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Peninim on the Torah

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Rabbi A. Leib Scheinbaum
Hebrew Academy of Cleveland


Give ears, O' Heavens, and I will speak… Remember the days of yore… when Hashem will have judged His People, He shall relent regarding His servants. (32:1,7,36)

Two themes seem to stand out throughout Shiras Ha'azinu, The Song of Ha'azinu. First, Chazal refer to this sketch of history as a song. Horav Gedalyah Schorr, zl, explains the concept of song with regard to Jewish history. A song implies the concept of harmony. This means that all elements of an orchestra, a musical score with its high and low notes, all the voices of a choir work together in total harmony, creating a perfect and pleasant sound. Likewise, we recognize that all of the elements of the universe fuse together in carrying out G-d's Will. From a historical perspective, we look back and recognize how all of the aspects of the past, present and future meld together into a harmonious blend. What did not make sense in the past is only too clear in the present and must be prevented in the future. The more spiritually elevated one is, the clearer is his perspective. He sees the larger picture.

Second, we see that history has a pattern. Nothing occurs in a vacuum. Hashem presents reward and punishment, but, above all, He never rejects us. Regardless of our ingratitude, our flirting with secularism, and our dabbling in the morally bankrupt society in which we live, Hashem always takes us back. While our ultimate redemption is not contingent upon repentance - it helps. Shiras Ha'azinu guarantees our survival and the downfall of our enemies.

The song represents the spirit of the Torah which connects us to Hashem. A song is the expression of one's inner self. While there are those who, in their way of life, have rejected the Torah, its song continues to resonate within them. As long as one has a Yiddishe Neshamah, Jewish Soul, he is inextricably connected to Hashem. I believe it was the Baal Shem Tov who said, "Man can say he is with G-d; he can say he is against G-d; but he can never say that he is without G-d." Hashem never turns Himself away from us. He merely conceals His Countenance when we sin, but He is always present - waiting for our return.

The following vignettes demonstrate Jewish spiritual resilience even under the most difficult duress and how, regardless one's distance from Hashem, the connection endures. Horav Ezriel Tauber, Shlita, relates how a heinous act of cruelty became a springboard for increased faith in Hashem, inspiring even the most assimilated Jews to experience an unparalleled spiritual revelation, allowing them to achieve Kiddush Shem Shomayim as they left this world.

The Nazis were not satisfied with destroying the Jews physically; they sought also to devastate the Jewish spirit, to utterly abase it. Their diabolical plan involved a curtain - a curtain that had once been the Paroches, Curtain, hanging over an Aron HaKodesh, Holy Ark, in which the Torah scrolls had been stored. Embroidered on the front of this curtain were the words: Zeh ha'Shaar l'Hashem tzaddikim yavo'u bah, "This is the Gate of G-d, the righteous shall enter therein."

Their goal was to provoke utter shock and despair, to break the spirit within the condemned Jews, hoping thereby that the hapless Jews would renounce their faith at the last moment and turn against their Creator.

They were wrong. On the contrary, the opposite occurred. The sight of these holy words had an unprecedented spiritual impact upon the condemned who were destined to enter the "Gate of G-d." Some of them were individuals whose souls were dormant during a lifetime of alienation from Torah and mitzvos. Yet they suddenly came alive within them. They felt a new strength of spirit, as they went to their final mortal destination amid song and dance. They understood - indeed, they knew - clearly and without a doubt that this gate, the gate to the gas chambers, truly led to Hashem.

Horav Yisrael Meir Lau, Shlita, was asked to speak at a conference sponsored by and held at Tel Aviv University. He would be sharing the podium with a guest of honor from France: Cardinal Jean-Marie Lustiger. The conference was to take place on the eve of Holocaust Memorial Day. The Cardinal was going to address the topic: "The place of G-d in the Holocaust." Rav Lau was asked to debate the Cardinal. The Rav flatly refused.

He refused because it was a chillul Hashem, a desecration of Hashem's Name. Cardinal Lustiger had been born a Jew, apostatized himself and converted to Catholicism. His mother had perished in Auschwitz. As a lad of fourteen, the young Jean-Marie knowingly and willingly baptized himself. Thus, the Jewish boy, born Ahron Lustiger, became the Catholic Jean-Marie Lustiger.

