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Peninim on the Torah

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Rabbi A. Leib Scheinbaum
Hebrew Academy of Cleveland


And you will be vindicated from Hashem and from Yisrael. (32.22)

We are exhorted not to give the appearance that we are sinning in any way. In the Talmud Yoma 38a, Chazal praise the Garmo family, who were the bakers of the Lechem HaPanim, Showbread, because there never was found among the members of their family any high-quality bread. This was done so that no one would ever suspect them of helping themselves to the Showbread. Their concern regarding what some jealous person might assert caused them to be extra-meticulous in their personal lifestyle.

Horav Yosef Chaim Sonnenfeld, zl, was known for exemplifying this trait. Never did he take advantage - nor did he permit any member of his family to benefit - from the numerous charity funds that went through his hands. This money was to be used to support the poor and needy of Yerushalayim. Even though he certainly came under the purview of the charity funds criteria, he would never avail anyone of the opportunity to talk.

Indeed, once his own granddaughter, who had been orphaned at a young age, came to him and asked for support. She was about to marry a budding young talmid chacham, Torah scholar, who was penniless. She asked, "Of all the money that goes through your hands to sustain Yerushalayim's poor, can you not find something for your own granddaughter? Why should I be less entitled to receive assistance than anyone else?"

Rav Yosef Chaim was visibly moved by her tearful request, and replied in turn, "Please do not press me further. Would you want me to break the strict rules of conduct that I have imposed upon myself? For my entire life, I have never personally gained from the funds that I administer. These funds were entrusted to me to share with others - not with myself. Our Torah demands that one remain vindicated from Hashem and Yisrael. I am prepared to sell my bed and all my personal belongings to help you in your time of need, but I will not personally take advantage of the tzedakah money entrusted to me. I know how much you have suffered in your life, and you truly deserve Hashem's mercy. Go in peace, and may Hashem shine His countenance upon you and grant you much joy in life, so that the wealthiest girls in town will be envious of you."

Rav Yosef Chaim's blessing came into fruition. His granddaughter went on to become the matriarch of a noble and beautiful family, whose sons were included among the most illustrious Torah scholars in Yerushalayim. This source of pride and comfort was more valuable than anything money could buy.

Arm men from among yourselves for the army that they be against Midyan to inflict Hashem's revenge against Midyan. And Moshe sent themů and Pinchas ben Elazar HaKohen, to the army. (31:3,6)

Rashi comments that Pinchas went along, so that he could avenge Yosef, his mother's ancestor. This is a reference to the time when the Midyanites sold Yosef. This statement demands clarification. The Torah clearly states that the battle with Midyan was to be fought exclusively l'shem Shomayim, for the sake of Heaven. No vestige of personal interest was to play a role in any segment of the battle. Yet, Pinchas did possess a personal interest aside from the national cause. The Midyanites had participated in the sale of his maternal ancestor, Yosef. As Rashi indicates, Pinchas was selected specifically due to the fact that he had an issue to settle with Midyan. It is intriguing that Moshe Rabbeinu would send Pinchas on a mission that was to be carried out solely l'shem Shomayim, when, in fact, due to his personal agenda, Pinchas would be lacking in his total devotion to l'shem Shomayim.

Horav Mordechai Rogov, zl, derives from here that Pinchas was a person whose focus was directed entirely toward Hashem. While, undoubtedly, Pinchas had personal considerations for destroying Midyan, his intentions were noble as he expunged any personal benefits which were to be gained by his actions. This might be difficult for us to grasp, because, to the average person, a division of allegiances is overwhelming. Pinchas, however, was not an average person.

Rav Rogov adds that even when Pinchas fought in order to avenge the honor and dignity of his ancestor, Yosef, he did not view the battle as some form of personal vendetta, but, rather, as one fought for the national honor of the Jewish People. Hence, avenging his honor was a step forward in advancing the interests of the entire Jewish People. Pinchas' distinction was that he functioned on a plane in which his every intention was solely for the sake of Hashem.

Horav Yisrael Salanter, zl, once noted that there are two mitzvos which relate to the Yom Kippur fast. There is a mitzvah to eat on Erev Yom Kippur as well as to fast on Yom Kippur. It is definitely more difficult to eat on Erev Yom Kippur l'shem Shomayim than it is to fast on Yom Kippur. Eating on Erev Yom Kippur is a mitzvah that has a side-benefit: one is eating. Thus, to fulfill the mitzvah correctly, one must be oblivious to the benefits of the food that he is ingesting. To fast on Yom Kippur, however, is obviously l'shem Shomayim, because what other motive could one have for fasting?

