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Peninim on the Torah

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Rabbi A. Leib Scheinbaum
Hebrew Academy of Cleveland


If a man takes a vow to Hashem… whatever comes from his mouth shall he do. (30:3)

The Talmud Kesubos 62b relates a fascinating story. The great Tanna Rabbi Akiva was a shepherd for Kalba Savua, one of the richest Jews at the time. Kalba Savua's daughter noted the modesty and refined character manifest by R' Akiva, who, at the time, was no more than an ignorant shepherd. She approached him, asking, "If I become betrothed to you, will you go to the yeshivah to study Torah?" He replied in the affirmative. He betrothed her in secret, and she sent him away to the yeshivah to study Torah. When her father heard what she had done, he cut her off financially. Suddenly, Kalba Savua's daughter was transformed from an enormously wealthy young lady to someone facing abject poverty.

Kalba Savua made a vow prohibiting his daughter from benefitting from his possessions. A vow of this kind is binding and can be annulled only by a sage or a panel of three competent laymen who form a bais din, court of law. Twelve years went by, and Rabbi Akiva returned as one of Klal Yisrael's preeminent teachers. Accompanied by twelve thousand students, he entered the city. As he approached his home, he overheard a certain old man asking Rabbi Akiva's wife, "How long will you wait for him? You are leading a life of living widowhood." Her response has become a classic, "If he would listen to me, he would sit in the yeshivah for another twelve years!" Upon hearing this, R' Akiva turned around and returned to the yeshiva for another twelve years.

Upon his second return, he was accompanied by twenty-four thousand students. His wife went out to greet him. When she reached him, she fell on her face and began to kiss his foot. When one of R' Akiva's attendants was about to push her away, the sage commented, "Leave her alone. The Torah that is mine and the Torah that is yours belong to her."

So ends the saga of the great Rabbi Akiva, relating how he became the great Torah leader. It was all because his future wife saw the enormous potential that was just begging to be released from within him. The story, however, continues. When Kalba Savua heard that a great sage was coming to town, he decided to meet with him, so that he might obtain an annulment of his vow. According to halachah, the sage or the bais din must find a pesach, an opening, a circumstance, which if it had been fully considered by the vower, would have prevented him from declaring the vow in the first place. It can then be annulled. Perhaps, R' Akiva could discover such a circumstance, because Kalba Savua was getting older and he no longer wanted to see his daughter languishing in poverty.

Kalba Savua approached R' Akiva, totally unaware that, in fact, he was his son-in-law, to ask him to annul his vow. R' Akiva asked, "Did you make the vow even if your son-in-law would eventually become a great Torah scholar?" He replied, "Rebbe, even if he were to become proficient in just one chapter of Mishnah, or even just one halachah, I would not have made the vow." R' Akiva looked at him and said, "Ani hu, I am he." Kalba Savua's reaction was one of intense joy, as he bequeathed half of his possessions to his son-in-law.

This ends our story and brings me to a comment made by Tosfos, which is the real purpose of my relating the story. There is a halachic principle that a sage may not annul a vow on the basis of a circumstance that was non-existent at the time of the vow. This is referred to as a pesach b'ta'us. If so, how could R' Akiva have annulled the vow based upon a circumstance that had as yet not materialized, since he was certainly not yet a sage when the vow had been made? If R' Akiva had been a scholar and Kalba Savua unaware of this circumstance, then there would have been grounds for declaring this vow null and void. R' Akiva, however, was not yet much of anything. He was a refined, humble man who exemplified incredible character, but he was not yet a scholar.

Tosfos comments: "Although he was not a sage when the vow was made, the fact that he had entered a yeshivah to study Torah and had begun to immerse himself in the Torah was sufficient that it could be expected that he would become a great sage." The potential was present, and the wellsprings of Torah were being tapped. What more did he require?

Tosfos is teaching us a powerful lesson, one that I feel every parent and certainly every teacher should review - constantly. Once one enters a yeshivah to study Torah - once one begins studying Torah, the potential within him is aroused and he becomes a potential sage. The rebbe that walks into his class to deliver a Torah lesson should view his students as potential gedolei hador, Torah leaders! He should teach with that attitude, because that is what they are. Once a Jewish child begins studying Torah, there is no limit, no boundary, to what he can achieve. If, however, the rebbe does not realize this and adjust his attitude to this fact, he may stunt the child's ability to achieve distinction and maximize his own potential.

