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Peninim on the Torah

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Rabbi A. Leib Scheinbaum
Hebrew Academy of Cleveland


When the Ark would travel, Moshe would say, "Arise Hashem, and let Your foes be scattered, let those who hate You flee from You." (10:35)

Did you ever wonder why, once the Sefer Torah has been removed from the Aron HaKodesh and the reading of the Torah is about to commence, spiritual intensity in the shul seems to be lifted. It is almost as if Krias HaTorah, the reading of the Torah, is a break in the service. We have finished Shacharis; we are now taking a break for a conversation, for a walk outside, early Kiddush, etc. Does Krias HaTorah signal a relaxation period, a time to socialize and catch up on the past week's events?

In Chochmas Chaim, a novel idea is quoted from Horav Yosef Chaim Sonnenfeld, zl, which rationalizes our change of pace during Krias HaTorah. Rav Yosef Chaim spoke in 1936 at the dedication of Yeshivas Sfas Emes in Yerushalayim. He explained why we recite the pasuk, Vayehi binsoa ha'Aron, when we open the doors of the Ark. He quoted from the Zohar HaKadosh, "Rabbi Shimon says: 'When the Sefer Torah is removed (from the Ark) with the intention of reading from it, the Heavenly Gates of Mercy are opened and Hashem's love for Klal Yisrael is aroused. Therefore, this is an auspicious moment for the recital of the prayer Brich Shmei, Blessed is the Name, which entreats for Hashem's compassion and pleads that He display His salvation by finally having the Bais Hamikdash rebuilt. We declare our faith in Him and His Torah, and we ask that He make us receptive to its wisdom.'"

Brich Shmei is a beautiful and meaningful prayer which is recited during the opening of the Ark, a time when we ask Hashem for arousement in all things spiritual. As a "rule," whenever an opportunity for spiritual ascendancy is present, it is almost certainly to be countered by the forces of spiritual impurity, which will employ any medium for deflecting and impeding the Heavenly spiritual inspiration that is descending at that moment. We pray to Hashem to scatter the foes of spirituality and cause the forces that undermine holiness to flee from us, so that the sparks of kedushah, holiness, that sanctify us will be allowed to do their work.

Having said this, we now understand why, for some of us, Krias HaTorah is a difficult time during which to remain captivated by the intensity of the preceding prayer service. The forces that seek to deter us are working overtime, and, in many cases, they are successful.

The rabble that was among them cultivated a craving, and Bnei Yisrael also wept once more and said, "Who will feed us meat?" (11:4)

The erev rav, mixed multitude, who left Egypt with the Jewish People, now showed their true level of commitment to Hashem. Nothing! Instead, they were the first to complain, the first to undermine Moshe Rabbeinu's leadership, thereby showing that they had come along only for the ride. How careful we must be of those usurpers who claim to stand with us, but, in truth, stand only for themselves. Only someone who is truly committed to Hashem is able to withstand the various challenges our People have encountered during our long journey.

Horav Avraham Schorr, Shlita, offers a novel interpretation of this pasuk. He quotes Yehudah ben Teima, whose well-known dictum in Pirkei Avos 5:20 accompanies the Jew throughout his life: "Be bold as a leopard, light as an eagle, swift as a deer, and strong as a lion, to carry out the will of your Father in Heaven." In his commentary to the Aggadic portions of the Talmud, Horav Elchanan Wasserman, zl, derives from here that man is a composite of all of the creatures in the world. This means that he possesses the strengths and characteristics - both good and bad - which control the individual nature of each creature. Man has within him: the strength and ability to lead like a lion; the viciousness of a snake; the foolishness of a donkey; the playfulness of a monkey, etc. He is, thus, unfortunately capable of the most heinous sin and, conversely, the most sublime act of kindness. He can run like the deer to perform a mitzvah, use brute strength in the service of his fellow man, and harness incredible energy to study Torah. He can do anything if he is properly motivated. If he is negatively provoked, he can fall into the abyss of evil and commit unbelievable atrocities. This is a man.

