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Peninim on the Torah

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Rabbi A. Leib Scheinbaum
Hebrew Academy of Cleveland


And they shall not desecrate My holy Name. (22:2)

We are living through difficult economic times. While these times pose challenges even for the strong of character, they are especially trying for those whose rectitude leaves much to be desired.

People stoop to extremely low levels of decency in order to make ends meet, often at the expense of others and even of their service to Hashem. What should our attitude be towards a co-religionist who has acted in an unsavory manner, who has taken advantage of the unsuspecting nature of others and betrayed their trust? What about the one who has blatantly stolen from others? How should we view his reprehensible act against his fellow man? And how should we react to his desecration of Hashem's Name?

Clearly, this is a controversial question which is likely to elicit a variety of responses - mostly negative. Let us take a moment to see how a gadol b'Yisrael, Torah giant, who was considered by some to be a kanai, zealot, reacted. Horav Yosef Chaim Sonnenfeld, zl, was very concerned about chillul Hashem. He went out of his way to protect the honor of Hashem - even at times when the culprit deserved serious punishment. If it would result in a desecration of Heaven, he would do anything to avert it. Once, a certain Orthodox figure who was involved in chareidi public affairs was accused of wrong doing. The rumors began to fly; the accusations were leveled at the entire Orthodox community. Rav Yosef Chaim stood by this man's side, defending him vigorously. When he was asked why he did so, Rav Yosef Chaim explained, "Whenever an offense is committed by a person who represents the frum, observant, community, we have two alternatives in terms of our response to his action. We must consider the wrongful act itself- and the resultant chillul Hashem - which might be even worse than the sin per se. By standing at this man's side, I can minimize to some extent the gravity of the chillul Hashem which this episode has produced.

Rav Yosef Chaim was insistent that a Jew who had perpetrated a crime against the Jewish community should not be handed over to the authorities, due to the consequent chillul Hashem. In addition, causing a fellow Jew to be incarcerated is in itself a criminal act against Hashem. In the case of a Jew who had stolen a Sefer Torah from a shul, he advised the concerned parties to inform the thief that they were aware of his misdeed, in the hope that it would suffice in deterring him from any other acts of corruption. Within a few days, the Sefer Torah found its way back to the shul from which it was taken.

Rav Yosef Chaim would often go to extreme lengths to defend those Jews who, given the hardships of the times, had strayed from the path of Torah observance. I may add that this concept also applies to those who seem to differentiate in their observance between areas governing man's relationship with Hashem and his relationship with his fellow man. One who cheats others but observes Shabbos and kashrus is still not Torah observant. We have no dichotomy in serving Hashem; all of the mitzvos are part of the same Torah. Nonetheless, Rav Yosef Chaim would always try to think of justifications and sources of merit for any Jewish person, regardless of his religious affiliation or level of observance.

When some of his close confidants would chide him, expressing their surprise about the rav's overly sympathetic tolerance towards Jews who were clearly what one would define as "wicked," he would give the following validation for his attitude: "When a person sins, he should be pitied - not scorned. In the Talmud Sotah 3A, Chazal teach that one does not sin unless he has been previously overcome by a spirit of madness. Is there anyone more insane than a person who ignores all of the good that Hashem does for him and intentionally rebels against Him? Is he different from a person who suffers from an emotional disturbance? Now, when we meet someone who is mentally incapacitated, we act toward him with kindness and compassion. How much more so should we be sympathetic toward someone who has abandoned the path that leads to spiritual happiness and eternal life!"

Rav Yosef Chaim did, however, distinguish between the person who has sinned on an individual basis whereby he hurt only himself and the individual whose actions have engendered a chillul Hashem. The latter must be fought tirelessly and vehemently repudiated, lest others fall prey to his deleterious behavior. Any transgression that carries negative ramifications for the Jewish community's spiritual welfare can quickly lead to the most devastating results. This has sadly been proven time and again throughout history.

