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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 G-d of faith without iniquity, righteous and fair is He. (32:4)

Hashem created a perfect world in which every creation receives everything that is necessary, not only for it to subsist, but also for it to attain its maximum potential in this world. Thus, if a person has not been granted certain qualities essential for success in a certain field or endeavor, this is a clear indication that he does not need them to achieve success. On the other hand, if he has been blessed with certain abilities that exceed the average, it is proof that Hashem wants him to use these gifts to serve Him.

The custom in Radin on Motzei Shabbos was to daven Maariv, followed by the Havdalah service of the Chafetz Chaim, after which he would greet people and wish them a Gutt Voch, Good Week. He then went into his office, where he would listen to the requests and petitions brought by those who had gathered there. One Motzei Shabbos, a father presented himself with his ten-year old son before the Chafetz Chaim to request a blessing. Apparently, as the father explained to the venerable sage, his son had no desire whatsoever to learn Torah. The father was beside himself. His son's success in Torah was his priority in life.

The Chafetz Chaim asked the father, "Is your son capable of grasping the material as taught by his rebbe?"

"Yes, yes," replied the father. "Every rebbe that has taught him has indicated that he is quite smart and would have no problem rising to the top of the class."

Hearing this, the Chafetz Chaim turned to the boy and said, "My child, you should know that if you do not learn well, you will chas v'shalom, Heaven forbid, catalyze a question concerning the Ribono Shel Olam, Creator. Surely, you do not want to be the cause of such a question."

The Chafetz Chaim waited a moment, allowing his statement to sink into to the mind of the boy. He then explained, "The Torah writes that Hashem is: 'Perfect in His work'; 'without iniquity'; 'righteous and fair.' Everything in Creation has a purpose. Hashem created every person with the innate abilities to succeed in the area of life's endeavor best suited /chosen for him. (In other words, someone who is destined to be a great Torah scholar will be granted the ability to achieve his goal. Someone who is not gifted with exceptional abilities is meant to excel in the area for which he is best suited.) You have been blessed with an exceptional mind. If you do not use your mind, it will atrophy, and you will be relegated to a vocation that is unsuited for you. People will ask: 'Why did Hashem give such a brilliant mind to someone whose vocation is not intellectually demanding?' Do you want to be the catalyst of questioning about Hashem?"

The boy was sufficiently astute to take the hint.

Is it to Hashem that you do this, O vile and unwise people? (32:6)

Moshe Rabbeinu wonders how Klal Yisrael could have been so vile and unwise as to sin against Hashem. The words, Am naval v'lo chacham, "A vile and unwise people," is translated by Targum Onkelos as, Ama d'kabila oraisa v'lo chakimu, "A nation that received the Torah who is unwise." Thus, Onkelos defines naval, which normally means vile or abominable, as, "who accepted /received the Torah." Should it not be quite the opposite? One who rejects Torah should be considered vile, not one who receives it.

The Kotzker Rebbe, zl, explains that the definition is relative, with the reality of our receiving the Torah serving as an indication of our spiritual deficiency. When Avraham Avinu reached Har HaMoriah where he would carry out the Akeidah, Binding (and slaughter) of Yitzchak, the Torah writes, "Avraham built the Altar there and arranged the wood; he bound Yitzchak, his son, and he placed him atop the wood. Avraham stretched out his hand and he took the knife to slaughter his son" (Bereishis 22:9). Regarding all of the active preparations for the Akeidah, we do not find the Torah referring to Avraham's "hands" as actively involved. If it is self-evident that he built the Altar with his hands, arranged the wood, bound Yitzchak and placed him atop the wood with his hands, why, concerning taking the knife for the actual slaughter, does the Torah write, "Avraham stretched out his hand"? Where were his hands until that point?

The Rebbe explains that, although the Avos HaKedoshim, holy Patriarchs, did not receive the Torah, they observed every mitzvah, every halachah - meticulously. How did they know what to do and what not to do? Their organs and limbs were sanctified, so that their organs and limbs "knew" what to do on their own. Their kedushah was in total harmony with the Torah. Therefore, when Avraham came to carry out the Akeidah, his limbs did not require instruction. They acted on their own - until it came to the actual slaughter. Since this was not a mitzvah, because Hashem did not want Avraham to go beyond preparation for the act, it required Avraham "taking his hand" and directing it to act. The angel appeared and told Avraham, "Do not stretch out your hand against the lad." (In other words: The fact that you had to stretch out your hand to act indicates that this part of the endeavor is not a mitzvah. Hashem never intended for you to slaughter your son.)

