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Peninim on the Torah

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Rabbi A. Leib Scheinbaum
Hebrew Academy of Cleveland


He shall not desecrate his word. (30:3)

A Jew's word is sacred, so that to renege his word is to violate it. Chazal assert that while a Jew may not break his own word, a Torah scholar or a bais din of three competent Jews may permit him to "take back" his word. This teaches us the awesome power of talmidei chachamim, Torah scholars. While we are well aware that bais din has the power of hefker bais din hefker, being able to nullify and renounce ownership of a person's property, it would seem that this is applicable only concerning monetary possessions, while Biblical prohibitions, such as those created through a Jew's sacred word, are different. These prohibitions apparently remain beyond the scope of the Torah scholar. We see from this pasuk that this is not the case. Everything within Jewish life falls under the domain of the talmid chacham.

The Kli Yakar explains why a talmid chacham or a bais din of three common Jews have the power to nullify a vow, just as a husband may annul his wife's vow and a father may nullify his daughter's vow. He says that prior to marriage, a young woman is under the r'shus, authority, of her father. Once she marries, she is in the r'shus of her husband. She may not do anything without her father's or husband's permission. Thus, when she makes a vow, it is as if she were saying, "I am making this vow providing that my father or my husband agree with its ramifications. If they do not grant permission for this vow, I take it back." Likewise, every Jew places his trust in the chachamim of each generation. He is under their authority and guidance. What they declare is accepted. Therefore, when a Jew makes a vow, he is basically saying, "I will or will not do this based upon the approval of the chachamim." They have the right to nullify the vow, because its sacredness is dependent upon them.

Horav Yaakov Neiman, zl, derives from here that the Torah wants the Jew to remain attached to chachamim throughout his life. This is the meaning of emunas chachamim, trust and faith in the Torah scholar, so that if they do not agree with what he has in mind to do, he will not do it. One should not do anything without their approval.

Indeed, emunas chachamim is one of the forty-eight ways to acquire Torah. We believe that a Jew should not rely on his own subjective decision. The Torah decides if, when and how one should take action. The Torah input is rendered by the Torah scholar who interprets the law and determines how to integrate its word in every given situation.

In Pirkei Avos, our Chazal have taught us that we acquire Torah through forty-eight qualifications. Among them is emunas chachamim. As Hashem's representatives, the trust we place in our sages reflects the trust we place in Hashem. It goes without saying that the Torah scholar's behavior must be worthy of reverence. Indeed, the trust we place in our Torah leadership consists of two aspects: trust in his personal character; and trust in his wisdom. How does this trust work?

The very first teacher of Klal Yisrael was Moshe Rabbeinu. When the time came to share his Torah with the seventy elders Hashem said, "Gather for me seventy men of the elders of Yisrael…and I will draw from the spirit which is upon you, and I will put it upon them." (Bamidbar 11:16) The Midrash adds, "To what was Moshe then compared? To a burning candle set in a menorah from which many lights are kindled, yet its own light is not diminished. In this same manner, the wisdom of Moshe does not diminish."

This is the way in which Torah is transmitted from rebbe to talmid, teacher to student. It is not the transmission of cold, scientific knowledge. It is the lighting of one candle from another, until the new candle can shed a ray of Divine light into the darkness of human existence. A flame is not shared because the light is often not bright enough or strong enough to spread around. When each light connects with another wick, however, and serves as its power source for creating its own light, the entire room is illuminated.

In order to achieve this phenomenon, to study with a rebbe who has grown wise in Torah and to have his knowledge begin to glow within you, one must have faith in him--in his wisdom and in his sincerity and integrity-- and believe in what he represents. One must believe that he carries the flame of Torah that has been passed through the generations from Moshe, the quintessential teacher of our People. Without this implicit faith and trust, one closes the door on the channels of meaningful learning. He closes the door on Har Sinai!

The principle of emunas chachamim is one that is a requisite in understanding, appreciating, accepting and transmitting Torah. It is a principle that has eluded all those who have eschewed Torah study and mitzvah observance. When we study from our rebbeim, we absorb more than mere facts, laws, interpretations and elucidations. We delve into the depths of the Torah to perceive its profundities, to understand its message and the mission it wants us to accomplish. How do we achieve this? When we learn, we connect with the rebbe, who has connected with his rebbe, to the point that we link our spirit with that of Chazal and beyond, back to Moshe Rabbeinu. We become part of them as if we ourselves are hearing the words expressed at Har Sinai. This is the meaning of Chazal in the Talmud Yevamos 97a, "Wherever an oral teaching is quoted in the name of the sage (who established it), his lips move in the grave." In the union of spirit and spirit, the student with the rebbe, the thoughts of the departed sage link and live, continuing to speak through the student.

