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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)

The parting words that Moshe Rabbeinu delivered to his beloved people reminded them of the long string of sins that had been so intrinsic to their lives during the previous forty years. As they prepared to enter the Holy Land they had to be cognizant that, regardless of their exalted spiritual status, sin was a reality. If they and their parents had fallen prey to sin in the wilderness surrounded by Heavenly miracles, how much more so would they be susceptible in a strange land in a pagan environment. In order not to embarrass his listeners, Moshe made veiled references to the sins by mentioning names of places which alluded to specific sins. To paraphrase Rashi, Moshe was concerned, mipnei kavodan shel Yisrael, "because of the honor of Yisrael." This was his primary objective in carrying out his rebuke - not to shame the nation, but to maintain its dignity.

In an alternative approach the Sichos Mussar, Ethical Discourses of Yeshivas Bais Shalom Mordechai, explains that rebuke by allusion, making only veiled references to one's shortcomings, is the more acceptable form of rebuke, and it produces greater success. When someone is hit between the eyes with a powerful rebuke, he will, by nature, deny any culpability. He will justify his actions, often relying on the most flimsy excuse. When reference to the sin is intimated, not pronounced - insinuated, not declared - the subject of the rebuke is more likely to listen.

This is what Rashi means when he says, V'hizkiran b'remez, "He mentioned them through intimation, because of the honor of Yisrael." In order to reproach someone, we must first view him as an individual to whom we are obliged to pay respect, such as one's rebbe or his father. Indeed, when one's father has transgressed a law in the Torah, the son should not attack him, saying, "You transgressed the words of the Torah." Instead, he should say, "The Torah teaches us thus," and the father will derive the message on his own. No one enjoys being told by someone else that he has done something wrong. He does not mind, however, deducing on his own from the rebuker's statement.

A certain astute Torah scholar visited a community and noticed that the eruv was questionable. He knew that if he were to communicate his opinion to the city's rav, it would meet with dissent and even critique. Instead, he asked to study a certain sugya, topic, in the Talmud Eruvin, and, lo and behold, during the ensuing discussion, the other rav remarked, "According to what we have just learned, I might have a problem with our city's eruv." At times, the straightforward approach is not as effective as the roundabout procedure.

There is a fascinating well-known midrash in Sefer Bereishis concerning Yakum Ish Tzruros, who was the nephew of Rabbi Yosi ben Yoezer. That was the extent of their commonality, for Yakum lived a life that was devoid of anything religious. Morality and spirituality were concepts that did not have a place in his lexicon. He was riding his mare on Shabbos as Rabbi Yosi was being taken to the gallows to be executed for learning and teaching Torah. Yakum had the gall to say to his uncle, "Look at the horse that my master gives me to ride, and look at the one which your master has you ride." He was intimating that he had lived a life free of the fetters of religion, while R' Yosi, who was so devoted to Hashem, was being taken to the gallows like a common criminal. R' Yosi countered, "If this is what He does to those who anger Him, can you imagine the reward in store for those who please Him?" Yakum replied, "Is there anyone who pleased Him more than you?" R' Yosi responded, "If this is what He does to those who please Him, can you imagine the punishment in store for those who anger Him?"

These words penetrated Yakum's psyche, so that he immediately repented and performed on himself all of the four forms of execution which are at the disposal of an earthly court. R' Yosi momentarily dozed and had a Heavenly vision in which he saw Yakum's Heavenly bed flying through the air, entering Gan Eden. He remarked, "He preceded me by a few minutes."

What suddenly transformed Yakum's defiance to religion? Clearly, his uncle must have spent countless hours feverishly attempting to bring back his recalcitrant nephew - to no avail. What happened at this point that was so different? What did he say that created such a turmoil within Yakum that he was prepared to throw everything away and die al Kiddush Hashem, sanctifying Hashem's Name? The answer is - It was not what he said, but how he said it. He did not come out with guns blazing, blasting Yakum for every sin that he had done but, rather, he insinuated that the punishment in store for those who defy Hashem is even more severe than the one which he, a committed Jew, was receiving. That statement threw him a curve, as it struck a chord in his heart. He repented and died a martyr's death and was welcomed into Gan Eden even before his uncle was.

Horav Aharon Kotler, zl, was an individual whose ceaseless energy on behalf of Torah dissemination was unparalleled. Needless to say, in the course of building Torah in what was then the spiritual wasteland of America, he needed to prod-- and even coerce-- complacent people. He even berated when necessary - but he never gave reproof or made demands without first asserting the individual's positive virtue with love or making sure that the person was aware of his worth in Rav Aharon's eyes. Only then did he rebuke with love, but he never held back or distorted the truth.

