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Peninim on the Torah

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Rabbi A. Leib Scheinbaum
Hebrew Academy of Cleveland


Every man shall give Hashem an atonement for his soul… This shall they give - everyone who passes through the census - a half-shekel… The wealthy shall not increase and the destitute shall not decrease from half a shekel. (30:12, 13, 15)

The Jewish census was taken by having the people contribute an item which would then be counted. In this instance, when the nation was counted in the wilderness, they were instructed to each give a half-shekel coin which was later used for the construction and maintenance of the Mishkan. Participation in this census via the half-shekel coin was mandatory on each and every Jew, who was to give an equal amount - a half-shekel. This was mandated regardless of financial ability or lack thereof - everyone gave the same. Why a half-shekel? Why did everyone contribute an equal amount? A number of reasons are given. Horav S. R. Hirsch, zl, explains it succinctly. Viewed objectively, not even the most complete and perfect contribution of any one individual can achieve the whole of the work that must be done. The effort of any one individual can be only a fragment of a whole. An equally selfless sacrifice from his brother is required in order to produce the whole.

The equality of rich and poor alike expresses the symbolic character of the contribution, which is fixed at a half-shekel. If each person contributes an equal amount then no one person "weighs more" on Hashem's Divine scale than the other. We all stand equally before Hashem.

Alternatively, each Jew should view himself as incomplete without the other Jew. We are a unit. Also, a Jew should view whatever he gives as being only part of what is expected of him. One should never feel that "I have given enough." This explains why we do not give a whole coin; but, why do we specifically give a half-coin? If the objective is to give less than a whole, then anything less than a whole should suffice. Why the exact amount of a half-shekel? Furthermore, why may the wealthy person not express himself with greater generosity? If he has it - let him give it!

I would like to take a homiletic approach and present two different expositions, both of which intimate a Jew's collective responsibility to his fellow Jew. Our people have produced generation after generation of Jews who are resolutely committed and wholly devoted to Hashem, His Torah and mitzvos. We have overcome challenges, triumphed over adversity, and surmounted obstacles to our faith with a fierce single-mindedness, and an unfaltering sense of commitment. We brook no compromise in our service of the Almighty. Nothing stands in our way. Why is this? What motivates us so?

Perhaps the following Torah thought from Horav Matisyahu Solomon, Shlita, (which I have used before) will elucidate this phenomenon. The Torah (Vayikra 10:12) relates Moshe Rabbeinu's conversation with Aharon HaKohen and his two sons, Elazar and Isamar, following the tragic deaths of their older brothers, Nadav and Avihu. "And Moshe spoke to Aharon and to Elazar and Isamar, the children of Aharon, who remained." The word ha'nosarim, who remained, seems superfluous. Aharon had four sons, two of whom perished. Obviously, the other two, are the remaining sons. Why does the Torah underscore this fact?

The Mashgiach explains that this term implies an added responsibility placed upon the shoulders of Elazar and Isamar. They were survivors, and those who survive when others perish are charged with the enormous responsibility of guaranteeing that the Torah will endure in ensuing generations. The survivor carries a dual responsibility on his shoulders: his own and that of those who did not make it, who did not have a second chance. The survivor must be able to look at himself in the mirror and reflect, "I am here - others are not. Life cannot go on as usual. I must make up the difference." The survivor may not tolerate compromise, because he is not acting only for himself personally. He carries with him the added weight of those who did not survive.

When one is a survivor he had no room for negotiation, no room for error, no room for concession. When he serves Hashem, he may not slack off, because even if he could somehow, someway, find a way of excusing his personal responsibility - it does not mitigate his responsibility towards the "others." A Jew gives a machatzis ha'shekel, half-shekel, to remind him that he is truly only a half. He may never forget "who" rides on his shoulders. We are a nation of survivors. We have survived the Romans, Greeks, Crusaders, Inquisition, pogroms and the Holocaust. Many have died under the most brutal and cruel circumstances. We are the survivors, the fortunate few, who thus have a responsibility to remember that what we do is only a half. We must carry out the other half on behalf of those who did not make it, so as to make it whole.

