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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 you will see among its captivity a woman who is beautiful of form…If a man will have two wives, one beloved and one hated…If a man will have a wayward and rebellious son…(21:10,11,15,18)

People refuse to recognize the consequences of their actions. No one really wants to take responsibility for his own behavior. Cause and effect demand accountability. If we act in a certain manner, we should expect specific results - results for which we have only ourselves to blame. The ben sorer u'moreh, rebellious child, is a classic example of this idea. Our parsha begins with the Jewish soldier going out to war and meeting an enticing captive woman. War takes its toll on the human psyche, and thus, the soldier's guard is down. The blandishments that have basically no effect on a person in everyday life, during a time of war suddenly become overwhelming. The Torah recognizes that a soldier might have a difficult time restraining himself during moments of great strain due to war, and, rather than risk a Jew sinning, the Torah provides an outlet, a dispensation under which it is possible for the soldier to marry the woman legitimately. The laws of yefas toar are followed by the case of the man who had two wives, one whom he loved and one whom he hated. We can well imagine the connection to yefas toar. When marriage is founded in lust, it deteriorates as soon as the physical allure begins to dissipate. This is what happened. Soon after marrying the beautiful captive, he realized that she either did not have the appearance that had originally captivated him, or that there is more to a relationship than physical gratification. He realized that a wife is much more than a plaything. He began to hate her, because she was a constant reminder of his utter foolishness, his moment of weakness.

The marriage produced a seed, a wild seed that matured into a rebellious, uncouth son who acted more like an animal than a child. Perhaps, the father is now waking up to the consequences of his original deed. He now realizes that by marrying a captive woman, he will beget a rebellious child. We must ask ourselves, why should marrying a woman whom the Torah ultimately permitted, be the cause of having a ben sorer u'moreh? What relationship exists between the "cause" and the "effect"?

Horav Mordechai Gifter, zl, explains that while the Torah did provide a legal dispensation for the Jewish soldier to marry the captive, it is only just that - a dispensation, a loophole. It is certainly not the Torah's first choice. In fact, the Torah would much rather that the individual overcomes the urging of his yetzer hora, evil inclination, and not marry this woman. Hence, the entire marriage was based upon failure - a failure to triumph over the yetzer hora. A child born of a union that is founded in failure will likely become a failure. He will become a defiant, rebellious, uncontrollable child, one who is also unable to control his lust.

By definition, the ben sorer is a child who is unable to control his desires. In other words, the ben sorer is not some abstract child who is a glutton; he is the child "next door," the child who has been raised in an environment that is somewhat permissive. He is a child who is used to getting whatever he wants. Discipline is a word with which he is not acquainted. He might even be a good boy - as long as he gets whatever he wants. How did this evolve? How did a young boy, a seemingly nice boy, turn into a wild animal whose demand for meat and wine goes beyond lust, who will one day kill to satisfy his desires.

Once again, Rav Gifter renders for us a powerful insight into the child's upbringing. The parents declare, "Our son does not listen to us." His failure to listen to his parents' voice preceded his stealing money from his parents. Indeed, the pasuk does not say that the ben sorer does not listen to his parents' "words" or "commands." It says that he does not listen to their "voice." The difference between words, commands and voice is the difference between a normal boy and a ben sorer. When the Torah enjoins us to honor our parents, it is unequivocal. We obey our parents' voice. We do not need --nor do we expect -- an understanding of what and why they are demanding of us. The mere voice is sufficient, because it is the will of he who is commanding us. Hence, the ben sorer's descent to total iniquity begins with his disregard of his parents' "voice." He must understand what they are demanding of him and why. He will not fulfill his parents' wishes if he does not understand them.

This is the beginning of the breakdown in Jewish society. Children demand reasons; students demand reasons; people demand reasons from Hashem. If the mitzvah does not make sense to me, I will not carry it out. I am an intelligent human being, and I expect to be treated that way. Regrettably, the individual who feels that as a human being he must understand all of Hashem's ways, is missing a crucial component in his human makeup.

