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Peninim on the Torah

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Rabbi A. Leib Scheinbaum
Hebrew Academy of Cleveland


If you buy a Jewish bondsman, he shall work for six years. (21:2)

The Torah's treatment of the Jew who falls on hard times and resorts to stealing as a means of support is in total contrast with secular law. The secular world views a thief as having a habitual, chronic failing: once a thief, always a thief. The punishment that is imposed upon a thief is a prison term where he spends his days and nights with individuals of all walks of life, perpetrators of all forms of crime. By the time he "graduates" from prison, he has been exposed to every type of human deficiency. He entered as a thief, and he leaves as an authority on every form of abomination.

The Torah takes an approach that is radically different. Understanding that a lack of self-esteem might be a precursor to this person's downfall, the Torah seeks to imbue him with a positive state of mind and, thereby, raise his self-esteem. He stole; he cannot repay his debt. Bais Din will find a way for him to reimburse his victim, while simultaneously placing him in an environment that would be therapeutic for the issues that confront him.

While some of us might take issue with the thief's ignoble background, the Torah insists that once the thief is sold as a Jewish bondsman, everything changes. Indeed, Chazal say that one who purchases an eved, servant, actually purchases a master. First of all, the actual sale must be performed with utmost dignity. The thief is not sold publicly. It must be a private sale, one that will uphold his respectability. A man who steals has lost hope. We must see to it that his aspirations and confidence return. Everything about being an eved is focused toward this goal. The master may not demand that he undertake any form of hard labor. He must speak to him with respect and treat him as an honored member of the family. Horav Yechezkel Sarne, zl, asserts that the relationship that the master must retain with the eved supercedes even that which every Jew must establish with his fellow Jew. We have a mitzvah of V'ahavta l'reiacha kamocha, "Love your neighbor as (you love) yourself." In the event that this is impossible, as in a situation when there is only one cup of water for both of them to survive, then we say, chayecha kodmin, "your life precedes his." In other words, there is no stipulation of kamocha, "as yourself," if your own life is in danger. Concerning the eved, however, this law does not apply. The eved is always first.

In the master's home, the eved learns how to act towards others. He learns respect for others, and develops self-respect for himself. One who respects his fellow Jew could neither hurt nor steal from him. The six years that the eved spends in his master's home is an educational process which disciplines and enlightens him. It is a process that indoctrinates him with the character development that he is sorely missing and fosters within him a sense of self-esteem. When the eved realizes his true self-worth, he will never again resort to denigrating himself with an act of theft.

The Torah begins Parashas Mishpatim, the parsha which addresses civil law, with the laws pertaining to the eved Ivri, by design. It teaches us that regardless of how low a person has sunk, it is our mutual responsibility to assist in his rehabilitation, so that he can once again return to Hashem and serve him productively. Furthermore, the Torah intimates to us the inestimable value of each and every Jew. We may never give up hope - on anyone.

If has nothing, he shall be sold for his theft… If the theft shall be found in his possession… he shall pay double. (22:2,3)

In the Talmud Bava Kamma 79b, Chazal distinguish between a ganav, thief, and a gazlan, robber. The thief must pay a fine of keifal, double the principle. If he does not have the ability to repay his "debt," he is sold into slavery to cover what he owes. The robber, on the other hand, pays only the principle - if he is able. If he is unable to pay, he does not. Indeed, the halachah should have been the opposite, since the gazlan, robber, grabs with force, while the thief sneaks in at a time when people will be unaware of his presence. Chazal explain that there is another element to the ganav's nefarious deed that demands an extreme form of atonement: his attitude towards Hashem. The robber is evil, but he does not conceal this from anyone. He acts openly and blatantly, stealing and plundering to his heart's content. The ganav, on the other hand, is ashamed of what people might say. Therefore, he sneaks into the home under the protective veil of night. He does not want people to know that he is a thief, but what about Hashem? Does he give greater recognition to what people might think than to what Hashem knows? Apparently, he does. One who attributes greater eminence to man than he does to Hashem deserves a greater punishment.

