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Peninim on the Torah

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Rabbi A. Leib Scheinbaum
Hebrew Academy of Cleveland


And these are the ordinances that you shall place before them. (21:21)

David HaMelech says in Sefer Tehillim 147:19, "He relates His word to Yaakov, His statutes and judgments to Yisrael. He did not do so for any other nation; such judgments they know them not." The psalm is positing that there exists a difference between Jewish law and secular law. Obviously, the source is the primary point of divergence. Secular law is man-made and, thus, prone to subjectivity. Torah law is Divine, and hence, not bound by anything subjective. Horav Mordechai Gifter, zl, takes this idea a bit further. While superficial aspects of both secular and Divine law may often coincide, a vast difference exists between the two in terms of relative depths. Secular laws are nothing more than human logic responding to the wants and needs of society. In order for society to function, people need laws. Hence, these laws change with the times, as the needs of the society shift. Torah law and its fulfillment are based on the ratzon Hashem, will of G-d. Mitzvos are meant to further and promote character development and to achieve a closeness with Hashem - a goal which secular laws do not strive to attain. This is why Chazal demand that Jewish disputes be brought to a Jewish court for adjudication. This holds true even if the secular and Torah laws appear to be the same. When a Jew brings his dispute to a secular court of law, he creates a grave chillul Hashem, desecration of Hashem's Name; because this gives the impression that secular and Jewish justice systems are equal.

The Rosh Yeshivah deduces that since Torah represents Divine will and - as such - is above the human thought process, every aspect of Torah - even its morals and ethics- are above human understanding. From the vantage point of the Divine perspective, ethics and morality are distinct from the laws of etiquette and moral behavior which are the product of human intellectual endeavor. In fact, even when they are the same - they are different.

When a Jew recites the phrase, Hamavdil bein ohr l'choshech, bein Yisrael l'amim, "He Who made a distinction between light and darkness, between Yisrael and the nations," he thereby declares the commonality between these two distinctions. As light and darkness are essentially different in kind - not merely in degree - so, too, are Klal Yisrael and the nations of the world different in essence, in kind, to the point that there is no point of similarity between the two. Our approach to all problems is decided by the Torah - and the Torah alone. The approach of the nations to their problems is predicated upon a totally different foundation.

The Rosh Yeshivah notes that the basic distinction is alluded to in the uniqueness of the vernacular used upon blessing a chacham, wise man. Upon seeing a secular chacham, an individual recites, She'nasan meichochmaso l'basar v'dam, "Who gave of his wisdom to flesh and blood." When he sees a talmid chacham, he recites, She'nasan mechachmaso l'reiav, "Who gave of his wisdom to those who fear Him." The wording itself suggests the reason for this distinction. The wisdom of the Torah is never totally disassociated from its Source; it is always a part of this Source, because the Torah scholar is essentially never disassociated from Hashem. He is connected with the Almighty. A secular wise man is a basar v'dam, flesh and blood, whose wisdom, albeit impressive, does not reflect a connection with the Almighty.

The student of Torah is conscious that he is studying Hashem's treatise, not some humanly devised system of law. Everything he learns is Hashem's will, and he views it in this context. His decisions are not given to subjectivity, because they are not really his decisions. He is merely interpreting Hashem's law.

And these are the ordinances that you shall place before them. (21:1)

Parashas Mishpatim is replete with laws that address interpersonal relationships among Jews. What stands out prominently is the theme of caution concerning damaging the property or person of a fellow Jew. Chazal express their own individual approaches towards developing one's level of chassidus, piety. They relate three opinions in the Talmud Bava Kamma 30 A concerning achieving this goal. Rav Yehudah opines that one who strives to become a chasid, a devout individual who has achieved a lofty, wholesome level of spirituality, who is pious, virtuous and the paragon of ethicality, should fulfill the laws and concepts that are addressed in Nezikin, Mesechtos Bava Kamma, Bava Metzia, Bava Basra. In other words, one who is careful not to infringe on another Jew's possessions is an individual who is on the road toward achieving chassidus.

