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Peninim on the Torah

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Rabbi A. Leib Scheinbaum
Hebrew Academy of Cleveland


In the beginning of G-d's creating the heavens and the earth. (1:1)

The Torah is the charter of man's mission on this world. It is the "book of directions" which guides us how to live a life of commitment to Hashem. In the Talmud Chagigah 11b, Chazal teach that it is prohibited to expound upon maaseh Bereishis in a class of two students, which means the teacher and one other person. The Talmud presents many Aggadic teachings related to this topic. Literally, maaseh Bereishis means "account of Creation." Ramban interprets maaseh Bereishis as the wisdom of the natural world. The most widely accepted opinion is that maaseh Bereishis pertains to the wisdom of Kabbalah, mysticism. In any event, the issues pertaining to maaseh Bereishis go beyond the grasp of our natural minds. To delve into areas to which the brain is neither accustomed nor prepared sets a person up for failure to understand the profundity of the subject correctly.

When a person begins to think that he is capable of theorizing and understanding G-d's hidden ways and the manner in which He created the world, he is already on a serious collision course with the teachings of Judaism. He will end up rejecting the true beliefs of Torah and setting course on a journey to infamy. The result of this philosophical journey will invariably be heresy, compelled by beliefs which undermine the very underpinnings of our faith. Darwin's theory of evolution is based upon such erroneous conjecture. When a human being believes that he can understand G-d, he can fall to such a nadir as to believe that man, the b'chir ha'yetzurim, chosen one of all creations, has descended from a monkey, such that there is no difference between animal and human.

A Jew should believe one thing: Hashem created heaven and earth, and that He is behind everything which occurs in life. Once one accepts Hashem as Creator, he immediately understands that understanding Creation is beyond his ability. Every story, every issue, everything which has taken place and how Hashem has responded, are all part of maaseh Bereishis. The problem is that we cannot leave well-enough alone; thus, we feel compelled to postulate and interpret occurrences which are beyond our grasp, thereby making egregious mistakes.

Horav Yosef Segal, zl, relates that a maggid (preacher who often earned his living by traveling from city to city lecturing and inspiring the populace) once came before Horav Chaim Volozhiner, zl, and narrated to him the contents of a recent derashah, lecture, that he had given in a large city. The man was very impressed with his ability to explain the pasuk homiletically to fit the objectives of his lecture. In the piyut, prayer, "Hashem, Hashem," which is recited during the Neilah, Closing service, of Yom Kippur, we lament the fact that, B'reosi kol ir al tilah benuyah, v'ir haElokim mushpeles ad sheol tachtiyah, which is translated as, "When I see every city built on a hilltop, while the city of G-d is degraded to the nethermost depth." The payton, author of the prayer, bemoans the degradation of our Holy City. This is the simple interpretation of the prayer. This maggid suggested a new meaning. Rather than comparing Yerushalayim to other large metropolis', he felt the author was lamenting the fact that people are always striving to satisfy their physical/material desires, but, when it comes to the requirements of the soul/spirituality, they are satisfied with as little as they can get. Thus, kol ir, "every city," is a reference to the physical material dimension of one's life, and ir haElokim, "city of G-d," refers to one's spiritual needs. While it is a nice p'shat, exposition, it is clearly not the payton's intended meaning.

Rav Chaim asked this maggid, "Tell me, have you ever been to a large metropolitan city, such as London or Paris?" "Yes," he answered. "My travels take me everywhere. I have been to many large cities. I have rarely seen such advanced development and esthetic beauty as is found in some of these large cities. It is truly impressive." "Perhaps you also have had occasion to visit the holy city of Yerushalayim?" "Yes," he replied, "I certainly did, and I must add that the contrast is glaring. The Holy City is bereft of its spiritual beauty, its supremacy as the holiest site on the earth."

"If, in fact, you see the contrast between Yerushalayim and Paris," Rav Chaim asked, "why is it that you feel compelled to deviate from the simple explanation of the prayer? Every city is built up beautifully, advanced technologically and esthetically appealing. Yerushalayim is a city that once was yefei nof mesos kol ha'aretz, 'Fairest of brides, joy of all the earth,' and now it is desolate of all its inherent beauty. Is this not something to lament? Why not adhere to the prayer's intended meaning?"

