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Peninim on the Torah

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Rabbi A. Leib Scheinbaum
Hebrew Academy of Cleveland


Her husband had nullified them and Hashem will forgive her. (30:13)

The husband has the power to nullify his wife's vows. So why does Hashem have to "forgive" her? She did no wrong. The Talmud Nazir 23a asks this question and explains that the woman was unaware that her husband had nullified her vow. Therefore, she needs atonement. She thought she was transgressing, when, in fact, she was not. Chazal note that when Rabbi Akiva would reach this pasuk he would begin to weep: "If someone who intended to eat pork and instead lamb's meat came into his hand - he needs atonement and forgiveness. Then someone who intended that pork come into his hand and pork did, in fact, come into his hand, how much more so is he in need of atonement and forgiveness." In short, Rabbi Akiva compares the woman who attempted to violate her vow, not realizing that it had been revoked, to someone who thought he was eating pork and discovered that it was lamb. Both intended to commit a transgression - but they did not. Nevertheless, they require atonement. Certainly, the individual who attempts to sin and is successful in carrying out his malevolent intention requires Divine forgiveness!

Horav Yerachmiel Krohm, Shlita, relates that the Chafetz Chaim, zl, was once subpoenaed to testify in civil court as a character witness for one of his students. This occurred during World War I, and the student was suspected of spying for the German government. The charges were trumped up, but that was the way of life in Eastern Europe one century ago. The sage prayed fervently that his student be spared. The entire yeshivah body fasted and prayed on the designated day of the court case. The Chafetz Chaim was called before the magistrate and asked to offer testimony concerning the character of the suspected spy.

The Chafetz Chaim spoke the truth. This was a young man who spent his entire day engrossed in Torah study. Nothing else mattered - certainly spying for the enemy! Then came the prosecution who contended that they had no proof concerning the veracity of the Chafetz Chaim's testimony. How was the court to ascertain that what the Chafetz Chaim had related was, in fact, true?

One of the student's defense lawyers asked to be heard. "I would like to relate an incident to the magistrate that occurred concerning the Chafetz Chaim, and then I will allow his honor to be the judge of this sage's rectitude. One day, the Rav was in the railroad station in Warsaw, when a thief came over and stole his briefcase. Do you know how the Chafetz Chaim reacted? He declared loudly, 'I forgive you for what you did. You may have the briefcase as a gift!'"

When the magistrate heard this, he looked the defense attorney in the eye and asked, "Do you believe that story?"

The attorney looked right back at the magistrate and retorted, "Judge, what difference does it make whether I believe it or not. Let us see if they say such stories about his honor!"

A powerful response - and quite true. Where there is the proverbial smoke, there is fire. Such stories are said only about the few and the great, in whose class the Chafetz Chaim was the superstar. As an addendum to the incident, Rav Krohm relates that the Chafetz Chaim was queried about why he had raised his voice in his declaration of forgiveness. He could have done the same thing quietly. The sage replied, "My intention was to spare him not only from the sin of gezeilah, theft, but also of 'intending to eat pork and eating lamb'. This way, his intention was not to steal at all."

How often do we allow ourselves to be entrapped in possibly doing something inappropriate, which fortunately turns out to be in our favor? Do we ever think about the atonement we require?

Calculate the total of the captured spoils… Divide the spoils in half… You shall raise up a tribute to Hashem from the men of the war. (31:26,27,28)

Once the nation triumphed in their battle of vengeance against Midyan, they were enjoined with an added mitzvah: the division of the spoils. The greatest share went to the soldiers who actually risked their lives in battle, with the remainder going to the nation, the Mishkan treasury and the Leviim. Half of the spoils went to the warriors, with the other half going to the nation. Both the warriors and the nation were taxed by the treasury with a percentage of the warriors' booty given to Elazar the Kohen and a percentage of the nation's portion given to the Leviim. This was known as mechess, tax, on the spoils. Bahag considers the separation of mechess one of the 613 mitzvos of the Torah, while the Rambam opines that it only applied to that time. According to Ramban, the Bahag's application of this mitzvah remains in force throughout time: Whenever the Jewish nation wages war, a portion of the spoils must be given to the sanctuary.

