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Rabbi A. Leib Scheinbaum
Hebrew Academy of Cleveland


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

The parshah begins with a declaration concerning the nature of the Torah and proceeds to address one particular mitzvah - the Parah Adumah, which has become the standard for chok, mitzvos for which the rationale is beyond comprehension. It should have rather written, Zos chukas ha'Parah, "This is the decree of the Parah Adumah." What is the relationship between this mitzvah and the rest of the Torah? The simple explanation is that, essentially, the Parah Adumah is paradigmatic of the nature of the entire Torah. Hashem neither wants us to search for reasons nor to serve Him in response to a specific rationale to which we can personally relate. We serve Him because He has instructed us to do so. Our approach toward the entire Torah parallels that of the Parah Adumah: chok, with no rationale. It is Hashem's decree.

Horav Simcha Wasserman, zl, expounds on this thought. The word chok has two connotations. First, it is a reference to something whose reason is hidden from us. Second, it refers to something which endures, which lasts forever. We often use the term chok, v'lo yaavor, "It is a chok that cannot be surmounted." It persists; it has permanence. What is the connection between these two meanings?

Simply, a law for which we have no rationale, cannot be abrogated. In contrast, law which is predicated on a specific reason can be dismissed once the reason is no longer applicable. On the other hand, if the reason is beyond our ken, we can never nullify it. Hence, the elusory nature of the reason preserves the subject from extinction. It becomes the basis for its permanence.

Rav Simcha suggests a more profound relationship between the two definitions. We know that every material substance is comprised of two facets: chomer and tzurah, its essential matter and its form. It is beyond simple knowledge to perceive the essence of an object without its accompanying form. We have to behold the object to develop an understanding of its chomer, essential makeup. Additionally, some chomer takes different forms in various situations. For example, a liquid, such as water, becomes a solid mass when it freezes. When it is heated, it takes the form of vapor or mist. Its essence has not changed; only its form has been altered as a result of external conditions.

We perceive the world that Hashem created through the spectrum of tzurah. We see the form that Hashem has given to its inhabitants and its various creations. What, however, is the chomer from which Hashem created all of this? Chazal teach us that Hashem gazed at the Torah and then created the world. In other words, the world was created in sync with the Torah. The world and the Torah are to be in total harmony. Torah is the chomer of creation. Thus, the Torah and mitzvos are here forever. The tzurah, image, of the world may change with time, but the Torah is immutable and stays the same, despite all of the changes which take place around it.

This is the meaning of chok with regard to the Torah. It is chok v'lo yaavor. It will never change. Yes, in every generation there are those who seek to make radical alterations to the Torah, claiming that the mitzvos do not blend with contemporary society. The Torah will never change. It was created to harmonize with every society and every generation. It is the chomer from - and by - which the world exists.

This is the decree of the Torah which Hashem has commanded. (19:2)

In his commentary, Targum Onkeles interprets the words, Zos chukas haTorah, to mean, Da gezeiras O'raisa, "This is the decree of the Torah." The word gezeirah, decree, seems a bit strong in describing a mitzvah - even if it refers to a mitzvah that has no clear rationale. The word gezeirah is usually associated with a painful decree. What pain did Moshe Rabbeinu experience in transmitting the mitzvah of Parah Adumah? What made teaching this mitzvah more difficult than any of the other mitzvos that Moshe taught to Klal Yisrael?

The Chasam Sofer cites the Midrash which relates the following. Hashem told Moshe, "To you, I reveal the hidden secret of Parah Adumah, but to everyone else it must remain an inscrutable decree." Hence, Moshe was the only human being ever to be privy to the real reason behind the Parah Adumah. He was not permitted, however, to share this knowledge with anyone. For Moshe, this was a difficult decree. As the quintessential rebbe, the consummate teacher of Torah, the pain he experienced at not being able to convey a Torah lesson to the people was so intense that he considered it a gezeirah, a decree, against himself. He cried out to Hashem in pain, "It would have been better for me not to know the reason for the Parah Adumah, than to know it and not be able to share this piece of Torah with others!"

This is why Moshe became the quintessential rebbe. His love for the subject matter compelled him with a powerful drive to convey and share every bit of knowledge with others. His love for his students coincided with his love for the Torah. This harmony between love for student and subject manifested itself in a rebbe who set the standard for every Torah teacher in the generations to follow.

The love between rebbe for subject and rebbe for the talmid, student, has been the bond that has maintained our undying relationship with the Torah. We love it and, therefore, we want to share it. In his book of inspirational stories, Touched By A Story, Rabbi Yechiel Spero relates a captivating episode from the annals of the Holocaust. A small piece of paper was discovered among the ruins of a bunker after the war. The message that the piece of paper conveyed revealed why it was saved against such overwhelming odds.

A group of people had been hiding in a bunker of the ghetto for a number of weeks. They knew their time was short. They lived on whatever scraps of food they could find. Fear was their constant companion. The idea of a future was very remote to them. Yet, they persevered with a deep abiding faith in Hashem. With this scenario in mind, we can understand the value of this simple piece of paper.