Rav Elchanan explains that this composite known to us as "man" must be guided by yiraas Shomayim, fear of Heaven, in order to control his animalistic urges and tendencies. Otherwise, he reverts to his creature instincts and is capable of just about any type of behavior.

Shlomo Hamelech says (Sefer Koheles 7:29): Asah HaElokim adam yashar, v'heimah bikshu chishvonos rabim, "G-d has made man simple, but they sought any intrigues." He begins the pasuk in the singular (adam, man) and concludes in the plural (heimah, they). Why is this? Sefer Eizor Eliyahu explains that this refers to the multifaceted strengths and natures of man, the fact that he is a composite of the various other creatures. All of these abilities are housed within the body and mind of "simple" man. Man is singular, but his tendencies -- based upon the various creative instinct within him--are plural. These tendencies, if left unchecked, provoke desire, passion, lack of control, base behavior - all of the negative instinct that pull man away from his Heavenly-intended "simplicity."

The word yashar is an acronym for Yehei Shmei Rabbah, "May His Great Name (be blessed)." This was Hashem's intention when He created man yashar, simple: that his life should be spent glorifying His Name. Thus, he controls his animalistic tendencies and fulfills his Heavenly mission. Otherwise, he falls prey to the "multitude" within him.

Rav Schorr now returns to our original pasuk, V'hasafsuf asher b'kirbo hisaavu taavah, "The rabble (mixed multitude) that was among them cultivated a craving." This refers to the multitude of creature characteristics imbedded in the psyche of man. They crave so much; they even initiate cravings for the sole purpose of craving! The purpose and mission of Klal Yisrael run counter to this life of abandon. We are charged to be me'acheid, unify all of our proclivities, for one purpose: to serve Hashem. We are created yashar Keil, simple by G-d, thus, accounting for our name, Yisrael. In order to maintain this name, we must live up to its meaning and objective.

If there were ever an era that brought out the worst in the human psyche, it was during the Cantonist period, during the mid-nineteenth century in Russia. Young Jewish boys were kidnapped by the Russians in order to serve in the Czar's army. The goal of the Russians was to dehumanize these children, alienate them from Hashem - with the goal of eventually baptizing them. While they did not always succeed in baptizing them, they did destroy their humanistic nature. These boys remained in the army for twenty-five years, during which they were subjected to the most cruel and inhumane torture. Indeed, the Tzemach Tzedek of Lubavitch compared the suffering of the Cantonists to the persecution of the Jews during the Hellenistic Greek rule, because of the spiritual nature of the abuse. He said, "We cannot imagine the greatness of praying and chanting Psalms by the Cantonists (this refers to those who survived spiritually intact). It is worth more in Heaven than the intention (kavanah) and fervor (dveikus) of the holy Arizal. Their prayers are filled with self-sacrifice (mesiras nefesh) and simple faith (emunah peshutah)."

The following story has made the rounds. I selected it to demonstrate how one can ascend from the abyss of being a conglomerate of creature instincts, to achieving spiritual sublimity - as long as his tendencies are all focused toward Hashem and guided by yiraas Shomayim. The most distant, base-minded Jew can be brought back to embrace Hashem, as long as he has the proper motivation and the right rebbe - as was the story with this Cantonist soldier.

The holy Chafetz Chaim, zl, often traveled from city to city. Once, at an inn in Vilna, he observed a burly Jew sitting at a table and ordering the waitress to bring him a portion of roast goose and a glass of whiskey. Without first making a brachah, blessing, he quickly devoured the meal and washed it down with the whiskey. His "dessert" consisted of a coarse berating of the waitress, for no other reason than he felt like it. Observing the entire scenario from a corner of the room, the Chafetz Chaim was about to get up and rebuke the man for his degrading behavior and foul language. The innkeeper rushed over to prevent the sage from following through with his intended reproof. He feared that the man, a simple illiterate individual, who had just recently been released from serving two and a half decades in the Czar's army, might be rude to the saintly Rav and even strike him.

