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Peninim on the Torah

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Rabbi A. Leib Scheinbaum
Hebrew Academy of Cleveland


The Rock! Perfect is His work… a G-d of faith without iniquity, righteous and fair is He. (32:4)

Many of us go through life wondering… why a tzaddik, a thoroughly righteous individual, has to beg for a piece of bread to soothe his hunger pains, a glass of water to alleviate his thirst, a garment to clothe his body. This is, regrettably, his lot in life. Why? Certainly, Hashem has no problem addressing this person's material needs. The Chafetz Chaim, zl, analogizes this to a wealthy man whose only son was taken seriously ill. No one was able to help him, until a world-famous physician successfully diagnosed his illness and gave him medicine to save his life. In order to prevent the illness from recurring, the doctor strongly admonished the father to see to it that his son never eat any red meat.

One day, the father had to leave for an extended business trip. He reminded his wife that their son was not to have any meat. A few days later, the mother was having dinner, and the odor of the steaks overwhelmed her son to the point that he ran in and grabbed a piece of steak and gulped it down. By the time his father returned from his trip, the son was hovering between life and death. Once again, the father summoned the physician and pleaded with him to save his son's life. "I will never leave him again," the father cried. It took some time, but the doctor succeeded once again in saving the son's life.

After awhile, the father made a large banquet for family and friends, but did not invite his only son. In fact, his son was barred from entering the room where so many succulent meats were on display. People wondered how a father could be so "cruel" to invite everyone but his own son. Little did they realize that the father was performing the greatest service for his son.

The same thing occurs in this world. Hashem celebrates with many people, and it appears that everyone is at the party except his closest devotees. They seem to be barred from attendance. In reality, Hashem is true and just, and there is certainly a very good reason for their lack of inclusion at the party. They do not complain because they have unequivocal faith in Hashem's system of justice.

One last caveat that allows us a penetrating perspective into the manner in which Hashem balances the reward He bestows. Horav Arye Leib Hakohen, zl, the Chafetz Chaim's son, related that as a youth, his family lived in abject poverty. His father studied Torah day and night, while his mother eked out a pittance from their little grocery store. Once the situation became so impossible that his mother turned to her husband and asked, "Look at 'that' man who is illiterate, who never opens a sefer, whose children are boorish and uncouth. Yet, they are wealthy. They never want for anything. While you devote your life to the pursuit of Torah and mitzvos, with your children following in your footsteps, still poverty and starvation is all you have to look forward to. Why?"

The Chafetz Chaim turned to his wife and - in his quiet and gentle manner - replied, "Do you think that it would be right that a man who is not gifted with an astute mind, who has not tasted the sweetness of Torah, who has not sensed the beauty of mitzvos, and whose children are equally deficient, should also be deprived of material success? We should be happy that Hashem has granted us so much!"

What a beautiful thought! All too often we find reason to complain about our material circumstances, while we seem to ignore the spiritual gifts that Hashem has granted us. I dare say that anyone would not even dream of exchanging one for the other.

Remember the days of yore, understand the years of generation after generation. (32:7)

It all boils down to perspective. We must address the issues of the present and look to the uncertainty of the future through the prism of the past. The experiences of those who have lived, their failures and successes, can serve as a source of direction for us as we develop the proper perspective on how to live. Horav S. R. Hirsch, zl, asserts that delving into history is an indication of spiritual deficiency. He cites Chazal in the Talmud Nedarim 22b who say, "Had Klal Yisrael not sinned, they would have received only the Chamishei Chumshei Torah, five books of Moses, and Sefer Yehoshua, and the latter only because it details how the land should be divided among the tribes." By this statement, Chazal suggest that one must discern whether the study of history is really beneficial to people who are actively involved in a rigorous and spirited devotion to their duty. Only generations in a state of decline, who have lost their will and spirit, must look back to the past to be elevated and encouraged by the example of their forbearers. The consequences of their errors may serve as a guide and warning to their descendants concerning their present predicament.