Horav Elchanan Wasserman, zl, was the recognized leader of Orthodoxy in pre-World War II Europe. He was revered and respected by all segments of Orthodoxy: Ashkenazi, Sephardi, Chassidic and Yeshivish. Everyone heeded his word, because it exemplified the very apex of integrity and Torah scholarship. When the Second World War broke out, Rav Elchanan fled with his yeshivah (Baranowitz) to Vilna. Before the accursed Nazis entered Vilna, he traveled to the city of Slabodka, near Kovno, with the intention of returning soon to Vilna. The Germans, however, quickly seized control of Lithuania, and Rav Elchanan was forced to remain in Slabodka.

On the 11th of Tammuz, 1941, the Nazis decimated the city of Slabodka and executed its Jewish population. Prior to their brutal murder, Rav Elchanan calmly addressed his friends, rabbinic leaders and the Jewish community. He spoke softly, articulating every word with the inner calm for which he was noted. His last words have been recorded for posterity. I feel that the underlying motif of his farewell is connected to the idea of Jewish survivorship and kinship for others. We do not live only for ourselves. Every Jew is a "half." These are the holy Rosh Yeshivah's parting words:

"Apparently they consider us tzaddikim in Heaven, for we were chosen to atone for Klal Yisrael with our lives. If so - we must repent completely, here and now. Time is short. The road to the Ninth Fort (where the Slabodka/Kovno martyrs were slaughtered) is rapidly approaching. We must realize that our sacrifice will be more acceptable when it is accompanied with repentance. We will thereby rescue our brothers and sisters in America. We are now about to perform the greatest possible mitzvah! 'You destroyed it (the Bais Hamikdash) with fire, and with fire you shall rebuild it.' The fire which will now consume our bodies, is the same fire which will give rise to the rebirth of the Jewish People."

He was a person who was acutely aware that no Jew lives only for himself.

For the second explanation, I cite a short vignette that I used a number of years ago. It has not lost its timely message. Chazal teach that the distinguished Tanna, Rabbi Tanchuma, would always purchase two portions of food - one for himself and one for the poor. Deriving a critical lesson from Rabbi Tanchuma's behavior, a young father was determined to impart this message to his children. Thus, every time they would go to the supermarket to shop, they would always pick up an extra item and place it into the shopping cart - an extra container of milk, a can of tuna fish, a bag of potato chips, etc. They would store the items, and every few weeks they would go to the local food g'mach, pantry, which distributed food to the poor, to drop off a bag of food items.

One day, while in the supermarket, the father took a box of Cheerios off the shelf and said, "This will be our gift today."

His six-year old son picked up the box from the cart and placed it back on the shelf. He then proceeded to take a box of Cocoa Puffs from the shelf and place it into the cart. His father looked at him incredulously, and asked, "What is wrong with Cheerios?"

The young boy looked up to his father through his large, innocent eyes, and said, "Because there are hungry kids out there too - and kids like Cocoa Puffs better than Cheerios."

Machatzis ha'shekel is a lesson in how a Jew should give charity. When he spends on himself, his family, his personal needs, he must take into consideration that there are Jews out there who are in great need. Whatever he is prepared to spend for his personal needs, he should likewise be prepared to spend for his fellow Jew. Furthermore, not only must he give his fellow, he must give him an equal portion of equal quality - a perfect half - which will complement his half. This is why it is an even machatzis, half, so that the contributor knows to give an equal portion.

The people saw that Moshe delayed in descending the mountain. (32:1)

The egregious sin of the Golden Calf was precipitated by a tragic error on the part of the people. This, of course, does not mitigate their sin. Had their emunah, faith, been without reservation, they would not have fallen prey to misconception. When Moshe Rabbeinu ascended Har Sinai, he said that he would return forty days later - in the morning. The people thought that the day he ascended the mountain was included in the count - when, in fact, it was not. Thus, on the fortieth day, which was the sixteenth of Tammuz, (Moshe ascended on Sivan 7), they expected him to return. This was their error.

Furthermore, Satan seized upon their fear and uncertainty by conjuring up an image of Moshe's bier being carried through Heaven by Angels. As a result of their nascent faith, which was yet to be concretized, they erred and became putty in Satan's hands.