Horav Avigdor HaLevi Nebentzhal, Shlita, discusses the practical application of this mitzvah in contemporary times. First, does the concept of war apply today? Second, we no longer have within our midst the Bais Hamikdash with its accompanying Kohanim and Leviim who would receive the mechess. What does mechess mean today, and does it apply? Rav Nebentzhal concludes that while the actual mitzvah may not have practical application as a result of the above factors, its "spirit," the underlying lessons that may be derived from it, are instruction whose relevance is certainly germane in today's Torah-oriented society.

The Torah goes to great length to emphasize the mechess in order to teach us a number of lessons. In Meseches Derech Eretz Zuta 4, Chazal teach that if one came into money without exerting any toil, the way to ensure its remaining in his possession is to include Hashem as his "partner" in the venture. Hashem will make sure that the money will grow and multiply. The reasons for this are simple: One who performs a mitzvah with his money demonstrates that he is an astute investor and should be granted more opportunities for "investment." Furthermore, when one begins with a mitzvah, it has an effect on his other possessions. This is an individual to whom money is considered a gift from G-d, so it should be acknowledged and appropriated for mitzvos.

A second reason that one should apportion part of the spoils for the Sanctuary may be derived from Yaakov Avinu's statement to Hashem, Katonti mikol ha'chasadim, "I was diminished by all of the kindnesses" (Bereishis 32:11). Chazal interpret Yaakov's statement as a concession that, as beneficiary of Hashem's kindness to him, his reservoir of merits had become depleted. The Patriarch recognized that when one overcomes a serious challenge, triumphs over a powerful adversary, he is calling upon "weaponry" that is "warehoused" in his behalf. We think that these merits are not used. They are. Each time Hashem spares us from challenge, He calls up more of our stored zechusim, merits. We cannot expect to withdraw from the bank constantly without making a deposit. If we do not put in, we will soon have nothing to withdraw.

Rav Nebentzhal offers a third reason for distributing part of the spoils to the Sanctuary. War demands that one elevates himself spiritually. War has a definitive effect on a person's psyche. For some, this effect is of a positive nature, engendering a leap of faith and strengthening his ties with the Almighty. For others, regrettably, war can have a negative, almost numbing, effect. This occurs due to a number of reasons. First, an individual who, at best, is a weak person will find himself tremendously challenged on the battlefield. Such a person functions optimally when he has the support of a community, order in his life, no temptations, no challenges. The battlefield weakens his defenses. He finds it difficult to deal with the pressures. Second, when one emerges triumphant from battle he always has the fear that the success will go to his head. It was his power, his strength, his strategy - all "his," allowing no room for the true Source of success: Hashem.

One who returns from a challenging situation, succeeding at a time when others have failed, knowing full-well that his success is from Hashem, must make an offering from the spoils. The gift has a twofold purpose: gratitude and atonement. He must be grateful for his survival and successful return. He must realize that he has paid a price for his return. The merits which had accrued in his Heavenly account were used, and his account is now diminished. An atonement is necessary as recognition of this reality. One acknowledges that it was Hashem Who saved him, and that his survival came with a price. Nothing should remain unacknowledged.

They approached him and said, "Pens for the flock we shall build here for our livestock and cities for our small children… Build for yourselves cities for your small children and pens for your flock. (32:16,24)

We find a strong difference of opinion regarding the choice of priorities as manifest by Bnei Gad u'Bnei Reuven and Moshe Rabbeinu's response to them. They asked for pens for their sheep and cities for their children. Moshe replied by underscoring the requirement to fulfill one's obligation to his children first and only then address the needs of the animals. Clearly anyone with a modicum of intelligence understands the importance of applying oneself to his own priorities. The problem is that not all of us are capable of sifting through the "various" priorities which present themselves. Let us focus on determining the priorities which some of us face.

Reb Zalman was a very observant Jew, quite wealthy, who gave charity with ease, helping many Jews in need. In order to provide a proper Torah education for his young children, he hired Reb Shlomo, a Lubavitcher chasid, who believed strongly in the need for every Jew to be moser nefesh, dedicate himself to the point of self sacrifice, to his religious observance. "Anything less than mesiras nefesh is useless," he would declare.

