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Peninim on the Torah

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Rabbi A. Leib Scheinbaum
Hebrew Academy of Cleveland


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

In the Midrash, Chazal point out that the aspect of chok, mitzvos that defy human rationalization, connected to the mitzvah of Parah Adumah, Red Heifer, is the paradox regarding the ashes of the parah. These ashes are mixed with water and sprinkled upon one who is tamei meis, ritually unclean due to contact with a dead body. This mixture purifies the contaminated person, but simultaneously renders impure the Kohen who had prepared it. What is the meaning of the opening pasuk: "This is the decree of the Torah" in which the word chok is used? Are we to relate to the Torah as a chok, above rationale? Are we permitted to investigate Hashem's mitzvos, to question them, so that we might develop a clearer understanding of what is demanded of us? How does the concept of chok change everything? What role does the Parah Adumah play in the scheme of things?

Horav Mordechai Gifter, zl, explains that the Torah is herein teaching us how to relate to mitzvos. Man lives by the understanding that many phenomena in this world occur as the result of cause and effect. Man terms the set of rules which guides this concept "the laws of nature." The secular world lives by these guidelines. They constitute the underpinnings of man's comprehension of science and medicine, and they lead society toward greater and deeper advancements in scientific knowledge. Considering all of our perception and knowledge, however, man has yet to uncover the source of it all, the power behind the effect, or what we understand is the real cause: Hashem. Man's understanding of what takes place around him is superficial. Thus, when an incident occurs which seems to be at variance with his limited understanding of creation and the laws which govern the way "things are supposed to be," he is baffled. He can find no way to resolve the contradiction which he now confronts. He would never think of adding the "Hashem factor" into the equation, because he has not yet acknowledged Hashem in creation. He is too involved in the idea of "the laws of nature."

The realization that Hashem lies behind everything, and that He is the true Source of all cause and effect, grant a person newfound illumination in his quest for integrity in understanding. Confronting the reality that "the laws of nature" are not real and that the true set of rules through which Creation functions is in actuality the Divine Hand guiding the world, is a difficult and eye-opening concept for many, but, ultimately, a satisfying approach. Yes, now it all makes sense - even if it does not make sense to us! Hashem can do what He wants and, while He has set the world into motion, He can deviate from His plan at anytime due to reasons beyond our grasp.

This is the idea behind the chok of Parah Adumah. Man has conjured up the premise that matter which purifies cannot make something impure. It is not rational. This premise is based upon the assumption that the rules of nature are binding. We believe, however, that matter does not necessarily subscribe to rules. The only rule that is in effect is the will of G-d. He makes the "rules," and they are based upon His will. Therefore, He has decided that the ashes of the Parah Adumah do indeed remove the contamination of the tamei, contaminated person. For some reason beyond our ken, however, Hashem has declared that the Kohen who prepares the purification water and ash will himself become tamei. The only rule that we cannot accept is that no rules exist other than the will of Hashem, as expressed through His Torah and mitzvos.

This is what Chazal mean when they say that we have no right to question the Torah. We may and should investigate in order to become proficient in His mitzvos, but questioning them is beyond our scope. Rav Gifter explains that one who questions Hashem does not understand Hashem's decree. He cannot/will not proceed unless he understands the underlying reasoning behind the mitzvah. When one investigates, he strives to develop a deeper knowledge of Hashem's mitzvos but, at the same time, he must be acutely aware that the ultimate answers are beyond human comprehension. This idea is the "decree of the Torah," meaning that it applies to the entire Torah. Even those mitzvos which we think we understand must be performed in a chok mode, whereby we carry them out because it is Hashem's will. When we confront the irrationality of chukim, we realize that we are really unable to penetrate the true depths of reasoning behind all of the mitzvos. To study properly to the point that it has an effect upon a person, one must study Torah with yiraas Shomayim, fear of Heaven. Only then is it Torah. To study Torah without awe of its Divine Author reduces Torah to just another form of worldly wisdom.

