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Peninim on the Torah

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Rabbi A. Leib Scheinbaum
Hebrew Academy of Cleveland


An Ammoni or Moavi shall not enter the congregation of Hashem… because of the fact that they did not greet you with bread and water… You shall not reject an Egyptian for you were a sojourner in their land. (23:4, 5, 8)

Gratitude plays an important role in Judaism. The Torah does not countenance ingratitude. It is considered an indication of selfishness and mean-spiritedness - character deficiencies which do not integrate well into the Jewish nation. Thus, members of the nations of Ammon and Moav, both descendants of Lot, whose lives were spared as a result of our Patriarch's actions, are not accepted by members of the Jewish nation for marriage. They may convert, but their genes are unacceptable, due to their character flaw of ingratitude. The Egyptian, however, upon conversion, is accepted. Although we suffered greatly at the hands of the Egyptians, we may not ignore their hospitality. As a sign of appreciation, we allow them to convert and marry into the Jewish faith.

Chazal derive from the masculine use of the word Moavi/Amoni that the prohibition against marrying into the Jewish congregation applies only to males, but an Amonis/ Moavis, female, is acceptable for marriage after sincere conversion. The classic example of this dispensation is Rus, who originally had been a Moavis. She subsequently, married Boaz, and became the progenitress of the Davidic dynasty. Chazal explain that it was the role of men to go out on the treacherous desert paths - not women. If so, how do we know that the Moavite women are not also carriers of the "gene of ingratitude," just as men are? The women never went out to the desert. Perhaps, had they been confronted with the same opportunity as the men, they, too, would have gone out. How do we determine that Moavite women are any different than the men?

We might suggest that everyone is born with an innate proclivity towards hakoras hatov, gratitude. We are created by Hashem, raised by parents. Our origins are based on the support of others. Our ability to function in society, to get along with others, is all gratitude-based. For one to be ungrateful goes against his basic human nature. When the Moavite men refused to greet the Jews, they indicated more than a simple character flaw. They demonstrated a break with their natural character by challenging their base tendency to appreciate and show gratitude. This is a character flaw at its nadir.

Society is based on the give and take of people. Those who only take, but refuse to give, are social misfits and not productive members of society. The yetzer hora, evil inclination, recognizes the significance of human interaction and the destructive force of ingratitude. Thus, it will do everything in its power to convince us not to be grateful. It offers us a plethora of excuses for ingratitude: "I did not ask for the favor;" "The favor was not performed exclusively for me;" "The benefactor had personal gain from the favor." The list goes on. Indeed, one who looks for excuses to feed his mean-spiritedness will find support.

Horav Yaakov Galinsky, Shlita, relates a classic story of ingratitude to which many of us might personally be able to relate. The lottery is an easy way to make money - only if one wins. It has become a big business, due to the many gullible people who jump at every opportunity to get rich quick. The story is told about a fellow by the name of Yossel, who lived a life of abject poverty. Yossel could ill afford even his daily staple of bread. His clothes were threadbare and dirty because he could not afford to wash them.

One day a vendor, who was selling lottery tickets, approached Yossel and made his pitch. "Why not buy a few tickets? This could be your lucky day. It will turn your entire life around," the vendor said.

"How can I buy even one ticket?" Yossel asked. "I do not have a penny to my name! Now leave me alone and allow me to continue begging. I have 'work' to do."

"Yossel, this could be the avenue for wealth and an end to your misery. At least buy one ticket," the fellow countered.

"Buy a lottery ticket when I cannot even buy a piece of bread? Are you out of your mind? I have no money. A lottery ticket is the last thing I would buy" was Yossel's answer.

The dialogue between the vendor and Yossel went on for hours. Yossel vehemently demurred. Finally, Yossel asked the vendor, "What do you want from me? Why will you not leave me alone?"

The conversation continued until the next day when the vendor, out of great compassion for Yossel's plight, offered to lend him the money to buy a ticket. Yossel looked at the vendor and asked, "Do you think I am a fool? So what if you will lend me the money? Have you ever heard that a loan must be paid back? How will I pay up the loan?" Yossel asked.

"I will lend you the money on a two-year payment plan," the vendor replied. He seriously wanted to help Yossel, and he thought this would be a wonderful way.

"I do not borrow," Yossel said. "If one cannot repay a loan, he should not borrow the money in the first place." This is a wonderful custom. Perhaps more of us should adhere to it.

"Last chance, Yossel," the vendor said. "I will lend you the money. If you win, you will pay me back. If you do not win, the loan will be my gift to you. You cannot lose."

Yossel relented and took the loan. He filled out his lottery ticket, thanked the vendor, said goodbye, and thought nothing more of it.

