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Peninim on the Torah

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Rabbi A. Leib Scheinbaum
Hebrew Academy of Cleveland


These shall stand to bless the people on Har Gerizim, when you have crossed the Yarden: Shimon, Levi, Yehudah, Yissachar, Yosef and Binyamin. (27:12)

As soon as the nation entered the Land, the people were to assemble at two mountains to re-accept the Torah. Twelve commandments would be enumerated, which the people would acknowledge publicly, affirming their understanding that those who observed these commandments would be blessed and those who reneged them would be cursed. Representatives of six tribes would stand on one mountain (Har Gerizim) for blessing, and representatives of the other six tribes would stand opposite on the other mountain (Har Eival) for curse. The twelve commandments which were Divinely selected are such acts that can be carried out covertly. A subtle message underscored the lack of distinction between public and private morality. One was either moral or a sinner. The place where he carried out his rebellion against G-d did not matter. Second, as noted by Sforno, the sins were of the type that were, sadly, common among the powerful and influential members of the nation. Hashem was conveying a message to them: power and influence neither permits nor absolves the individual of the consequences of the commission of evil.

Having said this, we take note of the structure of the tribes who stood on each mountain. We will focus on the mountain reserved for blessing: Har Gerizim. Why are the tribes not divided as they were on the Eiphod (according to birth) with Shimon and Levi together, and Yosef and Binyamin bringing up the flank? Second, when they divided the tribes for the Degalim, Banners, Yosef was split into Menashe and Efraim, while here it is Yosef alone. What is unique about this scenario that the sequence, and even names of the participants, are altered?

Horav Bentzion Firer, zl, quotes the well-known maxim from the Talmud (Uktzim 3:12), "Hashem did not find a vessel that would hold blessing for Yisrael other than shalom, peace." In simple vernacular: The only way to receive brachah, blessing, is when peace and harmony reigns. Why bless a situation/organization/group that is embraced in strife? Blessing is a way of saying: I like what you are doing. I agree with your intentions. I support your cause/yeshivah, institution/chaburah, endeavor. I want it to succeed. When people do not get along, they strike out before even going to bat. Why would Hashem want to support people who do not get along with one another?

Thus, it was critical that the mountain that represented blessing should, likewise, reflect the highest aspect of shalom. Otherwise, it was self-undermined, with no hope for realistic, enduring blessing. Shimon and Levi had a problem with Yosef - not with Menashe and Efraim, but with Yosef. True, the other brothers had issues with Yosef, but nothing like those evinced by Shimon and Levi. No blessing can exist without peace. In order to affect blessing on Har Gerizim, Shimon/Levi had to make peace with Yosef. This was reflected by their standing together as one harmonious, unified group. What about Binyamin? Does he, too, belong there? Yes! Clearly, Binyamin must have had feedback concerning what had happened concerning his brother. It must be traumatic to hear one's brothers plotting to kill his only brother from the same mother. We cannot say for certain that Binyamin harbored ill will against Shimon and Levi, but one thing is probably true: he did not necessarily have strong filial feelings of connectedness toward them. He, too, needed to put his feelings aside, make peace and stand together with Shimon and Levi on Har Gerizim.

Yehudah had a place of honor on that mountain. While it was true that Reuven sought to prevent his brothers' from actively murdering Yosef, it was Yehudah who sought to spare his life and reinstate him into the family. Reuven suggested throwing Yosef in the pit, where he might die on his own; Yehudah encouraged selling him as a slave.

Yissachar seems to be the odd man out. He had nothing to do with saving Yosef. Why was he on the mountain? Yissachar represents the talmid chacham, the Torah scholar, who increases shalom in the world. No one was more appropriate than Yissachar to round out the six tribes who would symbolize Klal Yisrael's blessing.

So - Yosef was there - not Menashe and Efraim - because it was about the kli machazik shalom, the vessel which would hold peace. Menashe and Efraim had never been embroiled in the controversy. Yehudah and Reuven were the saviors. Yissachar was the ben Torah/talmid chacham who (is supposed to) exemplifies shalom.

