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Peninim on the Torah

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Rabbi A. Leib Scheinbaum
Hebrew Academy of Cleveland


It will be when you enter the land…and you possess it and dwell in it. That you shall take of the very first fruit of the ground. (26:1,2)

Rashi derives from the words, "and you possess it and dwell in it," that the Jews were not obligated to bring Bikurim, the first fruits, until after Eretz Yisrael had been captured and divided according to each tribe. Why is Bikurim different from the mitzvah of Challah, which was imposed on them as soon as they entered the land? Why should they have been required to wait until the land was divided up? In his sefer Simchas HaTorah, Horav Simchah Shepps, zl, explains that the underlying motif of the mitzvah of Bkurim is to actualize the hidden potential of hakoras hatov, gratitude, that Klal Yisrael is to manifest to Hashem for giving them the land. Indeed, when they recite the accompanying liturgy, they begin with recounting their history, detailing how Lavan hoArami sought to destroy Yaakov Avinu. They recall the various kindnesses that Hashem did for them. Eretz Yisrael and hakoras hatov go hand in hand. Only after the Jew realizes that he is in the land only through Hashem's kindness, does he become worthy of inheriting the land. True gratitude can come only with Eretz Yisrael, and Eretz Yisrael can be attained only through gratitude. Thus, when the people became worthy of possessing the land, they concomitantly became deserving of its first fruits.

True hakoras hatov is the recognition that everything that has contributed to the favor that one receives comprises a factor in his favor and, thus, must be appreciated. Everything is the result of many little parts - each part a necessary cog in bringing about the gift that he receives.

With this in mind, Rav Shepps explains the Midrash that posits that Bereishis bara Elokim should be understood as, "In the beginning of Hashem's Creation." "In the beginning" is a reference to Bikurim, the first fruits, indicating that the world was created in the merit of this mitzvah. This is an incredible statement. The suggestion that the world's raison de' etre' is Bikurim is a powerful statement. What is the unique significance of this mitzvah such that no other mitzvah warrants this comment?

Rav Shepps explains that hakoras hatov is the glue that keeps us connected to Hashem. When we recognize how much we owe Hashem for the innumerable benefits of which we are the beneficiaries, our relationship becomes stronger. The mitzvah of Bikurim is unique in the sense that through it Hashem reveals to us the principle of hakoras hatov. Bikurim teaches us that our debt of gratitude to Hashem extends far beyond the immediate benefits we receive from Him. Indeed, we must recognize the genesis of Hashem's kindness, the original source of every benefit we receive. Hence, we thank Hashem for sparing Yaakov from Lavan, and we focus on Yaakov's going down to Egypt, the Egyptian bondage and ensuing redemption, until we finally arrived in Eretz Yisrael and built the Bais HaMikdash. Yes - hakoras hatov goes all the way back to the point that we come to realize that everything - every benefit - has one source, one origin: - Hashem. Hakoras hatov is the foundation of the world. Hakoras hatov defines our relationship with Hashem.

In an alternative understanding, the mitzvah of Bikurim has another aspect. Besides the actual appreciation of Hashem's beneficence that is the hallmark of the mitzvah, there is hodaah, expression of gratitude, with the public fanfare that accompanies it. The end result is the raised public awareness of Hashem's kindness towards us. In this light, Bikurim serves as the vehicle for public recognition of Hashem's beneficence. The entire creation was worth it for the mitzvah of Bikurim and the consequent sanctification of Hashem's Name.

Just as we are enjoined to thank Hashem for all the good that He bestows upon us, we are, likewise, instructed to show that same gratitude to anyone that benefits us. Horav Chaim Shmuelevitz, zl, understood the parameters of hakoras hatov and served as a paragon of ethical behavior for others to emulate. He would often say concerning the saying in Pirkei Avos 4:1, "'Who is honorable? He who honors people.' If one thinks that he can be honorable without honoring others, he is wrong!" He understood the enormity of the individual's responsibility towards others. Rav Chaim would make every effort to attend the wedding of any student who attended his shiur - even if he was from a different yeshivah! So great was his sense of hakoras hatov. It made no difference whether the favor he received was great or small, whether the benefactor went out of his way or had done very little on his part, if Rav Chaim had benefited from him, he felt he must show his gratitude.

