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Peninim on the Torah

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Rabbi A. Leib Scheinbaum
Hebrew Academy of Cleveland


And (they) take him out to the elders of his city… All the men of his city shall pelt him with stones and he shall die; and you shall destroy the evil from your midst. (21:19,21)

The ben sorer u'moreh, wayward and rebellious son, is put to death, but not for what he has done so far. Yes, he did commit some sins, which indicated a mean streak, but that is not why he is killed. Chazal teach us that he is put to death as a result of what his end would be. The Torah determined the culmination of his way of thinking. The end will be that he will exhaust his father's money and seek to maintain his habit. Without money from home, he has to seek it elsewhere. This will lead him to stand at the crossroads robbing people. If they refuse to give up the money, he will kill them. The Torah says, "Let him die as an innocent person and not die as a guilty person."

The ben sorer has not yet committed a sin which carries the death penalty. He has rebelled against his parents - clearly not acceptable behavior, but not behavior that warrants death. He has guzzled wine and devoured meat - not terrible sins by contemporary standards, but the Torah has a different perspective. In fact, the meat was glatt kosher, under the finest supervision, but he is still considered a ben sorer. His actions warrant his execution. Superficially, this is a difficult halachah to understand.

In the Talmud Rosh Hashanah 16b, Chazal say, "A person is judged only for his actions of that moment." Despite what will probably occur - such as his actions will change, and he will one day warrant a much stronger punishment-- Hashem judges him as per his actions at the time. This is derived from Yishmael, as it is stated, "For Hashem has heeded the cry of the youth - ba'asher hu sham - as he is there" (Bereishis 21:17). The Midrash relates that the angels pleaded with Hashem not to let Yishmael live, since in the future his descendants would kill many Jews. Hashem said that since, at that moment, Yishmael was righteous; He could judge him only as of that moment. How do we reconcile the ben sorer u'moreh with Yishmael? Why is one judged according to the here and now, while the other is judged according to his future deeds?

Horav Aryeh Leib Bakst, zl, distinguishes between the ben sorer u'moreh, whose actions will have a deleterious effect on others, influencing them to act in a like manner, and Yishmael who did not have this issue, since he was righteous at the time. In other words, the Torah is concerned not with his end, but with the effect his actions will have on the "ends" of others who witness his inappropriate behavior. When his friends see his gluttony and guzzling, they will be affected. No longer will acting like an animal be taboo. An attitude of reticence and apathy will prevail, as others begin to follow suit. Breach of the established principles of rectitude and decency catalyzes a free-for-all for everyone.

Thus, in the concept of ben sorer u'moreh, the moreh is derived from horaah, to teach. The wayward and rebellious son is teaching others to act reprehensively, to defer to their lusts and desires, to live a life of abandon, in careless disregard of the Torah's rules, of society's rules, of moral structure and rectitude. This is why he is killed now, before he damages the spiritual well-being of others.

There are times when one must take serious action against an individual - adult or youth - because of his harmful effect on others. It is neither easy, nor pleasant, but it must be done. Indeed, the criteria for dismissal from an institution are - or, at least, should be - when the student becomes a menace to others. Regrettably, some schools concern themselves primarily with image. This determines whom they accept, and whom they keep. Heaven forbid that they care about the student himself. It is all about the perception "out there." How will it affect their bottom line? How will they be viewed by the "wider" community? The individual student is nothing more than a commodity, which, if not "marketable," is swept from the shelves and discarded.

Horav Mordechai Ilan, zl, suggests an alternative exposition to distinguish why the ben sorrer u'moreh is punished prematurely, while Yishmael was not. It all depends upon pattern: past, present and future. Yishmael was a descendant of the Patriarchal family. As Avraham Avinu's son and, at present, a righteous individual, Hashem had no reason to punish him now for what his future descendants would do. The rebellious child is not only rebellious now; he is the seed of a marriage that should not have really occurred. As the son of a yefas toar, beautiful captive, whose marriage was allowed by Biblical dispensation, his track record was not great; his present is clearly discouraging, which leads us to the assumption that his future will be deleterious and harmful to others. Thus, we punish him now, while he is still innocent of a capital crime, so that he does not die a guilty man.