In an alternative exegesis, Horav Tuviah Lisitzin, zl, suggests that the ganav has acted surreptitiously, surveying the house, developing a relationship with the owner, so that he could determine the most opportune time to break into the house. He has become the owner's friend, so that he can steal from him, or he takes advantage of a current friendship to further his miscreant goal. This is low. It takes a real scoundrel to use people in such a manner. He has manipulated a friend, so that he can steal from him. The person deserves a punishment commensurate with his contemptibility.

This idea surfaces again in connection with the din, law, of to'ain taanas ganav, a watchman who claims and swears that the object he was asked to guard was stolen. If witnesses testified that he has lied, and the object has been discovered in his possession, the shomer, watchman, pays keifal, double. If the watchman were to claim, however, that the object was lost, and it was discovered later that he lied, he does not pay. Why? In both cases, the watchman has lied and sworn falsely. What difference does it make what it is that he has lied about?

In the Talmud Bava Metzia 94b, Chazal say that an aveidah, a lost article, is analogous to a peshiah, an act of negligence, while geneivah, theft, has a greater resemblance to an oneis, an accident. Therefore, a watchman who claims that the article he was guarding has been stolen from him is attempting to present himself as being wholesome and upright. An "accident" occurred, and the article was stolen. Nebech, it is unfortunate, but he cannot be blamed. The one who claims that the object has been lost is willing to present himself as having been negligent concerning its care. In both cases, the shomer is a liar, but in one of them, the case of geneivah, he seeks to conceal his true character. He is, therefore, punished accordingly.

We now have a new understanding of the sinner who covers up his true nature. He demonstrates that he has greater respect for what people think than for what Hashem knows. That is like adding insult to injury by compounding his sins.

If you encounter an ox of your enemy or his donkey wandering. You shall return it to him repeatedly. (23:4)

The Torah in Sefer Devarim 22:1 writes a similar enjoinment, but uses a different word to describe the circumstance in which the animal is now found. There it says, "You shall not see the ox of your brother, or his sheep, or his goat, cast off… You shall surely return them to your brother." The use of the word nidachim, "cast off," as opposed to toeh, wandering, which is the Torah's word of choice in Parashas Mishpatim, prompts the Ramban to distinguish between the situations that each pasuk addresses. Toeh, wandering or straying, is a term implying that the animal has just deviated slightly from the correct path and can subsequently be returned without much problem. Nidachim, however, implies that the animal has run far away. It has distanced itself from its home and its master. In addition, in Sefer Devarim, the Torah adds a sheep and goat to the list of lost animals. Both of these animals will find it difficult to return on their own to their masters' homes.

The Chofetz Chaim,zl, views these pesukim as an imperative for each and every one of us to demonstrate concern for the spiritual well-being of our brethren. If the Torah emphasizes its concern for a Jew's valuables, for his ox, donkey, or sheep, certainly it behooves us to, at least, do the same and more for its owner, our Jewish brother or sister, who has strayed or even who has distanced himself far from the Jewish mainstream. Moreover, Chazal teach us (Bava Metzia 31A) that we derive from the words, hasheiv teshiveim lo, "you shall return it to him repeatedly," that one is enjoined to return the animal even one hundred times. Consequently, by implication, we are obligated to return a lost Jewish soul as often as necessary. Caring for a lost Jewish soul is not a one-time deal; it is a mission that one must undertake regardless of the daunting nature of this task.

The Chofetz Chaim adds that those in our generation who have become alienated from the Torah are not real sinners. They have not acted with animus towards the Torah. They simply neither knowú, nor have they ever experienced, the beauty and serenity of a Torah way of life. They are no different than lost sheep who have strayed far away and have no way of returning home - on their own. Those that have the talent and ability to reach out to the estranged Jew must do so, and those who lack either the talent or self-confidence to act personally should at least support those who do.