In "A Living Mishnas Rav Aharon," Rabbi Yitzchak Dershowitz relates two classics concerning tochachah with love: one concerning Rav Aharon; the second occurred with Horav Shneur, zl, his son and successor. In Kletzk, as well as in many of the Jewish communities of Pre World War II Europe, the alien winds of change were blowing. The Haskalah, Enlightenment, sought to achieve what no pogrom in the previous thousand years had succeeded in accomplishing. Its leaders were out to devastate and obliterate traditional Jewish life totally. Whole families and entire communities were sacrificed on the alien altar of Enlightenment. The yeshivos were not immune from these destructive forces. In Kletzk, differences of opinion raged among members of the hanhalah on how to deal with a student who was on the fringe. At what point should they give up and dismiss the student? Or should they persevere and hope that something would penetrate? The story goes that the Kletzker Mashgiach, who was a tzadik, righteous and pious person, left the yeshivah because the Rosh Yeshivah held on to the hope that a certain student could be saved, and should, thus, not be dismissed.

The student was moving rapidly to left of center. Before long, he would be completely off the derech, path of Torah. Rav Aharon was relentless, working with him constantly, never despairing of winning him back to Yiddishkeit. It seemed fruitless. Yom Kippur approached, with the hope that this holy auspicious day would somehow have an influence on the errant student. Kol Nidrei, Maariv, Shacharis, Mussaf, Mincha: the tefillos were passing by, and the bachur did not appear moved. Suddenly, right before Neilah, the closing prayer of the Yom Kippur service, Rav Aharon turned around and summoned the bachur, student, to come over.

The student approached the Rosh Yeshivah, who immediately drew him close. He then took his Tallis and pulled it over both of them! No one knows what transpired underneath that Tallis. Was it the influence of those few awesome and loving moments davening together with Rav Aharon under his Tallis? Was it something that Rav Aharon said underneath the Tallis? What we do know is that the student became a baal teshuvah. While I certainly do not know what occurred, we may conjecture. When a person is rebuked, he often feels isolated from the rebuker. He is the sinner, and the other person is critiquing him for his actions. No relationship exists between them, no bond of love, and no trust. When Rav Aharon included the student under the Tallis, all of that changed. Suddenly, the student felt himself to be as one with the Rosh Yeshiva. No barriers were set up between them. He could now listen to the rebuke, because his skeptical feelings had been allayed.

The following story was related about Rav Shneuer's method of outreach to a student who was straying from the path of Torah. Observing this student for quite some time, a small group of bachurim decided to speak with the Rosh Yeshivah, Rav Shneur. They were certain that, after the Rosh Yeshivah had heard all that they had gleaned about him, he would be asked to leave.

After listening to them, the Rosh Yeshivah thought for a moment and said, "I will take care of it." The bachurim thought that it had been settled. The student would be leaving - end of story. How else could Rav Shneur "take care of it"? Imagine their surprise when they noticed a few days later that the Rosh Yeshivah had a new chavrusa, study partner, for first seder. Yes, it was the student whom they had thought was leaving. The Rosh Yeshivah had indeed, addressed the problem and taken care of it - in the manner he knew best.

The Emorite who dwells on that mountain went out against you, and pursued you as the bees would do; they stuck in Seir until Charmah. (1:44)

Rashi explains the Torah's analogy which compares the Emorites to bees. Just as bees die once they have stung a person, so, too, did the Emorites die when they challenged Klal Yisrael. The pasuk seems to present us with a contradiction. It says that the Emori smote the Jewish people, indicating a battle in which they triumphed after having overpowered the Jewish nation. Chazal then compare the warring pagans to bees, who died after waging war. What is the pasuk teaching us? The Brisker Rav, zl, explains that when one strikes another and the second one does not strike back, no clear indication has been communicated concerning the hatred of the first person for the second. If, however, he strikes back with a vehemence, hitting the aggressor twice as hard, we see how much hatred there is in the first one, for he struck once despite the double punches he was likely to receive. He so loathes this person that he is willing to suffer doubly for it.

This is the meaning of the pasuk. The Emorites were acutely aware of the fatal consequences of striking the Jews. Strike a Jew, and you will die. This did not halt them. Their hatred was so intense that they were willing to die for it - just like bees that die after stinging a person. We have only to peruse history to verify this statement. All of our original enemies have vanished. Only Klal Yisrael stands tall and strong throughout the pogroms of the past millennia. True, we have new enemies who are also like bees, realizing that to challenge the Jew ultimately means that they will lose everything. This has not prevented the anti-Semites of each generation from rearing their ugly heads in defiance, in hatred.