This, explains the Kotzker, is the level achieved by the Avos, whose entire physical form was sanctified in tune with the Torah. They did not need the Torah to guide them how to live. We require the Torah, because we are not on that level. Our bodies are not sanctified to the point that they are able to discern between mitzvah and aveirah. We need direction because we are far from spiritually adept. Am naval, a vile nation, requires the Torah in order to know what is right, what is wrong, what one should and should not do, and how one should act.

In his Bad Kodesh, Horav Baruch Dov Povarsky, Shlita, quotes the well-known commentary of the Ramban to the pasuk, Kedoshim tiheyu, "You shall be holy" (Vayikra 19:2), where he maintains that the concept of holiness is not limited to the observance of any particular category of mitzvos; rather, it is an admonition that one's approach to all aspects of life be governed by moderation. This is especially germane to those areas of life in which specific activities are permissible. Ramban writes that one who observes only the letter of the law - observing the technical requirements of the law - yet surrenders to self- indulgence in those areas which are permitted, will become a naval b'reshus haTorah, degenerate with the permission of the Torah. He can be a glutton and act licentiously to his spouse, because the Torah does not actually prohibit such activity. He is not acting against the Torah, but he is a naval - nonetheless.

According to Ramban, had the Torah not commanded us to be holy, one could be a naval b'reshus haTorah. Now that the Torah has commanded us to be holy, we no longer have "permission" to be a naval. Thus, if one acts without moderation, if he self-indulges to the point of degeneracy, he is a naval - without the permission of the Torah. In other words, now that we have received the Torah the b'reshus (haTorah) is gone. One who indulges is just a plain naval!

Personally, I think Onkelos is teaching us that a nation that can disregard all that Hashem gives them is definitely evil. Without Hashem, they would be nothing. Yet, we are human beings, and, as such, we have errors in judgment. Sometimes, one is so obsessed with his own sense of right and wrong that he can look moral turpitude right in the eye and see righteousness, or consider it to be an expression of individuality. We, who have received the Torah, live by a different barometer of right and wrong. Our moral compass is defined by the Torah; our sense of judgment is guided by Hashem's Torah. When we act inappropriately or with smugness, ignoring all that we have benefitted from Hashem, we become degenerates. A Jew whose ethical/moral behavior is lacking is not simply off the derech; he is a naval, a degenerate, because he should know better. It is part of his religious DNA.

Hashem will see and be provoked by the anger of his sons and daughters. (32:19)

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

In the preface to his Shev Shmaitsa, Horav Aryeh Leib Cohen, zl, quotes the Zohar HaKadosh who teaches that the term bas, girl/female, is used in connection to yiraas Shomayim, fear of Heaven, while ben, boy/male, is used to denote the Torah. Thus, the Zohar explains the well-known statement in the Talmud, Bas techilah - siman yafeh l'banim, "If a daughter is born first, it is a good sign for the children to be born." This alludes to Chazal's statement in Pirkei Avos, Perek 3:11 where the Tanna teaches, "He in whom the fear of sin takes precedence over his wisdom, his wisdom will endure; but he in whom his wisdom takes precedence over the fear of sin, his wisdom will not endure."

Obviously, this is not a question of precedence in time, but rather, in values. One should fear committing a sin even more than he desires wisdom. This is despite the fact that learning is the supreme virtue. How do we understand this apparent contradiction? Apparently, wisdom which is not focused on properly utilizing it in practice, but for the purpose of acquiring it for its own sake, will ultimately be an encumbrance. Learning is important, but if it is not under the control of yiraah, the "package" is damaged.

Therefore, explains the Shev Shmaitsa, "Hashem will see and is provoked by the anger of His sons and daughters. When the 'sons,' representing limud haTorah, take precedence over the 'daughters,' representing yiraas Shomayim, Hashem responds, 'They are a generation of reversals,' banim lo eimum bam, 'Their banim, offspring, representing their Torah study, will not endure.'" They have reversed the sequence by placing wisdom before yiraah. Such values produce nothing more than spiritually crippled intellectuals.

O' nations - sing the praises of His people, for He will avenge the blood of His servants. (32:43)

Shiras Haazinu ends with the promise that with the advent of the Final Redemption, the world will see Klal Yisrael restored to its original glory, its enemies punished for the suffering that they caused for us. The nations of the world will recognize our greatness and will venerate us as G-d's People. Ramban views Shiras Haazinu as a historical perspective for us to follow, from which we should learn how to live. It depicts the truth about how we were quick to take Hashem's favors, but --when we had enough-- we rebelled. Our lack of fidelity incurred Heavenly punishment in the form of: famine; predatory beasts; cruel, despotic attackers; and ultimate exile. Our exile was far from being a bed of roses. We experienced persecution and hatred on an almost daily basis. The trials and tribulations increased with our sins. In a way, the anti-Semitism worked to our benefit. As long as they hated us, we could not intermarry or indulge in their aberrative behavior. We were just not "good enough" for them. This song foreshadows the misery and travail that would accompany us throughout our exile, but it also guarantees our survival and the downfall of all our enemies.