I believe that this is what Tosfos is conveying to us. The potential is there. It is like a faucet waiting to be opened. His entrance into the yeshivah for the purpose of limud haTorah opens that faucet and stimulates the flow - one that continues to run throughout his life.

Whatever comes from his mouth shall he do. (30:3)

Much has been written concerning the effect of man's tongue. Hashem imbued us with the power of speech for a lofty purpose. While speech is the manner in which human beings communicate, we rarely take into consideration that we use the same medium through which we communicate with people, to communicate with Hashem. Yes, we talk to G-d with the same mouth that we talk to people. While everybody is aware of this, we rarely give it much thought. The following inspirational story should give us something to consider.

The kitchen workers in the Yeshivah of Ponevez, complained to the venerable Rosh Yeshivah, Horav Elazar M. Shach, zl, about a group of bachurim, students, who, after studying until the wee hours of the morning on Shabbos night, decided to "break into" the kitchen and help themselves to some of the cholent that had been prepared to be served Shabbos morning. Rav Shach was shocked to hear this, and immediately declared that those bachurim who had perpetrated the disgraceful act were disqualified from rendering testimony before a bais din, judicial court, on the grounds that they were thieves. Taking property from the yeshivah without permission is an act of theft. "If they are hungry," he said, "they can come to my house and I will give them food. They do not have to concern themselves with waking me. I am up at those hours!"

When the Rosh Yeshivah gave his weekly shmuess, ethical discourse, to the yeshivah, he devoted a portion of it to the cholent fiasco. He explained that when Bisyah, the daughter of Pharaoh, brought the infant Moshe to the palace, she attempted to have him nursed by one of the maidservants, to no avail. Moshe refused to nurse, until a Hebrew nursemaid, who was actually his mother, Yocheved, was summoned. Why did Moshe reject the other nursemaids? Chazal explain that he thought, "Shall the mouth that is destined to speak with the Shechinah drink milk from women who themselves eat unkosher food?" Based upon the Talmud's statement, the Rashba issues a halachic ruling, which is adopted by the Rema in Shulchan Aruch Yoreh Deah 81:7, "A Jewish child should not be given to a non-Jewish nursemaid."

Rav Shach wondered how the Rashba could draw a general conclusion applicable to all Jews from the specific case of Moshe. The Talmud is clear in its reasoning: Moshe Rabbeinu's mouth had to remain pure because it was destined to speak with the Shechinah. Clearly, this reasoning does not apply to the average Jewish child! The Rosh Yeshivah declared that, indeed, it does apply to each and every Jewish child, because every child recites brachos daily. When we say, Baruch atah Hashem, "Blessed are You, Hashem," we are addressing G-d directly, in second person! "So," concluded Rav Shach, with a rhetorical question, "a mouth that has taken into itself stolen food - how can it dare speak to the Shechinah in prayer and in the recitation of blessings?"

Perhaps this story might serve as "food" for thought. Certainly, it should give us something to "talk" about.

Moshe sent them - a thousand from each tribe for the legion - them and Pinchas ben Elazar the Kohen. (31:6)

Actually, it was Moshe Rabbeinu whom Hashem had instructed to lead the legion that would take revenge against the Midyanim. Why did he send Pinchas? Chazal explain that while Moshe had no problem leading the assault against Midyan, he felt that it was not right for him to go, since Midyan was the country in which he was protected from Pharaoh. How could he lead the army against his benefactors? The Talmud concludes with an analogy: "The well from which you drink water, do not throw stones into it."

We find a similar reaction when Moshe was instructed to raise up his staff and strike the Nile River, which would turn to blood. He felt that since the water protected him as a newborn, it would be an act of ingratitude to strike it.

Concerning the next two plagues, frogs and lice, Hashem commanded Aharon HaKoen to strike the ground. After all, the ground hid the Egyptian that Moshe had killed. He should not be the one to strike it. It was not as if the water or the earth would arise and "complain": "How could you, Moshe, after all we did for you." Nonetheless, it would have an effect on Moshe's subconscious. He was ungrateful.

Hakoras hatov, recognizing the source of one's benefit, and showing appreciation to one's benefactor, regardless if it is a human or an inanimate object, and certainly to Hashem, the Source of all good, is more than an obligation. It defines one's humanness. One who is not makir tov is simply not a mentch. He is not a refined member of the specie of creation referred to as a human. His actions bespeak the antithesis of how a human being should act.

