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Peninim on the Torah

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Rabbi A. Leib Scheinbaum
Hebrew Academy of Cleveland


You shall take the first of every…fruit…that Hashem, your G-d gave you…and go to the place that Hashem, your G-d. will choose. (26:20)

Bikurim, the offering of the first fruits, is all about gratitude. After Eretz Yisrael had been conquered and divided among the tribes, the farmers were to bring their first fruits to the Mishkan/Bais HaMikdash and present them to the Kohen. The

ritual included a stirring declaration of gratitude to Hashem for His eternal role in Jewish/world history. By bringing the first fruits to the Kohen in the Sanctuary, the Jew emphasizes his acknowledgement that everything he possesses originates from Hashem.

Gratitude for a Jew is more than a good character trait. It is not merely a virtue. It must be part of his DNA. When a Jew arises in the morning, the first sound that he emits is Modeh ani, "I give thanks." Why? Horav Boruch Rosenblum, Shlita, explains that it is a Jew's raison d'etre. This is why he was created: to praise and give thanks to the Almighty. He cites the Ramban in his commentary to Parashas Bo, who says: "We must pay gratitude to Him for creating us. All that Hashem desires from His creations is that man should acknowledge, appreciate and thank Hashem for creating him."

Adam HaRishon sinned shortly after he was created. It was the tenth hour of the sixth day of Creation. During the eleventh hour, he was judged; he was subsequently pardoned during the twelfth hour. His sin was eating of the Eitz Hadaas, Tree of Knowledge. In addition, when Hashem confronted and accused him of disobeying His command, Adam countered, "The woman whom You gave me brought this about." He did not simply blame his downfall on Chavah. He added, "which You gave me," placing the onus of guilt at Hashem's doorstep. He was the first one to be a kafui tov, ungrateful. He not only did not accept responsibility for his actions, he went so far as to blame Hashem for "setting him up."

This idea is reiterated in the Talmud Avodah Zarah 5. Klal Yisrael complained about the manna, "Our soul is disgusted with the insubstantial food" (Bamidbar 21:5). Moshe Rabbeinu responded, "Ingrates, sons of ingrates; sons of Adam HaRishon who eschewed Hashem's gift." Earlier, when the Jewish People had complained about water, their criticism was followed by an attack from Amalek. Why did Amalek attack them, rather than any of the other pagan nations who made their home in the immediate area? Once again, Chazal respond, "Let a nation of ingrates 'collect' from a nation that is ungrateful." This is why, explains the Daas Zekeinim, Parashas Bikurim follows immediately after the Torah's exhortation to blot out Amalek's name. The mitzvah of Bikurim is founded upon the premise of hakoras ha'tov. Thus, it serves as a source of merit to erase Amalek - whose essence is ingratitude.

The Sefas Emes observes that Parashas Bikurim is read shortly prior to Rosh Hashanah. He explains that Rosh Hashanah is the day on which we accept the yoke of the kingdom of Hashem. It is on this day that we coronate Him. As a prelude to this auspicious day, we read about the concept of Bikurim which is based upon hakoras ha'tov. For without gratitude to Hashem, there can be no coronation. The basis for accepting Hashem as our G-d is gratitude. One does not function without the other.

Rav Rosenblum offers a powerful analogy which is especially appropriate at this time of year. One Jew does his friend a favor by lending him his car. He later discovers that the car had been used to deliver goods to his competitor. We can imagine that the next time he requests a favor, the answer will be "no." After all, it takes great chutzpah to borrow someone's car and use it to hurt him financially.

Now that the rules for reciprocity have been defined, let us introspect and take a hard look at our actions as we stand before Hashem in prayer, especially at this time of year, the Yemei Ha'Din, Days of Judgment. We ask Hashem to grant us another year, a healthy and good year, a sweet year. Let Him fill our homes with abundance, our hands with blessing. Do we ever think about how we have used His gifts in the past year? He has given us a healthy body, air to breathe, money to spend, and how have we used these gifts? We have used them against Him! We sinned with our bodies, we used our money inappropriately, and the list goes on. Yet, we have no qualms about asking for more! Is that chutzpah, or is that chutzpah? What merit do we possess that empowers us to ask for a shanah tova, good year?

