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Peninim on the Torah

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Rabbi A. Leib Scheinbaum
Hebrew Academy of Cleveland


And it will come to pass, because you will listen to these ordinances and observe and do them. (7:12)

The Torah has chosen an unusual word in the Hebrew text to convey the meaning of "because." The word eikev, which is used to convey this meaning, has other interpretations ascribed to it. Apparently, the Torah selected this word to teach us a lesson. Rashi notes that eikev also means "heel." The implication, therefore, is that the individual must be scrupulous in mitzvah observance especially with those mitzvos that one tends to "trod upon with his heel." In other words, there are no mitzvos that are of lesser importance. They all come from the same source and are all equally important. Horav Moshe Leib Sasover, zl, offered another connotation for this word. With each eikev, step, that a Jew takes, he must pause to think: Is he acting in consonance with Divine dictate, or is he perhaps acting slightly outside of the boundaries of right and wrong? Is he following the rules, or is he bending them?

Observance leaves no room for leeway. One either is observant, or he is not. We are always "on call." The Bobover Rebbe, Horav Ben Zion Halberstam, zl, was once visited by the chief of the Polish gendarmes. The chief related to the Rebbe his many taxing duties and responsibilities, "But, Rabbi, when I return home at the end of my day's work, I take off my cap and I am off duty." The Rebbe replied, "I guess since we never remove our yarmulke, even when we sleep, it means that a Jew is never off duty."

While this is certainly true, we wonder why it is so. Should one not be allowed a little leeway? Veritably, to ask this question bespeaks a lack of comprehension concerning the very nature of Torah and mitzvos. It is almost as if we are doing Hashem a "favor" by observing mitzvos, an idea that could not be further from the truth. Let us go back to the history of our receiving the Torah, so that we can have a better understanding of the nature of this gift.

Chazal teach us that prior to giving us the Torah, Hashem first offered it to the other nations of the world. They inquired what was written in it. When they heard that theft, adultery and murder were prohibited, they replied with a resounding, "No thanks." These nations were bound by immorality and evil. It was their way of life. The Torah would only hamper their development as nations of the world community. It was not for them. Throughout the millennia, they have proven that immorality, theft and murder were criteria for their nationhood. Until this very day, society at large is guilty of these cardinal sins.

When Hashem approached the Jews with His request, they immediately declared, "Naaseh v'nishmah," "We will do, and we will listen." They had no questions. Their response was positive and unequivocal. Information concerning the Torah and its contents was not necessary. They were willing to accept and embrace the Torah - with no questions asked.

Chazal continue by describing Hashem's reaction to their response, "Who revealed to My children this secret response, used only by My Heavenly Angels?" In other words, "We will do and we will listen" was an expression reserved for the Heavenly Angels. It was not the type of reply that is expected of mere mortals. This question was purely rhetorical because no one but Hashem could have provided Klal Yisrael with information that is reserved only for angels. Hashem wants us to notice what the Jewish People said and to grasp the profundity of this incredible statement. After all is said and done, however, what inspired the nation to express itself in such an unprecedented manner, with a statement that took powerful faith and conviction?

Horav Noach Weinberg, Shlita, explains that prior to receiving the Torah, Hashem had shared, through Moshe Rabbeinu, four seminal lessons to be conveyed to the Jewish People. He said, "So shall you say to the Bais Yaakov and relate to Bnei Yisrael (Shemos 19:3)." Four lessons - no more, no less - in this special order. "You saw what I did to the Egyptians (Shemos 19:4)." Lesson one: Egypt had been worshipping idols for years, but I did not destroy them until after they hurt you. "Then I carried you on the wings of eagles and brought you close to Me (Shemos 19:4)." Lesson two: "I cared about you, and I protected you. And now if you listen to My Torah, all will be good for you. (Shemos 19:5)." Lesson three: "You will be more precious to Me than any other nation. "And you shall be to Me a kingdom of Priests and a Holy nation. (Shemos 19:6)." Lesson four: Nationhood. The nation will not only protect you, it will make you a nation destined for greatness.

