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Peninim on the Torah

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Rabbi A. Leib Scheinbaum
Hebrew Academy of Cleveland


Tablets inscribed on both their sides; they were inscribed on one side and the other. (32:15)

The Luchos which Moshe Rabbeinu brought down with him from Heaven were unique. After all, they were Hashem's handiwork. He fashioned them; He crafted them; He imbued them with their intrinsic holiness. Yet, Moshe shattered them when he saw that the nation he had begun to shepherd was not yet ready to receive them. Among the many unique qualities of the Luchos, the Torah calls our attention to the fact that the letters were engraved all the way through the tablets. Miraculously, however, the writing was not reversed when viewed from the back. One could read the original letters in correct sequence, not backward, as would be expected if these Tablets had been crafted by a human craftsman.

In his latest volume of thoughts from the venerable Rosh Yeshivah of Mesifta Torah Vodaath, Horav Avraham Pam, zl, Rabbi Sholom Smith cites a compelling Torah thought related by the Rosh Yeshivah in the name of the Kaliver Rav, Horav Chaim Elazar Wachs, zl. The Rav was a distinguished talmid chacham, Torah scholar; yet, for many years, he refused to earn a livelihood as a rav. Instead, he became a businessman, earned what he needed, and spent the majority of his time engrossed in Torah study.

At one point, he partnered with another Jew in a paper factory. They did well financially, but business does present its challenges. At times, the greatest challenge is the opportunity to gain a large sum of money in a relatively short span of time. It is a part of business. The problem is that most of these opportunities carry a taint of illegality. It may not be a "huge" impropriety, but it still should not be standard practice for a Torah Jew. This was one of those situations. Rav Wachs' partner presented a deal in which a large sum of money was "waiting" to be made. The "details" could be ironed out. When Rav Wachs studied the deal, he noted that it involved an aspect of impropriety bordering on the possibility of geneivah, theft. He categorically refused to touch the deal, explaining to his partner that geneivah, is geneivah, regardless of the circumstances.

Apparently, his partner did not see it his way. A few dollars can have that numbing effect on our sense of propriety. His partner was looking at the "big picture," the one with a large profit. Rav Wachs responded with a question: "Did you ever wonder why it was essential that the Luchos be engraved on both sides with the Aseres HaDibros, Ten Commandments, clearly readable on either side? It was so that any way one turned the Luchos, he could clearly see the words, 'Lo signov,' Do not steal.'" He continued in Yiddish: "As men dreit ahin, oder men dreit aher, es shteit noch ales: 'Lo signov.' Whether you turn this way, or you turn the other way, it still reads, 'Do not steal.'" He was emphasizing that bending the law is still stealing.

This is a powerful thought, especially in light of a constant desire to skirt the law. This is especially true in times when the economy leaves much to be desired, and the yetzer hora, evil inclination, provokes us to bend the law - a little. I must add that this applies to more than Lo signov. Other moral laws are engraved on the Luchos: sexual morality, refraining from murder, keeping Shabbos; honoring parents; telling the truth. The Kaliver Rav's case for "full disclosure" from both sides can be made for many of the above laws. Murder is murder, whether we take a life or shorten a life. The effect is similar. Making someone's life miserable to the point that he becomes ill and suffers is skirting retzichah, murder. Humiliating a person to the point that he is emotionally destroyed is murder. The list goes on. The message is clear: Dreying, "turning" the law, searching for loopholes to conceal our miscreancy, is still geneivah.

And Moshe saw the calf and the dances, and his anger flared up. He threw down the Luchos from his hands. (32:19)

And now if You would but forgive their sin! But, if not, erase me now from this book. (32:32)

We refer to Moshe Rabbeinu as our quintessential leader. What does this mean? How did he demonstrate his uniqueness as leader? What does this teach us concerning the quality of Torah leadership? We find in the Midrash Tanchuma that when Moshe ascended Har Sinai, the Satan made a successful attempt at misleading Klal Yisrael to believe that Moshe had, in fact, died. They were now leaderless. The Satan conjured up an image of Moshe's bier being carried in Heaven by angels. The people became distraught, so that they made the golden replacement. While their immediate depression appears to be a natural reaction to tragedy, what they did afterwards not only does not make sense, it seems downright offensive. When Moshe descended the mountain, he was confronted by a terrible sight. The people were dancing around the Golden Calf. A mood of revelry and debauchery seemed to have gripped the people, as they let loose in a manner unbecoming a G-dly nation. What about their mourning for their recently passed leader? Moshe had, supposedly, just died. He was the man who had done so much for them, who had sacrificed himself for their every need, who cared for them as a father cares for a child; they clearly did not appear too overcome with grief over his loss.

