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Peninim on the Torah

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Rabbi A. Leib Scheinbaum
Hebrew Academy of Cleveland


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

Most human beings have an aversion to listening to mussar, rebuke. No one wants to be admonished, to be told that he has acted inappropriately. Sefer Devarim is primarily a mussar sefer, a volume of discipline and admonishment. Moshe Rabbeinu waited until the end of his life to deliver his rebuke - amid sincere love and a desire for the happiness and success of each and every Jew. He rebuked as a parent - with love, with a desire for happiness and success, to guide and inspire his child. A father knows best. He has experienced life and recognizes the pitfalls, obstacles and the dangers which he seeks to convey to his child. Likewise, he knows the sources of good which will benefit his child. Constructive discipline is a gift. Regrettably, it is a gift that many of us foolishly shun and reject. The Admor zl, m'Peshischa, would read a few pesukim from Sefer Devarim daily, intimating that it was the definitive source from which one may derive guidance and discipline.

Nonetheless, we shy away from listening to constructive discipline. The excuses are classic and many, but it all boils down to a lack of maturity, an insecurity about hearing that one might be wrong, an inertia that naturally resists change of any kind. By listening to rebuke one might have to accept that his behavior might be inappropriate. This would necessitate a change in his behavior, something no one is comfortable initiating. Furthermore, there is the authority issue. While one might acquiesce to the actual rebuke, it is the individual who is communicating this reproach that is a problem. Why should I accept his critique? What makes him better than me? Young people tune out their parents and teachers because they represent authority. Indeed, quite often the words of a peer have a greater effect than those of an authority figure.

Moshe waited until the end of his life to deliver his rebuke, because he understood human nature and he feared the reaction his words would generate. Chazal tell us that Yaakov Avinu did not lecture his sons until shortly before he died, because he was afraid of their response. He said, "Reuven, I did not discipline you earlier, because I feared that you would react negatively and leave me for Eisav." Imagine, Yaakov was concerned that his righteous Reuven, who certainly despised everything that Eisav represented, would reject him to follow Eisav! This is how far one can go in rejecting criticism. It was not what Yaakov had to say - it was Yaakov! It is difficult to accept rebuke from certain individuals. Yaakov understood this. Thus, he waited until shortly before he would be out of the picture to rebuke Reuven. The threat of authority would now be gone, and the words of rebuke would have their therapeutic effect.

In Europe, and later on in Eretz Yisrael, the function of delivering mussar was often assumed by a maggid, an individual who was not only a Torah scholar and ethical personality, he was also a powerful speaker who would captivate his audience with strong words interspersed with poignant vignettes and anecdotes. One of the greatest of the European maggidim was the Kelmer Maggid, who had the privilege of inspiring thousands with his powerful addresses. He courageously and valiantly fought the Maskilim, members of the Enlightenment, who were bent on doing everything possible to transform Yiddishkeit from a religion into a secular culture. Their bitter venom poisoned many unsuspecting Jews who fell prey to it, assimilated and even became apostates. Certainly, they could not permit the Maggid to undermine their efforts at destroying the Jewish People. Hence, they did everything possible to discredit him, slandering and fabricating vicious rumors to disparage him. This did not deter his efforts at reaching out to the people. On the contrary, he rebuked when necessary and did not mince words in calling attention to the people's shortcomings.

He was constantly rebuking the businessmen of his community to maintain standards of rectitude and to be the paragons of integrity for which the Jewish nation has long been known. Yet, there will always be those who have slipped through the cracks, who have fallen prey to the allure of a quick and easy return on their investment - even if it means acting unscrupulously. After all, one has to live! His community, being a crossroads town, served as a marketplace for many merchants. One of the primary items that was in high demand was salt. Indeed, there were two types of salt: the common white salt, and a very expensive strong red salt. One of the crooked merchants would take white salt and dye it red in order to sell it for the elevated price. When the Maggid heard about this scandalous act, he proceeded to the store, berated the merchant and, upon receiving no reaction, stood in front of the store proclaiming, "Whoever is in need of melach Sodomis, salt from Sodom, should come here." He publicized the names of the perpetrators and directed customers to go to the other merchants instead.

This, of course, did not sit well with the merchants or with the members of the Haskalah, who did not tolerate the power the Maggid was wielding in the community. They went to the governor and disparaged the Maggid, claiming that he was poisoning the minds of the people against the government. He was initiating a rebellion and must be stopped. This was a serious enough allegation to prompt the governor to have the Maggid arrested on these trumped up charges and placed in a jail cell to await trial.

The Maskilim were ecstatic. The merchants were overjoyed, as business could now continue as usual. A few days later, the superintendent of police released the Maggid with a proclamation that anyone who impugned the character of the Maggid would be severely punished. This came as a surprise to the Maggid's detractors who thought that they finally had him tucked away out of sight. No one could understand what prompted this new ruling. Clearly, someone had pulled some strings.