A similar idea applies to all of the would-be philosophers and self-proclaimed thinkers. With all of their hypotheses -- based upon meaningless conjecture-- that have yet to be ratified, they have succeeded in doing nothing but creating confusion in the minds of those who otherwise would believe in Hashem as G-d of Creation and G-d of history. They miss the most important verse in the Torah, the one verse that speaks directly to us, saying that the world of Creation is beyond us, because Bereishis bara Elokim. It was G-d Who created the world. Man is unable of comprehending G-d. He lacks the perception, because he is human - G-d is not. That is all one must know. Sadly, so many of us are not prepared to accept this concept. We think that we know more. The result of such erroneous speculation is that some believe that they have descended from monkeys. How very sad.

Two people can view the very same object and have two discrepant perspectives. One sees with clarity of vision, while the other has blurred vision which is either the result of shortsightedness, or self-imposed myopia. A well-known analogy demonstrates this idea. A brilliant artist was endowed with a special ability to create images that, to the naked eye, appear real. He painted a beautiful painting, depicting a man carrying a basket of fruit on his shoulder. He entered this painting in an outdoor art show, to be viewed by major art critics. The painting appeared so realistic that birds flying nearby saw the "grapes" on the man's shoulder, and they began to peck at them. A group of art critics saw this phenomenon and were amazed by the lifelike art which this master artist had created. The critics were standing around, staring in amazement as bird after bird swooped down to peck at the grapes.

One critic, who was obviously a perceptive individual, looked at his colleagues and said, "I do not believe that men of such intelligence could be so short-sighted as to err so foolishly!" They looked at him in astonishment. How dare he speak to them so! Anyone with a modicum of intelligence should be impressed by the graphic imagery captured by the artist. The critics, of course, dismissed their colleague's tirade. He spoke up again, "My friends, you base your assumption concerning the realistic nature of this artwork upon the fact that the birds are prepared to eat the grapes. The mere fact that the birds are prepared to risk eating the grapes indicates exactly the opposite. Have you ever seen a bird eat off the shoulder of a living human being? Indeed, the fact that the birds are attempting to eat the grapes demonstrates that the artist is not as skilled as you perceive him to be. Yes, he succeeded in creating lifelike grapes; the person, however, still looks like artwork. He did not fool the birds at all. The artist is good, but not that good."

Let us apply this analogy to our own misguided perspectives concerning the advanced development and refinement of mankind. On the one hand, we have made immense strides in science, medicine, and other disciplines. Man is capable of advances that even a decade ago had been considered impossible. One would conjecture that the human being has certainly progressed by leaps and bounds from his primitive roots. This is truly how modern society views itself and its achievements. They think that they are far removed from their crude beginnings. Let us now take a penetrating look at the base revulsions, the criminal activities of, not only the uneducated, but that of the highly cultivated and distinguished leadership of today's elite; the plunder and moral depravity of these select leaders, the carnage they create, or permit to ensue as a result of their egos and political affiliations. Indeed, they use the very scientific advancements that so demonstrates their refinement to wreak havoc on an unsuspecting and gullible world. So, is the artist that good?

It is all a question of perspective. Does one recognize that Bereishis bara Elokim? The only reality in this world is Hashem and, unless we remain focused on Him, nothing else is real. Whatever we see can be interpreted to suit our needs, but is that what we really want? When we begin a cycle of Torah study, we begin with one presumptive preamble. Hashem created the world. We must see the Almighty in everything. Otherwise, we see nothing. And Elokim saw the light that it was good. (1:4)

The Talmud Yoma 38b states: "Rabbi Elazar says: it is worth for the world to be created even for (the benefit it derived from) one tzaddik, righteous person." This is derived from the above pasuk, "And Elokim saw the light that it was good." There is no "good" like a tzaddik. We also find in Mishlei 10:25, V'tzaddik yesod olam, "A righteous person is the foundation of the world." We now have some inkling of the great merit that a tzaddik has in this world. One tzaddik - not a world of tzaddikim - only one, single, righteous person makes the entire world's creation meaningful! The entire world with all its creatures and all humanity are all here because of the tzaddik. He is the purpose of creation.

With this compelling statement fresh in our minds, we may begin to understand the overarching importance of reaching out to unaffiliated Jews, to bring them closer under the kanfei haShechinah, wings of the Divine Presence. Horav Gamliel Rabinowitz, Shlita, observes that if the world could have endured six thousand years just for the sake of one tzaddik, certainly we should expend every possible effort to reach out to Jews of all stripes and persuasions.

