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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 the rain; may My utterance flow like the dew. (32:2)

In the Talmud Taanis 7a, Chazal make a perceptive statement concerning Torah study. One who studies Torah lishmah, for its own sake, for the sole purpose of carrying out Hashem's command to study Torah, his Torah scholarship becomes a sam ha'chaim, elixir of life. Whoever studies Torah she'lo lishmah, not for its own sake, but, rather, for ulterior motives, the Torah becomes for him a sam ha'maves, deadly poison. As it says, Yaarof ka'matar likchi; "May My teaching drop like rain." The word ya'arof is similar to the word, v'arfu, a reference to the procedure of breaking the neck of the "axed heifer," which is part of the atonement process performed when a corpse is found outside of a city, when there is no clue concerning the identity of his murderer. Given yaarof's connection to v'arfu, we may conclude that Torah scholarship in the wrong hands can have a deadly effect.

Tosfos raise the contradiction that Chazal does not coincide with a principle found in Meseches Pesachim 50b: "A person should always study Torah, even if he has ulterior motives, because mitoch shelo lishmah, through study for ulterior motives, he will eventually reach the level of lishmah, studying Torah for its own sake." Tosfos resolves this contradiction by distinguishing between two forms of she'lo lishmah. The Talmud Pesachim, which seems to encourage Torah study even if it is for ulterior motives, is addressing a case in which, although the individual does not study for idealistic reasons, he is still not studying for malicious reasons. A case in point would be one who studies in order to become famous. In Meseches Taanis, our Chazal is addressing a case in which one learns al menas l'kanter, for the sake of being contentious, in order to use his knowledge as a weapon against others. Such malicious use of Torah study transforms his erudition into a deadly poison.

Horav Boruch Mordechai Ezrachi, Shlita, derives a penetrating lesson from Chazal. Our sages teach us that one who studies Torah for the express reason of being contentious, the Torah becomes his poison - not as a result of his aggression, but because he studied shelo lishmah, not for Torah's sake! Otherwise, Chazal should have simply said that one who studies Torah in order to oppugn, the Torah becomes for him a deadly poison. Why mention lishmah? Obviously, lishmah is the issue, with l'kanter, contention, being the vehicle which undermines the lishmah. This is because the only dispensation allowing for one to study Torah she'lo lishmah is because it will ultimately lead to lishmah. However, under such a circumstance in which the she'lo lishmah will not lead to lishmah, such as one who studies Torah for the purpose of promoting hostility, his scholarship will be his poison.

The Rosh Yeshivah expounds further on this matter. If one were to use the Torah as a step-stool for climbing up to a high place, or if he were to take the Torah and strike someone with it, this would be a serious denigration of the Torah. He transgresses Ki dvar Hashem bazah, "For he scorned the word of Hashem" (Bamidbar 15:31), but he has not yet acted in such a manner that compares his Torah scholarship to a deadly poison. If a person manipulates Torah to serve his selfish purposes, it is wrong, but still does not warrant being included in the category of sam ha'maves, deadly poison. On the contrary, the hope always exists that he may turn around and study Torah for its sake.

One who takes the Torah and transforms it into a weapon of destruction destroys the very essence of what Torah represents: life. Toras Chaim, the Torah of life, is the perfect appellation to describe the Torah's life-sustaining properties. To use Torah for anything other than life alters its spiritual composition, creating a metamorphosis which results in the Torah becoming a deadly contagion.

Understand the years of generation after generation. (32:7)

Moshe Rabbeinu exhorts the nation not to ignore the relevance of the past. It may be gone, and, indeed, generations and people do change, but the lessons of the past remain the same. They are vital links towards understanding occurrences of bygone years and the manner in which the members of previous generations addressed the issues of the times. The Chidushei HaRim, zl, was wont to say that each generation, each individual time period in history, is blessed with its own unique understanding of Torah, endemic to the specific needs, challenges, and times of that generation. Horav Yitzchak Zilberstein, Shlita, notes some of the excuses voiced by those seeking a way to justify their indifference to Torah study. They will often claim that: "I am just not cut out for learning"; "I am not going to become a Rosh Yeshiva"; "Times have changed and learning is just not in." These and other baseless excuses are becoming all too common. We must remember that every generation has its own unique spiritual flow of Torah percipience, which enables and empowers the members of that generation to study Torah unimpeded.