When Pinchas prepared for battle with Midyan, his objective was clear and unequivocally l'shem Shomayim. He could have had other motives, but Rashi tells us that he did not. This was the character of the person whom Hashem refers to as b'kano es kinaasi, "when he zealously avenged Me." (Bamidbar 25:11)


The three cities shall you designate on the (other) side of the Yarden, and three cities shall you designate in the Land of Canaan; they shall be cities of refuge. (35:14)

Rashi cites Chazal in the Talmud Makos 9a, who note that the number of Cities of Refuge in Ever haYarden was disproportionate to the number of residents. On the other side of the Yarden there were only two and one-half tribes, in contrast to the nine tribes that lived in Eretz Yisrael. Chazal explain that in Gilaad, which was in Ever haYarden, there were many killers. Ramban adds that although the Cities of Refuge were specifically for unintentional murderers, nonetheless, since there was a high incidence of intentional murder, it stands to reason that these murderers would attempt to conceal their malevolence by making their actions appear to be inadvertent. Alternatively, the Maharal explains that the mere fact that there were many intentional murderers in Gilaad indicates that there was a low regard for the value of human life. It, therefore, follows that those who were not murderers, simply tended to be negligent. Thus, there were many preventable, unintentionable killings in the area of Ever haYarden.

The environment in which one finds himself plays a compelling role in his spiritual progress. A good environment creates a positive spiritual field in which one can grow in his relationship with Hashem. In contrast, an atmosphere that is spiritually decadent will harm one's neshamah, soul. One would think that the effect of the environment is commensurate with one's direct involvement with its members and relative to his firsthand exposure to its endeavors. We derive here from the Maharal's explanation that the influence of the environment goes much deeper and is much more infectious and far-reaching than we assume. The mere fact that killers live in a city diminishes the value of human life. One becomes aware that murder is not frowned upon as much in this community, since murderers are included among its citizenry. The individual slowly becomes desensitized to the sanctity and primacy of human life. Hence, an act of unintentional murder is something that does not affect him as much as it should. This catalyzes an increase in bloodshed.

We live in a society where integrity is a medieval value, in which morality is archaic, where secular leadership, both communal and political, has redefined the meaning of ethicality and virtue. Does this not in some way impact our own thought process? The only way to counteract this influence is through awareness and insulation. Prevention is the best antidote for the influence of the environment.

He shall dwell in it until the death of the Kohen gadol. (35:25)

The Kohen Gadol carries some of the onus regarding the fatal accidents that occur during his watch, since he should have prayed that these accidents not occur during his tenure. Sforno explains that since there were varied forms of unintentional killings, it was almost impossible for the earthly court to determine the length of time for each individual killer's sentence of exile. Thus, it is left up to Hashem to render His judgment through the medium of an event ordained only by Him.

The responsibility of the gedolei Yisrael, Torah leaders, of each generation to pray for the members of their generation is awesome. Horav Elazar M. Shach, zl, took this responsibility very seriously, as evidenced in the following narrative. One of the young men in Ponevez, himself a child of Holocaust survivors, had a son. It did not take long before it was discovered that the infant suffered from a serious disease that plagued one of his internal organs. The parents practically lived in doctors' offices, as they went from specialist to specialist seeking whatever medical advice they could. It was during 1970 that the child went through his most difficult period. The child had to undergo a serious surgical procedure in America. The entire Ponevez yeshivah, including the Rosh Hayeshivah, Rav Shach, recited Tehillim in his zchus, merit.

Indeed, the joy was palpable throughout the yeshivah when the good news of a successful surgery arrived. Rav Shach was among those who were overjoyed for the family. He added that he would continue to recite Tehillim for the child.

"Why?" the parents asked. "Baruch Hashem, the result is positive."

"Yes, I know," he replied. "I still would like to be the shomer, watchman, that everything continues to be fine."

A number of years later, the child had grown up and was now in the parshah of Shidduchim, looking for a mate with whom to share the rest of his life. The parents spoke to the intended girl's parents and encouraged them to check out the surgery that their son had received years earlier, so that everything would be clearly revealed. They suggested that besides the medical records, the parents should seek the advice of a gadol, Torah leader.

They went to Rav Shach, who, after inquiring concerning the young man's health, wished them all the best, Mazel Tov, and the young couple should merit to build a beautiful home in Yisrael amid much joy and success.

Nonetheless, the young man was not always in pure health. As Rav Shach had blessed them, they had a wonderful marriage, raising children who were bright and accomplished. The people of the neighborhood could see that this family was the beneficiary of an exceptional blessing. The father, who was Rav Shach's talmid, student, was concerned about his son's health, but nevertheless he did not worry obsessively, because of his deep abiding faith in Hashem.