Furthermore, man is a microcosm of the world. He is an olam katan, tiny simile of the world. Thus, he must view himself in a similar perspective. As the entire world is worthy of creation just for the benefit of one tzaddik, so, too, should a person take great joy and feel a tremendous sense of accomplishment for every positive action which he executes. That one activity quite possibly makes "him" worth the effort.

Rav Gamliel quotes Horav Nota Freund, Shlita, who explains the pasuk, Kasis la'maor, "Crushed for the purpose for lighting" (Shemos 27:20), which is a reference to the olive oil used for the Menorah. Chazal derive from here that only maor - the oil used for the Menorah, for illumination, must be extracted from olives by crushing them, using the first oil that emerges for the Menorah. Concerning Menachos, the oil mixed with flour for the Meal-offering, one may use oil that has been ground up. Applying a homiletic twist, Rav Freund interprets the pasuk: kasis la'maor - "crushed for illumination." One who is struck by Hashem, who is subject to a difficult challenge, should be la'maor; it should serve as a source of inspiration that elevates him. He should never allow the kasis, the crushing effect, to cause menachos, pain, sadness, and menachos, "resting," whereby one disappears into a cocoon of hopelessness, going into emotional hibernation.

As Chazal posit that the world could likely have been created for one person, so, too, should a person believe that his own entire existence was worthwhile as a result of the good deeds which he carries out .

Concerning the meaning of Tzaddik yesod olam, I recently came across the following statement attributed to Horav Shlomo Zevihler, zl. Two great Admorim, who were both very righteous, distinguished leaders who devoted their lives to shepherding their flock: Horav Yisrael, zl, m'Huseitin; and Horav Shlomo, zl, m'Zevihl. Rav Yisrael was blessed with great wealth, while Rav Shlomo lived a life of abject poverty. Rav Shlomo once commented, "There are two types of tzaddikim. The tzaddik hador, righteous leader of his generation, does just that, guide his generation. There is also the tzaddik yesod olam, who acts very much like a yesod, foundation, who goes unnoticed, sort of buried in the ground - like a foundation." We must remember, however, that without the foundation, the entire edifice comes crashing down.

One cannot write concerning the importance of reaching out to every Jew without making mention of the Ponevezer Rav, Horav Yosef Kahaneman, zl. He was a Torah giant in whose heart burned a fiery love for every Jew. He would say excitedly, "Of course, I want whole-hearted sincere Jews - one hundred percent perfect Jews - but I also want all one hundred percent of all of the world's Jews, that none of them go lost; I am not not giving up on a single one! Just as a Jew may never give up hope, so, too, are we also forbidden to give up on a simple Jew, no matter who he is."

A close student of his related, "I once saw the Rebbe in the middle of a throng of irreligious, assimilated Jews, who surrounded him with loving and admiring looks. Burning with curiosity, I went over to him and asked what approach he used to reach out to them. Smiling, he replied, 'I told them that they are Jews, more precious than anything else, and that they were just disguising themselves to the point that they are even maintaining their disguise towards themselves.' Thus, I told them, 'Remove your masks! Taire briderlach, beloved brothers, cast off your foreign garb. In time, many of them, indeed, shed their masks and reverted to being traditional Jews.'"

And Elokim saw all that He had made, and behold it was very good. (1:31)

We have read the above pasuk countless times; it is reiterated a number of times in the parsha about Brias ha'Olam, Creation. Yet, do we ever stop and ask ourselves: If the world is so good, why does Shlomo Hamelech begin his Sefer Koheles with the famous phrase - Haveil havalim ha'kol hevel, "Futility of futilities - all is futile!"? If all is futile, then it really cannot be tov meod, very good. How are to understand this? The Melitzer Rebbe, Shlita, explains that it all depends on one's religious experience. If he carries out the will of the Almighty, if his life is filled with mitzvos and maasim tovim, good deeds, then it is tov meod, very good. If, however, his life is characterized by abandon, with no relationship with Hashem, then it is all futility of futilities. His life is a waste.

This explanation is accompanied by a meaningful analogy. The king of the land had a son who was outstanding in his ability to absorb everything to which he set his mind. Among the many disciplines which he had mastered proficiently was medicine. He was a brilliant diagnostician and was able to prepare the exact remedy that would cure just about any disease. One day, the prince took a stroll on the king's vast grounds. He wanted to get away from the hustle and bustle of the palace, soak up some fresh air and relax amid the quiet of the surrounding forest. Carried away with his "freedom," he lost track of the palace boundaries and wandered off onto the property of the duke, who was no friend of the king. As a result, he was taken captive by the duke.