In researching and chronicling the history of previous generations, I have become aware of each generation's unique battle to study and observe Torah and mitzvos. The Baalei Tosfos in Ashkenaz/Western European countries contended with pogroms, wholesale slaughter, poverty and other physical challenges; and their colleagues in Sfarad, Spain, Italy, confronted the blandishments of acceptance, acculturation and assimilation. Yet, they persevered and dedicated themselves to Torah study, providing ensuing generations with clear, concise interpretation and codification of Jewish law. Our generation is a generation of survivors, children of survivors, and students of survivors of a cataclysmic holocaust that destroyed European Jewry, yet laid the seeds for the germination and blossoming of Torah, unparalleled in the history of our glorious nation. We, too, are challenged every step of the way. Living in a country in which freedom and acceptance are the catchwords of life, we are availed boundless opportunities; the doors are open, beckoning us to enter and join the fun. The Jew is welcomed, his yarmulke accepted; real poverty is the exception - not the rule. All of this allows for - and even encourages - excuses to distance ourselves from our real purpose in life. The yetzer hora, evil inclination, works overtime to provide us with reasons not to learn, not to go to a shiur, not to have a chavrusa, study partner. After all, we are too busy, too involved.

Binu shanos dor va'dor, "Understand the years of generation after generation." The Torah beckons us to listen to its timeless message. We have unique challenges, but Hashem has provided us with a special binah, understanding, to conquer the yetzer hora - generated malaise that engulfs so many. To quote a popular secular writer: "Death is not the greatest loss in life. The greatest loss is what dies inside of us while we live." Every opportunity to study Torah which we allow to slip by is a self-inflicted death blow. We have no excuses.

He discovered him in a desert land, in desolation, a howling wilderness; He encircled him, He granted him discernment, He preserved him like the pupil of His eye. (32:10)

Klal Yisrael proved its worthiness when they emphatically proclaimed, Naase v'nishma, "We will do and we will listen," as they accepted Hashem's Torah. Their trust in Hashem was demonstrated when they readily followed Him into the wilderness. Rashi teaches that it was two acts of emunah and bitachon, faith and trust, which distinguished the Jewish People and what actually earned them Hashem's everlasting protection: accepting the Torah while the other nations repudiated it; and going out into the desolate wasteland of the wilderness. We earned "protective status" due to our enormous trust in Hashem. It has not always been easy, but we have persevered, because bitachon is part of a Jew's DNA. Trusting in Hashem is not something we do when we have nowhere else to turn. No! We trust in Hashem because we know that there is no other entity upon whom we can rely. A Jew is inherently connected to the Almighty; bitachon is an integral component of his relationship. We accepted the Torah without hesitation as a result of our trust in Hashem. We followed Him into the wilderness without question because we believed in Him. As a consequence of this loyalty, Hashem will always protect us.

The Midrash Tanchuma relates a fascinating story which substantiates the notion that Hashem protects those who trust in Him. A very wealthy man had one daughter who was both externally attractive and internally replete with a refined character and a demeanor that was pious and virtuous. In short, she was an exceptional young woman. Sadly, she had been married three times, with each marriage ending in tragedy. The day following each wedding, each respective husband had died. The young widow was determined that she was cursed and that no other man would die as a result of her unfortunate predicament. She was never going to remarry.

Quite some time passed and she remained alone, mourning her past, disconsolate about her present and having little to look forward to in the future. The young widow's father had a brother living in a different town who was very poor. Blessed with ten sons and no money, life was quite difficult for him. Everyday he and his eldest son would go to the forest, chop and gather wood, and sell it in the marketplace to support their large family. One day, they could not find anyone to purchase their wood, and the family had nothing to eat. The father could not handle any more. He went to the forest, sat down on a tree stump, and began to cry bitterly. Seeing his father in such a sorry state of depression, the son decided that he was leaving to visit his wealthy uncle. Perhaps he could do something to help alleviate their sorry predicament. The joy in his uncle's home upon his arrival was palpable. Father, mother and daughter were ecstatic to greet their relative. The young man stayed as their guest for seven days. He then approached his uncle and said, "I have a request to make of you, my dear uncle, but you must promise me that you will grant me my request."

