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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. (14:2)

The tongue has no mind. It expresses the feelings that the individual has in his heart. A positive person, whose outlook on life and people is positive, invariably speaks only good - because this is what he sees. This is what he feels in his heart. A negative person, whose view on life and people is jaundiced, speaks lashon hora, evil speech, because this is all that he knows. In other words, the best protection against lashon hora is a positive outlook. A primary component for maintaining a positive view on people is to respect others. This is increasingly difficult for the individual who is himself insecure, thus viewing everyone as a threat. One who is secure in his own skin senses no threat from others, and he is able to respect others without feeling that, if he does so, it diminishes him. While this all seems like simple, common sense, sadly it is one of those areas of common sense which many people have difficulty grasping. The following episode is a perfect example of this failing.

Rabbi Dovid Kaplan tells the story of a Rav in Yerushalayim who found himself spending considerable time counseling young, married couples who were dealing with various crises which may arise in a marriage. Since he was not a professional, just a talmid chacham, Torah scholar, with abundant patience and common sense, he felt it prudent on his part to consult with one of Yerushalayim's leading psychologists. Perhaps he could pick up a few pointers, some sage advice, a practical approach to some of the issues with which he was dealing. He met with the woman, and it was a beneficial meeting, as he gained much from the conversation.

After the initial meeting, the woman asked him what his vocation was. He replied that he studied full-time in the Mirrer Kollel. "Perhaps you know my husband," she exclaimed excitedly. "He sells flowers right next to the yeshivah."

Hearing this, the young rav tried to visualize a florist shop near the yeshivah, but he could not conjure up the image. This was because there was no flower shop near the yeshivah. The only florist - "sort of" - was a very short man who sold flowers out of buckets every Erev Shabbos. He could not be married to this woman, he thought to himself. She was one of the premier professional marriage counselors in Yerushalayim.

Apparently, his stupefaction was evident all over his face, because the doctor began to chuckle, as she responded to what was coursing through his mind, "Yes, he is the short fellow who sells flowers every Friday afternoon. When he was young, he had polio which severely stunted his growth. My husband has been selling flowers for years. It is meaningful to him and something that he enjoys. He claims that he prefers most of all to sell in front of the Mir, because it is the only place that anyone who walks by actually greet him respectfully."

People have feelings. The way we look - or stare - at them makes a big difference. How we greet - or do not greet - them sends a powerful message. When we ignore someone, we are basically saying to him, "You are not worth my time." It actually goes much further than this. Thinking positive, acting positive, saying nice things to and about people is much more than simple human decency and proper etiquette. It can determine one's future!

In the hakdamah, preface, to his sefer on Meseches Bechoros, V'eid Yaaleh, Rabbi Aharon Dovid Lebovics quotes an incredible statement from the Zohar (Zohar Chadash Parashas Noach). The Zohar addresses the spiritual advantage of Avraham Avinu and Moshe Rabbeinu in contrast to Noach, who, although referred to by the Torah as a tzaddik, righteous person, is held in spiritual disdain for not praying for the evildoers of his generation.

The Zohar quotes the Sages who contend that Noach was uncertain enough of his own worthiness that he was unable to pray for others. This is why he did not go that extra mile for others. He simply felt that he was unworthy. Rabbi Elazar says, "Despite all of this, he still should have prayed. For Hashem is pleased to hear good about His children." This teaches us that, despite how little Noach thought of himself, he would have been successful had he prayed. Hashem is a loving Father, Who wants to hear people - regardless of their own worthiness or spiritual standing - speak favorably of His children. Rabbi Elazar adds, "The punishment of the preeminent tzaddik of the world who speaks ill of the Jewish People to Hashem, is greater than that of anyone."

A simple Jew will receive unparalleled reward for thinking and speaking positively of the Jewish People. Likewise, regardless of one's past spiritual achievement, if his remarks about fellow Jews are jaundiced, he will be held in spiritual contempt. There are individuals who truly exemplify this idea. They look for every avenue to give the benefit of the doubt regarding the behavior of fellow Jews. Regrettably, others act out this contempt as long as their own virtue is not impugned.