Overnight, the prince went from royalty to servitude. His new job was working in the stone quarry, breaking up large stones. Such work takes its toll on even the hardiest workers. The prince was far from hardy. In no time, he would become a broken person. One day, the duke became gravely ill. Since the man was quite wealthy and money means nothing to a dead man, he sent out messengers to all areas of the country in search of a doctor who might save him. Money was no object. Various physicians were brought in - all, to no avail. The duke was rapidly wasting away. Soon, he would be nothing more than a memory.

At this point, the prince came before the superintendent of the prison and asked for an audience with the duke. "I can save him," he said. Both the jailor and the duke could not believe the prince's insolence. How could a lowly slave succeed where everyone else had failed? The prince reiterated his earlier request: "Allow me to leave, and I will heal the duke." The prince was released from the dungeon, and, after diagnosing the duke's ailment, prepared a powerful potion which cured the duke in a matter of days.

"Why did you not inform me that you were proficient in medicine?" the duke asked the prince. "You never asked me," replied the prince. "Instead of inquiring about my abilities, you immediately incarcerated me in the dungeon and put me to work chopping stones. I figured if you are a fool, it was your loss. In any event, sooner or later, my father and his armies would have located me and liberated me from this dungeon."

The lesson is very simple. The Jewish People are Hashem's children. Our goal and purpose in life is to study and master the Torah - which is the remedy for every ill known to mankind. If, however, Klal Yisrael deviate from their mission in life, and, instead of delving into Torah, revert to other disciplines which only succeed in distracting and turning them away from their source of life, they will fall captive to the futilities of life. Sadly, some Jews only discover their holy mission in life after they have fallen captive to the secular culture surrounding them. When the gentiles discover the beauty and value of Torah, when they see the way of life experienced by the observant Jew, they change. They are cured from their illnesses. Life is futile when it has no direction. It is meaningless when one has no purpose. When a Jew lives a life of purpose, with goals and objectives that spiritually elevate him, then it is tov meod, very good.

We might suggest another interpretation for the Torah's emphasis on the underlying meaning behind tov meod. I think the Torah was intimating the perspective we should adopt upon viewing a person who manifests good and bad, behavior that is, at times, praiseworthy and, during other instances, iniquitous. I recently came across a thesis delineating the ahavas Yisrael, love for each Jew, as manifest by each of three great chassidic leaders: Horav Zushia, zl, m'Anapole; Horav Levi Yitzchak, zl, m'Berditchev; the Baal Shem Tov, zl.

Rav Zushia embodied Shlomo Hamelech's maxim, Al kol peshaim techaseh ahavah , "Love conceals all iniquities" (Mishlei 10:12). He did not notice the iniquities that the average man saw. People saw sin; he saw nothing. People perceived iniquity; he saw nothing of the sort. When others saw evil; he saw nothing. He was a person who was simply incapable of noticing anything negative about his fellow Jew. Whenever he did hear about someone's egregious behavior, he would find some way not to allow it to jaundice his perception of the person. He literally saw no evil.

The Berditchever was the Jewish People's consummate advocate. He always found some way to justify a person's behavior - regardless of its nefarious nature. He always provided some excuse. Unlike Rav Zushia, the Berdichever was well-aware of a Jew's failings and shortcomings, but he always found a way to justify his actions, to extend a positive spin to the man's misdeeds.

Rav Zushia saw no iniquity; the Berditchever more or less white-washed it. The Baal Shem Tov's love, however, superseded even that of his two disciples. To him, ahavas Yisrael, loving every Jew, extended beyond a refusal to see his evil, or endeavoring to cleanse his iniquity. The Baal Shem Tov's love for each and every Jew was unequivocal, incontinent; it was consummate love in its totality. This means that he was aware of the person's evil, his transgressions, his mean streak, but it did not matter - he loved him all the same - sin and all! The Baal Shem Tov loved the wicked sinner with the same degree of boundless love that he harbored for the greatest tzaddik. Why? They were all Hashem's children. A father loves all of his children the same - regardless of who they are and what they have done.

I think this is what the Torah is teaching us with the words tov meod. Hashem saw the world and its creations, mankind. They were all His. He knew that some would be imperfect, but they were still His! He taught us that everything is good. We should not make the distinction between bad and good when it comes to loving a fellow Jew.

