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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 of Yisrael. (1:1)

Tochachah, reproach, is easy to give. If the target is to receive it in a positive manner, the reproacher must deliver it in such a manner that it seems to be difficult to present. In other words, the key to effective reproach is not simply to criticize, but to consider the feelings of the other person: his position, attitude and emotions. It is only through thoughtfulness on the part of the one administering the rebuke that his criticism will be constructive, and the individual will be able to receive it as such. Horav Mordechai Miller, zl, suggests that this is the primary difference between Sefer Devarim and the other Sefarim of the Torah. The first four books are Hashem's Divine word, transmitted to the people and written from a Divine perspective. In order to gain an intellectual appreciation of the material, the Jewish People must constantly forge ahead and delve into its Heavenly message. The Book of Devarim is written mitzad ha'mekabel, from the perspective of the recipient. Thus, it is much easier to grasp, more readily accessible, and closer to the spiritual level of the people. The change in syntax is due to the nature of the material: reproach. It is a book filled with critique. Moshe Rabbeinu's castigation is not merely to fill space. It is there to be heard and accepted, to be recognized for the good it brings to the people. It is, therefore, written in a manner that is readily understood, in which the people can relate to it, so that they will recognize their shortcomings and identify the manner in which they can improve.

In an attempt to allude to their sins, rather than to call attention to them emphatically, the Torah details geographical locations whose names carry hints to various sins that the people committed. Subtle hints, not explicit remarks, gently remind the people of their sins in order to preserve their dignity.

Indeed, this is the reason that Moshe did not rebuke Klal Yisrael until shortly before his death. The timing was deliberate, and its purpose was more than just lending weight to his words. It protected them from shame. Had Moshe rebuked them during the course of their sojourn, it would mean that they would have to continue to face him countless times, and they would have been overcome with shame each time. Having to face him on a constant basis for years would really affect their self-esteem. To avoid inflicting this humiliation, while not denying them their critique, Moshe waited until shortly before his death to deliver his reproach. Yaakov Avinu acted in the same manner. He did not want to cause shame until the last possible moment, and then he said what had to be said. The most important principle is to preserve the dignity of the individual being addressed.

The Maharal, zl, m'Prague posits that, for this reason, out of extreme sensitivity for the Jewish People, Moshe did not list the transgressions in chronological order. Were he to recount them in order, the sins would have been more explicit, more glaring. In summation, Moshe waited as long as possible to rebuke the people. Even when mentioning the error of their ways, he did so with care, only alluding to the sin, and not listing them chronologically. The people sinned; they are aware of it; Moshe was aware of the need to address these sins, but he knew he had to do so subtly and with great sensitivity.

Regrettably, this is not always the best possible scenario. At times, it is necessary to deliver a scathing rebuke, a humiliating condemnation of an individual's or a group's activities. Rav Miller points to Yeshayah HaNavi's ambiguous admonishment of the Jewish People. He upbraids them, claiming that their lack of gratitude to Hashem renders them inferior to animals. An animal instinctively knows its master, recognizing the good it receives. Klal Yisrael failed dismally in that category. He chastises them for not thinking, for insensitivity to authority, recklessly continuing along on the path of corruption without a care in the world. Why did Yeshayah not follow the model of Moshe and Yaakov?

Likewise, the punishment of makkos, lashes, seems to be excessively degrading. The sinner who incurs this punishment is struck with a very special whip - one that is designed to send an emotional, as well as physical, message. It must be constructed of two tongues of the hide of a donkey. The purpose is to ingrain in the sinner's mind that he has descended to a level even lower than that of a donkey. Let us reflect on this scene for a moment. The sinner is out there in the presence of bais din. He is painfully struck with a whip that causes physical pain. In addition, he is directed to take note of his lowly spiritual level. With each crack of the whip, one more layer of human dignity is stripped from him. Even those who might be able to tolerate the physical pain most certainly have a difficult challenge in overcoming the emotional degradation. Why do we disregard his pride, his dignity, his emotions?

In short, the people of the two eras were different. The generation of Moshe was the dor deah, generation of knowledge. The people had their failings and this is why they were rebuked, but they were knowledgeable, thinking individuals who recognized an error when it was intimated to them. They strove to attain new heights and a closer relationship with the Almighty. Thus, they were willing to accept any infraction when it was presented to them. They felt that every small occurrence which was not executed to perfection had direct bearing on their Divine service. They waited longingly to hear if anything had been improper in their service. Therefore, when Moshe issued a rebuke, however subtle, the people understood it and immediately internalized it. The mere hint of rebuke engendered repentance.

