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Peninim on the Torah

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Rabbi A. Leib Scheinbaum
Hebrew Academy of Cleveland


But if the bondsman shall say, "I love my master, my wife, and my children - I shall not go free"…and his master shall bore through his ear with the awl, and he shall serve him forever. (21:5,6)

Chazal comment us that the "ear" which heard at Har Sinai, "For to Me shall Bnei Yisrael be avadim, slaves, and not avadim l'avadim, slaves to slaves. Yet this man went and acquired a master for himself." It is one thing to become a slave in order to repay one's debt. It is totally another thing when one seeks to make servitude a life-long endeavor. Horav Sholom Schwadron, zl, suggests that this halachah provides us with a powerful lesson. Chazal tell us that one who purchases an eved Ivri, Hebrew bondsman, actually acquires a "master" for himself.

Let us attempt to present this idea and put it into perspective. The master visits the shopping mall and sees an exquisite suit - on sale, no less. He is about to make the purchase when he remembers that if he buys a suit for himself, he must do the same for his eved. The servant must be equal with his master. He has no choice but to buy two suits.

The master continues his shopping expedition. Everywhere he stops to buy, he buys double. It is more like, "Buy two; get one!" Another scenario that presents an ironic outcome is the Yamim Tovim. Chanukah is approaching, and the master has a beautiful, ornate, silver menorah. It is an expensive heirloom that he inherited from his father. Regrettably, this year he is not going to light this menorah, because if the master has only one menorah, or if he has one expensive menorah and one of lesser value, the eved gets the expensive one! This incongruity applies equally on Purim if the master has only one Megillah. He can always hope that his servant will be nice enough to share it with him!

This reverse state of affairs continues on Shabbos if the master only has one special set of clothes. He will be wearing his weekday clothes while his eved will be clothed in his expensive suit and cotton shirt. They return from shul walking through the street - the eved in his fancy Shabbos clothes and the master in his weekday garb. Imagine, the people that mistakenly wish Gut Shabbos to the servant and completely ignore the master. It may seem ironic, but that is the meaning of acquiring a "master" for oneself. The master is selfless in his generosity and benevolence. All this is to provide the Hebrew bondsman with an environment that maintains his dignity - even if it is at the expense of the master. He was aware of the repercussions when he made the decision to purchase an eved Ivri.

There is more. The master cannot have the eved perform any labor that might be below his dignity. The eved must be treated as royalty. When we take into consideration that the type of individual that was sold as a servant had been a thief who could not repay the money he stole, we understand that we are not dealing here with a member of the higher echelons of society.

Clearly, one who purchases an eved is a tzaddik of the highest order, a benevolent, generous man who feels the pain of his fellow Jew who is down and out. He wants to help, even if it is at the cost of personal convenience and degradation. All that matters is the opportunity to be of assistance to a fellow Jew.

Having digested all of this, is it any wonder that the eved wants to continue his servitude after the initial six year period? Who would not want to "work" for such a virtuous master? The man must have the middos, character traits, of a saint to make such a sacrifice.

Rav Sholom explains that after all is said and done, if the master asks his servant to do something "respectable," such as mail a letter or deliver a package, the servant most certainly has to oblige. This is servitude. The servant must listen to his master. He cannot refuse. This is the blemish created by servitude. A Jew can have no master other than Hashem. This is a Jew's shibud, obligation, to Hashem. We are His servants and only His servants. Thus, any responsibility or obligation to a human being that detracts from our total and unequivocal commitment to Hashem is, by its very nature, a negation of our servitude to the Almighty. Therefore, the "ear" that heard at Sinai that a Jew must be totally committed to Hashem-- yet proceeded to sell himself to another human being--should be bored with an awl.

Rav Sholom takes this thesis further. Until now we have addressed a situation in which a Jew sold himself to a saintly master who provides for all of his needs and accords him the greatest respect. What about someone who sells himself to a master of less credible virtue? Surely, one who sold himself to a gentile would be demeaning himself and placing a serious strain on his relationship with Hashem. After all, if one who is sold to a tzaddik must have his ear drilled because it indicates a breach in his commitment to Hashem, certainly one who sells himself to a gentile is crossing the line of devotion. Furthermore, the gentile is not likely to treat him nearly as well as the Jewish master would treat him.