No more frightening enemy exists than one who sacrifices himself out of hatred. We are experiencing such an enemy today, as we confront terrorists who are willing to detonate bombs, killing themselves and, often, their loved ones, as a result of perverted ideals. As Hashem spared us from the Emorites, He will continue to do so against their modern-day descendents.

You shall not distress Moav and you shall not provoke war with them. (2:9)

The Torah forbade Klal Yisrael from provoking war with Moav, but they were not forbidden from harassing them, unlike Ammon, whom they were not permitted to provoke in any manner. The Talmud in Bava Kamma 38b explains this disparity. Both of Lot's daughters had an incestuous relation with him from which they both bore sons. The older daughter brazenly named her son Moav, which is derived from Mei Av, from father, alluding to his disgraceful roots. The younger daughter demonstrated greater modesty when she named her son Ben Ami, son of my people, which later became Ammon. His name made no direct reference to her child's murky origins. Chazal tell us that, despite the older daughter's scandalous morality, she did receive a reward for preceding her sister by one night. Her descendants were accepted into Klal Yisrael four generations earlier than those of her sister. We see here a powerful lesson concerning reward and punishment. Because she acted brazenly, naming her child without shame and embarrassment, she was punished in that the Jews were permitted to harass them. Since she preceded her sister by one night, her descendants were accepted earlier by the Jewish people.

While we understand the reward and punishment quotient, how is it that this young woman possessed within her two opposing forces? She is denigrated for her shameless audacity in the incestual relationship she initiated with her father. Yet, she is lauded for her noble intentions in taking action for world preservation. Was she good or was she bad? Horav Eliyahu Meir Bloch, zl, derived from here that a person can possess two contrasting forces which work side by side for the fruition of a maaseh tov, positive deed. A person can be the seat of two emotions: one, exalted and holy; the other, base and disgraceful. Viewing this "relationship" from an objective perspective, it was basically intended to rebuild the world. The girls thought that no one was left except them and their father. Unless they were to act decisively and quickly, the world would come to an end. The Torah, however, seems to indicate that their intentions were not purely for the sake of rebuilding the world. They thought also of themselves. There was clearly an element of licentiousness involved. The two forces worked in tandem. Alacrity for the sake of a mitzvah together with an evil inclination to commit incest is not a good combination, but, it is what happened in this situation. Regrettably, her immorality remained etched in the Moavite psyche, to the point that Klal Yisrael was allowed to distress them. On the other hand, it was this same alacrity that enabled her descendants to be accepted by the Jewish people sooner than those of her sister.

Then Og, King of Bashan, came forth towards us…Hashem said to me, "Do not fear him, for I have given him and all his people and his country into your hand. (3:1, 2)

Rashi questions Moshe Rabbeinu's fear of Og, as opposed to Sichon, King of the Emorites, who was a formidable opponent. He explains that Moshe's fear was not a product of tactical considerations. He was aware that success in anything is dependent upon Hashem. What else did he fear? Rashi explains that Og had merit. The pasuk in Bereishis 14:13, Va'yavo hapalit, "And the refugee came," is a reference to Og. It was Og who came from the thick of battle to inform Avraham Avinu that his nephew, Lot, had been captured.

The Midrash explains why this merit did not protect Og. Apparently, Og had a name change. According to one opinion, his name was actually Palit. It was changed to Og, because when he came to Avraham, he found the Patriarch baking matzos, which are little ugos, cakes, of unleavened bread, to be used for Pesach. Og did not come to Avraham with any intention to spare Lot. On the contrary, he was hoping that Avraham would go to war, be killed and then Og could marry Sarah Imeinu. Hashem responded to his act of "chesed," loving-kindness, "You evil man. I will reward you for your leg work in returning to Avraham by lengthening your life. But, as for your real purpose to bring about Avraham's death, you will die at the hands of his descendants."

This fascinating Midrash conveys the message that no action is ignored. One is rewarded for the good, and one is, likewise, punished for the bad. Why does the Midrash interject Og's name change? What does the fact that he was renamed Og because he met Avraham baking matzos mean? What does this name tell us about him? What kind of name is Og, cake, for the King of Bashan?

Horav Meir Bergman, Shlita, elucidates this with a story he heard from his father-in-law, Horav Elazar M. Shach, zl. Once Horav Isser Zalman Meltzer, zl, was traveling by train with his rebbe, the Chafetz Chaim. These two Torah giants spent the trip doing what they knew best: learning Torah together. In the middle of the journey, a poor widow came through their car selling roasted pumpkin seeds. The Chafetz Chaim immediately purchased a bag. When Rav Isser Zalman saw this, he followed suit. He placed his bag of seeds on the table between the two of them and continued speaking in learning with his rebbe.

