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Peninim on the Torah

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Rabbi A. Leib Scheinbaum
Hebrew Academy of Cleveland


Then Moshe and Bnei Yisrael chose to sing this song to Hashem. (15:1)

The Torah uses the word yashir, which is the future tense of the word shar and means will sing. The translation which follows Rashi's commentary is that when Moshe and Klal Yisrael experienced Krias Yam Suf, the Splitting of the Red Sea, they decided to sing a song of praise to the Almighty. From the use of the future tense, Chazal derive an allusion to the principle of Techiyas Ha'Meisim, the Resurrection of the dead. Hashem will one day bring the dead back to life, and they will sing His praises once again. Chazal are telling us that every song of praise which is sung in the present will once again have the opportunity to be sung when the dead arise and are brought back to life. On a deeper meaning, Horav Shabsi Yudelevitz, zl, suggests that while all songs of praise will be sung once again, the Shiras Ha'Yam, is a shirah nitzchis, eternal song that will be sung over and over again due to its eternal essence and profound value. In his inimitable manner, he explains this with a story.

The city of Slonim was a unique community known for the piety and scholarship of its citizens. Thus, it was no surprise that whoever assumed the position of chazzan, cantor, for the High Holy Days, must have been an individual of great piety who was endowed with a powerful and melodious voice. Regrettably, these criteria were detrimental to the community, since anyone who was able to achieve this lofty position was immediately propositioned by another city to accept the position of chazzan in that community. This was because the city of Slonim was distinguished in the piety of its citizenry - not in their financial portfolios. Alas, they had the finest chazanim every year, only to lose them for the following year.

One year, they were unable to locate a chazzan that was acceptable to them. Their criteria constituted a tall order, and that particular year no one was able to fill their needs. Yom Tov was just a few weeks away. What would they do? One of the elderly members of the community, who many years previously had an excellent voice, offered to be the chazzan for the current year. The lay leadership was inclined to accept, as long as the man agreed to sign a document promising to keep this position for a minimum of five years. Reb Yosha, as he was known, agreed and the contract was signed, sealed and presented to the Rav of Slonim, the distinguished Horav Aizil Slonimer, zl.

As the rav read the agreement, a small smile began to show on his face. Soon, it was a full-fledged laugh. The lay leaders were perturbed at their rav's reaction. He should be ecstatic. They were able to secure a chazzan for the next five years. "My friends," the rav began, "let me share a story with you. Many years ago, when I first took the position of Rav of Slonim, the community had established a new cemetery. The old one was just about filled, and the members needed a new place to inter their dead. Unfortunately, no one wanted his loved one to be the first corpse to be buried in the new cemetery. The Chevra Kadisha, sacred burial society, decided to offer an incentive to the person who agreed to be buried in the new cemetery. They hung signs throughout the city, declaring that they were offering a sizable sum of money to the family of anyone who was buried in the new cemetery. All they could do now was to wait for someone to accept their offer. There was a man in the city who, besides being very poor, was also somewhat of a clever joker. Indeed, his ability to make light of everything helped maintain his sanity concerning his financial status. Pesach was quickly approaching, and his wife notified him that the proverbial cupboard was beyond bare. They had no money whatsoever with which to buy food to celebrate the festival. Ever the optimist, he told his wife to be patient. He would come up with something. He went out of his daily "route" from shul to shul, begging for alms. When he saw the signs offering an incentive to whomever was buried at the new cemetery, he thought of an idea.

Rushing home to his wife, he said, "Quick, I have a way to get out of debt and help us start a new life. As soon as I finish speaking, call the Chevra Kadisha and notify them that I have suddenly died. Dress me in the traditional tachrichim, shrouds, and cover me with a sheet. Tell them that I am all prepared for burial in the new cemetery. Explain to them that you are so poor that you are unable to pay for any of the incidental expenses resulting from my sudden passing. You, therefore, ask to obtain the "incentive" money immediately. Go out and purchase whatever we need for Pesach and leave the rest to me."

