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Peninim on the Torah

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Rabbi A. Leib Scheinbaum
Hebrew Academy of Cleveland


Hashem spoke to Moshe on Har Sinai saying… When you come into the land which I give you, then shall the land keep a Shabbos unto Hashem. (25:12)

The mitzvah of Shemittah, to allow the land to remain fallow for an entire year every seven years, is the only mitzvah in the Torah that is introduced as having been "given on Har Sinai." While we are certainly aware that all of the mitzvos were given on Har Sinai, the commentators give reasons that the Torah emphasizes the mitzvah of Shemittah. Let it suffice to assert that this is a mitzvah of great significance. Indeed, later on (in 26:24-35), the Torah warns that if exile occurs, it will be the result of our failure to observe the laws of Shemittah. Why does this mitzvah have such overriding significance?

Two aspects to Shemittah observance are unique. An element of mesiras nefesh, self-sacrifice, is built into the mitzvah. Each individual, as well as the nation collectively, must refrain from working the land - an action that could affect the economy of the entire nation. Also, bitachon, faith and trust, is reflected in the belief that Hashem will compensate the people for their sacrifice when the Divine blessing results in an overabundance of crops. Thus, Shemittah serves as the paradigm of a mitzvah that apparently demands a sacrifice, while simultaneously, assures the respondent that he will not suffer as a result.

When we peruse Jewish history, we note an interesting phenomenon. The Divine promise was fulfilled when the people inhabited Eretz Yisrael and kept the mitzvah of Shemittah. Hashem also meted out Divine retribution when they discontinued their observance. The glaring question that confronts us is: What happened? Why did they violate the Shemittah when they clearly saw that it was working? Their land produced threefold in order to defray any loss incurred by the Shemittah. The Torah warned against this attitude and the warning, regrettably, came true. Why was Klal Yisrael so foolish to risk everything, especially when they saw Divine results? Why did they seek punishment when they were reaping rewards?

Rabbi Abraham Twersky uses this incident to support a psychological theory that considers this a weakness of human nature. There is often a compulsive urge to see whether we can "get away with it," despite the fact that this action is contraindicated by logic. In other words, we act foolishly because we have this urge to "see" if we can do it and go unpunished. How often do we find people who have successfully overcome addiction and other dependencies for a number of years only to succumb once again to their craving? Why? They think that they can get away with it. What could be so bad if "one" time they would give in to their craving? That one time is usually the beginning of their end.

For many years our ancestors observed Shemittah and received the wonderful blessings that are intrinsic to this mitzvah. Then they thought they could "have their cake and eat it too." They sought to use the additional income that they received in their sixth year and to continue working the land during the seventh year. They were wrong. Divine blessing is not negotiable. If one observes Shemittah, he is blessed. If he does not observe Shemittah, he will lose Eretz Yisrael. This phenomenon has clearly been demonstrated in the observance of the mitzvah of Shemittah. Hence, this mitzvah serves as the prototype for all mitzvos that Hashem gave at Har Sinai. The rule that is indicated through Shemittah stands true for all mitzvos.

Each of you shall not aggrieve his fellow. (25:17)

Onoas devarim, hurting people with words in personal relationships, embarrassing them by calling attention to their past indiscretions or questionable ancestry, rendering bad advice to the unknowing and unassuming, are acts that are deplorable for which Hashem metes out punishment. Included in onoas devarim is the sin of using people, cheating them in business, even if no real monetary loss ensues. An example is when one visits a merchant under the pretense that he wants to purchase one of his wares, when, in truth, he only wants to check out the price. He wastes the merchant's time and raises his hopes, all for nothing. Referring to a person or to a group by a derogatory nickname is onoas devarim. This attitude has been one of the primary catalysts of a number of unfortunate incidents that have occurred to the general Jewish community throughout history.

There are people who feel that with a little shtoch, a sharp word, they might encourage a person to repent. Indeed, a piercing comment has the power to generate a reaction when simple talking has failed. What we do not realize is that these well-meaning shtochs hurt people, and, rather than create a positive response, the reaction might be of a negative nature. It all depends on one's true purpose: If it is solely to create a positive reaction, it might be permitted, but who really knows their innermost feelings, and who is so sure that the positive results overwhelm the negative feelings generated by a hurtful comment?

Chazal teach us that descendants of Haman studied Torah in Bnei Brak. It seems like a fairly incongruous reward. What merit did the wicked Haman have that gave him such nachas, spiritual pleasure? Horav Yitzchak Zilberstein, Shlita, cites the Dubno Maggid, zl, who gives the following parable as explanation for Haman's reward: The prince of a region was eating, when suddenly a sharp bone became stuck in his throat. A robber who had intended to kidnap the prince and later kill him after he collected a hefty ransom, unknowingly grabbed hold of the prince as he was choking. The various movements needed to compromise the prince caused the bone to come loose. Inadvertently, the robber had saved the prince's life. The kidnap was foiled, and the robber was apprehended. Now it was up to the king to decide the robber's fate. On the one hand, he sought to kill the prince. On the other hand, he did save his life. The king decided to punish the robber for his intended actions and to reward his children for the positive results.

