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Peninim on the Torah

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Rabbi A. Leib Scheinbaum
Hebrew Academy of Cleveland


If a man will have a wayward and rebellious son… All the men of the city shall pelt him with stones and he shall die. (21:18,21)

There was a young man in the city of Lublin, Poland, who led a life estranged from Judaism. As he became continuously worse, the famed Chozeh m'Lublin made a strong effort to distance him from the Jewish community. This greatly irritated the sinner, who wanted to "have his cake and eat it, too." When the Chozeh was asked why he applied such strict measures to this young man, he responded that he saw him becoming an apostate down the road. The sinner, nonetheless, continued to do everything to enter the good graces of the Chozeh, but it was to no avail.

One day, a Polish prince came to Lublin and asked to meet with the Chozeh. The meeting was granted, a gesture that raised the ire of the young sinner. How dare the Chozeh accept a gentile in his home, yet ignore him? He proceeded to the Chozeh and posed this question. If the Chozeh's fear was that he would one day drink of the baptismal font, he was still better off than the prince who was a gentile. At least, he was still Jewish. Why was the Chozeh "discriminating" against him?

The holy sage gave the following explanation, citing as a precedent the punishment meted out to the ben sorer u'moreh, rebellious son. Chazal tell us that the death penalty which is imposed on the youngster is not due to the gravity of his present sins, but because his behavior is a clear indication that he will become a monster who will murder to satisfy his needs. What seems strange is the method of punishment: stoning. A murderer is executed with a sayaf, sword. At worst, the ben sorer will become a murderer, so his punishment should be a sword. Why is he stoned? The Chozeh explained that the ben sorer is plummeting downward in a spiritual freefall to infamy. Thus, his punishment is more severe than even the murderer, who has reached rock bottom. Likewise, the young sinner is rapidly digressing downward. One who is falling is in a worse position than he who has reached rock bottom.

The question still remains: Since after he plummets, he will end up at the same place as the murderer, or, in this case, the gentile, why does "falling" make the transgression that much worse? Perhaps the reason is that in the cases of the ben sorer and that of the young sinner, the decisions to digress were their own. They were not simply falling. They were jumping down! The momentum for their sinful behavior must be added into the equation. Their miscreant actions are committed with greater zeal, as a result of the impetus which is driving their sinful behavior. This makes their sinful activity that much worse, demanding a more severe punishment.

You shall not see your brother's bull or sheep wandering and ignore them; you must return them to your brother. But if your brother is not near to you, and you do not know him, you must bring (the lost article) into your house. (22:1, 2)

The above pasukim are redundant, and the meanings implicit in the repetitive wording are used by Chazal to derive a number of important halachos. In particular, the double clause, "if your brother is not near to you, and you do not know him," is especially cultivated for its halachic inferences. Simply, this means that one does not know his brother, because he does not live in his proximity. This denotes that the only reason that they share no social awareness is that the two are geographically apart. Horav Meir Bergman, Shlita, derives a compelling lesson from these words. The only reason he does not know his brother is that he does not live near him. If his brother would live in his vicinity, he would, by necessity, know him. After all, how could he not know him? He would be his neighbor! In other words, the fact that he is not in your line of business, does not share the same tax bracket as you, davens in a different shul, has nothing in common with you, does not exempt you from knowing him. He is your brother, a fellow Jew. Certainly, you must know him!

Oh, how things have changed in contemporary society, when people can live in close proximity and still not know each other. What makes this reality even worse is that nobody seems to care. He does not daven in my shul; his children do not attend my school; he dresses differently than I; we simply have nothing in common. The fact that he is my fellow Jew, my brother, has no bearing. After all, why should it?

Rav Bergman suggests that it "might" do us well to change the yardstick we employ for determining relationships. If a Jew lives nearby, how could we possibly not know him? It is only if he lives far away that we may say, "I do not know him." There may be no greater melting pot of Jewish culture, background and perspective than what transpires at the Kosel HaMaaravi, where Jews of all stripes come together as brothers, united in a common bond. If someone could only figure out how to package this experience and incorporate it into the "return trip" from the Kosel, it would be nice. No, it would be more than nice; it would bring Moshiach. After all, this is the kind of love and concern the Torah expects Jews to demonstrate for one another.