An Amonite or Moavite shall not enter the congregation of Hashem… because of the fact that they did not greet you with bread and water when you were leaving Egypt. (23:4)

The Torah forbids us from uniting in marriage with male members of the nations of Amon and Moav, because they did not greet us with bread and water when we left Egypt. Ramban explains that these two nations descend from Lot, Avraham Avinu's nephew, who was saved from death as a result of our Patriarch's merit. Therefore, they have an obligation of ha'koras ha'tov, recognizing the good, expressing gratitude to the Jewish nation. If they lack this middah, character trait, then they are an abominable people, who have no place in the congregation of Hashem - forever. This is how important the character trait of gratitude is in the eyes of the Torah.

Moshe Rabbeinu's death was contingent upon his carrying out a mission of vengeance against the nation of Midyan. Moshe could have taken his time and executed the command at his leisure. The sooner he acted, the sooner he would leave this world. Hashem's command is sacrosanct. Thus, Moshe rushed to carry it out; Hashem said nekom - "avenge" - you, Moshe carry out the act of vengeance. He did not, however, personally lead the army, since he had lived in Midyan for some time after escaping from Egypt. Why did Moshe not perform the mitzvah exactly as told? Horav Reuven Karlinstein, Shlita, explains that gratitude is also a mitzvah. Surely, Hashem did not want Moshe to transgress the mitzvah of ha'koras ha'tov, if he could be replaced with Pinchas, who was Moshe's choice to lead the army.

Ha'koras ha'tov means exactly that: recognition that one is in someone's debt, that he has been the recipient of someone's favor, for which he now owes a debt of gratitude. We often fail to recognize the benefits we receive from others. If we would reflect on the Torah's perspective of ha'koras ha'tov, we might consider altering our attitude. Rav Reuven quotes Horav Eliyahu Lopian, zl, who derives an illuminating lesson concerning the demands of gratitude, to which we are often in blatant disregard, or, at best, indifferent. This is how the Navi sees it.

In Divrei HaYamim 2:24, the Navi chastises Yoash HaMelech and his followers. Zechariah ben Yehoyada HaKohen admonished the people for their rebellious behavior against Hashem. The king could not tolerate criticism and he had Zechariah killed. This is how an evil person deals with his competition. The pasuk reads: "And Yoash HaMelech forgot the kindness which Yehoyada his father (the Navi Zechariah's father) did with him, and he killed his son."

Let us analyze the grievous nature of Yoash's violent act. Zechariah was a Navi. He was also a Kohen who served in the Bais Hamikdash and a Dayan, judge, who served on Bais Din. The murder took place in the Bais Hamikdash on Yom Kippur, which happened to fall on Shabbos. Hundreds of thousands of Jews died as a result of this act of murder. Yet, all that the Navi underscores is the fact that Yoash forgot the favor that Zechariah's father performed for him! Is this not mind-boggling?!Yehoyada saved Yoash's life by hiding him. Yoash ignored the kindness and had his savior's son killed! Certainly, this is a vile act, the nadir of ingratitude, but does it overshadow the other evils mentioned above? Is a lack of gratitude worse than killing a Navi/Kohen in the Bais Hamikdash on Yom Kippur that falls out on Shabbos?

Yet, as Rav Elya notes, this is what the Torah is concerned about. A compelling lesson, one which had occurred earlier concerning another ingrate: Pharaoh. The Egyptian king was a despot who, when afflicted with leprosy, slaughtered three-hundred Jewish children, so that he could bathe in their blood. Yet, all the Torah writes about him is that there arose a new king - asher lo yoda es Yosef, "Who did not know Yosef" (Shemos 1:8). Whether Pharaoh did not remember, or ignored history, is not the issue. What the Torah emphasizes here is that Pharaoh was an ingrate who, very conveniently, forgot his debt of gratitude to Yosef Hatzaddik. It is almost like saying, "The serial killer forgot to wash negel vasser in the morning!" Yes, that is the gravity of ha'koras ha'tov. It is the one thing that the Torah refuses to forgive.