A parallel applies to the evil Haman. His intentions were certainly evil. He sought to destroy the Jewish People and erase them from the face of the earth. His actions, however, catalyzed their repentance and return to the Almighty. For his nefarious actions he was required to pay, but his descendants were the recipients of a great reward because of the positive reaction that he had inadvertently generated within Klal Yisrael.

Rav Zilberstein cites another interesting question. A young man, who clearly did not take care of his health, visited the doctor complaining of difficulty in breathing. The physician diagnosed a simple lung ailment that would respond to therapy - if it were followed properly. Aware of the young man's careless attitude concerning his health, the doctor decided to scare him and instead delivered a crushing diagnosis: he was ill with a dread disease that would certainly kill him unless he took immediate action. The young man took no chances, and overnight he altered his lifestyle. The question that was posed to the rav: Did the physician act appropriately? Does the end result justify the means?

At first glance, Rav Zilberstein posits that the physician had acted inappropriately, since he caused the young man to worry needlessly. He cites the incident between Peninah and Chanah, Shmuel HaNavi's mother, to substantiate his thesis. Peninah caused Chanah enormous grief when she called attention to the many children she had, each time alluding to Chanah's childlessness. As a result of Chanah's grief, Peninah lost seven children. Peninah's motivation was positive, seeking to galvanize Chanah's resolve to daven with greater intensity and fervor, so that her tefillos, prayers, would pierce the Heavens and reach the Heavenly Throne. She, nonetheless, was guilty of causing her co-wife extreme emotional pain. Why should the physician who misled his patient be any different?

Afterwards, Rav Zilberstein opines that the validity of such behavior is determined by the individual's personal suffering. If the subject of one's hurtful words stands to benefit personally as a result of the remarks it might be permissible. Thus, in the case of the young man, the doctor's actions might have been justifiable. Peninah, however, had no reason to act the way she did, since Chanah was not in any danger.

Playing with another Jew's emotions is similar to playing with fire: one gets hurt. The best way to sensitize ourselves to this danger is to circumvent it, by doing everything to think and act positively with regard to our fellow Jew. Share another Jew's burden, think of his plight; be sensitive to his needs: that is the way a Jew is supposed to act. Rabbi Yissachar Frand relates a powerful incident in the life of Horav Moshe Feinstein, zl, one that aptly characterizes this venerable sage. It was in 1970, when two planeloads of Jews were hijacked. Among the victims was Horav Yitzchak Hutner, zl, and a group of his students. There were Tehillim and tefillah rallies throughout the Jewish world supplicating Hashem for their safe return. The joy and relief when they were released was felt by all, and an enormous welcome gathering was arranged in Kennedy Airport to greet them upon their arrival. Thousands of Jews sang and danced to the music of a band hired specifically for the event.

The gadol hador, preeminent Torah leader of the generation, was also in attendance at the airport. As he entered the airport, an interesting phenomenon occurred. His face became clouded, and he walked over to the band and asked them to cease performing. He did this because the fate of six of the hostages was as yet undetermined. How could music be played if their lives were still in danger, if their families were still sick with worry concerning their fate? It is certainly incumbent upon everyone to celebrate the safe return of Rav Hutner, but it could be done without music, out of deference to the feelings of the other families who were not as fortunate. This was Rav Moshe! This was only one aspect of his gadlus, distinction.

Our obligation extends further: we must feel their pain. Horav Avraham Pam, zl, once visited a young couple who were sitting shivah, observing the seven-day mourning period, for the loss of their young son. There were no words of consolation to express to the bereaved parents. What could one say? How could one penetrate their grief to reach them? Rav Pam said nothing. He just sat down and cried - and cried. For twenty minutes, his tears flowed freely. He then rose and wished the couple the traditional words of consolation and left. A short time later, these people commented to a friend that Rav Pam had comforted them more so than anyone else. Why? What did he do? He really had said nothing, but he cried. He empathized with them. He conveyed to them a powerful message: You are not alone. Others care and share in your sorrow and grief.

When we demonstrate our concern for others, we sensitize ourselves to the point that negative feelings or comments are not consistent with our character.