One time, Reb Shlomo, the tutor, approached Reb Zalman and quipped, "You want me to teach your children Torah, yet you refuse to show them your own commitment to Torah study. The 'do as I say - not do as I do' dictum seems to have generated increased popularity concerning Torah study. If a father wants to send his children the message that Torah study is important, then he must also study, or else the finest tutors will be of no avail."

Reb Zalman did not disagree in principle. He felt, however, that his business affairs were so imposing that they allowed him little time for Torah study. Furthermore, if he neglected to apply himself fully to commerce, he would not have enough income for charity.

Reb Shlomo continued, "You seem to find time to sleep and eat. Indeed, you find sufficient time to do business. It is just for the Torah that your schedule does not permit any allowance. Are you sending the message to your children that Torah study is the least of your responsibilities?

"You are a wonderful and charitable person, but do not think for one moment that charity replaces Torah study. There is no indemnity for a lack of Torah study. Flour and water are both necessary for making bread. One cannot compensate for a lack of water by adding more flour."

Generous people have no issue with sharing their wealth with those who are less fortunate. They derive great satisfaction from giving to others. Yet, they might act miserly when it comes to their own time. They will share their wealth with others, but they are not prepared to share their time with the Torah. They are too busy to learn, or learning deprives them of earning more money which they can earmark for charity. However, taking time off for Torah study will not decrease one's earnings.

The Kotzker Rebbe, zl, explains that false piety is characterized by exaggerating the significance of trivia and minimizing the importance of principles. We do it all of the time by attributing importance to relatively minor things, while simultaneously ignoring that which should be treated with respect.

We live in a society that seems to venerate the inconsequential, while manifesting indifference to that which is really important. This confusion of priorities is especially glaring in light of picking and choosing those mitzvos that appeal to our comfort zone. We are meticulous concerning that which enters our mouth, but we have no problem denigrating its purveyor if it does not suit our fancy. Machlokes, controversy and discord, has almost become a way of life, regrettably occurring and being accepted within the halls of those who are supposed to set the standard for others to follow. Tznius, modesty, is not only about the length of one's clothes. It is about calling attention to oneself. Dressing like a monk, but screaming to the world, "Look at my house; look at my car, etc…" is not tznius. The list goes on. We seem to be plagued with the disease of placing emphasis on the superficial, while failing to observe the most basic tenets of our faith: like V'ahavta l'reiacha kamocha, "Love your fellow as yourself."

A similar idea applies to attitude. The Tzemach Tzedek, zl, of Lubavitch said, "It is not a sin to say, 'I want.' However, to say, 'I need,' indicates a lack of faith." Many of us have desires. Some of these desires are appropriate, while others are definitely not in our best interest. Regrettably, we continue to "want," either because we are governed by limitations which promote desire, or because our level of intelligence has not yet reached that point at which we understand that some things are not good for our health - both physical and spiritual.

To make the statement, "I need," expresses one's lack. Since we should believe that Hashem provides us with everything that we need, making a statement, "I need," is an assertion that Hashem has failed to provide. This indicates a shortcoming in one's faith, since we believe that Hashem provides what He "feels" is necessary. If we do not have it - we do not need it - end of subject.

The acquisition of money/wealth is a goal that seems to consume many of us. In the Chassidic writings, it is noted that when Hashem cursed the nachash, serpent, He said, "You shall eat dust all the days of your life" (Bereishis 3:14). This does not appear to be much of a punishment, since the serpent was destined to have an endless supply of food. The Chassidic Masters explain that other living creatures must pray to Hashem for their food. The serpent, however, is so abominable that Hashem wants no part of him: "Here is your food. Take it and leave Me alone. I do not want to hear from you - ever!"

Many of us think that we could use a greater portion of wealth - not necessarily riches - but just to be "comfortable." We turn to the Almighty in prayer and ask for more than He originally gave us. It just is not enough for our needs. Imagine if He were to answer our prayers, it might be something like this: "You really do not need more than you already have, but since you are adamant and question My judgment, I will give you more, but do not pray to Me for any more money. I do not want to hear from you."

On the other hand, one may want and he should pray for that which he wants . If, at first, he does not receive a positive answer to his "wants," he should realize that Hashem is telling him that greater wealth is not one of his "needs." He is doing well as it is.