The paper contained a sentence from davening: Ashrei yoshvei veisecha od yehallelucha selah, "Praiseworthy are those who dwell in Your house, may they always praise You, Selah." Beneath the phrase were the letters, aleph, shin, raish, and yud, together with nekudos, vowel sounds, that accompanied each letter. The small piece of paper was part of a lesson - a lesson in reading Hebrew. Hiding in fear, and in constant pain, a father was concerned with only one thing: transmitting Torah to his son. He wrote these words in order to teach his young son the Aleph Bais. Outside, the sounds of machine-gun fire prevailed. Inside, the sounds of Torah reigned. Amid death and deprivation, a father maintained hope as he passed the baton to the next generation. Moshe taught us that to love Torah means to seek to share it with others. This father was demonstrating his true love.

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

The commentators go to great lengths seeking a reason to find Moshe Rabbeinu and Aharon guilty of a sin. What was their infraction? What did they do wrong? Each in his inimitable manner suggests what might have been wrong with their actions. Horav Yechezkel Sarne, zl, derives from here a powerful lesson concerning the overriding importance of even the slightest sin. A sin such as the one committed by Moshe and Aharon, one that commentators are hard-pressed to explain and establish, was considered great enough to prevent these great leaders from entering Eretz Yisrael - despite all they had accomplished. Forty years of leading Klal Yisrael in the wilderness; praying five hundred and fifteen tefillos, prayers; supplicating Hashem to rescind the decree against him - all to no avail. All of this became insignificant due to one sin, a sin upon which no one seems to agree. This teaches us the overwhelming negative effect of a sin.

One sin: Adam Ha'Rishon transgressed one sin, and it changed the world. Avraham Avinu, despite of all his incredible efforts to spread monotheism throughout the world, asked one question: Ba'meh eida ki iras'shena? "How will I know that I will inherit the land?" and Hashem decreed a four-hundred year exile against his descendants. Moshe Rabbeinu gave his life for Klal Yisrael, but he committed a single sin. That was enough to prevent him from entering Eretz Yisrael. Imagine, if Moshe had taken us into Eretz Yisrael, we would never have lost it! All because of one sin.

There is a flip side, a positive perspective to the "one sin" effect; it also works the other way. When a person performs one mitzvah, he not only receives awesome reward, he also changes the world. He catalyzes a positive effect on the world. Avraham Avinu was referred to as Avraham HaIvri, because he was on eivar echad, one side against the entire world, which was on eivar sheini, the second/other side. If a person has the desire, he can change the world.

The Chafetz Chaim, zl, changed the world with one mitzvah. He taught the world about the evils and negativity of lashon hora, evil speech, and the world has been forever altered as a result of his lesson. Horav Shraga Feivel Mendlowitz, zl, changed Torah chinuch in America. Horav Aharon Kotler, zl, taught us the essence of Torah lishma, studying Torah for its sake, pure Torah, just because Hashem told us to study. The Satmar Rav, zl, demonstrated what it meant to adhere to the traditions of the past, not becoming overwhelmed and being swayed by the pressures and influences of contemporary society. Reb Yosef Rosenberger saved the mitzvah of shatnez from extinction in this country. And the list goes on. Virtually every Jewish community in this country that has a source of Torah instruction and dissemination is the product of the efforts of few lay leaders in conjunction with a rosh yeshivah, a rav, or a dedicated Torah scholar who initiated the project. Yes, one aveirah can destroy the world, but one mitzvah can give it continued existence.

You shall not pass through me - lest I come against you with the sword. (20:18)

In Moshe Rabbeinu's appeal to the king of Edom to allow Klal Yisrael to traverse his land, he gave an account of the Egyptian experience, implying that it was an aspect of the prophecy to Avraham Avinu. He continued with the notion that Hashem had listened to the voices/prayers of His people, as they entreated Him for salvation from their enemies. Since He wanted them to enter the land, He would listen to their prayers. Moshe was subtly intimating that "when the voice is the voice of Yaakov," when the Jews are praying with sincerity and feeling, the "hands of Eisav" will not prevail. Hence, it would serve Edom well to sheathe its sword and allow the people to go through. The king responded in an expected manner: "You aggrandize with Yaakov's voice; I am quite content to adhere to my grandfather Eisav's blessing of the sword." In other words, he was not impressed. The question that confronts us is, if Eisav's "hands" have no effect when Yaakov's "voice" is dominant, of what were they afraid?

The Ateres Tzvi of Ziditshoiv explains that the axiom is certainly true. When Yaakov's voice is heard, when the sounds of Torah prevail, then Eisav's sword will not harm them. This is only true, however, as long as the "voice" of Yaakov does not resonate in his own head. If Yaakov becomes haughty about his prayer, then it falls into the realm of the sitra achara, other/evil forces. Tefillah is tefillah only as long as it is a spiritual experience, expressed with humility and feeling. If it becomes a vehicle for gaavah, arrogance, or if it is used as a medium to disdain others, it is not tefillah; rather, it is gaavah. The king of Edom was implying that by aggrandizing their power of prayer, they were actually being self-defeating.

