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Peninim on the Torah

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Rabbi A. Leib Scheinbaum
Hebrew Academy of Cleveland


Miriam died there, and she was buried there. There was no water for the assembly. (20:1,2)

The Kli Yakar explains that there is a distinct connection between Miriam's death and Klal Yisrael's lack of water. The Torah does not record that the assembly wept at Miriam's death, as they did for Moshe Rabbeinu and Aharon. She was not eulogized properly, because they did not appreciate what they had received due to her merit. They knew that Moshe was the intermediary through which they received the Torah from Hashem. Aharon engendered harmony and unity among the people. Miriam had "long ago" helped save Jewish infants in Egypt. No one remembered that because it had occurred long ago. Therefore, Hashem dried up the well, so that the people would realize that the water that had previously sustained them was b'zchus, in the merit, of Miriam.

Things have not changed much. We still tend to forget what others have done for us. Let us go back and trace Torah's renaissance in America. Do we know - or care - who were the pioneers and architects of Torah, the Roshei Yeshivah and dedicated lay leadership who gave their very lives, so that we today could avail ourselves of their toil and devotion to the spiritual needs of Klal Yisrael? Sixty years ago there was very little in terms of Torah chinuch, education. A handful of individuals, Roshei Yeshivah, embers from the fires of the Holocaust came here with a fiery dedication to rebuild what the Nazis had destroyed. They teamed up with rabbanim and baalei batim, dedicated lay leaders, who understood the primacy of Torah and its significance to the Jewish people. Together they created a nucleus, a team that would succeed in establishing the greatest renaissance of Torah since the days of Ezra HaSofer.

We owe them everything. What we have today is only due to them. Do we even know who they are? They were determined people who refused to accept negativity, did not succumb to apathy, and overcame every challenge with resolution and fortitude. Perhaps they would not fit into "today's" Torah milieu for various reasons: the color of their hat, the type of yarmulke they wore. Perhaps their level of education does not coincide with what has become the standard - today. This was, however, a very different period of time with a different set of values. All too often, we judge people by our standards and our perspective, ignoring the fact that their challenges -viewed in historical context - were much different from ours. Indeed, we stand on their shoulders. They sacrificed, labored and persevered, so that we can enjoy and thrive in the spiritual oasis that America has become.

Let us derive a lesson from the Beeirah shel Miriam, the well of Miriam, the well that sustained Klal Yisrael for so long. Let us remember who it was that sacrificed for us. The past must be viewed through the prism of the past - not through the spectrum of the present. Above all, let us never forget the sense of hakoras hatov, gratitude and appreciation, that we owe them. In this way, the well that sustains us will never dry up.

And speak to the rock. (20:8)

Horav Leib Eigar, zl, related that when he was a young boy studying with his grandfather, Horav Akiva Eigar, zl, the Nesivos, Horav Yaakov, zl, m'Lisa, came to visit. It happened that the Chasam Sofer, zl, Rav Akiva Eigar's son-in-law, was also visiting at the time. Rav Akiva Eigar was overjoyed with his distinguished guests. Thus, he asked his rebbetzin to prepare a suitable meal for them. He asked a student from the yeshivah to serve the guests.

During the meal, Rav Akiva Eigar asked the Nesivos to honor them with a discourse in halachah. Rav Yaakov lectured impressively as befitted a gathering of such distinguished Torah luminaries. When he finished, Rav Akiva Eigar asked the Chasam Sofer for his opinion on the dvar Torah. The Chasam Sofer responded that, in his opinion, Rav Yaakov's dvar Torah was refutable, and he proceeded to do so. Rav Akiva Eigar noticed that Rav Yaakov seemed to feel ill at ease as a result of the Chasam Sofer's critique of his dvar Torah. He immediately called over the young student who had been serving them and asked, "What is your opinion regarding the dispute between the two lions of Torah?"

"In my opinion, the novelae rendered by the Nesivos appears to be correct." He proceeded to lecture in support of the Nesivos, basically responding to each of the Chasam Sofer's questions.

