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Peninim on the Torah

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Rabbi A. Leib Scheinbaum
Hebrew Academy of Cleveland


May my teaching drop like rain; may my utterance flow like the dew. (32:2)

Ibn Ezra explains the simile to rain and dew as meaning that the words of Torah should penetrate the nation and make it fruitful, just as the rain and dew nourish the earth. Horav Mordechai Gifter, zl, notes that rain and dew have an effect only on earth, but not on stones. Only soil contains the requisite minerals and nutrients which are conducive to growth. Stones do not produce. Likewise, in order to be successful, a rebbe must have someone with whom to work. The student must possess something: certain basics upon which to build. First and foremost is attitude. The weakest and most challenged student can achieve success if his attitude is focused on success. Torah is much more than a body of knowledge. It is our lifeline, our primer for religious and spiritual development. Hence, the student must have some degree of yiraas Shomayim, fear of Heaven. If these two principles are in place, then his rebbe's teaching can "drop like rain" and "flow like the dew," nurturing the spiritual development of the student.

This is not meant as a reference to those who toil in the fields of special education and with children who are at risk. Their noble work develops the necessary attitude and enhances the skills required for Torah study. The Ibn Ezra refers to a child who is "turned off" or has never been "turned on." They must first have their hearts of stone sensitized in such a manner as to be conducive to learning.

There is another student who I feel we should address: the one whose parents; either by design or by indifference, turn their child against the Torah. A depressed child cannot learn. By virtue of their actions and behavior, parents can make their child feel distressed- a feeling that can lead to depression and beyond. We also encounter the parent who does not know how to talk to his child, at times being condescending or even abusive. A child cannot learn if his emotional balance is being undermined by his parents. We should also not ignore the parent who denigrates the school and the rebbe.

Last, we turn to the key word which lays the groundwork for a child's/student's educational development: obedience. A child who does not obey cannot and will not learn. Rather than punishing a child for disobedience, we should first ask ourselves why the child/student is not being compliant? In response, we suggest the following: Do we know how to tell him what to do? Do we provide the proper example for him to follow? Do we ourselves meet the standard which we impose upon him? The weaker, smaller and less capable will naturally defer to the bigger, the stronger and the more capable. For this reason, the young look up to their elders for guidance. This is true to the extent that the elders prove themselves worthy of this deference, by being superior in stature, strength and ability.

The key to earning the respect and ensuing allegiance of our children is to behave in such a manner that they will have reason to look up to us as morally and spiritually superior. True obedience is not elicited by command. It is not engendered by the substance of what is being asked but, rather, by the character of the person who is asking. Any shortcoming in a parent's behavior, any deficiency in his character, will weaken a child's resolve to obey. The only source of genuine compliance is a child's free-will. Indeed, such submissiveness continues on even after parents and children are separated by distance in space or time.

This idea applies both to parent and teacher alike, for both seek to inspire and inculcate a child in the Torah way. We must remember that a child's docility and obeisance always correspond to the respect he has for the personality of his parent or teacher. This may seem to be a tall order, but then no one suggested it was going to be easy.

Ask your father and he will relate it to you. (32:7)

Parents are always there for us - or, at least, they should be. They advise, direct, guide and offer support and comfort - when necessary. Parents provide our most enduring form of support, being there for us even after they are no longer here in this world. How often does one go to the cemetery and "unload" his troubles to his parents and leave somewhat relieved? We entreat them to be meilitz yosher, intercede, in our behalf - and they do. I recently came across a poignant story which illustrates this phenomenon.

The story is about a young girl who fell victim to the dread typhus epidemic which raged through the Bergen Belsen concentration camp. Tens of thousands succumbed to the disease. Indeed, the young girl, whom we will call Leah, was given up for dead, so severe were her symptoms. Yet, she refused to give in. She fought as the fever raged. She was determined to live. Afraid that if she lay down she would soon die like so many others, she wandered around the camp, delirious, stumbling over the bodies of the dead and dying. She could no longer go on. Her feet refused to carry her any farther. As she struggled to get up from the cold, wet ground, she noticed a hill veiled in gray mist in the distance. Leah felt a strange sensation come over her. Suddenly, the hill became a symbol of life, a token of hope. She felt that if she reached that hill, she would live; if not, she would die of typhus. There was no way she was going to give up.