One can imagine that the Chief Rabbi's decision caused a furor in a country not unused to political commotion. The Rav felt that a university, albeit secular, but yet under Jewish auspices, in a Jewish state, could do better than select an apostate guest of honor to commemorate the Holocaust. Yet, the secularists felt the Rav owed the country an explanation.

The next day, Holocaust Remembrance Day, the Chief Rabbi spoke at the Great Synagogue shortly prior to reciting the Yizkor memorial service. He said, "Hitler gave us six-million reasons to recite Kaddish, but following Lustiger's path would mean that there would be no descendants left to recite Kaddish for those who perished. At their darkest hour in history, Lustiger turned away and defected from his people. At a time when they needed maximum encouragement, he cowered under a cross. He went as far as to choose a lifestyle that would not permit him to raise a family, insuring that no one would remain to recite Kaddish for him."

Now that I have presented how far astray this man had swerved from the Judaism of his ancestors, I will share with the readers a little secret about this apostate. On those days of the year when Cardinal Lustiger has Yahrzeit for his father and mother, he removes his Catholic cloak, dons an ordinary suit and hat, and goes to a synagogue in Paris to recite Kaddish! This may scream of hypocrisy, but I think it indicates once again what is part and parcel of our glorious history: A Jew is inextricably bound with Judaism. There is no exit strategy. We are one with Hashem. We cannot and may not judge those have who have left the fold, became alienated or assimilated, or are just plain lost. Hashem does that. He is the Judge. Our purpose is to never give up on a Jew - because Hashem never does.

Throughout the generations, from father to son, we have passed on the torch of Torah tradition. The Shiras Ha'azinu guarantees that we will endure as a nation, due to our connection to the Torah. During the most bitter times, Jews have continued to study the Torah. When times were troublesome and persecution reigned, we held back, but as soon as we were able, we immediately planted the seeds of the next generation. Rebbetzin Tzila Sorotzkin, a"h, was one of the leading mechanchos, educators, of the nascent Bais Yaakov movement. She was also a Holocaust survivor whose exploits during those tragic years were legendary. She remarked, "In all of the six years of the war, I cried only once. I was in the most horrible camps. I lost my entire family. I was left all alone in the world, bereft of family, broken in body and spirit - but I did not cry. I returned to my hometown and found a ghost town - not a living soul remained - yet, I still did not cry."

She was told to go to Lodz where the refugees were gathered. Perhaps she would find someone there, a relative, an acquaintance. With her last bit of strength, she traveled to Lodz, in the hope of finding someone she knew. Walking through the streets as twilight approached, she suddenly heard sounds which she recognized - coming from one of the windows. She followed the sounds up to a second-floor ancient apartment. In the darkness she made out a group of young boys with payos, all sitting around a table. At the head of the table sat an elderly Jew, wearing a baseball cap. The children were chanting the Aleph Bais to the familiar niggun, tune, which she remembered from her youth! She immediately began to cry, and then she passed out. A few moments later, she was revived.

"What happened to you?" they asked. "Can we help you? Who are you? Perhaps we can give you something to eat." Slowly she recovered and replied, "This is the first time I have cried in six years, but I am not crying from pain. I cry from joy. I wandered far and wide until I reached Lodz; finally I see Poland as it once was, I see it in its original glory. And if, after all that we have endured, after all of our suffering, little boys with payos are sitting around a table with an elderly teacher teaching them the Aleph Bais - then no one can defeat us. Let me catch my breath. Let me savor the moment. I feel fine. These are tears of joy - not of pain."

