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Peninim on the Torah

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Rabbi A. Leib Scheinbaum
Hebrew Academy of Cleveland


Give ear, O heavens, and I will speak; and may the earth hear the words of my mouth. (32:1)

There seems to be a disparity between the Torah's description of Moshe Rabbeinu's oratory to the Heaven and the way he addressed the earth. He says haazinu, "Give ear, "pay attention, as if he was speaking directly to Heaven. Also, he uses the word, adabeirah, "I will speak," which is a stronger, more direct form of communication. In contrast, Moshe tells the earth v'sishma, "and hear," listen in, as I convey imrei fi, words of my mouth. It is almost as if Moshe is talking directly to Heaven, and he is requesting earth to listen in on the conversation. How are we to understand this?

In his Ben Ish Chai, Horav Yosef Chaim Mi'Bagdad, zl, explains that Mussar, rebuke, given directly to the offender, often falls on deaf ears. The guilty party does not want to hear that he did something wrong. He is not interested in listening to a litany of complaints against him. Thus, one who wants to give effective rebuke should direct it to someone who is innocent, in such a manner that the guilty party is privy to "listening in." Overhearing a conversation which really was supposed to be directed to him, the true offender will begin to think. After all, it was not a personal attack. He will take the message at face value, listen to the implications which concern him and hopefully change his less-than laudatory habits.

Shomayim, heaven, is a metaphor for tzaddikim, the righteous, whose lives are Himmeldik, Heavenly. Their focus on spiritual pursuit removes them from the realm of the physical dimension. Eretz, earth, are those people who are unable to extricate themselves from their earthliness. Moshe spoke to the tzaddikim with the hope that the average person, whose earthliness caused him to sin, would take the hint and listen to his words. Moshe spoke harsh words to the sky, because he wanted the earth to listen and get the message.

Let My teachings descend like the rain, may My utterance flow like the dew. (32:1)

The Torah is compared to rain which descends from the heavens, reviving the seeds buried within the earth. The Sefas Emes notes a relationship between adamah, earth, and rain vis-ŕ-vis Adam HaRishon, primordial man, his offspring, and the Torah which is compared to rain. The earth filled with seed is potential vegetation, grass, etc. It is only when rain descends on the adamah that this potential is released and the seeds begin to sprout and produce. Likewise, adam, man, created from adamah, is filled with tremendous potential. Will he realize his potential, or will it continue to lay dormant? Torah She'Baal Peh, the Oral Torah, represents the concept of Chayei Olam nota b'socheinu, "Eternal life 'planted' in our midst." With the proper rain - the pure teachings of the Torah - new spiritual life can emerge. The word "pure" prefaces teachings, because, while there is a lot of Torah out there, unless it is pure and unadulterated Torah, taught by a bonafide Torah teacher who exemplifies the Torah's perspective, it is regrettably missing its life-sustaining properties.

Yeshayah HaNavi says, Ki kaasher yeireid ha'geshem v'ha'sheleg, min ha'Shomayim, v'shamah lo yashuv, ki im hirvah es ha'aretz v'holidah v'hitzmichah… kein yiheyeh Devari, "Like the rain and the snow that come down from the heavens and will not return until they have soaked the earth and brought forth its bounty and made it grow… so will be My words" (Yeshayah 55:10,11). Hashem's word descends to the Jewish People like rain and snow, benefitting the people just as its counterparts enhance the earth's ability to produce its bounty.

In Moshe Rabbeinu's homily to the people, he compares the Torah to various forms of rain: rain, dew, storm winds, light rain drops, drizzle. Sefas Emes explains the connotation to Torah. Some types of rain soften the earth; other rains, such as drizzle, are particularly good for the grass, since they soak the ground and slowly seep into the earth; heavy showers improve certain types of grass. Likewise, there are parts of the Torah which, like hard rain, address the heart of man, softening it, transforming "stone" into a soft, putty-like substance which allows it to absorb the Torah's teachings and lessons. Other parts of the Torah are similar to drizzle, which slowly penetrates the heart's core. There is Torah which is geared to the entire collective of the Jewish People, and there is Torah which addresses the life of the individual. In conclusion, at each and every stage of a person's life, there is a portion or passage of the Torah that is specifically designed to attend to and treat his problem.

