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Peninim on the Torah

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Rabbi A. Leib Scheinbaum
Hebrew Academy of Cleveland


Bnei Yisrael shall observe the Shabbos. (31:16)

We are enjoined to observe and guard the Shabbos, to make certain with utmost care that neither we nor anyone else desecrates the holy Shabbos. One who truly cares about the sanctity of Shabbos will do everything possible to make certain that he does not violate this holy day. The following story demonstrates the length to which a person will go to preserve the sanctity of Shabbos. In one of the apartment buildings in Yerushalayim lived a very old man, whose neighbors noticed that he would never open the hall light. He would climb the stairs to his third floor apartment in pitch darkness. This went on for years, to the astonishment of his neighbors. Why would he not put on the light? He was risking his life by climbing the stairs in the dark.

At first, the neighbors thought that he was simply frugal, attempting to save every penny. This trait, however, was not consistent with his everyday behavior in which he demonstrated that money was not much of an issue to him. Finally, one of them decided to approach the elderly Jew and ask him why he was refraining from putting on the light. He refused to answer them, giving all kinds of excuses for his strange behavior. Finally, after some convincing, he explained that he once accidentally opened the light on Shabbos. As penance, and as a way to prevent this from ever occuring again, he decided never to use the lights in the hallway. He predicted that if he would get used to climbing the steps in the dark, he would never make the mistake of opening the light on Shabbos.

The postscript to this story is that when the non-observant neighbors saw how committed a Jew can be to Shabbos, they, too, became observant. We derive two lessons from this story: First, we have an idea to what lengths a person can go to observe Shabbos. Second - and probably of greater significance to our generation and specifically the observant milieu - when the non-observant sense the true conviction and commitment of the observant Jew, they respect him and, in some instances, follow suit. This is not meant to condemn, but rather to suggest and encourage spiritual integrity in our mitzvah observance. After all, we never know who is watching us.

There are various ways to influence or to inspire those who are not yet observant. Acting in an aggressively negative manner, such as belittling them, will only reinforce their negative attitude. Regrettably, we live in a time when a few hooligans and misfits can, through their negative actions, malign and denigrate Torah Judaism. The following story demonstrates the manner in which an observant Jew can inspire others to keep Shabbos - and all mitzvos. Horav Arye Levene, z.l., was once walking down a street in Yerushalayim on Shabbos, accompanied by his grandson. Suddenly, he stopped and stepped into one of the more prominent coffee shops remained open on Shabbos. Obviously, such a shop became a center for chillul Shabbos, public desecration of the Shabbos. Rav Arye walked in, took a seat at a table and simply sat there. He was dressed in his Shabbos garb, and he just sat there. Certainly, this was not good for business. Apparently, in those days some people had bushah, were embarrassed to flaunt their desecration of Shabbos in front of such a venerable saint as Rav Arye Levene.

Rav Arye continued sitting. He did not talk to anyone; he just sat there quietly, looking straight ahead. After about fifteen minutes, the owner of the shop, who was no fool and recognized Rav Arye, came over and said, "Rebbe, I take the hint. I promise that as of today, I will be closed on Shabbos."

This was the result of an action taken by an individual such as Rav Arye Levene who did not only love the Shabbos - he also loved all Jews. When one admonishes from the heart, when one rebukes with love, it reaches the innermost recesses of the heart of his "target audience."

A component of Shabbos observance is to make certain that the "institution" of Shabbos is not desecrated. This means that it is simply not sufficient that one is observant, he must likewise see to it others are also observing Shabbos. Horav Shimon Schwab's father-in-law was meticulous in his observance, and he also went out of his way to make sure others would follow suit. The following story demonstrates his strength of conviction and to what length he would go to ensure that no one would desecrate the holy Shabbos.

Whoever passes over a certain bridge in England must pay a tariff. This created a serious problem for the Jewish community, since it was necessary to use the bridge on Shabbos. How would they pay for it? Regrettably, many people were compelled to carry money with them on Shabbos, so that they could pay to use the bridge. Rav Schwab's saintly father-in-law could not permit Shabbos to be desecrated because of a few dollars. Consequently, he purchased a number of tickets for the bridge and deposited them by the toll-booth with special instructions, stating that whenever a Jew wished to pass, they should use one of the purchased tickets.

Once a Jew came up to the toll-booth, smoking a cigarette on Shabbos. When the ticket collector saw this, he became indignant and rebuked the Jew: "How dare you smoke on the Sabbath, when you have a fellow Jew who is willing to spend his hard-earned money to guarantee that his fellow Jews do not desecrate the Sabbath? I do not think I should give you one of the free cards, because you do not deserve it! Why should someone pay for a hypocrite?" Once again, we see the far-reaching influence of the individual who demonstrates spiritual integrity.