We understand that Hashem is unlike His creations. He sees the big picture. Understanding the foibles of humanity, He grants us our wishes despite our iniquities. He does us favors, undeterred by our lack of gratitude for our previous good fortune. The Neviim were acutely aware of this phenomenon. Thus, Ezra HaSofer says, "My G-d, I am embarrassed and ashamed to lift my face to You, for our iniquities have multiplied over our head, and our sins extend up to the Heaven!" (Ezra 9:16) Hashem knows all of this. Yet, as Nechemiah HaNavi says, "But You, in Your great compassion, did not forsake them in the wilderness… You bestowed Your spirit to make them understand; You did not withhold Your manna from their mouths." Chazal teach that even when the Jews made the Golden Calf, adding insult to injury by attempting to feed manna to this molten travesty, Hashem did not reject them by withholding the manna: "In Your abundant compassion You did not annihilate any of them, and You did not abandon them." No, Hashem is quite unlike any creation. His compassion is boundless; His understanding is beyond human ken.

Rosh Hashanah is when the first sin occurred, reflecting a lack of hakoras hatov. Thus, it would be appropriate to rectify that spiritual incursion with acts of gratitude. Indeed, the entire period preceding the High Holy Days is an especially propitious time to cleanse ourselves of this harmful character trait.

It will be that if you hearken to the voice of Hashem, your G-d…that Hashem will make you supreme over all nations of the earth. All these blessings will come upon you…And do not turn away from any words that I command you…to follow gods of others. (28:1,2,14)

The sequence of the pesukim is enigmatic. The Torah begins with its preface: "If you will hearken" and continues with what appears to be a part of the preface: "Hashem will make you supreme over all the nations." One would think that "being supreme over the nations" is a blessing - not a prelude to blessing. What does achieving supremacy have to do with setting the stage for blessing? One who is supreme is "there"! Horav Zev Weinberger, Shlita, explains that the question bespeaks our own misunderstanding of the essence and ultimate appreciation of the meaning of blessing. First and foremost, we must transcend the hashkofas ha'goyim, gentile weltenshaung, the life's perspective of contemporary society. Once we have achieved this transition, once our minds have been imbued with the notion that Judaism and the Torah Jew totally distinguish themselves from everyone else, we can then begin to appreciate the connotation and significance of true blessing. We will have a more profound perception of the meaning of blessing, "Blessed shall you be in the city and blessed shall you be in the field" (ibid. 28:3). The benchmark of blessing which applies to the non-Jew is unlike that which applies to us. Being elevated above the accepted standards which apply in non-Jewish circles is not a blessing. It is a pre-requisite for blessing.

This is why the Torah concludes its blessing with the statement, "And do not turn away from My words that I command you…to follow gods of others." We have just addressed individuals who are worthy of receiving blessing, and now we make an about-face and admonish these individuals not to worship idols! How does one deviate from blessing to serving other gods? The Maharil Disken, zl, explains that the Torah admonishes us to have nothing whatsoever to do with idols- even if it means adopting their practices in order to learn positive living from their mistakes. We are to have nothing to do with them - in both a positive and negative sense. They are simply not in our league.

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

This pasuk has invoked much exegesis from the Torah's commentators. The Torah is essentially implying that the underlying catalyst of the punishment represented by the aforementioned ninety-eight curses is Klal Yisrael's lack of joy manifest in serving Hashem. It is not due to our lack of service; we serve! It is just that we are not motivated, excited and enthusiastic. It might be reason for a reprimand - perhaps even a stern denouement- but such terrible curses seem disproportionate and demanding. Perhaps we should understand what the lack of happiness in our lives represents.

Let us look at what might seem to be an isolated incident which occurred during the forty-year sojourn of Klal Yisrael in the wilderness. The rigors of travel took their toll on the people, and they responded in their usual way: they complained. It was not the first time that they had acted without justification. Yet, this time, they apparently went too far. They complained about being taken out of Egypt to perish in the wilderness without food and water. Their coup de grace was, "And our soul is disgusted with the insubstantial food" (Bamidbar 21:5). This was a reference to the Heavenly manna which was sufficient to fill their needs for nourishment. Hashem sent fiery serpents which bit the people, causing a large multitude of Jews to die. It seems a bit harsh of a punishment for complaining. Such a miserable and painful death appears inconsistent with this sin, clearly excessive.