I feel that another aspect of chok is often ignored and, at best, underemphasized. In today's progressive society, we frequently hear parents declare, "I do not want to force religion down my child's throat. Let him develop his own outlook, his own perspective, after he has had a wide exposure to the various points of view that exist. I want my child to make his or her own rational decision, not accept something that is handed to him from his parents." This misguided attitude goes hand in hand with that of the Jew who, when excusing his lack of observance of any or all tenets of Judaism, justifies his behavior with the notion, "Oh, I am not religious, so I can do what I want." This perfidious attitude is born of a disingenuous character, an individual who, out of a sense of moral weakness, lies to himself and then to others. The same failing is prevalent in both of the above instances. Veritably, until this weakness is addressed, logic and philosophy will be ineffective in debating with this individual in an attempt to show him the error of his ways.

I think this is what the Torah is teaching us. Hashem chose the Jewish nation, and we chose to be chosen. Something is unique about the Jewish People, and it is a privilege to be included among them. With this selection comes responsibility - not choice. As part of Hashem's nation, e accept to execute His Torah and mitzvos. We cannot renege on our chosenness. It is part of us. Leaving is not an option. The individual who claims he is not religious-- or who is raising his child in a manner which exposes him or her to every opportunity to succumb to moral and spiritual bankruptcy-- is shirking his responsibility. It is very similar to a soldier who goes AWOL. He is disciplined for leaving his unit. He is a soldier, and a soldier does not leave. A Jew is part of Hashem's army. He cannot leave.

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

Many of us go through life without a clue concerning why we were sent down here. When one does not realize life's purpose, life has very little meaning and even less value. In Parashas Chukas, the Torah addresses the ritual contamination created by death and the atonement which is catalyzed by the passing of tzadikim, a righteous person. An individual who comes in contact with a deceased person becomes tamei, ritually unclean, for seven days. On the third and seventh days, the tamei person must be sprinkled with pure water, mixed with ashes of the Parah Adumah, Red Heifer, which had been burned with cedar wood, hyssop and wool dyed with a red extract from certain worms. One of the first paradoxes associated with death is confronted during the purification process. The same water which renders the tamei person clean renders the person who has prepared it tamei. The interface between life on this world and life on the next world is filled with question. Dying is filled with questions. The mere fact that we are to use hyssop, which comes from a lowly shrub, is paradoxical. The fact that both meet the same physical end, in a place of worms, might give us something to think about.

Physical death is not the end. It is only the beginning of life. Chazal teach us that those whose lives in this world are focused primarily on the spirit are even more alive in the next world. Reshaim, wicked people-- whose lives in this world have revolved around satisfying the needs of the flesh-- are not truly alive even in this world. Thus, as the Bostoner Rebbe, Shlita, teaches, the main focus of Jewish mourning and purification practices is to teach the living how to live. Shlomo HaMelelch says in Sefer Koheles 7:2, Tov laleches el beis avel…v'hachai yitein el libo, "It is better to go to a house of mourning than a house of feasting; for that is the end of all men, and the living will take it to heart."

The Rebbe makes a profound observation which I think helps us to confront the challenge of death from a practical perspective. When a person dies, the question is often asked, "Why did he-- or she-- have to die?" Yet, we seldom hear at the birth of a child, "Why was this baby born?" Certainly, life and death are linked. Had this person not been born, he would not have died. How can we hope to discover the purpose of death without first confronting the purpose of life - and living it accordingly? How easy it is to complain and bemoan someone's passing. Do we ever apply the same questioning to his birth? How often do we ask ourselves, "Why am I here? Am I fulfilling my unique purpose in life? Is this why I was created?" Poignant questions, compelling questions, which should be addressed by the living - while they can still be answered!

This is why the death of the righteous atones. The tzadik is acutely aware of the question regarding his birth, and he is likely to have spent his entire life addressing that question. When he passes from this world, he has achieved a life of meaning, a life of value, a life in which he has carried out his G-d-given purpose. Such a passing is not death; it marks the beginning of continued life in Olam Habba, the World to Come. It is not the "death" that atones; it is the life that has preceded this new beginning which atones.

