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Peninim on the Torah

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Rabbi A. Leib Scheinbaum
Hebrew Academy of Cleveland


This shall be the law of the metzora on the day of his purification. (14:2)

Tzaraas is the result of a number of transgressions, one of which is lashon hora, slanderous speech. I recently read an article which focused on the many uses of words and how the most abominable act can be transformed by a word into something acceptable and even noble. This, I feel, falls under the aegis of lashon hora, evil speech. To consider an act of terrorism to be the work of extremists, insurgents, or activists is evil. The way we define the activities of those with whom we disagree does not damage them alone; It is, by definition, a misuse of our G-d-given tongue, which damages us in the process.

The Nazis were well-practiced in their ability to paint the most heinous act in terms that were noble and respectable. They referred to the wholesale murder of the Jewish People as "extermination". People are not exterminated; insects are exterminated. They compared us to parasites, thereby reducing the value of our lives to that of bugs and parasites. The writer tells a story of an inhumane Nazi guard who had a dog which he called "mentch." One night a seven year old Jewish boy attempted to escape the camp. The guard told his dog to go after the boy with the command, "Mentch, go after the dog!" This is how the Holocaust was able to take place. Jews were dogs, and dogs became human beings. Today, the world is plagued with "ethnic cleansing," a contemporary term for murder. The Nazis had concentration camps. I think the word camp is absurd. The list goes on. They dehumanized us and presented us to a crude and cruel world as subhuman beings who should be exterminated in their camps. All fancy words for murder.

Today's terrorists are "militants" and "freedom fighters". The Jew who is not as observant as we are is often denigrated in terms which I find too callous to use in this paper. The term chareidim is no longer a mark of distinction, but a degrading term used to describe religious zealots who are out of control and unworthy of respect. This is lashon hora, evil speech. Words hurt, especially if they are used by people in order to degrade and sabotage the actions of others with whom they disagree. The name we call a person, or the word we use to describe an activity, destroy the hard work of many. An organization can suddenly lose credibility, an individual's self-sacrifice can be denigrated - all with a bad word. This does not mean that we are to search for positive terms to describe activities or people that are spiritually vacuous and destructive. We just have to think hard and speak softly, realizing the impact of our words, or a word quoted out of context.

When you arrive in the land of Canaan that I gave you as a possession, and I will place a tzaraas affliction upon a house in the land of your possession. (14:3 )

Among the seven negative actions and character traits cited by Chazal in the Talmud Arachin 16a as the cause for tzaraasú is tzarus ayin, stinginess, selfishness and its accompanying traits of envy and meanness. The Chida, zl, derives this from the above pasuk in response to his questioning of the lengthy text. Why does the Torah emphasize that the house in which the plague is discovered is in "a house in the land of your affliction"? Why does it not simply say, "In your house"? He explains that a person who has merited to receive from Hashem a beautiful and spacious home must realize that he has this home, compliments of the Almighty, for a specific reason: to provide for others who need a place to rest and to feed the needy. Hashem gave him his home, so that others can also benefit from his good fortune. He should never forget that "I gave you [the land] as a possession." What we have is from the Almighty - for a reason and a purpose.

One who has tzarus ayin, who cannot tolerate sharing his blessing with those who are not as fortunate as he, who ignores the reality that his home is G-d's gift to him, will lose that gift. He will suddenly notice a plague on the walls of his home. After the contamination period has ended, he is obligated to bring an offering consisting of two birds. There is a profound lesson to be derived from these birds. Wealth does not last forever. One day it is here, but on the next day it may very well be in the possession of another person, just like birds who spread their wings and fly away. They can be here today, they can be anywhere by tomorrow.

In the Talmud Eruvin 54a, Chazal likens this world to a bei hillula, a wedding hall. The Ahavas Yisrael, Viznitzer Rebbe, zl, notes that Chazal have used the analogy of a wedding hall as opposed to a wedding. He explains that one who enters a wedding hall on any given night will be met with music, joy and festivity. Everyone is bedecked in his or her finery; the foods are fancy and sumptuous; the d?cor is elegant. Certainly, one will not find any sadness in a wedding hall. It is a place designated for joy. There is one factor to take into consideration: every night it is someone else's affair. True, there is joy and festivity, but it is always a new couple that catalyzes the joy.

Life on this world is quite similar. One day, Reuven is doing well; the sun is shining on him. His material concerns seem to be non-existent. Everything is just great - today. Tomorrow might bring another page in the story. The wealth that was Reuven's one day, might become Shimon's the next day. Just like a wedding hall. There are always sounds of joy, but it is never that of the same person. We have a choice: We can either enjoy it while it lasts, or have the foresight to invest it in the lives and needs of others, so that the capital gains will endure long after the principal is gone.