Hashem's appointed festivals that you are to designate as holy convocations these are My appointed festivals. (23:2)

Mikra'ai kodesh, holy convocations: the festivals are more than a time to gather together amid joy and celebration; they are holy times during which, as the Ramban explains, Hashem "calls" us, inviting us to assemble in prayer and thanksgiving, to celebrate with family, bedecked in finery and sharing in festive meals. The words mikra'ai kodesh denote two concepts which we should never forget because they define the essence of Jewish festivals: Mikra'ai - Hashem calls/invites us; kodesh - holy. The festivals are days of holy calling when we come together with Hashem to become spiritually elevated, to focus on the many opportunities available to us for reaching higher and doing more. How different are our festivals from those of our counterparts.

The term "festival" is seemingly inconsistent with a halachah cited in the Tur Orach Chaim 559. The Tur rules that on Tisha B'Av we do not recite Tachanun, the special supplication after the Shemoneh Esrai, because the Navi Yirmiyahu refers to Tisha B'Av as a moed. Kara alai moed lishbor bachurai, "He proclaimed a set time against me, to crush my young men" (Eichah 1:15). On a festival, we do not recite Tachanun.

Let us understand what Chazal are saying. Tisha B'Av, our national day of mourning, is clearly a sad day. Why is it called a festival? It is a day during which our most mind-numbing tragedies have occurred. What essential characteristic of Tisha B'Av allows it to be called a moed? Horav Mordechai Gifter, zl, cites the Telshe Rav, Horav Avraham Yitzchak Bloch, zl, who presents us with a deeper understanding of the concept of moed in the context of Jewish law. He explains that moed is derived from vaad, which means meeting. Moed is the time when we "meet" with Hashem. The aim of a festival is to reach a clear recognition of Hashem, so that we can perceive our meeting with Him. Various perspectives allow us to develop this sense of recognition.

By recalling the many miracles and wonders which occurred, up to and including the Exodus from Egypt, we encounter Hashem's Providence through the medium of joy and happiness. We exalt in our liberation and in the multifaceted ways that Hashem has brought us to this point. The joy inherent in the celebration of Pesach brings us to a deeper understanding of Hashem's constant supervision over our lives. We feel a similar emotion on Succos and Shavuous.

It is not only joy which catalyzes our recognition of Hashem's Providence. We can also experience Hashem's Presence amid pain, sorrow and destruction. When we are worthy, Hashem reveals Himself through the medium of joy. During times in which our sins have overwhelmed the opportunity for joy, destruction brings about His appearance. Indeed, a child recognizes his father at all times: when he is being rewarded; and, likewise, when he is being punished. Through the pain which we sustain on Tisha B'Av, as we recall the devastation and sorrow that occurred then and which we relive today, we perceive Hashem with such clarity that the day becomes a moed, a day of meeting between Hashem and His children. Once we reach this level of recognition, we have "met" with Hashem, and we no longer have any room left for anguish. How can one be miserable when he is in Hashem's Presence? This is why we do not say Tachanun.

Rav Gifter applies this idea to explain a statement of Chazal found in Meseches Taanis 29A: "K'shem, just as when (the month of ) Av enters, we decrease in joy, so too, when (the month of ) Adar enters, we increase with joy." The term k'shem, just as, indicates a comparison, a similarity between two things. What is the correlation between the decrease of joy in Av and its increase in Adar?

As explained above, joy and sorrow are both channels for perceiving Hashem's Presence in our lives. Thus, just as when the month of Av begins, we prepare for our meeting with Hashem through a decrease in joy. Likewise, when the month of Adar commences, we increase in joy to encounter Hashem through another perspective. Joy and sorrow are media which differ in their forms of expression. Their purpose, however, is the same: to enable us to meet with Hashem.