Parashas Balak

Behold! The people coming out of Egypt have covered the face of the earth. (22:11)

Upon reading the text, we note a disparity between the way in which Balak describes the exodus of Klal Yisrael from Egypt, and the manner in which Bilaam describes it. Balak said, "Behold! A people has come out of Egypt," (ibid 22:5) using the past tense. Bilaam, however, says, "Behold! The people coming out of Egypt," using the present tense. Why do they differ in their descriptions? Horav Moshe Feinstein, zl, asserts that Bilaam had a deeper perception of Klal Yisrael's essence. Balak thought that the Jewish People were like all other nations who wish to forget their humble beginnings. Therefore, he implied that as soon as the Jews left Egypt they had already forgotten their roots, disconnecting themselves from their past. It was gone, over, finished. They were about to begin a new life and wanted nothing to do with their past. Bilaam knew otherwise. He understood what made Klal Yisrael function. He perceived their distinguishing characteristic. They are different from all the other nations and therefore, they will always remember that they were once slaves in Egypt and that Hashem liberated them. This is one of the areas in which Jewish People shine. The Baal Shem Tov was wont to say, "Forgetfulness leads to exile; remembrance is the beginning of redemption."

It is specifically due to the awareness that we have that Hashem redeemed us from Egypt that we maintain this distinction. This point of dissimilarity is what gives us the ability to ward off assimilation. We know that we are not just like` everyone else. Hashem watches over us in a manner unlike any other nation.

Bilaam was no fool. He feared Klal Yisrael's ability and desire to hold onto the memory, to retain the thoughts of their past. As a result of their desire to remain a nation apart from the world, they might influence other nations to learn from them and subjugate themselves to a mamleches Kohanim, kingdom of Priests, and to the kedushah, holiness, of Klal Yisrael. Their reminiscence would maintain their allegiance to the Almighty, inspiring others to emulate their way of life. This would hardly sit well with the evil Bilaam.

Balak, however, thought that we were no different than the other nations of the world. He thought that Egypt would be the farthest thing from our minds, an epic that we would want to expunge completely from our history. This way, we would slowly acculturate with the other nations until we would achieve total assimilation. He was concerned with their present power but their relationship to the past was past. This is one time that we are fortunate that Bilaam's perception of the Jewish nation was correct.

The plague of forced forgetfulness has been with us for quite some time. In Western Europe, the Jews sought to assimilate by viewing the past as something to forget: "Look to the future, a new day is dawning. Forget about the ghetto. We are like other nations. Distinctiveness is what causes Jewish People to be denigrated in the eyes of the gentile. We must be like everyone else." These were the catch phrases that prompted so many to jump into the baptismal font. They forgot. Hashem remembered, however, and He made sure that the nations around would remember that we were different. When we attempt to forget, Hashem sees to it that the gentile nations remember-and remind us.

A Jew cannot escape his past, but that is not sufficient. He must cherish his past; treasure every memory that connects him to his source in history. The farther and deeper we delve into our past, the more we begin to realize that we are the products of a binding heritage, a tradition spanning thousands of years and a multitude of countries. Someone once wrote, "A Jew at birth is 4,000 years old." We have a glorious, although tumultuous, history which should serve as fountainhead of pride for us. The Jew who seeks to forget does himself and his people an unpardonable disservice. Indeed, this is something the Nazis attempted to do to us. With cremation and unmarked graves, they tried not only to kill us, but to erase forever permanent testimony that we ever lived. How shameful it is that some unconscionable Jews today continue to do the same with their bodies.

There is no dearth of stories which underscore the importance of remembering one's past. In searching for a fitting analogy that places it all in perspective, I came across a story told concerning Horav Meir, zl, m'Premishlan which may be applied in a fitting manner. The Premishlaner would immerse himself in a mikveh that was situated on top of a snow-covered mountain. Despite the Rebbe's advanced age, he climbed the mountain with ease. His aide, however, although he was much younger, slipped and fell with every step. He asked the Rebbe, "How is it that the Rebbe walks so steadily, without slipping, while I cannot stop falling?" The Rebbe replied, "He who is bound to the One Above will not fall down."

Simply, this means that one who places his trust in Hashem has nothing to fear. He is connected. Perhaps, we can take this analogy further: One who is connected to the past does not stumble. He is firmly anchored in tradition, in a heritage that spans thousands of years and encompasses the Patriarchs and the greatest Torah luminaries of every generation thereafter. The one who is slipping, the one who should be concerned, is the one who has nothing to hold onto: no past, and thus, no future.