For nations and individuals who live as they should, who have a strong, unswerving sense of commitment, the present will always be their primary focus. They are concerned with the here and now. Their minds and energies are so involved with the immediate task of carrying out their duties that they do not feel the need, nor do they have the time or patience, to look back for inspiration. Their lives are always in forward motion, always in "drive." Their search for knowledge centers on one question: "Where does our duty lie in what is our task now?" They understand that the answer to these questions will not be provided by a study of the past, by an in-depth analysis of the successes and failures of their ancestors. The answer to their question lies in the present, in the Torah and in the words of Chazal. Every generation has Torah leaders at its helm who have been imbued with an understanding of Hashem's word, and it is they who disseminate the Torah's wisdom to address the concerns of the present.

In other words, one cannot live in the past. One must live in the present while employing lessons and directions of the past, because issues of the past, quite probably, apply equally to the present. We believe in living testaments. The past continues to live, as it guides us in contemporary times. We do not study history; we live history.

We have learned from history that our People's strength has been derived from the beliefs which were imbued in them at the time of its inception in nationhood and that the endurance of those beliefs is qualified by the vision they carry with them. Other nations have expired because their perspective did not transcend their daily lifestyle.

Moreover, history is not something ancient. Hashem is a vital part of history, and Hashem has not changed! Our lives have meaning and purpose because Hashem is a part of our lives. He is as much a part of our lives today as He was a part of the lives of our ancestors'. This close affiliation to the past - as well as the search for moral principles and lessons to be gleaned from previous generations - has never meant retrogression. Its objective has been positive, as it has always been a basis for progress and a continuous source of achievement. The foundations of the past were concretized with the notion that they will be the link in a chain of continuity from Sinai until Moshiach redeems us from our present exile. Perhaps the perfect word to describe the history of the Jewish People is 'momentum'. From the very moment that we became a nation, we have surged forward with a tremendous drive to achieve national success. With the ever-present awareness that we are part of one long continuum, we look forward to a future of achievement until that auspicious moment that Moshiach Tzidkeinu will arrive and herald the end of history.

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

Horav Meir Arik, zl, suggests an insightful rendering of this pasuk. A manhig Yisrael, Torah leader, is likened to a father. We find in Sefer Melachim 2:12 that Elishah refers to his rebbe, Eliyahu HaNavi as Avi, Avi, "My father, my father." Veritably, what else is he? A leader's function is to guide with a love parallel to that of a father. Thus, the pasuk is teaching us: If you have a question concerning which path to choose, ask your Torah leader for advice. What are the criteria for a Torah leader? He must be an individual whose reply will be, zekeinecha yomru lach, "Your elders have in the past responded to your question in such a manner." His reply is based on the age-old responses of the daas Torah, wisdom of the Torah, as expounded by the leaders of the past generations. If he says, however, "My grandfather, or those of previous generations have said so, but I think differently. I think that contemporary times demand a different approach," do not accept such a leader as your guide. If he responds in this way, he will surely turn you away from the derech ha'emes, true and correct path to spiritual achievement.

Looking to the past for guidance, reflecting upon the hashkafos, perspectives, and minhagim, customs, of Torah leaders of previous generations, is an essential component of a ben Torah's way of life. We do not deviate from the teachings of our Torah leadership of the past. On the contrary, we learn to implement their teachings into the contemporary settings and issues that confront us. I recently saw an interesting vignette in the published history of a distinguished family of German descent. It was a year after the Rosh Hayeshivah of Mesivta Torah Vodaath, Horav Yaakov Kamenetzky, zl, had arrived at the Mesivta. At that time, he was teaching a daily blatt shiur, Talmud class. Horav Shraga Feivel Mendlowitz, zl, the Menahel of Torah Vodaath, would teach Pirkei Avos from time to time to the older students. When he came to 1:17, in which the Tanna says, "All my life I have been raised among the sages, and I have not found anything better than silence," he explained that the Tanna had studied all the hanhagos, practices, of the chachamim, sages. This refers to not only their Torah teachings, but even their everyday, mundane practices, because the hanagah of a Torah scholar is in itself a manner of teaching dinnim, Jewish laws, and mussar, ethical behavior. Suddenly, one of the students in the class raised his hand and asked, "Can we today, at the Mesivta, also emulate and derive lessons from all the hanhagos of all the rebbeim?"

