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Peninim on the Torah

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Rabbi A. Leib Scheinbaum
Hebrew Academy of Cleveland


When you will go out to war against your enemies, and Hashem, your G-d, will deliver him into your hand, and you will capture its captives. (21:10)

The pasuk's text is enigmatic. It begins by referring to our enemies in the plural, "your enemies," - but then it changes to the singular, saying, "And Hashem, your G-d, will deliver him into your hand." Horav Mordechai Gifter, zl, addresses this question and derives a profound lesson from the pasuk. Whether we realize it or not, we enter battle daily against all sorts of enemies or, rather, one enemy in the guise of many different enemies. The yetzer hora, evil-inclination, man's archenemy is extremely cunning and seeks ways to destroy our spiritual development. He attacks us from all sides, transforming himself into many forms. Indeed, at times it appears that we are waging war with many diverse enemies. This is, however, not the case. As man possesses one yetzer tov, good inclination, so, too, does he possess one yetzer hora. Evil has many faces, each one seeking a vulnerability in our spiritual armor.

Hence, the beginning of the pasuk refers to the yetzer hora's bombardment, in its many guises. We are being challenged by "our enemies." This is not, however, a reason to despair. The battle might seem to be overwhelming, but - in reality - it is not. We must realize that it is not a multitude of enemies that we must conquer, but actually one solitary enemy: a formidable one, but still only one. The Torah, therefore, closes the pasuk in the singular, to teach us that we can win. We must arm ourselves with determination to triumph over our enemy. The sooner we see through his many disguises, the sooner we will succeed in prevailing over him.

And you will see among its captivity - a woman who is beautiful of formů If a man will have two wives, one beloved and one hatedů If a man will have a wayward and rebellious son. (21:11,15,18)

Chazal derive a valuable lesson from the juxtaposition of the laws of the ben sorer umoreh, the rebellious son, upon the case of the man who has two wives, one of whom he hates, and upon the incident of the beautiful captive, in which the Torah gives a dispensation, a concession to human weakness, allowing the Jewish soldier to marry this woman. Chazal perceive this marriage, which serves to prevent worse manifestations of the unbridled passions of man, as the precursor of the disobedient and rebellious son. A wife taken in a such a manner will probably ultimately become an object of aversion to her husband. It is, therefore, no wonder that such a union can - and will - produce a ben sorer umoreh. When the relationship between husband and wife is rooted in a concession to lust, it often results in aversion. A child reared in such a home has little choice but to grow into a rebellious monster.

Horav Sholom Schwadron, zl, finds a parallel to support this idea from an earlier episode in the Torah: the dor ha'mabul, wicked generation of the Flood. They were evil, base and immoral deferring to every abominable act of debauchery. Their degenerate behavior, however, did not just appear overnight. It was a slow process, the yetzer hora, evil-inclination, building up steam, starting with a simple heter, dispensation, developing into a full-blown act of immorality. What was the origin? How did it all begin?

The Torah tells us that Lemech took two wives for himself. What seems to be an innocuous act, corresponding to the contemporary lifestyle, was actually, according to Chazal, a philosophy based on lust. Rashi cites the Midrash that sheds light on this practice of taking "two" wives. It seems this was the practice of the generation of the Flood. They would take two wives, one to bear children and the other to satisfy their base needs. The latter was meant not to have children and was, therefore, pampered like a bride. The former, on the other hand, would be left alone, bereft of her husband's care and companionship. She spent her life in mourning like a widow. Keeping this Midrash in mind, we now have an idea why the Torah details the life of Lemech, his exploits and that of his descendents. The Torah is telling us how a generation as evil as the people during the time of the Flood came to be so. They evolved. They were the result of a unique yetzer hora, evil-inclination, the yetzer hora of permissible desire. Lemech was one of the leaders of his generation. He developed for himself a philosophy which ultimately was followed by the rest of his generation. This philosophy was the precursor of the deluge that destroyed almost all of mankind. Lemech conjectured that since Hashem wants man to procreate, the wife - who is taken for the fulfillment of this mitzvah - becomes a cheftza d'mitzvah, an object of mitzvah, which means she is holy. How could he inject his personal desires into this mitzvah? This would be degrading the mitzvah. Lemech decided to alleviate this "problem" by taking a second wife - one for mitzvah and one for himself! The "mitzvah" wife would serve a purpose and otherwise be left alone in scorn, while the "other" wife would be there for him. In truth, both wives were there for one purpose - to serve Lemech. Lemech wanted to have his cake and eat it, too.