Yosef HaTzaddik was thrust into a dungeon because of false allegations which Potifar's wife made against him. She substantiated her spurious claim by presenting his garment, which he left in her possession when she made advances towards him. Why did he simply not overpower her? Certainly, he had the ability to do so. It was because of this that he was sent to the dungeon, only to be released some time later as a result of the dreams of the chamberlain and baker. Otherwise, he might have languished in prison indefinitely, all because he refused to respond aggressively to Potifar's wife. Why was he so non-combative?

The Ramban explains that when Yosef was sold to the Egyptians, he was raised in Potifar's home. It was Potifar's wife who instructed him in the management of the house. Indeed, she played a critical role in his guidance - even if it might have been for personal gratification. Thus, Yosef was not prepared to fight with the woman who had helped him in his new home.

Horav Yisrael Abuchatzera, zl, the "Baba Sali," was a holy and pure, saintly individual who left an indelible mark on thousands of followers. When he emigrated to Eretz Yisrael in 1951, he settled in the small Negev town of Netivot. There he became a beacon of light and inspiration to thousands of people from all segments of the Jewish spectrum. When the Baba Sali came to Eretz Yisrael he was hosted by Reb Chazan Dehahn, a pious activist who had arrived two years earlier. The Baba Sali spent several weeks in the Dehahn home before relocating to his first home in Yerushalayim.

The Dehahns were not the only people who had vied for the sage's presence in their home. In fact, countless adherents competed for this singular honor. Nonetheless, the sense of appreciation manifested by the Baba Sali towards Reb Chazan Dehahn was incredible. Indeed, it showed that to him hakoras hatov was an obsession. After all, how can one forget the kindness shown to him by another fellow?

The Baba Sali's custom was to serve elaborate meals to those who came to him for advice or blessing. This custom was sharply curtailed during the Three Weeks from Tammuz 17 through Tisha B'Av, because of the spirit of mourning that prevailed in the home. He would receive visitors on a limited basis, but would not serve them a meal. With the commencement of the Nine Days, an atmosphere of sorrow seemed to engulf the household, since now they were sharing in the exile of the Shechinah.

Once, during the Nine Days, a visitor who was distantly related to the Abuchatzera family arrived at the Dehahn home with a request to see the Baba Sali, who at the time was living in Yavneh. He was dissuaded, because the sage's practice was not to greet visitors during this period. Nonetheless, the individual insisted on going, explaining that he was on a tight schedule and had to return immediately after Tisha B'Av.

The man would not accept no for an answer. He had to see the Baba Sali. Reb Chazan relented and they went to the home of the sage, where they were warmly greeted by the Rebbetzin. The sage was not happy about their arrival, because of his inability to serve an elaborate meal to such distinguished guests. It simply did not coincide with the atmosphere of mourning. It was the Rebbetzin who solved the quandary. Reminding her husband that it was the yahrtzeit-- annual anniversary-- of the passing of the Ari HaKadosh, he could commemorate the auspicious day with a seudah, meal, in honor of the yahrtzeit and invite his distinguished guests to join him.

While the Baba Sali was basically pleased with the suggestion, he still felt that a quickly-prepared dairy meal was an unsatisfactory substitute for the type of meat dinner he would normally have served these guests. He felt that he was indebted to Reb Chazan. Thus, following the meal, he asked his guests to return for the Shabbos meal and also for the meal following the fast of Tisha B'Av. The guest, citing his tight schedule, demurred, but Reb Chazan agreed to attend. During the meal, Reb Chazan noted that the sage was unusually sad. He conjectured that this was due to the fact that Shabbos was actually Tisha B'Av and, thus, the sage was beside himself in sorrow. After a brief inquiry, he discovered that even when Tisha B'Av coincided with Shabbos, the Baba Sali would never alter his joyful demeanor. Shabbos was Shabbos! Not to allow an opportunity to learn something important to be wasted, Reb Chazan asked the sage why he was so perturbed. The Baba Sali replied that he had a dream that night that was a portent of tragedy, which he refused to divulge, because he did not want to disturb the joy of Shabbos.

That night, following Kinos, the Baba Sali and his entire family gathered in his private study and listened to the sage relate the sorrowful events of his dream. He revealed that he had seen a fire burning, and that this fire represented the passing of his daughter-in-law in France. Several hours later, the tragedy was confirmed by normal channels of communication.

Following the fast on Sunday evening, crowds of sympathizers lined up to offer their condolences to the grief-stricken family. Each of these individuals received the Baba Sali's personal attention and appreciative response. As soon as Reb Chazan entered the room, the Baba Sali arose quickly and asked him to join him in the kitchen.

