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Peninim on the Torah

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Rabbi A. Leib Scheinbaum
Hebrew Academy of Cleveland


You should know in your heart that just as man will chastise his son, so Hashem, your G-d, chastises you. (8:5)

Should the pasuk not have read, "As a father chastises his son"? Instead of av, father, the Torah wrote the word, ish, which means man. Horav Yosef Chaim, zl, the Ben Ish Chai, distinguishes between an actual father who punishes his son and a man who has raised a boy that is not his son. A father has a vested interest in punishing his son, since the way in which the boy acts is a reflection on the father. Thus, one can assume that a father's chastisement has at least a taint of self-interest. If the boy is unruly and disruptive, it is a sad commentary on his upbringing. I must add that people are judgmental. They do not take mitigating factors into account when applying their preconceived notions to a situation. They will invariably blame the parents, even though they are good parents who have done everything within their power to raise their child properly. Regrettably, we find it easier to blame a scapegoat than to acknowledge that an underlying problem might exist.

The surrogate father, however, has no personal prejudice. He thinks only of the child. Thus, he chastises him solely for the purpose of correcting his behavior. He has no ulterior motive. The pasuk is teaching us that Hashem chastises us as a man chastises his son - whom he has raised. Everything he does is for the child. No other motive plays a role in their relationship. What the Jewish people do is not a reflection on Hashem. In that sense, He is not like our biological Father. When He punishes, it is purely for our own good.

Hashem, your G-d, you shall fear. (10:20)

The Talmud Pesachim 22b discusses a difference of opinion between Shimon Ha'Amsoni and Rabbi Akiva concerning the meaning of the word es - which is a word that is usually untranslatable - in the pasuk, Es Hashem Elokecha tira, "Hashem, your G-d, you shall fear." Apparently, Shimon Ha'Amsoni expounded every es in the Torah, teaching what each es includes. When he reached the pasuk Es Hashem Elokecha tira, he withdrew. He felt that he could add nothing to the halachah, since he was convinced that it is impossible to equate the fear and reverence we are obligated to demonstrate towards Hashem to the reverence for any other person or thing. As a result of this withdrawal, he retracted all of his previous expositions of the word. A given method either works throughout the Torah or it does not work at all. Consequently, he maintained that the word es should not be expounded.

The situation persisted until Rabbi Akiva came and expounded es l'rabos talmidei chachamim, "Es comes to include Torah scholars." The reverence demanded by the Torah for its teachers is the same as that demanded for Hashem Himself. In his commentary to the Talmud Kiddushin, the Sefer HaMikneh suggests that Rabbi Akiva came to this realization after he witnessed the tragic deaths of his twenty-four thousand students as a result of their inability to demonstrate sufficient respect for one another. Horav Meir Shapiro, zl, renders this passage in the Talmud homiletically.

"Reaching" the pasuk concerning reverence for Hashem is viewed metaphorically as applying to each individual Tanna and his own spiritual journey. Shimon HaAmsoni was a great sage who was always striving to better himself, aspiring to reach higher and higher in his spiritual ascent. When he "reached" the summit of yiraas Shomayim, fear of Heaven, when he attained an extremely elevated level of reverence for Hashem, "he withdrew" from the world. He sequestered himself, sheltering himself from public contact, lest it cause him to experience a spiritual decline. Shimon HaAmsoni felt that in order for him to maintain his newly acquired spiritual plateau, he had to be isolated from the public.

Rabbi Akiva, however, had a different point of view concerning his relationship with others. When he achieved the apex of yiraas Shomayim, he did not hide. Instead, he felt that such an exemplary achievement was a mechayev, obligated him, to reach out and inspire more students, build a larger yeshivah, have an even greater impact on the community. The greater one becomes, the greater are the demands on him. This was Rabbi Akiva's lesson: l'rabos talmidei chachamin, to include more students, to increase his student body. As a result of his elevated status, he had more to teach.