The Bobover Rebbe, Horav Shlomo Halberstam, zl, was leader and mentor to thousands and the consummate example of an oheiv Yisrael, one who loves all Jews. One morning, as he was putting his Tefillin back into their boxes, he cut his finger on the edge of one of the boxes, which was made of silver. His finger immediately began to bleed. As the Gabbai was about to get a band aid to stop the bleeding, he noticed a subtle smile, a sense of satisfaction, on the Rebbe's face. The Gabbai asked the Rebbe why he manifested a portrait of calm and joy as he stared at his finger bleeding. The Rebbe replied, "In the Talmud Chullin 7b, Chazal say, 'When a man stubs his finger in the course of a mitzvah, and his finger begins to bleed, the blood which runs is like the blood of a korban Olah. The atonement of the blood running from his finger is equal to that of an Elevation offering.' I was thinking to myself, 'What z'chus, merit, do I have that I was granted the opportunity to offer up an Olah?'

"I realized that I am very demanding of myself never to speak ill of a fellow Jew - regardless of the situation. It is certainly possible, however, that I might have harbored an inappropriate feeling within me against someone. In my mind, I might subconsciously have found fault with individuals. This is a sin b'machshavah, in thought, for which the korban Olah is mechapeir, atones. This is why I am filled with joy!"

The Kohen shall go forth to the outside of the camp; the Kohen shall look, and behold: the tzaraas affliction has been healed from the metzora. (14:3)

The atonement of the metzora does not occur overnight. He must spend time in quarantine, away from people, alone with himself, so that he can reflect on his misdeeds. He was better than others - or so he thought. His haughtiness bred contempt for others - because, after all, he was better than they were. Being alone allows him the opportunity to realize how much "better" he really is. As soon as he comes full circle and comes down from his lofty perch, he is ready for atonement. The spiritual healing process has begun. The three-stage process of purification may now begin.

Being alone will affect a person in that manner. There are various forms of loneliness. We fear being alone, but the greatest loneliness is not the loneliness of solitude. There are those who live within the most thriving communities, in the midst of congregations of happy, friendly people, yet they are lonelier than physical or psychological hermits who are at peace dwelling amongst their own thoughts. The physical number of people that we see on a regular basis has little correlation with our loneliness. It is the companion of our thoughts and the warmth of our hearts towards the things and the people with which we come in contact that determines the loneliness that we feel. In other words, it all depends on our perspective on life. Someone who is bitter will remain lonely, regardless of the multitudes of people who surround him. One who is a happy person is never alone. He is surrounded by his thoughts and the warm feelings in his heart.

Some of us thrive on friendship and people - even if, at times, they might be insincere, because, in our minds, it makes us feel important, needed. A brilliant secular poet writes of sailing from Liverpool, England to the United States. Sadly, he had nobody to see him off, so he gave a sixpence to a little urchin boy playing on the docks and asked him that, in return, he was to stand by the dock and wave his kerchief to him until the ship was in midstream. Why did he do this? If he had to pay for the "friendship," was it not self-defeating?

It was the ache of loneliness. The ship with hundreds of passengers was setting sail. Everyone had someone who cared about him. This poet had no one. So he grabbed the opportunity for mercenary friendship because, ultimately, it was better than nothing. Indeed, he later remarked, "I had my six-penny worth."

There is loneliness that comes with age. An elderly man once complained to his rav, "My children are good to me. I know that they love me, but, after all is said and done, I am a problem to them. I would like to talk intimately to them, share my heart, but when I make the attempt, I can see that they have no clue. They do not understand what I am going through. I have known periods of loneliness throughout my life, but never more keenly than now."

An elderly man dropped in at a convention. Two younger men were seated at a table having coffee together. The man walked over to their table and said, "I do not know either of you, and you obviously do not know me either. Will you, nonetheless, allow me to sit at the table with you and join in your conversation? You see, I am so lonely. I am over ninety years old and I know no one, and I want to talk to somebody."

Veritably, man cannot fulfill himself in a lonely existence. Isolation deprives the individual of emotional and even spiritual growth. We must participate in helping and sharing with others. We mature and develop by responding to the needs of others. As we enlarge the scope of our concern, we include others in our circle of caring, thereby adding a new dimension to our lives. When we think only of ourselves, our problems seem to be much larger, as bitterness and depression set in. When a lighthouse keeper on a deserted island was asked whether he was lonesome, he replied, "Not since I saved my first person from drowning." Loneliness is a malaise one overcomes by cultivating caring for - and involvement with - others. Generating and harboring bitterness only magnifies the problem.