The Nesivos Shalom, zl, explains that the clue to understanding the punishment is to be found by analyzing what Klal Yisrael were really saying in their complaint. They did not say that they were hungry or that they were thirsty. The manna provided them with nourishment and they had plenty of water, compliments of Miriam's well. Their problem was the general order of their lives. It was not exactly to their liking. They had priorities which did not necessarily coincide with those of Hashem. Basically, they were rejecting Hashem's choices for them, giving precedence to their personal preferences. It may not be respectful, but is such an attitude rebellious? If someone likes chocolate ice cream as opposed to vanilla, does that make him evil? Does he deserve a snake bite? Once again; is a lack of happiness a sufficient reason to merit punishment? In Pirkei Avos 4:1, Chazal teach us that a truly wealthy man is one who is sameach b'chelko, one who is satisfied with his lot in life. This does not mean that one achieves happiness by adopting a pragmatic, positive acceptance of one's life. That is the consequence. One develops this attitude by seeing Hashem's guiding hand in his life. We are happy with our lot when we realize, acknowledge and embrace the fact that it is part of Hashem's plan for us. What occurs in life is providential, custom designed by the Almighty especially for us.

One who is unhappy rejects all of this. He eschews Hashem's will, insisting instead on imposing his own will, making his own choices, attempting to override Hashem's decision for him. So, the fellow who is miserable is on a crash course with Providence. This seems to me serious reason for despair. The unhappy person is rejecting Hashem's choices for him. It is thus no wonder that the Jews were punished with snake bites. The snake is the one creature that personifies this form of behavior. Hashem cursed the snake for its role in bringing about the sin of the eating of the Eitz HaDaas, Tree of Knowledge. It was to slither on the ground and eat dust. Perhaps not the most comfortable means of locomotion, but it did avail the snake of ready sustenance whenever and wherever it needed it. Is this a curse? Yes, explain the commentators. It meant that the snake would never turn to Hashem for its needs: no prayer; no entreaty; no, please help; no, thank you; no contact whatsoever. Hashem was banishing the snake from His Presence: "Take what you need. I want nothing to do with you!" The Nesivos Shalom cites the dialogue presented in the Talmud Taanis 8a, between all of the animals and the snake.

They accuse the snake of unmitigated evil: "We have often behaved violently, but with 'good reason.' We have killed to gather prey, to sustain ourselves. You kill for no purpose. You are not threatened. You do not need food. You have no benefit whatsoever in inflicting pain on others." The snake is a bitter, contemptuous creature. It lacks nothing, but lashes out nonetheless. This is the work of the yetzer hora, evil inclination, who convinces a person that Hashem is not properly guiding his life. Hashem is not conducting his life in a manner that will give him greater satisfaction. This dissonant attitude festers within the person, depriving him of any joy in life. Now we understand not a lack of joy in mitzvah observance is indicative of an egregious fault in one's relationship with Hashem.

According to the above, a lack of joy represents an attitude reflecting one's disagreement with the way in which Hashem guides His world. In a discourse on the middah, character trait, of chesed, loving kindness, Horav Eliyahu Eliezer Dessler, zl, posits that a lack of joy in mitzvah performance represents a lack of service - period! One who serves Hashem without joy does not serve Hashem. He serves himself. In order to understand this concept, it is necessary to explain the meaning of chesed.

The first postulate is that chesed is the foundation of the world. Hashem is inherently good, and the "good" do good. Hence, Hashem created the world as a venue for His creations to do good. The obvious question is: If Hashem created the world so that people could perform acts of kindness, does that not imply that, prior to creation, something was lacking? Hashem never lacks anything! Rav Dessler distinguishes between the nosein and mekabel, giver and taker. The life of the taker is a sequence of needs, wants and gratifications. His sole interest is in taking, satisfying his needs. The giver, however, is interested solely in giving, in providing chesed for everyone, and bestowing happiness on their lives.