Horav Meir Don Plotzki, zl, author of the Klei Chemdah, was in London to raise funds for the European yeshivos. After a day of visiting a number of London's wealthy philanthropists, trudging from door to door and neighborhood to neighborhood, Rav Meir Don finally returned to his host to rest up for the next days' trip to Belgium and then on to America. Waiting for him was Reb Michoel Levi, a distinguished lay leader in the London Jewish community. He brought regards from his aged father who regretted that he was too frail to personally pay his respects to the Torah leader. After about an hour of conversation, it became known to Rav Meir Don that Reb Michoel's father was the one who in his younger years had discovered the commentary of Rabbeinu Chananel on Meseches Pesachim and had it printed. Immediately upon hearing this, Rav Meir Don put on his coat and said, "There is not enough honor that I can bestow upon such a person, to whom the entire Torah world is in his debt for this great gift. Come, we must go to your father, so that I can thank him for what he has done." Rav Meir Don understood that he had benefited from this person; even though he was one of many and it was an indirect benefit, he felt it behooved him to show his appreciation. This is the mark of a great person.

Look down from Your holy abode, from the Heavens, and bless Your people, Yisrael. (26:15)

The word hashkifah, look down, usually has a negative connotation. It implies to cast an evil eye on a subject. The sole exception to this rule is the hashkifah of Viddui Maaser, which is the confessional prayer which one recites upon successfully dispensing the required tithes. In this case, we ask Hashem to look down and bless us. The Midrash explains that this is the power of tzedakah. It can transform the Middas Hadin, attribute of strict Justice, into the Middas HoRachamim, attribute of Mercy. Although hashkifah generally implies evil, when people act in accordance with Hashem's will, dispensing their tithes to the Levi and the poor, it is transformed into a positive word.

The Kesav Sofer cites his father, the Chasam Sofer who questions this. Why should the Torah use a word that has a negative connotation only to "change" its implication into a positive meaning? Why not simply use a word that originally has a positive overtone?

The Kesav Sofer explains that prosperity and material blessing can, in fact, have a negative effect on a person's life. First, the more material reward a person receives in this world, the less he is likely to receive in the World to Come. Furthermore, wealth has the ability to impede one's relationship with Hashem and to diminish his fear of Him. Throughout the Torah we find pesukim alluding to the negative reaction one may have to wealth and material abundance. Since the goal of a Jew is to raise his spiritual level and to serve Hashem faithfully, so that he can achieve eternal reward in the World to Come, it makes sense that too much materialism is a severe deterrent to attaining this goal.

Yet, when one makes good use of his material resources by sharing it with those less fortunate, by supporting Torah institutions, this wealth becomes a source of blessing and spiritual merit. This is the Torah's lesson. Just as hashkifah can be transformed into a positive connotation, so, too, can material abundance be used for our spiritual benefit. It is not the resources that are inherently bad; how we use them defines their value.

Hashem will send in your midst attrition, confusion and worry, in your every undertaking that you will do. (28:20)

Inner peace eludes many of us. We search for it, never realizing that it is right in front of us. The Yismach Moshe once dreamed that he was in Gan Eden. He entered a room that was very plain, completely devoid of ornamentation, and noticed a group of Torah scholars studying Torah. He was quite surprised that this was all there was to Gan Eden. Suddenly, a voice called out to him, "If you are under the impression that the scholars are in paradise - you are wrong. It is paradise that is within the Torah scholars."

We are always searching for a touch of paradise. Look around at how many people spend their hard-earned money on exotic vacations. Although there is certainly nothing wrong with it, do they really find the tranquility and serenity they seek? True, for a few weeks they are relaxed and calm, but what happens as soon as they "land" and return to their daily lifestyle? To be truly free of all tension one must find inner-peace within himself.

The problem is that we often think that we are in charge of our destiny. Consequently, we are always nervous about what we can do to insure a positive result to our endeavor. The cure to this problem is, bitachon, trust in Hashem. When we are ready to begin trusting Hashem and believing that everything that He does is for our good, then we can achieve inner-peace and experience a little bit of Gan Eden in this world.

One of the leading causes of depression is a lack of material success. Earning a livelihood is a challenge which becomes magnified when one's wife and children make unreasonable demands for the bread winner to keep up with the Jones'. There is nothing like having one's child wonder out loud why his father cannot be as financially successful as his neighbor. Families have to be supportive, not add to the challenge. A person must realize that his lot in life is decreed by Hashem for a purpose, a purpose that is inherently good for him. Horav Zushia, zl, m'Annipole lived in abject poverty. He never complained. In fact, he accepted his circumstances with a smile. He was once asked, "How can you be sincere in reciting the brachah, blessing, of She'asah li kol tzarki, thanking the Almighty for granting all your needs, when, in fact, you are so much in need?"

Rav Zushia responded, "Hashem knows fully well what my needs are better than I do. He knows that one of my needs is poverty. Who am I to argue?" It all reverts to the same idea. Do we trust Hashem to make the correct decision? Do we truthfully believe that what He does is for the best? As long as we think that success or failure in financial endeavors is in our hands, we will be dejected when our efforts do not prove successful. If we realize that what Hashem gives us is in our best interest, we can be happy even if we receive less than we have anticipated.

