Back to This Week's Parsha

Peninim on the Torah

subscribe.gif (2332 bytes)

Previous issues

Rabbi A. Leib Scheinbaum
Hebrew Academy of Cleveland


These are the words which Moshe spoke to all Yisrael…in the wilderness, in the waste, opposite the suf, between Paran and Tophel, and Lavan, and Chatzeiros, and Di Zahav. (1:1)

In this pasuk, Moshe Rabbeinu bids farewell to his flock. His leadership of the nascent nation is coming to an end, as he is about to leave this world. His predecessor, Yaakov Avinu, blessed his sons before he left this world. His blessing took on the form of rebuke, since rebuke represents true blessing. To guide someone out of love, to point out his shortcomings constructively with the hope that it will steer him onto the correct path of life is a blessing of the highest order. Indeed, when we see another person doing something wrong, we are obligated to call his errant behavior to his attention.

The act of rebuke must be sincere. It must be administered with love and sensitivity, with consideration and respect for the individual one is rebuking. Not everyone can cope with rebuke. At times, the rebuke can be stressful to the relationship. Moshe Rabbeinu took great care in choosing the correct words of rebuke. He only alluded to Klal Yisrael's sins by mentioning places whose names referred to their sins. Moshe was concerned that a direct rebuke might be counterproductive.

It is essential that the individual who is being rebuked be acutely aware that the one who is reproving him cares deeply for him. Otherwise, the reprovement can have a negative effect. At times, one may choose not to rebuke, feeling that since it would probably not be accepted, it might be better to say nothing and simply leave the door open. One day, the individual who has strayed might realize the folly of his lifestyle and return "back home." If we close the door, if we turn our back on him, he may leave permanently, as illustrated by the following letter written by an individual who was lucky enough to see the way back - and found that he still had a place to which to go.

"Until a few years ago, I didn't take anything very seriously. I had graduated from a yeshiva high school and, unlike most of my class, I didn't feel I had what it took to be a learner. I didn't want to go to college right away, and I thought I would get a job and have a good time before I would settle down. My parents were not very pleased with this decision, but at that point in my life what my parents wanted was not terribly important to me.

"Regrettably, during this time I fell in with a group of friends who were not observant. At first, I told myself that I would not be influenced by them, but this turned out to be very far from the truth. In a very short period of time, I became exactly like them, and maybe worse, as I should have known better. Shabbos meant nothing -- Kashrus meant nothing, and I lived my life in a haze which even today I have trouble remembering.

"My parents were devastated. Maybe they didn't expect me to be the best of the best, but they certainly didn't expect this. As well as having destroyed my own life, I was on my way to destroying my family. Because of the bad influence I was having on my younger brothers, my father asked me to leave the house. When I moved out, I said some really cruel and spiteful things to my father. I can remember him standing silently at the door, with my mother crying at his side.

"I realize now that what I had seen in them as a weakness was actually enormous strength. I had no contact with anyone in my family for almost a year. Deep inside, I missed them very much, but I foolishly thought that I would be viewed as weak if I contacted them.

"One morning, I was shocked to find my father waiting for me outside of the apartment building I lived in. He looked at me with tired, worn eyes and asked if we could talk. Stubborn to the core, I only nodded, and we walked to a corner coffee shop where we sat down. He told me how much everyone missed me and how I had been in their minds and hearts every second that I had been gone. He told me how my mother agonized over what had happened, blaming herself for not having been there for me. While he was talking, tears began rushing from his eyes.

"He told me that he wasn't here to lecture me. He just had one request. He wanted me to drive with him that afternoon to Monsey, NY, and say one chapter of Tehillim at the grave of a certain tzaddik. As far removed as I was from Yiddishkeit, I was still moved by his request.

"I told him that I couldn't go that day, but that I would go with him another time. In truth, I had plans to go with some friends to Atlantic City that evening, and I didn't want to cancel them. When I told him that I couldn't go that day, but that I would go with him another day, he reached across the table and took my hand in his and just looked at me with his tear-streaked sad face. I felt my own eyes begin to water and, rather than have him see me cry, I just agreed to meet him later that day.

"I made the necessary apologies to my friends, and later that day I met my father. We didn't talk much during the trip up. I remember getting out of the car with him and walking over to one of the graves. He put some rocks on top of the grave and gave me a Tehillim. We must have looked quite strange. My father in his long coat, a black hat perched on his head, and me with my leather bomber jacket and jeans. We didn't stay long. Ten minutes after we had arrived, we were on our way back. The return trip was as quiet as the trip there. My father let me off in front of my apartment building. I still recall the words he said to me as I got out of the car. He told me that no matter what may have happened between us and no matter what may happen in the future, I was always going to be his son and that he would always love me. I was emotionally moved by his words, but I was not experiencing the spiritual inspiration for which he may have been hoping. I shook my head at his words, and we parted company.

"The next morning, I woke up to some shocking news. On the way back from Atlantic City, my friends were involved in a head-on collision with a tractor trailer. There were no survivors.

"As I write this letter, I am overcome with emotion. I made a Bris today for my first child. My father was sandek and, as he held my son on his lap, his eyes met mine and we smiled. It was as if we had finally reached the end of a long journey.