Rava contends that the key toward achieving this goal is to master Pirkei Avos, to excel in the values spelled out in Pirkei Avos. Last, Chazal posit that one who fulfills the ideas addressed in Meseches Berachos, the tractate which concerns itself with the laws of Krias Shema and reciting blessings, will attain the level of chassidus.

In the preface to his commentary to Pirkei Avos, the Maharal, zl, m'Prague, explains that the above three opinions relate to three types of positive relationships upon which the would-be chassid should concentrate: between man and Hashem; between man and man; and between man and himself. The focus of Nezikin is upon interpersonal dependency, while Pirkei Avos concentrates upon man's consociation with himself. Berachos deals with man's rapport with Hashem. Each of these venues directs us in our quest for greater piety, virtue and spiritual integrity.

While all three play a significant role, it seems that the prevalent, most-accepted approach is through the medium of Nezikin. This seems enigmatic. Why take the road of negativity when one can focus instead on positive performance? This concept is illustrated when a man approached Hillel HaZakein with a request for a quick study of the entire Torah, literally while standing on one foot. Hillel instructed him in a principle which has been adopted as the golden rule: "Do not act toward your friend as you would not want him to act toward you." Why did Hillel not employ a positive approach which would have demonstrated the beauty and nobility of Torah?

Horav Avigdor Amiel, zl, explains that it is much easier to live a life of asei tov, "do good," than one of sur mei'ra, "turn away from evil." Some people are very kind, performing countless acts of chesed, loving-kindness, yet they have no problem infringing upon their friends, creating machlokes, dispute, with its attending evil. Rav Amiel cites three underlying reasons for the "condition."

To these individuals, performing good deeds, carrying out acts of loving-kindness, is momentary and quickly dissipates with the fleeting moment. Sur mei'ra, however, demands vigilance, constant commitment and extreme care. It is so much easier to be good for a day than to live a life of constant commitment.

Second, is the pleasure and good feeling one derives upon acting kindly. No one seems to feel good when he refrains from taking revenge and hurting someone. Good feelings are the result of positive action. Negative refrain does not necessarily generate such enthusiasm about oneself. While this should not be, one should indeed take great pride in averting spiritual downfall, in not damaging someone else's property. It should be- but, regrettably, it is not.

Last, when one acts proactively, he receives a Mi'SheBeirach from everyone. He gets attention; people laud his endeavor. The individual who is sur mei'ra does not make it into the newspaper - not even into the shul bulletin. When was the last time that someone who did not rob his friend blind received a Mi'SheBeirach or praise for not cheating another person, when he could have gotten away with it? This is why the individual who truly strives to acquire chassidus, to carry the coveted mantle of chasid, should delve into the mesechtos that address the law of damages - Nezikin.

From a false word you shall distance yourself. (23:7)

The prohibition against prevarication of any kind is unique. We are not admonished to distance ourselves from any other prohibition. Apparently, sheker, falsehood, is so pernicious, its effect so virulent and contagious, that it spreads to anyone who comes in contact with it. Additionally, chosomo shel HaKadosh Boruch Hu emes, "Hashem's seal is truth." The Almighty is the ultimate symbol of emes; to connect with sheker is to challenge the very basic principles of Judaism. Last, the yetzer hora pushes us to lie. Horav Shimon Schwab, zl, explains that when Lavan Ha'Arami, the one who redefined deception, the individual who was the consummate deceiver of all time, kissed his children, something rubbed off on them. Who were his offspring? The Imahos, Matriarchs, shevatim, the tribes, which comprised the actual Klal Yisrael, all became tainted with a powerful yetzer hora, evil inclination, with which we must constantly battle.

While we are children of Yaakov Avinu, who personified emes, it is something for which we have to fight. It does not come naturally. The Chazon Ish writes, B'teva ha'Adam eino sonei es ha'sheker, "A person does not naturally hate falsehood." The Chafetz Chaim, zl, once said that the only person who Lavan did not kiss was Yaakov, Der bandit hut nisht ke'kushed Yaakov, "The charlatan did not kiss Yaakov." Rav Schwab explains that this is because Yaakov personified emes. Sheker, represented by Lavan, cannot attach itself to pure truth.