When we reflect upon American Jewry, we realize that the Torah renaissance to which we are privy today is -- for the most part -- the work of a handful of dedicated laymen and Roshei Yeshivah who toiled b'mesiras nefesh, with self-sacrifice, to plant the seeds of Torah in this country. Horav Yehudah Heschel Levenberg, zl, came to New Haven, Connecticut, in 1922, and founded the first advanced yeshivah in America. He came at the behest of the Alter, zl, m'Slabodka, Horav Nossan Tzvi Finkel, zl. His devotion to his students and his dedication and zeal to build Torah in the American spiritual wasteland were guided by a unique compass. It was a tradition from the great tzaddik, Horav Shimshon, zl, m'Ostropolia, who said that to introduce Torah to a new country, one must be ready to sacrifice everything, even his life. He succeeded in producing a number of the gedolei Torah who guided the past, and whose lives continue to inspire the present generation of bnei Torah. In order to feed his students, Rav Levenberg would go from door to door, if necessary. In fact, at one point, he was even reduced to collecting tomatoes from Jewish farmers in the area, so that he could feed his students.

On his deathbed, he related the following to his close student, Horav Sender Linchner, zl: "Do you know the meaning of mesiras nefesh? You probably think of mesiras nefesh as being burned at the stake to sanctify Hashem's Name. No. That is mesiras haguf, sacrifice of the body. I could have remained in Slabodka and spent my life going through Shas (the entire Talmud) many times. Instead, I came to America and spent my days collecting tomatoes from Jewish farmers around New Haven, so that my talmidim would have something to eat. That is mesiras nefesh."

I could go on with stories about those who labored in the field of Torah, so that we, their beneficiaries, could be availed the multiplicity of Torah institutions that exist today. Every community had its own unique rav or rosh yeshivah, who, together with committed laymen, built Torah in their respective communities. I would be remiss, however, not to mention the individual who probably was the architect of Torah in America, Horav Shraga Feivel Mendlowitz, zl.

Rav Shraga Feivel was an individual who lived with a sense of responsibility for his fellow Jew. In fact, no subject so dominated his teaching or private conversation as the need for every Jew to concern himself with the fate of his fellow Jew. Among the most important phrases in his repertoire was, "What are you doing for Klal Yisrael?" He would go so far as to posit that a person who partakes of Hashem's bounty- who breathes His air, who eats His food, and who benefits from His knowledge - yet does not feel compelled to share his money, food or knowledge with others serves no purpose in Creation. He would interpret Chazal's maxim in Pirke Avos 2:18, Al tehi rasha bifnei atzmecha, "Do not judge yourself to be a wicked person," with a homiletical bend. Anyone who limits his efforts to himself alone - who is bifnei atzmecha, for himself - is derelict of his obligation as a Jew.

Rav Shraga Feivel went one step further in his devotion. He felt that reaching out meant to attend to a person's material needs, as well as to his spiritual deficiencies. There is no dearth of stories about Rav Shraga Feivel's sensitivity to the material needs of his students. He understood that a hungry boy could not learn, and that clothes for Yom Tov were a staple. The list goes on. A young refugee from a very distinguished European family arrived penniless at the yeshivah. Rav Shraga Feivel saw to it that this young man would "find" a dollar in his jacket every week. Furthermore, knowing that this delicate young man found it difficult to partake from the meals served in the kitchen, Rav Shraga Feivel thought of a ruse to supply him with an adequate meal every day. He told the young man that a distinguished Torah scholar had arrived from Russia. Since it was not befitting a man of his stature to eat his meals in the dining room, it would be best that he eat at a restaurant. Would the young man be willing to accompany the scholar to the restaurant, so that he not be compelled to eat alone? The ploy worked, and the young man had one daily meal at the restaurant.

Rav Shraga Feivel made it a point to know each student's financial situation. One of today's leading philanthropists remembers how, as a young student in Torah Vodaath, he suffered real want. His father had passed away, leaving his family with very little. Rav Shraga Feivel was acutely aware of his circumstances: "Before he would talk to me about an afternoon chavrusa, study partner, he would inquire if I had eaten a filling lunch. He always asked me about my mother, and how she was faring at home."