And I will place a tzaraas affliction upon a house in the land of your possession… He shall demolish the house - its stones, its timber, and all the mortar of the house. (14:34,45)

The Torah describes what is clearly a supernatural occurrence - the appearance of a tzaraas affliction upon the walls of one's house. These afflictions occurred in stages, basically as subtle messages from the Almighty notifying the individual that his social behavior left much to be desired. First, the guilty party's house was stricken, then his clothing, and finally his skin. Chazal tell us that tzaraas is the result of gossip and slander which harm the purity of the soul. The afflictions are a sign that the soul cannot handle the false actions of this person. There was, however, a silver lining in the initial stage. The afflicted house was to be dismantled piece by piece and taken away. What the Jewish owners did not know was that the pagan owners who preceded them had hidden treasures in their homes, which were discovered as a result of the dismantling. Suddenly, the Jewish homeowner, who was probably wringing his hands from worry as his house was being taken apart stone by stone, was now a man of great wealth.

What is the lesson of this ordeal? What message is Hashem conveying to us? Surely, this does not mean that by speaking lashon hora we might be able to access hidden treasures.

Chazal offer one explanation that serves as a practical lesson in education: those who slander, who disparage others, fail to see the inherent good in every human being. They prefer to view people through their jaundiced eyes, seeking the negative, and overlooking the positive. Thus, they end up habitually discrediting people.

The dismantled house teaches them a lesson. The visible structure displays some terrifying blotches across its walls, taints that make the house appear uninhabitable. What we do not know is that beneath those blotches, hidden away in inner recesses of the house, concealed from the human eye, is a treasure that we often ignore. Every human being has that inner gold, that internal kedushah, holiness, that is derived from Hashem. How can we disparage others when we do not even know them?

This does not mean that if we are certain that an individual is evil, we have license to make his life miserable. I am just attempting to emphasize the importance of seeking out and viewing the positive within each Jew. This brings me to the real purpose of this thought. In every Jewish community, there are people, especially teenagers, whom we all have viewed in the most negative light. If a boy does not dress in the appropriate yeshivish'e begadim, attire, he is disdained and viewed with a malignant eye. If a boy or girl just does not follow the prescribed way of life deemed appropriate for a Torah-oriented lifestyle, he or she is immediately condemned, their parents disparaged by some and pitied by others. This approach does not solve the teenager's problems with self-esteem.

We must look at every person through the prism of the Torah. Every Jew is salvageable; every neshamah can be brought back. It takes patience and support - not pity and disdain. The one whose home was to be dismantled must have thought that everything was coming to a bitter end, until he saw the hidden treasure. We can bring those kids back from their abyss of torment and misery. Just because they cannot cope with the highly pressurized environment to which some of us subject our children, they are not necessarily "losers" or whatever terminology we might use to describe these tormented souls. All these souls want is someone who cares about them.

There is an anecdote that emphasizes this idea. A father comes home after a long hard, day at work to be greeted by his wife, who is complaining, "Moishe is acting up again. He is impossible. He is starting up with everybody, and he refuses to listen to me!"

The father, a no-nonsense disciplinarian, immediately sends Moishe to bed with a stern admonishment. A few minutes of quiet go by in which the father feels that he has the situation under control. Then, as if from nowhere, a quiet voice is heard. "Tatty, I am thirsty. Can I come down for a glass of water?" Moishe asks in a sweet tone. "No! I know your shtick. You are to go to bed, and no more whining", his father replies.

A few minutes go by and once again Moishe tries his luck, "Tatty, I am so very thirsty. Please let me come down for some water."

The father is no fool. He knows exactly what his son is attempting. "No! And that is final. I do not want to hear another word from you. If you do not quiet down, I will come upstairs and give you a potch!"

A minute goes by, and Moishe once again tries his luck. "Tatty, when you come upstairs to give me a potch, will you please bring me a glass of water?"

This is not chutzpah. It is an indication that Moishe knows that his father's disciplinary measures will be administered with love and care. Likewise, we know that while Hashem is punishing us for the improper use of our mouths, He finds a way to give us a treasure. We know He cares, and we know that His punishments are not punitive, but therapeutic.

This is what children need and want: a sense that they are loved, that someone cares for them, that their accomplishments, however small, are significant. This is certainly true of the secular world, but does it apply to our world, the Orthodox, the Yeshivishe, the Chassidishe world? I think my response is superfluous. Just go into shul, and you will discover that small percentage that we either ignore or disdain, students who could not cope with the pressures of a highly-pressurized society. Let me ask you, do you think these boys feel that someone views them positively, or have they been convinced by their parents and mentors that they have no future?

