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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 the awl. (21:6)

Chazal explain that the ear is bored because it was the ear that heard that "Bnei Yisrael are My servants"(Vayikra 25:55). Yet, this eved, servant, felt so degraded that he chose to be a servant to a servant. He had the opportunity to leave servitude, to be a free man, but he chose to remain subservient to a human master. This man had no self-esteem. His ear was bored so that he would have a constant reminder of what he had done to himself. Why are we to wait six years to bore his ear? The beginning of his degradation was when he first became a servant. Why was he not bored then?

In his response to this question, Horav Yechezkel Levinstein, zl, delves into the human psyche. He distinguishes between two individuals who are on the ladder of spiritual ascendancy, both on the same rung: one is ascending, while the other is descending - rapidly. One individual is basically doing well, but, as of late, he has manifested a tendency toward slacking off a bit. He has exhibited a slight decline in his spiritual affiliation, and he is gravitating gradually toward the blandishments of his yetzer hora, evil-inclination. This man is in trouble. He stands on the precipice about to fall into the nadir of depravity. Although to all appearances he presents himself as being spiritually healthy, his slight decline can rapidly transform into an uncontrollable downward spiral.

The other individual has already fallen to the bottom of the pit. He has destroyed his spiritual status quo, but a yearning, a tiny spark within his consciousness, has begun to ignite. Deep in the recesses of his soul, an awakening is beginning. If this person continues with his quest, his success is ensured.

There was an accepted maxim in the famed Bais HaTalmud of Kelm: a person who previously had not davened, prayed, with kavanah, proper concentration and devotion, but has now begun to recite some prayers with kavanah, is far better than he who has always davened with great kavanah which has recently begun to dwindle. Although one exhibits enormous kavanah, while the other manifests very little kavanah, the first is an oleh - he is ascending - while the latter is a yoreid - he is descending.

When a person is plummeting to the depths of depravity it is not an appropriate time to speak to him. He is in the throes of descent and, as he is plunging downward, he is not inclined to listen. The one who is ascending, however, is open to suggestion. While he may still be at the bottom of the ladder, he is facing upward. For him, there is hope.

At the point of his original sale, the servant is on a downward spiral. He has just stolen and been caught, but has no money to pay back his theft. He is willing to be sold into servitude. To bore his ear, to give him mussar, an ethical discourse, about what he is doing to his life will be to no avail - at this point. In contrast, the eved who has completed six years of labor, who has been a servant to another human being and has enjoyed it to the point that he wants to return to this life of subservience, has reached the bottom. He can only go up. Now is the appropriate time to speak to him, to bore his ear and convey the Torah's lesson to him. For him, there is hope for success.

If you buy a Jewish bondsman, he shall work for six years; and in the seventh, he shall go free. (21:2)

The Ramban explains why the Torah's civil laws begin with the laws of eved Ivri, the Hebrew bondsman. The freedom that the Torah demands for these servants after six years is a direct corollary to Klal Yisrael's liberation from Egypt. Indeed, this is the reason that in the Haftorah for Parashas Mishpatim, Yirmiyahu HaNavi emphasizes freedom of the eved Ivri after six years, warning that a lack of adherence to this law will catalyze Klal Yisrael's national exile. Furthermore, the Yerushalmi in Meseches Rosh Hashanah says that the laws of eved Ivri were presented as the Jews left Egyp,t and reiterated at Har Sinai. We ask: Was there no other time to command Klal Yisrael concerning the laws of the Jewish servant? Was the Egyptian exodus the only venue for these laws? Could they not have waited until they reached Har Sinai? Horav Chaim Shmuelevitz, zl, provides a practical answer to this question. It was at a time when they themselves had just been liberated from bondage, when they had finally experienced the joy of freedom, that they would gladly accept a mitzvah that limits how long a Jew could be subjected to servitude.

Otzros HaTorah cites an incredible story that gives pragmatic application to the concept that one gains deeper insight into a matter after he has personally experienced a corresponding situation. When his enemies were seeking Nero Caesar of Rome, he escaped from the capitol and hid in the home of one of his trusted servants. Word got out that Nero was in the area, and an extensive search was instituted to find the monarch. Nero had nowhere to go, but to remain in the servant's home. When the rebels came and searched the house, Nero hid beneath a bed, pushing himself as far back as possible. The rebels entered the house and took it apart. They came to the bed, and instead of looking beneath it, they ran a sword back and forth. Apparently, they did not go far enough, because the sword missed Nero by a fraction of an inch. He held his breath and - if the concept of prayer can apply to such a despot - he prayed. After awhile, the rebels gave up their search and left.