The cause of all this mistrust is man's archenemy - the yetzer hora, evil-inclination. Horav Yaakov Yosef, zl, m'Polnaah says, "In the past, the yetzer hora directed its efforts at preventing people from acquiring their share in the World to Come. Now, the yetzer hora is busy at work preventing people from having enjoyment from their earthly existence." We have unprecedented opportunities to enjoy life; yet, we make ourselves miserable. Is that normal? We should be happy, but we are not. We do not realize that it is all the yetzer hora's ploy. Instead of enticing us to sin, it sows discontent and depression within us. We should learn to reject depression the way we repel a sin. By acknowledging the source of our problem, we can learn to overcome its effect.

Your sons and daughters will be given to another people - and your eyes will see and pine in vain for them… You will bear sons and daughters, but they will not be yours, for they will go into captivity. (28:32,41)

There seems to be a redundancy in these two tragic curses. We suggest that, unfortunately, they are two distinct curses, each one focusing on a different type of loss. In the former, the children are given over to another people. They might be living under the same roof as their parents, but their values are different. They are alienated from their people and are instead enchanted by the culture of another nation. In the latter curse, the children are no longer home; they have been taken captive by another nation. They are slaves to another people.

In the first curse, the Torah refers to the sons and daughters as "your sons and daughters." They are home. You see them every day but, regrettably you pine in vain for them. In the latter, they are gone, no longer your sons and daughters. They have been taken captive. Which curse is worse? No parent should ever be faced with this question, but from the sequence it would seem that curses become more serious as they progress. Thus, having the children at home, even though they no longer respect and adhere to their parents' wishes and level of observance, is still far better than having them out of the specter of parental influence and taken captive by another nation. As long as a child is home, there is hope. The parents still have an opportunity to reach out, to assuage the hurt feelings, to repair the breech. Once the child has moved out and moved on, it is so much more difficult. On the other hand, to observe a child's deterioration on a daily basis is a traumatic experience, one that for most people is gut-wrenching and devastating. Yet, the Torah seems to be telling us that as long as the child stays home, there is hope; as long as we consider them our children, they can still come back, because the return address has not been erased.

Because you did not serve Hashem, your G-d, amid gladness and goodness of heart. (28:47)

Joy in mitzvah performance, aside from being an essential prerequisite to the actual fulfillment of the mitzvah, also has a very practical application. Horav Moshe Feinstein, zl, explains why so many children of European immigrants who came to America after World War I did not remain observant. Their parents were deeply committed to Yiddishkeit. They slaved long hours, performing all kinds of backbreaking labor to eke out a meager living. They would never compromise their observance of Torah and mitzvos. Shabbos was paramount, and kashrus was a standard in their homes. So, what went wrong? How did so many Jews who were moser nefesh, sacrificed themselves for Torah, fail to see nachas from their children?

They were not happy. "Oy! Es is shver tzu zein a Yid." It is difficult to be a Jew. When they came home after a difficult day in the sweatshops - they complained. When they observed Shabbos, sometimes at the expense of their jobs - they complained. When the price of kosher meat was too much for their meager paychecks - they complained. Their children heard nothing but complaints. This was surely not a strong motivating factor for them. They grew up viewing Judaism as a pain, as a religion that imposed hardship, poverty and unhappiness. Their reaction was simple: they did not want to be miserable like their parents. Therefore, they dropped the source of their parents' misery: religious observance. Now they could be happy. Regrettably, now their children would follow them - until they would see for themselves the beauty and joy inherent in mitzvah observance. The home serves as the greatest and most important training ground for our children. They way we act at home can either inspire or impede. We have only ourselves to blame.


The Egyptians mistreated us. (26:6)

It should have been written Vayareiu lanu, they were bad to us. Why is it written in such an ambiguous manner? The Alshich Hakadosh, zl, explains that the Egyptians transformed us into evil people. Their influence upon us left a lasting impression.

Alternatively, Horav Meir Berlin, zl, translates vayareinu as being related to the word reius, friendship. The Egyptians befriended us and accepted us into their circles. This catalyzed our assimilation into Egyptian society.


Accursed is one who will not uphold the words of this Torah, to perform them. (27:26)

The Ksav v'Hakabalah cites the Akeidas Yitzchak who says that there are people who present themselves as G-d-fearing Jews, but do not really perform mitzvos. It is all a sham to fool those around them. They do not uphold the Torah for the purpose of performing its mitzvos.


All these blessings will come upon you and overtake you, if you hearken to the voice of Hashem, your G-d. (28:2)

The Chafetz Chaim, zl, comments that "listening to Hashem" is in itself the greatest blessing. It is not only a criteria for blessing - it constitutes a blessing.

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