"Please, Rebbe, leave him alone. You cannot speak to such a person. He is very crude, a true boor, who knows no way other than bullying. When he was merely seven-years-old, he was abducted with other child Cantonists and dragged off to Siberia. Until the age of eighteen, he lived among farmers, and then he served for another twenty five years in the Czar's army. With such an "education" could he have fared better? Is it any wonder that he is crude, wild and base? He was out of touch with anything Jewish for thirty years. He neither learned, nor spoke one letter of Torah. Judaism was foreign to him. It would be best that you do not speak with him. I value your honor too much."

A calm, affectionate smile radiated from the face of the Chafetz Chaim: "Such a Jew! I know quite well how to speak to him. I only hope that good will come from the conversation."

The Chafetz Chaim approached the man and greeted him warmly, "Shalom Aleichem! Is it true what I have just heard about you - that you were kidnapped as a child and dragged off to Siberia? That you grew up among gentiles and did not learn even one letter of the Torah? You suffered unbearable persecution, pain and misery. You endured torture by day and nightmares at night. The evil ones attempted numerous times to force you to reject your faith, to be baptized to their godless religion. They forced you to eat pork and all kinds of non-kosher food. Nonetheless, you persevered: you did not convert; you remained a loyal Jew.

"How blessed I would be to have such merits! You are so fortunate. Your place in the World to Come is guaranteed. You will sit among the greatest Jews of our nation. Your sacrifice and devotion is no trivial matter. You suffered immeasurably for over thirty years for the sake of Judaism and Heaven." Suddenly, tears welled up in the eyes of the former soldier. He was moved by the warm and good-hearted outpouring of love from this pure, living fountain whose words refreshed and invigorated his weary spirit. When he finally realized that he was none other than the saintly Chafetz Chaim, the holiest man of their generation, a sage who had no peer, he broke into bitter weeping and kissed the hands of the Chafetz Chaim.

The sage continued, "Enough! A man like you deserves to be amidst those holy Jews who gave their lives to serve and sanctify Hashem's Name. If you would be an observant Jew for the remainder of your life, no one would be more fortunate than you."

The man remained with the Chafetz Chaim until he became a fully observant Jew.

This man had demonstrated what can become of a person who does not have Heaven as a control over his animalistic tendencies. He had become the opposite of yashar. Once the holy Chafetz Chaim activated his spiritual GPS, he became focused on Hashem, thus allowing him to become yashar - Keil - Yisrael.

That you say to me, "Carry them in your bosom, as a nurse carries a suckling." (11:12)

Moshe Rabbeinu presents his taanah, "complaint," to Hashem. Horav Meir Shapiro, zl, explains Moshe's rationale. The developmental stages of a child require varied levels of adult support until the child matures sufficiently to the point that he is able to fend for himself. A young child of infant status requires a meinekes, nursemaid or babysitter, who feeds the child, since his young age does not yet allow for him to serve himself. An older child who has progressed beyond the need for adult feeding intervention requires an adult omein, sort of pedagogue, to train the child concerning what he must eat and what he requires in order to maintain self-sufficiency. Certainly, the two positions of the meinekes and omein cannot be interchanged. Imagine having the omein talk to the child, guiding him on what to eat and how to obtain it, while the meinekes attempts to carry and feed the child who is already educable. When the roles are reversed, we have chaos, such that neither the infant nor the older child is satisfied.

Moshe said to Hashem: Klal Yisrael contains a class of wealthy individuals whose function should be to look out for the welfare of the poor. These people are here to address the physical needs of the nation. There is also a class of Torah scholars whose function should be to address the spiritual needs of the nation. I, Moshe, am the nation's omein, pedagogue, charged with teaching Torah to the people. Instead, I have been relegated to meinekes status, whereby I am charged with providing meat and seeing to it that the physical needs of the nation are addressed. My leadership role has been altered. Instead of seeing to the spiritual needs of the nation, I am also grappling with the physical requirements.