Moshe saw the people, that it was exposed, for Aharon had exposed them to disgrace. (32:25)

The ignominy of the nation - their lack of fidelity to Hashem and Moshe Rabbeinu - had been revealed by Aharon's actions. He put the sin into perspective. Long years of exposure to Egyptian immorality and idol worship had taken their toll on Klal Yisrael. Moshe observed everything. He saw the work of the actual sinners, and the indifference of those who let the iniquity take place. Moshe Rabbeinu understood that Aharon's intentions were noble and for the sake of Heaven. He disagreed with him, however, in his approach. He was adamant that one does not have any relationship whatsoever with those who would create a Golden-Calf. Indeed, Aharon's collaboration with them lent them support and increased their audacity. To paraphrase Horav Elyakim Schlessinger, Shlita, "Without the support of the righteous, there would be no foundation for the success achieved by the wicked."

This is the meaning of the pasuk, "For Aharon had exposed them to disgrace." Without Aharon, it would not have been revealed. They would not have succeeded in making the eigal, Golden-Calf. The correct and only approach to dealing with such an iniquitous group is to act as Moshe did, declaring, "Mi l'Hashem eilai," "Whoever is for Hashem, join me!" When the righteous separate themselves from the wicked, the wicked simply dissipate, because they have no support. Sforno supports this idea when he explains that Aharon revealed that there were no tzaddikim on his side, for had there been righteous people, Aharon would have had their support. Thus, he would not have given in to the mixed multitude who were responsible for the creation of the eigal. Aharon and Chur were the individuals who stood up against a crowd that was obsessed with creating a godhead. Chur was killed, and Aharon was left alone. He had no alternative but to remain silent.

While there were certainly many members of Klal Yisrael that did not support the mixed-multitude, as so many have done through the generations, they buried their heads in the sand and preferred apathy to spiritual patriotism. Yes, Aharon revealed that he stood alone, which is often the stand taken by many of our Torah leaders - alone.

We see from here, writes Rav Schlessinger, the overriding importance of supporting our gedolei Yisrael against any incursion into the Torah. He adds a profound thought. The spiritual leadership has the responsibility to take a stand, to rally support, to rise to the challenge and to shy away from confrontation. Aharon had no support, because he did not demand any. Moshe declared, "Mi l'Hashem eilai!" and they came forward. We understand from here that if you do not ask, people will not come forward. Leadership must take the necessary initiative, so that the people will have an appropriate path to follow.

In his commentary Haamek Davar, the Netziv, z.l., makes an incredible inference from Moshe's statement. One might hesitate to take a stand in opposition to those who would tear down the very foundations of Torah, for fear of reprisal. Moshe Rabbeinu teaches us not to be afraid. The members of Shevet Levi came forward when they were called, and no one stood in their way. When the gadol issues a decree, when he calls for support, we should go forward courageously, with nothing to fear. When one is on the side of the truth, he should fear no one. Indeed, he is the one who is to be feared.

Rav Schlessinger makes one last observation in regard to Moshe Rabbeinu's clarion declaration. Moshe said, "Whoever is for Hashem, join me!" This implies that he who did not join Moshe was indicating that he was not for Hashem. Even though they had the right intentions and deep in their hearts they wholeheartedly supported Moshe, unless they come forward to actively engage the idol-worshippers in battle for the truth, they were not considered as being from those who are "l'Hashem!" Well-meaning Jews, good-hearted Jews - and all those whose conviction and dedication does not extend beyond the heart and mind - are not worthy of membership in Hashem's legion.

And you will see My back; but My face may not be seen. (33:23)

The Chasam Sofer explains that we can not understand everything. Indeed, certain circumstances seem nonsensical and even ludicrous to our limited minds. After awhile, however, they begin to make sense when we view them through the perspective of hindsight. Looking back allows us a panoramic view not accessible to us beforehand. When a Jew is confronted with a situation which he does not understand, which might even cause him to question his convictions, he should resort to that old Jewish virtue which has preserved our resolve throughout the vicissitudes of history: emunah, trust, in Hashem. When we do not understand, we should trust Hashem that everything has a purpose and a reason. One day, we will be afforded the opportunity to "look back" and see how it all makes sense in context. This, says the Chasam Sofer, is the meaning of the pasuk: "You will be able to understand My actions when you look back." "My face," is an allusion to looking at occurrences or situations before and during the time they take place. This word cannot be understood at "face" value.

In other words, things happen to us which at the time we cannot explain. One day, it will all fit into place. It is, however, a common error to think that these unexplained occurrences take place for our sake. This is not always true. Sometimes, they happen to - or for - us, but other times we are participants in someone else's script. We might be major players in someone else's real-life drama. Afterwards, we should ask ourselves: Why? Why me? How does this situation impact my life? What message is there for me? The following story illustrates this idea.