As usual, they were wrong. When one lives by the truth, his integrity shines through and protects him. It is the prevaricators and the chameleons who have the most to fear. Apparently, the maggid had a habit that, whenever he would send a letter via messenger, rather than sending it through the mail, he would go to the post office, purchase the amount of stamps necessary to mail that letter and proceed to tear the stamps up in the post office. This behavior confused the post-master, who could not understand why this elderly gentleman would purchase stamps and then tear them up!

The Maggid explained that, upon occasion, he would send a letter via messenger. Feeling that this act incurred a loss to the government because he had not availed himself of the mail service, he would purchase the stamps anyway and tear them up. This way his letter arrived at its destination, and the government did not lose out in the process. When the postmaster had heard that the Maggid was interred in prison, he immediately sought out his good friend, the superintendent of prisons, to inform him of the Maggid's integrity. A person of such rectitude was surely the victim of fictitious allegations designed to hurt him. This demonstrated how far people will go to avoid being rebuked with the truth, and it also shows how maintaining a sterling character can serve as one's greatest legacy.

You shall not tremble before any man, for the judgment is G-d's. (1:17)

The judges are enjoined to be unwavering in their commitment to truth and justice. Nothing should sway them from rendering an impartial verdict. Moreover, Rashi adds that if a judge errs in judgment and grants remuneration to an individual who is undeserving of it, then the judge "compels" Hashem to repay the other person the money he has lost. On Rosh Hashanah, Hashem decrees how much money "Reuven" will earn during the course of the year. If "Shimon" comes along and falsely claims that he is owed five thousand dollars by Reuven, it affects Hashem's decree. He now must provide another five thousand dollars to Reuven if the judge rules against him. This may be alluded to in the pasuk in Tehillim 82:1, "G-d stands in the Divine Assembly." Hashem is also a litigant in every monetary claim. An error in rendering justice affects Him.

This idea should present to us a new vista in understanding our relationships and actions vis-?-vis our fellow man. Every indiscretion, every penny that we take from someone, because we feel it is owed to us, we must take into consideration that not only are we stealing from man, we are infringing on the Almighty and causing Him to repay that individual what we have taken from him.

All of you approached me and said, "Let us send men ahead of us and let them spy out the land." (1:22)

Rashi notes the disparity between the way that the people approached Moshe Rabbeinu with their request for spies and the way that the people came forward before the Giving of the Torah. Here, Moshe uses the word, "kulchem" - all of you - to emphasize that they all came together, in a disorderly and disrespectful manner. Young people had no respect for their elders and pushed in front of them. Older people showed a similar disrespect for their leaders, when they surged in front of them. This was in sharp contrast with the order and decorum that reigned during the Giving of the Torah. We wonder why Rashi finds it necessary to draw a contrast to the Giving of the Torah. Why can he not simply say that the people approached Moshe in an undignified manner, without drawing any parallels to any other episodes?

The Kli Yakar explains that citing their behavior concerning the Giving of the Torah was, in effect, a crucial part of Moshe Rabbeinu's rebuke to the People. When he saw them arrive at Har Sinai in an orderly fashion, everybody in his place, with dignity and restraint, he was slightly taken aback. After all, this was to be the zenith of their lives, the apex of Jewish history. Where was the trembling? Where was the excitement, the passion, the awe? The Heavens were opening up. The mountain was aflame. The Shechinah was about to be revealed in a manner heretofore unprecedented and never to occur again. Yet, these people came as if it were just another day. It must be that they were of such a refined, noble nature, that exerting self-control over their emotions was second nature for them.

When they approached Eretz Yisrael, however, they manifest a totally different attitude. Here, they trembled. Suddenly, they were nervous and overwhelmed with fear. They began pushing and shoving, acting in a manner atypical from that of the orderly, dignified people they had presented themselves as at the Giving of the Torah. What catalyzed this sudden change in emotion and personality?

Veritably, they did not change. It was the same people who were finally showing their true colors. At the Giving of the Torah, they simply did not have it. They were going through an experience in which they were more spectator than participant. When someone cares about something, when the experience has meaning for him, he reacts accordingly.

Two hundred years ago, there lived a tzaddik, righteous person, called Horav Avraham HaMalach. Rav Avraham, the "angel," was the only son of the Mezritcher Maggid, zl. Horav Yitzchak, zl, m'Radvill heard of him and wondered how a human being could be called "the angel." Determined to discover the truth about Rav Avraham, he traveled to Chustov to find out what earned this individual such a unique appellation.

Arriving in town just before Tisha B'Av, he davened Maariv and sat down on the ground with the other worshippers to read Megilas Eichah. As soon as the word "Eichah" was uttered by the reader, a piercing cry emanated from the "Malach's" mouth. He bent over, his head positioned between his knees and began to weep. He remained in this position throughout the reading of Eichah and the Kinnos that were recited afterward. During this time, Rav Yitzchak just watched and waited for the "Malach" to rise up and go home. He did not.

