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Peninim on the Torah

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Rabbi A. Leib Scheinbaum
Hebrew Academy of Cleveland


And his master shall bore through his ear with the awl, and he shall serve him forever. (21:6)

The Torah abhors the eved Ivri, Jewish slave, who spurns his freedom. The ceremony that extends his servitude is performed on his ear, at a door. The door symbolizes freedom, for the Jews in Egypt were instructed to smear the blood of the Korban Pesach against their door posts. The ear earns its significance from the fact that at Mt. Sinai the ear was the instrument that heard the commandment not to steal, a prohibition which can result in an individual being sold as a slave, if he does not have the funds to repay the victim. Later, he is punished when he has rejected the opportunity to go free. Upon studying the words of Chazal, we are immediately struck with the question: Why the ear? True, the ear did not listen, but the hands and the feet actually carried out the act of theft. Why should the ear bear the onus of guilt?

The Chidushei Ha'Rim, cited by the Sefas Emes, explains that for he who neither cares nor takes responsibility for the things he hears, it is far better that he should not have heard in the first place. Hearing the admonition and acting against it intensifies the action. Veritably, this is taught to us by Chazal in Pirkei Avos 1:17 when they say, "Lo ha'medrash ikar, ela ha'maaseh." "It is not the learning, but the doing that is the main thing." Learning is viewed as a means, a vehicle for knowing what and how to carry out the command. The important thing is truly the deed. This is a powerful statement. Indeed, often times, our communities appear to be drowning in a sea of words. When faced with a problem, we first convene meetings - conferences, conventions, commissions - everything to increase rhetoric and avoid acting to solve the problem. We bemoan and bewail the situation. We diagnose the problem and talk and talk about solutions - but, regrettably, it remains nothing more than talk. These gatherings are truly important and necessary, but they should not become substitutes for action.

We are a nation of action. Indeed, our Sages were defined by their activities and adherence to what they expounded. According to the Midrash Shmuel, the reason the names of the Tanaaim are mentioned in the Mishnah corresponding to their maxims is that they personally personified and exemplified everything that they taught. They comprised a walking Mishnah!

The Jewish slave heard at Har Sinai. He chose to ignore what he heard; instead, he acted against Hashem. The fact that he heard and ignored what he heard makes his actions that much worse. Hence, his ear is bored with an awl to teach him the origin of his rebellion and to indicate the area upon which he should focus his teshuvah, repentance, process.

But for one who had not lain in ambush and G-d caused it to come to his hand… (21:13)

Coincidence is a word which does not belong in the Torah's lexicon. Nothing just happens. There is a reason for every occurrence. Referring to the unintentional murderer, the Torah says, "G-d caused it to come to his hand." In other words, what seemed to have "happened" was really "caused" by Hashem. Chazal say that the unintentional act of murder which he committed was precipitated by a previous unintentional act of murder that remained unpunished. His current victim must also have been guilty of a capitol offense that went similarly unpunished. This occurrence was compensation for both of them. Hashem was merely bringing His book of outstanding accounts "up to date." The question which presents itself to us all - and which is articulated by the Gra M'Vilna - is: Why did the first act of unintentional murder happen? We understand why Hashem caused this second shogeg, unintentional act. What about the first?

Horav Chaim Yaakov Goldvicht, z.l., explains that there are actually two forms of shogeg. He first cites Chazal in the Talmud Makkos 9b, who explain why the Torah commands us to set aside three Arei Miklat, Cities of Refuge, in Eretz Yisrael, as well as three others in Ever haYarden. Why should the number of cities designated for Eretz Yisrael, which was home to nine-and-a-half shevatim, tribes, be the same as across the Jordan River in which there lived only two-and-a-half tribes? What evidence suggested that crossing the Jordan should engender such an increase in the ratio of tribe to City of Refuge? Chazal respond that there were many murderers in Gilaad. This response generates much discussion among the Rishonim, early commentators. Just because there are many intentional murderers in Gilaad, is that a reason to necessitate a greater number of Arai Miklat for the unintentional murderers? Responding to this query, Maharal presents to us the mindset of he who kills unintentionally. He explains that one who kills inadvertently should have been more careful. His lack of caution catalyzes the tragedy. In Gilaad, there was a multitude of murderers. In a city where life is cheap and murder is, regrettably, a way of life, vigilance is clearly lacking. Is there any wonder that the need for Cities of Refuge arises? Thus, the idea that the Maharal posits is that shogeg is the result of indifference and unwariness. When one does not care, "accidents" will invariably happen - only these "accidents" are not really accidents. They are unintentional acts of violence that might have been averted had the individual been more alert, had he manifested a greater regard for human life. One who shudders at the thought of another human being's death, who trembles at the idea of inflicting harm on his fellow, acts accordingly.