Wait! We are not yet finished. What if a Jew were to sell himself not to a Jew - not to a gentile - but to an animal? Could there be a worse form of denigrating the Tzelem Elokim, G-dly Image, in which he was created? Is there a lower form of disgrace than servitude to an animal? One might question the feasibility of such a transaction taking place. It does occur, however, more often than we are willing to admit.

There is such a beast as the animal within us; the base character; the physical desires; the moral deficiencies from which we have a very hard time severing our relationship. Is this any less a form of slavery than to an animal? Yet, we do it all the time! We are so busy feeding our physical and base desires that we have become slaves to the animal from within. If the eved Ivri who has sold himself to a virtuous master is assailed for wanting to remain in servitude, because it detracts from his commitment to Hashem - how should we, who have sold ourselves to a beheimah, the animal within, justify our actions?

If a fire goes forth and finds thorns. (22:5)

If one makes a fire, even if it was created in his own field for discretionary purposes, he is still obligated to tend to it. Therefore, he is responsible to pay whatever damages result from his uncontrolled fire. Fires have the potential to cause great devastation. While it is not as common in contemporary times, in previous centuries in Europe, when houses were made out of wood and were built in close proximity to one another, an uncontrolled fire could destroy an entire community. Even today, we have only to peruse the headlines of a few months ago to read about the havoc which fire caused in California. The following incident may not be totally relevant to the parshah; nonetheless, I feel the lesson one may derive from it is critical.

Horav Yitzchak Zilberstein, Shlita, cites the sefer, Yesod V'Shoresh Ha'Avodah, Shaar Ha'gadol, perek 5, which mentions a tzaddik by the name of Rav Moshe Eiveyer, who would perform specific customs in honor of Hashem. He proceeds to describe the areas in which this righteous man distinguished himself. Rav Zilberstein writes that for some time he had searched for data concerning Rav Moshe's life and endeavor. He finally found a story in the Bais Avraham from Horav Avraham zl, m'Slonim which records the following episode.

Prior to his passing, Rav Moshe assembled members of his community in his home and attempted to inspire them concerning the significance of Birkas Ha'Mazon, Bentching after meals: "I assure you that whoever recited Birkas Ha'Mazon from a written text, his house will not sustain the damages of fire." This was stated during a time in history when every blaze carried the potential for destroying an entire community. Everyone in the community heeded Rav Moshe's advice. Well, almost everyone. There was one person who simply refused to read the Bentching from a written text. It was not convenient. The Jewish community was spared the effects of a conflagration as a result of their adherence to Bentching from a written text.

One night, the wife of the individual who refused to comply with Rav Moshe's request woke up to a noxious odor. It smelled like fire! She looked out of the window and saw a non-Jewish house down the block that was ablaze. She woke her husband and they both stared in shock and disbelief. Their home was in the line of the fire. What were they going to do? Suddenly, the wife looked at her husband and said, "Quickly, run to the cemetery and pray at the grave of Rav Moshe. Ask his mechillah, forgiveness, for your disregard of his warning and ask him to intercede on our behalf."

The man might have been obstinate, but he was not a total fool. He ran to the cemetery and prostrated himself in front of the tzaddik's grave, begging forgiveness for his insolence. He promised that he would never again separate himself from the community and would always recite Bentching from a written text.

It did not take long for the miracle to occur. The man returned home to notice that all of the homes belonging to gentiles were gone, while his home was standing, unscathed, because the fire had just been put out - at his door step.

The lesson is there for all of us to heed.

So it will be that if he cries out to Me, I will listen, for I am compassionate. (22:26)

When the oppressed cry out to Hashem, they have a captive audience - Hashem listens and responds. The response may not always be what we want to hear, but our entreaty is never ignored. The word that the Torah uses to describe Hashem's compassion, chanun, is a derivative of chinam, free, implying that Hashem's compassion is often the result of His altruism, rather than a reward for something we deserve. It is Hashem's boundless love for His People that catalyzes His compassion - not necessarily our own worthiness. If so, why do we find tragedy occurring in some of the finest homes? Unquestionably, Hashem's ways are a secret to which the human mind is not privy, but how are we to understand the meaning of His unwarranted compassion in the context of catastrophe?