The question is: What happened before Rabbi Akiva came along? Did not anyone expound upon this idea? Was outreach non-existent before Rabbi Akiva came on the scene? The Lubliner Rav explains that Rabbi Akiva had once been an am ha'aretz, illiterate Jew, whose disdain and animus for a Torah scholar was overwhelming. The Rambam writes that a person should choose the path of the golden mean - never resorting to any form of extremism. It is only when one repents, and attempts to turn his life around, that he may go to the extreme. By living in extreme contrast to his previous lifestyle, he would eventually be able to work his way back, so that he is able to follow the golden mean. Rabbi Akiva sought a way to extricate himself from his old habits and ways of thinking through teshuvah. If, as an am ha'aretz he vehemently despised the talmid chacham, the way to change was to go to the other extreme, by expressing his deepest love and reverence for the dissemination of Torah. Hence, he elaborated that one should revere a talmid chacham in much the same manner that he shows reverence towards Hashem. Rabbi Akiva's statement actually reflected his own teshuvah, penance.

Horav Yosef Engel, zl, observes that the word es is sometimes used in the sense of "with." This includes that which is auxiliary to, a part of - but not - the actual item. For example, concerning a shor ha'niskal, ox that is stoned as punishment for certain acts of violence, the Torah in Shemos 24:28, writes, Lo yeiachel es besaro, "And he should not eat its flesh." Chazal derive from the es that not only is the flesh prohibited, but even its hide which is "with" its flesh is forbidden to be eaten. Thus, the verse teaches that the hide is considered to be a part of the body due to its auxiliary relationship.

With this idea in mind, Rav Engel explains that we accord reverence to the Torah scholar because he is tafeil, auxiliary, to Hashem. He is connected to Him through an inextricable bond, in which the Torah serves as the adhesive of this relationship.

And to serve Him with all your heart. (11:13)

In the Talmud Taanis 2a, Chazal define avodah she b'lev, service of the heart, as tefillah, prayer. The Rambam counts tefillah among the 613 mitzvos of the Torah, deriving this idea from the pasuk in Shemos 23:25, Va'avadetem es Hashem Elokeicham, "You shall worship Hashem, your G-d." Avodah is considered tefillah. The Maharal, zl, m'Prague explains the relationship between avodah and tefillah in a novel manner. Avodah, service/servitude, is the recognition that one belongs totally to Hashem. He is the Almighty's kinyan, acquisition. This is much like the statement made by Chazal concerning an eved, slave: Mah she'kanah eved kanah rabo, "Whatever the slave acquires belongs to the master." An eved is totally subjugated to his master. He has no "self." He is an aspect of his master. This is the zenith of a Jew's relationship with Hashem. He concedes every aspect of his being to Hashem. This is why Chazal refer to Moshe Rabbeinu as eved Hashem, the servant of Hashem. He reached the summit of spirituality, deferring all of himself to the Almighty.

We now understand why Chazal refer to tefillah as avodah. One who prays to Hashem relinquishes himself. He is like a slave entreating his Master, recognizing that he is nothing, that he has nothing. Whatever he is or possesses is for the Master. One who prays to Hashem realizes that all of his aspirations are dependent upon the Almighty. Alone, he is nothing. Alone, he is powerless. Tefillah is the submission of one's heart to Hashem. He recognizes that whatever he is - or has - is from Hashem. He turns to Him with his request, because he knows that on his own he is unable to achieve anything.

And to serve Him with all your heart. (11:13)

Rashi cites the Talmud Taanis 2a that interprets avodah sheh'b'lev, service of the heart, as a reference to tefillah, prayer. Since prayer is a staple of a Jew's service to Hashem, I will convey some insight into the life-sustaining powers of tefillah. In his Derech Hashem, the Ramchal explains tefillah as part of our ongoing relationship with the Almighty. Hashem has established a system in the world whereby humans receive their shefa, abundance, from Him. In order to receive, they must arouse themselves to ask; they will accept His gift in accordance with their entreaty. Hashem wants to give abundantly to His children, but, they must ask for it. This is the essence of tefillah.