This is, regrettably, a common feeling. We have a responsibility to our other students, and these "other" boys are pulling down the class and impugning the integrity of the school's reputation. Veritably, at one time, I was in agreement with this tragic philosophy, until I read a story that occurred with the sainted Bobover Rebbe, Horav Shlomo Halberstam, zl. There was a student in the yeshivah that had succeeded in turning off every rebbe. He had serious discipline issues, and, in addition, his peers did not care for him either. In short, he had reached the end of the rope. His principal approached the Bobover Rebbe seeking advice. In reality, he was asking permission to do what the previous principals in other yeshivos had done: expel him from school. The Rebbe heard the request and with sensitivity and compassion, he looked at the principal and asked, in Yiddish, Vous? Arois varfen a Yiddish'e neshamah? Chas v'shalom! "What? Throw out a Jewish soul? Heaven forbid!"

The Rebbe viewed this student from a totally different perspective. We might take into consideration that this remark came from the mouth of a man who, after World War II, went from village to village searching for the young children whose parents had left them in the care of gentiles as they themselves were being taken away to the Nazi infernos. There is no question that the Rebbe agreed that the boy needed to be disciplined, but to be thrown away, rejected like a broken object, Heaven forbid!

Perhaps I have gotten carried away with my musings, but if it will make the difference in saving one Yiddishe neshamah, if it will mean that we might view those students more favorably, if it will mean that we will offer a glass of water with the potch: it would be well worth it.

This is the law for every tzaraas affliction. (14:54)

It is the nature of people to search high and low for blessings and segulos, good omens, and remedies for success in life, health and welfare for themselves and their families. They do not realize, says the Chafetz Chaim, zl, that the greatest opportunity for blessing is within our grasp - if we so choose to take it in our hands. There is a unique and special blessing that Hashem Himself gave in the presence of the Kohanim, Leviim, and all Yisrael, a blessing that is certainly greater than anything that can be obtained from a mortal, regardless of his spiritual stature.

The Torah states in Devarim 27:12, "Accursed is one who strikes his fellow stealthily. And the entire people say, Amen." Rashi interprets this curse to apply to lashon hora, slanderous speech. These eleven curses were preceded by the word Baruch, implying a blessing for he who would be vigilant in observing the commands. In other words, the Torah ensures blessing for the one who is careful with his mouth, who does not speak lashon hora. Do we need a greater source of blessing? To paraphrase the Chafetz Chaim, "It is a wonder how a person can search for blessings and segulos for success in earning a livelihood. How can a blessing help a person if he speaks lashon hora? The Torah curses such an individual. No blessing can supercede the Torah's curse! If someone were wise, he would take My advice and be extremely vigilant in refraining from speaking any form of lashon hora. This will be his greatest source of blessing."

Va'ani Tefillah

U'mah yafah yerushaseinu - and how beautiful is our heritage.

A number of times, during our daily tefillah, we invoke the z'chus, merit, of our avos, ancestors. We wonder what this merit can accomplish for us; After all, Avraham Avinu was not able to save his son, Yishmael. In his commentary to Parashas Va'eira, the Bais Halevi gives the following explanation. The nature of a father extends to his son and, thus, for the most part, the actions of a son are rooted in the nature of his father. Hence, the positive deeds and actions that we perform are an inheritance bequeathed to us by our ancestors. We, therefore, come before the Almighty and entreat Him to remember our z'chus avos, a reference to the good deeds that we perform as a result of our yerushah, inheritance from our avos. Certainly one who is devoid of positive activities cannot ask that his z'chus avos protect him, since he is not actively accepting the "z'chus" that he received from his avos.

This is the underlying meaning of the phrase, "and how beautiful is our heritage." We say that the chelek ha'tov, positive component, of our actions is our heritage which we inherited from our ancestors. It is not us; it is them, and, therefore, we ask that Hashem listen to our supplications.

In memory of our beloved parents
Rabbi Dr. Avrohom Yitzchok Wolf
Rebbetzin Anna Moses

Sruly and Chaya Wolf and Family
Ari and Rivky Wolf and Family

Abba and Sarah Spero and Family
Pesach and Esther Ostroy and Family
Sruly and Chaya Wolf and Family

Peninim on the Torah is in its 14th year of publication. The first nine years have been published in book form.

The Ninth volume is available at your local book seller or directly from Rabbi Scheinbaum.

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