It is well-known that as Rav of Pressburg, and by extension, the primary Torah leader of Hungarian Jewry, the Chasam Sofer was a great believer in the concept of Secession. Consequently, the Orthodox community of Pressburg was encouraged to secede from having any religious affiliation with members of secular Jewish movements. He felt strongly that to influence others, one must himself be strong, and this could happen only if they maintained their own community - unmarred and untainted by alien religious philosophies.

This position was not accepted by all. Indeed, liberal leaders felt that Jewish outreach could only be achieved when one was a part of the greater community. Once one separated himself, his chances for achieving his intended goals were greatly diminished. The Chasam Sofer's position was later accepted by many of the spiritual leaders in Poland and Lithuania. Once, at a meeting to discuss either joining the ranks of the secessionists, or continuing to maintain strong diplomatic relations with the secularists, each side presented its position and arguments. Horav Meir Arik, zl, Rav of Tarno and a primary student of the Chasam Sofer, asked to speak. A powerful orator and brilliant scholar, he said: "I think our question can be elucidated by delving into the Chumash and Rashi of Parashas Ki Sisa.

"The day that the people assumed Moshe was supposed to return, was a day filled with ambiguity. On the one hand, Moshe had given them his word that he would return, and he had never lied to them. On the other hand, he was not yet back, and they had just seen an image of Moshe's funeral. What should they think?

"Aharon HaKohen was acutely aware of their error, but he did not know how to convince them that Moshe was coming back - tomorrow. Aharon figured that by remaining in opposition to them, he had no chance of convincing them to halt the creation of the idol. Only by joining with them and establishing a relationship could he somehow convince them to wait another day.

"When Moshe descended from the mountain, the first order of business was to shatter the Luchos, Tablets. Following this definitive action, he burned the Golden Calf and had the people drink the ashes mixed with water. He then called out Mi l'Hashem elai, 'Who is for Hashem, stay by me.' It was not until the next day that Moshe reproved the people, admonishing them for the great transgression which they had committed. Why did he wait until the next day to give them mussar, rebuke? Why did he not immediately chastise them - and then afterwards burn the Golden Calf and feed them the ashes?

"The answer is that as long as people have before them an idol which they created through sorcery and witchcraft - mussar has no place. It will not be effective. The words of rebuke will fall on deaf ears. At such a point, one calls out, 'Who is for Hashem come to me.' It is only after one has been rid of the idol and the people are shocked backed into reality that they now realize their iniquitous actions. Then one can reach out to them, by appealing to their hearts to repent their actions."

"Aharon acted unintentionally, since he was uncertain how to rule in such a case: Does he join them and work from within to stave off the sin; or does he maintain a strict opposition from without - and hope for success? The actions of those who follow Aharon's path of inclusion are no longer considered unintentional, since the Halachic ruling follows Moshe, who intimated by his actions that one does not comingle with those who are under the influence of Satan. There is no room for discussion. One who thinks that he will succeed by including himself with the non-believers and working with them from within, is greatly mistaken."

With the Two Tablets of the Testimony in his hand, Tablets inscribed on both sides; they were inscribed on one side and the other. (32:15)

The Midrash to Megillas Esther (8:4) relates that when Mordechai heard of the terrible decree issued against the Jewish People, he rent his garments, dressed in sackcloth as a sign of mourning and wept bitterly throughout the city. When Esther was informed of Mordechai's public expression of grief, she said, "Never in the history of the Jewish People has there been such a decree leveled at us. Perhaps it is because they denied Zeh Keili v'anveihu, "This is my G-d and I will build Him a Sanctuary" (Shemos 15:2), or they disbelieved in the Luchos, Tablets, about which is written, "They were inscribed on one side and the other."

Esther points toward two areas of our relationship with Hashem, which could have become deficient, and as a result we deserve to be destroyed. Why did she focus on these? Why not on Shema Yisrael Hashem Elokeinu Hashem Echad? Perhaps the Jewish People no longer believed in the unity of G-d? For Hashem to have the Jewish People destroyed, Heaven-forbid, it would require an egregious transgression heretofore unprecedented and unparalleled. The two areas of deficiency alluded to by Esther do not seem to not seem to constitute such an infraction.