And the land shall be conquered before Hashem, and then shall you return. Then you shall be vindicated from Hashem and from Yisrael. (32:22)

Moshe Rabbeinu rebuked the tribes of Bnei Gad and Bnei Reuven concerning their distorted priorities. Money definitely plays an important role in one's life, but certainly not at the expense of his children. Nonetheless, even after Moshe's reproach, followed by their positive acceptance and ensuing fulfillment of their tribal obligations to the collective nation, Chazal still found something wanting in their behavior. In the Midrash Rabbah, Chazal state that Hashem had created and bequeathed to the world three unique, exceptional gifts. They are: wisdom; strength; and wealth. One who is privileged to have been the beneficiary of wisdom essentially has everything. One who has been granted strength has received it all. One who is wealthy is privileged to have it all. Chazal continue with a stipulation: these gifts must come from Heaven and through Torah. If, however, it is man made strength, wisdom or wealth, it is of little value. Clearly Chazal's words are confusing. Is there anything that does not come by way of Heaven? Does man have his own power? Chazal explain that there is an endurance issue concerning anything that one does not receive from Heaven. The examples that are cited include: Haman and Korach who accumulated incredible wealth, only to lose it all. It was not granted to them by Hashem. So, how did they acquire it? They grabbed it! Likewise, Bnei Gad and Bnei Reuven were very wealthy, but their wealth was so dear to them that they lived outside of Eretz Yisrael. Therefore, they were the first ones to be exiled.

What does they "grabbed it" mean? How does one determine what is a gift from Heaven and what is not? Horav Sholom Schwadron, zl, compares this to a young boy who is standing in line with his father at the bank. The child is amazed with the teller's "ability" to dole out money in all amounts to the people waiting in line. "Wow! That person must be amazingly wealthy," remarked the boy. "He is giving out so much money." The father replied, "No, he is nothing more than a worker who is giving out the bank's money to its depositors. If that man were to pocket one cent, he would be in serious trouble."

Some people have been blessed with wealth; others are individuals who are exceptionally wise or extremely strong. These are gifts from Hashem for a purpose: to share with others. Man is like a treasurer who is entrusted with the large sums of money. The money does not belong to him. He is only its guardian until the rightful owner comes calling for it. Those individuals who refuse to share-- who hoard the money, the wisdom, the strength for their own personal use-- are thieves. Eventually they will be called to task for this.

Rav Sholom continues with his inimitable story. This story has found its place into these pages a number of years ago, but it is such an important story with a powerful lesson, that I feel it is well worth repeating. By way of introduction, there are individuals who think that the money that is in their possession is theirs to keep. They are mistaken. It is not going with them. Others share, acting charitably when the need arises. Then there is that unique person who is willing to sacrifice his time and energy to help those in need. How many of us are prepared to suffer bizyanos, humiliation, just to help someone in need? Not many. The following episode paints a poignant picture of an exceptionally special baal tzedakah and the reward he earned.

The German and Polish governments decided to build a highway between their respective countries. Some of the small towns along its path were affected by the construction. Whole communities were uprooted to make way for progress. The small Jewish cemetery of Klabutzk was in the way and had to be moved to a new place. The Jewish population, although small, made a concerted plea to the government not to demolish the cemetery. Their pleas fell on deaf ears.

The next day, the community went down to the cemetery to dig up the graves and reinter the remains. As they were engaged in their gruesome work, they came upon a startling discovery. In one grave, the coffin, although it had been in the ground for years, appeared brand new. When they opened the coffin, they discovered the deceased in perfect condition, as if he had been buried that day! Most astounding of all, the deceased was clothed - not in the traditional tachrichim, shrouds, - but in the clerical garb of a Catholic priest!

The members of the Chevra Kaddisha, Jewish Burial Society, immediately dispatched someone to summon the city's rav. Perhaps he could make sense out of this anomaly. The rav had no clue, but he conjectured that, based upon the condition of the body this was no ordinary Jew. He instructed the community to arrange for a large funeral respectful of this man's distinguished position. The rav went home to pray that somehow Heaven would privilege him with an explanation for this strange discovery.

