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Peninim on the Torah

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Rabbi A. Leib Scheinbaum
Hebrew Academy of Cleveland


The wealthy man shall not increase and the poor man shall not decrease from half a shekel to give Hashem's offering. (30:15)

Everyone was to contribute the same amount, so that no Jew could say that his contribution was greater -- or more significant -- than that of someone else. Horav David Feinstein, Shlita, elaborates on this idea. One who is blessed with great wealth or has a brilliant mind, such that he has amassed great Torah scholarship, cannot claim that he serves Hashem more completely than the ordinary person who serves Hashem humbly and obediently-conducting himself scrupulously in accordance with the code of Jewish law. Likewise, the worker who assembles a computer module is no different than the one who makes the screws and bolts that hold the body together. Just because people serve in various capacities does not mean one is any greater than the other.

What really matters as far as Hashem is concerned? It is neither the position nor the function of one's endeavor; it is neither money nor brains. In addition, Hashem does not count how much time a person devotes to His service. The two things that Hashem views as important are the proportion of one's available time that he puts to good use and the sincerity with which he carries out this endeavor.

Thus, Moshe Rabbeinu, the greatest Torah scholar and quintessential leader of the Jewish People, does not view himself as being any more distinguished than the most simple of his followers. Moshe saw only one distinction in regard to himself: he had a greater load to carry. His responsibility paralleled that of the most common Jew: maximize your time and potential to be all that you can be.

It is for this reason that at the beginning of Parashas Netzavim, Moshe emphasizes, "You are standing this day, all of you, before Hashem." (29:9) In Moshe's eyes, all Jews were the same, standing before him that day as equals -- from the greatest leaders to the youngest child, from the most profound professional to the simple laborer. One who is not that gifted cannot say, "I am not smart, and, therefore, Hashem expects less of me." It is not true. Hashem expects that each individual give up as much of the twenty-four hour day that he has available - qualitatively and quantitatively.

If one looks at a classroom, he will notice different students with differing strengths and backgrounds. Some may function better than others. Success should be measured with the yardstick of how much of what they could have accomplished in the time allotted to them did they accomplish and the level of sincerity that accompanied this endeavor. If we make use of this scale, we might end up viewing our students and our children in a different light - a more accurate one.

The entire people removed the gold rings that were in their ears and brought them to Aharon. (32:3)

Is this not the way it usually is - the nouveau riche take their money and throw it around? In a public display of their insecurity, those who have suddenly come into wealth - or even those who have been raised in opulence - will sometimes use their wealth to make a statement, to impress their opinion upon others, or simply to extract honor and respect. Wealth can and should be used to attain positive goals. There are so many who do so. For some reason, those who lack the astuteness and self-esteem to use their money wisely seem to overshadow the rest. Klal Yisrael had recently been liberated from Egypt after suffering two hundred years of backbreaking, degrading labor. They left wealthy, and they added to their newly found wealth at the Yam Suf, when the Egyptians drowned. They should have exhibited gratitude to the Almighty who gave them everything; to Moshe Rabbeinu, their quintessential leader who did so much for them; to Aharon HaKohen, who was not only a leader, but also their friend. The money went to their collective heads, however, and they lost it.

It seems like history repeats itself - which it does. Klal Yisrael gets a little bit of money and lo and behold, "Vayishman Yeshurun va'yivat," "Yeshurun / Yisrael waxed fat and rebelled." (Devarim 32:15) Is this the way it has to be? In Parashas Bo (11:2), Hashem instructed Moshe Rabbeinu, "Please speak into the ears of the people, and a man shall ask from his neighbor and a woman shall ask from her neighbor utensils of silver and gold." Rashi cites Chazal in the Talmud Berachos 9a who say that Hashem asked Moshe using the word na, which means please, as if it were a special request: "Please ask the people to request these silver and gold vessels." We can understand that when we ask a person to undertake a mission of some difficulty we say, "please." In this case, Hashem was requesting that they appropriate the Egyptian silver and gold. Is that so difficult? Do people have to be convinced to take money? Why, then, did Hashem emphasize, "please"?