The war was finally over, and Nero's forces had triumphed. Now came the opportunity to repay those who had been faithful him. He called to the palace the servant who had risked his and his family's lives for the king and asked what he wanted as a reward. He could have anything he desired. The servant responded that he wanted just one thing. He wanted to know what went through the king's mind as he lay beneath the bed while the rebels were searching for him. How did he feel at that time? Of all the things that the servant could have requested, he chose something that made no sense. At least we understand why he was a servant.

Upon hearing his request, the king immediately instructed his guards to shackle the servant and throw him into the dungeon. The nerve of the man! His insolence was outlandish. To throw away such an unprecedented opportunity was chutzpah at its nadir. Therefore, in three days, Nero himself would perform his execution. The day of the execution arrived, and the prisoner was prepared for his final moments on earth. Nero climbed up the stairs of the gallows. He took the noose and placed it around the neck of his soon-to-be departed servant, pulling the rope slowly. The very last moment, as the servant was choking, Nero cut the rope, sparing him. At that moment, Nero whispered to the man, "Now you know how I felt under the bed!"

Nero explained his actions to the servant in the following manner: "I promised you anything that you wanted. Your request was one that simply could not be conveyed orally. I could not explain to you my true emotions. The only way that you could actually understand how I felt was to experience a similar situation first hand. I gave you the opportunity to experience what it felt like to be so close to death."

In order for Klal Yisrael to sense the inherent joy that a servant feels when he is liberated, so that they would accept the laws of eved Ivri correctly, it was essential that they hear the laws at a time when they were experiencing the joy of liberation.

You shall not cause pain to any widow or orphan. (22:21)

Only a very despicable person takes advantage of a widow or orphan. Regrettably, however, it happens. It is lamentable that those in power take advantage of those who are not. Those who are themselves insecure, frequently prey upon the weak and disadvantaged. They must exert their power over someone, so they choose to pick on the inherently vulnerable disadvantaged. Hashem will not tolerate the victimization of widows and orphans. He is the Father of orphans and the Judge of widows. They are not alone because they can turn to Hashem, Who will listen to their pleas.

Loneliness is a state which we all fear. It is not the loneliness of solitude that we fear. It is possible to be surrounded by a crowd and yet feel all alone. The number of people with whom we come in contact has nothing to do with our level of loneliness. The warmth of our hearts towards the people around us determines our level of loneliness. One can be in the midst of a crowd or in the comparative quiet of his home; it is a sense of self-worth - a feeling that others care about him and that he has friends who share common goals and aspirations - that drives away the feelings of loneliness. While at times it is good to be alone, it is never good to be lonely. A secular writer once defined city life as "millions of people being lonely together."

One who trusts in Hashem understands that he is never alone. Hashem is always with him. Moreover, a Jew has a past to which he can connect. He belongs to a tradition that is enduring and stable. The tragedy of so many of our alienated brethren is that they have severed their ties to the past. By uprooting themselves from our tradition, they have destroyed the bond of "belonging" to the Jewish family.

Hashem tells the widow and orphan that they are not alone. He is with them. This is the message for anyone who has experienced loneliness: Hashem is with you. There is no loneliness so great, so absolute, so utterly devastating than the loneliness of he who does not know to call upon Hashem in his time of need. He who cannot pray to Hashem with the inner confidence that he knows that he is being heard, that his entreaty is being acknowledged, is truly lonely. The ultimate answer to loneliness is faith in Hashem. The companionship of Hashem is the balm for all loneliness.

Lying in a hospital bed can catalyze this relationship. Hashem's Shechinah rests at the head of a sick person's bed. Finding oneself suddenly in a hospital bed can be a frightening experience. One day, we are movers and shakers, occupied with so many people and involved in many endeavors. Suddenly, it is all in the past. We are no longer occupied. We are passive respondents. We do not move; we are moved. We have become dependent upon the doctors, nurses, and our families. It is at this time of loneliness that we lay back and realize that we are not really alone. We are as alone as we want to be. The Shechinah is there to comfort and reassure us throughout our ordeal.