Is not the "desire" to perform a chesed also a need? One who is driven to bestow happiness on others is driven no less. He is gratifying his needs in much the same manner as the taker gratifies his needs. Rav Dessler explains that the taker is a negative person who is mostly unhappy, since all he perceives are his own needs, which are never completely gratified. The quality of giving, however, is inherent only in one who is happy with his lot in life. Such a person is happy, not because of material abundance, but due to the spiritual pursuits that fill his life. His happiness overflows, much like a flooding river whose waters flow over its banks. His joy in receiving these spiritual gifts knows no bounds, and his life is a ceaseless flow of happiness. His fullness of joy and love overflow with giving to others. Thus, his urge to do good is not the result of a lack or a deficiency, but rather an overflow of ecstasy, an outpouring of devotion by which a man who is filled with joy is attached to Hashem.

Chesed from a nosein, giver, is an overflow of his happiness. It is the result of fulfillment - not deficiency. Hashem is the ultimate Giver, Whose chesed flows from an infinite wellspring of joy. While these are terms that apply to a human - and not to Hashem - we use them as metaphors to describe Hashem's chesed in creating the world and its inhabitants. If a man whose life is filled with joy overflows and shares his abundance, how much more so is this the case concerning Hashem.

This idea can be extended to mitzvah observance. Hashem created us b'tzelem Elokim, in His image, thereby imbuing within us the potential to achieve a joy in being, a joy of fulfillment. The elevated human being who has developed his emotional psyche to become a true giver resembles his Creator. Thus, this individual's giving flows from an inner sense of joy, akin in some sense to the joy of the Almighty.

One who performs a mitzvah may feel joy about his actions for a variety of reasons. First, he feels good about "chalking up" another mitzvah to his spiritual account. His spiritual spreadsheet is credited positively. Second, he feels joy in simply performing the mitzvah. In learning Torah, one may enjoy the actual learning, but not the knowledge he has achieved. He has an inner sense of joy in studying Hashem's Torah. This inner feeling is the intrinsic joy that a spiritually elevated Jew senses when he performs a mitzvah.

We may now appreciate the profound meaning of the original pasuk which intimates that a lack of joy in mitzvah performance is an egregious sin which catalyzes the terrible curses detailed by the Torah. Service without joy - without passion, without heart - is no service whatsoever. It indicates that the person is serving himself, not Hashem. His dispassionate service is self-serving. Such an individual has not yet begun to traverse the road that leads to true service of Hashem. This is the root of all sin. One who serves himself does not serve the Almighty.

Rav Dessler concludes with a litmus test for determining one's true spiritual plateau. He should examine the extent and quality of joy he experiences upon fulfilling a mitzvah - in contrast to the joy he feels after he gratifies his physical desires. I may add that the duration of joy should also be factored in. Any thinking person knows that physical gratification is temporary, while spiritual joy is enduring.

And it will be that just as Hashem rejoiced over you to benefit you and multiply you, so Hashem will cause them to rejoice over you to make you perish and to destroy you. (28:63)

What presents itself as a most devastating curse is actually a blessing in disguise. First, as Rashi notes, when the pasuk speaks of the good Hashem does for Klal Yisrael, it says that He, Hashem, rejoices. When it turns to the suffering that Hashem brings about through the medium of our enemies, it says that He causes the enemy to triumph and rejoice. Hashem, however, does not rejoice with them. When Klal Yisrael suffers, He is with us in our pain. The second observation is noted by Horav Yaakov Moshe Charlop, zl, who sees Klal Yisrael's ultimate salvation concealed within the abstruseness of this curse.

Rav Charlop posits that there is no revelation of Din, the attribute of Strict Justice, without the attribute of Chesed, Kindness, wrapped in it. A similar concept is expressed by the Piaseczner Rebbe, zl, who opines that Din, when traced back to its source, is actually Rachamim, the Divine attribute of Compassion. This notion figures prominently in his sefer, Eish Kodesh. In any event, we believe that the unity between Klal Yisrael and Hashem and their deveikus, clinging to Him, is so wondrous that it cannot possibly be breached. Klal Yisrael and the Almighty are one. Thus, as any entity cannot exist in the world without Hashem, likewise, there cannot exist anything without the metzius, existence, of Klal Yisrael. As it is impossible to impugn upon Hashem's power, it is also not feasible to assail the existence of the Jewish People. Yes, we can be smitten, but never wiped out. We are unified with Hashem. Regardless of our iniquities, we remain forever His children. This is a bond which is indestructible.