"My child, whatever you want. I will be more than happy to grant your wish, within reason, of course," the uncle replied.

"No, you must promise that regardless what I ask, you will comply with my request," the nephew reiterated.

"As I told you, anything within reason and I will grant your wish," the uncle responded.

"I ask for your daughter's hand in marriage," was the young man's request.

"I beg you," the uncle began to cry, "Anything but that. Please do not ask me to do this."

"I insist, and you promised to honor my request. I want to marry your daughter," the young man declared.

"If you want my money, I will give it to you gladly, but please do not ask for my daughter," the uncle pleaded.

"You promised," the young man replied.

After the young woman was told of the negotiations, she acceded to the marriage and prayed to Hashem, "Almighty! Please do not take this husband from me like You took the others." At the wedding, an elderly man, who happened to be Eliyahu HaNavi, came over to the chassan, groom, and said to him, "During the meal, you will be approached by a poor man, dressed in old, torn clothes. I advise you to invite him to be your honored guest. Seat him at a place of honor, serve and feed him and make him feel comfortable. You must follow everything that I instruct you."

As predicted, the poor man entered the wedding hall. The chassan immediately noticed him, made a beeline to him and followed all of the "old man's" instructions. At the conclusion of the meal, the poor man motioned to the chassan to join him in a small room adjoining the dinner hall. They entered the room, and the poor man asked the groom to sit down. "My son," the poor man began, "I am Hashem's emissary, sent to take your life." The chassan was understandably shocked, but retained his composure and asked, "Can you grant me a year or six months' reprieve?" "No," was his response.

"What about a month or at least the seven nuptial days?" the chassan asked. "I am sorry," the man answered. "I cannot even give you one day. My orders are for today."

"Will you allow me to confer with my newly-wedded wife?" the chassan asked. "I will allow you," he replied, "but you must hurry - time is running out."

The young man went to see his wife and found her crying. He understood what weighed heavily on her mind. Rather than beat around the bush, he told her, "I have come to ask your permission. My time has come to leave this world. The angel who will 'escort' me to my resting place has come for me." Her response was, "Wait here. Let me see what I can do."

She left the room and confronted the "poor man": "You are the one who has been sent to retrieve my husband's neshamah, soul?" "Yes, that is correct," he replied. "Well, you cannot do it," she countered. "Does Hashem not write in His Torah, 'When a man marries a new wife…he shall gladden his wife whom he has married …he shall be free from his home for one year' (Devarim 23:5). If you take him from me, you are making a farce out of the Torah! How can you do that?"

The Midrash concludes that Hashem removed the angel, and the man was allowed to live. The decree had ended. This is because Hashem watches over and protects those who place their trust in Him. The Sichos Mussar, from Bais Shalom Mordechai, explains that the young man was acutely aware of the "curse" on anyone who married this young woman. He could have easily followed the example of all the other well-meaning young men and stayed away from her, but, when he saw a young woman miserable over her dreadful circumstances, he took pity. With determination and resolve, he decided that he would do "his," and Hashem would protect him. If not- well - he would follow his predecessors. He trusted in Hashem and did the right thing. This is why Hashem protected him. Bitachon made the difference.

We encounter situations in life where we must take action when the chances for success are, at best, slim. We have no alternative. We trust in Hashem and plod forward. This is what Judaism is all about. Our trust in Hashem gives us the stability to hang in there and supplies us with the recipe for success.

For it is not an empty thing for you, for it is your life. (32:47)

How often do we express our love for our children with the phrase, "You are my life"? Clearly, we are trying to convey our outstanding affection, but is it true? Does a parent's life and existence hinge on his child? Life goes on, and we continue living. It is a powerful expression with an inspirational meaning, but, after all is said and done, it is not true. The Torah, however, is perfectly exacting in everything it says. Thus, when the Torah says that Torah is our life - make no mistake - Torah is our life. This is not an affectionate statement. It is the consummate truth, an absolute fact.