As soon as the student finished speaking, the Chasam Sofer broke out in tears, saying, "Veritably, I am correct, but what can I do? If my father-in-law would decree upon a stone that it should speak, it would say anything that he would want it to say."

When Rav Leib completed the story he said, "Do not think that the Chasam Sofer did not mean what he was saying. He sincerely believed that Rav Akiva Eigar had the power to make a stone speak. The young man who served them, for the most part, was not able to hear their Torah dialogue. Furthermore, while he was certainly an excellent student, he was nowhere in the league of these Torah giants. Yes, it was in my grandfather's power to make a stone speak."

Because you did not believe in Me to sanctify Me in the eyes of Bnei Yisrael, therefore, you will not bring the congregation to the land. (20:12)

The commentators struggle to understand Moshe Rabbeinu's sin. Some say that he was told to speak to the stone, and he hit the stone instead. Others say he spoke with anger to the people. In his Sefer HaIkrim, Horav Yosef Albo, zl, gives a meaningful explanation. One of our principles of emunah is that Hashem bends teva, nature, to the needs of His faithful. Anyone who does not believe that Hashem fulfills the will of a tzaddik, righteous individual, denies the very basis of the Torah. It is especially true that when the opportunity to sanctify Hashem's Name exists, the tzaddik must publicize the fact that nature subordinates itself to the will of His faithful.

The Baal HaIkrim continues, saying that a tzaddik or Navi who stands at the helm of the Jewish people at a time when they are in an eis tzarah, period of anguish, and does nothing - standing there with "folded hands" - increases the chance for a chillul Hashem, desecration of Hashem's Name. By doing nothing, he indicates that he himself doubts if nature will subordinate itself to him. When the tzaddik demonstrates a lack of security - it is a chillul Hashem.

"Because you did not believe in Me to sanctify me in the eyes of Bnei Yisrael." Moshe Rabbeinu and Aharon should not have come "running" to Hashem in reaction to the people's demand for water. They should have been immediately proactive; when they were asked to produce water, they should have done so. That would have been a Kiddush Hashem. If they would have decreed water, Hashem would have listened to them, and the Name of Hashem would have been sanctified.

This is a very compelling explanation. Indeed, why did not Moshe and Aharon do just that, decree that water should flow freely from the stone? Why did they not show that nature is subordinate to their will? This question actually applies to many more instances throughout the forty-year sojourn of the Jewish People in the desert. Why did they not do something? The Meshech Chochmah explains that with the spiritual zenith that Moshe achieved, there was an overwhelming fear that the people might deify him. They might forget that he is only a tzinor, medium, through which Hashem grants His blessing. He is a shaliach, agent of Hashem.

While this would have been a valid excuse until the episode of Korach and his assembly, when they disputed Moshe's leadership, when they likened him to just any other Navi, they crossed the line. Moshe had to put his foot down - and he did. He was different, having been selected by Hashem to be the Adon Ha'Neviim, master of the prophets, the leader of Klal Yisrael. Now that Moshe had already asserted his position during the Korach rebellion, he should do likewise when Klal Yisrael are in need of water. Does he only believe in affirmative action where his leadership is impugned, reverting to his "study" when it affects the general public? This constituted the chillul Hashem. When people do not understand the actions of a gadol, Torah leader, it can lead to severe repercussions.


This is the decree of the Torah. (19:2)

The Torah states that this is the decree of the Torah and proceeds to address the laws of the Parah Adumah. It should have said this is the decree of the Parah. Peninei HaTorah derive from here that the ikar haTorah, most essential part of the Torah, is taharah, purity. The laws that enhance the purity of a Jew are the foundation of Torah. They do not comprise another mitzvah; they are the underlying principle of the Torah.

Horav Aharon, zl, m'Karlin was wont to say, "Immersing oneself daily in a mikvah, ritualarium, is not a mitzvah. However, the spiritual plateau one reaches through immersing himself in a mikvah cannot be achieved through any other mitzvah.