The significance of Hashem's message is quite important. By observing the Torah, the Jewish nation would become a holy nation connected with the Almighty. They had witnessed Hashem's love for them. Imagine the Creator and Ruler of the world loved them and was doing everything possible for them. They were receiving an offer that they could not refuse. Bearing all of this in mind, how would any sensible person with a modicum of intelligence in his brain respond to such an offer? Let us explain this question with the following analogy. A father comes to his son to offer him an incredible opportunity. First, he prefaces his offer, "Son, I love you. Furthermore, everything I have ever done for you was because of this powerful love I have for you. Whatever I do is for your benefit. I have arranged a deal for you that will bring you much happiness and joy." If the son were to respond by saying, "Dad, it seems like something I would like to think about for a few days. I will study it, and if it seems really worthwhile, I will accept it," we would seriously send the son to an analyst for an evaluation!

His immediate response should likely be, "Yes! I will grab it. Whatever you say. When can I start?" The son is acutely aware that every experience he has ever had with his father has always been positive. He has always benefited greatly. Why should this opportunity be any different?

This is why Klal Yisrael responded with a resounding, "We will do, and we will listen!" They understood the reality of Torah and its benefit. We do not do Hashem a favor by performing mitzvos. On the contrary, it is Hashem's greatest gift. It is the gift of a lifetime!

Returning to our original question: What about a little "room" to maneuver in mitzvah observance? The answer is that unless we value every minute, every opportunity, to connect with Hashem via Torah and mitzvos, then we do not really understand and appreciate the wonderful gift that Hashem has bestowed on us. When we take into consideration what Torah does for us and all the wonderful "baggage" that comes along with it, then we would seek to imbue Torah into "every step" of our lives. It is that precious.

For the people that you took out of Egypt has become corrupt; they have strayed quickly from the way that I commanded them. (9:12)

The Yalkut Shimoni records a fascinating conversation between Klal Yisrael and Hashem. It begins by citing the pasuk in Yeshayahu 49:15, "Can a woman forget her baby, or not feel compassion for the child of her womb? Even these may forget, but I would not forget you." In other words, Hashem does not forget His children - Klal Yisrael. The people came before Hashem and asked, "Since Hashem does not forget, perhaps You will not forget the sin of the Golden Calf!" Hashem replied, "This too, I will forget." The people countered, "Ribono Shel Olam, since You do 'forget,' perhaps You will forget how we acted at Har Sinai (when we received the Torah)." Hashem replied, "I will not forget you."

Horav Baruch Sorotzkin, zl, derives a powerful lesson from this pasuk concerning positive actions and negative actions. We believe that ultimately the world will achieve its ultimate purpose: good will prevail; and evil will disappear. How will this occur? After all, it is not as if things are getting better and people are acting more appropriately. Regrettably, they are not. Evil is rampant. Morality is bankrupt. Society is becoming increasingly base with each ensuing generation as we distance ourselves further from the Almighty. How will we live "happily ever after"?

Apparently, a positive act, a good deed, creates an indelible impression upon the cosmos. It is there forever. If a person sins, however, although it presently creates a spiritual blemish in the universe, it can be removed via teshuvah, repentance. In other words, the spiritual consequences of a maaseh tov, good deed, endure forever, while the blemish created by a sin is temporary. This was the basis of the dialogue between K'nesses Yisrael and Hashem. The Jewish nation feared that the spiritual blemish engendered in the world as a result of their sin with the Golden Calf was eternal. After all, did Hashem not declare that every punishment that Klal Yisrael would experience would have included therein a fragment of the payback for the Golden Calf? Apparently, this is a sin that will not ever be forgotten. Hashem's response to them was: "Do not worry. Even a sin as egregious as the Golden Calf can be resolved. One can repent for and be cleared of the iniquity. Yes, the sin can be 'forgotten'.