In Sefer Tehillim 19:8, David HaMelech says, Toras Hashem temimah, "Hashem's Torah is complete/perfect." This pasuk describes the all-encompassing nature of the Torah. The Sefas Emes quotes the pasuk in Shiras Haazinu (Devarim 32:4), Hatzur tamim paalo, "The Rock, Whose works are complete." He interprets the Rock as a reference to Hashem Who used the Torah, which is referred to as complete (tamim - temimah) to culminate His word of (paalo) Creation. Since the Torah preceded the Creation of the world, and, in effect, is the source for Creation, every facet of the world - both physical and spiritual - has its origins in the Torah. The Torah also goes by the term aish, fire, and is known as Toras chesed, Torah of kindness, and Toras emes, Torah of truth. Thus, each character trait of man in some way finds its corresponding part in the Torah.

Torah is also compared to water. Chazal teach that the rain designated for the world - which is determined on Rosh Hashanah - will fall in consonance with man's actions during the year: If they are righteous and, thus, deserving, the rain will fall where it is needed at a propitious time and engender prosperity in the world. If not, the rain will fall in the desert where it is not needed, where it brings no benefit. The same idea holds true with regard to the spiritual shefah, flow, of Torah. In accordance with its recipient's preparation, the Torah will come at a time and place where it can be of greatest spiritual benefit. Regrettably, one who is undeserving will see the spiritual flow in others. He will just stand there and wonder, "Why not me too?"

With the above idea in place, I think we can now explain why the Torah is referred to as a shirah, song. In Parashas Vayeilech (Devarim 31:19), the Torah commands us with mitzvah 613: the mitzvah of writing a Sefer Torah. V'atah kisvu lachem es haShirah ha'zos, v'lamdah es Bnei Yisrael, simah b'fihem. "So now, write this song for yourselves, teach it to Bnei Yisrael, and place it in their mouth." Chazal derive from here that every Jew is commanded to write a Torah scroll - a mitzvah that can be fulfilled by writing a single letter. Since the lack of even one letter invalidates the Torah, writing or correcting one letter is tantamount to completing the entire scroll. Why is the Torah called a song?

A song is a musical score of high and low notes perfectly coordinated in harmony with one another. Each individual note in its own right may seem inconsistent with the next, but in context of the greater song, it all meshes together, with the "highs" and "lows," all becoming "straight" in a perfect blend of harmony. The word shirah may be derived from yashar, which means straight. A song reflects the coalescing of various notes in such a manner that they become a perfect score. Shirah is the expression of seeing the "straight" in what appears misshapen. This can only be done through the lens of Torah. A Jew who enjoys such a relationship with the Torah "sings" through life. Regardless of how it might appear to the uninitiated, he is acutely aware and believes with all his heart that his life is a perfect score.

Corruption is not His - the blemish is His children's. (32:5)

Teshuvah is a wonderful thing, but sometimes it comes too late to prevent the damage that has already been done. There is no time limit to teshuvah. It is always accepted, thus allowing for a person who has lived a life of abandon to die and leave this world as a tzaddik, righteous person. There is, however, a collateral damage with regard to his children. This is a damage that is irreparable. When parents go along their merry way, living a life of abandon, a lifestyle that is antithetical to Torah, they must remember that their children are watching. When impressionable minds observe, they become influenced and it becomes part and parcel of their psyche. The parents, at one point in their lives, may decide that enough is enough. There is more to life than living for "today", with a total disregard for the consequences. One of these consequences is their children, who have sadly learned a lifestyle that is wasteful and self-destructive.

This, explains Melitzei Aish, is the Torah's message. Shicheis lo - lo, "Corruption, not him, banav muman - his children, however, remain blemished." Self-corruption may be repaired through teshuvah, but the children are lost - until they also come to their senses.

Remember the days of old, consider the years of each generation. (Devarim 32:7)

Remembrance is a major part of Jewish service to Hashem. Much of our tradition is based upon remembering what once was, our highs and lows, joys and travails. Most important, however, is the ability to see the Yad Hashem, guiding Hand of G-d, throughout all that occurs. The Bostoner Rebbe, zl, put remembrance into perspective when he said, "Remembrance is important, but we must know what to remember. Even concerning those tragedies closest to our own time, such as the Holocaust, are we to remember the pain - or the self-sacrifice - what its victims died for - or what they lived for?"