Rav Bergman goes on to teach us a powerful lesson concerning the prohibitive commandment of Lo sachamod, the last of the Aseros HaDibros, Ten Commandments. The accepted, but not necessarily correct, p'shat, explanation of this mitzvah, is that one should not covet anything that belongs to his neighbor, friend, fellow Jew. We should not pay the slightest attention to anything that belongs to our neighbor. It should not be our business what kind of clothing he wears, the house in which he lives, the car he drives. What is his is his, and it is not any concern of mine. Certainly, if one is unaware of what his neighbor owns, he really cannot be envious of his possessions. One cannot covet what he does not know exists.

The Torah is teaching us that this approach is not halachically correct. On the contrary, we should pay careful attention to everything that belongs to our neighbor. Indeed, we should know exactly what he owns and what each of his possessions looks like. What makes the difference is the reason that we do this. The Torah expects us to concern ourselves with our fellow's possessions, not out of a sense of idle ogling, which is the precursor of envy, but out of love, caring and the desire to "walk in the ways of Hashem," to do as He does and to act in the manner becoming a member of the am ha'nivchar, chosen nation. He is not trying to take, but rather to give, to make sure that if his friend loses his possession, he can help locate it, or if he notices it, he can immediately return it. It all depends on attitude. If an attitude is pure, if his intent is to follow Hashem's ways, he can be sure that he will never covet anything that belongs to his neighbor.

An Ammonite or Moabite shall not enter the congregation of Hashem…because of the fact that they did not greet you with bread and water on the road when you were leaving Egypt, and because he hired against you Bilaam ben Be'or…to curse you. (23:4,5)

The Torah details two reasons for not accepting converts from Ammon and Moav: they did not "welcome" the Jewish People as they were on their way to the Holy Land; they hired Bilaam, the pagan prophet, to curse the Jews. The second sin of hiring the evil Bilaam to curse the Jews seems to be a much more serious offense; they were acting as aggressors. In contrast, in the first reason, they simply did not act positively by not coming forward to greet the Jews. Should a single lack of human decency disqualify the Ammonites and Moabites from ever being accepted as converts? Egyptians are accepted after the third generation, and they enslaved, persecuted, and killed Jews day in and day out for hundreds of years! Why are Ammon and Moav so strongly censured, and why does a lack of mentchlichkeit, human decency, play such a critical role concerning their acceptance to the Jewish nation?

Horav Simchah HaKohen Shepps, zl, explains this anomaly from a practical point of view. In his explanation of the Torah exhortation not to hate an Egyptian, Rashi says that they were our hosts for many years. Does hospitality allow for the Egyptians to act with brutality to their guests? Rav Shepps feels that the mere fact that the Egyptians hosted the Jews is an indication that their cruelty and wickedness were not intrinsic to their psyche. Their essence was not evil. Bad people do not act hospitably. They acted cruelly to the Jews because they felt threatened by them. Ammon and Moav were different. They had nothing to fear from the Jews. Our ancestors did not threaten them. The mere fact that they did not have the simple, basic human decency to offer the Jewish People some bread and water demonstrates that their essential psyche was warped. They are an evil people and should, thus, not be allowed to join the Jewish nation. Hiring Bilaam does not reflect their essence. Refusing to give bread and water does.

This explanation sheds light on the unique vidui, confession, made by the zekeinim, elders of the community, closest to the body of a murdered man found between two cities. An eglah, young heifer, is axed, followed by the vidui in which the elders declare, "Our hands did not spill this (innocent) blood; and our eyes did not see." Why do the elders say this? Was there ever a thought to blame the elders for the victim's death? What really is the reason that we must provide food for the person who is about to leave on a journey? Are the elders of the community to be in charge of this too? Is there some secret to giving food to the traveler that lends such overwhelming significance to this act?