Chazal taught this idea to us in the Talmud Yoma 23A, when they relate a tragic incident that occurred in the Bais HaMikdash. It once happened that two Kohanim were running side by side to mount the Kevesh, ramp, leading up to the Mizbayach, Altar. When one of them came within daled amos, four cubits, of the Altar, the other took a knife and thrust it into his heart. The father of the young Kohen, who was mortally wounded, came and saw his son still in convulsions, in the last throes of death, and he said, "May he be an atonement for you. My son is still convulsing, so the knife has not become tamei, ritually contaminated, by coming in contact with a dead body." Chazal remarked that this father was more concerned with the spiritual cleanliness of the holy vessels, i.e. the knife which killed his son, than even the shedding of his own son's blood. This teaches us that murder, the taking of human life, was of very little significance to him.

It is incredible to consider that murder is clearly a terrible thing, but not when it is compared with the kedusha, holiness, of the Bais HaMikdash. Of what little value and meaning can a human life be, if the purity of a vessel in the Temple takes precedence? This is carrying religious observance a bit too far. It is the line of thinking of one to whom human life has little significance. Is it any wonder that in a generation such as that, the incidence of unintentional murder would escalate? When people do not value human life, the inadvertent taking of human life occurs more frequently, because people do not seem to care. In such a society, even the finest, the purest and most pious ones can, chas v'shalom, Heaven forbid, become victims of the premeditated murderer syndrome.

In support of this idea, I recently heard how Horav Aizik Scher, z.l., once cried bitterly when he read a newspaper article relating that a man had been killed. When someone sitting with him looked up startled, Rav Aizik responded, "How can people read in their morning newspaper about how a man was killed - and continue with their breakfast as if nothing had happened? This man probably left a wife and children. Is that not a tragedy? Have we become so callous that human life is meaningless?" If Rav Aizik made this statement some seventy years ago, what should we say now?

Returning to our original question, Horav Goldvicht explains that there are two forms of "unintentional." There is the "asher lo tzadah," "one who did not lay in ambush," and there is also one who, "Elokim inah l'yado," "G-d caused it come to his hand." The first circumstance, in which the unintentional murder is referred to as one "who did not lay in ambush," is represented by the classic case wherein one goes to the forest to chop wood and the blade slips and kills someone. If such a person had valued human life more, he would have checked and rechecked the blade to make absolutely certain that it was solidly in place. True, he did not lay in ambush, but there is still a an element of negligence on his part.

The second circumstance which the Torah refers to as being "caused by G-d," is a situation in which one who once killed b'shogeg, but was not in any way punished, must go through a similar episode during which his unpremeditated act of murder "occurred" in a more public forum. Hashem caused this to "come to his hand," as a result of the earlier episode which remained unresolved. Nothing "just happens;" there are no coincidences in life. It just depends on how long it takes for us to wake up and take notice.

You shall not cause pain to any widow or orphan…if you are to cause him pain…I shall surely hear his outcry…My wrath shall blaze and I shall kill you. (22:21, 22, 23)

I have always been bothered by the need to record a mitzvah whose observance would seem to be common sense. Regrettably, if we look around contemporary society, we observe that people are not so rational anymore. The elite and social climbers who perceive themselves as powerful have no qualms about pursuing their goals, even if it means trampling on another human being. The fact that the human being might be a widow or an orphan does not seem to trouble them. They are in the way, and nothing can stand in the way of progress. This is especially true when money is involved. People always seem to find a heter, halachic dispensation, when it is needed to satisfy their insatiable greed for accumulating material wealth. If the situation happens to take undue advantage of a helpless widow or orphan, it is just too bad.

There are also those "righteous" individuals who would never permit the blood or tears of a widow or orphan on their own hands, but who have no problem delegating their iniquity to someone else. Interestingly, this is probably the only time they ever delegate authority to anyone. The Ibn Ezra makes a noteworthy observation that addresses these paragons of "virtue." He notes that the Torah presents the first pasuk, which admonishes us against causing the widow or orphan to suffer, in the plural, "Lo'saanun," while the second pasuk states, "If you dare cause him pain," in the singular. This teaches us, says the Ibn Ezra, that if the community permits even one person to inflict pain on the helpless or downtrodden, Hashem will punish them all. Those who turn their heads away when a broken person is harmed, when a widow is taken advantage of, when an orphan is caused undue pain - will themselves have to answer to the Almighty. Hiding behind the cloak of anonymity and piety, these individuals allow others to do their contemptible work. They think they fool the world and, in truth, they succeed in pulling the wool over many an eye. The All-Knowing and All-Seeing Almighty, however, is aware of their devious nature and will exact retribution.

There are people who go out of their way to reach out to the downtrodden. Their work quite often goes unnoticed - even by the beneficiary. It might take years, as it did in the following story. The effect, however, lasts a lifetime. The story is about an eleven-year-old boy whom we will call Jerry, whose father suddenly passed away at a very young age. Jerry was left alone in the world - alone with his young, widowed mother, who had to go out to earn a living to support the two of them. She worked long hours, and Jerry was alone for much of the evening. He missed his father terribly, but he had to cover up his loneliness, lest his mother notice and be overcome with grief.