Horav Yerachmiel Kromm, Shlita, feels that, in his commentary to Sefer Bereishis, Rashi had previously expressed the Ramchal's idea: "Now all the trees of the field were not yet on the earth and all the herbs of the field had not yet sprouted, for Hashem Elokim had not sent rain upon the earth and there was no man to work the soil" (Bereishis 2:5). Rashi explains that no one was present to recognize the utility of rain. When Adam was created, he understood the value of rain and its significance to the world. He prayed, and rain fell, stimulating the trees and vegetation to sprout forth. Hashem provides man with his essentials, but man has to pray for it. Hashem desires our prayers; thus, they are the key to our abundance. Indeed, Horav Yeruchem Levovitz, zl, writes that nothing is granted without tefillah. The flipside is how fortunate we are to have the key to unlock this Heavenly potential.

Prayer that originates from the inner chambers of one's heart has great efficacy. After great preparation, on Yom Kippur - the holiest day of the Jewish calendar - the holiest Jew, the Kohen Gadol, would enter into the holiest place on earth, the Kodesh HaKadoshim, Holy of Holies. In the few moments that he was there, he would utter a short prayer. One would think that during this auspicious moment, the prayer would consist of a special, earth-shattering plea on behalf of the nation. Rav Kromm observes that this prayer is indeed unique, but somehow it does not seem to be that compelling. In his short prayer, the Kohen Gadol asks Hashem not to permit the prayers of travelers to impede the prayers of the nation. When the nations pray for rain, they express an important national necessity. No rain; no food. While rain is essential for those who are home, the traveler would benefit greatly from good weather. Rain causes great difficulty for the traveler.

Let us picture this scenario. The entire nation prays for rain, in order to sustain the people for another year. They recite V'sein tal u'matar livrachah, "And give dew and rain for a blessing," three times daily in Shemoneh Esrai. Yet, the prayers of a few isolated travelers who are inconvenienced by this rain have the ability to prevent the rain from falling! Is this not incredible? How can the prayers of a few mitigate the prayers of a nation? True, these individuals might be vexed by the rain, but the nation needs the rain in order to survive!

Rav Kromm explains that the difference lies in the manner which the respective supplicants express themselves. Although we do ask for rain three times daily, that alone could be our problem. It has become something we do by rote three times a day. It is not a heartfelt plea expressing our pain and misery concerning having to travel on rain-soaked roads, our clothes dripping wet. It all comes down to how we express our prayer. Is it with feeling? Does it originate mei'umka d'liba, "from the innermost chambers of our heart"? Hashem listens to everyone - regardless of his position and religious status; however, the prayer must be sincere; it must reflect emotion; it must demonstrate integrity.

A prayer expressed with sincerity has great efficacy - even if it is focused against a tzaddik, righteous person. The mothers of the Kohanim Gedolim would bring food to the arei miklat, cities of refuge, as a gift to the unintentional murderers who were required to live there until the passing of the current Kohen Gadol. While the Kohen Gadol is held accountable for the fact that a person was murdered on his "watch," it does not defray from his personal sanctity. This was the nation's spiritual leader, the only one who was permitted to enter the Holy of Holies on Yom Kippur to intercede on behalf of the nation. He was certainly an individual who had reached the apex of spirituality. Yet, the murderer's prayers can take him down. Why? Because the murderer cries out from the depths of his heart. When a person cries sincerely, the Heavens open up and his entreaty is given access to Hashem.

Horav Yitzchak Zilberstein, Shlita, relates a telling story which reinforces the notion of a prayer's efficacy, regardless of who is the supplicant. Yerushalayim is home to many wonderful Torah Jews. One of them happens to be a baal teshuvah, penitent, who, after returning to a life of Torah, became a talmid chacham, Torah scholar, and founder of many organizations which focus on Jewish outreach and providing Torah classes to the masses. He has been eminently successful. It is almost as if he had received a special Divine blessing that everything which he touched to promote Torah learning would achieve incredible success.