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

The prohibition against plowing with an ox and donkey together is exclusive neither to these two animals, nor to this form of labor. In fact, it applies equally to the coupling of any two different animals for any type of labor. The Torah is concerned about the extra physical strain placed on either animal due to its inordinate physical abilities. Furthermore, the issue of "sensitivities" plays a role in this prohibition. An ox chews its cud, a practice which might cause the donkey to "think" that the ox is receiving more food. In other words, the Torah goes to great lengths to see to it that the Jewish People are sensitive to the needs of others - even animals.

We say in the tefillah of Ashrei, "Tov Hashem lakol, v'rachamov al kol maasav," "Hashem is good to all; His mercies are on all His works." As Hashem cares for all of his creations, so should we. This is one more area in which the Jew distinguishes himself from his gentile counterparts.

Horav Michoel Ber Weismandel, zl, relates a poignant story which underscores this point. In one of the smaller towns in Hungary, the Nazi beasts were rounding up a portion of the Jewish population to be sent away to concentration camps. The trains, with their infamous cattle cars, were being filled with hapless Jews -- to the glee of the gentile population who stood watching with great anticipation. As soon as each train began to pull out of the station, the miserable gentiles began to clap in unison. Their great joy contrasted the tears of sadness and fear that ran down the faces of those Jews who were left over - for another day. Suddenly, one Jew opened his window and screamed out to one of his friends who had come to see him off, "Moshe! I forgot to feed the chickens. Please do me a favor -- go to my house and feed my chickens." Can anyone imagine the superhuman strength of character this man must have possessed! He was being led to his death, and all he thought about was his chickens. Who would feed them? Two sides of the tracks. On one side stood the heartless Nazis and their henchmen, the gentile members of the community applauding, singing, laughing, because Jewish men , women and children were being taken to the slaughter. On the train were amcha Yisrael, Your nation, Yisrael, noble Jewish men, women, and children who were acutely aware of their fate, but who knew well that they were human beings, creations of the Almighty. They were concerned about the welfare of the chickens. They could never descend to the level of the subhumans who were taking them to their deaths. "Mi k'amcha Yisrael?" "Who is like Your nation, Yisrael?" How far is even the civilized world from the Torah weltenshauung of the Jew!

You shall not reject an Egyptian for you are a sojourner in his land. (23:8,9)

What an incredible demand: to be makir tov, recognize and appreciate the good that the cruel Egyptians did for us! While it is true that the Egyptians gave us a home, they also treated us cruelly, by making us perform backbreaking labor. They slaughtered our children and drowned our male infants. They used Jewish babies as filler in the cement for their buildings. They did not provide us with straw to make bricks, and when we went to the field to gather the straw, they would beat us incessantly. Perhaps cruel is not a strong enough term to describe their malevolence. Do we owe hakoras hatov to these people? Is that not going a bit too far?

Furthermore, if anything - they owe us. Was it not our ancestor, Yosef Hatzadik, who sustained them? When Yaakov moved to Egypt, the devastating famine ceased. Even to this day, Yaakov Avinu's blessing alleviates the need for rain to sustain their crops. The Egyptians acted in such a heinous manner against the descendants of Yaakov and Yosef. Yet, Hashem demands that we act towards them without malice or contempt. After a mere three generations, their converts may marry our children. All this is because they provided us with a home during our time of need. The famine was strong in Canaan, causing Yaakov and his family to seek refuge with his son, Yosef, in Egypt. We journeyed in their land for a little over two hundred years - most of which were difficult and treacherous. At least, however, we had a home, a haven from the trial and travail of wandering. All of the cruelty does not abrogate this good. This is how far hakoras hatov, gratitude to one who benefits us, goes.

In his Michtav M'Eliyahu Horav Eliyahu Eliezer Dessler, zl, offers a penetrating insight into our chiyuv, obligation, for hakoras hatov even to such evil miscreants as the Egyptians. Hashem does not distinguish between the benefit derived from "good" people or "bad" people. After all, does He not say, "Zocharti lach chesed neurayich," "I remembered for you the kindness of your youth," -- "lechteich acharai bamidbar" - "your going after Me in the wilderness." Hashem performed miracles for us then and continues to perform miracles every single day. Do we deserve it? Are we worthy of His kindness? Do we appreciate the good that He does for us? No! Yet, He continues to be benevolent to us, despite our many shortcomings. Why? Because we followed Him. Did we have a choice? To remain meant certain death, but we followed Him -- and for that, He remembers us.