In truth, we are never alone. A Jew who has faith in Hashem knows that he is not alone. Indeed, there is no loneliness so great, so absolute, so diminishing, as the loneliness of a person who feels he cannot call out to Hashem. We may be able to surround ourselves with materialism, with friends, with family, but, if when we pray to Hashem we do not have the confidence that we are being heard, we are by far the loneliest people. Emunah, faith, is the most soothing balm for the ache of being alone. One who believes knows that he can call on Hashem 24/7. A young man would call his Bubby daily to check up on her out of a sense of achrayus, responsibility, and love. She was blessed with a large cadre of grandchildren who took turns visiting her and attending to her needs. Therefore, whenever he called, it was another grandchild who usually picked up the phone to answer the call. One day, he called, and his grandmother answered the phone. Startled, he asked, "Bubby, are you alone?" She replied, "Dear child, I am never alone." When one feels the companionship of Hashem, he has solved his problem; he has discovered the ultimate response to loneliness.

This is the spiritual metamorphosis that the metzora experiences. As he sits alone in quarantine, he realizes that his personal issues led to his arrogance and slander. The bitterness that seethed within him prompted him to lash out at others. His punishment is to be alone, to mull over his predicament, its origins and solution. The solitude allows him to think, to become acquainted with himself - the real "him" and to seek out Hashem. The great Chassidic Masters encourage us to apportion a specific amount of time when we can be alone - not lonely - but alone: to think; to contemplate, to learn to enjoy the solitude. While loneliness hurts - solitude helps. We learn to live with ourselves. As the metzora learns to live with himself, he will also learn to live with others. Then he has been healed.

And behold! The affliction had spread in the house: it is a malignant tzaraas in the house. (14:44)

It seems as if every type of tumah, spiritual contamination, has some form of tikkun, spiritual repair, some way to correct what has been "broken," to fix what has been put into spiritual dysfunction - everything but tzaraas ha'bayis, a house that manifests a plague. The house must be dismantled - every component connected to the house, wood, stone, even the earth upon which it is built - must be removed. Is this not a bit extreme?

Every creation has a spiritual dimension to it or else it would cease to exist: domeim, inanimate; tzomeach, growing vegetation; chai, living creations; medaber, creatures who are able to speak - human beings. All exist as a result of the ratzon Hashem, will of G-d, which grants them existence. Otherwise, they would simply disappear. Our Sages speak about inanimate objects as if they have an aspect of life to them. The "walls" have ears. Indeed, a well-known passage in the Talmud Yoma 47a observes that Kimchis (a righteous woman) was blessed with seven sons, each of whom achieved the exemplary distinction of becoming Kohanim Gedolim. The Sages asked her, "What did you do that catalyzed the merit for such blessing?" She replied, "The walls of my house never saw my (uncovered) hair." Apparently, walls have some sort of vision.

Horav Lazer Brody, Shlita, derives from here an insightful lesson concerning the influence of the "home" on a Jewish child's education. Kimchis' house never viewed anything morally inappropriate, and, therefore, seven Kohanim Gedolim were products of this home. A home that is morally pure, free of any spiritual flaw, assimilates these qualities into the "virtual" fabric of the home. In turn, the home leaves its lasting effect on its inhabitants.

The story is told concerning a certain gadol, Torah luminary, who, for many years, studied Torah in his home, employing a loud voice as he reviewed the Gemorah. After he died, the house passed hands, and it was eventually sold to a non-observant family. After a short while, the family was compelled to move out of the house. When pressed for a reason, they replied that, for some reason, they felt uncomfortable in the home. They had no idea why this was so, but, whenever they were in the house, they seemed "pressured" to leave. They had no clue concerning the source of the pressure, although they felt it to be palpable. The explanation: The house was holy, having been sanctified through the sounds of Torah which once filled its cavity. Rav Brody likened this to a forty-watt bulb which is placed in a socket made for two hundred watts of electricity. When the "juice" comes through, it explodes the bulb. It has no way of maintaining such extreme electrical pressure.

If a woman's blood flows for many days… You shall separate Bnei Yisrael from their contamination; and they shall not die as a result of their contamination. (15:25,31)

One would think that, as people age, they become more amenable to perform teshuvah, to repent a life lived inappropriately, not in consonance with Torah dictate. Yet, this is not necessarily true. Horav Eliyahu Eliezer Dessler, zl, writes that as a person ages, the yetzer hora, evil inclination, puts on a greater battle to lay claim to this individual's spiritual dysfunction. After leading him astray for a lifetime, he does not want to lose the battle at the very end. I have noticed this in speaking with seniors who agree with what they "hear," but are not prepared to effect a spiritual metamorphosis. They give all kinds of excuses, some even valid, but, at the end of the day, it is the yetzer hora putting up a valiant fight to protect his "interests."