As we said, Hashem's ways are beyond the grasp of human ken. In place of some rationale, I cite a letter of condolence which Horav Yosef Sholom Elyashiv, Shlita, sent to the bereaved family of a young Jewish scholar who was taken suddenly from them.

"Regarding the question that I was asked: Why? For what reason did Hashem do this? I cannot answer such a question. Hashem's ways are hidden from us, but the "Rock - perfect in His work" (Devarim 32:4). We believe that Hashem's ways are just - even though, due to our limitations, we do not understand them. Nonetheless, I would like to quote the Zohar HaKadosh on Parashas Vayishlach: David HaMelech was born without years. In other words, no specific time was allotted for his life. When Adam HaRishon saw this, he granted him seventy years of his life. We derive from here that a person can live in this world and be unaware that every day of his life is a special gift that Hashem, in His overwhelming kindness, has given him. Therefore, one must thank Hashem for whatever life has been granted to him, for that life (however short or adverse) might be something special that was granted to him above and beyond that to which he was entitled. One who was fortunate enough to have spent his time on this earth serving Hashem, warranting the crown of Torah, earning the crown of a good name and meriting to leave after him a generation of committed, righteous offspring, is truly a blessed individual." While these words may not decrease the pain, they give us a positive insight and help us to maintain perspective under the most trying moments. Horav Yitzchak Zilberstein, Shlita, cites an incident that took place concerning Horav Shmuel Birnbaum, zl, the venerable Rosh Yeshivah of Mir, America. The Rosh Yeshivah sustained two heartrending losses with the passing of two of his sons at a young age, under tragic circumstances. It was during the shivah, mourning period, for the second catastrophe that the Rosh Yeshivah sat there in deep pain, unable to accept comfort. One of his closest students moved over to his rebbe and asked, "Rebbe, if Avraham Avinu would have carried out Hashem's command during the Akeidas Yitzchak, and Yitzchak would have been slaughtered, would Avraham have to sit shivah?"

The Rosh Yeshivah thought for a moment and said, "It seems that if this was the will of the Almighty, then it would countermand shivah. How can one sit shivah and mourn for an occurrence that Hashem Himself in His Glory commanded Avraham Avinu to carry out?"

"If that is the case," the student continued, "can the Rosh Yeshivah question the tragedy that took place with his son? Is there any doubt that this is the unequivocal will of Hashem? This is what we believe, that everything is in accordance with Hashem's will. It is not as apparent as it was at the Akeidah, so, therefore, we must sit shivah, but we must permit ourselves to be consoled."

The Rosh Yeshivah looked at his student and said, "Nichamtani. You have comforted me."

Do not respond over a dispute to tilt after the many. (23:2)

According to the simple interpretation of this pasuk, it is exhorting us to convict a defendant of capital punishment only if there is a majority of two judges that render a guilty verdict. A court that tries capital cases is comprised of twenty-three judges. A verdict of acquittal can be passed with a majority of one. Hence, when twelve judges find for acquittal and eleven for guilty, the defendant is found innocent. In order to issue a guilty verdict, it has to be at least thirteen to ten. Rashi adds a homiletic interpretation based on the fact that the word riv, dispute, is written chaseir, missing a yud, which makes it sound like rav, master, or rabbi. This prompts Rashi to say, "Do not respond against a master," meaning that they may not dispute the ruling of the outstanding member of the court. Therefore, in cases of capital punishment, they begin polling the judges from the side, so that the lesser judges may state their opinion first.

Rashi is teaching us the importance of listening to the manhig, leader, of a community. Regrettably, this is not in vogue in contemporary times, when we often do what we want or what conforms to our perception of right and wrong. Torah leadership is hardly an issue to some. Perhaps the following episode will explain what seems to be the standard today. In a small community in Eastern Europe, the boorish members assembled and decided to rebel against the leadership of the town's rabbi. Sadly, this was not unusual. It was just that these individuals lacked the "finesse" and "diplomacy" that some of today's self-righteous, duplicitous denizens of the Jewish community manifest. These people had no shame, and they told it from their own perspectives. They saw no reason for the rav to have the last word regarding kashrus, education, mikveh and other religious activities. After all, they were the majority, and the Torah enjoins us to follow the majority.