The wife had no recourse but to listen to her husband. The Chevra Kadisha felt bad for the new widow, but were overjoyed with the prospect of finally having someone buried in the new cemetery. Everything went along as planned. The funeral procession took a little longer, since the distance to the new cemetery was quite a bit further. Along the way, the members of the Chevra Kadisha decided to stop at an inn and get a drink. After all, it was not easy carrying a coffin for such a distance. As soon as they left the coffin, the poor man jumped out, and together with his wife, fled the scene, never to be heard from again.

When the Chevra Kadisha discovered what had happened, they realized they had been taken for fools. This would never happen to them again. Thus, when the next person died and his family was willing to have him buried in the new cemetery, his body was tied down to the coffin, so that he could not "escape."

Rav Aizil concluded his story, saying to the lay leadership, "You should have made a contract years ago with the young, healthy chazzanim. Our Reb Yosha is not going anywhere. He is too old. He does not need ropes to hold him here!"

Rav Shabsi explains that this idea applies equally to Shiras HaYam. Everything that is presented before our eyes is nothing more than an illusion. We see a corpse wrapped up in tachrichim. We hear the wailing sound of his bereaved widow, but, in reality, it is all a fa?ade. The corpse is not a corpse. The shrouds are not real. Everything is a mirage played out before our eyes.

We see the chazzan standing at the lectern. We hear him chanting the service and singing his melodious songs, but, in truth, the songs are not songs, the singing is not singing. Nothing is real, because nothing is permanent. The chazzan that sings before us today might not be here tomorrow. Nothing in this world is real, because it does not last. Everything is of a temporary nature.

When Hashem attests in the Torah, however, that the Egyptians have drowned, and the Jewish People no longer have anything to fear, it is real, it is true, it is forever. Therefore, the Shirah which Klal Yisrael sings in recognition of the destruction of their enemies is an enduring praise, an eternal song, a song that spans the generations. This is why the Shiras HaYam, the song of praise and gratitude sung by Moshe Rabbeinu and Klal Yisrael, lasts forever. A song which is sung to the Borei Olam, Creator of the world, Whose benevolence is true and absolute, whose goodness is real and complete, is something that is eternal. Eternity is measured by the barometer of absolute truth, reality and endurance.

This is my G-d and I will glorify Him. (15:2)

Chazal explain how we, as mere mortals, can glorify Hashem. Anveihu b'mitzvos, glorify Him through religious observances, making them as beautiful as possible. This indicates that one should have a beautiful sukkah, a beautiful esrog, a beautiful Shofar, a beautiful Tallis, and beautiful Tefillin. When a Torah is written, one should use the best materials, the best craftsmen, and adorn it with a beautiful mantle. This does not mean that one is to break the bank in order to purchase a beautiful esrog or any other object used for a mitzvah. Rather, the idea focuses on one's attitude toward the mitzvah; to realize before Whom and to Whom he is performing this mitzvah; to be meticulous in his observance and to take great pains to see to it that the ultimate priority in his life is mitzvah observance. A mitzvah should not take second place to any other endeavor, nor should one treat a mitzvah in a manner unbecoming its stature in Jewish life. The way one dresses and acts in a shul or when he is carrying out a mitzvah is another aspect of this far-reaching obligation of v'anveihu, "I will glorify Him."

I recently came across an interesting article about a secular ceremony that is performed regularly in Washington, D.C. by the military honor guard that I would like to share with the readers. Although it is from a secular source and practice, I feel that it imparts a powerful and compelling lesson to us concerning our attitude towards mitzvos. The following are the criteria which the honor guard that salutes the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier must follow. In his walk across the tomb, the guard takes exactly twenty-one steps, which allude to the twenty-one gun salute which is the highest honor given any military or foreign dignitary. He then makes an about-face, hesitating for exactly twenty-one seconds before commencing his return walk. His gloves are moistened to prevent him from losing his grip on his rifle, which he carries on his shoulder. After his march across the path, he executes an about-face and transfers the rifle to the outside shoulder.