The Alter, zl, m'Kelm explains why the elders had to emphasize that they did not allow the deceased to leave without sustenance. If they had ignored his needs, if they did not see to it that a man leaving their city was provided with food for his trip, they would, by default, be demonstrating that they did not care about the man. By providing him with food, they were indicating that: this man was not homeless; someone cared about him; he was connected to the community; he was not alone. Thus, anyone seeking to harm him would think twice. This man was connected. If something happened to him, people would care. This was a strong message to any would-be murderer. This is the significance of the elders' confession. They were making a profound statement.

Perhaps, we can add to the above by explaining the importance of welcoming the Jewish wanderer with bread and water. It is a simple act of chesed, kindness, but that is where we all err: there is no such thing as a simple act of kindness. Chesed is the foundation of the world. It should not be viewed as insignificant. As the Nesivos Shalom explains, all elements of chesed and love contribute to the development of the world, while all forms of cruelty catalyze destruction. In his Sefer HaChaim, the Maharal's brother asserts that things could have been different. Hashem could easily have built the world predicated on any other middah, attribute. It did not have to be chesed. He chose chesed, because it is closest to His will. Thus, when we are instructed to follow in Hashem's ways, Chazal limit this emulation to the middos of chesed, as opposed to any other. It is through chesed that we attach ourselves to Hashem.

There is another benefit which attaches itself to chesed. When a Jew conducts himself in the spirit of chesed, Hashem deals with him as well with the middah of chesed. The Baal Shem HaKadosh says that Hashem relates to people according to the middos with which they live their lives. If they act cruelly to others, then the attribute of strict justice is aroused against them. How important it is for us to never lose sight of this idea when it comes our time to deal with our fellow man. Last, the Rebbe of Kobrin taught that a day in which a Jew does not perform some favor or kindness for another is a day not really lived. Chesed is not only our opportunity to help others and, thus, be G-d-like, but it is also our umbrella of protection. One who ignores this opportunity lives his life as if he does not have a personal relationship with the Almighty - nor does he care.

With the above in mind, we understand why Ammon and Moav's disdain of the middah of chesed was the primary reason they greeted the Jewish wanderers with the curses of Bilaam, bent on destroying them. One who lacks chesed is a destroyer, because this world can only be built on the foundation of chesed. Their rejection of this G-dly middah sealed their fate. They could never be accepted into our nation.

You should always remember what Amalek did to you on the way when you went out of Egypt, that they encountered you on the way…Wipe out (any) vestige of Amalek from beneath the heavens. You shall not forget. (25:17)

None of Klal Yisrael's enemies are treated as harshly as is Amalek, and rightfully so. The Ramban explains that when the news of Klal Yisrael's liberation from Egypt became public, the entire pagan world was stricken with fear - everyone, except Amalek. Only they, in their unprecedented audacity, had the chutzpah to travel from afar and brazenly defied Hashem in their attack against His nation. To compound the situation, Amalek was Eisav's grandson - our close relative. Yet his descendants came, unprovoked, with one objective: to destroy the Jewish People. His hatred was unparalleled in its intensity. What lies at the root of such burning animosity towards us?

Rashi sees Korach's act as cooling off the impact made by the Jews' release from Egypt. He interprets asher karcha ba'derech as "he cooled you off," with the word karcha as a derivation of kar, cold. This is compared to a man who enters a boiling, hot bath. While he has certainly burned himself, he has succeeded in cooling off the water somewhat for others. Amalek's actions diminished the veneration and awe that had been the result of the miracles and wonders associated with yetzias Mitzrayim, the Egyptian exodus. This does not, however, explain what Amalek did and the consequences. It does not give us a reason why his hatred expressed itself in this manner. Why did he want to decrease Hashem's impact on the world?