In some instances the truth is presented under certain conditions and it is perceived as a lie. This may be one of those cases in which the spoken truth is skirting a lie. Laws govern if one should speak and what he should say. Horav Aharon Kotler, zl, was the gadol ha'dor, preeminent Torah leader of his generation, whose success as a builder of Torah is evident today. His secret to success was his ability to harness every ounce of his strength for truth. His devotion to the truth was his quintessential quality and, thus, the reason that he demanded and received such respect. His search for truth and purity of soul were attributes that he sought to imbue in his students. Rav Aharon took extreme care not to say anything derogatory unless he was obligated by the Torah to do so. He would reiterate that even when one is obligated to speak, he must know how to present the truth - truthfully. In other words, there are instances in which one must bend the truth in order to perceive it properly.

The following incident illuminates this idea. Someone mentioned a prospective shidduch, matrimonial match, to a student in the yeshivah who was on the "older" side. She was not old - just past what in today's self-deceived perspective is considered "prime" time. The student refused to meet the girl. Hearing this, Rav Aharon was upset. What did the shadchan, matchmaker, tell the young man about the girl that turned him off so? The shadchan told the Rosh Yeshiva that when he told the young man that the girl was twenty-seven; he became turned off, refusing to date her. He had simply told the truth. The shadchan continued, "But, Rebbe, I know for a fact that she is twenty-seven years old. It was not a lie." Rav Aharon replied that emes, truthful speech, is defined by the listener - not necessarily by the speaker. When a twenty-eight year old boy is told that the girl is twenty-seven, he "hears" that actually she is "thirty." "You should have said a younger age!" Rav Aharon would often relate the following episode as a parable that demonstrates how describing factually correct events can present a misinterpretation of the truth.

A ship's captain kept a daily log of the comings and goings of the ship's crew. An over- zealous individual, the captain noted every movement, regardless of how extraneous it was. Every movement made by the first mate was noted in the log. One day, the first mate returned to ship slightly inebriated from an over-abundance of liquor consumed during his leave from the ship. The captain duly noted in his log, "First mate was drunk today." Understandably, the first mate was considerably upset over this. "After all," he said, "my work has not suffered in any way as a result of my one-time partying. My performance is best evaluated by the consequential tasks that I perform daily to the satisfaction of all concerned." The captain looked at his first mate and said, "I did not lie. Was there something in my notes that was untrue?"

A few days later the captain, feeling a bit under the weather, asked the first mate to keep the log that day. The very first entry that the first mate wrote in the log was: "The captain is not drunk today!" When the captain returned and discovered what the first mate had done, he was horrified, "How dare you write that into the log!" "Why not?" asked the ship's mate. "It is the truth!"

"Here is a case," explained Rav Aharon, "where a person tells the truth, but it implies a lie. One must be extremely careful not only with facts, but also with "emes!"

David Hamelech says (Tehillim 119:163), Sheker sanaisi v'soeivah, Torascha ahavti, "I hate falsehood; it disgusts me, I love Your Torah." The Malbim explains the connection between Torah, emes, sheker, toeivah. "I love Your Torah which is all truth. Therefore, I cannot possibly love falsehood. To love Your truth is to hate that which opposes truth." Sheker is the opposing force challenging truth, and, therefore, David Hamelech hated falsehood. The Malbim is teaching us that our hatred for falsehood must be the result of our love for Torah. This can only occur if our love for Torah is based upon our search for the truth, the emes inherent in Torah. Thus, if one were to learn Torah for the wrong reasons, he could still maintain a "relationship" with sheker. He has not yet negated it. Sheker and emes cannot exist together but, if emes is not yet really present, then the sheker can still fester, germinate and grow. I do not think this idea must be explained further. The message is quite clear.