Emunas Chachamim is "money in the bank," or, at least, that is the level of security one should feel when trusting our rebbeim. Horav Sholom Schwadron, zl, cited by Rabbi Paysach Krohn in "The Maggid Speaks," would often relate the following incident to emphasize the essence of emunas chachamim. A prominent, philanthropic woman named Chavala would make the effort to bring challos to the Shaagas Arye every Erev Shabbos. As a result, he blessed her that one day she would attain great wealth and have the privilege of building two synagogues: one in Minsk, her place of residence; and one in Eretz Yisrael.

With time, the first blessing was realized, as she amassed great wealth and built what became known as Chavale's Shul in Minsk. She aged and decided that she had better immigrate to Eretz Yisrael, so that she could observe the second part of her blessing fulfilled. Prior to leaving Europe, she decided to bid goodbye to all of those rabbis with whom she had become acquainted throughout the years. When she came to say goodbye to Horav Chaim, zl, m'Volozhin, he asked why she was leaving. She explained that she was going to Eretz Yisrael to build a shul as part of a blessing from the Shaagas Arye. Rav Chaim heard this and asked incredulously, "If you have the assurance of the Shaagas Arye, a tzadik of great renown, what is your rush?" He manifested true belief.

Bnei Reuven and Bnei Gad had abundant livestock… Bnei Gad and Bnei Reuven came and said…"If we have found favor in your eyes, let this land be given to your servants." (32:1,2,5)

The commentators are vexed by a number of ambiguities in the request presented by Bnei Gad and Bnei Reuven. What prompted them to forego their portion in Eretz Yisrael and trade it for a place in Ever HaYarden? Did they not see what had occurred concerning the meraglim, spies? If they had been in doubt about taking a position vis-?-vis not going to Eretz Yisrael, that debacle should have changed their mind. The Sefas Emes cites his grandfather, the Chidushei HaRim, zl, who heard a profound interpretation of this incident from Horav Simcha Bunim, zl, m'Peshischa. "U'mikneh rav," which is translated as abundant livestock, may be interpreted as a great kinyan, acquisition, referring to the relationship they had with their rav, Moshe Rabbeinu. In other words, due to the unique relationship Bnei Gad and Bnei Reuven had with their rebbe, Moshe, they refused to leave the land in which their rebbe would be buried. They were willing to forego their portion in Eretz Yisrael. It was not their lack of reverence for the Holy Land that catalyzed their request. Rather, their reverence and love for their quintessential rebbe motivated them to remain in Trans Jordan.

Horav P. Friedman, Shlita, questions why Moshe was buried in Bnei Gad's portion of the land. After all, the request to remain on the other side of the Jordan was made by both tribes - equally. Should they not have both "shared" in this distinction? He cites the Talmud Sotah 13b where it is stated that Moshe actually died in Reuven's portion and was "carried" four mil into Gad's portion to be buried there. This is indicated by the pesukim in the Torah which place Moshe's death on Har Nevo, which was in Reuven's portion and his burial in Gad's portion. How did he get there? Hashem took him. We wonder why He did it this way. The burial could have been facilitated in such a manner that Moshe would have died and been buried in the same place.

Rav Friedman explains that specifically because both tribes had a "mikneh" rav, acquisition in the rav, it was only right that both should possess an equal share in his passing from this world.

With this in mind, we wonder why Moshe took these two tribes to task. Their reason for remaining was praiseworthy. Indeed, they should have been commended for their reluctance to leave their rebbe. Horav Elyah Schlessinger, Shlita, cites the Midrash which criticizes these two tribes for making what should have been the ikar, primary, into the tafeil, subordinate, focus. They seemed to have prioritized their material possessions over their children, which is clearly a case of misplaced priorities. There is, however, more to it. Horav Shmuel Rozovsky, zl, derives an important lesson from Chazal's vernacular. Chazal state, "They made their ikar into tafeil, and their tafeil into ikar." This would imply that they did two things wrong. The criticism was that: they made their principle into something secondary; and they converted their subordinate into their primary. We are taught here that just as it is wrong not to give precedence to the primary, it is equally wrong to prioritize the secondary. When we grant significance to something that should have secondary status, we ultimately denigrate that which should have primary significance.

Moshe was afraid that they were making living in Ever haYarden--near his gravesite-- into an ikar, thereby elevating this experience to mitzvah status. Yes, they would give greater credence to Moshe's grave than to Moshe's Torah. When one elevates that which should remain subordinate, he will eventually devalue and replace that which is, and should continue to be, his prime focus in life. How often do we see tzedakah, charity, taking the place of Torah study? This applies to a host of other wonderful deeds where we displace mitzvah enhancements for the actual mitzvah. Moshe understood their error and its ramifications for the future.