When the people heard this they wondered: if a human being's action can be erased - regardless of its severity - this might apply as well to a mitzvah. Thus, the Jew's response to the Giving of the Torah, their famous Naaseh v'nishmah, "We will do and we will listen," will also be erased as a result of their current sinful behavior. Hashem assured them that a good deed is never forgotten. Its place in the universe is engraved forever.

Therefore, the world can achieve its perfection through our teshuvah, repentance, and maasim tovim, positive, good deeds. The bad will be abrogated, and the good will forever remain to our benefit.

At that time Hashem said to me, "Carve for yourself two stone Tablets like the first ones. (10:1)

The Yalkut Shimoni contends that Moshe Rabbeinu was severely criticized for breaking the Luchos. The pasuk in Koheles 3:5 states: "There is a time to throw stones." When Moshe flung down the Luchos, Hashem was "upset" with him. He said, "Had you been the creator of these Luchos; had you hollowed out the stone and engraved the Luchos; had you put in the effort and sustained the pain involved in preparing them, you would not have been so quick to break them. I prepared them, and you broke them. Now you will make the second set of Luchos." Clearly, Hashem was unhappy with Moshe's initiative in breaking the Luchos. This Yalkut is not consistent with the Talmud Shabbos 87A, cited by Rashi in his commentary to Devarim 34:10, where Chazal relate that Hashem told Moshe, "Yeyasher Koach she'shibarto," which basically is a display of Hashem's gratitude to Moshe for acting so decisively. How does Hashem's gratitude coincide with His critique of Moshe?

Horav Boruch Mordechai Ezrachi, Shlita, explains that due to the elevated spiritual plane that Moshe achieved, he had to answer for his actions. Moshe's decision to break the Luchos was mandated by the situation that confronted him. He had to make a public statement. Torah and idol worship cannot co-exist. The Torah's pristine essence must be a pact of the very fiber of our People. Yet, taking into consideration the "pain" that the Giver of the Torah was presently sustaining, together with all of the incredible strength and courage that Moshe displayed, there had to be recognition that his act of necessity caused "pain" and "hurt" to Hashem Yisborach. Moshe did the right thing, but he did not go all of the way. He did not share in Hashem's "pain" over the loss of the Luchos.

In Heaven, "they" explained Moshe's inaction as the result of a lack of yegiah, toil, in preparing the Luchos. They were not his creation. He was only the agent for its transmittal. It was the Divine Author that created the Luchos. He "felt" the loss much more than Moshe who was just delivering their message. This is why Moshe was instructed to "carve for yourself;" let him see what is involved in preparing the Luchos. While nothing is difficult for Hashem, Moshe was compelled to acknowledge the amount of "toil" that went into the first Luchos.

There is a powerful lesson to be derived from the above concept. When we sin, the last thing that we think about is what we are doing to Hashem. True, Hashem is not a human being with feelings, but would it be so bad to acknowledge the love and toil that He put into this world - which we do easily ignore? Perhaps if we would look at life from a more practical, human perspective, we would act differently and be more cognizant of our spiritual calling.

He is your praise and He is your G-d, Who did for you these great and awesome things. (10:21)

The Mezritcher Maggid, zl, used this pasuk as the basis for a compelling statement. He comments that if one wants to ascertain his personal level of yiraas Shomayim, fear of Heaven; if he wants to determine his level of emunah, faith in Hashem; if he seeks to identify to what extent Hashem is his G-d, the best barometer for this evaluation is his tefillah, the manner in which he prays. See how your tefillah appears. Is it from the heart or is it by rote? Is there passion and enthusiasm, or is it insipid and sterile? This idea applies to every time one speaks with Hashem: during the three daily tefillos; during bentching, when he offers his gratitude to Hashem for sustaining him; during the Shabbos tefillos; and even the zemiros sung during the Shabbos meal. Hu tehillasecha v'Hu Elokecha - "He is your praise and He is your G-d." In the same manner that He is your praise, in the manner that you praise Him - you indicate exactly to what extent and to what level He is your G-d.