Horav Shimshon Pincus, zl, explains that indeed there are a number of levels in the relationship a Jew maintains with Hashem. There is a basic, simple but critical level, and there are more profound levels which demand greater intensity. The simple level of emunah, faith, in Hashem was manifest by the Jewish People when they experienced the Splitting of the Red Sea. This is the level of Zeh Keili v'anveihu. The Jews were privy to a revelation that was unquestionable. Everyone saw, everyone experienced - everyone believed. There were no subtleties. It was clear, unambiguous and manifest to everyone. G-d was real. They pointed with their finger and said, "Zeh! This! is Keili, My G-d!"

Rav Shimshon asks, "What is the "simplest" level of Divine relationship? That of, Banim atem l'Hashem Elokeichem, to be able to say to Hashem, "Abba sheli, my Father; Taiere Tatta, Dearest Father in Heaven." This is the meaning of Zeh Keili v'anveihu.

To abrogate a Heavenly decree requires tremendous zechusim, merit. Heartfelt prayer, broken-hearted weeping, fasting, charity, are all endeavors which, when performed with sincerity and proper intensity may catalyze Divine forgiveness, and thus effect a revocation of the decree. There is, however, a (for lack of better term) last-ditch attempt, or back door endeavor, whereby one cries out, "Tatta! Please help me!" This, explains Rav Shimshon, is the meaning of v'anveihu - ani v'Hu, I and Him. Esther asked Mordechai, "Did the Jews break that last frontier of a relationship - the simplest, but quite possibly most profound and probably most effective relationship of Zeh Keili v'anveihu? Do they still act as Hashem's children? If the answer is in the affirmative, then there is hope for annulling the decree. Otherwise, all is lost."

Esther presented a second question: "Perhaps they no longer maintain their allegiance to the Two Tablets which were inscribed on one side and the other?" Rav Shimshon explains that Esther was alluding to life's various opposing moments - the high points and low points - when the sun is shining brilliantly and life seems to be moving in the right direction, versus those moments when darkness reigns and we cannot seem to find our way, when we are beset with troubles, strife and ambiguity, and just do not know to whom or where to turn. While there are various moments in life, there is one constant. A Jew who lives with emunah, faith in Hashem, always sees Anochi Hashem Elokecha, the first of the Ten Commandments, whereby Hashem introduces Himself and enjoins us to maintain our fidelity to Him. In whatever matzav, situation, a Jew finds himself, he is never without G-d. The "Anochi" in his is mizeh u'mizeh, from "this side or the other," whatever the situation, regardless of the challenge, the believing, faithful Jew sees Hashem.

There are two lessons to be derived from Esther HaMalkah's dialogue with Mordechai. A Jew must maintain, reinforce, and never slack off in his commitment to these two concepts: Zeh Keili v'anveihu and Anochi Hashem Elokecha. Regardless of the situation in life with which we are confronted - no matter what comes our way - it all comes from Hashem, Our Father, Who is behind it and with us. Also, when we realize that Hashem is our G-d, we know that we lack for nothing. We must never forget the Source of our circumstances and believe that if it comes from Hashem, He will be with us.

Yehoshua heard the sound of the people in its shouting. (32:17)

Targum Yonasan ben Uziel comments on this pasuk: Kad meyabvin b'chedvah kami egla, "as (the people) they cried with joy before the Calf." Crying generally is an expression of sorrow - not joy. Why does Targum Yonasan describe the joy of the people as being expressed through tears? Joy and crying are not synonymous expressions. When one is sad - he cries. We see this in the Torah's description of a Kol anos, a distressing sound (32:18). On the other hand, the people exhibited joy by dancing (32:19) and "shouting" (see Rashi 32:17). How do we reconcile this joy, if in fact they cried? I saw quoted in the name of Horav Yeruchem Levovitz, zl, that this refers to one who is a shanah u'pireish, learned as well as observant, and then changed his attitude with regard to Torah and mitzvah observance. He is no longer interested, nor is he is in the mood of maintaining his responsibility to serve Hashem. Such a person commits transgressions, overtly desecrating the Torah, etc. yet, despite his mutinous behavior, he knows deep down that he is wrong. He continues to sin, but the geshmak, pleasant nature/satisfaction of sin is missing. He does not enjoy the transgression as much as one who had never learned, as one who had never adhered to mitzvos. The shanah u'pireish is like a rebellious child, who, if he has any emotion, feels bad that he is turning against his parents who raised him.