Behold! The people coming out of Egypt…Now go and curse it for me. (22:11)

Rashi notes that when Balak had originally asked Bilaam to curse the Jews, he used the word arah, as in lechah na arah li, "So now - please come and curse for me" (ibid 22:6), which is a milder form of curse than kavah. Balak wanted only to save his people from being overtaken by the Jews. Bilaam, however, had an implacable hatred for the Jews that went back generations. He, thus, employed a stronger expression of curse which intimated his true animus. Balak also used the stronger term later, as his fear of the Jewish nation intensified. Why was Bilaam's hatred of the Jews so profound? Furthermore, if we look back in time, Bilaam's hatred for the Jewish People was manifest earlier when they were still in Egypt. Chazal teach that when Pharaoh convened his advisors to discuss the "Jewish problem," he sought the counsel of three advisors: Bilaam, Iyov and Yisro. It was Bilaam who suggested that the Jews be killed. Yisro ran away, while Iyov remained silent. Clearly, Bilaam's loathing of the Jews was not novel. Balak knew to whom he was turning.

Horav Dovid Povarsky, zl, asserts that Bilaam was acutely aware of the distinctiveness of Klal Yisrael. Thus, the more he thought about them, the more he was filled with intense loathing. One hates whom one fears; one hates whom he feels outshines him, renders him secondary, incompetent. The Jewish People did that to Bilaam because, as great as he was, he knew that they were greater. On the contrary, it was as a result of Bilaam's acuity that he perceived the true greatness of the Jewish People, and this fired up his aversion toward them.

The Rosh Yeshivah adds that in some of the communities in Europe, when a rabbinic position became vacant, often a dispute occurred between the various members of the community concerning which candidate should fill the position. As bad as the strife that was created between the baalei batim, laymen, was, it was not comparable to that which existed between the candidates themselves. Indeed, they were deeply perceptive concerning one another's qualities. The more one knows, the more one fears.

Perhaps we can offer an alternative approach towards understanding Bilaam's vindictive hatred of the Jews. In the Midrash (Batei Midrashos Parashas Ki Seitze), Chazal share with us a dialogue that took place between Bilaam and Balak. Bilaam said, "We are both ingrates who owe our existence to the Jewish People. I am a descendant of Lavan, and you are a descendant of Lot. Your ancestors were beneficiaries of Avraham's prayer on behalf of the inhabitants of Sodom. Lavan was the beneficiary of Yaakov's blessing, which was the reason that he merited to have offspring." It goes against the nature of an ingrate to acknowledge his indebtedness to his benefactor. Thus, he will hate the one to whom he owes a favor. It is a demeaning commitment which hangs over him, and the more he senses this encumbrance, the more he despises the benefactor who is the catalyst of his personal discontent.

Having said this, we analyze Balak's debt of gratitude in contrast to that of Bilaam. Balak was alive as a consequence of Avraham Avinu's prayer for the inhabitants of Sodom. He prayed for them because he felt a sense of obligation to Lot for keeping silent when he told Pharaoh that Sarah was his sister. In his perverted mind, Balak might say that Avraham did not act specifically only on Lot's behalf. He acted primarily for the people, and, since he also was beholden to Lot, he added extra emphasis for him. His prayer, however, was not purely for the sake of Lot alone. It was an all-inclusive prayer. Bilaam could not ignore Yaakov Avinu's blessing to Lavan, which had catalyzed his own eventual birth. He was a direct beneficiary of this blessing, a fact which he could not ignore. He owed Yaakov and, by extension, his descendants, "big time." This obligation fueled Bilaam's loathing of the Jewish People. It made him feel weak and helpless. For him to be in debt to the Jews was outrageous! There is nothing as aggravating for an ingrate than the sense of requital that stares him in the face. This is what coursed through Bilaam's mind when he thought of the Jews. This is what drove him to such a frenzied hatred of them.