The Torah giants of each generation would view the adversity to which they were subjected as a source of faith, a living proof of the Torah's predictions. One of the greatest Torah luminaries of the previous generation, Horav Mordechai Pogremansky, zl, experienced the Holocaust with its unspeakable horrors. He viewed it as proof that Hashem guides the world, and, without Him, we are unable to exist for even a moment. He once turned to a group of students from Slabodka. They were physically and emotionally broken, having suffered pain and privation during their stay in the Kovno ghetto: "What do you think that Hashem wants of us now? We have all suffered greatly at the hands of these inhuman soldiers. Our bodies are broken; our minds lack the emotional stamina to think properly. What can Hashem possibly expect of us in this darkness?"

Rav Pogremansky responded in his brilliant, insightful manner: "Take a look at the electrified fence. There are guards walking back and forth, armed to the teeth, their finger poised on the trigger, just waiting for the slightest opportunity to shoot us. Their hatred for us is beyond words. Our blood is ownerless. To kill a Jew is absolutely nothing. If so, I ask you, why does he not raise his gun and shoot us for the slightest pretense? Obviously, we are not hefker, ownerless chattel. Hashem is here with us, and He is not permitting the Nazi beast to hurt us. Is there a greater proof of Hashgacha Pratis, Divine Providence?"

Without Hashem, we cannot survive for a moment. With Hashem, nothing stands in our way. This was Rav Pogremansky's attitude. His life was one long story of emunah and bitachon, faith and trust, in the Almighty. He would often say, "I do not see Germans (Nazi soldiers); I do not see Partisans. I see the pesukim of the Torah (in the Parsha of the Tochecha, Admonition, in which the ninety-eight curses to befall the Jewish People are detailed). The pesukim of the Torah surround the ghetto" He would go on to read specific verses in the Torah which foreshadowed their present experiences in the ghetto. He added, "The letters flew out of their black containment (black ink) and entered into (our nation's) life." (The letters became alive, as part of the prophecy predicted in the Torah.)

I was always bothered about how a prediction foretelling the future of our people, with its many adversities, could be called a shirah, song. What can we sing about? When we use it as a source of emunah in Hashem, as a foreshadowing for bitachon in His salvation, it becomes a song of faith - and that is something to sing about!

To be careful to perform all the words of the Torah. (32:46)

The Jew is obliged to observe the Torah, adhere to its mitzvos and carry out our acts of human kindness, regardless of the circumstances in his life which might impede him. Commitment is not always easy. Observance is not a walk in the park. This does not change one's responsibility to Hashem. Horav Yaakov Galinsky, zl, relates that he once had a conversation with a yet-unobservant Jew concerning the significance of mitzvah observance in contemporary times. "So much has changed," the man insisted. "We have moved on from the dark ages. I am not against observing the Torah, but change must be made to adjust the Torah to coincide with today's modern world."

Rav Galinsky replied, "Imagine, a young boy comes to his parents with a valid complaint, 'My shoes are too small.' The boy has grown; his feet are no longer the size they were six months earlier. The parents have a few options available before them: either purchase a new pair of shoes; or cut the front of the shoes to allow for the foot's growth; or have the child walk barefoot. There is one other option which is so ludicrous that it does not even momentarily enter the picture: trim the child's foot to fit the shoe! No one in his right mind, the most cruel parent, would never dream of such an option. One does not cut the foot to fit the shoe!

"The same idea applies to the Torah. Our Torah is the 'foot' - you are the shoe. You view the Torah as something that must fit into your comfort zone. It must conform to your desires and pleasures - rather than the other way around. Whenever the Torah is not in tune with your desires, you feel it should be trimmed to size. One does not cut the foot to fit the shoe."

With which you are to instruct your children, to be careful to perform all the words of this Torah. For it is not an empty thing for you, for it is your life. (32: 46,47)

We are commanded to instruct our children to observe the Torah and perform its mitzvos, because it is our life. Simply, this refers to the Torah which is the source of our life, for without it one does not truly live. He exists in the physical sense, but if the meaning of life eludes him, can he be considered truly alive? Alternatively, "it" refers to our children whom we have instructed in the ways of Hashem and who carry on the legacy of our instruction. In the Talmud Taanis 5B, Chazal state, Mah zaru b'chaim, af hu b'chaim; "Just as his seed/offspring is alive, so, too, will he be considered alive." If one's children maintain a commitment to Hashem and his Torah, they preserve the "life" of their parents, since their legacy lives on in them.