The yefas toar, beautiful captive, was also a concession to the yetzer hora. It was a "taavah shel heter," permissible desire. In any event, it reflected desire, base lust. The consequence of this "heter" is the ben sorer u'moreh. These are the descendants of desire: the generation of the Flood and the ben sorer umoreh. It began with a heter, permission, and ended with murder, immorality, and idol worship. When one seeks a heter for himself, if his sole purpose is self-aggrandizement, he is taking the first step toward idol worship.

And you will see among its captivity a woman who is beautiful of form, and you will desire her, you may take her to yourself for a wife. (21:11)

The Torah recognizes that war wreaks havoc on a person's emotions. The anxiety and breakdown of normal life leaves a person in an unusually depressed state, emotionally fragile and susceptible to the blandishments of the yetzer hora, evil-inclination. Under such conditions, the Jewish soldier might defer to his base desires. Upon seeing a woman among the enemy, he might feel an uncontrollable desire for her. Rather than risk sin that may lead to further spiritual pollution, the Torah provides an outlet for the lustful soldier. There is a process which the female captive must undergo, after which he may marry her. The process is demeaning and is intended to encourage the Jewish soldier to change his feelings towards her. In any event, we see that the Torah extends itself to provide a concession to the Jew who is under duress, because a concession in the present will ultimately save a soul in the future. We must add that only the Torah - or Chazal, with their Divinely inspired knowledge - can undertake such a modification.

Horav Yitzchak Zilberstein, Shlita, remembers that when he was a student in the Slabodka yeshivah, Horav Yechezkel Abramsky, zl, observed in one of his shmuessen, ethical discourses, that the individual, who thinks that when he faces the Heavenly Tribunal he will be able to justify his non-observance of Torah and mitzvos, is utterly wrong. One has only to peruse the beginning of Parashas Ki Seitze to note the lengths to which the Torah goes to provide for the needs of its devotees, to ensure that they have no excuse for a lack of observance. If Hashem had sensed that it would not be within a person's ability to fulfill a specific mitzvah, He would not have given it. This idea should imbue us with a strong desire and enthusiasm for kiyum hamitzvos, mitzvah observance, for we know that it is within our ability to fulfill the mitzvos.

He is unable to give the right of the firstborn to the son of the beloved one ahead of the son of the hated one who is the first born. (21:16)

The firstborn has an inviolable right to his share of his father's inheritance. The Torah is teaching us that rivalries or animosities do not determine the laws of inheritance. There is a clearly defined halachah that the firstborn receive a double portion of his father's inheritance. The fact that his father harbors a hatred for his mother does not give him license to deprive his firstborn son of his rightful share. In forbidding the father to give over a firstborn's rights, the Torah uses a puzzling text. It says, "He is unable to do so." Why is the word "unable" used, as opposed to another term that simply says he cannot do so.

Horav Eliyahu Meir Bloch, zl, explains this concept with an analogy: If someone tells a man who is standing on top of a roof high above the ground to jump off, he will not simply reply by saying, "I do not want to jump"; he will, rather, say "I am unable to." He is so certain of his impending death if he jumps, that the knowledge alone serves as a powerful restraint. He is unable to jump, because he clearly sees the consequence of that jump. The same concept applies to mitzvos and aveiros, sins. One who views an idea as an absolute fact cannot begin to fathom it in another perspective. Thus, if we view mitzvah fulfillment as a fact, then we are unable to consider transgressing it. One who sins does not view the Torah's commandments as fact. Hence, those who have rewritten the Torah to suit their needs did so after first conjuring up a convenient philosophy that the Torah is not immutable, that it is not from G-d, that it is not an absolute.

The Torah teaches us that our attitude towards sin must be such that we are unable to transgress the commandments. We see the reality of sin; we are acutely aware of the consequences. This knowledge should serve as a powerful restraint.

Do not plow with an ox and a donkey together. (22:10)

Being sensitive to the feelings of another human being is a requisite for defining mentchlichkeit, humanness. While many of us go out of our way to be kind and thoughtful when it affects the feelings of a prominent individual, we often ignore the sensitivities of a common person. The Torah provides us with a penetrating insight regarding this inappropriate practice. We are adjured not to plow with an ox and a donkey together. Although the Torah does not suggest a reason, the Daas Zekeinim explains that these two animals have two diverse habits for digesting their food. Because an ox chews its cud, bringing up the food it has already swallowed and chewing it again, the donkey who is harnessed with the ox will feel bad that the ox is eating "once again" while it has nothing to eat. The sensitivities of a simple animal play a role in the Torah. The reason is simple: when we stop caring about animals, we will soon similarly stop caring about people. A Jew is enjoined to care, to be sensitive to the needs of others, certainly not to hurt another person - even indirectly.

