribute of Mercy, with it. Amirah, speaking, is lashon rakah, a soft expression, while dibur, telling, is lashon kashah, stronger, harsher form of expression. Amirah is, thus, associated with rachamim. Therefore, we say, Baruch She'amar v'hayah ha'olam, "Blessed is He Who spoke and the world came into existence." We praise Hashem for saying with mercy that the world should come into being. Otherwise, we could not exist.

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