It is almost as if we make a conscious effort to ignore the "role" Hashem plays in every event that takes place. Perhaps the following anecdote will lend some meaning to this idea. There was once an ignorant villager who was very into the Pesach Seder. Regrettably, he was not much of a scholar, and even the simple basics of the Seder eluded him. Every year, he went searching for a guest who would help him conduct the Seder. One year, despite tremendous effort, he was unsuccessful in finding someone to assist him with the Seder. As far as he was concerned, he was facing catastrophe. A Seder with no guest, just was not a Seder.

In Heaven, his efforts were not going unnoticed. Indeed, the Heavens were in an uproar. How could this man's annual expression of mesiras nefesh, self-sacrifice and devotion, go without consideration? It just was not fair. After much deliberation, messengers were dispatched to the highest Heavens to summon Eliyahu HaNavi to descend to this world and be this simple farmer's Pesach Seder guest.

During this time, the farmer was not sleeping. He came up with an idea, a way to solve his guest issue. He went to the barn and placed a hat and coat on his favorite horse and led the horse-turned-man into his house. The farmer seated his dressed-up horse at the Seder table, looked at his wife, and exclaimed, "See, now we have a Pesach guest!"

When the angels in Heaven looked down and saw the spectacle before them, they laughed. The Baal Shem Tov explained the reason behind their laughter. The villager had toiled for years to establish something. Whatever it would take, he would have a Pesach guest. He succeeded, but look what he had given up! He could have had Eliyahu HaNavi. Instead, he had a horse! How foolish! The Bostoner Rebbe added that they laughed because all too often we give up the Heavenly within ourselves, that lofty spiritual dimension to which we are all privy - exchanging it for what? A brute beast! Is there anything more ridiculous than exchanging the Heavenly for the earthly?

This is our greatest problem: We ignore the spiritual and settle for the material. Success is measured in physical terms, with spiritual achievement playing a distant second. We no longer know what is truly important, what has value, what will endure. If we would only see G-d's guiding Hand in our lives, we would realize the critical role spirituality plays. One can only see, however, if he looks. One who is sightless, either by affliction or by choice, will not see. Those who have alienated themselves from Judaism have become sightless as a result of the affliction called "assimilation." Those who are blind by choice simply refuse to look. They are afraid of what they might see. Nowhere is selective sight more glaring than in the study of history. We choose to remember what we want. We conveniently forget those events that might bother us. What can be more traumatizing than the "discovery" of G-d in our lives, the revelation that all of the events that we have relegated to the forces of "nature" were really orchestrated by Hashem? Imagine, finding out that everything we have denied has really been true.

The early secularists were acutely aware that, in order to extirpate Jewish belief and observance, they had to divorce G-d from history, thereby transforming the past into events that "just happened." Divine Providence, Hashem's guiding Hand, reward and punishment, cause and effect, were terms they refused to acknowledge, because it implied the notion that there was purpose in this world. Purpose begets religion. If life has a reason, why are we not living it to fulfill its purpose? Essentially, we have traded Eliyahu HaNavi for a horse in a suit and hat. Is that not ridiculous?

Universal history is about Jewish destiny and the place it has in shaping world events. Whatever takes place anywhere in the world is for a reason. We should study its lessons and apply it to our lives. Jewish history examines world events through the ages and how they affected our destiny. Even the most isolated event does not occur in a vacuum. There is a reason for it, and we should learn its lesson and apply it to our lives. The ups and downs, the fortunes and travails, are all lessons in reward and punishment; lessons which should help us navigate the proper course of life. Horav Moshe Sternbuch, Shlita, says that Jewish history is not merely about times and places, various cultures and customs. It is meant to be a lesson in emunah, faith and bitachon, trust. All the nations that controlled the world in centuries past have all disappeared, their power dissipated. They are no longer of any value to Hashem. Horav Yechezkel Abramsky, zl, observes the conclusion of Megillas Esther, where it says that the entire story and miracle of Purim is written in the annals of Paras u'Madai. Who cares? Why does the Megillah find it necessary to inform us of another source for the miracle of Purim?