The guards are changed every thirty minutes, twenty-four hours a day, 365 days a year. For a person to apply for guard duty at the tomb, he must be between 5'10'' and 6'2'' tall, and his waist size may not exceed 30". He must commit two years of his life to guard the tomb and live in a barracks beneath the tomb. He may not drink any alcohol on or off-duty for the rest of his life. He may not publicly use foul language of any sort for the rest of his life and he may not disgrace the uniform he wears or the tomb that he guards in any way. After two years, the guard is given a wreath pin that is worn on his lapel, signifying that he has served as a guard. Presently, only 400 pins are worn. The guard must adhere to these rules or forfeit the pin.

The shoes he wears are made with thick soles to protect his feet from heat or cold. There are metal heel plates that extend to the top of the shoe, so that a loud click may be heard as he comes to a halt. His uniform may not have any wrinkles, folds or lint on it. Indeed, guards dress for duty in front of a full-length mirror.

During his first six months of duty, he may neither talk to anyone nor watch television. All of his off-duty time is spent studying the 175 notable people that are interred in Arlington National Cemetery. He must memorize who they are and where each one is buried. Every guard spends five hours each day preparing his uniform for guard duty.

An added vignette: In 2003, as Hurricane Isabelle was approaching Washington, D.C., the United States Congress and Senate took two days off in anticipation of the storm. Due to the apparent danger, the military members assigned the duty of guarding the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier were given permission to suspend their assignment. They respectfully declined the offer, declaring, "No way, sir!" Soaked to the skin, marching in the pelting rain of a tropical storm, they asserted that guarding the Tomb was not simply an assignment, it was the highest honor that can be afforded to a serviceman. The Tomb has been patrolled continuously for the last seventy-six years.

The lesson for us is simple. If secular soldiers guarding a national shrine understand the significance of their role to the point that they consider their endeavor not to be an assignment, but rather, an honor and a privilege, what should be the attitude of a Jew who is given the opportunity and the mandate to serve the Almighty? Zeh Keli v'anveihu. "I will glorify Him." This is my honor and my privilege. That should be the prevalent attitude.

And in the morning, you will see the glory of Hashem. (16:7)

Klal Yisrael experienced many miracles during their forty-year trek in the wilderness. One of the greatest miracles that accompanied them daily throughout this journey was the manna, Heavenly bread, that sustained them. After the people voiced their complaint about a lack of food, Hashem provided them with two forms of food: manna in the morning; and slav, quail, in the evening. Interestingly, the manna fell in the morning, because their request for bread was an appropriate one. Man needs bread to survive. He does not require meat. Their demand for meat was, therefore, improper. They did, after all, have abundant flocks of cattle which were available for slaughtering. Yet, they complained. Hashem provided them with meat, but He did not send it in the same loving manner as He sent the manna.

The presentation of the manna is worthy of note. As Horav Avraham Pam, zl, said in the second volume of Ateres Avraham, an anthology of his discourses prepared by Rabbi Sholom Smith: The packaging was distinctive and indicative of Hashem's love for His nation. Packaging is important with any product. One can give an expensive gift that immediately loses its meaning and value if the packaging is inappropriate and demeaning. One who takes the time and makes the effort to package his gift properly demonstrates his feelings of love.

Horav Yerucham Levovitz, zl, derives an important lesson from the disparity between the manner in which Hashem sent the manna and the way in which He delivered the slav. This should teach us to distinguish between the various ways that Hashem grants us our needs. One who turns to Hashem to entreat Him for something which he feels he needs should analyze the manner in which Hashem has granted his request. Did it come easily, in a dignified manner, or was it accomplished amidst hardship and toil? The manner in which Hashem executes our request is a barometer for measuring Hashem's pleasure with our request. Did He fulfill our request because we deserved it, or did Hashem just simply fulfill our request because we prayed hard and, so to speak, "pushed" for it?