Two weeks later, the vendor who sold Yossel the ticket received a telegram that one of his tickets had come in a winner. He checked through the numbers, and, lo and behold, Yossel was a millionaire! It was late at night, brutally cold and snowy, but the vendor figured that he had to share the good news with Yossel. Such wonderful news could not wait until morning.

The vendor put on his coat and trudged outside. Yossel lived at the other end of town, in the low-rent district. It would be a long, cold walk, but well worth it, he thought. When he arrived at Yossel's "house," the vendor was covered from head to toe with a layer of snow. He knocked on the door many times, until Yossel finally responded, somewhat angrily, "Who has the gall to come knocking on my door so late at night?"

"It is I, the vendor, with some good news for you."

"What could be so important at this time of the night?" Yossel asked.

"I will tell you, but first, you must let me in out of the cold," the vendor replied.

"No," Yossel countered. "I will let you in when you tell me what is so important that you woke me for it."

Since Yossel was adamant and acting quite stubbornly, the vendor decided to share the good news with him - regardless of his implacable behavior. "Your lottery ticket came in a winner! You are a millionaire. No more begging for alms. For the first time in your life, you are your own man, beholden to no one."

Yossel waited a moment before responding: "If this is the case, your arrival at my home in the middle of the night is even more offensive. I would not be upset with anyone else, since my recent financial developments are not yet well-known. To them, I am still a poor man, but you know better. How could you be so insolent to wake a millionaire in the middle of the night?"

What a powerful story. Suddenly, the fellow who had gone out of his way to help him achieve this incredible good fortune is the "bad" guy. How quickly we forget when our fortune changes. Perhaps, we should sit back for a moment and think: How would I have been had my fortune not changed? Where would I be today, without that rebbe, morah, parent, friend? If we could only view life through the perspective of hakoras hatov, we would be much better and happier people and, then, we might even show our gratitude to the One Who orchestrated it all: Hashem.

For Hashem, your G-d, walks in the midst of your camp… so your camp shall be holy, so that He will not see a shameful thing among you and turn away from behind you. (23:15)

Dressing and acting appropriately are prerequisites for Torah-oriented behavior. "Your camp shall be holy" applies not only to the "camp" in the wilderness; it also applies to our homes, schools, shuls - wherever observant Jews congregate. One's personal camp should not be ignored either. This means that, although one may be respectful of the laws of tznius, modesty/chastity, upon entering a holy edifice, he should not forget that he is himself a holy camp. Thus, how one dresses represents his attitude with regard to Hashem. To dress in an immodest manner is to put G-d to shame and cause Him to turn away

. In his Nitzotzos, Horav Yitzchak Hershkowitz relates an inspiring story, which underscores the importance of tznius in the life of a Jew. A kollel fellow in Yerushalayim received a fax from a young woman containing a note of deep gratitude for "what he had done for her." "In fact," she wrote, "you saved my life." Now his curiosity was piqued. He could not remember an incident in which he saved anyone's life - let alone this woman's life.

Not allowing this letter of gratitude to go unanswered, he checked the return address, and he was able to locate and contact the sender of the letter. The story he heard was mind-boggling. Apparently, a few weeks earlier, he had gone to the bank where he usually conducts business. Waiting in line, he noticed that the female teller was dressed inappropriately. Under normal circumstances, he would have kept his mouth shut or moved over to a different teller, but this time, for some reason, he was bothered. After all, since it was a public place that catered to many observant Jews, he felt that the young woman should have manifested little more respect. Furthermore, she was herself "somewhat" observant. True, it was a warm summer day, but what is wrong is wrong.

"Excuse me, giveret, ma'am," he said courteously and with complete sincerity. "Do you think it is appropriate for you to serve the customers of this bank wearing the outfit that you have on?"

Before she could reply, he added, "Tznius is very important, and it impacts the environment around you; more than that, however, what about yourself? What about your own self-respect? Is this what you think of yourself?"

Powerful words, to which the young lady countered, "Sir, if you have a problem with my outfit, you can always take your business to the next teller." End of story? No!

A few weeks later, the young lady was a guest at the wedding of a close friend. It was a warm evening, and the dancing was quite spirited. She began to perspire profusely. She decided that, if she were to continue dancing, she would remove her new, stylish linen jacket that she was wearing over her dress. Understandably, her jacket served a purpose other than just fashion. As she was about to remove it, she reminded herself of the comment the kollel fellow had addressed to her earlier in the bank: "It is not only about others; it is also about you." She then decided that this time she would have a little more self-respect and, rather than remove the jacket, she would go outside and cool off in the evening air.