Tuition was never an issue that would bar anyone from attending the yeshivah, as long as Rav Shraga Feivel was at its helm. One day as he was walking through the hall, he heard a woman sobbing in the financial office. When he investigated, he discovered that this woman, who had three sons in the yeshivah, was literally begging for a tuition reduction. Observing this, Rav Shraga Feivel signaled to one of the officers to follow him out of the room, "Come, let us go see for ourselves how she is living." They went to her apartment and discovered a place where the very walls cried out from the poverty within. Rav Shraga Feivel took out a few dollars from his pocket and left it on the table.

Understandably, he reduced her tuition, explaining to the board that they were dealing with pikuach nefesh, issues that border on life and death. In the future, he instructed them to view all tuition issues in this manner. Torah is the lifeblood of our People. There is no reason to spill Jewish blood in order to have access to it.

Men such as Rav Shraga Feivel, and others like him who built Torah in this country, viewed their work as a mission, themselves as agents of the Almighty and their sense of responsibility for Klal Yisrael their raison d'etre.

If you see the donkey of someone you hate crouching under its burden, would you refrain from helping him? You shall help repeatedly with him. (23:5)

Rashi defines the word azov as ezrah, to help. One helps the donkey,regardless of the fact that the owner of the donkey is one who persists in committing sins, despite repeated warnings not to do so. He is someone whom it is permissible to hate, since he flaunts his degradation of the Torah. Yet, we are enjoined to offer and assist him. Targum Onkeles defines the word azov as abandon/refrain or desist. In this context, we are being told to abandon our animus towards this individual, desist from our resentment of his actions, overlook who he is and what he does in order to help him. Horav Zev Weinberger, Shlita suggests a corollary between these two definitions. One might think that while it is permissible to have a negative sentiment towards this individual, assisting him in his time of need is an action that takes place despite one's negative feelings. It is almost as if the "helper" wants to say, "I do not care for you. Yet, I am willing to help you." This is nekamah, pure revenge, a negative commandment in the Torah.

Targum Onkeles posits that one should synthesize both definitions of azov. First, abandon the hatred you have in your heart towards this individual. Find a favorable place in your heart for him. Then, help him. By first eschewing any feelings of contempt within his heart, the assistance he offers will be much more appropriate and meaningful.

Va'ani Tefillah

Yehi ratzon…she'yibaneh Bais HaMikdash.
May it be Your will…that the Bais HaMikdash be soon rebuilt…

After reciting the halachos pertaining to the Bais Hamikdash and its various services, we entreat Hashem that He rebuild that edifice, so that we will be able to serve Him properly. If we develop a clear and profound understanding of the halachos, and we pray for the day that the service for which we hope will be revived, then the restoration of the Bais Hamikdash merely becomes a vehicle for us to complete our task of service to Hashem more fully. In other words, our entreaties are not merely empty words, dreams and hopes about an experience that might just happen one day. No! By learning and studying the laws, by developing a profundity in their detail and minutiae, we not only become proficient in them, we are, to a certain extent, experiencing the service. We are doing everything but actually being there. This, too, will one day soon occur, and our words will achieve reality.

It seems strange that the tefillah begins with a prayer for the rebuilding of the Bais Hamikdash, followed by an entreaty that Hashem give us our portion in His Torah, and concludes with another request that we be able to serve Hashem in the Bais Hamikdash as in days past. Why is there a break in the prayer for the entreaty of v'sein chelkeinu b'Torasecha, "give us our portion in Your Torah"?

Pardes Menachem cites the Talmud Sotah 49b, where Chazal say that in the end of the days prior, to the advent of Moshiach, the spiritual and ethical level of the Jewish People will wane. Chazal detail an entire list of deficiencies, including lack of respect for elders and Torah leaders. They conclude by saying that we have no one upon whom to rely but our Father in Heaven. Therefore, when we ask for the End of Days to finally arrive, we are placing ourselves in a dilemma. To allay the fears of what this period will mean to us from a negative perspective, we immediately entreat Hashem that He take pity on us and give us the fortitude to withstand the challenges and that He grant us our portion in His Torah.

l'zechar nishmas

by his family:
David, Susan, Daniel, Breindy, Ephraim, Adeena, Aryeh and Michelle Jacobson
and great grandchildren

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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