Hashem carries His People on the wings of eagles. Metaphorically, this expresses His love for us and His constant protection. "Let the arrows of the hunters strike Me, but they will not harm My children." We understand that just as it is impossible for the arrows to strike Hashem, they are equally incapable of harming the Jewish People. The nations of the world can hunt us; they can cause us indescribable pain, but they will never succeed in destroying our entire nation. We are well-connected to the Source of all existence. One does not go without the other. This is what is meant by the pasuk. As Hashem rejoices over us when He brings about benefit, so, too, will He allow our enemies to rejoice when they do us harm. The mere fact that He enlists our enemies to cause us harm is a source of blessing for us. They cannot destroy us, because they cannot touch Hashem. Just as He cannot be harmed, neither will we.

In his homily, the Piaseczner Rebbe points to an anomaly that has perplexed historians of the Holocaust: the zeal and almost insane idealism of the perpetrators. The venom that the Nazis directed against the Jews was not only baseless, it was self-deprecating. It was counter-productive to their own national war effort. Often the destruction of the Jews took precedence over their war strategy. Their search for every last Jew in Europe with an obsessive, radical determination, was indicative of a dysfunctional, compulsive hatred that defied any form of sanity. Yet, this very realization, the image of an enemy whose implacable hatred catalyzed a destruction which provided no benefit, allows the Rebbe to express hope that, in the world of redemption, the enemy's inane idealism will be turned to good, in a miraculous manner which equally defies the natural order of rational comprehension.

The Rebbe explains that when Hashem sends a punishment of Din that is cloaked in the natural order - such as a carnivorous, devouring beast - then our hope for salvation is through the natural order, which is bleak. We do not hope for a miracle, because, obviously, the purpose of the punishment is to inflict pain. It is an act of retribution. When the punishment is Din in its bare, unblemished state, not in any way clothed in the natural order, it conveys an altogether different message. When Hashem punishes us in a manner that does not bestow any benefit to the torturer, if he tortures just to torment us, this is a revelation of Din which is unambiguous, not concealed in the natural order. In such an instance, Hashem wants us to repent, to turn to Him in prayer, and then He will save us by transcending the natural order. Under such circumstances we can hope for a miracle. The purpose is not retribution, as much as catalyzing a response of penitence.

Indeed, this explains our ability to strengthen ourselves in the face of such overwhelming troubles. For, just as our adversity is unnatural, so, too, will our salvation be supernatural. At such a time when Din is laid bare, we have the ability through sincere teshuvah, repentance, to transform it to Rachamim. We are no longer within the realm of natural. There are no longer any "rules" to govern reality.

The Rebbe was a brilliant, strong-minded leader. He led with love and empathy for every Jew. As he was speaking, he let out a cry, employing the words of Moshe Rabbeinu: Lamah hareiosa l'am hazeh? "Why have You dealt ill with this people?" (Shemos 5:22). He rephrased Moshe's words, "Ribono Shel Olam, I know that everything is for the good, I see it, I sense it - but the people can no longer bear such troubles, so they do not see the good in them." The rod of Divine punishment was too much for the people to bear. They could not see the good. They could not understand the bad, so their Rebbe cried out for mercy.

V'charos imo haBris. And You established the Covenant with him.

In his commentary to Sefer Bereishis, the Bais HaLevi observes the compelling distinction of this statement. Hashem initiated a Covenant with Avraham Avinu - for him and his future descendants - all because of Avraham's emunah, faith, in Him. This is a mind-boggling statement! A human being - that is what Avraham was. True, he was an unusual human being who achieved a spiritual plateau unlike any other human being, but he was a human being nonetheless. Yet, Hashem recognized his greatness and rewarded his conviction with an eternal covenant. It gives us something to think about.

The covenant here refers to the Bris Milah. However, the first consequence of this Bris was Hashem giving Eretz Yisrael to Avraham and his descendants. Horav Shimon Schwab, zl, suggests that the word imo, with him, is to be taken literally. He cites the Midrash Rabbah, Bereishis 49:2, which relates the dialogue between Hashem and Avraham at the time of His command to Avraham concerning his circumcision. Avraham asked, "Who will perform the Milah on me?" Hashem replied, "You will do it on yourself." Since Avraham was aged, Hashem helped him do the Milah. Hence, "You established the covenant with him" is to be taken literally: Hashem "helped" Avraham perform the act of circumcision.

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