Why is ha'koras ha'tov so crucial? A person who is an ingrate to people will also be an ingrate to Hashem. Human nature likes to receive, but finds it difficult to give. Recognizing that one is in someone's debt is a form of giving. I must give to him. I must give to Hashem. We, therefore, seek all kinds of excuses to justify ignoring that which we owe. We diminish the favors that we receive and magnify the little that we do in return. When a person realizes where/what he would be without the favor that he received, he might change his attitude.

The true service of the Almighty is built upon the foundation of gratitude. This principle is underscored in the first of the Ten Commandments. "I am Hashem, Your G-d, Who took you out of the land of Egypt, the house of slavery." It is clear that the reference to the "house of slavery" is intended to arouse within us feelings of gratitude, as a prelude to our acceptance of the Torah.

Chazal teach that "whoever is ungrateful for good done to him by his friend will eventually prove ungrateful for the good done to him by Hashem." How are we to understand this? It is not terribly unusual for an individual to be ungrateful. People are like that. To go so far as to consider this to be an indication of man's relationship with Hashem, however, is that not a bit far-fetched?

Horav Nochum Zev Ziv, zl, m'Kelm, explains the following: People are guided by their individual character traits. Thus, one who is irritable will became angry at every juncture which contains a stimulus to anger. One who is arrogant by nature will manifest his haughtiness whenever the situation arises. Likewise, one who is kindhearted will likely be kindhearted across the board, being good to everyone. One who is selfish will soon manifest his selfishness. The character trait with which one is born is the one which he must channel throughout life. Therefore, one who is an ingrate remains an ingrate. This middah, quality, is part of the person to the point that he is ungrateful also to Hashem, unless he strives to redirect the middah.

In contrast, one who garners his feelings of gratitude to others will likely act accordingly to Hashem. He will feel with all his heart that all he has is lent to him by Hashem, and he will thank the Almighty for his. In order to love G-d, one must be a giving person, for only such a person realizes the importance of gratitude for what he receives.

Usually, the greater one is, the more likely he is to recognize the benefits he receives from others, and the sooner he will offer his gratitude. Horav Eliezer M. Shach, zl, would annually deliver a shiur at the closing session of Yeshivas Tiferes Tzion. The Rosh Yeshivah, who was a close student of Rav Shach, would make a point to invite the venerable sage a few days prior to the designated time in which the shiur was to be delivered. His request was the same every year: "The yeshivah is awaiting the Rosh Yeshivah." This year, Rav Shach demurred, claiming ill health and weakness. It had reached the point, he saw, "that I can no longer go all the way to the Yeshivah (Ponevez) to daven. I daven with the Kollel, since it is closer to my home."

The Rosh Yeshivah was acquiescent. "Chas v'sholom, Heaven forbid; if it is difficult for the Rosh Yeshivah, then we do not want to cause any hardship." Rav Shach thanked him for his understanding and bid him good day. As the young Rosh Yeshivah was leaving, Rav Shach suddenly called out, "Tell me again, what day and what time do you want me to speak?" "I do not want to trouble the Rosh Yeshivah," the student replied. "No, no, I want to come and speak," declared Rav Shach. "Truthfully, I have no strength, but I reminded myself that I owe you a debt of gratitude. After all, you are the sheliach tzibur, chazan, in Ponevez during the Yamim Noraim, High Holy Days. Thus, your prayers inspire me yearly. How can I not come to your yeshivah to speak? I owe you a debt. Where is my ha'koras ha'tov!"

Let us think about Rav Shach's statement. Thousands daven in the yeshivah - this applies equally to every shul in the world. We listen to individuals pouring out their hearts to Hashem. They inspire us. Do we ever think about it? Rav Shach apparently did!