The Noam HaMitzvos derives an important principle concerning teshuvah from the above pasuk. There are those who, upon committing a sinful act, immediately realize the error of their ways, regret their action, and repent. In contrast is the individual who not only does not repent, but he adds to his sin by continuing his downward spiral. He now thinks that, in his present circumstances, sunk in the miserable abyss of sin, he has no way out. He cannot climb out. He is eternally stuck in the murky quicksand of sin and guilt, being pulled down lower and lower.

The Torah speaks to him: Even after many "days" of spiritual contamination, he has hope. The door to teshuvah is never sealed. One just has to have the strength of character and courage to "knock." Despite this, one should make every attempt to resolve his teshuvah issues while he is still young. Once one reaches senior citizenship, he must learn to contend with a much stronger, wilier and more desperate yetzer hora. The yetzer hora has invested much during this person's lifetime to see to it that he dies a sinner. Certainly, as the end approaches, he is not going to slack off. On the contrary, he will work exceedingly hard to bring this person's life to an awful fruition.

In his Michtav Mei'Eliyahu, Rav Dessler relates the following episode. The Chevrah Kaddisha, Jewish Burial Society, came before Horav Eliyahu, zl, m'Izmir, author of the Shevet Mussar, with a pressing question. Apparently, the "Don," head of the robbers, was at death's door. He asked that the Rav come to see him, so that he could confess his sins before he took leave of the world. The Rav did what he had to do when a person makes such a request, regardless of his deleterious background. He donned his hat and coat and proceeded to the robber's home.

The robber lay in bed, the color of his face ashen, his breathing very slow and labored. It was obvious that the end was near. The robber opened up his eyes and saw that the Rav had come. He said, "Now, we begin, 'Ashamnu, I have been guilty!'" He continued on, reciting the rest of the Viduy, his voice rising with each condemnation of his past. The tears flowed freely as this man, wracked with terrible guilt, poured out his heart to Hashem, asking forgiveness for a life of sin.

His gang of robbers stood by watching the scene. They, too, were moved by the experience - to the point that they began to shake with fear, as they, too, confessed their misdeeds. It was a scene that could bring the most hardened profligate to advance his own thoughts of teshuvah. Suddenly, out of the blue, the robber baron, just minutes from death, stopped his Viduy in midsentence and began to issue forth from his mouth expletives and vile cursing. He blasphemed Hashem, denied everything there was to believe in, and, in short, spoke like the miscreant that he had always been.

The Rav attempted to stop him, by encouraging him to recite Shema Yisrael, the last verse one recites as he is about to take leave of this life. The Don looked up at the Rav and said, "Chas v'shalom! Heaven forbid! I will not say Shema Yisrael! Do you not see who stands before me with an unsheathed sword, prepared to slice me into pieces if I utter another Hebrew word!"

Apparently, it was another of the ruses of the yetzer hora. The yetzer hora convinces one to sin, then he becomes the Satan who prosecutes him. Afterwards, he has the "honor" of being his executioner, as he dons the mantle of Malach Ha'Maves, angel of death. This man was too weak to stand up to the last round of ammunition in the yetzer hora's cache. He died a sinner, cursing until the very end.

When the yetzer hora sees that a person is about to throw in the towel, defer to the sense of right and truth, accept Hashem and repent his life of evil - he mounts a vigorous offensive. This is why it is a mistake to wait. Putting off teshuvah for a more propitious time is a "grave" mistake, because there is no better and more suitable time than now.

Va'ani Tefillah

Hishamru lachem pen yifteh levavchem.
v'sartem va'avadetem elohim acheirim.

Beware, lest your heart be seduced and you turn astray and serve gods of others.

There is a danger in having it all. When one is blessed with an abundance of material bounty, he fears that it will go to his head and cause him to stray. The Torah indicates that straying all the way to idol worship is something that we can expect from one who allows himself to be seduced by his heart. Is such an extreme change in a person realistic? Sin leaves a taint which gradually infects the rest of the person. The Torah seems to imply that idol worship is an immediate consequence of following one's heart.

Horav Eliyahu Lopian, zl, offers an insightful explanation. A train traveling along the tracks is stable and secure as long as its wheels are firmly in place on the tracks. If, however, one wheel slips off the tracks, it can derail the entire train. This is the meaning of Hishamru lachem: Beware! You might think, "What can happen from one sin, one acquiescence to the blandishments of one's heart, one time 'cheating?' It is like one wheel that slips off the track. It can derail the entire train. One who gives into his heart's desires is slipping off the track. He should prepare himself for a train wreck. One slip is all that it takes.

In memory of our beloved parents
Rabbi Dr. Avrohom Yitzchok Wolf
Rebbetzin Anna Moses
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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 20th year of publication. The first fifteen years have been published in book form.

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