Bearing this in mind, we wonder how Moshe stood before Hashem and demanded forgiveness on behalf of Klal Yisrael. Did they deserve it? It is one thing for people to maintain control, such that they do not become overly grief-stricken and distraught over a leader's death, but it is another thing to party immediately upon hearing the tragic news. This is outrageous! Yet, despite this slap in the face, Moshe put his dignity aside and pleaded their case. This, says Horav Yaakov Neiman, zl, is the definition of responsible leadership. Moshe was acutely aware of his people's shortcomings, their selfish concerns, their ingratitude. He would teach them how to act. They had been slaves all of their lives, so they did not know any better. These are rationales, but the ultimate reason that Moshe looked aside was that a Jewish leader is like a father to his flock. Only fatherly love could negate the debauchery that took place after their vision of Moshe's passing.

A double lesson can be derived from the "father-son" relationship that a Torah leader should have with his flock. On the one hand, the leader has an awesome responsibility to care like a father, to love like a father, and (I do not say this lightly) to never give up, like a father. He must stand at the side of his "son," regardless of the circumstances in which he finds himself. That is a father's function.

On the other hand, the "son" must reciprocate and act toward his rebbe, rav, spiritual leader, with the respect, admiration and love one manifests for a father. This is especially important when the "father" has to give mussar, rebuke, criticism, point out one's areas of deficiency, things that no one likes to hear. It is all part of the relationship. Fortunate is he who is worthy of such a relationship.

Horav Simchah Wasserman, zl, was the quintessential Rosh Yeshivah. The oldest son of the venerable Rosh Yeshivah of Baranovich, Horav Elchonan Wasserman, zl, Rav Simchah was influenced by his saintly father and by the many European Torah leaders with whom he came in contact. Horav Chaim Ozer Grodzinski, zl, was his uncle, and the Chafetz Chaim was his father's rebbe. He established relationships with Horav Chaim Soloveitchik, zl, Horav Moshe Landinsky, zl, Horav Shimon Shkop, zl, and the Alter,zl of Slabodka. He studied in Novaradok under the Alter, zl of Novaradok. Rav Simchah imbibed a way of life from these luminaries, becoming infused with their Torah perspective. He kept nothing for himself, as he shared his life with his talmidim, students.

Rav Simchah was truly their father, for he had no biological offspring. Together with his Rebbetzin, they devoted their entire lives to their students. Their home was in the yeshivah dormitory. Their devotion to each other was paralleled by their collective devotion to their students. When Rav Simchah established his yeshivah in Los Angeles, his Rebbetzin stayed behind in Detroit in their previous home, where she was teaching. Her salary supported them while Rav Simchah was busy with the yeshivah in California.

At one point, it was getting too much for Rav Simchah. The long separation was taking its toll. How could he leave his wife alone, so far from him? When he told her that he was considering returning to Detroit, she responded, "If Hakadosh Baruch Hu has not granted us children, it is for the sake of what you are doing. What else will we leave over? Therefore, I insist that you continue until you influence people and educate them as you must. That way, many yaldei Yisrael, Jewish children, will be our children." With such an attitude, there is no wonder why they were so beloved - and so successful.

When the people saw that Moshe did not fulfill their expectation of his coming down from the mountain…They said…Make us gods…for this man, Moshe…we do not know that has become of him. (32:1) Moshe returned…and said, "I pray this people has committed a great sin." (32:31)

The sin of the Golden Calf has gone down in infamy as one of Klal Yisrael's most tragic encounters with sin. Their worship of the Golden Calf, coming shortly after receiving the Torah on Har Sinai, is an irrational event. They had recently been privy to the greatest of revelations, to a manifestation of miracles that has yet to be paralleled in history. They heard Hashem declare the prohibition against idol worship. Yet, in a weak moment they lost it - going me'igra rama l'bira amikta, "from the high perch of spirituality to the nadir of depravity." How are we to understand this, and what may we learn from it?

In one of his profound discourses, Horav Chaim Shmuelevitz, zl, explains that the answer may be found in the Midrash. Chazal teach us that when Moshe Rabbeinu had not returned at the precise moment in which they had expected him to return, Klal Yisrael began to worry. Regrettably, this is not unusual - especially after having undergone hundreds of years of slavery. Could Moshe have died? After all, he ascended Har Sinai amid fire and smoke. Survival would take a miracle. Maybe the miracles had dried up. This is what went through the minds of his worried flock.