Rav Abramsky explains that at first blush, the cursory reader might think that the Megillah is relating the Purim story to its readers. To dispel this error, the Megillah cautions us that if we want nothing more than the "Purim story," we are welcome to read about it in the Persian history books. The sensation, excitement and drama that unfold in the Purim story are best related in the secular Persian chronicles. The details are there; the players, heroes, heroines, and villains are clearly depicted. Indeed, all the makings of a great novel are available for the reader's delight. The Megillah, however, is not a history book. It was written al pi Ruach Ha'Kodesh, through Divine Inspiration, with the sole purpose of teaching about Divine Providence and the chesed, kindness, that Hashem displayed for Klal Yisrael. If one seeks to understand the Yad Hashem, guiding Hand of Hashem; if he wants to discern Hashem's role in shaping Jewish destiny, then the Megillah is for him. If, however, he simply wants a good story, a historical appreciation of the development of the Persian Jewish community, then he should read the history books. One must remember that it is not enough just to know history. One must understand it and see the guiding Hand of Hashem as He crystallizes Jewish destiny.

For they are a nation bereft of counsel, and there is no discernment in them. (32:28)

One would think that an individual who is unable to render sound advice lacks discernment. There is a reason we refer to it as "sage" advice. One who "can" renders advice. One who is unable to determine, make distinction, perceive, is not one whom we seek out for advice. If so, the pasuk is redundant. "For they are a nation bereft of counsel" - means that they are too foolish for their indiscretions. Why does the Torah add that "there is no discernment in them"? Obviously, they are not rocket scientists if they cannot figure out the course of events.

Nachal Kedumim explains that indeed there are situations in which a wise man does not render advice, specifically because of his acuity. On the contrary, in such an instance, it would be foolish to say anything, for fear it would backfire on him. He supports this with Chazal's citation of the dialogue that ensued between Achashveirosh and the Chachmei Yisrael, wise men of Yisrael. The Talmud Megillah 12b relates that following Vashti's audacious behavior, the king was in a state of fury. Something had to be done. He had been embarrassed in front of the entire populace. No one shames the king and gets away with it - not even the queen. Being the wisest men in the country, the king turned to Chachmei Yisrael for their sage advice on how to deal with the Vashti problem.

They understood that, at present, the king was inconsolable. His outrage fueled by humiliation was bristling. The wrong answer would be the end of them. They also realized that an angry person, over time, calms down. Today, the king was out of control. He sought revenge for his bruised ego, but, what if tomorrow he were to wake up in a better mood and "missed" his "beloved" Vashti? The Jews who said, "Kill her!" would be next in line. On the other hand, to say, "Forgive her!" was inconsistent with the respect in which one should behold royalty. After all, she did disgrace the king. Such an infraction could not be tolerated.

The wise Jews were in a quandary. What does a truly wise man do when he is firmly implanted between a rock and a hard place? He feigns ineptitude. This is exactly what these wise men did, by responding to Achashveirosh that ever since the destruction of the Temple and their exile from the Holy Land, they were no longer able to cogently render decisions regarding life and death issues. Perhaps the king should entertain the notion of seeking advice from Amon or Moav, two nations that were living quite comfortably on their land. They were able to think through all aspects of the issue. Thus, the Chachmei Yisrael brilliantly thwarted any danger to themselves by presenting themselves as inept. Only an arrogant fool renders advice when it might backfire on them.

With regard to our original question, we see that the pasuk is far from redundant. On the contrary, it is due to his astuteness that he feigns an inability to offer advice. In certain circumstances, keeping one's mouth shut and shying away from offering advice is actually a sign of a sagacious mind.

If I sharpen My flashing sword and my hand grasps judgment I shall return vengeance upon my enemies and upon those that hate Me shall I bring retribution. (32:41)

In the Midrash, Chazal derive from the words, v'socheiz ba'mishpat Yadi, "and My hand grasps judgment," that Hashem's meting out of punishment is unlike that of human judges. A human being who lets the arrow leave the bow, or allows the bullet to exit the chamber, knows that there is no turning back. Once the arrow/bullet is released it is "deadset" on reaching its target. There is no pulling back, no reprieve. It is too late. For Hashem, it is never too late. The Almighty can retrieve His arrows, call back His bullets at any time. Hashem is always in control.