A short while later, Rav Isser Zalman began to eat some of the seeds. At that point, the Chafetz Chaim said to him, "There are two types of chesed. One form consists of an act through which the benefactor receives no benefit whatsoever from his act of kindness. It benefits only the beneficiary. In such an instance, if the needy person receives the benefit, then the mitzvah is done. There is also a form of chesed in which the primary element of the mitzvah is the thought that lies behind the action. If the intent is the correct one, then a mitzvah is performed; if not, no mitzvah has been performed.

An example of these cases could be the matter before us. A poor widow is going around selling pumpkin seeds to support herself and her family. If you purchased a bag of seeds in order to support her and her family, then you have fulfilled a number of important mitzvos. You performed the mitzvah of tzedakah, charity, especially to a widow, which elevated your action considerably.

This, is true, however, only if your intention is solely for her benefit. If all you wanted out of this action was to eat pumpkin seeds, then all you have taken from this mitzvah is a bag of pumpkin seeds. When one has ulterior motives in the mitzvah of tzedakah, it decreases the merit of the mitzvah, since the essence of the mitzvah in such cases is the underlying thought behind the action.

Using the implied lesson imparted by this episode, let us now look at Og and develop a deeper perception of his actions. First, Og did nothing wrong in telling Avraham about Lot's capture. After all, the only one who might be able to rescue Lot would be Avraham. Thus, if we were to consider Og's action from the simple perspective, he was not only justified in what he did, but he acted laudably.

His attitude, however, was far from irreproachable. He acted in pure self-interest, so that Avraham would perish in the ensuing rescue mission, and Sarah would become available to him. In other words, Og was a wicked man who performed a kind act out of self-interest. Moshe perceived Og's act of kindness, which superficially appeared to be impeccable. From the Heavenly point of view, his true intentions had to be factored in, which provided a completely contrasting perspective on this act.

With regard to the baking of matzoh, we can make a similar dual distinction. It is not enough to prepare matzohs simply as unleavened bread. The matzoh eaten at the Seder must be baked l'shem matzos mitzvah, for the specific purpose of being matzos mitzvah. A matzoh prepared without intention is nothing more than an ugah, cake. It is the underlying intent that sets this matzoh aside, rendering it a matzoh worthy of being eaten at the Seder table.

When the Midrash asserts that Avraham was "busy making matzohs, the cakes of Pesach," it infers that there were two aspects to his action. Og saw only the "cake" part, without delving into the deeper meaning of matzos mitzvah, commemorating the lechem oni, bread of affliction, and the haste with which Klal Yisrael left Egypt. He, like so many, saw only a "cake." Thus, he could not draw an analogy to his own circumstance, in which he was performing a chesed by notifying Avraham of Lot's capture, but ignoring the fact that his good deed was motivated by lust and malevolence. He left thinking that he had really carried out a good deed. His shortsightedness and reluctance to repent catalyzed his downfall at the hands of Moshe and Klal Yisrael. He wanted to have his "cake" and eat it. The Torah gives him the name Og, indicating the reason that his merit could not save him.

Va'ani Tefillah

Hallelukah ki tov zamrah Elokeinu kin naim naavah tehillah.
Hallelukah! For it is a good thing to sing to our G-d. For it is sweet when praise is fitting.

Horav Avigdor Miller, zl, explains this pasuk in a novel manner. We should be excited. Why? Because it is good to sing to our G-d. This is not one of the "goods"- but rather, the only good in the world is to sing praise to our G-d. It is sweet. The reason that singing praise to Hashem is the sole good in the world is because it is "sweet" and "fitting." Two reasons are given for the goodness of singing Hashem's praise. First, it is sweet. The sweetness has two aspects: one which is material/physical; and one which is spiritual. Praise to Hashem sweetens one's physical life. By expressing our gratitude for all that we receive from Hashem, we develop a deeper perception and appreciation for whatever we receive from Him. To paraphrase Rav Miller, "It is impossible to drink deeply from the cup of happiness unless one invests effort to study what he has and to express his gratitude to the One Who grants him this good." Spiritually, one gains a deeper awareness of what he derives from Hashem. He acquires true knowledge of Hashem.

Praise is fitting. It is true. Unlike the praise we often offer to humans, the accolades we reserve for Hashem are the essence of the truth. We can add countless superlatives to the praise, and it will remain the truth, because we can never fully do justice to Hashem's Infinite praise.

"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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