A number of years ago, the individual related his life's story. Apparently, he was the grandson of Ben Gurion's first minister of education, an individual not especially known for his love of Torah. As architect of the educational system of the nascent, secular Jewish state, he certainly established a system that was in agreement with the philosophies of Ben Gurion, its elder statesman and primary spokesman.

While the minister was himself not an observant Jew, the original Zionists, hailing from Europe, did remember the Torah tradition that they had imbibed in their homes before they rejected it all. The minister's wife was like-minded with her husband, but, since she did originate from an observant home, she continued to maintain one of its traditions: she would light candles every Erev Shabbos. Remembering something of the prayer following the candle lighting which she had heard her mother recite every week, she also entreated Hashem that her offspring become strong, successful and fulfilled. Her idea of strong and powerful was restricted to her limited exposure to "greatness." Since Ben Gurion was her husband's hero, she naturally prayed that her offspring become like Ben Gurion. This was her conception of an eminent and strong person.

It was some time later that Ben Gurion had his famous meeting with the gadol ha'dor, preeminent Torah leader of the generation, the venerable Chazon Ish. It was a meeting between two heads of state: the secular prime minister; and the gadol ha'dor. Much has been written about that encounter. When Ben Gurion left the simple home of the Chazon Ish, he related to his close associates that he had never in his life seen such a person. "I see in him the image of a Heavenly Angel," he said to the minister of education.

Obviously, when the minister returned home, he shared this comment with his wife, who understood from this encounter that the powerful Ben Gurion had met someone who had impressed him. If Ben Gurion was so impressed with the Chazon Ish, then, in her weekly prayer following her candle lighting ritual, she would ask Hashem that her offspring should aspire to achieve the same level of distinction as the Chazon Ish! Her prayer was not a complete success, because no one has matched the Chazon Ish's greatness, but, at least, her grandson became a tremendous marbitz Torah, disseminator of Torah.

The Talmud Rosh Hashanah 18a relates a cryptic statement by Rabbi Meir. "Two individuals become sick with a similar disease or two individuals are called before the court that determines capitol punishment: one is saved; the other is not; one is healed; the other is not. Why did one make it, while the other one did not? It is because the one who was spared had prayed a tefillah sheleimah, with complete kavanah, intention/devotion, while the other one did not."

This statement begs elucidation. Here are two men whose only hope of being spared is dependent solely upon their prayers. Is there any question concerning their intentions? Surely, they will each pray as if their life depended on it! When a person stands at the edge of a dangerous precipice, his thoughts are clearly focused on staying alive. What is the meaning of "one did not pray with complete kavanah"?

Horav Eliyahu Lopian, zl, explains that both "doomed" men prayed with great kavanah. They each stormed the Heavens with their respective entreaty, and both poured out their hearts in hope of receiving a pardon. One of them, however, was missing one nekudah, point, as far as their prayer was concerned: He did not believe that he would be answered. He felt the situation was hopeless. One does not ever give up hope - completely. So, he davened with all of his heart, but, deep down, in the inner recesses of his heart, he did not really believe that it would make a difference. That is the meaning of an incomplete prayer. One must believe unequivocally that he will be answered, that his prayer will be effective.

Horav Matisyahu Solomon, Shlita, observes that this idea likewise applies in contemporary times. We are engulfed in misery; Jews throughout the world are suffering materially; young people are falling prey to dread illnesses; mental health issues are finally becoming recognized as serious problems that can no longer be swept under the rug. We pour out our hearts in prayer to Hashem, but there is something wrong with our davening. It is not complete. The Mashgiach explains that we cry because we hurt; we weep because of the dread that engulfs us. We do not express our emotion as a result of a deep-rooted awareness and faith that Hashem will help us. We do not realize that whenever a therapy or healing saves us in an unexpected manner, it is not because of a specific physician, a different medicine, a new lawyer, or kind judge. The result is due to the Tehillim and our prayers which we expressed with true conviction.