We may add that this idea does not apply only to tefillah, it applies to any area of mitzvah observance in which we use our observance as a means of one-upmanship: "We are better than you, because we learn more or better than you." While one should certainly be proud of his achievements, if he is secure in his accomplishments, he should be able to enjoy them privately.

Then Yisrael sang this song: "Come up, O well, announce it!" (21:17)

The Torah here records a hymn to the Well of Miriam. The Well which traveled with the nation throughout their sojourn in the wilderness miraculously provided water for them. Interestingly, the Well, which was with them for forty years, finally received its accolade - now. Why? Furthermore, with the exception of the Splitting of the Sea, the Well is the only miracle that achieved "song" status. Why was no similar expression of gratitude proclaimed about the Manna or even the Torah? The Ohr HaChaim Hakadosh posits that the Well and its water are metaphorical references to the Torah, which is compared to water. Thus, the song is not really about the Well, but about the Torah itself.

In a thesis about the nature of song and its role in the expression of gratitude, the Shem MiShmuel suggests a deeper understanding of the function of Miriam's Well. A song expresses an outpouring of love for a specific gift. When an individual feels particular gratitude for a gift which he feels he does not deserve, his response is to burst forth in song as an expression of overwhelming appreciation. This is especially true when the recipient senses that the gift is more suitable for one greater than himself. Thus, he feels that this gift is a special chesed, kindness, from Hashem.

With this in mind, a song of praise would not be viewed as an appropriate response to the receipt of an essential item, such as food or drink. While these are truly gifts for which we are obliged to thank Hashem, they are, nonetheless, essentials - gifts that we must have in order to survive. Certainly, they are neither extraordinary nor suitable only for individuals of elevated spiritual status. Thus, clearly Hashem had to provide for Klal Yisrael in the wilderness, or else they would have died of hunger. While they, and indeed, we, should always be grateful for our sustenance, it is still a necessity for our continued existence. Therefore, while the Manna was certainly a miracle of great significance, it did not meet the criteria to merit a special song.

The Well of Miriam had dual significance. Its first function was that it provided water on a daily basis for the entire nation. There was, however, another aspect of the Well's significance. After being attacked by the Emorites, who hid in caves in a mountain pass with the intention to ambush the Jews, the Jews were miraculously spared from death when the mountains closed together, crushing the would be assailants. The blood of Klal Yisrael's enemies was brought by the Well for all to see. At this point, the water flowed upwards - surely not a natural event.

In other words, while the Well provided normally in its function as water supplier, its second function was of an extraordinary nature. It not only transported the remains of the Jews' enemies, it also flowed upwards in the process, demonstrating Hashem's might. Hence, a song of praise for the Well was appropriate.

What about the Torah? Does it not merit a special song of praise? After all, it is our lifeblood, without which we cannot live. This is exactly why there is no song. Clearly, the Torah is our greatest gift from Hashem. It is the ultimate experience of Divine chesed. Nonetheless, when we think about it, it is more than a chesed; it is an absolute necessity! Yetzias Mitzrayim, the exodus from Egypt, was the precursor of Kabbolas haTorah, receiving the Torah. Our raison d'etre is the Torah. In effect, without the Torah, there would be no Klal Yisrael, because we cannot live without it. The Torah is as basic to Jewish existence as food and drink. Hence, no song was necessary.

There are two lessons to be gleaned from the above thesis. First, we derive how Torah should be studied and how mitzvos are to be observed - as life itself. Second, while parnassah, livelihood, is necessary for survival, one must distinguish between basic survival and opulence. Those of us whose lifestyle extends beyond the essential should begin to sing.

Va'ani Tefillah

Ketores - Incense.

The selections from the Torah which focus on the korbanos are followed by Torah readings which deal with the blending of the spices that comprised the Ketores, Incense, that was offered twice daily on the Mizbayach HaZahav, Golden Altar. Eleven spices, each weighing sixteen "maneh" for a total of 368 maneh, comprised the Ketores. This constituted one year's supply, with the remaining three maneh being offered by the Kohen Gadol on Yom Kippur in the Kodshei HaKodoshim, Holy of Holies. The offering of the Ketores is one of the great mysteries of the Avodah, Divine Service, in the Bais Hamikdash. Its unique holiness is manifest in the Torah with the penalty of kares, Heavenly excision, being meted out to one who prepares an identical composition as a perfume for personal use. The death penalty was also in effect if any one of its eleven ingredients was omitted.

Throughout our history, the Ketores has played a pivotal role. Nadav and Avihu, Aharon Hakohen's two sons, died as a result of offering the Ketores in an unprescribed manner. The 250 members of the Sanhedrin who followed Korach in his rebellion died when they offered Ketores. Nonetheless, when a widespread plague broke out after the Korach rebellion, Aharon's offering of Ketores quelled the plague. Chazal teach us that the offering of Ketores served as an atonement for the effects of lashon hora. The people were privy to the lesson of the Ketores: Just as there were life and death inherent in Ketores, so, too, does the tongue have powerful positive and negative consequences.

l'zchus ul'refuah sheleima
Shalom Rephael Yehuda ben Simcha Freidel

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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