Chazal tell us a fascinating story about Amalek's pedigree, which sheds light on his actions. Timna was a woman of royal descent. Despite her distinguished pedigree, she strived for something better, something more noble and dignified. She wanted to convert. The Avos ha'kedoshim, Holy Patriarchs, determined that she was not a candidate for conversion, and they rejected her appeal. Not one to be turned away, Timna decided that if she could not become a Jewess, she would at least marry into the Abrahamitic family. She became a pilegesh, concubine, for Elifaz, Eisav's son. The product of this misguided union was none other than the Jewish nation's archenemy, Amalek. Chazal feel that Timna's rejection by the Avos led to such devastating consequences.

In his Chiddushei Aggados, the Maharal addresses the reason for Timna's rejection. After all, the Avos reached out to everyone. Teaching others was their reason d'etre. Why was Timna different? He explains that a prerequisite for conversion is total self-abnegation. In order to divest himself of his previous life, the individual must completely embrace his new Jewish identity. His old culture, lifestyle, attitudes must all be erased as he becomes a member of the Am ha'nivchar, chosen nation. The fact that Timna stemmed from royalty created a problem. Having royal blood course through her veins kept her from properly acclimating herself to this new lifestyle, which demanded subordination and total obedience. These were attributes that were antithetical to her previous upbringing. Thus, our Patriarchs felt that she was insincere in her desire to convert.

As Horav Mordechai Miller, zl, points out, our parsha depicts the devastating consequences of an insincere conversion. The yefas toar is a beautiful maiden, taken captive by the victorious Jewish soldier, who converts her in order to marry her. Chazal tell us that this marriage, which is predicated upon physical desire brought on by the uncertainty and trauma of battle, will produce a ben sorrer u'moreh, wayward and rebellious son. Ulterior motives in conversion result in an evil which germinates with time.

Rabbeinu Bachya elucidates this idea further. Her marriage to the Jewish soldier is inappropriate because her conversion was based on self-serving motivation. She feared captivity: conversion was much easier. Judaism discourages conversion, unless it is sincere because of an individual's recognition of Hashem. Feeling the potentially grave consequences that might arise from an insincere conversion, our forefathers rejected Timna, because they sensed something amiss with her attitude.

They were right in their assumption. It might not have been manifest immediately, but her descendants developed a venomous, almost insane, hatred for the Jewish People which should probably be traced back to this rejection. The Maharal explains that Timna's extreme hatred towards the Jewish People was the result of an enthusiasm which was followed by a complete rejection. Had she not originally approached the Avos with her request to convert, the resulting animosity would not have welled up within her. It was her determination to fulfill a desire to come close to the Patriarchs that led her to Elifaz, Eisav's son.

We may add another dimension which led to her lack of acceptance as a convert. She wanted to become close to the Avos, because she saw something about their demeanor that attracted her to them. Becoming Jewish was only a means to this end. Her true purpose in becoming Jewish was not to be closer to Hashem, but rather to be closer to the Avos. It is much like someone who wants to become Jewish because he is stimulated by the rabbi's speech. The rabbi is the goal; becoming Jewish is the means. This is the wrong approach to Judaism.

Timna was willing to give it all up: her royal status; her pre-eminence; her nobility. She resigned herself to become a simple concubine of Elifaz. Her sacrifice was huge; her subsequent disappointment at her rejection was commensurate with her desire to be accepted. This caused the seeds of hatred to grow out of control, and it has been haunting our People ever since.

This is why Amalek's hatred expressed itself in an act of "cooling off." Timna's desire was passionate and it was cooled off with the rejection that she received. Her progeny paid back the "debt" by acting in a manner that would cool off whatever awe they felt for Hashem and His People.

Horav Chaim Shmuelevitz, zl, reiterated this concept, citing Timna's rejection as the reason for Amalek's venom. He felt that behind Amalek's cruelty, his murderous intent, lay the hopeless pain of a person rejected for eternity. Applying this approach, Rav Chaim explained what seems to be a strange incident in Tanach. Shmuel HaNavi had severely rebuked Shaul HaMelech, informing him that he had forfeited the monarchy. Shaul then entreated Shmuel to help him save some honor, some self-respect, by returning together with him to "honor him in front of the elders." Now Shaul was not one to seek glory. He might have erred, but seeking honor was not one of his traits. What was he trying to prove? Was a little bit of false honor going to make a difference after he had just lost everything?