Kayin brought an offering to Hashem of the fruit of the ground… and as for Hevel, he also brought. (4:3,4)

We note from the pesukim that Hevel was a righteous person. The mere fact that Hashem acquiesced to Hevel's sacrifice serves as a barometer of His approbation of Hevel. If so, why was he taken so soon? Hevel's life was cut short due to his brother's irrational jealousy. He did not live long enough even to establish a legacy of offspring. Kayin, on the other hand, lived seven more generations, from which was established the future of the world. To the average spectator, the disparity between the subsequent history of Kayin, the murderer, and Hevel, the innocent victim, is glaring. Furthermore, Kayin did not simply kill Hevel in one swoop. Chazal teach us that it was an extremely painful experience for Hevel, since Kayin did not know how a life is taken, from where the neshamah leaves. He stabbed Hevel many times all over his body until he struck him in the neck.

Horav Gamliel Rabinowitz, Shlita, explains that such questions plague the minds of those who have recently embarked on a life of Torah observance. Apparently, prior to their "rebirth," their material/physical lifestyle had been wonderful. Now that they have eschewed their life of abandon, nothing seems to go right. They are financially challenged, emotionally misunderstood, and physically vulnerable.. So they ask: Why? Is this what we have to look forward to now that we have become frum, observant?

We have no acceptable reply to these questions. Every Jew suffers in one way or another. Those who think that the fellow who is wealthy, has yichus, pedigree, and lives in an ivory tower has it better, is very na?ve. We all have pekelech, "parcels" of situations, troubles, issues - any name that you want to call it. Why? Ask Hashem. This is the way in which He guides the world. A believing Jew knows this; thus, he maintains his deep conviction despite the challenges to his faith.

Therefore, right from the onset, from the moment the Torah commences to relate the story of mankind, we are confronted with the first protrusive question to our faith - why Hevel? Why not Kayin instead? Why do bad things happen to good people? This question, which has apparently been around for quite some time is based upon the misconception that we mortals have been able to accurately determine the meaning of good/bad. We do not know the correct definition of good people - or bad things. We are not made aware of the reward and punishment in this world, in order that it not preclude our ability to choose wisely between good and evil. If the reward were to be immediate and the punishment likewise, what challenge would there be to being an observant Jew? We must reiterate constantly in our hearts and minds that we are clueless concerning the way in which Hashem runs the world. We have no idea what is involved; even if we were to know what has been factored into Hashem's decisions, our mortal minds could not even begin to grasp it. So, it is best that we do what is asked of us and leave the "decision- making" to Hashem.

Va'ani Tefillah

u'zechartem es kol mitzvos Hashem, - vaasisem osam
v'lo sasuru Acharei levavchem v'acharei eineichem.

That you may see it and remember all of the commandments of Hashem, and perform them, and not explore after your heart and after your eyes.

Tzitzis are part of a Jew's uniform. They are the stamp that attests to one's relationship to Hashem. This is why looking at the Tzitzis brings to mind all of the mitzvos. When one sees the Tzitzis, he realizes what they represent. When one wears the uniform of the king's legion, it leaves a powerful impression on him. That is the way it is supposed to be, but is this truly the way it is? Are we really dissuaded from sin simply because we see the Tzitzis? Do Tzitzis really remind us and spur us on to perform mitzvos?

Horav Baruch Sorotzkin, zl, explains that actually the Torah adds a critical condition which must be taken into consideration in order for the reminder of Tzitzis to take effect. V'lo sasuru acharei levavchem v'acharei eineichem, "And not explore after your heart and after your eyes." Simply, this means that the Tzitzis prevents the individual from following the blandishments of his heart and eyes. If this would be the case, the sequence of the following pasuk - L'maan tizkeru - "So that you remember" - does not fit. Why would the Torah reiterate that Tzitzis causes one to remember the mitzvos? Thus, the Rosh Yeshivah explains, the Torah is teaching us specifically that if one does not explore following his heart and eyes, he will succeed in remembering the mitzvos. The individual for whom the reminder of Tzitzis does not work is the one whose heart and eyes are in the wrong place. Once one strays, the reminder is no longer effective.

Sponsored by Etzmon and Abigail Rozen and children

in loving memory of their Father and Zaide
Harav Nosson Meir ben R' Yechiel z"l
niftar second night of Succos (16 Tishrei) 5748

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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