Horav Yosef Zundel Salant, zl, asks a practical question and employs the above pasuk with its accompanying Rabbinic commentary to elucidate and resolve his query. In the Talmud Taanis 29a, Chazal record the process leading up to and including the Churban Bais HaMikdash, destruction of the Temple. On the seventh day of Av, the Romans entered the Heichal and proceeded to desecrate it for the next two days. On Tisha B'Av, shortly before sunset, they set fire to the edifice. It continued to burn throughout the next day. Rabbi Yochanan said, "Had I been alive during that time, I would have declared that the fast take place on the tenth of Av, since that is when the majority of the Temple was destroyed."

Rav Yosef Zundel points out that Rabbi Yochanan's statement is not consistent with his opinion in Meseches Bava Kamma, that isho mishum chitzo, the fire set by a man which continues to burn, is considered the work of his own hands. Although the fire burns on its own, the one who ignited it with his hands is considered as if he is directly involved every moment that it burns. It is not merely something for which he is responsible. It is something that he is actually doing. The Nimukei Yosef questions this halachah. How is one permitted to light candles Erev Shabbos? According to the opinion that isho mi'shum chitzo, the candles which are burning on Shabbos are considered the direct action of the one who lit them Erev Shabbos. He explains that isho mi'shum chitzo means that the moment he lit the fire it is considered as if he completed the entire fire. It is like one who shoots an arrow. The moment it leaves the bow, the action is complete and attributed to the archer.

If this is the case, how could Rabbi Yochanan have established the fast on the tenth of Av? When the fire was lit on Tishah B'Av, it was considered done. The entire process which would continue on for the next 26 hours was complete on Tishah B'Av! The explanation quoted by a number of commentaries is that the Nimukei Yosef attributes the resulting conflagration to the person who started the original flame. This does not mean that the object which is destroyed was immediately consumed. We blame what will happen on the one who ignited the fire. The Bais HaMikdash was ignited on Tishah B'Av. The destruction, however, did not take place until the next day. This is why Rabbi Yochanan would have declared that the fast take place on the tenth of Av.

In an alternative explanation, Rav Yosef Zundel quotes the above pasuk, which intimates Hashem's ability to halt a punishment at the very last moment. This would give rise to an interesting difference between the destruction of the Bais HaMikdash, which is the work of Hashem, and a fire started by a human being. Hashem can stop the arrow/fire at any time; a person cannot. Once the fire is ignited, it will burn on until the structure is consumed. Hashem "set" the fire that destroyed the Temple using the Romans as His agents. At any given moment, if it would so be the will of Hashem, the fire would end. In such an instance, Rabbi Yochanan would not hold isho mishum chitzo. Until the very last moment, there remained hope that the fire would not destroy the Temple. With Hashem on our side, we always have hope.

Va'ani Tefillah

V'sein b'libeinu l'havin u'lhaskil lishmoa, lilmod, u'le'lameid, lishmor, laasos u'l'kayeim

Instill in our hearts a depth of perception, to understand, to hear, to learn, and to teach, to safeguard, to observe and to uphold the mitzvos.

This clearly has to be one of the most moving and inspiring tefillos in the daily davening. We supplicate Hashem for what is important to us. The mere fact that what we ask for is a perceptive and penetrating understanding of His Torah-- so that we can impart it to others and so that our own observance will intensify--is in itself a meaningful commentary on core Jewish values and mindset. This is what a Jew prays for! This is what concerns him. In his commentary to the tefillah, Horav Avigdor Miller, zl, defines these terms from a practical vantage point. L'havin means to understand, to look deeply into a matter, eschewing any superficial observation. L'haskil, means to act with seichel, practical commonsensical wisdom. These two requests include the entire Torah, so that: A) we understand profoundly, and we are able to be meivin davar mitoch davar, deduce one thing from another based upon our understanding; B) we maintain this level of comprehension in our minds always, so that everything we think, say, and do, will be the result of "hearing, learning, teaching, guarding doing and upholding." All success in Torah learning is contingent upon the fulfillment of these two requests. In other words, for one to truly uphold the Torah he must have common sense, and depth of understanding and be true to daas Torah. Only then do the above words carry their intended impact.

l'zechar nishmas
Rochel Leah bas R' Noach a"h
Freida bas R' Noach a"h
Sora Eshter bas R' Noach

By their family

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

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