The Rock! - Perfect is His work, for all His paths are justice; A G-d of faith without iniquity, righteous and fair is He. (32:4)

The term tamim, perfect, is a reference to the totality of Hashem's work - the big picture. Individual life is part of a large puzzle with countless pieces of all shapes and sizes, representing good fortune, failure, joy and sadness, tragedy and celebration. When these are all factored together by Hashem, everything fits in perfectly. Human cognition is limited; thus, we are able to grasp very little. If it makes sense to the human mind, it is good. If it does not make sense, it is not good. This is the human way of understanding a situation. It sees the here and now - not the yesterday or the tomorrow. Hashem sees it all and knows how to put it all together - perfectly. Accepting Divine Judgment is one of the primary Articles of Faith.

Horav Yeruchem Levovitz, zl, explains the middah, character trait, of nosei b'ol im chaveiro, sharing in a friend's burden. We are not here for ourselves, but rather, to share with others - in both their joy and sadness. The Mashgiach suggests that following the formula of nosei b'ol im chaveiro, one has the opportunity to help his friend, to the point that he could actually be the reason that his friend's life is spared. Imagine, a Heavenly decree is issued against Reuven that his life on this world will be halted abruptly. Hashem factors in the pain that Reuven's premature demise will cause others, including his relatives and friends. If one of them is not deserving of this pain, that person could be an advocate on behalf of Reuven. In the interim, Reuven might repent and be spared the decree's realization.

Earthly justice does not take the feelings of others into consideration. The larger picture does not apply to them. In a court of law, the judge or jury renders a decision. No one else has any bearing on their decision. Only one who is perfect can render a perfect decision. He can punish the defendant in such a manner that others will not be affected.

Furthermore, if a good friend is taken ill and it troubles us, we should introspect and wonder what it is that we did to warrant this pain. Hashem is not merely speaking to the stricken patient; He is conveying a message to all those who are affected by his troubles. Indeed, Horav Eliyahu Lopian, zl, would remark that one should see to it that he has many friends who care about him. Who knows? They might become the reason that he is spared from misfortune.

The Chafetz Chaim, quoted by Rav Yerachmiel Chasid, addresses the fact that upon occasion - probably more often than we care to acknowledge- one will complain about his health, financial status and lack of good fortune. He wonders, "Why is this happening to me? To the best of my knowledge, I have been pretty good. I certainly do not warrant such punishment."

The Chafetz Chaim explains that we often ignore the fact that Yom Kippur serves as atonement only for those sins which one commits against Heaven. Hashem doesn't forgive the individual for sins against his fellow man - such as slander, humiliation, cheating in finances, loan repayment - without the victim's forgiveness. The person leaves this world and, when he arrives at his eternal rest, he is informed that he is returning to this world until that time that he appeases his victim. When the person hears that he must return, he begins to weep bitterly, begging for mercy, claiming that the reason he acted so inappropriately to others was arrogance born of wealth, power and success. He was blessed with an attractive and healthy physical countenance which catalyzed within him a sense of superiority. At least this time, if he must be sent back, will the Almighty please not grant him such success, such good health, such incredible good fortune, such wealth? He could do with the bare minimum - even ill-health is something with which he could live. The fewer reasons for feeling superior to others, for inducing arrogance - the better. Therefore, without realizing it, it is quite possible that what we are going through now is a fulfillment of our own request.

Yeshurun waxed fat, and rebelled. (32:15)

The pasuk implies that wealth is the source of Klal Yisrael's rebellion, indicating that prosperity may not contribute to a strong spiritual balance. It is almost as if wealth is a curse, not a blessing. Yet, two pesukim earlier the Torah tells us that we will be blessed with material abundance: Yarkiveihu al bamesei aretz, va'yochal tenuvos sadai, "He shall cause them to ride the high places of the Land and eat the produce of its fields" (ibid. 32:13). Klal Yisrael will enter the land and be greeted with incredible prosperity. Apparently, here prosperity comes across as a blessing.

On the one hand, we pray for material bounty, so that we may better serve Hashem and help others. We ask for Chaim shel osher v'kavod, "A life of wealth and honor." Yet, we see from the above pasuk, that gashmius, materialism, can lead us to turn away from Hashem. We are ironically praying for the very trait that can cause us to fall into the abyss of sin.