A total silence permeated the room at the audacity of the question. Rav Mendlowitz remained silent, as he sternly stared at the questioner. Finally he responded, "To publicly ask such a question is chutzpah, insolence. However, since you asked the question, I must answer it. For me to state unequivocally that a rebbe who teaches in the Mesivta is on the madreigah, spiritual plateau, that every practice of his is similar to a din in the Shulchan Aruch, code of Jewish law, it would be essential that I be acquainted with every aspect of his private and family life, in addition to his hanhagah in the Mesivta. Since I am not aware of every rebbe's private life, I am not able to give an educated reply. There is, however, one rebbe whose behavior both in the Mesivta and in his private life I have studied very carefully, and I have reached the conclusion that each hanhagah of his is like a din in the Shulchan Aruch. That rebbe is Rav Yaakov Kamenetzky. He is a very good example of what the Tanna in the Mishnah had in mind."

Rav Shraga Feivel was an individual who exemplified this virtue. He was a man whose every nuance was a lesson to be studied and emulated. Indeed, the following episode bears witness to this gadol's integrity and its influence on others. Towards the end of 1956, Shimon Linchner, a grandson of Rav Shraga Feivel, who had recently become engaged, fell seriously ill and tragically passed away shortly before he was to have been married. It was a terrible blow to the family and to the entire yeshiva. The Rosh Hayeshivah, Rav Yaakov Kamenetzky, was maspid, eulogized, the niftar, deceased. He mentioned that it was well-known that Rav Shraga Feivel refused to ask for deference on behalf of any of his family members. Everyone was to be considered equal. Undoubtedly, Rav Yaakov said he carried this hanhagah with him into the Olam Ha'Emes, World of Truth, even for his beloved grandson. Thus, the Middas Ha'Din, Attribute of Strict Justice, was empowered to have its full jurisdiction.

He discovered him in a desert land, in desolation, a howling wilderness. (32:10)

Hashem found us to be loyal to Him when we accepted His Torah in the wilderness. This acceptance was especially significant and acknowledged by Hashem, since we were the only ones willing to accept the Torah. Fidelity to the Almighty is a virtue that is rewarded. Horav Yitzchak Zilberstein, Shlita, relates an inspiring story which we should apply to our own lives. An American Jew worked hard at his job, but could barely make ends meet. He always had too much month left at the end of his paycheck. Nonetheless, he remained committed and observant in every aspect of his relationship with the Almighty. One day, he noticed an advertisement seeking a manager for an apartment complex. The owner was a wealthy non-Jew who was willing to pay a premium for the right person. Indeed, including a free apartment and benefits, the package totaled about $10,000 a month, a salary that was many-fold more than this Jew was presently earning. He made the call and scheduled an appointment for an interview for the next day.

There was one slight problem: It was during the Nine Days from Rosh Chodesh Av until our national day of mourning on Tisha B'Av. This created a problem for the fellow seeking the position. He was in great need of a haircut and a shave. What should he do? He had never before shaved during this period of mourning. On the other hand, if he presented himself to the gentile in his current appearance, he would have very little chance of landing the position that he so badly needed. He decided that for once he would give himself a dispensation and shave. After all, his family had to eat. Such an opportunity does not appear every day.

The yetzer hora, evil inclination, has incredible powers. It can convince a person that the mistake he is about to make is, in reality, a positive step, a necessary move. As was the case, the yetzer hora did a job on this person. The next day, he presented himself bright and early at the gentile's office. The interview seemed to be going well, and the man was starting to get his hopes up. This was especially true when the owner told him that the previous eight applicants had failed to impress him. He said, "I would like to ask you one question that is gnawing at me."

"By all means, ask whatever you wish," the hopeful applicant replied. "Living with observant Jews for many years," the gentile began, "I have had occasion to have business dealings with them. I know that this time of year is a period of mourning for members of your religion, during which haircuts and shaving are not acceptable, except under extenuating circumstances. Thus, it surprises me that you have come to my office with a fresh haircut and shave. If it is a period of mourning, it should, likewise, affect you."

The Jewish applicant was embarrassed beyond words. He explained, "Under normal circumstances, I do not shave or take a haircut during this period. However, I feared that by presenting myself to you in my current appearance, I was precluding any chance of securing the position. So, I allowed myself to shave."

When the gentile heard this, he responded in disgust, "As far as I am concerned our meeting is concluded. I am seeking a manager who is trustworthy, who will oversee my property with utmost reliability and truthfulness. How do you expect me to trust you if you have no loyalty to your G-d? If you are willing to renege something in which you have always believed, just to make an impression to secure a job, then you are not the man for this position."