The rabbi was as clever as he was a scholar. He listened to their claims and replied, "Let me share a story with you. Once, all two hundred and forty-eight organs of the body got together and came to the head with a challenge. They felt that they were all nothing more than his servants. He made the decisions for the body, and they had to follow along obsequiously. He never consulted with them. Does the Torah not teach us that the majority rules? Why did he not listen to the Torah?

"The head was not stymied by their allegation. He replied, 'The Torah is addressing a case in which the Sanhedrin, the great body of Jewish Law, is comprised of seventy-one heads, each one a Torah scholar of great erudition and sterling character. When one is confronted with so many heads, it is necessary to question each one and obtain his opinion. Thus, if there is no consensus, we follow the majority. Among all of you, however, there is not a single head. You are all tails, each one vying to present his opinion. The axiom of "majority rules" does not apply in such a circumstance!'"

Three times during the year shall your men folk appear before the Lord, Hashem. (23:17)

The idea of Aliyah l'Regel, pilgrimage to Yerushalayim for the Three Festivals, is repeated three times in the Torah: in Parashas Mishpatim; in Parashas Ki Sissa (Shemos 34:24); and in Parashas Re'eh (Devarim 16:16). Horav Yosef Sholom Elyashiv, Shlita, posits that these three sets of three emphasize the three primary principles of faith upon which our religion is founded. They are: the existence of Hashem; Torah from Heaven; Divine Providence. We believe in the Supreme Being/Hashem Who gave us the Torah at Har Sinai and Who guides and directs every aspect of the world and our lives.

The Pesach Festival attests to the existence of Hashem. Indeed, Hashem begins the Ten Commandments by introducing Himself as the One Who took us out of Egypt, as opposed to the One Who created the world. Hence, it is something one must believe. It is not something that we saw, but the exodus from Egypt was experienced by the entire Jewish People. The experience was transmitted through the generations from parent to child so that it has become inculcated into our psyche.

On Shavuos, Hashem gave us the Torah amid miracles and wonder, on a fiery mountain that was resounding with thunder and lightning. On this day every year, man can reflect upon the meaning of the festival and what it represents. The Torah is eternal and has the same validity to us today as it had some thousands of years ago when it was given to us on Har Sinai.

The Festival of Succos provides us with a unique window into Hashgachah Pratis, Divine Providence. The succah, which all observant Jews either build or sit in, might have for its base a variety of components. In other words, one person will have a simple four wall succah made of wood or fiberglass, while his neighbor might have an addition to his house that is converted into a succah. One area in which all succos coincide is the roof: the schach, covering, must be kosher and uniform, its covering meeting the criteria for all Jews across the board. This teaches us that there is one covering for all Jews. We are all individually and collectively under Hashem's protection and guidance. This is the lesson of Succos.

Three Festivals - three times - three lessons.

Va'ani Tefillah

V'lo anachnu amo v'tzon mariso
And we belong to Him, His People, and the sheep of His pasture.

The kri, the way the word v'lo, to Him, is read-- and the ksiv, the way it is written, do not correspond. It is read v'lo, with a vav, to Him, and it is written v'lo, with an aleph, making it mean "and not." Horav Yaakov Neiman, zl, quotes the Chafetz Chaim who related that he had heard in the name of the Maggid m'Dubno, a mashal, parable, which reconciles these two contrasting spellings.

Two men were traveling together on a road on which they were the only travelers. During the night, one of the travelers sensed that his wallet was missing. He immediately grabbed his travel mate and accused him of being a thief. "How dare you take my money," he screamed, to which the accused replied, "What makes you think that I am the thief? Perhaps it was someone else. After all, did you actually see me in the act?"

"Do I then have to see you steal to know that you are the thief?" the other man asked. "There is no one else here but you and I, and I surely did not steal my own wallet. It must be you!"

This, says the Dubner Maggid, is the meaning of the pasuk, "He created us - because v'lo anachnu - "we surely could not have done this." Therefore v'lo anachnu, "we belong to Him." We are His handiwork.

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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