Rav Pam applies this idea to the manner in which a person earns a living. When Adam HaRishon sinned, Hashem cursed him and his descendants with, B'zeiyas apecha tochal lechem, "By the sweat of your brow, shall you eat your bread." (Bereishis 3:19) This is an inescapable part of the human experience. Hashem, however, sends us our parnassah, livelihood, in different ways. One can earn his daily bread easily, in a respectable manner, so he has time at the end of the day to devote himself to Torah study. Another individual can labor long hours under difficult conditions to eke out his meager living, and is so exhausted that he can barely make it home to get enough rest before he begins the next day. It is all part of zechusim, merit. One either merits to be sustained easily, or one is relegated to difficulty. Clearly, one who receives his parnassah in an easy manner should recognize his good fortune and offer his gratitude to Hashem.

The Rosh HaYeshivah adds that, since we are commanded to emulate Hashem, the way we carry out mitzvos bein adam l'chaveiro, between man and his fellow man, is also relevant. As Hashem delivers His bounty with a bright countenance, so too, should we fulfill our obligations to each other with a smile, good cheer and joy.

While, undoubtedly, even the individual who gives has things on his mind, because he is fortunate to be able to give to others, everything in his life is not necessarily all positive. He might also be beset with troubles. Illness can also strike a wealthy person. His business could be in trouble, and his income may not be going as well as people imagine. Nonetheless, we must understand that the poor man who stands by the door seeking alms is unaware of this turn of events, so he does not deserve to be greeted in a begrudging manner. Some people present their entire life story on their faces. The poor man does not deserve such a countenance when he asks for alms. Life is difficult enough for him. He does not need more. Rav Pam cites the Chofetz Chaim, who says that a major component in the mitzvah of acting benevolently towards others is the countenance we show them. The shine of our face; the smile that accompanies the check, makes a world of difference and plays a crucial role in the fulfillment of the mitzvah. Perhaps, if we smile at others, we will merit that Hashem will smile at us.

Va'ani Tefillah

Leimor: Lecha etain es Eretz Canaan chevel nachalaschem.

I shall give you the land of Canaan, the territorial region of your inheritance.

The Maggid zl m'Dubno suggests that the use of the future tense of the words lecha eitein, "I shall give you," emphasizes that Eretz Yisrael is something we will always be given, regardless of the circumstances. In his inimitable manner, he explains this with a parable. A man traveled to a distant land in search of a livelihood. He found a position on a construction site with the promise that he would be paid at the end of the job. When he had completed the job, the owner paid him and bid him farewell. On his way home, the man lost the money. He returned to his employer and asked for another check. Understandably, the employer felt bad for the man's misfortune, but he was not prepared to reimburse him a second time. Regrettably, the man would have to return home with nothing to show for his toil and misery. Alternatively, if his employer had guaranteed his paycheck, regardless of the mishap which had occurred, he could now be reimbursed.

A similar idea applies concerning Hashem's gift of Eretz Yisrael to Avraham Avinu and his descendants, the Jewish People. Avraham questioned Hashem, "Whereby shall I know that I am to inherit it" (Bereishis 15:8)? He was concerned that as a result of their sins, his descendants would forfeit the land. Therefore, Hashem later responded to Yaakov Avinu, "For I will not forsake you until I will have done what I have spoken about you" (Bereishis 28:15). Regardless of what Klal Yisrael might do, Hashem would guarantee the land to them. We will never lose our ownership of Eretz Yisrael. This is the meaning of lecha etain, "I shall give." Hashem will continue giving us the land. Even if by some sinful act we will lose it - temporarily - it will once again be given back to us. Eretz Yisrael is ours - forever.

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

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