After a few days of fervent prayer, the deceased appeared in a dream to the rav and related to him an intriguing story. "I lived one hundred years ago," the neshamah, soul, began. "I was a simple, unschooled Jew, who yearned to do something with my life. I could not learn, but I could perform acts of chesed, kindness. This was especially true concerning my devotion to the mitzvah of hachnosas kallah, providing for the financial needs of brides who were lacking the necessary dowry. I would trudge from door to door raising money for orphans in need. It was my greatest privilege.

"There was one young woman who had been orphaned at a young age who had no one to look after her. She worked at various jobs, earning barely enough money to subsist. She was now thirty years old and wanted very much to get married, but, without money and no family to fall back on, her prospects were not good at all. As the years had gone by, she had become more and more depressed. One day, a young man, also in his early thirties, moved to town. Work was limited, especially for someone new to the community. The young man took the position of water carrier and attempted to earn a living.

"I felt that this was a perfect shidduch, matrimonial match. I went forthwith to the fellow and extolled the virtues of the girl. His response was simply that he was not looking for a depressed girl as a wife. After explaining to him that her depression was a temporary situation due to her unmarried state, he was willing to entertain the shidduch. There was one stipulation: he had to receive a decent dowry. I offered 50 gold coins, to which he laughed; 'I must start a business without any familial support. Fifty gold coins will not get me very far. I demand 300 gold coins, or else there is nothing to discuss.'

"This was an outrageous sum for me to raise, but I accepted it. One week later, I had already raised 150 gold coins, but I had exhausted every charitable source at my disposal. There was only one other person to visit, a wealthy miser, who was known for his stinginess. He had never once given me money for anyone. Why should he suddenly change his ways? Nonetheless, I had to make the attempt. If he threw me out, at least I would have given it my best shot.

"I went to his house, and he ridiculed me. 'Yankel, why have you come to me? Do you want me to invest in a business deal?' he taunted. I explained the situation and pleaded my case. I was beyond emotion, yet the tears flowed freely down my face.

"The miser owned a clothing factory in which he produced suits for individuals from all walks of life. 'You know Yankel,' he began with a smirk, 'I might have an idea. You see this clerical robe. It was made for the priest, who unfortunately became ill and does not need it. I will give you the 150 gold coins if you will don the robe and collar and walk through the streets of the city all day.' What could I do? To refuse meant relegating the young orphan to a life of spinsterhood. I accepted.

"The next day, I walked up and down the city dressed like a priest. The entire community came out to 'greet' me. The taunts were terrible; the humiliation was awful, but it was well worth it. At the end of the day, I picked up the money. When I bid the miser good-bye, I asked for one additional favor, 'Can I keep the robe?' He replied that it would be his 'pleasure' to give me the robe. I kept the robe until shortly before the end of my life, when I called the Chevra Kaddisha and asked them to bury me in the clerical robes. It was my feeling that the humiliation I sustained in order to marry off the orphaned girl would open doors in Heaven for me. And so it did. Wherever I went, the ministering angels saw the robe and opened the path for me to pass through. I suffered greatly that fateful day, but the humiliation I experienced in the performance of a mitzvah was my ticket to Gan Eden."

Va'ani Tefillah

Melech Keil Chai Ha'Olamim. King, G-d, Life-giver of the worlds/Who lives forever.

Yishtabach is the conclusion of Pesukei D'Zimra. The prayer culminates with the words Chai ha'olamim. We have until now been praising Hashem's might, wisdom, kindness, etc. He has been extolled as the Creator of everything that exists and breathes, but He is more. Hashem is the life source of all living things. Without Hashem's will, everything ceases to exist. Thus, He is much more than the Creator who once created the world. Hashem keeps on creating the world every second that the world exists. He is life's origin - He is the essence of life. In fact, He is the one thing that has intrinsic existence. Every creature relies on Him for existence. He is existence. In other words, Hashem is the only true living being. Thus, we understand the second translation: Who lives forever. Since Hashem is the only One who possesses intrinsic life, He truly lives forever. The rest of "us" depend on His will to continue living. This gives us a whole new meaning to the tefillah of Yishtabach.

l'zehar nishmas Dov ben HaRav Yisroel a"h
niftar 7 Av 5745

Peninim on the Torah is in its 20th year of publication. The first fifteen years have been published in book form.

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