The Pele Yoetz writes: "It is not enough to (simply) personally be at peace with people (to get along and make every attempt to prevent oneself from falling into the abyss of controversy). One must see to it to spread unity among people, to increase marital harmony. Indifference to dispute which rages among others is tantamount to supporting machlokes, controversy. One might argue that he is not qualified to be a marriage counselor or a peacemaker. Does that make him culpable? Well, as we will observe from the following story, one can save a marriage simply by giving a well-laced, well-meaning compliment at the right time. That could mean the difference in saving a marriage - and even a life.

A young man, member of the Kollel in Ramat Elchanan, related the following incident. As he was leaving the Kollel one morning, he was approached by a distinguished member of the Bnei Brak rabbinate, an individual who had achieved enormous success in helping to promote and maintain marital harmony between husband and wife, who - due to various pressures, personal inconsistencies and dysfunction - were at the brink of dissolving their marriage. The Rav said, "I want to commend and thank you for helping to save a marriage. I had tried numerous times to convince this couple to make peace, but I was just not successful. You did it with a simple compliment!"

The young man was clueless. He did not know anyone who was on the brink of divorce. He certainly did not remember doing anything to save a marriage. The look on his face bespoke his incredulity. The Rav explained, "A week ago, you went over to a certain father and told him how impressed you were with his son's hasmadah, diligence, in Torah study. You supplemented your compliment with a blessing, saying that parents who can raise such a child must truly be special people, worthy of blessing. You have no idea how you saved the father. The man was suffering from serious self-esteem issues, struggling to find any positive aspect to who he was. He had given up on life, and he felt he could do nothing to help himself. Needless to say, his marriage had lacked vibrancy and meaning, since he was no longer a partner; he had become a depressed spectator. Your compliment turned his life around, engendering within him a feeling of hope and self-worth. He returned home with the feeling that his life was worth living. You saved a person and a family!"

It takes so little to accomplish so much, if we only care and put our mind to it.

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

A common attitude of (which we will refer to as) spiritual entitlement exists among some of us, which is indicative of feeling of spiritual superiority and self-righteousness: "Es kumt es mir; "I deserve it/it is coming to me" is a notion that some of us maintain, although we do not explicitly articulate it. The attitude is, "I am good, and, thus, I deserve to be the recipient of abundant reward." This applies to those who observe Torah and mitzvos and expect a Heavenly check in the mail, as well as to those who have been victims of various forms of adversity which have plagued their lives. They, too, expect something in return.

The Kotzker Rebbe, zl, not only assails this attitude; he interprets it as the message of the above pasuk. V'hisigucha, "And (it will) overtake you" is understandable with regard to curses. One attempts to flee from a curse. He is being told - "No way. They will catch up with you - sooner or later. You cannot escape retribution for your misdeeds." Here, however, the pasuk is addressing the idea of being overtaken by blessing. Sforno offers a simple rendering of the pasuk. Hashem will be so gracious to us that we will be overtaken with blessing even when we are not out there looking for it, making no effort (or demand) that blessing be our fare for all the "good" that we have done. Indeed, even when logic and nature seem contradictory to blessing, it will happen. Hashem owes no one. Each and every one of us will receive retribution for the good - and for the bad.

The Kotzker interprets the word v'hisigucha as being related to hasagah, criticism, as in hasagas ha'Raavad, questions/ critique of the Raavad (on the Rambam). He explains that the question is for the individual: - "Why did I receive Hashem's blessing? Am I deserving of it?" Furthermore, "What am I doing in the way of serving Hashem to warrant my good fortune?" When we are the beneficiaries of Hashem's blessing, we seldom ask "why"; we are happy to accept it and continue with business as usual. We rarely stop to think that perhaps we should act in a manner which warrants such Heavenly attention. V'hisigucha - and the blessing will present a question to you: "What are you/I doing to deserve such favor?"

Horav Yaakov Kamenetzky, zl, once met a non-observant Jew who had absolutely nothing to do with religious practice. He did not even know the pasuk, Shema Yisrael, which is a staple in Jewish life. The man said, "I am aware of one verse from the Torah which I memorized. Tachas asher lo avadita es Hashem Elokecha b'simchah u'b'tuv leivav meirov kol, "Because you did not serve Hashem, your G-d, amid gladness and goodness of heart, when everything was abundant" (Devarim 28:47).