The Gerrer Rebbe, z.l., the Bais Yisrael, explains that Klal Yisrael were acutely aware that taking money is not a simple endeavor. This would be the newly liberated Jewish slaves' first encounter with the challenges that arise from money. They understood that the temptations that presented themselves with money could, at times, be overwhelming. This is why Hashem had to say, "Please take the money."

The Rebbe adds that for this reason they were told to "borrow" the money. Hashem felt that Jews should view material wealth as being on loan to them temporarily. When a person has something on loan, his excitement about the possession is limited due to its temporal nature. The pasuk teaches us how to view materialism: as something that has been borrowed - something which, at anytime, can be taken away from him.

Returning to the pasuk in Sefer Devarim 37:15 which describes Klal Yisrael's inability to cope with the challenge of material wealth, Sforno explains that the pesukim are telling us that when Klal Yisrael falls prey to materialism and affluence, when they turn towards physical gratification as a way of life, ignoring the spiritual dimension, there is only one antidote: exile. Only exile with its consequent poverty and depravation relieve the symptoms of physical indulgence. Addressing the words of Sforno, Horav Elya Svei, Shlita, notes that we have endured numerous "exiles" during the last 2,000 years of galus, exile. There has been one common denominator throughout these various stages of exile: poverty. We have always been poor. While there have been individual Jews, specific periods and certain areas throughout history for whom this has not been case, for the most part, the Jews, have been poor throughout their bitter exile. We have only to peruse history, to view pictures, to research the museums, and we will see one thing: poverty. This was Hashem's therapy, His method of rectifying our past.

This would all be fine if Europe had been the last stop in our exile. It was not destined to be. It is well known that Rav Chaim Volozhiner, zl, predicted that America would be our last exile before the advent of Moshiach. Hopefully, this is our last exile as we prepare for Moshiach Tzidkeinu to herald the Final Redemption. What about the poverty? We may not all be wealthy, but does one really see here in America the abject poverty that defined the European exile? True, there are many Jews who barely scrape out a living, but it is a far cry from Europe. Who ever heard of a chassan not having a new suit for his wedding? We are not talking Armani, but in Europe it was not unheard of for a chosson not to have new clothes for his wedding. Why is America different? Is not poverty an essential requisite of galus?

Horav Svei suggests that the European Holocaust, the cataclysmic tragedy that destroyed such a large portion of our People, must have been the final atonement for the sin of "Vayishman Yeshurun." We have paid our dues. We have been poor long enough. We can now have affluence once again. Luxury is no longer a dream. It can be a reality. We have a new opportunity to live as we did thousands of years ago.

The American exile is our chance to experience material wealth and pleasure and to see if we can now rise to the challenge without succumbing to its blandishments. The American exile affords the opportunity for nice homes, cars, food on the table and money in the bank - and not to rebel. We have paid the terrible price of rebellion for 2,500 years. We have lived in exile under the most primitive and poverty-stricken conditions, all because we did not know how to deal with the temptations that arise from wealth. Can we learn to use this opportunity of material blessing for a positive purpose, to spread Torah, perform acts of loving-kindness, and raise the banner of Hashem throughout the world? Time will tell. We must remember, however, it is a test that we must pass.

Hashem relented regarding the evil that He declared He would do to His people. Moshe turned and descended from the mountain, with the two Tablets of Testimony in his hand, Tablets inscribed on both their sides; they were inscribed on one side and the other. (32:14,15)

Prior to the chet ha'egel, sin of the Golden Calf, when the Torah mentions that Hashem gave Moshe the Luchos, the Torah describes that they were made of stone written with the Etzba Elokim, finger of G-d. Now, after the sin, and after mentioning that Hashem relented from the punishment He was prepared to mete out, the Torah records an added detail about the Luchos - "inscribed on both their sides; inscribed on one side and the other." Why not mention the complete description right away? Is there some reason that the Torah waited until after the tragic rebellion with the Golden Calf before adding this detail about the Luchos' inscription?