These are the appointed festivals of Hashem, the holy convocations, which you shall designate in their appropriate time. (23:4)

In this country, as well as in much of the world, the pursuit of fun is one of the greatest freedoms and noblest goals of man. People view fun as an escape from the shackles of life's challenges and responsibilities. After all, everybody has to take a vacation from life. The Torah's concept of "fun" or, as we refer to it, simchah, joy, is "somewhat" different. We view simchah as an intensification of life's most sublime features. Simchah is the result of man's realization that he has in some way achieved closeness with the Almighty. It is the soul's elevation, as it feels itself to be in the Presence of Hashem. When one realizes that he is not alone in the world - Hashem is with him - he is filled with simchah.

One reaches the epitome of simchah during the Shalosh Regalim, Three Festivals. It is at this time the Jew ascends to the Bais Hamikdash to "be seen by Hashem." He is there to partake of and enjoy the spirit of holiness that permeates the environment, as man comes in "contact" with the Shechinah. Simchah is not an escape from the reality of danger, illness of adversity. Simchah is an appreciation that whatever stands in our way, Hashem always sustains us through the experience. We understand and feel that, with Hashem at our side, we can triumph over evil by elevating ourselves spiritually to the point that the evil has no effect on us. This is simchah. In fact, each festival has its own unique character, its own special message, and its own source of joy.

The Sefas Emes notes that the parshah that addresses the Shalosh Regalim is juxtaposed upon the preceding mitzvah of Kiddush Hashem, Sanctification of Hashem's Name. Chazal interpret V'nikdashti b'soch Bnei Yisrael, "And I shall be sanctified amongst Bnei Yisrael" (Vayikra 22:32), to mean that a Jew must give up his life in martyrdom rather than violate the three cardinal sins of murder, idolatry and immorality. According to the Sfas Emes, the major festivals, Pesach, Shavuos, and Succos, underscore the principles for which these three violations impose martyrdom upon us.

We live in a world in which homicide is measured in millions; in which despots control countries, who at a whim wipe out entire towns and villages to satisfy their lust for power and blood. The guidelines of respect for human life and dignity have long been shattered by cruel dictators and their puppy governments. The destruction of Jewish life and culture of pre World War II Europe is measured in millions, as is every tragedy that destroys another part of humanity. Life has become cheap; people have become numbers.

This is how it was long ago in Egypt when a cruel Pharaoh brutalized the Jews, persecuting them and tossing their babies into the Nile - without a second thought. Man was worthless, a commodity to be used and then discarded. Jewish doctrine venerates life and enjoins the individual to relinquish his own life if he is otherwise compelled to take the life of another. Given the potential of a human life, homicide is an unpardonable sin. This concept is celebrated on Pesach when we acknowledge and recall our liberation from a land in which human lives were valueless, and men were slaves to manipulate and use according to the "master's" whim. We celebrate the value of life and the potential of each human being. We appreciate the extraordinary value of life in a world that has little respect for it. This is a holiday in which the "fun" aspect is an appreciation of who we are and what this means, a sense of joy in being part of a nation which holds dear every second of human existence.

Morality is the second cardinal principle which one may not violate, even under the pain of death. A nation that respects its inherent sacredness will, likewise, revere G-d. This concept is affirmed through the observance of the festival of Succos, a holiday that emphasizes the significance of the Jewish home. An act of immorality is an affront on the family unit, which is the basis of the home. When parents stray, they indicate that there is no love in the family - no love for each other - no love for their children. They might cite all kinds of excuses to validate their wanton acts of licentiousness, but, after all is said and done, they do not think of each other or their children. They care only about themselves.