The Satan saw this and immediately swung into action. He would have a field day with the hapless Jews. He set upon deluding them by conjuring up an image of angels carrying the body of their beloved Moshe to burial. Believing that their rebbe, their leader, their friend, was gone, they became bewildered and insecure; they fell into the depths of depression. In their present emotional state, they were vulnerable to rapid and sudden spiritual deceleration. They were in a freefall to the bottomless pit of spiritual degeneration.

This might seem unusual, since Chazal teach us that the yetzer hora, evil inclination, does not go on a frontal attack. It knows how to convince us to take the plunge of impropriety and decadence. The last thing the yetzer hora attempts is to provoke a radical change that goes against our nature and beliefs. It begins by tempting us - very casually - very slowly - almost innocuously, into executing a slight indiscretion. No aberration, no act of outright immorality - just a simple, innocent, indiscretion. Gradually, we fall into its trap and are seized into its net of deceit, until the yetzer hora becomes our master.

The gradual progression of degeneration is the norm for individuals who fit the "norm." An individual who is emotionally stable, secure, and not prone to confusion and irrational behavior will not suddenly go over the deep end and commit an aberrative act of transgression. When one is in a state of confusion, however, if he is gripped by despair and quickly descending into a state of melancholy - everything goes. The idea of a "norm" or rational behavior no longer exists. All rules are suspended, and precipitous deterioration may occur.

This was the situation during the cheit ha'eigal, sin of the Golden Calf. The nation had fallen into an intoxicating depression. The people could not think straight. Their collective minds were disengaged. They had just lost their leader. Stuck in the wilderness, they were up against a wall. The Golden Calf was their respite. That which they probably never would have considered under more optimum circumstances, they did now, because the circumstances were as challenging as life could get.

Rabbi Dr. Avraham Twerski draws on his experience, both as a Torah scholar and a mental health clinician, to substantiate the above idea. A patient who suffers from depression is cautioned not to make any significant changes during his depression. The decisions will have to wait until he is well into remission. The perspective of a depressed person is grossly distorted. Later, when he has "graduated" from his course of therapy, he will regret having done anything - at all.

Horav Aharon Karliner, zl, would say that while depression is not a sin, nothing is more conducive to sin than depression. The individual's mind is scared and not under his control, allowing him to act in a manner which he will ultimately regret.

Rabbi Twerski uses Rav Chaim's idea to rationalize Moshe's opening negative statement, as he argued Klal Yisrael's case before Hashem. Moshe begins by literally "blasting" the people when he said, "This people has committed a great sin." This is a line which would be more suitable for the prosecution - not the defense. The defense minimizes the sin, distances himself from any negativity, as he attempts to convince the judge and jury of the defendant's innocence.

Deviant human behavior may be either wantonly criminal or psychopathological. In other words, one is either a bad person, or has snapped and gone over the deep end. The former should be dealt with punitively, while the latter should be dealt with therapeutically.

We can safely assume that something has gone wrong when someone acts in a manner totally inconsistent with his normal behavior, with his natural character. This is simply not "him." For example, if a man who is the paradigm of respectability, the consummate poster-boy for morality, acts in a most deviant, immoral and grossly hedonistic manner, it is clear that his mind is suffering some serious trauma. Otherwise, he would not act so reprehensibly. Acts which are grossly antithetical to one's character are less likely to be wanton in nature.

Klal Yisrael's sudden fall from their elevated spiritual perch to a nadir reflecting degeneration, as manifest in their worship of the Golden Calf, was totally out of character and, hence, indicative of some form of "sickness." Their abberant behavior could not be characterized as wanton. Had Klal Yisrael committed a lesser sin, something less egregious than idol worship shortly after receiving the Torah, it would indicate a lack of respect, a defiance of Hashem. This would call for punishment. Moshe's rationale was simple: These people have acted so outrageously that their actions are symptomatic of a serious pathology. Something is wrong here. This sin is much too great to be considered wanton behavior. The Jewish people have snapped. They need help - not punishment; love - not banishment.

Perhaps we should take the above in mind the next time a good friend, someone whom we have known as a rational, normal person, not prone to fits of strange behavior - acts totally out of character. Before we blame him for everything in the world, it would serve us well to take a step back and think: Maybe something is wrong in his life. Could it be that he is under a new, added pressure that is taking its toll on his emotional well-being? Before we write someone off, it would be only right that we give him the benefit of the doubt.