In her heart, she felt that perhaps the man was right. She had no business lowering her self-esteem by dressing in an immodest fashion. As she stood outside enjoying the cool air and ruminating over her conversation with the man, she suddenly heard the sirens of many ambulances. She turned around and looked at the wedding hall, and she saw that the floor on which she had been dancing was gone! The entire floor had collapsed. Yes, she was attending the ill-fated wedding celebration on May 24, 2001, at the Versailles Hall in Talpiot, Israel, at which the floor collapsed, taking the lives of 24 guests. She could have been one of the casualties, but she had gone outside to cool off - rather than remove her jacket. Tznius had saved her life.

Tznius is inherent in every Jewish woman. It is innate from Creation, due to the fact that Hashem created Chavah from an internal rib, implying that the public stage is foreign to a woman. She was endowed with an extra dose of modesty. Our Patriarch, Avraham Avinu, who was probably the first mass educator, wore a medallion on which was engraved the image of an elderly man and woman on one side and a boy and girl on the other side. Horav Pesach Eliyahu Falk, Shlita, gives a meaningful explanation for the contrasting flip-side of the medallion. Avraham taught the world that the qualities found in an elderly man and woman are the direct result of their education in their young and formative years. The future of a woman is greatly dependent on the qualities and values structured for her in her younger, adolescent years. She follows and imitates what she sees.

As we see from the above episode, the rewards of adherence to tznius are incalculable. Indeed, the Almighty has a special love for those who practice a refined and modest lifestyle, maintaining strict confidentiality concerning their personal life and affairs. He feels a unique closeness to those who maintain such a lifestyle, because it is pure and genuine, unsullied by the libertine, Madison Avenue society in which we live. What greater stamp of approval does one need than to know that the lifestyle he leads is beloved by Hashem?

When a man marries a new wife… he shall gladden his wife whom he has married. (24:5)

During the first year of marriage man is exempt from being drafted into the army, because he is supposed to stay home to "gladden his wife." The Torah writes, V'seemach es ishto, "He shall gladden his wife." Rashi comments, "This pasuk is interpreted by Targum Onkelos as, v'yachdei yas itsei, "he shall gladden his wife," but one who translates the pasuk as, v'yechdai im itsei, "he shall gladden with his wife," is in error because this is not the translation of v'seemach, but rather, of v'samach."

In Rabbi Sholom Smith's, A Vort From Rav Pam, he quotes the Rosh Yeshivah, zl, who derives a vital homiletic message from Rashi. This lesson is probably one of the staples of a successful, harmonious marriage. One must make his wife happy - not seek to make himself happy with her. It is all about the spouse. I might add that the advice applies reciprocally, as well. At times, a young husband will complain that all of the wonderful attributes and character traits which he heard about his wife prior to their marriage seem to have disappeared. They are simply not there, or he has the wrong woman. He - or rather his parents - had made the usual investigation, indeed, vetting her as if she was applying for the position of National Security Advisor. Based on all the wonderful information which they gathered, he had agreed to meet her. Subsequently, after a lengthy dating period of five dates, he had decided to marry her. (Notice how everything is about him.) The girl is some kind of object which his royal highness agreed to marry. Then the friction began. They were married, and, apparently, she is not the same girl he had investigated, dated and married. What happened to her? Still, it is all about him. He is perfect. She is the one who has changed.

Rav Pam suggests that the young man has either forgotten or ignored Rashi's message. He is under the misconception that marriage means he should be happy together with his wife. Rashi teaches otherwise. In order to have a good marriage, the husband should see to it that his wife is happy. He must make her happy. A happy wife makes for a happy husband. A wife who is treated with dignity and respect will return the compliment many times over. Over time, he will see all the positive information that he had heard concerning his wife to be quite true.

If, however, he enters the marriage as the spoiled child of parents who clearly failed the most elementary parenting class, he will probably expect his wife to cater to his every whim and fancy. If she does not conform, at first his anger will churn to a "slow boil," consistent with his level of immaturity. Eventually, he will explode with anger, and the marriage will be headed toward disaster. Regardless of a young woman's background and upbringing, the finest and the best can tolerate just so much. An obtuse husband, who expects everything and contributes little, is not a partner in marriage. Whatever refinement the girl brought into the equation will quickly dissipate under the iron rule of a self-centered husband.

Thus, Rashi teaches us that marriage is about making one's wife happy. His contribution to the relationship is vital. He must be a nosein, giver, not a taker. One who gives will ultimately receive. One who just wants to take and take will eventually have nothing left to take.