Reciprocity is the term that comes to mind. We are to act towards others as we want Hashem to act towards us. True, they do not deserve it, but neither do we. Rav Dessler adds a postscript to this profound thought. If this is what Hashem does for those who once, -- a long time ago -- followed Him, how much more so will He shine His radiance and benefit to those who eschew the mundane and ignore the physical blandishments of this world, in order to devote their lives clinging to His Torah: studying it, observing it, and disseminating it. What are we waiting for!?

Remember what Amalek did to you…that he happened upon you on the way…when you were faint and exhausted, and he did not fear G-d. (25:17,18)

It is a positive commandment to erase the memory of Amalek. We are equally enjoined to remember their evil deeds in order to inspire a greater hatred of them. It is true that Amalek's insolence supercedes that of the other nations, -- and he was the first to audaciously attack us, but is that a reason to hate him forever? Hashem considers Amalek His and our archenemy. Why is this? Wherein lies his unique evil?

The Brisker Rav, zl, notes the Torah's emphasis upon Amalek's lack of yiraas Elokim, fear of G-d. What did Amalek do that indicates his fearlessness of the Almighty? He cites the Talmud in Bava Kama 79a, where Chazal distinguish between a ganov, thief, and a gazlon, robber. The Torah fines the thief, keifal, double payment, whereas the robber only pays the principle. The ganov steals at night, when no one will find him. He is afraid of people. Consequently, he demonstrates a greater fear of man, the servant, than of Hashem, the Master.

The gazlon, on the other hand, does not differentiate between man and G-d. He steals openly, brandishing his weapon to protect himself from anyone who might attempt to stop him. He fears no one. The thief seems to have greater fear of what humans will think than what Hashem will say. The gazlon does not care about either.

The Brisker Rav presents a penetrating analysis of the minds of the ganov and gazlon. A robber does not make cheshbonos, deliberations, before he acts. He does what he wants. He needs something - he steals it, regardless of who is watching. Conversely, the thief is meticulous in planning, taking great pains to make sure that he is not caught. He does not want people to see him. He is afraid /ashamed of people, but could care less about Hashem. This is chutzpah at its nadir. He knowingly, cogently, with acute awareness rejects Hashem. He acts with extreme aforethought. He contrasts the one who does not think at all, but who acts impulsively. One who acts capriciously is not nearly as invidious as he who acts maliciously, contemplating every step of his actions.

The Torah says that Klal Yisrael was weak and exhausted when they were attacked by Amalek. This means that Amalek was deliberate in his actions, planning his incursion against the Jewish People at a time when they were down. He knew what he was doing. He planned his battle, staging his battle at a time when he knew the people were exhausted and had little fight left in them. He acted deliberately - like the thief. He acted with malice towards the Jews and contempt towards Hashem. He took all the factors into his battle equation - except for one - Hashem. He did not include Hashem in the cheshbon, equation, because he was not a yarei Elokim. He did not care about the Almighty. Therefore, Hashem continues to wage war with Amalek m'dor l'dor, throughout the generations.

Questions & Answers

1) Is one obligated to assist an animal and its burden if its owner does nothing to help?

2) Under what mitzvah would erecting a protective fence around a swimming pool be categorized?

3) What is derived from the juxtaposition of the mitzvah of Tzitzis upon the prohibition against Shatnez?

4) Which two nations serve as the "paragons" of ingratitude?

5) May a borrower pay interest?

6) Does the mitzvah of Yibum apply if the younger brother was born after the older brother died?


1) No

2) The mitzvah of making a maakeh, erecting a protective fence around one's roof.

3) It teaches us that Asei docheh Lo Saasei, a positive commandment supercedes a negative commandment. Thus, in the case of one wearing a four-cornered linen garment, he will be required to put Tzitzis with the required techeiles, turquoise woolen thread, on its four corners.

4) Amnon and Moav, as descendants of Lot, who was saved by Avraham Avinu, should have been decent to Avraham's descendants.

5) No. The prohibition is in effect both for lender and borrower.

6) No. They must both be alive at the same time.

Arthur & Sora Pollak and Family
in loving memory of our mother & grandmother
Mrs. Goldie Jundef


Peninim on the Torah is in its 11th year of publication. The first seven years have been published in book form.

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