He perceived no iniquity in Yaakov, and saw no perversity in Yisrael. Hashem, his G-d, is with him, and the friendship of the king is in him. (23:21)

Bilaam is referring to himself when he says that he was unable to find iniquities that would justify him to curse the Jewish nation. V'lo raah amal b'Yisrael, "And saw no perversity in Yisrael," is a continuation of his inability to validate cursing the Jews. They are undeserving of a curse. Furthermore, G-d is unwilling to scrutinize their sins to the full extent of their failings. Since they are zealous in serving Him, He treats them altruistically.

Horav Simchah HaKohen Shepps, zl, renders v'lo raah amal b'Yisrael, homiletically. He compares Klal Yisrael to the storekeeper who spends his day in his establishment, working tirelessly to serve his customers. Despite being on his feet the entire day and having to run from place to place in order to best serve his customers, he does not think about being tired. On the contrary, he becomes weary and agitated when the store is empty of customers. When they are present, it is no matter to him if the consumer is purchasing an expensive item from which he will make a large profit or a simple dollar gadget. It is all about doing business. This is his store, and he wants to be busy. It all goes with the territory. This desire keeps him going, motivating him to continue working and serving his customers- despite how tired his body may be.

This is the meaning of, "he saw no amal," which, in this case, may be a derivative of ameilus, toil. The freshness and enthusiasm exhibited by the Jewish People in serving Hashem transcend whatever amal there might be. Indeed, lo raah amal, "it is not noticed," because they are so involved in serving Him. This is what they are - just like the storekeeper. It is their thing. A nation that is weary in carrying out its mission indicates that it is not excited concerning its service.

Rav Shepps cites a famous mashal, parable, from the Maggid, zl, of Dubno, concerning the Kotzker Rebbe, zl, who was said to be inspired by Ruach HaKodesh, Divine Inspiration. An individual hired a porter to shlep, transport, his luggage from the boat dock to his hotel. When the porter arrived at the hotel, exhausted and completely winded, the man told the porter, "You carried the wrong suitcases." "How could this be?" questioned the porter in disbelief. "Your appearance and exhaustion tell me that this is not my luggage. You see, my suitcases were filled with jewelry, which is very light. Had you been carrying my suitcases, you would not be exhausted."

A similar idea applies to avodas Hashem, serving the Almighty. One who finds serving Hashem to be a difficult endeavor, who feels and acts like he is carrying heavy baggage, demonstrates that he is not "with the program." He is not serving Hashem. Observance should be an act of love, an endeavor carried out with enthusiasm and excitement - not a drag. One who cannot relate to this is apparently carrying the wrong baggage.

Va'ani Tefillah

Hashem ohaiv tzaddikim.
Hashem loves the righteous.

In the Midrash Rabbah, Bamidbar 8, Chazal make the following intriguing comment. "Why does Hashem love the righteous? (He loves them because) their (position) is not (through) inheritance, nor (is it the result of) family. We find Kohanim are the product of their bais av, father's house; Leviim are also the product of bais av. This is alluded to in Sefer Tehillim 135:19,20, Bais Aharon barchu es Hashem, Bais HaLevi barchu es Hashem, "House of Aharon, bless Hashem; House of Levi, bless Hashem." If a person desires to become a Kohen, he cannot. If he desires to become a Levi, he cannot. Why? Because his father had neither been a Kohen nor a Levi. If a person wants to become a tzadik, however, even if he is a gentile - he can, because it is not dependent upon bais av."

This is why the pasuk in Tehillim concludes with, Yirei Hashem barchu es Hashem, "Those who fear Hashem, bless Hashem." The concept of yiraas Shomayim is not connected to family. One develops yiraas Shomayim as a result of his unabiding love for Hashem. This is why Hashem reciprocates with His love for tzadikim.

This is a powerful lesson. It has nothing to do with family or inheritance. It is all up to the person: his drive, his passion, his love. Hashem wants to see how much of our achievements are ours - not simply something we emulate. Initiative plays a major role in our service of Hashem, because it demonstrates our integration of the past with a building plan for the future. It shows that we care.

Moshe Shimon and Tibor Rosenberg

in memory of their father

Peninim on the Torah is in its 18th year of publication. The first nine years have been published in book form.

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