It was summer bein hazmanim , intersession, and two yeshivah bochurim, students, Shloime and David, planned to meet some friends at a large park in the Catskill Mountains at noon that day. They left Boro Park very early to allow themselves sufficient time to reach their destination in a timely fashion. As often happens, however, the best-laid plans are meaningless when they do not concur with Hashem's master-plan. Traffic was unusually heavy, and they were plagued by a number of minor mishaps and mini-crises, to the point that they thought they would not arrive at all.

First, they had a flat tire which took fifteen minutes for these two resourceful young men to change. Not bad, they would still make it by 12:00. They made a quick stop at a rest area along the New York State Thruway and, when they returned to their car, it would not start. While this is not a tragedy, when one is on a tight schedule, it can be nervewracking to find cables and jump start the car. Still, they were on time. They figured a fast pace would help compensate for the time they had lost. It did not take long before the local sheriff pulled them over for excessive speed. He took his time writing the ticket, creating an even bigger delay. They were now over an hour late for their meeting with their friends.

Things went fine for about another fifteen minutes when their car just sputtered and made an unscheduled stop. They could not believe what was happening to them. A single trip to the mountains was turning into an epic journey. An hour later, a tow truck arrived, only to tell them that the fan belt was torn, a problem that would take two hours to repair. They were only twenty minutes away from the park. Should they still go, or should they return home? They decided that since they had travelled this far and it was still light outside, they might as well go to look for their friends - even if they were four hours late. Alas, when they arrived, the park was deserted. Apparently, their friends had come and gone. They were disgusted. To have come all this way for nothing! Suddenly, they heard a young voice shout, "Help! Help!". "Help us, please," a second voice screamed.

For a moment they froze and stood motionless, as their gaze riveted on the sight of two little boys flailing in the lake. The two immediately dove into the water and rescued the children. Afterwards, Shloime turned to David and said, "Do you realize what occurred today? Do you have any idea what happened here? If we had not arrived at the park precisely when we did, those two children would not have survived. Eveything that happened today, all the mishaps and delays were orchestrated from Above, so that we could save the lives of the two boys." Once again, we see that there is no such thing as a coincidence.

He remained there for forty days and forty nights; he did not eat bread, and he did not drink water. (34:28)

It is interesting to note that the preparation for the second set of Luchos was the same as for the first set. Once again, Moshe was required to abstain from physical satisfaction in order to study the Torah for forty days and nights. Why? Ramban explains that the second set of Luchos required a second preparation period. What Moshe had learned previously did not apply to the second set of Luchos. We wonder if Moshe had known the Torah well enough to present it to Klal Yisrael the first time, why would he need another forty days of study to qualify for the second set of Luchos?

Horav Mordechai Gifter, z.l., explains that Torah's true essence is above human understanding. Thus, when Hashem gave us the Torah, it was given on a level commensurate with our degree of comprehension. When Klal Yisrael was originally about to receive the Torah, they were on a high level of kedushah, holiness. Accordingly, they would have received the Torah on this level. This all changed when they sinned with the Golden-Calf, and their spiritual status-quo plummeted. They now would have to receive the Torah on a much lower level of understanding. Likewise, Moshe was now charged with teaching the Torah to them on a reduced level, because they could not relate to anything higher. To guarantee that Moshe would teach them the Torah on their new, diminished level, it was necessary that he relearn the Torah on a level of understanding conforming with Klal Yisrael's newly adjusted level of comprehension. This was not due to any shortcoming on Moshe's part; rather, it was to ensure that Klal Yisrael received the Torah on their level of understanding.

We may add a compelling lesson to be derived from Rav Gifter's exposition. The rebbe/teacher must prepare and teach according to the student's level of understanding and expertise. A teacher should not teach just to hear himself speak. His goal is to teach his students, and his preparation should be oriented toward this goal.

Questions and Answers

1) Why did Aharon not appoint an interim leader - or take the position himself - until Moshe had returned?

2) Why did Hashem emphasize the fact that Klal Yisrael was a "stiff-necked people", as reason for destroying them?

3) About which specific action of Aharon's was Moshe especially angry?

4) In whose merit was Hashem willing to continue taking the Jews to Eretz Yisrael?

5) Why did Hashem enjoin Klal Yisrael about the Three Festivals following the incident of the Golden-Calf?


1) He did not appoint Kalev or Nachshon because when Moshe would return there might arise a dispute among the people concerning who shall be the new leader. This could lead to tragedy. Furthermore, Aharon felt that if he would assume the leadership role, Moshe might be offended (Daas Zekeinim).

2) Their obstinacy precluded their listening to anyone who might rebuke them. Thus, their chances of repenting were limited (Sforno).

3) By declaring the next day a day of festivities for Hashem, Aharon gave them the opportunity to celebrate their iniquity, thereby distancing them further from repentance (Sforno).

4) Hashem kept his promise to Avraham, Yitzchak and Yaakov (Ibn Ezra).

5) Hashem was telling them that these were the only Divinely-ordained festivals and that they had no right to add any of their own, as they had attempted to do with the Golden-Calf (Daas Zekeinim).


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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