Moshe said to Aharon, "What did this people do to you that you brought a grievous sin upon it?" (32:21)

As difficult as it is to grasp the fact that Klal Yisrael committed such a grievous sin as worshipping the Golden Calf, Aharon HaKohen's participation - albeit from a spectator vantage point - is a greater challenge to accept. What possessed Aharon to defer to pressure and allow the people to commit such an egregious act of mutiny, so soon after they had accepted the Torah? True, he was up against a wall, having already witnessed the brutal murder of his nephew, Chur, but a Torah leader's life is rife with challenge. This would be one of his many challenges in life. One does not cower from challenge. Rather, Aharon should have confronted the people and attempted to quell the riot.

Each in his own inimitable manner, the commentators grapple with this question and offer their approaches. The Chasam Sofer, zl, cites a fascinating statement from the Chovas HaLevavos, which he applies to this question. Chazal's well-known statement, "In the place where baalei teshuvah, true penitents, stand, tzadikim gemurim, consummate, righteous persons, are unable to stand," gives rise to the notion that one who has sinned and repents sincerely is on a higher spiritual plane than a righteous person who has never sinned. How are we to understand this concept? The Chasam Sofer interprets the Chovas HaLevavos' answer in the following manner: "There are times when one sin will accomplish more for the tzadik than all of the mitzvos which he performed in his life." "Therefore," says the Chasam Sofer, "Hashem caused Aharon to sin, so that he would acquire the attribute of humility and submission, as a result of his failing regarding the Golden Calf." Aharon would now be a better leader. There was no fear of his being haughty. He had sinned, and repented - but he would never forget the sin. The shame would engender a deep sense of humility - the humility he would need as he requested the people who came to the Mshkan to offer their sacrifices, their sin offerings. He would understand them, because he had once been there as well.

This is an incredible statement, but inconsistent with the Aharon we have come to know. This is the man who, out of a sense of deep humility, accepted the "number two" position to his younger brother; the man who, together with Moshe, declared, V'nachnu mah, "What are we?" Is there a fear that he might demonstrate haughtiness?

We suggest the following: One is humble because he looks around himself and sees others whom he knows are better than he is. He always sees the other fellow's qualities as achievements that are better than his. What if there had been no one else? What if he is clearly at the top of the spiritual totem pole, he is the undisputed supreme Jew? Moshe Rabbeinu saw himself as insignificant, despite the fact that he was the supreme Jew. His closeness to Hashem gave him an inkling of true greatness. Perhaps this is what is meant by Moshe being the anav m'kol adam, "most humble of all men." His humility lay in the fact that, although he had superceded all men, he was still humble.

Aharon HaKohen could be humble because he always looked up at Moshe - his younger brother. He felt himself puny in relation to his brother. When Moshe was gone, however, and it appeared that Aharon would have to step up as Klal Yisrael's leader, there was a fear that now, in the ivory tower, unsurpassed by any man, he might fall prey to the evil inclination of arrogance. He was, thus, given the opportunity to sin and repent, so that he would always have a reminder that he had once failed.

No man may ascend with you nor may anyone be seen on the entire mountain. (34:3)

Rashi comments: "The first Tablets-- because they were given amidst fanfare, loud sounds, and the masses-- were affected by the evil eye. There is nothing more beautiful than modesty." Rashi is teaching us that the first Luchos were affected by ayin hora, evil eye, causing them to be broken prematurely. How are we to understand this? How can the evil eye have power over a Divinely-created substance? Perhaps ayin hora can have a limited, damaging impact upon man, due to his many fears and hang-ups, but what consequence can it have over a Divinely-crafted gift?

Horav Aharon Soloveitchik, zl, explains that one can acquire something in one of two methods: kibbush and chazakah. With respect to taking possession, kibbush refers to acquisition through the medium of brute force - such as a war. Chazakah refers to acquiring something slowly, meticulously, through the peaceful process of cultivation. Concerning educational knowledge, kibbush is manifest in the approach whereby a student is overwhelmed by a multiplicity of data all being taught at once, whereas chazakah is embodied by a slow, systematic process of teaching one thing at a time, allowing it to "settle" and then build on it. The Rambam writes that since the conquest of Eretz Yisrael by Yehoshua was achieved through a surge of kibbush, a war - its kedushah, sanctity, lasted only until the destruction of the first Beis Hamikdash. The kedushah inherent as a result of the second possession of Eretz Yisrael in the time of Ezra and Nechemiah was via the process of chazakah, since no war was involved in its acquisition; thus, it remains in effect to this very day. Kibbush loses its effect over time, while chazakah strengthens with each passing day.