But if the man shall not wish to marry his sister-in-law… and she shall say, "My brother-in-law refuses to establish a name for his brother in Yisrael." (25:7)

For whatever reason, the surviving brother refuses to perform yibum, levirate marriage with his sister-in-law. The woman comes before bais din and declares, Me'ein yevami l'hakim shem b'Yisrael, "My brother-in-law refuses to establish a name for his brother." It seems from the text that no more is said, other than that he simply refuses to perform the mitzvah. Reasons are not discussed. We find another instance of miyun, refusal, in the Torah, when Yosef refused to succumb to the advances made by Potifar's wife: Va'yimaen, vayomer, "He refused and he said" (Berachos 39:8). In this case, however, Yosef seems to present a number of reasons/excuses to justify his refusal. This prompts the Midrash Rabba (Bereishis 87) to posit, B'dvar mitzvah memaanin, b'dvar aveirah, ein memaanin, "For a mitzvah (which one is not going to transgress) one refuses; for an aveirah which one will not commit, one will refuse." What are Chazal teaching us?

The basic explanation, as seen by the commentators, is that when one refuses to execute a mitzvah, he simply says, "I refuse," and gives no explanation for his behavior. This is noted from the above case of the levirate marriage where the woman simply declares, "He said no;" end of the story. It is best that explanations not be rendered, so that others not learn another way out of performing a mitzvah. Concerning an aveirah, however, it is better to give explanations, so that others will learn that there are many rational reasons for not transgressing an aveirah.

Gevilei Eish quotes Horav Yitzchak Cott, zl who presents a human nature twist to explain Chazal's perspective. When a person refuses to perform a mitzvah, he does not need an excuse to sanction his noncompliance. The power of the yetzer hora, evil inclination, and its tenacious grip on him is sufficient reason for his abnegation. He does not feel beholden to anyone. This is what the evil inclination can do to a person.

The individual who does not countenance sin invariably conjures up an excuse to justify his being "good." The Rosh Yeshivah offers the following example: One who is addicted to smoking of course does not light up on Shabbos, since it is prohibited. Yet, he does not acknowledge that his refusal to smoke is due to his adherence to the Torah. He simply says that he is not in the mood or that he does not feel well. Heaven forbid that someone should think that he is observant and actually cares about transgressing Shabbos.

Two types of refusals: Refusal to perform a mitzvah needs no justification. He belongs to the yetzer hora. Refusal to transgress, however, requires some qualification: otherwise, people might begin to believe that he is actually frum, observant. Perhaps there is more to it. The one who offers lame excuses to justify his non-actions intimates that he really wants to sin - if we can only remove the impediments that prevent him. Otherwise, why offer excuses? To refuse means to say no. That should be sufficient. After all, what part of "no" does one not understand? Additional excuses and justifications only serve to undermine the emphatic nature of the "no."

This idea receives support from the Netziv, zl, who observes that the cantillation note, shalsheles, followed by a psik, suggests a refusal that was adamant. The notes set off the va'yimaein, "and he refused," adding to it, "and he adamantly refused." He repulsed her firmly with no indication of hope for a later weakening of his defenses. As far as Yosef personally was concerned, he was not giving in, not changing his mind. The refusal was unequivocal and not open to any compromise. The excuses which follow were for Potifar's wife, to explain to her why he was taking such a position. Yosef, however, understood that excuses are a sign of weakness.

Va'ani Tefillah

B'chol levavcha u'b'chol nafshecha u'b'chol meodecha.

In the ascending sequence of values, one would assume that wealth precedes life, with people caring much less about their financial portfolios than their lives. Rashi comments that, regrettably, this is a misconception. There are individuals for whom mamonam chaviv aleihem yoseir migufam, material wealth is more valuable to them than their life. Thus, u'b'chol meodecha is last in the sequence. Interestingly, in the second parsha of krias shema, momentum is made concerning material bounty. There it says merely, b'chol levavchem u'b'chol nafshechem. Why is this?

Horav Yosef Engel, zl, quotes a distinguished sage who distinguishes between the plural, community, and the singular, the individual. For communal funds, money belonging to a group carries the same weight as nefashos, lives. Therefore, in the second parsha which addresses the community, the concept of b'chol meodechem is included under the purvue of b'chol nafshechem. The first parsha, however, which addresses the individual, splits up the two.

Rav Engel supports this idea from the Sefer HaChinuch which distinguishes between communal funds and private funds with regard to the laws of moseir, one who tattles to the government and causes Jewish money to be taken away. One who damages communal funds or hurts a community as a whole, performed acts tantamount to harming their lives. This should be a wake-up call to those whose sense of propriety concerning the community's finances is limited to their personal needs.

l'zechar uli'lui nishmas
R' Baruch ben R' Zev Yehuda z"l
niftar 24 Ellul 5771
In memory of
Baruch Berger z"l
Whose contribution to Peninim was immeasurable.

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