Perhaps, the Torah's use of the word va'yishman, "Yeshurun waxed fat," indicates a change within the person, much like one who eats excessively, causing him to put on weight. He is different from the person who is carrying excessive baggage. When they stand on a scale, they both weigh the same - only one is himself overweight, while the other is weighed down by his baggage. There are those who, upon striking it rich, allow the newly-found wealth to change them. The wealth becomes assimilated into their psyche, such that their whole perspective on life, people and G-d becomes altered. For them, prosperity can be a curse. There are others for whom wealth is like an extra suitcase. They have not changed; they just have more baggage to manage.

In addressing the question of whether prosperity is a blessing or a curse, Horav Yisrael Belsky, Shlita, comments that it very well depends on how-- and at what rate-- one becomes wealthy. Parashas Ha'azinu, which decries the Jewish People's insubordination due to their excess materialism, is warning of the hazards of sudden wealth. Such prosperity presents a new set of nisyonos, challenges and trials. One who has become accustomed to watching the balance in his checkbook scrupulously after he shops at the grocery, might become overwhelmed when he has more credit cards than he knows how to manage. Newfound wealth can confound a person if he is not prepared for it gradually.

We see it all of the time with the lottery winners who spend their winnings almost overnight on frivolities and foolishness. The temptations which were once out of reach are suddenly available for the picking. How often do we hear of a lottery winner donating a portion of his winnings to charity - or sharing with friends and family?

Those who accumulate wealth slowly and moderately become gradually accustomed to wealth. They learn to save, to guard their assets, to invest wisely, to purchase astutely. They are still challenged by wealth, but now they are not overwhelmed by it. It is something with which they can cope. Wealth and material abundance are truly blessings, since they allow one to expand his horizons, to achieve more, to help a greater number of people. The danger is in how quickly he becomes wealthy. He should not want to "strike it rich," but rather, to amass wealth gradually, by installments, establishing a stronger foundation to overcome the eventual challenges which present themselves as his portfolio grows.

The Rosh Yeshivah explains that wealth poses another challenge: it is addictive. Mi she'yeish lo manah rotzeh masayim, "One who has a hundred (coins) wants two hundred." A person is not satisfied with his bounty. It is never enough. It has nothing to do with how quickly one ascends the ladder of affluence. Suddenly, what used to be considered a luxury becomes a necessity. The "once in ten-year" vacation becomes a bi-annual requirement. People who had been accustomed to a simple lifestyle are now exposed; they suddenly indulge in extravagant and exorbitant diversions.

At the end of the day, such a person had been much better off when he was not wealthy. The simple life presented fewer challenges - or, at least, challenges that he was able to handle. Now, he cannot seem to cope with all of the added requirements placed on him by virtue of his prosperous circumstances. More is expected of him. His home is inundated with people seeking his help; his privacy is invaded; his "advice" is sought - day and night. While all of these are really a good thing - one must be ready and willing to accept it. A "rich" wallet with a "poor" mind does not balance very well.

Rav Belsky adds another practical malady from which people who achieve wealth may suffer. They become preoccupied with the fear of uncertainty. "What will be if my wealth comes to an end? What will I do if I make a bad investment and lose my money? How do I know the market will produce this year?" There is no guarantee to prosperity - regardless of its size. People make mistakes; natural disasters can wipe out a portfolio overnight. When one does not have something, he does not worry about losing it. When one is heavily invested in many areas of commercial trade, the newspaper's business section becomes his Bible.

After all is said and done, I think the answer to our original question-- whether prosperity is a blessing or a curse -- depends on one factor: Does the individual acknowledge and never forget the Source of his wealth? When a person realizes that whatever he has is derived directly from Hashem and that this gift comes along with responsibility, the wealth then becomes a blessing. The person who foolishly believes that his affluence is the result of his own doing, however, his acumen - even his good fortune - is far from blessed. He had better prepare a contingency plan for himself.