Horav Mordechai Gifter, zl, expounds on this idea. He cites the Rambam in Shemoneh Perakim who divides all physical matter into five categories. The Rosh Yeshivah notes that we would otherwise have placed these into four categories. First, is the domeim, inorganic objects, such as stones and rocks. They are followed by the tzomeiach, plant life, growing matter. The third category is the baal chai, animal, which is a living, breathing creation. Fourth is the me'daber, human, who is able to speak. The Yisrael is a creation all to himself, making him the fifth category.

Each of these creations is not only different from one another in degree, but also in essence. Thus, plant life is not merely an added characteristic to a stone or a stone which grows. It is a totally different class of existence which adheres to different ways of maintaining its existence. This idea applies equally to each of the other categories. The Ben Yisrael is different from the me'daber, despite their many similarities. In addition, as these creations vary in their level of "life," so, too, are they each unique in its source of life. To put it simply, the Ben Yisrael's source of life is not the same as that of the rest of humanity.

While the Ben Yisrael is clothed in a physical body as are all other human beings, the Ben Yisrael is really of a spiritual essence. The source of a Jew's level of life is in his spiritual dimension - not in his physical sustenance. He needs physical sustenance to keep him alive in a physical sense. However, even when the Jew's physical essence comes to an end, and he, so to speak, dies, his soul, which is his real essence, lives on. The nourishment for the soul is Torah fulfillment. Therefore, if the Jew connects with the Torah, adhering to its dictates, observing its commandments, he lives! If he severs his bond with the Torah, he may continue to be physically alive, but his true essence, his spiritual dimension, ceases to exist. He is dead.

In the Talmud Berachos 18a, Chazal quote the pasuk in Koheles 9:5, "'For the living know that they will die, but the dead know nothing at all.'" Chazal say that this pasuk is a reference to tzaddikim, righteous people, and reshaim, the wicked. "'For the living know that they will die,'" refers to the righteous, who in death are also called 'alive.' "'But the dead know nothing at all," is a reference to the wicked who, even in life, are considered 'dead.'" Chazal's exegesis begs elucidation. The pasuk refers to the living and the dead. While it makes sense that the wicked do not really live, from where do Chazal derive the notion that the righteous are called alive even in death?

The Rosh Yeshivah explains that one who is a tzaddik has remained attached to the source of life - the Torah. Hence, even after his physical "container" ceases to exist, he nevertheless remains very much alive. Thus, tzaddikim are called "alive" even in death. A rasha, even when he is alive, has already severed his relationship with his true source of life, thereby causing his premature spiritual demise. Indeed, in the Talmud Avodah Zarah 3b, Chazal compare the Jewish People to a fish. A fish dies once it is removed from the water. So, too, once a ben Yisrael removes himself from Torah and mitzvos - he dies.

Perhaps we might offer the following perspective. Chaim, life, in this sense, means relevance. The wicked, even when they are alive, have absolutely no relevance. Nothing they do has significance; their existence has no effect on the world. They live and die for themselves. When they die, they are gone, not to be remembered, because their life was without meaning, without influence. They just did not matter. These might be strong words, but when we think about the achievements of those who live a life wrapped up in themselves, who ignore their People, rebel against their G-d, and do not identify with their religion, their lives are irrelevant. The tzaddik, however, lives a life of inspiration. Everything that he touches endures long, far beyond his mortal term on this world. His inspiration, acts of kindness, and mitzvah performance accompany his physical and spiritual descendants for generations to come. He has lived a life in which he impacted the lives of others for generations to come. Such a life endures long after his mortal remains have been laid to rest.