On Succos, we celebrate our liberation from Egypt, the land of lust and debauchery, in which incest and degeneracy were an accepted way of life. For forty years after the Exodus from Egypt, we lived in succos, temporary booths. In these succos we learned to live with each family unit standing for itself, as part of a community, each individual family protecting and holding sacred the wholesomeness and integrity of its home. During the festival of Succos, we raise up high the banner of tznius, privacy/chastity, demonstrating to the world that we will protect our family unit by not permitting the moral degeneration that has permeated the world environment to penetrate our homes. We take extreme joy in the knowledge that in a world society that has become morally bankrupt, in which obscenity and hedonism have become legal; in which leaders of the free world are respected despite their moral failings; in which literature and art have been redefined in accordance with the profligate values of society - we are different!

Last, is the prohibition against idol worship, which coincides with none other than the festival of Shavuos, a holiday which celebrates the Giving of the Torah amid a Revelation of G-d's Glory unparalleled in the history of mankind. We celebrate our entrance into a relationship with the Divine. We are filled with joy that in a world which has rejected the voice of G-d, we not only follow His instructions, but we seek to hear His messages as they are constantly conveyed to us. Hashem speaks to us through the Torah which we have accepted, as we continue to live the life in conformance with His prescription for life. Can there be a greater and more sublime form of joy?

Yes, Jewish joy is far different from the secular definition of fun. Our festivals demonstrate that joy emanates from the knowledge that we can confront the moral and spiritual adversities of life - and triumph over them. How fortunate are we to be able to realize, appreciate and practice such an honorable form of simchah.

The name of his mother was Shlomis bas Divri of the tribe of Dan. (24:11)

As the Torah relates the incident of the blasphemer, addressing human failure at its nadir, it points out-- as if to emphasize-- his maternal lineage. His mother was Shlomis bas Divri, a woman of questionable repute. By taking special pains to mention his mother by name, the Torah is implying that she played a role in her son's spiritual demise. Throughout Jewish literature there is no end to the praise showered on Jewish mothers for their vital contribution in raising the next generation. A noteworthy tradition is transmitted concerning the Ramban. Shortly before he was exiled by James I from Spain, he informed his students that they would know of his death by a special sign. On that day there would appear on the tombstone over his mother's grave the image of a lit menorah. He meant to imply that, at this point, he would be reunited with his mother, to whom he attributed all of his enlightenment and education. This follows in the tradition of Rashi, whose mother was credited as being instrumental to his becoming the quintessential rebbe of Klal Yisrael.

Having said this, we must endeavor to understand the reason that a mother/wife has such power to influence both positively and negatively. Chazal teach us that Kimchis was a woman who merited seeing her seven sons become Kohanim Gedolim. When asked what it was that she did to earn such an incredible reward, she replied that the walls of her home never saw her hair exposed. In other words, Kimchis was a tznuah, chaste and private person, who maintained an extremely high level of personal modesty. Tznius is the hallmark of the Jewish woman, and Kimchis reached the zenith of this character trait. This earned her seven sons, each of whom achieved the apex in spirituality.

Let us delve into this idea. Implicit in the creation of womankind was a command that she develop a specific trait of the human personality to its pinnacle - this is the capacity for tznius. There are two aspects to tznius: personal privacy; and bodily privacy. While often these two are connected, in this instance we specifically address the concept of personal privacy.

The concept of tznius, tzena, is mentioned twice in Tanach: in Mishlei 11:2. v'es tznuim chochmah, "Those who are private (in their Torah learning) will achieve wisdom;" and Michah 6:8 mu u'mah Hashem doreish mimcha, ki im asos mishpat, v'ahavas chesed, v'hatznea leches im Hashem Elokecha, "What Hashem demands of you, but to do justice, love kindness, and to walk privately with your G-d." When anyone - man or woman - serves Hashem, he must concentrate on the inner dimensions of his personality. This is tznius: the inner-directed striving which is the essence of the Jewish heroic act. Women are enjoined to take this trait to the maximum. This is symbolized by the mode of their creation. Rather than being created from dust, Hashem fashioned them from a part of the body which is covered twice - first by skin and then by clothes. As this is not a thesis on tznius, let it suffice to say that throughout Tanach and Chazal, we note that the highest level of spiritual devotion occurs in privacy, as in Lifnai v'Lifnim, inner sanctum, the Holy of Holies, on the holiest day of the year, Yom Kippur, by the holiest Jew, the Kohen Gadol. Is it any wonder that the mother of seven Kohanim Gedolim achieved this distinction due to her eminence in taking the trait of tznius to its summit?