When the Jewish People left Egypt, they were not yet sufficiently spiritually refined to receive the Torah. The strength of spirit, the character and ethical principles, must be part and parcel of the individual. They were not yet there. Therefore, Hashem had to alter the course of nature with miraculous intervention, in order to elevate the Jews to the level of mamleches kohanim v'goi kadosh, "a kingdom of priests and a holy nation." Hashem's Revelation was an unprecedented and yet unparalleled experience, during which Klal Yisrael saw the absolute truth. It was an experience so overwhelming in nature that it spiritually transformed the nation, so that they were elevated to the point that they could now receive the Torah - through the medium of kibbush. This quick rise in spirituality had one drawback: quick to rise; quick to fall. Their spiritual decline was sudden and precipitous.

Avodah zarah, idol worship, may be divided into two categories: full heathendom and partial heathendom. In the latter type, the idol does not represent a god, but is viewed rather as a medium, an intermediary between man and some higher power. The worshipper thinks that the medium's power is its ability to influence god. This is where the Jewish People erred in their selection of the Golden Calf as an intermediary to replace Moshe Rabbeinu, whom they had worshipped as a hero. While nobody viewed Moshe as the supreme power, they felt that he had a compelling influence on G-d. When he did not return from the mountain, they decided to choose a replacement who would serve as their symbol of the Jewish leader.

This narrow-minded, obtuse sense of judgment is what Rav Soloveitchik terms as am kshei oref, a stiff-necked people. It does not mean stubborn but, rather, limited in scope, a lack of peripheral vision, a myopia which allows them to see only in one direction. The Jews were ignorant of the big picture, that Hashem was a personal G-d and no intermediary was necessary, helpful or acceptable. They were k'shei oref, unable to turn their heads to either side and see the whole truth.

Why were they so limited? Their education was via kibbush, and an education that is compelled, sudden, quick and overwhelming does not last - even when it is performed by G-d. This is what Rashi means when he says that the first Luchos did not last, because they were given amidst supernatural wonders. Rav Soloveitchik quotes his great grandfather, the Bais HaLevi, who posits that the first Luchos contained the entire Torah She Baal Peh, Oral Law. It was too much for the people to handle. Torah SheBaal Peh must be cultivated by mesorah, by a chain of teachers and students. These Luchos were adversely affected by ayin hora, which in this case does not mean evil eye. Such an ayin hora could not affect the Divinely-created Luchos. Ayin hora in this sense refers to "poor vision." Because their method of acquisition was through kibbush, they possessed poor, limited, one-sided vision concerning spiritual matters. Thus, when things did not work out their way, they rejected the "lesson", and the Luchos had to be destroyed.

It was not pure ignorance, however, that stimulated their revelry and debauchery, as they danced around the Golden Calf. It was a mixture of spiritual ignorance, fueled by base desire, which did not permit their error in judgment to be expunged. The yetzer hora, evil inclination, took hold of them and had a field day. When intellectual weakness mixes with animalistic instinct, it wreaks spiritual havoc - something for which we are still paying for today.

Va'ani Tefillah

Hashem Ish milchamah, Hashem Shemo
Hashem is Master of war; His Name is Hashem.

The Shem Hashem of Yud Kay Vov Kay is the Shem of rachamim, Attribute of Mercy. Horav Shimon Schwab, zl, says that this Name is used in this pasuk to convey the message that, despite the fact that the Almighty appears now as a G-d of war, a destroyer - this is all appearance. In reality, His Name continues to remain Yud Kay Vov Kay, symbolizing rachamanus, compassion. Hashem is waging war with his Attribute of Mercy. He quotes Chazal who relate that the malachim, angels, requested to sing Shirah, songs of praise, to Hashem. The Almighty did not allow it. He asked, "My creations are drowning, and you wish to sing praises?" This is a manifestation of rachamim. The concept that Hashem employs His middas haRachamim to destroy the wicked is a difficult concept to comprehend. It is clearly rachamim to save the oppressed, but how is it rachamim to destroy the wicked? Perhaps, by destroying the wicked, they are prevented from carrying out more evil, thereby having to receive more punishment. Punishment is merciful if it comes at a time that spares one from receiving additional punishment.

l'zchus refuah sheleima
Rachel bas Sara

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