This is the Torah (the teaching) regarding a man who would die in a tent. (19:14)

Horav Tzvi Pesach Frank, zl, interpreted this pasuk homiletically. A person in this world is nothing more than a visitor in a temporary abode. Therefore, when he dies - he dies in an ohel, tent, signifying the temporary nature of the dwelling. This is why in Sefer Koheles it is stated, "For a man goes to his eternal home." (12:5) This refers to Olam Habah, which is the permanent home that man builds with Torah study and good deeds.


Any open vessel that has no cover fastened to it is contaminated. (19:15)

Horav Elimelch, zl, m'Lizensk says that this pasuk refers to the most significant keli, vessel, in the human body - the mouth. If it remains open with no covering over it to control what exits from it, than it becomes tamei, contaminated. It is better that the individual remain silent than that he speak what should neither be said nor heard.


And an angel of Hashem stood on the road to impede him. (22:22)

Hashem warned Bilaam not to curse the Jewish nation. Bilaam had the gall to attempt to defy Him. Hashem sent a Heavenly angel to block Bilaam's path. The angel stood there with a drawn sword. Yet, Rashi describes this angel as an angel of mercy, sent by a compassionate G-d to prevent Bilaam from committing a sin which would catalyze his self destruction. The donkey who saw the angel saw a menacing angel brandishing a sword. Yet, he is described as an angel of mercy. In The Pleasant Way, Horav Avraham Pam, zl, derives a compelling lesson from here. Life is not always what it seems cut out to be. What appears superficially to the human eye to be a fiery enemy brandishing a sword can really be an angel of mercy. It happens all of the time. Situations arise in which we think "for sure" that a menace stands in our way, or that our world is about to fall apart. In reality, it may be a blessing in disguise. Rav Pam cites an example from the world of shidduchim, matchmaking. A young man searches for his barshert, intended one. After awhile, he feels he has discovered the perfect girl, with the perfect background, wonderful middos, character traits, who shares his goals and aspirations for life. What could be wrong? Suddenly, the "Satan with an outstretched sword" stands in his way. Something comes out of the blue that places the shidduch on shaky ground. It usually begins with a bit of lashon hora, slander, that creates a cloud of ambiguity. No longer is he sure that this is his barshert. The Satan stands in his way. It takes very little to create a Satan - but it regrettably happens all the time. Someone has a problem with the shidduch, and they are intent on destroying it.

We, however, do not know Hashem's plans. What seems to be a Satan that destroys a shidduch is really an angel of mercy in disguise. We have no way of seeing into the future, knowing what was in store for this couple, had the shidduch gone through. This shidduch, instead of being Heaven sent, might actually have been a recipe for disaster. Not every shidduch that seems right on paper is consistent with the Divine plan. Problems beyond the scope of our ability to address could have arisen which would have transformed the perfect shidduch into a tragedy.

In summation, we do not know the Divine plan, and we do not have the ability to alter it. We should look at every angel - even the one with the fiery sword - as an angel of mercy. We have to fight the natural feelings of depression that accompany disappointment with trust in Hashem, knowing that everything He does is good. We just have to wait until the picture becomes clear. If we assimilate this realization into our being, it will be that much easier to deal with disappointing situations that have so frequently become part of life.

The following story is a classic case which relates to the above idea. It is the story about a young woman named Miriam who came to realize that her barshert had been determined many years earlier during an incident which, at that time, seemed innocuous and totally unrelated. At the same time, her barshert came to realize that the "Satan" who stood in his way for so many years was his own personal angel of mercy.

It was a hot day, and Miriam's family decided to spend Chol Hamoed Sukkos at a resort in the Galilee which catered to observant families. Nine-year old Miriam decided to take a walk with her little sister. Not realizing where they were going, they apparently walked to a nearby village not known for its love of chareidim, observant Jews. Suddenly, a group of young ruffians began to chase them. Fearing for their safety, they climbed up into a nearby tree. The hoodlums shook the tree and began hurling expletives at the two innocent children. Fearing for their lives, they began to cry and scream for help. This added to the hoodlums' frenzy, as they began to shake the tree in earnest.