It will be that if the wicked one ought to be beaten… and he shall strike him, before him, according to his wickedness, by account. Forty shall he strike him, he shall not add. (25:2,3)

The Mishnah in Meseches Makkos (22:b) describes the malkus procedure: "How do Bais Din lash him?... The attendant of the congregation stands upon it (a platform of stone) with a strap in his hand, made of calfskin, doubled one into two, and two into four." The Talmud asks, "From where in Scripture do we know that the strap (used for giving lashes) should be made of calfskin?" For it is written: "He is to strike him forty times," and, in proximity to this pasuk, it is written, "You shall not muzzle an ox during his threshing" (Devarim 25:4). The juxtaposition of these two otherwise unrelated pesukim teaches us exegetically that the strap used for flogging is to be made of calfskin. Although the pasuk speaks of a shor, full-grown ox, the word shor may refer to even a day-old calf. Thus, the strap may be made of the skin of a calf.

In his commentary, Ben Yohadaya to Meseches Makkos, Horav Yosef Chaim, zl, m'Bagdad, suggests a reason that the malkus is to be given with the skin of a calf. If it was purely due to its soft texture, a dispensation should apply to the skin of an ox that happens to be soft. It seems, however, that it must specifically be the skin of a calf. Thus, it must be that the skin of the egel, calf, alludes to the origin of the cause of sin. Clearly, it is a kindness from Hashem that all the punishment the sinner receives is lashes. Let us face it, no punishment suffices when one considers that the sin was against Hashem. Indeed, the Navi Yechezkel (18:14) declares, "The soul that sins should die." Hashem does not want to see an end to us; therefore, out of His enormous sense of kindness, He accepts malkus instead of death. He calls us a naar, youth. Ki naar Yisrael v'ohaveihu, "For Yisrael is a youth and I love him" (Hoshea 11:1). Bais Din must determine the sinner's ability to withstand the lashes. Surely, a young child will get off much easier than a burly adult. This is the idea behind the calfskin. It intimates that, actually the sinner deserves much more. He should be put to death, but Hashem is kind and instead views him as a young child, allowing for a much "softer" - more yielding - punishment.

Rav Yosef quotes his son Rav Yaakov who offers an alternative explanation. The root of all sin is buried deep within the creation of the Eigel Ha'Zahav, Golden Calf. Had the Jews not sinned with the Golden Calf, and had Moshe Rabbeinu delivered the Luchos as originally planned, the zuhamas nachash, noxiousness resulting from the primeval serpent, would have left the Jewish People, thereby breaking the hold of the yetzer hora, evil-inclination, on them. Sin is, thus, the by-product of the Golden Calf. The calfskin with which a sinner is flogged reminds him of the origins of sin, teaching him to focus on the cause of his sinful behavior, the yetzer hora, and prompting him to avoid the pitfalls it creates to ensnare him.

There seems to be some ambiguity between the number forty, which the Torah states is the required count for malkus, and the halachah, which states that one receives forty minus one - thirty-nine lashes. This is also part of the origin of sin. The creation of the Golden Calf came about as a result of an error in counting the forty days that Moshe tarried on the mountain. The people saw that our quintessential leader had not returned, and it was the fortieth day! Actually, it was still the thirty-ninth day, but they erred, causing them to make the Golden Calf on the thirty-ninth day of Moshe's ascension to the mountain. Thus, the punishment of malkus is based upon the number forty - but the sinner only receives thirty-nine. He now understands the origin of his sin.

I think the lesson to be derived herein is threefold: First, no punishment is arbitrary. There is a compelling reason for every punishment. Second, the punishment is not punitive, but rather, therapeutic, compelling us to consider why we are being punished: What did we do wrong, and how are we going to repair the breach in our relationship with Hashem? Third, we also learn that whatever punishment we do receive is actually a kindness. We can never correct the damage created by our behavior. We owe Hashem everything. To take that which He gives us and use it against Him is chutzpah at its nadir. Yet, we do it all the time - whenever we sin. How do we repair such insolence? We do not. We repent and pray for its acceptance. If we do not realize the gift of punishment, however, we might have some "difficulty" recognizing the need to repent.

It will be that if the wicked one ought to be beaten, the judge shall cast him down; and he shall strike him, before him, according to his wickedness. (25:2)

The Sifri derives from the word lefanav, "before him," that the one administering the lashes must have einav bo, "look at the one being punished." He may not stare elsewhere while flogging the sinner. What is meant by this? Why is it critical that he look at the sinner while he flogs him? Horav Chaim Zaitchik, zl, explains that it is an issue of empathy; the Torah demands that the flogger comprehend and sympathize with the sinner's pain. Regardless of the sinner's culpability, it is essential that we consider his pain, feel his anguish and understand what has catalyzed this punishment.