"We have never talked to each other about that trip to Monsey, nor have I ever told him about the death of my friends. I just walked into their home that evening and was taken back with open arms and no questions asked.

"I don't think I will ever understand what happened that day. I just know that sitting here late at night with my son in my arms, I will try and be the father to him that my father was to me."

This poignant letter, a testimonial to the power of teshuvah, repentance, and the overwhelming love of a father for his son, conveys many messages. In truth, each of us will derive his own personal message. Some will learn that one never closes the door on a child. One must always retain hope that something will inspire his return. Others will observe that, regardless of how far a child strays, the innate love and filial bond that a child has for a parent endures. A child's negative behavior is usually his way of crying out for attention and love - not a rebellion against his parents. Last and most important, we now begin to have an idea of Hashem's love for us - His children. If a father of flesh and blood can forgive his child due to his undying love for him, how much more so does the Almighty, our Father in Heaven, wait patiently for our return.

How can I alone carry. (1:12)

In the annual cycle of parshios, we always read Parashas Devarim, on the Shabbos preceding Tisha B'Av, our national day of mourning. This Shabbos is known as Shabbos Chazon, after the opening word of the Haftorah, Chazon Yeshayahu, where the Navi Yeshayahu foretells of the great tragedy to befall the Jewish nation. Also, an obvious connection to Tisha B'Av is the word "Eichah," how it appears in Megillas Eichah, Book of Lamentations, which is read on Tisha B'Av. The Gaon M'Vilna sees a deeper connection between this parsha and Tisha B'Av in the third word of our pasuk, "levadi" - "Eicha esa levadi." "How can I alone carry?" He notes that a form of this word appears in the beginning of Megillas Eichah, "Eicha yashvah badad ha'ir" "How the city sits alone." This gives us a clue to the essence of our national tragedy.

Alone, loneliness, isolated, forsaken, deserted: these synonyms may shed light on Moshe Rabbeinu's critique and, by extension, Klal Yisrael's tragedy. Moshe was used to bearing the nation's burden. His complaint was that he was alone. We may add that Moshe certainly did not need any assistance. He was quite capable of leadership - even alone. As the popular maxim states, "It is lonely at the top." The quintessential leader of our nation was at the proverbial "top," and he was alone. Did anyone care? There are certain areas in life, particular endeavors, that can only be performed alone, by one individual undertaking projects, or making the critical decisions himself. The question is: Does anybody care? Is anybody aware of the responsibility placed on the shoulders of our leadership, a responsibility which they shoulder all alone? Do we empathize? It would be so much easier to shoulder the responsibility, if he knew that he was not really alone.

This same problem occurred in Yerushalayim. In the first chapter of Eichah, a variation of the phrase, "ein menachem lah," "there is none to comfort her" (Yerushalayim), occurs no less than four times. This is what we mourn. Yerushalayim is alone, without anyone to comfort her, with no one who cares. We may suggest that the loneliness which Yerushalayim experienced was not only a product of Klal Yisrael's seclusion from the other nations. It was the separation within, their divisiveness and discord resulting from the sinaas chinam, unwarranted hatred among them, which was the cause of the destruction of the Bais Hamikdash that left them all alone.

We cannot change what has happened. We can, however, focus on the source of our suffering, the reason for our misery, in order to attempt to correct our problem so that it happens no more. Perhaps, with a little ahavah, love, for our fellow man, we can reverse the trend of isolation from one another which has caused so much of our suffering. Let us share the burden with our fellow man, ease his plight, or just be available for moral support. When we are present for our fellow, we can hope that Hashem will, likewise, be present for us.

Returning to our original statement connecting the "eichah" of our parsha to the "eichah" of Tisha B'Av, Horav Moshe Feinstein, zl, takes an alternative approach. He sees the word eichah as an expression of amazement. Rav Moshe's remarks are addressed to the Midrash Eichah, which contrasts Moshe's comment with the exclamations of the later neviim, Yeshayah and Yirmiyah, who also used the word eichah. Moshe saw the people in their moment of glory and tranquility and said, "Eichah," an expression of lamentation. Yeshayah saw them in distress and also said, "Eichah." Yirmiyah, on the other hand, saw them at a point of total degradation and also said, "Eichah."

In a departure from the standard pshat, explanation, Rav Moshe explains the word eichah to mean, "How could such a thing be possible?" Moshe wondered how an individual could rise to such eminence that he might even begin to think that he alone could shoulder the burden of leading an entire nation as complex as Klal Yisrael. Rav Moshe adds that this same question may be asked of any great leader. Later, Yeshayah wondered how a city that was referred to as a "faithful village," which had leaders who served as paradigms of virtue and piety, could sink to such a nadir of depravity. Finally, Yirmiyah wondered why the destruction occurred. Regardless of the nature of their sins and the seriousness of Hashem's grievance against them, Klal Yisrael was still on a much higher moral/spiritual plateau than any of the other nations of the world. This interpretation conveys a profound message to us: Our highest priority should be to raise ourselves to the spiritual level of old, about whom Moshe Rabbeinu wondered, "How can I alone carry the burden of such a distinguished People?" Whatever our ancestors were, or were not, we have no inkling of their spiritual eminence. This is the meaning of the word eichah. In other words, one must be on a rather high level for people to question how it could have happened to them. Let us aspire to return to that distinguished position.