In his sefer Areshes Sefaseinu, Horav Schlesinger, Shlita, cites the Kedushas Yom Tov who gives the following explanation: In the Talmud Kiddushin 30b, Chazal teach us that the Torah which was given to us through Moshe has a unique characteristic. If a person studies it correctly, he merits its therapeutic qualities. If he does not, it will be for him a poison, destroying him. How can it be that the Torah which is referred to as Toras Chaim, the Living Torah, the Torah of life, should have a deadly effect upon he who does not merit? How could it suddenly transform life to death? Chazal explain that Hashem says to Klal Yisrael, "My son, I created the yetzer hora, evil inclination, and I also created the Torah as its antidote. If you study the Torah, you will be protected from its wiles. You will not fall into its hands." The Torah is truly a medicine, an antidote against evil. It does not destroy. If one does not study, if he does not avail himself of its therapeutic powers, however, he will fall prey to the evil that is out there.

Basically, the answer is simple. It all depends upon one's attitude and approach to Torah study. If one studies lishmah, for "its" sake, to fulfill Hashem's command, to give Hashem nachas ruach, satisfaction, then Torah protects him. He will merit Siyata Dishmaya, Divine Assistance, and the Torah is for him a sam hachayim, life-sustaining elixir. If he studies Torah, however, for the wrong reasons, if he continues along his merry way, disregarding the mitzvos that are inscribed in the Torah, at times even intentionally - then the Torah will turn into a sam ha'ma'ves, poison, that will destroy him. This is the meaning of the Luchos that were inscribed on both sides. A person should not think that there is only one side to the Torah and that one who studies it will surely overcome the blandishments of the yetzer hora. This is not true. The Torah/Luchos were "inscribed on one side and on the other." Only if one studies Torah lishmah, for the right reasons, will he succeed in benefiting from its therapeutic effect.

With this in mind, Horav P. Friedman, Shlita, explains why the Torah detailed the Luchos' inscription following its placement of the incident of the Golden Calf. The Torah is responding to a compelling question. Why did Moshe break the Luchos? Why did he not descend with them and give them to the Jewish revelers? If its healing powers are so extraordinary, why could it not bring back the sinners? Give them the Torah, and they would change! This is a powerful question. We reach out to everyone, but what about the sinners of the Golden Calf?

The answer is written in the Torah. The Luchos are inscribed on both sides -- two sides to the coin of Torah. Not everyone is prepared to receive the Torah. For one who is not appropriately prepared, it can be poison. The sinners of the Golden Calf were at that moment idol worshippers. They were not spiritually fit to receive the Torah. It would have an adverse effect on them. This is why Moshe decided to shatter the Luchos and not give them to Klal Yisrael.


This shall they give…a half shekel of the sacred shekel. (30:13)

The Toldos Yaakov Yosef derives from the Torah's insistence that the coin be a half shekel, that no Jew is complete unless he is a partner with his fellow. Furthermore, even the simplest, common Jew can complete with the most distinguished Jew. The gematria, numerical equivalent, of shekel is 430, which coincides with the gematria of nefesh. Half a shekel represents "half a nefesh". Two half shekels compose one complete nefesh.

The Alshich HaKadosh contends that the Machtzis Hashekel served as atonement for the sin of the Golden Calf, during which only the men sinned - not the women. Chazal teach us that a man is incomplete without his wife. Thus, the atonement is only half a shekel.


I have seen this people and behold! They are a stiff-necked people. (32:9)

Abarbanel explains that one who is stiff-necked cannot turn his neck to or fro. Thus, he is not able to see what is coming up behind him. Similar to an animal which cannot see what is behind it, a person who is stiff-necked sees only what is immediately in front of him. He does not see "behind," the past, nor does he see what will be in the future. Therefore, Hashem said to Moshe that he would destroy them, because one who does not see has no hope.


No man may ascend with you. (34:13)

Horav Yisrael, zl, m'Ruzhin, commented on this pasuk; V'ish, one who considers himself an ish, a distinguished person, who is filled with himself, cannot ascend in the various spiritual advantages that are inherent in Torah.


And on the day that I make My account, I shall bring their sin to account against them. (32:34)

Horav Chanoch Alexander, zl, interpreted this pasuk in a positive light. Hashem says, "When I judge them for a specific sin, I will remember the sin of the Golden Calf for which, although it was a great transgression, I still forgive them. For sure, I will forgive their present sin which pales in comparison.


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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