Such an outlook ensures that we do not view the entire debacle through a cold, unfeeling perspective. Otherwise, it is possible that the sinner might receive a stronger punishment than he deserves. We have to administer punishment, but it does not have to be with apathetic aloofness.

The Talmud Makkos 23a cites a Baraisa which states, "We appoint only attendants (to administer punishment) who lack physical strength and have superior intelligence." While this statement is disputed, it does indicate something about our judicial system. The guard should be a sensitive individual, who is more brain that brawn, a thinking person who finds it to be emotionally taxing to raise a hand against someone. He performs his function because this is the Torah's demand. He does not enjoy his work. In fact, it goes against his very grain. Sinners are also victims. Perhaps, if we stopped to think about what brought the sinner to this point in life, our attitude might change. It is so much easier to "turn our collective heads away," ignoring the perpetrator, because it might provoke some thinking on our part.

A rebbe is required, at times, to punish a student. He does not have to enjoy this part of his vocation. In fact, he should eschew this aspect and perform it with a heavy heart. The educator who takes perverse enjoyment, actually gloating over the punishment he administers, should find another vocation. He has no business teaching Jewish children. Not every student is a perfect angel, and there comes a time when a head of a school must ask a student to leave. This necessary action should engender a sense of sadness. I remember a few years ago when Horav Uri Hellman, zl, passed away. I was menachem aveil, and I heard the following amazing episode:

As principal of Bais Yaakov for over half a century, Rav Hellman inspired thousands of Jewish girls with a love for Yiddishkeit. Regrettably, not all students fit into a program and not every school is suitable for every girl. Baruch Hashem, today, with the proliferation of schools, we are able to reach out to students of all aptitudes, characters and standards. Once, Rav Hellman was compelled to ask a girl to leave the school. It was a difficult decision, one that he had been putting off for quite some time, but, nonetheless, necessary and vital to the stable maintenance of the school. The day that he was to expel the girl began as usual. Rav Hellman was in his office addressing various issues, when his secretary brought him a piece of cake from someone's party. She left it on his desk, as he continued plowing through his work. When she returned hours later, she noticed that the cake had not been touched. Curious, she asked him why he had not tasted the cake. Rav Hellman's reply goes to the core of his philosophy of chinuch, and defines his eminent position in the annals of Torah chinuch. He said, "How can I eat today when I have to send a Jewish girl from the school?" To him, administering disciplinary punishment was something that had to be done - but with a very heavy heart.

Va'ani Tefillah

Amen: Yehei Shmei rabba mevarach.

In addition to the simple and deeper meaning of the words in the Kaddish prayer, the number of the words and letters in various parts of this tefillah have great significance. The phrase, Yehei Shmei Rabba Mevarach l'olam u'l'olmei olmaya, contains seven words, with the preceding Amen being the eighth "add on." As noted by the Maharal, the number seven represents a sense of completion in Hashem's scheme of Creation. This is reflected in the seven days of the week, seven years in the Shemittah cycle, seven weeks of Sefirah - preparation for receiving the Torah. At times, something of an earthly origin can have such an effect that it transcends its earthly roots. This is noted from Bris Milah, which, although performed in this world, denotes a covenant between man and G-d, thereby giving it cosmic implications. Such a higher realm of action is symbolized by the number eight, which transcends the physical. Hence, Bris Milah occurs on the eighth day after a male infant's birth.

As a seven-word phrase, Yehei Shmei rabba expresses total dedication to Hashem, but it is preceded with the word Amen, alluding to the fact that this total phrase has cosmic implications that transcend the physical dimension. Thus, we understand why one who answers Yehei Shmei rabba with total inner resolve, with extreme devotion, dedicating himself to the service of the Almighty - his affirmation of uncompromising faith has the power to annul negative Heavenly decree issues against him. That is the power of eight.

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

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