You answered me and said, "The thing that you proposed to do is good." (1:14)

Rashi explains Moshe's critique in the following manner: "You decided the matter to your benefit without considering that you were being disrespectful. You should have responded to the suggestion about instituting sub-leadership by saying, 'our teacher Moshe. From whom is it more appropriate to learn: you or your student? Is it not better to learn from you because you suffered over the Torah?'" The last few words, "because you suffered over the Torah," seem to be superfluous. It would have been sufficient merely to posit that it is better to learn from the master than to learn from the student. Why does Rashi add the fact that Moshe toiled and suffered over the Torah?

Horav Moshe Feinstein, zl, explains that as far as the student is concerned it is quite possible, at times, that the "student" teacher can have a greater success rate - or be more effective in reaching the student than the "master" rebbe/teacher. Rashi is, however, teaching us a very significant lesson in education by defining the essence of a rebbe, Torah teacher, and, by extension, indicating from whom we should learn. A true rav/rebbe is one who toils and suffers over the Torah that he will later expound to perfection, exactly as Hashem transmitted it. He does not rely on his own acumen. Regardless of his brilliance, he labors to the point of suffering, leaving no stone unturned in his quest to understand the Torah fully. This is the type of teacher from whom we should learn Torah. Scholarship does not mean everything - it is how one achieves that level of scholarship which determines if he is an appropriate person to transmit Torah to others.

They came until the valley of Eshkol, and spied it out. (1:24)

Avraham Avinu had three close friends and confidants: Avner, Eshkol and Mamre, whom he consulted when he was commanded to circumcise himself. Avner advised him not to do it because of his advanced age. Eshkol presented arguments in support of Avner's advice. He felt that in Avraham's weakened condition post-circumcision, his enemies would be able to overpower him. Mamre encouraged Avraham to circumcise himself. When the meraglim, spies, came to Eretz Yisrael, they stopped at Nachal Eshkol and picked a cluster of grapes which they brought back to Moshe.

Horav Eli Munk, zl, suggests an analogy between the episode of the spies returning with a cluster of grapes and the name Eshkol. The spies brought back the grapes to support their position that, just as the fruit of the land was abnormally large, so, too, were its inhabitants unusually powerful. This is why that place had already been called Eshkol at the time of Avraham's circumcision. It was characterized as a place where one's fear of future enemies would dishearten him from doing the right and proper thing today. In other words, Nachal Eshkol is a place that characterizes a lack of bitachon, trust in the Almighty. It is interesting that the meraglim seemed to gravitate to that one place in Eretz Yisrael where their lack of faith would appropriately fit in.

Vignettes on the Parsha

These are the words that Moshe spoke to all Yisrael. (1:1)

The Alter, zl, m'Slabodka explains the reason that Moshe Rabbeinu was the one to admonish Klal Yisrael - and not Hashem. When the words of Torah are used to rebuke and admonish, to forewarn of impending punishment, Hashem does not associate His Name with these words. Although rebuke is necessary and the effect is hopefully positive, Hashem, nonetheless, does not want His Name mentioned in regard to anything which causes pain and anxiety to a person.


How can I alone carry your trouble and your burden? (1:12)

Rashi says that "masaachem," your burden, is a reference to heresy, meaning that there were among them heretics who refused to recognize Hashem. Horav Nachman, zl, m'Breslov explains that apikorsus, heresy, weighs heavily on one's mind. The non-believer has nothing to "lean on," nothing to support and sustain him. He is weighed down with questions and refuses to acknowledge the answers. The believer's life, on the other hand, is very easy. He has a strong foundation of belief in the Almighty that gives him the strength and fortitude to bear the burden of life's vicissitudes.


In the eleventh month, on the first of the month, when Moshe spoke to Bnei Yisrael. (1:3)

Rashi observes that Moshe spoke to Klal Yisrael just a few days prior to his leaving this world. A short while before he passed away, Horav Yisrael Salanter, zl, feeling his end was near, slowly began distancing himself from his close friends and students. There was one exception - a noted heretic. When asked to explain this anomaly, Rav Yisrael said, "I am fairly sure that I will meet all of you in Gan Eden. I cannot say the same for him."

Sponsored by
Yaakov and Karen Nisenbaum and Family
In memory of our mother and grandmother
Anna Nisenbaum


Peninim on the Torah is in its 7th year of publication. The first five years have been published in book form.

The fifth volume is available at your local book seller or directly from Rabbi Scheinbaum.

He can be contacted at 216-321-5838 ext. 165 or by fax at 216-321-0588.

Discounts are available for bulk orders or Chinuch/Kiruv organizations.

This article is provided as part of Shema Yisrael Torah Network
Permission is granted to redistribute electronically or on paper,
provided that this notice is included intact.
For information on subscriptions, archives, and
other Shema Yisrael Classes,
send mail to
Jerusalem, Israel