Rav Yaakov was slightly taken aback by this revelation. After all, from among the many pesukim of the Torah which impact Jewish life, this was not at the top of the list. The man's response is in and of itself a lesson in devotion to Hashem, and how one person's sincere service can have an enduring impact on another person's life: "Rebbe, I experienced seven levels of Gehinom. During the Holocaust, I lived in purgatory on a regular daily basis. In one of the camps in which I was incarcerated there was a holy Jew, a rabbi of distinguished lineage, whose influence upon the other incarcerates was overwhelming. As a result, the Nazis singled him out for singular punishment. This was their way of saying to us: 'Look, we control everyone - even your illustrious rabbis are putty in our hands.' They placed a 50-kilogram stone in his hands and ordered him to carry it up a steep mountain. Once he reached the summit, he was told to carry it down. This was not yet the end. The debasing process continued on all day, as they made the holy man walk up and down the mountain for hours with the relentless heat of the sun beating down on him. During this entire time, all I heard from the man (who was none other than the holy, venerable Klausenberger Rebbe, zl.) was this pasuk, repeated over and over again."

The Klausenberger Rebbe had already experienced the tragic loss of his wife and eleven children. He had been beaten, degraded and subjected to painful persecution. Yet, the vicious animals in the guise of human beings did not succeed in breaking this man. Indeed, he survived and rebuilt his life, successfully establishing a kehillah, congregation, in this country and in Eretz Yisrael. He founded a premier hospital and returned atarah l'yoshnah, the Crown of Torah, to its original place. Yet, despite all that he had suffered, all that entered his mind that fateful day was: "I am suffering because I did not serve Hashem with joy." Rather than entitlement, he felt that he owed Hashem!

Your sons and daughters will be given to another people… you will bear sons and daughters, but they will not be yours, for they will go into captivity. (28:32,41)

At first glance, these two separate curses appear redundant. Upon closer perusal, however, one sees a striking difference. In the first pasuk, the Torah refers to the children as your sons and daughters. In the second pasuk, it is simply sons and daughters to whom you will give birth. Furthermore, in the first pasuk, your sons and daughters are "given" over to another nation. In the second pasuk, the children are taken away from you, captive of another nation.

These are two curses which I think are progressive. At first, the children still belong to us. They are at home and attend school/yeshivah/Bais Yaakov. They are physically with us. It is their minds and hearts which have publicly fallen prey to the blandishments of the outside culture, the non-frum world, the hedonistic society in which everything goes: smoking, drinking, internet, a society whose moral compass is no longer measured by the charts of simple human decency.

The next step in this bitter digression is when they are no longer home. Oh, they might come home at night to sleep, but, for all intents and purposes, they have been taken captive by the nations. Their allegiance to Jewish spirituality is no longer existent.

These two curses have plagued the Orthodox community throughout time. While some might think it is a recent phenomenon, they are wrong. I do not have the statistics, but I believe it was worse in pre-World War II Europe. Why? What are the causes? We can go on hypothesizing, laying the onus of guilt on parents, environment, society, schools, but, after all is said and done - we do not know. The explanation for one specific boy does not apply to the other ten in his group. Whatever rationale upon which we might agree concerning a certain girl will not hold water concerning the many others who have ended up like her. There are wonderful boys and girls from the finest, most committed families, who just do not make the grade. They drop out from a host of excuses.

While, indeed, of all the contributing factors and emotional issues that one can suggest may have catalyzed this specific boy or girl's alienation from Jewish observance, the most significant and imposing reason is the extent to which a boy or girl has a positive feeling toward Jewish observance. When one enjoys an activity, when it has value and meaning, they stick with it. Otherwise…

At the end of the day, it all boils down to one word: curse. The Tochachah says it loud and clear: your sons and daughters will be given over to another people. All rationale is irrelevant. The scourge through which so many are living is a curse from Hashem. Now - it might serve us well to read the tochachah and see what it is that catalyzes this and the other ninety-seven curses. Perhaps we can get a handle on the problem and prevent more children from being alienated.