Klal Yisrael were under the evil influence of the erev rav, mixed multitude, who joined with them when they left Egypt. They had never been committed, and when ambiguity reigned in the camp, they took over and led the people to iniquity. The Jew who was following them to worship the Golden Calf was torn. On the one hand, he was having fun; on the other hand, something was tugging at his heart. It bothered him to turn against Hashem, Who had taken him out of Egypt. So, he cried amidst the joy. The Jews danced, and reveled around the Golden Calf, but it was with a yevavah, a heavy heart. Perhaps they manifested joy, but deep within the recesses of their hearts, they were crying. They knew that this was wrong.

And so it has been throughout the ages. We observe Jews who have fallen prey to the blandishments of the society in which they live. They revoke the yoke of Torah and mitzvos, and, for all intents and purposes, seem to be enjoying their new lifestyle. Is it real? Are they really having fun? If they were once frum, observant, the fun is quite bittersweet. If they really have no regrets, then I guess they were never truly observant. All they are doing now is removing the sham of their earlier "observance."

For they are a stiff-necked nation. (34:9)

When the Torah describes the sin of the Golden Calf, we observe Hashem referring to the Jewish People as "a stiff-necked nation." It almost implies that it was this character trait - that seems to be inherently Jewish - which is blamed for their capitulation to the Golden Calf. It, therefore, begs elucidation why Moshe Rabbeinu uses this very same character trait as a defense for saving the Jews? How can a trait which appears to have played a pivotal and negative role in the catalyzation of such an egregious sin, actually be the reason that Moshe presents to Hashem for our forgiveness?

Horav Yisrael Meir Lau, Shlita, explains that as Klal Yisrael's quintessential leader, Moshe was presenting the very reason for remaining with the Jewish People - despite their present indiscretion. Moshe turned to Hashem, and said, "Ribono Shel Olam, You are castigating the nation because of their stiff-necked nature. Is this really a negative trait? Is this a reason to find them guilty? Indeed, I think that this very trait is what distinguishes the Jewish People from the rest of the world. This indicates that they have a backbone, an ability to withstand outside pressure and numerous difficult challenges to their faith. On the contrary, 'Let Hashem walk in our midst.' Let us look to the future. Every nation caved in under various pressures. All of the supposed "faithful," when under pressure, wavered and resorted to a host of other beliefs, including Islam or Christianity. Why? Because they had no backbone - were not stiff-necked - were weak!

"True, my nation sinned gravely against You. But, because of their strong, stiff-necked nature, they will repent and cling to You, and never renege on their commitment to Hashem. We are Jews because we are stiff-necked and have been able to triumph over life's challenges to our faith."

Va'ani Tefillah

V'tov v'yafeh - and good and beautiful.

There are many "goods" associated with our lives - or, at least, this is what we think. Since all of the previous adjectives were explaining "this matter" - the Torah and Torah living - therefore, only "this matter" is truly "good." Thus, it is only "this matter" which we desire. After all, why would we want something that is not "good" for us? We desire nothing else, and we quest for it in much the same way that others seek money, glory and health. "This matter" is the sole "good" which we seek.

Not all "good" things are also beautiful. Various foods which are healthy for consumption are not necessarily beautiful. A loaf of bread, a good piece of meat, are items which are good, but one would be hard-pressed to call them beautiful. The Torah, however, is ultimate good and beautiful. Torah is pleasing to the eye. There is something impressive, majestic about someone who has studied and absorbed Torah. He is not only "good" - he reflects a unique beauty that can be derived only from Hashem, the Torah's Divine Author.

In loving memory of
by her family

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