He shall pay five cattle in place of the ox, and four sheep in place of the sheep. (21:37)

One who steals livestock and either sells or slaughters it must pay five times the value of the ox and four times the value of the sheep. Chazal tell us that the Torah reduced the fine for a sheep, as a result of the embarrassment which the thief suffered when he carried the sheep on his shoulders. They add that if the humiliation of a common thief evokes Hashem's pity, how much more so should we be concerned with the feelings of innocent people. The Torah takes the feelings of a person very seriously. While no one would purposely hurt another person, all too often our thoughtlessness inadvertently causes unnecessary pain to another person. At times, our insatiable ego provokes us to act in a manner which, albeit unconscious, can have a detrimental effect on those around us. The following vignettes demonstrate how far some of our gedolim, Torah luminaries, went not to infringe upon another person's sensitivities.

Horav Sholom Schwadron, zl, the legendary Maggid of Yerushalayim, was a dynamic speaker. His words could penetrate the most obstinate heart and move the most intractable person. He related that he was once asked to substitute for a mashgiach in one of the yeshivos. The mashgiach had to go fundraising for an extended period of time. The students of the yeshivah asked Rav Sholom to give them shmuessen, ethical discourses, which was one of the functions of the mashgiach. Rav Sholom was in a quandary. He was asked to act as a mashgiach in the sense that he would speak with and motivate the bachurim, young men, of the yeshivah. Shmuessen was a function that belonged solely to the mashgiach. If Rav Sholom's discourses would be impressive, then word would get back to the mashgiach, and it might make him feel bad. On the other hand, did he have the right to impede the students' spiritual development if he had the ability and the charisma to reach out to them? He decided to ask Horav Yechezkel Levinstein, zl, mashgiach of Yeshivas Ponevez, for his opinion regarding the matter. Rav Chatzkel responded, "We have an accepted axiom that if the opportunity to build the Bais HaMikdash avails itself, but, simultaneously, this might cause someone to feel bad, it is better not to build!" Rav Sholom did not give the shmuessen.

In support of this, we see that Moshe Rabbeinu delayed going to Pharaoh for seven days, because he feared that his older brother, Aharon Hakohen, would be hurt. Imagine, Moshe knew that Klal Yisrael's liberation hinged on him, yet he refrained from going because he did not want to hurt his brother. This is one more reason why he was worthy of the mantle of leadership.

It is not uncommon for principals and teachers to showcase a specific student. After all, a teacher looks good when he can showcase the fruits of his labor. The school administration takes great pride in their students who excel academically. Regrettably, this is a standard by which the common person measures success. They rarely notice the student who is diligent, but does not receive an A on his test; or the student who epitomizes ethical behavior and exemplary demeanor, but does not possess the greatest mind. This is human nature, and it probably will not change. Horav Solumon Mutzafi, zl, was as brilliant as he was pious. His virtue and saintliness were legendary. At the young age of six years old, he was the undisputed academic scholar of his school in Baghdad. One day the principal told him that the Chief Rabbi of Baghdad and a group of philanthropists from America were coming to visit the school. The principal had decided that young Solumon would be tested publicly to demonstrate to the visitors his brilliance and breadth of knowledge. This would certainly benefit the school.

Solumon refused to be part of the show. He felt it was wrong to benefit from his Torah knowledge. In addition, it would hurt his fellow classmates. The principal insisted; the young boy refused. When Solumon saw that it was a losing battle, he hid. For two hours he concealed himself in order not to hurt the other boys' feelings. Even as a young child, this great tzaddik showed signs of greatness.

Va'ani Tefillah

U'lehachazirah bi l'asid lavo - and restore it to me in Time to Come.

The Chafetz Chaim once informed his close circle of confidants to meet him at his home at three o'clock in the morning. He was planning to reveal to them an important principle. His students were certain that their saintly rebbe was about to unveil to them a special secret regarding the Geulah hoAsidah, Final Redemption. They were wrong. The Chafetz Chaim simply wanted to emphasize a point, and this was his way of capturing their attention.

He began by reciting the brachah of Elokai Neshamah until he came to the words, U'lehachazirah bi l'asid lavo, "And restore it to me in the Time to Come." The Chafetz Chaim noted that the word u'lehachazirah, is underscored with a mapik hay, where the vowel is used as a form of emphasis, in this case on the restoring of the neshamah. He explained that this teaches us that, exactly the same neshamah that we have with us at the time we go to sleep, will be returned to us. If the neshamah has been tainted, it will be returned tainted. Whatever we do to the neshamah, remains - until we do something to correct and purify that blemish. We determine our relationship with Hashem. If we distance ourselves - we remain distant. We dictate our actions, our proximity to Hashem. This is certainly a lesson that should be highlighted.

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

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