During the era of Yeshayah, the people were on a lower intellectual and spiritual level. They were far removed from the generation of knowledge. They needed to hear words, clear words - everything spelled out to them in graphic terms, with their errors blatantly painted in their true, undisguised form. They wouldn't have heard a subtle rebuke, and it would have had limited efficacy in promoting repentance. An open rebuke which brought to light the nation's transgression was necessary to awaken them. Yeshayah had to direct the people to the correct path. This same idea applies to the sinner who receives lashes. Only after he is struck with the whip made of a donkey's hide does he realize that he has acted on a level even below that of a donkey.

Listening is critical, but to listen without understanding is a waste of resources. We have heard the message countless times throughout history, yet we have failed to respond, because we did not think. We responded in a thoughtless manner: it applied to someone else; we really are not that bad; everybody is overreacting; it is only a phase; things will get better, etc. We always found an excuse to justify our behavior, any excuse as long as it meant not applying the message. Some did not listen. Others listened but did not think. In any event, the rebuke did not have the desired effect.

In order to achieve greatest efficacy when rebuking a fellow Jew, the one who renders the rebuke must do so out of friendship and caring, mindful of the most sensitive manner through which to convey his message. It is easy to tell someone that they did something wrong. It is totally another thing to guide them through their error and return them to the road to recovery. Throughout the millennia, our spiritual leadership has been creative in conjuring up different schemes that would allow them to subtly impart their message, while continuing to preserve the dignity of the recipient and achieve the greatest effect.

One popular rav in Poland ascended the bimah, lectern, during Chol HaMoed, Intermediate Days of the Festival, declaring, "I am ashamed to pray in shul with thieves!" Naturally, the membership was quite taken aback. They were certainly aware of their personal failings, but theft was not among them.

The rav explained the reason for the startling statement. "It is now Chol HaMoed, a period in which observant Jews do not shave or take haircuts. Yet, a number of our members have come to shul sporting newly-shaven faces. How can I justify this blatant disregard for halachah? Unless there is a dispensation allowing one who has been released from prison during Chol HaMoed to shave. Clearly, this must be the case. Then I wondered: Why would a member of my congregation have been incarcerated? It must have been for theft. If that is the case, I am davening in a shul among thieves. This is something I can neither reconcile nor accept."

The congregants received the message. Had the rav confronted them head-on concerning their self -sustaining exemption from halachah, they would have balked and provided a number of rejoinders to validate their behavior. This way, they absorbed the message, and they took the hint.

While to rebuke is a mitzvah, as it says in Vayikra 19:17, Hocheiach tochiach es amisecha, "You shall reprove your fellow," there are situations in which one might achieve more by maintaining silence. At times, an observant Jew finds himself in a non-observant environment, coming face to face with a fellow Jew who is desecrating Shabbos - as a matter of fact. What should his reaction be? The Chazon Ish, zl, was once asked if it is proper to rebuke a fellow Jew who is working in his garden on Shabbos? The Chazon Ish replied in the negative, since this incident took place in Bnei Brak, a community in which others had certainly reproved him already.

The Chazon Ish then added that, veritably, it would be best not to rebuke him. He cited the pasuk in Mishlei 9:8, "Do not rebuke a scoffer, lest he hate you." This implies that to rebuke a person for no purpose is destructive. In other words, if the other individual certainly will not listen to you, and all you will cause is a hatred on his part for a frum Yid, an observant Jew, it is better to leave well enough alone. In addition, now when he carries out his sin, it is considered b'meizid, knowingly, because he has already been told it is wrong.

The Chazon Ish explained that when we see a Jew who is clearly non-observant driving on Shabbos, we might shout at him, "Shabbos! Shabbos!" The driver says to himself, "Shabbos? What do I know about Shabbos? No one has ever taught me the meaning of Shabbos." "Therefore," says the Chazon Ish, "if one seeks to admonish, he should reach out to the children in schools and inspire them concerning Torah and mitzvos. Perhaps if they continue in a Torah school of higher learning, they will opt for an observant way of life."

The lesson is clear: Our function is to reach out and inspire those who do not know any better, to teach them the beauty of a Torah way of life and to inspire them towards observance. Admonishing those who do not know any better only increases sinaas chinam, unwarranted hatred among Jews.