First and foremost, I certainly am not qualified to render reason or make suggestions. I am merely approaching this issue from the perspective of one who learns a pasuk Chumash and derives a lesson and perspective from its words. In its own holy words, the Torah says: "Because you did not serve Hashem, your G-d, amid gladness and goodness of heart, when everything was abundant" (28:47). It seems like a simple command: serve Hashem with joy, as if you mean it, as if you care, as if it is exciting, out of deep gratitude and feeling. A person's attitude toward observance is not determined by how large his yarmulke or kippah is, how black his hat is, etc., but by whether observance is a source of joy for him, whether being observant means something to him as a Jew, as a person. Is it all by rote, an act of complacency, or does it really engender in him a feeling of safety, calm, self-worth, pride, courage, love?

A dysfunctional home will inevitably have issues. Disrespectful children are most often from disrespectful homes. This, of course, does not explain the children from "wonderful" frum, observant, homes that drift away. Well, the Torah is teaching us a secret: how observance is viewed and modeled sends a piercing message to children and plays a pivotal role in their outlook of Jewish observance. If parents and other authority figures love observance and express their joy about it, their children will more likely maintain an affinity toward observance, over those who just act with neutrality, because it is how they were raised.

This is the beginning, but, without it, we end at first base. Afterwards comes belief, intellectual as well as simple understanding - that frumkeit is the only meaningful way to live, such that we will not be swayed by those who "talk the talk" and even "dress the part," but, behind closed doors, do not "walk the walk." It is important to separate Jewish observance from those who purport to be frum.

I was recently in Eretz Yisrael where I had the zchus of speaking with the tzaddik, Horav Yaakov Meir Shechter, Shlita. Despite having suffered a number of personal sorrows, he is the embodiment of Ivdu es Hashem b'simchah, "Serve Hashem with joy." He gave me his latest sefer, "The Scent of Eden," which he exemplifies in the manner that he lives. In Likutei Moharon (11:8), Horav Nachman, zl, m'Breslov observes that the best way to encourage someone to do teshuvah, repent, is by exposing him to the "scent of Gan Eden." This penetrating and lovely insight defines Rav Shechter's approach to Torah and avodas Hashem. Simply speaking with him, one senses the immense joy that he manifests in serving Hashem. Each and every one of his activities on behalf of Klal Yisrael - to his personal avodah, service, to Hashem - is infused with vitality and a sense of enormous pleasure. I take the liberty of citing from his discourse on joy and sadness, in the hope that it will inspire the reader - especially as we near the end of the Hebrew calendar year, in preparation for the Yamim Noraim, High Holy Days.

Do you ever wonder how an individual who is seriously devout, meticulous in observing each and every mitzvah, could possibly be suffering "mild" depression? Horav Shechter explains that the yetzer hora, evil inclination, has one goal: to separate us from Hashem. The best way to do this would be to convince us not to perform mitzvos, and, instead, act nefariously. This should do the trick, but the frum Jew will not fall for such a frontal attack. Thus, the yetzer hora has no recourse, other than cloaking itself in a garment of piety and mitzvos, and saying to us, "It is not enough to 'simply' serve Hashem. You must grow every day. Push yourself. Do not settle for the ordinary frumkeit, run-of-the-mill service to Hashem. You must be very strict with yourself, overly demanding. Do not rest for a moment. Push yourself harder, faster - until you collapse."

We are pushed toward unrealistic - almost irrational - goals. When we fall short of our perceived expectations, we become angry with ourselves or with anyone whom we can blame for our missing the mark set by the yetzer hora. Instead of serving Hashem with joy, we have become preoccupied with worries, and our hearts are burdened by a sense of spiritual inadequacy and failure. This ultimately leads to self-resentment and depression. We have just lost to the yetzer hora. Why? How? We were unaware that joy is much more than a byproduct, a consequence of serving Hashem. It is, indeed, the single most powerful weapon in our arsenal to battle the yetzer hora.