For they are a generation of reversals, children whose upbringing is not in them. (32:20)

It hurts much more when the troublemaker is "ours." We read about someone who has committed an act of dishonesty; we are angered. "What kind of person is that? Who could act in such a reprehensible manner?" When the culprit is someone young, we wonder what kind of parents he had; what kind of home he came from; what type of upbringing he had. When the culprit is one of our own - when it is one's own child, there is anger, hurt, humiliation, and then all of the questions that we would have asked of others we ask ourselves: "Where did we go wrong?" When the upbringing was perfect, when the educator/parent was none other than Hashem, however, there are no questions - just plain condemnation. "A generation of reversals, whose upbringing is not in them."

We are not only G-d's people; we are His children Whom He raised. We made a commitment at Har Sinai, but soon afterward we reneged our faith in Him. It hurts so much more when the culprit is one's own child.

On the other hand, being viewed as children more easily facilitates our return. In Sefer Tehillim 116:1, David Hamelech says, Ahavti ki yishma Hashem es koli. Chazal remark (Pesachim 118b), "Klal Yisrael said to Hashem, Ribono Shel Olam, when am I beloved to You? When You hear the sound of my voice." Apparently, Chazal are teaching us that the mere sounds of supplication which emanate from us inspire Hashem's love for us. What is it about the "sound" of our voices that engenders such positive response?

Horav Zelig Reuven Bengis, zl, relates that he heard a powerful explanation from the Netziv. When a person notices a child weeping, he assuages him in order to calm him down. This is true of any child. A baby cries; one moves to soothe him. One responds differently, however, when the infant is one's own and when he is someone else's child. When a stranger's child cries for an appropriate reason, one will go over and do whatever is necessary to alleviate his distress, to calm the child. If the child is "just crying," then the adult will go about his business and ignore the infant. If the child is one's own, then the mere fact that he is raising his voice is sufficient reason to respond. No one wants to allow his own child to cry unnecessarily.

Thus, the catalyst for the father's response to his own child is the kol, sound of his voice, nothing else. A stranger's child, on the other hand, effects a response when the cause of his crying is reasonable. David Hamelech says, because we are Hashem's children, as soon as we issue forth a kol, sound, even if our reason for crying is not substantive - Hashem listens. This is the love that the Heavenly Father manifests for His children. May the Almighty listen to all of our voices as we supplicate Him for a Shanah Tovah.

Va'ani Tefillah

V'hayu ha'devarim ha'eileh asher anochi metzavcha hayom al levavecha. Let these matters which I command you this day, be upon your heart.

Retaining the Torah's words on our heart, the metaphoric seat of our emotions, allows these words to govern our emotions. This way, explains Horav Menachem Mendel, zl, m'Kalish - we are in charge of our emotions - not vice versa. Veritably, unless one comes to know G-d through His Torah and mitzvos, he cannot really attain true lasting love for Him. Since this love must be able to endure and transcend the vicissitudes of life, if it is not the product of - and tempered by - the Torah, it will not abide. The Kotzker Rebbe, zl, posits that al levavecha, "on your heart," should be interpreted figuratively: lay these words upon your heart, like a weighted stone. Thus, during an auspicious moment of inspiration, the heart responds/opens, responding to the stimulus, and these "words" of Torah will enter it. Interestingly, the Torah, which is a body of intellectual knowledge, is to be placed on the heart, the seat of emotions. Should it not be otherwise - whereby the Torah rests on one's mind? Apparently, it goes without saying that Torah connects with the mind. The concern is that it also connect with the heart, so that it governs one's emotions and desires as well.

Metzavecha hayom - I command you this day. What is the significance of hayom, "this day"? The Chafetz Chaim explains that one must view himself as if he is the only person in the universe; as if Hashem's mitzvos apply only to him; as if the Torah is the only Book he has; and if that is his last. Thus, one will certainly not squander his time and, instead, apply himself to mitzvos and Torah study. This is what is meant by hayom: You - and only you - on this day - and only on this day - with this Book - and only this Book - on this day - and only on this day - because today might be your last day - tomorrow you might no longer be alive. Do it now! גמר חתימה טובה

לזכר נשמת
רחל לאה בת ר' נח ע"ה
פריידא בת ר' נח ע"ה
שרה אסתר בת ר' נח ע"ה

נספו במחנות ההסגר בשנות הזעם י"ג תשרי תש"ג

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