It was midnight, and the "Malach" was still bent over - crying for the destruction of the Bais Hamikdash. Rav Yitzchak, exhausted from the trip, and in a weakened state from fasting, decided to take a short nap. He woke up at dawn when the people were slowly returning to shul. Looking for the "Malach," he noticed that he had not changed his position all night. His head was bent over between his knees - and he continued to cry.

Rav Yitzchak said that such a person rightfully deserves to be called an angel. This individual was beyond the scope of the human dimension. One manifests his true feelings. The "Malach" felt the pain of Klal Yisrael and reacted accordingly. Exhibiting self-control does not always mean that one has self-control. It might mean that one has no understanding of the proceedings or simply does not care. The litmus test is how he reacts in other instances.

And we turned and we journeyed to the wilderness… and we went around Har Seir for many days. And Hashem spoke to me, saying, "Enough of your going around the mountain. Turn yourselves northward.." (2:1-3)

Horav Mordechai Rogov, zl, renders this pasuk homiletically. He cites the Midrash that explains the words, Penu lachem tzafonah, "Turn yourselves northward." Klal Yisrael complained to Hashem, "Master of the Universe, Eisav's father, Yitzchak, blessed him with the words, By your sword shall you live (Bereishis 27:40). You approved of this blessing. Yet, You say to us now to hide from him. To where shall we flee?" Hashem replied, "When you see that he is prepared to attack you, flee to the Torah." Tzfonah is a reference to the Torah, as it says, "He lays up (Yitzpon) sound wisdom for the upright" (Mishlei 2:7). What is the Midrash teaching us, and how can we apply it to contemporary life?

Rav Rogov explains that our efforts to approach Eisav and his descendants reflect our insecurity in searching for ways to ingratiate ourselves to the host countries that have become our homes during our long exile. We are scared. We are different. We do not realize that being different is our distinction. Yet, we constantly attempt to develop a relationship based on ironing out our differences, by becoming more like them and less like we should be. We have erred by clinging to the belief that all of our woes are the result of our life of separation. If we would only acculturate and assimilate with the gentile world, we think that we will be accepted. This tragedy of Jewish history has repeated itself many times. Whenever we humble ourselves, when we fawn over our gentile neighbors, the strategy backfires. We are rebuffed as they remain unwilling to tolerate us, their innate hatred clouding any intellectual appreciation they might have for us.

Our only hope for improving our lot is to stop "circling the mountain," stop running after Eisav, obsequiously trying to blend in and receive his acceptance. It is time to "turn ourselves northward," to apply ourselves to the holy Torah. Rather than chase them in the streets, malls, and theaters, let us return to the shuls and batei medrash and do what we do best: daven and study Torah. By immersing ourselves in our heritage, we will develop a sense of mission that will ultimately lead to our meriting salvation and an ingathering of exiles.

This is the Midrash's message, "Enough of your going around the mountain!" There is no reason to search the mountain of Eisav for salvation or assistance. You will not find it there. Turn to the only true source of Jewish salvation: the Torah. As we return to the inner sanctums of our people, we will discover the sanctuary within ourselves and, consequently, merit Divine salvation.

Va'ani Tefillah

Baruch gozeir u'me'kayeim. Blessed is He Who makes decrees and upholds them.

What is novel about the fact that Hashem upholds His decrees? This is a trait that is expected of every human being. What is so unique about Hashem for doing what is expected? In his Baruch She'amar , Horav Baruch Epstein, zl, explains that the ability to uphold a given decree is not always within the powers of a human king, or any human being for that matter. For instance, a king decrees that an offender be incarcerated for ten years. If during his imprisonment the defendant dies, the king's decree has not been realized. There is nothing in the world that can make this decree achieve fruition. The man is gone; his sentence has been cut short. When Hashem decrees, His decrees are upheld. If Hashem sees fit for an individual to sustain suffering for a specific period of time, that man will be "kept alive" to undergo every bit of Hashem's decree. In other words, the primary aspect of gozeir u'me'kayeim is that nothing exists that can preclude Hashem's upholding any decree that He makes. Everything is within His power.

'tov shem tov meshmen tov
v'keser shem tov oleh al gabeihen'
l'i'lui nishmas R' Yaakov Zev ben R' Yehuda Aryeh z"l

niftar 7 Av 5755
By his wife, their children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren
Mrs. Jeanne Fogel
Rabbi Yudie & Chaya Sarah Fogel,Nussie & Esther Fogel, Shalom & Ettie Fogel, Yosie & Bryndie Fogel, Rabbi Dovid & Liz
Jenkins, Rabbi Yitzie & Bryndie Fogel, Rabbi Avi & Suri Pearl and their families

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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