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

This Torah presents two powerful speakers from contrasting backgrounds with very divergent characters. In fact, one represents the zenith of spirituality, integrity and piety, while the other signifies the nadir of spiritual contamination, moral bankruptcy and corruption. One admonishes the people and foreshadows the curses that will result from a defection from the Torah way of life, while the other blesses the people and details the wonderful rewards in store for those who maintain a commitment to Torah and mitzvos. We would imagine that the admonishment and rebuke emanated from the mouth of moral decadence, while the blessings were the words of the righteous sage. Not so. Moshe Rabbeinu, Klal Yisrael's quintessential leader, commences Sefer Devarim with a review of the nation's activities during their sojourn in the wilderness. He admonishes Klal Yisrael for their failures and criticizes their errors. He holds nothing back. In contrast, as we read earlier in Parashas Balak, the wicked Bilaam, the pagan's spiritual leader, a man who represented moral pollution at its most base level, was the one who served as Hashem's vehicle for blessing. Does this not seem a bit unusual?

Chazal address this anomaly in the Midrash. "It would have been appropriate for the rebukes to have been presented by Bilaam and the blessings by Moshe, but, had Bilaam rebuked them, Klal Yisrael would have said, "Our enemy is rebuking us." Had Moshe blessed them, the pagan nations of the world would have said, "The one who loves them is blessing them." Therefore, Hashem said, "Let the one who loves them rebuke; and Bilaam, who hates them, shall bless them, so that it is clear to all that the blessings and the curses are both in the hand of Yisrael."

Everything which Moshe and his counterpart, Bilaam, uttered, was a transmission of G-d's prophecy. Indeed, Sefer Devarim, which is the word of Moshe, was actually the Shechinah speaking through him. It was pure prophecy, transmitted through Moshe. Likewise, when Bilaam blessed Klal Yisrael, he was speaking the Divine Prophecy.

Something needs to be clarified. Since Moshe and Bilaam were both media for transmitting the Divine Prophecy, what difference does it make which one blessed these people and which cursed them? They were both agents of Hashem. The premise of the Midrash seems to be that there is a distinct reason for Moshe to admonish the people and Bilaam to bless them.

The Shem MiShmuel approaches this Midrash pragmatically. One who cares deeply for his friend is invariably inclined to notice his positive attributes and ignore his faults. In contrast, one who dislikes an individual almost exclusively gravitates towards his antagonist's shortcomings and glosses over any positive characteristics that he might have. This idea applies on a national level, as well. In other words, had Moshe been given the task of blessing Klal Yisrael, he would naturally have focused on their positive qualities and blessed them accordingly. Bilaam would have, likewise, focused on their failings and issued forth whatever curses he could manipulate.

While the above sounds acceptable, it does, however, carry a risk, since Moshe would have blessed a nation comprised of spiritual giants - because that is what he, who loved them, was seeking. Thus, the blessing would be applicable to such a nation that is on a lofty spiritual pedestal, deserving of such blessing. This might present a problem, since we have not maintained ourselves on that lofty spiritual status-quo throughout our checkered history.

Bilaam cursing the people presents a problem, since he would only have been able to look at the worst aspects of our national character. He would have been happy to curse a nation of spiritual failures. Therefore, the curses would have applied to Klal Yisrael at their spiritual nadir - something which has hardly occurred. If this had been the case, the criticism which was to catalyze teshuvah, repentance, would not have been effective. The blessings would have achieved nothing, since we have not always been worthy of blessing. The curses would have been equally meaningless, because Baruch Hashem, we have not strayed that far or that deep.

We now understand why Moshe had to admonish, and Bilaam had to bless. Otherwise, the blessings and the curses would both have been biased. Moshe rebuked a nation that he loved, a nation whose positive character he perceived, a nation of righteous, G-d-fearing Jews, who needed to be prodded once in awhile. In contrast, Bilaam blessed a nation whose deficiencies were in front of him and whose insignificance and lowliness he emphasized. Yet, he still blessed them. Even the coarsest, most spiritually underdeveloped Jew is deserving of blessing. Moshe saw the positive, yet he reproved. Bilaam saw the negative, yet he blessed. Yes, they both issued forth Divine Prophecy.

I cannot carry you alone. (1:9)

Rashi explains that while this pasuk seems to be digressing from the theme of entering the Land, it is actually a part of the ongoing rebuke contained in this parsha. Moshe Rabbeinu admonished the people for accepting intermediaries, rather than learning directly from him. He goes so far as to say, "You should have answered, 'Moshe our Teacher! From whom is it most fitting to learn, from you or from your disciple? Surely from you, who exerted yourself so over receiving the Torah.'" The psychology here is straightforward: One should study from the master - if possible. There is one point, however, that should be addressed: the reason for learning from Moshe, as opposed to anyone else. Clearly, exertion and toil which is expended over Torah study plays a critical role in understanding the Torah, but was this the primary reason for studying from Moshe? Does exertion catalyze such a difference?