We have seen this phenomenon played out in every generation. Parents who transmit the heritage to the next generation and emphasize its value and significance see their legacy activated and preserved as their children grow up and follow in the path forged by their parents. The legacies of our ancestors are continued by their descendants, thus keeping them alive long after their mortal beings have been laid to rest.

I just read a poignant story that underscores this idea. A Jew from Bnei Brak was ill, confined to a hospital bed in one of the outlying hospitals of Eretz Yisrael. He was a deeply religious Jew who happened to become ill while visiting that part of the country. He shared a room with another Jew who hailed from a non-observant kibbutz. The man was obviously not observant. Being from the immediate area, his roommate had many visitors who, like him, were from the kibbutz. Among his steady stream of visitors, however, were a group of young men with their wives, all of whom were clearly observant. They and their wives dressed the part. It was obviously an anomaly that, among the man's many visitors, there was this group of chareidi couples.

These were not simply visitors who came, visited and left. They spent time, spoke to the nurses, and, when they left, kissed the man on his hand. After seeing this repeatedly, the observant roommate conjured up the courage to ask his roommate for an explanation. "They are my children," he replied. Seeing the look of incredulity on the chareidi man's face, the kibbutznik explained, "I was blessed with these wonderful children in the merit of my wife." Now, the chareidi man was completely astonished. How did such a non-observant Jew merit to have such special children? Because of his wife - what did his wife do that made such an impact?

"Let me explain my previous statement. I arrived in Eretz Yisrael at the age of twelve, as a Holocaust survivor. I was immediately taken with a large group of young people to an irreligious kibbutz where we were inculcated with secular Zionist doctrine, devoid of G-d, Torah and any form of religion. Whatever I remembered from my parents' home was quickly forgotten, as I began a new life as a secular Israeli. My future wife, who was eight years old at the time, was also in that kibbutz. As orphans of the Holocaust, we became attached, and, as we matured, we became increasingly close to one another. When we were of marriageable age, I proposed marriage to her. Her response was, 'I need time.'

"Two months later, she had her answer, but first, she wanted to share a story with me. She told the following story: 'The last time I saw my mother was when we were separated at the selektzia: the adults went to the left, which meant certain death; the young and healthy went to the right. They could survive a little longer. My mother knew that this was it. She embraced me and said, This is the last time we will see each other until we are one day reunited in the World of Truth. If you want to maintain a spiritual bond with me, then I ask that you promise to observe two words. If not, then you will have severed your spiritual connection with me. I will no longer be your mother. It is all up to you.

'My mother told me the two words which she implored me to constantly review and never forget. I had no idea what they meant, but I never forgot them. All of the time that I have been here, I have reiterated these words without knowing their meaning or implication. When you proposed marriage, I went to a chareidi Rav and asked him the meaning of the two words. He explained the meaning to me. The words were Taharas HaMishpacha, family purity. I now know their meaning and overriding implication. And now, so do you!'"

The man continued, "When I heard her say this, I thought that she was out of her mind. We lived on a kibbutz where Shabbos desecration was a way of life. Consuming every type of non-kosher food meant nothing to us. In fact, the Torah with its many mitzvos, both positive and prohibitive, did not inhibit us. How could she possibly want and expect to observe the family purity laws? Yet, she was adamant and unyielding - I either agreed, or there was no marriage. She was not about to sever her spiritual connection with her mother.

"I had no choice. I wanted to marry her. We observed taharas hamishpachah just as if we were a chareidi family. Now you know why I have such children."

Va'ani Tefillah

Tehillos l'Keil Elyon, baruch Hu u'mevorach Praises to the Supreme G-d, the blessed One Who is blessed.

The custom is to rise at this point, in preparation for Shemoneh Esrai. In this phrase lies the highest part of the praises articulated by Klal Yisrael when they sang Shirah to Hashem. Indeed, a new idea is being introduced - our introduction of Hashem as Keil Elyon, Supreme G-d. He is so high that He is incomprehensible to us. Horav Shimon Schwab, zl, explains the meaning of "so high" as a reference to the things which Hashem does that we simply do not - and cannot - fathom. We do not understand why Hashem permitted so many Jewish children to be thrown into the river; why He allowed the Egyptians to brutalize, persecute and murder generations of Jews who had lived under the most debilitating circumstances; and last, but certainly not least, the recent European Holocaust which decimated European Jewry and forever left a tear in the collective hearts of our People.

We praise Hashem Who is Keil Elyon, "above our comprehension," even for those things which we do not understand. We accept them as absolutely right and only good.

l'zechar nishmas
Rachel Leah bas R' Noach a"h
Freida bas R' Noach a"h
Sara Esther bas R' Noach a"h

" "

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