Parashas Masei

For he must dwell in his city of refuge until the death of the Kohen Gadol. (35:28)

One who had inadvertently killed a fellow Jew was required to flee to one of the Arei Miklat, Cities of Refuge, to seek protection from the anger and vengeance of the go'el ha'dam, avenger of the blood, a relative who had the right to kill the murderer to avenge the blood of a loved one. While it served as a refuge for the murderer, the exile was also a punishment which mandated him to remain in the city of refuge until the death of the Kohen Gadol. In explaining this halachah, Rashi quotes the Talmud Makkos 11a, which teaches us that it was the Kohen Gadol's responsibility to pray for Klal Yisrael, so that such tragedies will not occur. Since this murder did take place, albeit unpremeditated, the Kohen Gadol is held responsible to a certan extent.

Because Hashem determines the lifespan of the Kohen Gadol, there were significant variations in the length of the sentence. One person might have been released after a short stay, while another may have had a lengthy residence in the city of refuge. In noting the disparity among sentences, the Sforno explains that many different factors play a role in an unintentional killing. Bais Din is not privy to these factors and were, thus, at a loss to determine the correct and exact punishment that should be given to the defendant. Clearly, some unintentional circumstances border on the accidental, while others are almost certainly negligence. Therefore, the length of exile of each killer is left to an act of G-d, the death of the Kohen Gadol, which is Hashem's way of indicating the veracity of the defendant's lack of premeditation.

We can imagine that the killers who resided in the Arei Miklat understood that their freedom was contingent upon the Kohen Gadol's lifespan. This might lead them to hope and even pray that he pass on to his eternal rest at the soonest possible time. Chazal teach us that to circumvent this problem, the mothers of the Kohanim Gedolim would supply food and drink in abundance, so that the killer would be content in his new home and not pray for the Kohen Gadol's premature demise.

This observation regarding the maintenance of the needs of the murderers provides us with a powerful lesson concerning the power and efficacy of prayer. Horav Avraham Pam, zl, in his anthology of Torah thoughts authored by Rabbi Sholom Smith, cites the Alter,zl, m'Kelm, who notes the distinction between the one who is praying and the one about whom he is praying. The Kohen Gadol was usually the individual who had achieved an elevated, if not the most exalted, spiritual plateau in Klal Yisrael. He carried the problems and needs of the entire nation on his shoulders and in his heart. He would enter the Kodoshei Hakodoshim, Holy of Holies, on Yom Kippur in order to entreat Hashem on behalf of the Jewish People. As the individual empowered to ask for their forgiveness, he was certainly a special and holy individual. Let us turn to look at the other end of the spectrum: the unintentional murderer. He could have been a fine, upstanding member of the community, but let's face it: What kind of person would pray for the premature death of the Kohen Gadol? Is that not selfishness at its nadir? Why pray for a tzaddik, righteous person, to die just so that one can leave the Arei Miklat early? Indeed, why would Hashem listen and respond to such a person's selfish prayer?

The Alter explains that the exiles were in a unique position for understanding that their release was dependent upon one - and only one- source: Hashem. While we all know this, the exiles felt it! Therefore, their prayers emanated from the deepest recesses of their hearts, with a sincerity, integrity and resolute conviction that only Hashem could help them. Such prayers have a power unlike any other. They can pierce the Heavens and achieve unusual and unprecedented efficacy. Yes, the mothers of the Kohanim Gedolim had much to fear from the exiles' prayers. They prayed like there was no other recourse. Such a prayer is not contingent upon the individual who is praying or for what he is praying for. It is the prayer itself that counts.

Selfish tefillos, prayers, may not be the most appropriate way to communicate with Hashem, but their effectiveness is not to be ignored. The essence is sincerity in prayer and belief in what one is doing. All too often, we also pray to Hashem. This means that we resort to all means of hishtadlus, endeavoring, and "just in case" our hishtadlus does not work, we pray to Hashem. Regrettably, this indicates exactly where on the "totem pole" we place prayer. The exile knows that there is no other recourse but Hashem. This is why his prayer is so powerful. It is sincere.

Does one have to be a righteous and pious person to pray effectively? No. Certainly, the "members" of the city of refuge community were not. They were there because it was their escape. Rav Pam cites the Talmud in Shabbos 67a, which offers the following insight. If a person has a tree that sheds its fruit prematurely before they ripen, he will sustain a major financial loss. What should he do to prevent this loss? Chazal suggest that he dye the tree with red paint to call attention to it. This way, when passersby see the tree, they will recognize the owner's plight and pray that Hashem have mercy on him and that his tree will retain its fruit a bit longer.