One would suggest that we should push as hard as possible to acquire the characteristic of joy. The problem, explains the Rosh Yeshivah (Yeshivah Shaar HaShomayim, one of Yerushalayim's oldest yeshivos for the study of Talmud and Kabbalah, originally established by Horav Chaim Leib Auerbach, zl, in 1906), is that, if a person works directly to acquire the middah of joy, he runs the risk of ending up with its very opposite - depression. One of the laws of "spiritual physics" is that wherever one tries to push in a particular direction, an opposing force is automatically catalyzed. Thus, the best approach is not to force joy, but to distance oneself from depression. Once our minds are void of sadness, joy will enter on its own, as a natural consequence of the mitzvos that we perform. When a person acts in accordance with Hashem's dictate, he feels good. When one feels good, he is happy. It is as simple as that.

Your life will hang in the balance, and you will be frightened night and day, and you will not be sure of your livelihood. (28:66)

Blessing and curse are a matter of perspective. Two people can view the same situation through different prisms, allowing them to derive separate conclusions. The Torah writes that, as a result of the nation's break with Hashem, they will be subject to various curses: "Your life will hang in the balance… you will not be sure of your livelihood." Rashi explains that Jews will not be sure of their safety. Concerning their livelihoods, they will be forced to subsist on what they can purchase daily. They will never be sure that the markets will not be shut down - in general - or, to them, specifically. How can relying on daily sustenance be considered a curse? When we journeyed in the wilderness for forty years, this is exactly how we lived. Every day we looked out the door of our tents to discover our daily portions of Manna. There was no guarantee. When we went to bed at night there were no snacks. Nothing remained from our daily portion. When it was gone, it was gone. The next day brought new hope, new food. Is this to suggest that our wilderness sojourn was filled with curse?

Horav Chaim Shmuelevitz, zl, explains that being compelled to seek food daily was in and of itself not a curse. The curse was, "You will not be sure (because you will be lacking in emunah, faith, in Hashem) of your livelihood." The fact that you view going to the store daily scrounging for bread as a curse is because you view this experience through the lens of a non-believer. On the contrary, a believing Jew sees this as an opportunity to come closer to Hashem, to see firsthand, up front, how Hashem's Divine Providence plays itself out in his life. As the famous maxim goes, "For the believer, there are no questions; for the non-believer, there are no answers." Furthermore, we may add: The believer sees an opportunity for affirming his belief. The non-believer views everything through his jaundiced perspective. Thus, he is always filled with questions and ridicule, because his perceptions support his misplaced allegiances.

Va'ani Tefillah

Melech meimis u'mechayeh. The (same) king who puts to death and (also) brings to life.

The Torah (Devarim 32:39) says, Ani amis v'aachayeh, "I put to death and I bring to life." Simply put, Hashem says, "I do both - create life and bring it to an end." The Talmud Pesachim 68a uses this pasuk as one of the sources of Techiyas HaMeisim, Resurrection of the Dead, min haTorah, is derived from the Torah. Horav Shimon Schwab, zl, observes that the act of taking away life is in of itself the beginning of Techiyas HaMeisim. We find in Pirkei Avos (4:29), 'The newborn will die; the dead will live again." From the very moment that a person enters this world, his heart begins to beat and continues on until it "runs out." The soul is called back to Heaven when the heart stops beating and the person ceases to live. Life is programmed. When a person is born, he is destined to live a specific amount of time. When that time is achieved - the program is over. Likewise, explains Rav Schwab, death is also programmed. A person is programmed to be dead until the time of Techiyas HaMeisim when he will be resuscitated. It is one long process which is performed by Hashem. It begins with birth and ends with rebirth.

Sponsored in honor of our father, Avi Herskowitz, who has distributed Peninim for over twenty years, on the occasion of his sixtieth birthday and forty-seventh bar mitzvah parsha.
May he be blessed with many more years of gezunt and Yiddishe nachas.

By his children:
Yehuda and Gitty Goldberg
Shmulie and Chaya Diamantstein
Yitzchok and Tamar Herskowitz
Suchy and Roise Halpern
and grandchildren

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

The Fifteenth volume is available at your local book seller or directly from Rabbi Scheinbaum.

He can be contacted at 216-321-5838 ext. 165 or by fax at 216-321-0588

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