Veritably, a Torah leader's function does not end with the spiritual development of his flock. If his people are hungry, he must feed them. A true Torah leader is all-purpose, focusing on the spiritual, but never losing sight of the physical pulse of the nation.

Horav Yaakov Galinsky, zl, remembers seeking refuge in Vilna during World War II. He was not alone. He shared accommodations with displaced yeshivah students from Poland, which was now a war zone. At this point, Vilna was part of Lithuania, thus remaining a war-free zone. One day, Horav Chizkiyah Mishkovsky told him, "I am taking you to meet Horav Chaim Ozer Grodzenski, zl (Rav of Vilna and undisputed leader of European Jewry). Rav Chaim Ozer was a gadol at a time in which Europe was filled with gedolim. He was the greatest of the great, an individual whose brilliance and encyclopedic knowledge were surpassed only by his extraordinary love for every Jew and care and concern for his every need. To be invited to speak with this giant among giants was an unparalleled honor, but simultaneously frightening. A yeshivah student could well expect to be tested on his Torah proficiency. One had to be sufficiently erudite and clear in his understanding and analysis of the subject matter.

Rav Galinsky passed most of the night reviewing the Gemorah. Added to his anxiety was the fact that he would be standing face to face and speaking with the gadol hador. On the other hand was the incredible excitement over experiencing this unprecedented opportunity. He entered the room and gazed upon Rav Chaim Ozer. No sooner had he stretched out his hand to say Shalom Aleichem, that the Rav asked him his first question: "When did you last receive a letter from your parents?" Imagine, his first question was not concerning the Gemorah; rather, it was about his welfare!

Rav Galinsky replied, "It has been months since I last heard from home. My parents are in the war zone."

Second question: "Do you have a place to sleep?" Rav Chaim Ozer did not question him concerning a bed to sleep on, since no one had beds. It could be a bench, a chair, or the floor. Without a roof over one's head, however, he would be prey to the elements and freeze.

Rav Galinsky answered that he did have sleeping arrangements. The third question astounded him, as it underscored the true greatness of Rav Chaim Ozer. "Can you please show me your shoes?" the Rav asked.

Terribly ashamed, because his shoes were torn and filled with holes, he reluctantly removed them from his feet and showed them to him. Seeing his shoes, Rav Chaim Ozer took out some money from his wallet, handed it to him, and said, "Here, go and buy yourself a pair of shoes."

Rav Chaim Ozer's concern was not merely for the yeshivah student's learning. If a young man had no food in his stomach, nowhere to sleep and threadbare shoes, he could not learn properly. After the young man's physical needs were addressed, he could learn.

Horav Chaim Brisker, zl, was the Rosh Yeshivah par excellence, whose derech halimud was equally legendary. One day, the askanim, public figures who were the communities' movers and shakers, came to Rav Chaim's home and asked the Rebbetzin why it was cold in the house. Apparently, they had dropped off a load of wood the other day. It should have lasted for a few weeks. She replied that as soon as it had been delivered, the Rav informed the poor that they were welcome to take what they needed in order to heat their homes. In a short time, all was gone.

The men were frustrated. They could not keep up with the Rav's chesed. Finally, they returned with more wood. This time, they locked the storage shed and gave the Rebbetzin the key: "This is our wood, to be used by the Rav and his family. You have no permission to give it away!"

The next day, the askanim visited the Rav's home to discover to their consternation that the house was still bitter cold. "We told you not to give away the wood," they said. "We did not give it away. In fact, we did not even go to the woodshed," the Rebbetzin replied. "Why, then, is the house so cold?" they asked. She responded, "The Rav said, 'If there is insufficient wood for the poor, then I, too, will not have wood. I will not be warm when my community is cold!'"

This is the mark of a Torah leader. He suffers along with his flock. If the poor are cold - so is he. If they are hungry - so is he. Indeed, a leader who never had to worry about his next paycheck will have great difficulty understanding the economic challenges faced by the members of his community. A leader must be both an omein and a meinekes, caring for the spiritual - as well as the physical - needs of those who look to him for leadership.