The Rosh Yeshivah explained that Shaul had just been humiliated in a most overwhelming manner. He had once been the chosen one, the anointed king of Yisrael, the first choice of the people and Hashem. Now, he was nothing more than a rejected, discarded old relic, a has-been, who would probably be remembered historically in such a manner. It is pretty bad when people are disenchanted with you. It is entirely different when Hashem becomes disgusted with you. If Shaul were left to wallow in self-pity, and every bit of dignity forcibly removed from him, he would collapse under the weight of the trauma, and the opportunity for repentance would be lost. He was not trying to bolster himself with false glory. He begged only for a little dignity, so that he could salvage what was left of his life.

There is a famous story concerning an agunah, a woman whose husband had abandoned her for over twenty years, thereby preventing her from obtaining a get, divorce, relegating her to a life of loneliness and misery. She was a bitter, tormented person who lived near the Mirrer Yeshivah. When the 1967 War in Israel broke out, everybody in that area was instructed to come to the yeshivah dining room which served as the neighborhood's bomb shelter. The bomb shelter was for real - especially when the shells began striking dangerously close to the yeshivah. Finally, the yeshivah took a direct hit. An explosion shook the wall, and everyone began to prepare for the worst. In unison, with heightened passion borne of fear for their lives, instinctively they all began to recite Shema Yisrael in loud, wailing voices.

At that moment, amid the cacophony of fervent sound, the agunah's voice was heard above all the others. She cried out, "My husband left me abandoned for twenty years. Ribbono Shel Olam, I have suffered so much, but, nonetheless, I forgive him. Please, You too, forgive the Jewish People for all they have done wrong!"

Rav Chaim would often recall this story to emphasize the concept of rejection. As he would relate it during a shmuess, ethical discourse, he would pause and cry, because he felt her pain. Then he would say, "Her prayer saved us all!" A woman who had suffered so much, but still found place in her heart to forgive, had an enormous z'chus, merit. It was this merit that made the difference. Why?

The Rosh Yeshivah explained that her travail lay not in her dismal situation - without a husband, with the responsibility of raising a family without a father, without a decent livelihood. No, that was not it. Rather, it was the compelling awareness that she was dismissed - totally - by the very person who was supposed to be her life's companion. It was this repudiation that would accompany her every moment until the day she died. It was this evaluation of her plight that granted such credence and power to her act of forgiveness.

At this point, I usually focus on the lesson we should take for ourselves. I think each and every one of us knows the role which rejection plays in our personal and communal lives. For some, it might the subtle rejection of a spouse's needs, a child's hopes, a friend's plans. For others, it involves a student or it may even be the feeling of a rebbe. Yes, rebbeim also have feelings, and rejection hurts them. People not only like to be appreciated; they need to be appreciated. Amalek provides only a single lesson. Why should we be responsible for more?

Va'ani Tefillah

Harofeh, lishevurei lev, u'mechabesh l'atzvosam.
He who heals the broken-hearted, and He dresses their wounds.

Those of us who are happy, our hearts satiated with joy, must never forget that this emotion is a gift from Hashem. He is the rofeh lishevurei lev, healer of the broken-hearted. Without His healing touch, we would be morose and sullen. How does Hashem process the healing of the broken-hearted? Horav Avigdor Miller, zl, explains that there are two aspects to this process of Hashem removing the causes for their grieving. This is called rofeh lishevurei lev, whereby Hashem heals and soothes the broken-hearted. Alternatively, He is mechabesh l'atzvosam, dresses their wounds, without effecting any change in their circumstances. The reason for the grief is still there, but, through the wondrous gift of "forgetting," one is able to cope with misery, loss and pain. The erasure of unpleasant memories is not random, but a purposeful and complicated gift. The wonder of this process is underscored when we note how it cooperates with the faculty of memory. The details of yesterday's tragedy are registered in the mind, but the poignancy and related emotions have paled overnight, while the facts have now become more tolerable. This is the gift of forgetting.

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