Suddenly, from nowhere, a religious boy about thirteen years old appeared, who came towards the gang and told them to stop. They were bent on trouble, and no observant boy was going to prevent them from having their fun. They began to attack him and a fight ensued. As he started to run away, the gang took up the chase. He then signaled to the girls to escape while he would lead their would-be-attackers away. They caught up with him and began hitting him with a large piece of wood. He was beaten to within an inch of his life, but the girls were able to run back to safety. So ends part one of the story. Miriam was saved by a noble action of a young boy whom she had never met.

Years went by and Miriam, try as she did, could never find out what ever happened to the boy that saved her and her sister that fateful day. The incident remained forever engraved in her mind.

Part two of the story begins with Miriam turning older, as she rejects one shidduch after another. They were nice boys, but something was always missing. People began to think that Miriam might be a bit too choosy. When she turned twenty-three, someone suggested a fine young man named Yehudah. He had it all - learning, character traits, looks and a pleasant personality. He was on the older side -twenty-six - but after all, she was already twenty-three.

They went out. It was all true - he had everything, except for a deep terrible scar on his face than ran from his eye to his chin. It was shocking. A kind, gentle, handsome face ruined by this awful scar. As much as she was impressed by his personality and demeanor, she could not get her mind off of the scar. Yet, for some reason she kept on seeing him. Five dates later, she did not know what to do when Yehudah told her that he felt she was the right partner for him. She did not know what to say or how to say it, but Yehudah could see the answer in the way she looked at his scar. "You do not have to explain," he said. "I know what you want to say. If you have not managed to overlook the scar by now, I guess you will never reconcile yourself with it."

Feeling terribly ashamed and not knowing what to say, Miriam asked how he got the scar. Yehudah smiled sadly and related the following story: "It happened when I was thirteen years old. A group of young hoodlums were chasing two young girls. In my attempt to save them, the hoodlums gave me a thrashing with a large piece of wood. Unfortunately, the piece of wood had a rusty nail sticking out of it which tore open my face. I do not know why I am telling you this. Now, you probably think that I was a wild kid who was into fighting. It just happened that I was with my aunt and uncle who were staying at a resort, and I happened to chance upon those frightened girls. I was simply trying to help them, and I received the scar on my face as a result. Well, now you know the story. Over the years, I managed to forget the incident, but as my dating stretched on from year to year, I guess Hashem reminds me about it every day."

The rest of the story can be filled in by the readers. Yehudah's "Satan," his terrible scar, was actually an angel of mercy. It had kept him waiting for all those years - until he found his true barshert. The scar no longer bothered Miriam. After all - it was her scar.

We hear such stories all the time. Interestingly, it was the donkey who saw a menacing angel. That might be our problem. We look with donkey eyes at life's events and forget that Hashem has plans that supercedes what we see.


Balak ben Tzipor saw all that Yisrael had done to the Emori. (22:2)

Horav Avraham Galanti, zl, notes that this pasuk emphasizes what has regrettably become the standard and the norm among the enemies of the Jews. They see only what Yisrael did to the Emori. They never see what the Emori did to Yisrael.


Behold! It is a nation that will dwell in solitude and not be reckoned among the nations. (23:9)

The Netziz, zl, interprets this pasuk as a lesson and portent for the Jewish people. When they remain separated from the nations among whom they are in exile, then yishkon, they will dwell in solitude and respect. If, however, they attempt to assimilate ba'goyim, among the nation, then, lo yischashov, they will not be reckoned nor respected. We have only to peruse history to see how true this is.


He perceived no iniquity in Yaakov… Hashem, his G-d is with him. (23:21)

The Baal Shem Tov would say, "A Jew is never alone under any circumstance or condition, for Hashem is always with him.


How goodly are your tents, O' Yaakov. (24:5)

Chazal teach us that "your tents" is a reference to the tents of the Torah, the study halls of the bais hamedrash. The Ohr Hachaim Hakadosh explains that the Torah specifically used the name Yaakov, referring to the common Jew and ohel, tents, which signifies a temporary state, referring to the Jew who studies when he can - but does so in the bais medrash, the spiritual habitat of the Jew, and not in the home - even if he is not home the entire day. Torah study should take place in a makom Torah.

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