Jerry was observant in a traditional sense. There was no Jewish Day School in his town, so he would go to the afternoon Talmud Torah after public school. His day would begin at 5:30 a.m. when he arose to go to the early Minyan to recite Kaddish for his father. It was not much different than it is now. Most of the men in shul were the older men who were present early every day. The sight of an eleven year old boy reciting Kaddish tore at everyone's heart. Understandably, all of the men doted on young Jerry. They were all very protective of the little orphan.

After a few weeks of attending Minyan something occurred. Mr. Goldman, the shamas, sexton , of the synagogue, began to appear at Jerry's front door each morning , just as Jerry prepared to begin his trek to the synagogue. Mr. Goldman was not a young man. Originally he had gotten a ride to the synagogue each day. Now, all of sudden, he was just "passing by" the house - each morning just as Jerry began his walk. He explained, "Your home is on the way to the synagogue. I have to go this way to the synagogue. I have to go this way anyway, and I figured it would be nice for me to have some company. This way I would not have to walk alone."

Mr. Goldman was incredible. Through the freezing cold of winter, through the blazing heat and stifling humidity of summer, they walked together. The pelting rain and blinding snow did not halt their daily walk. During their walks, Mr. Goldman would share a story from the Midrash, a thought from Chazal, a halachah from the Shulchan Aruch, a mussar, ethical, thought. He held Jerry's hand as they crossed the street. He slowly moved in to fill the void left by Jerry's father's death. Indeed, as Jerry recollects today, it was those daily walks and comraderie that convinced him to pursue his religious studies in a yeshivah gedolah.

Years went by, and the walks were replaced by phone calls and letters. Jerry shared his successes with his surrogate father. When Jerry graduated yeshivah high school, Mr. Goldman was there to share in the nachas. Years later, when Jerry received semichah, ordination, Mr. Goldman shared in this most wonderful moment. Indeed, Jerry felt that his semichah was a gift, a special gift to a special man, who from out of the blue had become his primary motivator and source of encouragement.

Jerry met his bashert, Divinely ordained match, and Mr. Goldman attended the wedding. He sought no accolades, just the pure nachas of observing the joy in the life of the young man whom he had befriended. A few years later, Jerry, together with his wife and little six-month-old son came to visit his mother. They called Mr. Goldman and asked if he could come to the home that he would "pass by" so often, years ago. Mr. Goldman responded that he would like to, but, alas, he could no longer walk more than a few steps. Jerry said he would gladly come by to pick him up. Realizing that he had never known where Mr. Goldman lived, Jerry asked him for directions.

The trip was long and complicated. It was a full twenty-minute drive. As Jerry drove, tears ran down his face as he realized the distance Mr. Goldman had walked daily just to "pass by" his house. He had walked over an hour just so that a young orphaned boy should not feel the pain of loneliness. He had made Jerry feel that he was the beneficiary of having a young boy keep him company, when , in truth, the opposite was true. He understood the young boy's loneliness and he sought a way to alleviate it.

They met - the young boy turned man, his family and the old man who was now in his nineties. Everyone cried. What a beautiful and poignant scene it was; the next generation supporting the past generation, the generation that had nurtured and sustained it. It was an inspiring moment for Jerry and his wife. He finally was able to repay the man who had given him so much. What did he want? He merely wanted what all parents want - nachas and the best for their children. Jerry took Mr. Goldman home. As he said goodbye, they embraced and cried. They both knew that this would probably be the last time they would see one another. A short time later, Mr. Goldman went to his eternal rest, satisfied with a life lived well, a life that had inspired and kindled the spark in another life. Like a candle, he lit the flame in Jerry's neshamah, soul. By his simple gesture of being there, of holding Jerry's hand, of walking with him to shul and letting him know that he was not alone, he engendered confidence and faith in a young boy, giving him the reason and hope to go on. It is so easy and takes so little to help those in need. What are we waiting for?

Questions and Answers

1) Why does the Torah begin Parashas Mishpatim with the laws of eved Ivri?

2) The Torah refers to Bais Din, a Jewish court, as Elokim, a name of Hashem. Why?

3) Which is a greater sin: to strike a parent or to curse him?

4) In what case in our parsha is the perpetrator of a crime placed in jail?


1) The concept of humane treatment of a slave, letting him go free after six years, and the other laws that apply to the eved Ivri are considered a remembrance of Klal Yisrael's servitude in Egypt. When we remember our roots, we will treat our servants with dignity (Ramban).

2) Bais Din is charged with upholding Hashem's laws on earth. Thus, they are equated in name with Hashem (Ibn Ezra). Alternatively, the Shechinah, Divine Presence, rests on a Jewish court, inspiring it to arrive at a just and true decision (Ramban). Also, the term Elokim implies the source of the judges authority - Hashem (Ramban).

3) Striking one's parents is punished with death by strangulation. This is not as severe a punishment as stoning, which is prescribed for one who curses his parents.

4) If one strikes another Jew in such a manner that he is hospitalized and it is not known whether he will live or die, the assailant is placed into custody to make sure he does not attempt to escape a possible death sentence (Rashi).


Peninim on the Torah is in its 11th year of publication. The first seven years have been published in book form.

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