I recently saw an anecdotal story from the Maggid, zl, of Warsaw, that has practical meaning relative to this idea. In a small village, there lived a devout Jew who rented a parcel of land from a wealthy landowner. One morning, the landowner decided he wanted to speak with his Jewish tenant. He arrived at his home just as his Jewish tenant was in the midst of Shacharis, morning prayers. He watched in awe as the man, wrapped in his Tallis, swayed back and forth, pouring out his heart to the Almighty. After waiting respectfully for the Jew to conclude his prayers, the landowner said, "Moshe, I have a wonderful opportunity for you. You see, I own a dancing bear. This is a very talented dancing bear, but, to my chagrin, many of my friends also have dancing bears. I need to be different. I must have something which they do not have. While I was observing you during your prayers, I thought to myself, would it not be unique to have a bear that prays like Moshe? Therefore, my dear friend, I would like you to train my bear to pray like you do."

"But, my dear sir, it is very difficult. In fact, it is almost impossible to teach a bear to pray," the Jew practically begged.

"There is nothing to talk about," the landowner said. "In two weeks time, there will be a contest among all the bear owners. My bear will win! If you do not succeed, you have to pack your bags and leave my property!"

The Jew had no choice but to accede to the landowner's request. That afternoon the bear was delivered to the Jew's home - ready to learn how to daven! The Jew came up with an idea that might just work. He found an old book whose pages were very thick. After smearing each page with honey, he gave the "sweet" book to the bear to do his thing. The bear opened the book, licked the page and proceeded to the next page. After the entire book was licked, the Jew smeared the book with honey, once again. This went on for two weeks as the bear hungrily licked through his "siddur." Finally, the day of the great test arrived. The Jew arrived together with the bear, prepared to demonstrate his handiwork. He walked the bear up to the podium and wrapped a sheet around the bear to give the appearance of a Tallis and gave it a book. This book was unlike its predecessor. It had no honey. When the bear turned to the first page and discovered that his treat was not there, he immediately turned to the next, and the next, until he had turned the pages of the entire book. In frustration, the bear slammed the book closed and proceeded to leave.

When the landowner saw this, he became indignant with rage. "I told you to teach my bear how to pray, and all you have accomplished is presenting me with a bear that merely turns pages!" the landowner screamed.

The Jew calmly looked at the landowner and said, "Sir, I can take you to a number of synagogues in the big city where that is all their worshippers do - just turn pages."

How true this is. If one were to enter any shul, he would see worshippers supposedly davening, when actually all they are really doing is turning the pages of their Siddur, in between taking breaks to talk. While this is a disease all year in every community, it is especially significant to us at this time of the year as we prepare to entreat Hashem on behalf of ourselves and our families. The manner in which we daven is the barometer for determining our level of yiraas Shomayim. Perhaps the time has come to elevate both - our davening and our yiraas Shomayim.

Va'ani Tefillah

Hashem Tzvakos, ashrei adam boteiach bach.
Hashem of Hosts, Happy is the man that trusts in You.

The term, Hashem of Hosts, has two connotations. As Hashem, He is kind and merciful. As Lord of the Hosts, everything is at His beck and call to carry out His bidding. In order to justify the trust one places in someone, that individual must have a kindly intention to satisfy and please. In addition, he must have the power to execute his intention. Horav Avigdor Miller, zl, explains that Hashem Tzvakos implies these two qualities by Hashem.

One who trusts in Hashem is a happy person, both emotionally and actually. Rav Miller explains that mental satisfaction and happiness elude one who does not place his complete trust in Hashem. Anything other than Hashem has a physical flaw. It is imperfect. Indeed, it must also rely on Hashem's Will for it to exist. One who places his trust in Hashem has the satisfaction of knowing that his trust is justified, because Hashem is all powerful. He also gains actual happiness. The Chovas HaLevavos explains that when one trusts in any entity other than Hashem, the Almighty allows for his trust to be solely in this entity and his future in the "hands" of this entity. This might be a problem if the entity does not have Hashem's support to succeed. In other words, since everything needs Hashem's support to succeed, why bother trusting anything other than Hashem?

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