Leah attempted to walk toward the hill. As she dragged her feet, she felt she was getting closer to her lifeline. Every step increased her hope; every inch made life a closer reality. As she neared the hill, it took on a new form - it began to look like a huge grave. Nonetheless, the mound remained Leah's symbol of life, and she remained determined to reach it. She crawled on her hands and knees, scraping off the skin. The blood flowed from her wounds - but she moved on toward that strange mound of earth that was the essence of her survival.

Long hours passed, and she finally reached her destination. With feverish hands, bloodied from her terrible ordeal, she touched the cold mound of earth. With her last ounce of strength, she crawled to the top of the mound and collapsed. She just lay there, tears flowing freely down her cheeks. These were no ordinary tears. This was the first time she had cried in the four years since her imprisonment in the camp. She cried because she finally felt that there was hope. She began to cry out for her father, "Papa! Papa! Please help me, for I cannot go on like this any longer!"

Suddenly, she felt a warm hand on top of her head. It was her father gently stroking her head as he used to place his hand over her head every Friday night when he bentched, blessed, her. The hands were comforting and warm. She began to weep with greater intensity as she told her father that she could not go on. She had no more strength to live.

Her father listened as he held her head in his hands. He did not bentch her; instead he told her, "Do not worry, my child. The end of the war is near. You will manage to survive a few more days, for the liberation of the camps is soon to come." This "meeting" occurred on Wednesday night, April 11, 1945. The first British tank entered Bergen Belsen on Sunday, April 15th.

The British took whatever survivors there were to the hospital in the British zone. Leah was extremely weak - but alive, as her father had promised. She recovered from typhus and soon returned to Bergen Belsen. Only then did she learn that the huge mound of earth in the big square, where she had spent that fateful night of April 11th, was really a huge, mass grave. Thousands of victims of the Nazi murderers were buried beneath that mound. Among them was Leah's father, who had died months earlier. Leah now realized that on that night when she triumphed over death, she was weeping on her father's grave. For it (the Torah) is not an empty thing for you, for it is your life. (32:47)

When the Torah tells us that the Torah is our life, it means just that - it is our source of living. Without the Torah we are not alive. A parent may say to his child, "You are my life," but despite the overwhelming affection the parent is trying to convey, his very life and existence are not dependent upon his child. The Torah, however, is meticulous in everything it says. Therefore, if the Torah asserts that it is our life, it is certainly no exaggeration.

Horav Mordechai Gifter, zl, cites the Rambam who states that all physical matter falls into five categories. They are: A) domeim - inorganic objects, such as stones and rocks; B) tzomeiach - plant life; C) chai - living animals; D) medaber - man, who has the power of speech; and E) Ben Yisrael - the Jew. The Rambam is teaching us that the Jew is in a category all of his own - distinct in kind and degree.

Plant life is not just a stone with an added feature, - the ability to grow. It is an entirely different form of existence. This is true of each of these five. They are all unique and exclusive of one another. The Ben Yisrael is distinct from the human being, despite the fact that the two seem to possess a greater commonality with each other than all the rest. Moreover, just as each category is distinctive in its individual level of life, so, too is each category unique in its source of life.

While a Ben Yisroel has a physical body, his essence is actually spiritual. Thus, his source of sustenance is primarily of a spiritual nature, not a physical one. He needs physical sustenance to maintain his physical existence, but his spiritual essence must receive spiritual nutrients. Hence, even when the Ben Yisrael is physically removed from his earthly abode, he lives on in the spiritual arena. Torah fulfillment is his source of life through which he connects with his spiritual dimension. If he fails to spiritually nurture himself, he may remain alive from a physical perspective, but his true essence and being are totally abrogated.

Our Chazal teach us in Pirkei Avos 4:21, "This world is compared to a vestibule before the World to Come; prepare yourself in the anteroom so that you may enter the palace." When one enters the lobby of the king's palace, he is already in the king's domain. Although the lobby only leads to the main room, the mere fact that it connects to it gives it special status. Conversely, if it would not be leading into the main room, it would be insignificant in its own right. With this idea in mind, Rav Gifter explains the Mishnah's statement regarding the relationship between this world and Olam Habah. This world has significance only in its connection with Olam Habah. In other words, a Jew must maintain his bond with Torah and mitzvos, his source of life, in order to give this world "vestibule status" to the World to Come. However, if a Jew severs his bond with Torah and rejects its mitzvos, he cuts himself off from his true source of life. Hence, he divorces the vestibule from the palace, and the vestibule simply has no value of its own. We now understand that when the Torah refers to itself as "our life," it is, indeed, a reality.