Tefillah does not return empty. Every prayer that emanates from our lips is saved. If it is not put to use immediately, it will be applied at a later date, under different circumstances, when Hashem sees fit. In his Bais Elokim, the Mabit, zl, notes that Moshe Rabbeinu offered five hundred and fifteen prayers to Hashem, beseeching Him to be allowed entry into Eretz Yisrael. Hashem said no. Nonetheless, these prayers were not wasted. Hashem allowed Moshe to see not only the entire land, but, also, what would happen there from the moment the Jewish nation entered its perimeter until the very last day when Moshiach would arrive. This was the efficacy of his prayers. They were not for naught.

After citing a number of sources, Rav Matisyahu posits that the purpose of tefillah is not to "change Hashem's mind." Once the Almighty has issued a decree, it remains in place. When a person prays with sincerity, acutely aware that he is nothing without Hashem, and that all salvation comes only from Him, it elevates the petitioner spiritually, making him "sort of" a new person. Thus, the decree that was issued against the "former" person is not binding on the spiritually transformed person. Tefillah transforms the petitioner, "allowing" for the original decree to be nullified.

You shall teach them to your children to speak in them while you sit in your home, while you walk on the way, when you retire and when you arise. (11:19)

The pasuk begins with V'limaditem, "You shall teach them," in lashon rabim, plural, and concludes with b'shochbecha u'bekumecha, "when you retire and when you arise," in lashon yachid, the singular. Why? Nachal Eliyahu explains this pragmatically. The Torah is suggesting that one who seeks to educate his children properly should do so by example. First, he should educate himself, seeing to it that his life is in order, that his behavior is virtuous and ethical, that his demeanor is exemplary, that his relationship with Hashem is sincere and meaningful.

How does one successfully teach his children? When one "speaks in them," Torah thoughts are on your lips. Your speech reflects a Torah oriented way of life. "While you sit in your home": Your child sees you at home with a sefer, volume of Torah literature. Your home represents a makom Torah, a house of Torah. The four walls attest to a Torah lifestyle. "While you walk on the way": When you leave your home and enter into the halls of contemporary society, you take the Torah with you as a guide and protector. Your business dealings with all people, regardless of their religious affiliation, are ethically guided by halachah, Jewish law. Your every movement is regulated by the Torah. "When you retire and when you arise": This continues on all day: from the moment that you wake up and express your gratitude to Hashem for granting you another day of life, until you retire at night, the Torah is your exemplar. Only then, will you be worthy of - and successful in - transmitting Torah to your children.

Va'ani Tefillah

U'matzasa es levavo ne'eman lefanecha.
And you found his heart loyal before You.

Horav Avigdor Miller, zl, notes the use of one word which transforms the meaning and apparent message of this pasuk. It does not say, "His heart was faithful," but rather, "You found his heart faithful." The fact that human beings note faithfulness in someone's heart, whether it be by his actions or demeanor, is no indication of what really is in his heart. The Navi in Shmuel 1, 16:7 says, "Men see with the eyes, but Hashem sees into the heart." If Hashem attests to one's loyalty, it is an indication that it is genuine. Furthermore, levavo, as opposed to libo, distinguishes between the "surface" heart and the "innermost" chambers of the heart, the genuineness of a person's emotions. Avraham Avinu was subjected to numerous tests over which he triumphed not only externally, but was found to be loyal in all aspects of his attributes and emotions.

Moreover, ne'eman implies that our Patriarch excelled not merely in the remarkable deeds which he performed, in the incredible self-sacrifice he manifest, but the primary reason for his selection was his ability to master the ordinary deeds which everyone performs by rote. He did it with passion, with fervor, with sincerity and with complete fidelity to Hashem. Everything that Avraham did - from the most sublime to the simplest, mundane act - was carried out for only one purpose: to do Hashem's will. This devotion earned him the position of Patriarch of our nation.

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