Kol kevodah bas melech p'nimah, "The entire glory of the daughter of the king lies on the inside" (Tehillim 45:14). This pasuk underscores much of Judaism's attitude toward the private nature of the role of the Jewish woman. Indeed, Chazal view this from two perspectives: as a statement describing the specific role of women; and as praise for the private nature of the religious experience in general. True achievement is always in the private sphere, in the area hidden from the public eye.

Behind every great man is a great woman that has laid the foundation and offered the support for his rise. The greatest women are often not recognized for their service and contributions, but that is exactly what makes them great. David Hamelech says in Sefer Tehillim 92:13, "A righteous man will flourish like a date palm, like a cedar in the Lebanon he will grow tall." The tzadik, righteous person, will be as fruitful as a date palm and as sturdy in health as a cedar. Horav Shimshon Pincus, zl, explains that the nature of a date palm is unique in that its height is commensurate with its depth. As tall as it grows, its roots likewise bear down into the ground. When one looks at a tall, erect date palm, he knows that its depth and sturdy foundation coincide with its height. The date palm is in effect a dual expression of "tall" - that which is apparent and that which is concealed beneath the ground.

The male tzaddikim are likened to date palms and cedars, because they are tall, sturdy and can be seen from afar. Women have that exact same symbol of gadlus, distinction. They are also like the date palm, but their greatness is concealed through their tznius, hidden from the public eye. Their eminence is noticed by those who look, by those who have a depth of perception that enables them to see the real woman, the p'nimius, inner self, of the woman, because therein lies her sublimity and grandeur.

When we look up at a skyscraper, we marvel at its imposing height, and stand in awe of its magnificent stature. One thing, however, often eludes even the astute spectator: its foundation. The stability of this colossal edifice is provided by a foundation that has been constructed well beneath the pavement. It is as wide as the building and deep enough that, with sufficient reinforcement, the tall skyscraper can withstand the weight and pressure that threaten its permanence. Women are the yesod, foundation of Klal Yisrael. By nature, their critical contribution is covert, hidden from the human eye, similar to the foundation of a skyscraper. Their strength lies in their abilities to: develop their inner selves, through their adherence to the laws governing tznius; and transmit this refined trait to their progeny - something like becoming a modern-day Kimchis.

Al tivtechu b'nedivim, b'ven adam she'ein lo teshuah.
Do not rely on nobles, nor on a human being, for he holds no salvation.

The pasuk begins with the word nedivim, nobles in the plural, and ends with ein lo teshuah, "he holds no salvation." Why is there a switch? Horav Daniel Lehrfeld, Shlita, explains that it is a davar pashut, simple thing, that one should not rely on the help of nedivim, nobles. Interestingly, the trop, cantillation sign, beneath the word nedivim, is an esnachta, which is a stop, as if to say, "It goes without saying that the help of nedivim is worthless and unreliable." What about a brother, a dear friend: they are reliable - are they not? This is what the end of the pasuk is addressing. Everyone's brother, his best friend; they are not reliable. Only Hashem. He is the only One to whom we can turn, and hope for a positive response, upon which He will immediately act.

Horav Akiva Eiger, zl, explains this anectodetally. When we are in need of salvation from an illness, an affliction, a persecution, we should not rely on those who feel that the affliction is really not what we think it is. They do not consider this to be bad, as something worthy of the word teshua, salvation. Do not rely on those who view your problem as not much of a problem. The individual who brings about salvation must feel that salvation is necessary. Otherwise, he lacks the sensitivity and proper motivation.

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