Hashem spoke to Moshe on that very day. Ascend to this mount of Avarimů and die on the mountain. (32:48.49, 50)

Rashi tells us that the phrase, "b'etzem ha'yom ha'zeh," "on that very day," is mentioned in two other places. When Noach entered the Teivah, Ark, the Torah writes that he entered "on that very day." Also, when the Jews left Egypt, the Torah writes that they left "on that very day." The reason for emphasizing when they left and when Noach entered the Ark, is to demonstrate that even if the people would have said, "We will not let Noach leave; we will not let the Jews depart Egypt," Hashem enabled them to leave in the middle of the day, when everyone was around, and no one dared -- or was able -- to prevent them from leaving. Likewise, the Jewish People might have thought that since Moshe Rabbeinu had done so much for them - he led them out of Egypt, split the Sea, brought down the manna and the quail, raised up the well and gave them the Torah - they would not let him "leave." Hashem took Moshe from this world in midday to demonstrate that no human being had control, only Hashem.

The question is obvious: How are we to compare Moshe Rabbeinu's death to Klal Yisrael's departure from Egypt and Noach's entering the Ark? The former and latter would have been preventable with sufficient strength and power. Moshe's death, however, could not have been halted in any way. When his time had come, it had come and we could have done nothing to prevent it from occurring. So what does Rashi mean? Furthermore, what does Rashi mean when he says the Jews might say, "A man who led us from Egypt, etc. cannot be allowed to die" What does Moshe's role in the Exodus have to do with his continuing to live? Certainly, they understood that it was Hashem Who took them out of Egypt, Who controlled nature and split the sea and fed them in the wilderness? What was Moshe's role in this?

Horav Chaim Shmuelevitz, zl, gives a penetrating response which focuses upon our responsibility to acknowledge and pay gratitude to those who benefit us. Klal Yisrael presented a powerful reason for Hashem to keep Moshe alive. After all, he was the individual who had done so much for them. In his merit, Klal Yisrael was alive and miraculously sustained throughout forty years of wilderness travel. The amount of gratitude the Jewish people owed Moshe was immeasurable. If so, Hashem had to keep him alive when Klal Yisrael prayed on his behalf. Their obligation to him was overwhelming. This was reason enough for him to live.

Indeed, this is what Eliyahu HaNavi said to Hashem when he prayed on behalf of the Tzarfati's son: "How can You take the life of the son of the widow who provided me with a place to lodge?" Eliyahu owed the widow so much. He was obligated to repay her. Since he owed her - Hashem had to allow her son to live. If the middah, character trait, of hakoras hatov has the ability to bring someone back to life, as it did with the Tzarfati's son, it likewise should have the capacity for preventing Moshe Rabbeinu's death. Hashem had no other recourse. He wants us to be makir tov to Moshe - so He had to allow him to continue living.

A compelling reason, an excellent argument, but it was not enough. Hashem had other plans. Moshe's time to leave this world had arrived. "b'etzem ha'yom ha'zeh, "on that very day," he was to take leave of his earthly abode - because this is what Hashem wanted.

Questions & Answers

1) How is dew more welcome than rain?

2) Shiras Haazinu instructs us to look to the__________ in order to develop a better perspective on the present and future.

3) Why is Yaakov Avinu singled out as Hashem's "rope"?

4) What is the climax to Moshe Rabbeinu's prophecy?


1) Dew never inconveniences anyone as rain sometimes does.

2) We are instructed to look to the past - to those from whose experience we may learn.

3) A rope, twisted of many strands, is much stronger than any of the individual strands. Therefore, Yaakov Avinu, who combines the individual strengths and virtues of his ancestors, Avraham and Yitzchak, is singled out as being Hashem's "rope".

4) The climax of Moshe's prophecy is that we must instruct our children. The key to Klal Yisrael's survival has always been education of its young.


Peninim on the Torah is in its 11th year of publication. The first seven years have been published in book form.

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