This is a powerful reply that should give us all something to think about.

Hashem will see and be provoked by the anger of His sons and daughters, and He will say, "I shall hide My face from them and see what their end will be - for they are a generation of reversals." (32:19,20)

The Chasam Sofer, zl, made use of an incident that occurred concerning his rebbe, Horav Pinchas Halevi Horowitz, zl, the Baal Haflaah, who at the time was the Rav of Frankfurt. One day, a woman entered the Rav's home with a complaint against her husband. Apparently, he would take everything that they owned and give it away to charity. While he earned a fine living, his family was relegated to living in near poverty because of his philanthropic tendencies. As soon as this woman finished speaking, a poor man in tattered clothes visited the Rav and asked to lodge a complaint against his wealthy brother. It seems that his brother was bent on redefining the concept of stinginess. He hoarded every penny that he obtained, allowing his brother and family to live in abject poverty. When the Haflaah heard these contrasting complaints, he asked that the two subjects of the complaints, the woman's husband and the wealthy brother, be brought before him.

The two men came and presented themselves to the Rav. Turning to the woman's husband, the Rav asked, "My sources inform me that you have a difficult time holding on to your money. You seem to have this compelling need to rid yourself of your possessions. While your charitable proclivity is to be commended, there is a limit even to charity."

"Rebbe, let me explain," the man replied. "Man does not know how long he will live. Tomorrow, I could be gone from the world. It is well known that the only possessions that accompany a person to the next world are mitzvos and good deeds. Tzedakah, charity, is my entrance ticket to Gan Eden."

After the Rav heard the first one's excuse, he turned to the wealthy man who had ignored the pleas of his poverty-stricken brother and asked, "What is your excuse for hoarding all of your money?"

"Rebbe," he began. "Man does not know the length of his days. I might live to a very ripe old age, and I will need all the funds in my possession to secure that my retirement is well funded. After all, no one else will take care of me when I am old and frail."

The Baal Haflaah turned to the two men and said, "Hashem should protect each of you from the source of his fears. The one who is afraid that he might leave this world in the very near future should be blessed with longevity, and the one who refuses to help his brother because he fears that he will live a long time should not have reason to worry about that." Shortly thereafter, the Rav's words became a reality.

The Chasam Sofer concluded the story, saying that this was the message of the pasuk. Hashem saw that His sons and daughters were provoking His anger. He said, "Let Me see how they will respond to their 'end,' how they will react when they confront their thoughts concerning their own mortality." Alas, what did Hashem see? He saw that Dor tahapuchos heimah, "They are a generation of reversals." They turn everything around. Instead of reacting positively to the day of death, by giving charity and performing mitzvos, they respond with gluttony and self-indulgence, seeking to gorge themselves with whatever they can. It seems that the lessons imparted by this message have not yet reached our generation.

Va'ani Tefillah

Baruch Shemo - Blessed is His Name.

We contemplate Hashem through the revelation of what we have seen of His guiding rulership of the world, a control that is manifest in varied circumstances, but constant in purpose and objective. The cognition of these phases of life in which we see Hashem's guiding hand inspires within us the eternal resolve of our lives to be a blessing for the will of Hashem. Horav S.R. Hirsch, zl, explains that our penetrating awareness of Hashem awakens within us a firm desire to glorify Him. We "bless Him" by becoming a blessing.

Horav Avigdor Miller, zl, explains that shem, name, is related to shema, hear/listen. One's name is necessary only when one is not present, when others speak of him. They speak of what they have heard concerning him, because he is not here with us. When we speak of Hashem, we are unable to bless Him for what He actually is, since we cannot perceive Him. We, therefore, bless His Name, or whatever we have heard about Him. This includes His wisdom, kindness, compassion awesome power, attributes which are evident in every aspect of His rule.

Last, we may add that while we have not been privileged with His Revelation, others - such as the Patriarchs, Moshe Rabbeinu and the Neviim, Prophets etc - have had this privilege. Blessing Hashem's Name is essentially our way of praising the One Who has revealed Himself to the Torah giants throughout Jewish history. It is our way of saying that we believe in what we have heard and in what we have been taught.

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