Horav Meir Bergman, Shlita, cites the incident in the Talmud Shabbos 33b in which Rabbi Pinchas ben Yair, son-in-law of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai, came to greet his father-in-law. Noticing that his body was covered with cracks in his skin, R' Pinchas began to weep, and the tears that fell on R' Shimon's cracks caused him great pain. R' Pinchas said, "Woe is to me that I see you in such a state!" R' Shimon responded, "Happy are you that you see me in such a state; for if you did not see me so you would not find so much in me." The Talmud goes on to imply that the tremendous suffering sustained by R'Shimon when he was in the cave precipitated for him greater access to Torah knowledge.

Consequently, R' Shimon had an entirely different view of his father-in-law. When he realized the effort and toil expended by R'Shimon to achieve such heights in Torah, his appreciation of the sage became more profound. Every word of Torah that he uttered had greater meaning, because it was the result of painful exertion. This is why R' Shimon told him, "Happy are you that you see me like this." Otherwise, the Torah he would teach him would not be the same.

It is human nature to attach greater significance to something into which one has put much work. Torah is no different than secular pursuits when it comes to this reality. Rav Bergman cites his father-in-law, Horav Eliezer M. Shach, zl, who writes in the preface to his Avi Ezri, "Whoever studies these matters will see what a help this work can be, G-d willing, for I achieved it with much toil and exertion."

When Horav Shimon Shkop, zl, was a young student in Volozhin, he at first did not attend the shiur given by the Rosh Yeshivhah, the Netziv, zl, thinking that he would accomplish more during that time by studying himself. One night, he experienced a sudden change of heart. It was quite late, in the wee hours of the morning, and Rav Shimon was still studying in the bais medrash. He was stuck on a very difficult statement made by the Rashbam in his commentary to Meseches Bava Basra. It had gotten to the point that Rav Shimon had begun to despair understanding the Rashbam's commentary, when suddenly the Rosh Yeshivah entered the Bais Medrash. While it was not a common occurrence, it was not unusual for the Netziv to enter the yeshivah hall at all hours of the night. Rav Shimon decided to approach the Rosh Yeshivah and ask his opinion concerning the Rashbam's statement. The Netziv replied, "My child, I have several times visited the graves of the holy tzadikim, righteous persons, to entreat Hashem to reveal to me the meaning of this passage." When Rav Shimon became aware of the Netziv's toil in learning Torah, he began to attend his shiur.

This, explains Rav Bergman, was Moshe's underlying critique. If the real purpose of studying under the other judges was to learn Torah, then they should have learned from Moshe, because no one expended as much exertion in acquiring Torah knowledge as he did. The criteria for success is exertion. When a student considers the amount of effort his rebbe put in to mastering the subject matter, he pays more attention to each and every word that he hears. Clearly, Torah learning was not the reason they chose the "judge's" option.

Learning from a rebbe and accepting his teachings are both critical components of the appreciation process. The respect for the rebbe; the appreciation one has for his learning; the awareness one has of the effort he has exhausted in achieving his profound erudition, all play crucial roles in the student's learning process. When a talmid truly acknowledges how much his rebbe "knows" and appreciates how much effort he has put in to achieving this milestone, he will realize the tremendous depths that lie before him. With the discovery of this depth, he will begin a new phase in his ascension up the ladder of Torah knowledge.

Va'ani Tefillah

Dor l'dor yeshabach maasecha, u'gevurasecha yagidu
Generation to generation will praise Your deeds, and Your mighty acts they shall relate.

Hashem's greatness is so vast that all generations will be involved in studying it - and still not complete it. Horav Avigdor Miller, zl, makes a noteworthy observation. It does not state that "generation from generation (dor m'dor) will inquire concerning the praise of Your works," because the new generation is totally unaware of what to inquire and usually does not even understand that there is even a need to inquire! Thus, it is the duty of the previous generation to teach the next generation, to inculcate them with an awareness of Hashem's wondrous deeds. "Generation to generation will praise Your words." There is no inquiry necessary, because it has already been transmitted. Each ensuing generation learns and adds to what its members have received.

"Tov Shem MeShemen Tov..."
v'keser shem tov oleh al gevihen
li"n R' Yaakov Zev ben Yehudah Aryeh z"l
niftar 7 Av 5755
By his wife, their children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren
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