If your brother becomes impoverished and his means falter in your proximity, you shall strengthen him. (25:35)

Do not wait until your fellow Jew falls under the pressure of financial constraints. Help him before he reaches the poverty level. It is much easier for one who has not yet descended to the pit of despair to arise from it, than it is for one who has lost his financial footing completely, who has bottomed out, to emerge from his predicament. Horav S.R. Hirsch, zl, notes that the word mote (u'matah yado, "and his means falter") to totter, to falter, to be about to fall, does not occur elsewhere in connection with the word yad, hand (yado), but only with regel, foot (the general condition of the individual). Were it to say u'mato raglo in reference to his general condition, it would designate a circumstance where the situation is such that his existence is already threatened, and the assistance which he needs is life-sustaining. The phrase u'mato yado describes his "hand" as becoming shaky; it is only his activity - not his existence - that is in peril. His means for actively gaining and earning a livelihood have begun to fail. Assistance at this point would enable him to continue independently earning his living. Help him before he falls completely, for then it will be very difficult to raise him back up.

This endeavor must be made imach, with you. In offering and lending assistance, do not reduce him to a condition of sloth and loss of self-respect. He is to be supported - with you - next to you. You must assist him in such a manner that he does not sink below you in morale.

In the Talmud Bava Basra 9b, Chazal say that one who gives a poor man money will be blessed with six blessings. One who appeases and comforts him receives eleven blessings. What is the reason for this? Horav Yisrael Yaakov Lubchenski, zl, the venerable mashgiach of Baranowitz, explains that there is no comparison between he who relinquishes his money and he who gives up his precious time for another Jew. Time is more than just money; it is life itself. It should be viewed as a man's most precious possession. One who achieves the high spiritual plateau of chesed, kindness, in which he is willing to give up his time for a poor man, to console him and give him succor in his time of need, demonstrates by his actions that tzedakah, the mitzvah of charity, has great meaning and value for him. Anyone who abnegates his greatest asset for his fellow Jew deserves all of Hashem's blessings.

A good word, a caring remark at the right time can make the difference in a person's day and even life. There are people who are in need of financial support and there are those who beg for emotional support. They need a bit of praise, some encouragement - even a simple smile. Yes, that is also tzedakah. Horav Simchah Bunim Alter, zl, the Gerer Rebbe, was a practical person whose name became a byword as a champion for Torah interests in Eretz Yisrael. His initiative set standards of restraints on simchos and marrying off children. He was revered and loved by Jews of all stripes. He was a loving and caring father, as well as an uplifting mentor to thousands. He had a kind word for everyone. Shortly after he became Rebbe, a young boy came to him grieving. "I have been left bereft of my parents," he cried.

"I will be your father and mother," the Rebbe replied. Although this boy had a number of married brothers, the Rebbe took him into his house, eating meals with him and concerning himself with all of his needs, and finally leading him to the chupah as his own grandchild. He was just one of the many orphans the Rebbe adopted over the years.

The Rebbe's concern for the needs of Klal Yisrael was exemplary. He would often cite the Rebbe, Reb Bunim, zl, of Peshischa, who made the following comment concerning the structure of Shema Yisrael. The second section of shema (V'hayah im shamoa) which is written in the plural does not mention "to love G-d… with all your possessions," as the first section does, because when taken on the public level, economic issues become matters of life and death, and these have already been included in "with all your lives." The Rebbe added that added financial constraints prevent one from focusing on his service to Hashem.

To this end, the Rebbe looked into various ways to ease the economic plight of his chassidim - and others as well. He offered suggestions that, in effect, left an imprint on all sectors of Israeli society in different ways. He was accessible to all, because he cared about all of them. I think the following vignette sums up his essence and conveys to us what our relationship with our fellow Jew should be.

When the Rebbe married off his first grandchild, the chassidim asked whether they should wear their shtreimels (a practice usually reserved for close family) at the wedding. The Rebbe told them to ask an elderly chasid who had lived in Gur. The man recalled that those who were close to the Rebbe would wear their shtreimels. When the Rebbe heard this account, he said, "Everyone is close to me."

Va'ani Tefillah

Kadesh es Shimcha al makdishei Shemecha - Sanctify Your Name through those who (cause others to) sanctify Your Name.

There is a difference between makdishei Shemecha and mekadshei Shemecha, in that makdishei is the hifil form of the verb which implies a meaning of "Sanctify Your Name through those who," cause others to sanctify Your Name. This contrasts the meaning of mekadshei Shemecha which refers to those who personally sanctify Hashem. What is the difference? One who acts l'shem Shomayim, for the sake of Heaven, and sanctifies Hashem's Name succeeds in carrying out his goal by virtue of his actions. One who is talui b'daas acheirim, who is dependent upon the will and acceptance of others, does not succeed in his Kiddush Hashem unless others also are encouraged to verify their conviction and elevate their belief in Hashem. Thus, we ask Hashem that our efforts to encourage others to affirm their belief in Him meet with success, so that Hashem's Name be spread throughout the world.

We may note that as the day begins, our focus is on how we can attract and inspire others. We care not only about ourselves; we want to reach out to others. This has a double result: Hashem's Name is increased and elevated, and we demonstrate our care for others.

Peninim on the Torah is in its 14th year of publication. The first nine years have been published in book form.

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

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