The great gaon, Torah scholar and posek, halachic arbiter, Horav Moshe Feinstein, zl, was a person who exemplified caring for another Jew. Countless stories recount his sterling character and empathy for all people, regardless of their background or station in life. To hurt another person was the farthest thing from his mind. He took great pains to see to it that he never infringed upon another person. One very beautiful story, which this author recently heard, tells of Rav Moshe's anxiety prior to heart surgery. He was concerned with what he could have done to catalyze this pain. How could he have hurt someone in such a manner that he would be subject to such a consequence? Indeed, his anxiety alone bespeaks his saintliness and virtue. After much introspection, Rav Moshe concluded that when he was a young boy in cheder, his rebbe asked the class a question to which he immediately responded, before anyone even had a chance to raise their hand. He realized now that the little satisfaction that he enjoyed in surpassing the others to answer was the origin of his current pain. Veritably, there is very little one can add to such a story. Imagine, this was the only incident that Rav Moshe could think of in which he might have encroached upon another person's feelings. How far are we from this plateau!

Another episode cited by Rabbi Pesach Krohn, recalls the sensitivity towards his fellowman exhibited by a quiet, kind, and unassuming Jew, a Holocaust survivor, who came to this country as a teenager. Money did not come easily as he struggled throughout his life to eke out a meager livelihood to support his family. When he was older, retired from his daily endeavor to earn a livelihood, he would always carry a roll of quarters with him. No one knew the reason for this seemingly strange behavior. It was only after his death that the reason was revealed.

Every morning as he davened in shul, he would be approached by poor people seeking alms. Most people gave change in various denominations. This individual felt that if he would take out a dollar bill, intending to ask for change, the poor man might momentarily think that he was being given a dollar instead of his usual change. This fleeting hope would be quickly shattered. Rather than play with another person's emotions, he made it a point to always carry correct change for his daily contributions.

While we have just related two beautiful narratives about unique individuals, one a Torah giant, the other a simple Jew, we cannot ignore the fact that not everyone attains this noble plateau. The following story demonstrates the nadir of insensitivity, how low a person can sink in showing total disregard for another person's feelings. Yet, the story plays a secondary role to the statement issued by the founder of the mussar movement, Horav Yisrael Salanter, zl.

There was a custom in the city of Vilna that when a wealthy person married off his child, the wedding would take place amidst pomp and majesty in the main thoroughfare of the city. This "hall" was the sole privilege of the most wealthy, who were the community's primary supporters. It was known that if a wedding took place in this facility, it was the affair of a wealthy person. No poor person would ever think of celebrating his wedding there.

It happened once that a recently transformed rich man made a wedding for his daughter in the city's main square. This man, who only yesterday had been an itinerant shoemaker, did not endear himself to Vilna's "old money." This arrogant class of human beings were disgusted by this nouveau-riche's attempt to include himself in their elite society. One of these wealthy individuals made it a point to go over to the father and publicly humiliate him: "How much does it cost to fix my torn pair of shoes?" he asked him in front of his distinguished guests. When Rav Yisrael Salanter heard of this outrage, he said, "I am sure that the Torah leadership of that community is being judged once again by the Heavenly Tribunal." What a penetrating statement! Those responsible for the spiritual development of their generation must realize the extent of their responsibility. They will be called to task for not educating a member of their community in character refinement. This liability is eternal. In other words, death does not abrogate their responsibility.

Vignettes on the Parsha

This son of ours. (21:20)

Chazal tell us that the parents of the rebellious child must be able to see and point to their son. If they do not have the ability to see, he does not become a ben sorer u'moreh. From a homiletic perspective, we may suggest that parents must be acutely aware of their child's activities. They cannot close their eyes or turn their heads away in ignorance, for, if they do, the consequence is not the child's fault. He is nothing more than a victim of circumstances: his parent's inability to face up to their responsibility as guardians.


When a man marries a new wife, he shall not go out to the army. (24:5)

Horav S. R. Hirsch, zl, derives from here the overriding significance the Torah attributes to the family unit and specifically to the role that the woman plays in marriage. The chassan, groom, is granted a dispensation for an entire year from contributing to the welfare of the community. The success and perfection of the community is clearly dependent upon the success of the family unit and its wholesomeness.


She shall remove his shoe. (25:9)

The Rishonim say that the removal of the shoe alludes to the mourning ritual, wherein the mourner does not wear shoes. When the brother refuses to continue his deceased brother's name, it is as if his brother had just died, rendering him an avel, mourner.

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