This was a normal occurrence that was expected of ordinary people. They were to feel the pain of the owner, who was probably a total stranger to them, and pray for him. We are not talking about a tzaddik. We are not talking about a child that is chas v'shalom ill. We are talking about a tree! Yet, Jews have sensitive feelings within their psyche, such that when they see a red-dyed tree, they will pray for its owner - even if they have no clue who he is! Moreover, such behavior was expected of the average Jew! It was not the exclusive domain of the righteous. It was an "everyone" thing!

In his inimitable manner, Rav Pam addresses the present and the way people act in regard to the needs of others. We walk by a bulletin board in shul, and we see the name of a person for whom we should recite Tehillim. We see an ad in the paper to say Tehillim. We hear of a Jew who is ill and in need of Heavenly intervention. These are all common everyday scenarios. How do we respond to these circumstances? If it is someone we know personally or with whose relatives we are acquainted, we will daven, pray, for them. If the name means absolutely nothing to us, however, chances are that we will ignore the request for prayers. Why? Where is our sensitivity? Where is our empathy? Where is our caring?

Likewise, when one sees the flashing lights or hears the siren of a hatzolah vehicle racing to an emergency, does it immediately evoke within us a sense of achrayus, responsibility, to pray? These devoted volunteers take off time and energy to help other Jews. Are we at least prepared to pray for the individual in need, or is that beyond our scope of responsibility? After all, we do not really know the person. As we learned from the Talmud, praying for the person is not considered an extraordinary act. It is the appropriate response!

Horav Yitzchak Izik Sher, zl, was visiting America, and he was asked to deliver one of his famous shmuessen, ethical discourses, to a group of elderly rabbis. Shortly before Rosh Hashanah, Rav Aizik rose to the lectern, posing the following question to them: "My friends, the Yom haDin, Day of Judgement, is quickly approaching. Do you have reason to be concerned? After all, you are all deeply observant. You observe Shabbos, kashrus, you are honest, you do not speak lashon hora, slanderous speech. You give tzedakah. What are you worried about? You lead lives of virtue."

After a lengthy discourse, Rav Aizik came to his point: "Gentlemen, you are all fine Jews, and you do not sin. Yet, you are able to pick up the New York Times in the morning and read that a man was killed, yet you continue to drink your coffee. How can you drink your coffee when you have read that a woman has become a widow and that children have lost their father? You should faint in anguish, but you do not. Why? Because you do not care how that death affects other people. Therefore, fear the Yom haDin, because the Ribbono Shel Olam is more stringent with tzaddikim, the righteous, than He is with common people. On Yom HaDin, you must all be careful, because this grievance applies to everyone!" Powerful words. What should we say?

The Rosh Yeshivah notes that we always read Parashas Masei on the Shabbos before Rosh Chodesh. Rosh Chodesh Av marks the beginning of the tragic nine days which conclude with Tisha B'Av. It is a time when all Jews should be especially sensitive to the needs of all of their brothers and sisters, to pray for them that Hashem alleviate their pain and troubles. With this merit of brotherly sensitivity, Hashem will finally transform Tisha B'Av, with the advent of Moshiach Tzidkeinu, into a festival of joy.

Va'ani Tefillah

Keil nekamos Hashem. O G-d of vengeance, Hashem.

The Chida cites the Arizal, who says that when one recites the words Keil Nekamos Hashem, intimating that Hashem is a G-d of vengeance, he should have in mind that the Almighty should avenge the merciless slaughter of the Asarah Harugei Malchus, Ten Martyrs, the great Tannaic illuminaries who were killed in a most heinous and brutal manner.

The Taz notes that Keil is the Name of G-d which denotes chesed, Hashem's attribute of kindness, while Hashem is the middah, attribute, of rachamim, compassion. The pasuk implies that Hashem has compassion prior to carrying out His vengeance and also afterwards, since it says Keil before nakamos and Hashem afterwards. Why is this? It is after the vengeance is completed that compassion is necessary. Why is it appropriate prior to the vengeance? He explains that this is why it is repeated: Keil nekamos hofia. "O G-d of vengeance, appear!" The word, hofia, appear, is a lashon gilui, which denotes revealing. First Hashem reveals that He will take vengeance; then, if the person has not listened and repented, He will execute the vengeance. Warning someone of an impending punishment is a great act of mercy. He might take heed and, therefore, circumvent the punishment.

The Baal Shem Tov explains that kindness and compassion are important aspects of the vengeance process, because when the wicked observe how kind and compassionate Hashem is, they will be filled with shame, and it will catalyze their repentance. Indeed, the greatest nekamah, vengeance, occurs when the rasha, wicked person, sees how wrong he was, when he experiences the true benevolence of Hashem.

l'zechar nishmas
R' Yissachar Dov ben HaRav Yisroel a"h
niftar 7 Av 5745

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