Everything was fine until Mar Cheshvon 16, 2002, when the venerable Rosh Hayeshivah, Rav Shach, passed away. The father was acutely aware that Rav Shach's passing would affect his son. He knew that ever since that fateful day of his surgery, the Rosh Hayeshivah had recited Tehillim daily for his son. After all, he said he would be his shomer. Now, he was gone. Shortly thereafter, the father's terrible fear was realized, as his son suddenly took ill and passed away. The shomer ne'eman, true watchman, the Rosh Hayeshivah who was so devoted to Klal Yisrael, was no longer there to intercede in his behalf.

While this thesis is about gedolei Yisrael and their responsibility to pray for the community, as parents we cannot forget our own obligation to pray for our children - and, as we age, for our grandchildren. A parent certainly prays for their child's health and success, both spiritually and materially. I feel that to the degree a parent values his child's success in the spiritual arena, to that end he will supplicate the Almighty. The Tehillim recited and the treren, tears, shed by a parent, make the difference. Above all, the child senses that the value system in his home is unique. Ruchnius, spirituality, plays a starring role in the character of the home. The following incredible story, cited by Rabbi Yechiel Spero in Touched by a Story 2, demonstrates a mother's prayer and the enduring effect it had on her illustrious son.

Rabbi Moshe Sherer, zl, was the Torah askan, communal worker, par excellence. As president of Agudath Israel, he was the major spokesman for Orthodox Jewry for over fifty years. His total subservience to the gedolei Yisrael was legendary. It did not happen overnight. He hailed from a home whose hallmarks were Torah commitment; trust in gedolei Yisrael; and emunah peshutah, unequivocal faith in Hashem. Whenever one of the Sherer children were ill, his mother would immediately visit the Stoliner Rebbe, zl, to ask for his blessing. His response was that she should light another Shabbos candle. She had a large family, and the ailments were typical. One could imagine that her Shabbos candle-lighting was a major endeavor.

There was another aspect of Mrs. Sherer's candle-lighting that was special. Young Moshe Sherer would silently observe his mother stand there and weep softly, as she entreated Hashem on behalf of her family. What did she say, he would wonder? Why did the candle-lighting take so long? One Friday evening, determined to find an answer to his pressing questions, he hid beneath the table on which the candles were placed. Once and for all, he was going to know what his mother was saying.

What he heard is something that remained with him - and serves as a lesson for each of us.

Since he could not fit his entire body within the cramped space beneath the table, his hands were left sticking out. His mother did not notice his hands as she approached the table to begin her weekly ritual. She recited the brachah, blessing, and accompanying prayer. She then added her own Tefillah: Ribbono Shel Olam, Baleichten zolst du di oigen fun meina kinderlach in Dein heiliga Torah. "Please, Hashem, light up my children's eyes through the precious words of Your holy Torah. Please allow them to perceive the light of Your holy Torah."

These words were spoken over and over, as she wept with total devotion. Moshe was mesmerized by what he heard. His reverie broke as one of his mother's warm tears landed in the palm of his outstretched hand. He never forgot the feeling or the impact of that warm teardrop. The teardrop wove its way into his heart and mind, as that moment left an indelible impression on him for life.

The Kohen Gadol feels a kinship to all Jews. A parent certainly feels an unabiding love for their child. Perhaps, if we all would begin to pray for others, Hashem would listen to us when we pray for ourselves.

Va'ani Tefillah

She'asah li kol tzarki - Who has provided my every need.

This brachah was originally intended to be said as one puts on his shoes. It does, however, refer to all one's needs as we recognize the Provider of these necessities. What is the meaning of kol, every/all in regard to our needs? Horav Shmuel Hominer, zl, cites the Kli Yakar who delineates between Yaakov and Eisav and the reference they made to their possessions. Eisav said, Yyeish li rav, "I have much;" Yaakov said, Yeish li kol, "I have everything." What is the difference between the two statements? Even when Eisav has everything, he still claims that he only has much - but not all. He always wants more and more. In contrast, Yaakov appreciates everything that he possesses and considers it all that he needs. He is happy with the portion that Hashem has allotted to him. This is the meaning of the blessing, "Who has provided my every need." Every person, in accordance with what he has, reflects and offers his gratitude to Hashem for granting all that he has - and needs.

Alternatively, Horav Shlomo Wolbe, Shlita, explains kol as referring to all one needs to fulfill his G-d-given purpose in this world. He cites a famous incident with Horav Naftali Amsterdam, zl, who commented to his rebbe, the venerable founder of the Mussar movement, Horav Yisrael Salanter, zl, "Rebbe, if I would have the mind of the Shaagas Arye, the heart of the yesod v'shoresh hoAvodah, and the character traits of the "rebbe", I would then serve Hashem properly." Rav Yisrael replied, "Reb Naftali, your purpose in life is to serve Hashem with your mind, your heart and your character traits. Be yourself!"

We thank Hashem daily for giving us the ability to be ourselves.

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