The Torah scholar who devotes his life to Torah study is acutely aware of the life-sustaining properties of Torah. Their relationship vis-?-vis the Torah went beyond awareness: it was something palpable. They actually sensed it, feeling weak when their dedicated time for Torah study has to be appropriated for other mitzvos. Horav Yosef Moshe Ades, zl, popularly known as Chacham Yosef, taught at Yeshivas Porat Yosef for over forty years. He also gave a pre-sunrise shiur, class, at the Kosel in Talmud to working men for twenty-five years. When asked why he placed such emphasis on teaching Talmud to individuals whose background and available time could best be served with a class in a somewhat "easier" form of erudition, such as Chumash, Mishnayos, or Halachah, the Chacham replied, "If I teach them only halachos, then they will be satisfied if their children learn only halachos. If, however, I teach them Talmud, and they taste the sweetness of Talmud study, then they will ultimately want their children to likewise maximize their pleasure of learning and study Talmud in the Yeshivah."

In addition to his heavy teaching schedule, the Chacham also set aside time each day for the study of Daf Yomi, the cycle of studying a page of Talmud daily. As a result of his hectic schedule, he would often "learn ahead" and store dafim, pages, in reserve in the event that he could not study the designated page on its appointed day. He, therefore, kept a bookmark in his Talmud to remind him how far he had studied.

Chacham Yosef passed away after a short illness. The last few days of his life he was unconscious. During the shivah, seven-day-mourning period, a relative happened to open his volume of Talmud which he used for Daf Yomi. He noticed that the bookmark was placed on the page which coincided with the actual day of Chacham Yosef's passing. He had maintained his learning schedule up until the day that he left this world.

Chacham Ezra Attiah, zl, was Rosh Yeshivah of Porat Yosef and mentor to generations of Sephardic leaders. He was truly a great tzaddik. On a visit to R' Ezra, who was ill, Horav Yisrael Abuchatzeira, zl, the venerable Baba Sali, told R' Ezra's son-in-law that his father-in-law's suffering atoned for the sins of the entire generation. Shortly before he left this world, he entered a comatose state. Yet, he joined his students as they recited passages of the Zohar. As his strength began to ebb and the final moments drew near, R' Ezra quietly listed those things that had been uppermost in his life, such as the names of the Mesechtos, tractates, of Talmud that he had mastered. "Baba Kamma, Bava Metzia, Kesubos…" With those words the life of a person who was truly a living Sefer Torah came to an end. Ein chaim elah Torah.

Va'ani Tefillah

Va'teira es ani avoseinu b'Mitzrayim v'es zaakasam shomaataa al Yam Suf.
You saw the poverty of our forefathers in Egypt, You heard their outcry at the Yam Suf.

Horav Shimon Schwab, zl, notes the use of the word ani, poverty, as opposed to inui or oni, which means torture or pain. While Hashem certainly saw the physical pain and torture to which we were subjected in Egypt, this pasuk focuses on the spiritual poverty of our forefathers as they languished in a country whose moral bankruptcy was part of their "culture."

Hashem heard their cries at the sea. What about in Egypt? Surely, He heard their outpouring of tears as they fell under the whips of their oppressors. Indeed, in Shemos 3:7, the Torah states: "And I have heard its outcry because of its taskmasters." Reishis Bikurei cites the Malbim's commentary to Shemos 2:23: "It happened that the king of Egypt died, and Bnei Yisrael…cried out." The Egyptians were such despots that they would not permit the Jews to cry out in pain over their suffering. They beat them; they inflicted great pain on them, but they would not allow them to express their anguish. It was only when the wicked Pharaoh died that they were allowed to cry, because the Egyptians, with their narcissistic mentality, thought the Jews were bewailing the death of their King. Otherwise, the Jews were to remain silent. Suffering in silence became a way of life for the hapless Jews until they came to the shores of the Red Sea. Then, they raised their voices to Heaven and cried out.

in loving memory of our
Father and Grandfather
Mr. Alex Shapiro
Eliyahu ben Yaakov z"l
niftar yom aleph Rosh Hashana 5745
"His life was a symphony of song to Hashem"
Katia and Fred Bolotin & Family
Joy and David Schwartz & Family
Leora and Reuven Mandel

Peninim on the Torah is in its 20th year of publication. The first fifteen years have been published in book form.

The Fifteenth volume is available at your local book seller or directly from Rabbi Scheinbaum.

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