Now the man Moshe was exceedingly humble, more than any person on the face of the earth! (12:3)

To some, humility is on a parallel line with obsequiousness. We see from Moshe Rabbeinu, the most humble man to walk the face of the earth, that this is not true. Our leader took a stand when necessary. Certainly, he was aware that speaking with Hashem was not something to which the average man is accustomed. Yet, he was humble, because humility is an awareness of oneself. Despite one's achievements, in the eyes of the humble person they are merely activities which are expected of him. He is doing what he is supposed to be doing.

The Alter, zl, m'Kelm, wonders how Moshe was able to write such an accolade about himself. True, Hashem dictated it to him, but he must have felt terribly awkward. Furthermore, how does Moshe write such an extraordinary accolade and continue to remain humble? It is not often that one receives such praise from Hashem. The Alter explains that a person is not impressed with his personal achievement if this is what he is supposed to be doing. For instance, one does not tout his eyesight or his hearing, since these are capabilities he is supposed to have. It is only when it begins to fail, and then returns to complete good health does he have reason to sense a feeling of personal satisfaction. Moshe viewed every aspect of himself, including his humility, as part of his G-d-given innate qualities. Thus, he had no reason to arrogate himself over anyone. He understood that humility was like vision. Hashem gave him two eyes with which to see. Likewise, humility was an essential part of his psyche - nothing special. It was part of him!

How did Moshe reach such an incredible level of humility, to be considered by Hashem and recorded in the Torah as the most humble man on the earth? Horav Eliezer Yehudah Finkel, zl, explains that Moshe acknowledged and appreciated every person's talents and virtues. He sought out the hidden characteristics in each individual, his unknown qualities and potential that were concealed to the human eye, but to the learned and discerning individual, such as Moshe, were an open book of positive qualities. Thus, every person, regardless of his present state, was a storehouse of unlimited potential. This awareness of each person is what motivated Moshe's sense of humility. In other words, he viewed people through a different lens, thereby elevating each person to an unbelievable, yet unrealized, status.

This is alluded to by the pasuk, "Now, the man Moshe was exceedingly humble - more than any person." Why? When he viewed people with his penetrating, discerning eye, he was able to discover their extraordinary potential - a potential of qualities from which he felt humbled. When one views others through the lens of his own potential, he has greater respect for his fellow man and less for which he should be haughty.

Va'ani Tefillah

Baruch Atah Hashem Magen Avraham. Blessed are You, Hashem, Shield of Avraham.

When Hashem rescued Avraham Avinu during the war with the Four Kings who had invaded Eretz Canaan, the Patriarch was concerned lest he had "cashed in" all of his zchusim, merits. The Almighty reassured him, Al tira Avram Anochi magen lach s'charcha harbeih me'od, "Fear not, Avram; I am your shield; your reward is very great" (Bereishis 15:1).

The Yalkut Shimoni explains that magen in Aramaic means "free; at no cost." Avraham feared that, by being spared in this world, he had lost his portion in Olam Habba, the World to Come. Hashem told him that, since he fought to preserve the glory of Hashem in this world, his great reward in the World to Come would not be diminished.

When we recite this blessing during our personal tefillah, we are thereby entreating Hashem to act toward us in a manner similar to the way He acted with the Patriarch. We, too, are asking for many things; all eighteen blessing are requests which have personal connotations. We fear that a positive response to our request might cause a depletion in our zchusim account, thus diminishing our Olam Habba. We ask Hashem to also be our shield - as He was to Avraham. This way we hope to receive the best of "both worlds": salvation in this; and our portion in Olam Habba.

In memory


Robert and Barbara Pinkis
R Baruch Gimpel ben Chaim Yehuda zl
and his wife Esther Chana bas R Avigdor ah

Michele and Marcelo Weiss and Family
Lisa and Eric Pinkis and Family

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

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