"You are surely hungry and thirsty following such a long fast. The family members are presently engaged in their bereavement. May I have the privilege of serving you?" asked the Baba Sali.

"Chas v'shalom, Heaven forbid," was Reb Chazan's immediate reply. "The Rav should be my waiter? Baruch Hashem, I can take care of myself. I will see to some. Let the Rav go back into the room with the other mourners."

"It is nothing to talk about," said the Baba Sali. "I will not allow the mitzvah of hachnosas orchim, welcoming visitors, to slip by, especially to the man who welcomed me so graciously when I first came to Eretz Yisrael. I will never forget your kindness and warmth when I had nothing - no resources, no home."

What a powerful lesson in hakoras hatov. Perhaps we should all ask ourselves how many people who were involved, in one way or another, in our personal development have we forgotten or ignored, some on purpose, others simply through thoughtlessness? The Baba Sali did not forget - even at a time when it would have been certainly understood that his mind was on his personal loss. No. That is not hakoras hatov. How far are we from such a level of spiritual integrity?

Behold! They (the Midyanite women) caused Bnei Yisrael, by the word of Bilaam, to commit a betrayal against Hashem regarding the matter of Peor. (31:16)

It is regrettable that there are still apologetic Jews who feel that they have to find some way to qualify the fact that we are the am ha'nivchar, chosen people. This is after we have endured centuries of persecution, pain and misery. Even after the Holocaust, there are still those who lack the moral character to hold up their heads with pride and declare; "Yes, I am a Jew, and I am proud of it!"

If we peruse the parsha, we note the incredible divide that exists between Klal Yisrael and the gentile nations. Chazal teach us that after the Flood, the nations of the world decided to restrict themselves in the area of arayos, immorality and forbidden relationships. They understood that in order for members of society to exist as human beings, they must act as humans - not as animals. The perverse lifestyle, the accepted decadence that had prevailed prior to the Flood, was no longer acceptable. Tznius, moral purity, and chastity were to be the only ways in which the new world could continue to exist.

This was supposed to be the new standard of living. Hashem provided the gentile nations with "spiritual" leadership. After all, they would need guidance. Bilaam was gifted, talented and supposedly very spiritual. He was a prophet who had achieved an extremely high level of prophecy. He would mentor the nations and guide them on the proper path. Is it then not shocking that this paragon of "spirituality" advised his people to engage in moral filth, to break down the boundaries of morality, to destroy the accepted laws of chastity, so that by prostituting themselves they would be able to cause the Jews to sin? This is the navi umos ha'olam, prophet of the gentile nations, who was there to ensure their spiritual ascendency.

In contrast, our leadership exemplified tznius at its zenith. Shaul Hamelech was known for his modesty. His daughter, Michal, who became David Hamelech's wife, personified what she had observed at home. Yes, there is a stark contrast between them and us, yet we still have those among us who find it difficult to accept that we are a "kingdom of Priests and a holy nation."

When the sons of Yaakov Avinu heard of their sister Dinah's violation by Shechem, the Torah writes: "They were extremely angry because he had committed a disgraceful act against Yisrael" (Bereishis 34:7). Horav Eliyahu Munk, zl, notes that this is the first place in the Torah that the descendants of Avraham, Yitzchak and Yaakov are referred to by the name Yisrael. This is a name that signifies our mission in this world, "to struggle for G-d." The name Yisrael is first used in the defense of moral purity. This is our sacred ideal. It is one we must safeguard and hold sacrosanct. Indeed, it defines our very Jewishness and bespeaks our uniqueness in the world. Without it - we are like everybody else.

B'chol yom avorchecha va'hallelah Shimcha l'olam va'ed. Every day I will bless You, and I will praise Your Name forever and ever.

David Hamelech emphasizes the significance of blessing Hashem every day, regardless of what challenges that day may bring. We all know that there are good days and seemingly "bad" days. We are not to respond positively to Hashem only on those days which we feel are "good"… We bless Hashem kol yom, every day.

The Psalmist uses two words avorechecha, I will bless You; and ahallelah Shimcha, I will Praise Your Name. Is there a difference between blessing and praise? Furthermore, why is blessing equated with "every day," while praise is something that goes on forever and ever? Horav Chaim Kanievsky, Shlita, explains that we are not permitted to add any blessings of our own to the ones that Chazal have composed. Therefore, when one is about to "bless" Hashem using the blessings formulated by Chazal, he is limited to those blessings that are designated for specific days and periods. In contrast, when one "praises" Hashem, there are no time or quantity limitations. Praise is always forever and ever.

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

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