Last, I cite Rav Schwab who lucidly points out that the ultimate emes is Hashem Himself, Ein od milvado. There is none other than Hashem, Alone. The ultimate sheker must then be atheism. Torah and Klal Yisrael are extensions of Hashem. Emes is exclusive. This means that there is nothing besides emes, except for sheker. There is no gray area between the two. It is either true or false - nothing in-between. Klal Yisrael comprises all that which is called kulah zera emes, everyone, a seed of truth. The Jew's mission is to live a life of truth based upon the emes expounded from the Torah, which is Hashem's word. To deviate from this course is to take the road of sheker, falsehood.

Avraham Avinu was the first to be korei b'Shem Hashem, call out in the Name of Hashem. This is a reference to his propagating emes. Nimrod and the dor ha'flagah, generation of the dispersion, were his nemeses. Their rallying cry was, naase lanu shem, "Let us make a name for ourselves." This was the clarion call of sheker. Since they oppose each other vehemently, the exponents of falsehood must hate those who stand for the truth. After all, emes undermines sheker and exposes its fallacy and duplicity. Hashem reassured Avraham with mekalelcha A'or, "Those who curse you, I will curse." (Bereishis 12:3). We, his descendants who follow in his ways must embody his adherence to emes, as we anticipate the inevitable repercussions of our rejection of the spokesmen for sheker.

Lest they cause you to sin against Me. (23:33)

The Torah admonishes us concerning the effects of an adverse environment. We have no idea how a pernicious influence creeps into our psyche, germinating into a full-blown scourge that destroys first our outlook, then our observance, until we are ultimately blown away from having any relationship with our people, our family, our G-d. It all starts with a subtle, innocuous relationship, with no malicious aforethought. By the time we realize what is happening, it is too late. We have already been caught in the maelstrom of evil.

At times, it is not even necessary to have a relationship. The mere recognition, a simple acknowledgement, can have a devastating effect. The following incident demonstrates this reality. Horav Aharon Kotler, zl, was very fond of the Kapishnitzer Rebbe, zl, Horav Avraham Yehoshua Heschel, zl. He had enormous respect for him and considered him to be a pikeach, very clever. Rav Aharon was once asked how this unique friendship evolved. He related the following story: A student in the yeshivah decided one day that he wanted to apostatize himself. Imagine, out of the blue, a yeshivah student in a mainstream yeshivah announced his desire to drown his religion in the baptismal fount! There are very few words in the English lexicon that would do justice to this insanity, but it was true. He wanted to renege on his Yiddishkeit and baptize himself. Why? He had no clue. He just wanted to do it. He was beyond reason.

The Rosh Yeshivah attempted to reason with the troubled young man, to no avail. He was not listening. It was as if he was overcome with an obsession to convert, to become a "goy." After the "nice stuff" didn't seem to work, Rav Aharon took a more direct approach, outlining in very clear terms the punitive repercussions for his actions. This also was ineffective. The Rosh Yeshivah began to plead, to cry, to beg - and nothing. The young man stood his ground. He was not moved. He was proceeding with his decision.

Rav Aharon decided that given the Kapishnitzer Rebbe's reputation that -- exclusive of his brilliance in Torah erudition-- he was also unusually gifted with an astute and perceptive mind, he called the Rebbe and related his predicament. The Rebbe listened intently and replied, "Verify how he sets the time for his alarm clock."

It goes without saying that Rav Aharon found the Rebbe's advice slightly strange, but he was acutely aware that the Kapishnitzer Rebbe did not make unfounded statements. There must be some rationale to this one as well. As soon as he returned to the yeshivah, Rav Aharon called the student to his office and asked him, "How do you set your alarm clock? How do you determine the correct time?"

"Over the years that I have been a student in Beth Medrash Gavohah, I have made several attempts to confirm the correct time, so that I could set my alarm clock correctly. Every clock I checked was off by a minute here, a minute there. Finally, one day, as I looked out my dormitory window, I noticed the clock situated on the church tower across the street. It chimed on time - all the time. From that day on, I synchronized my alarm clock with the church clock. The 'timing' has been perfect."

Rav Aharon now understood what was plaguing the yeshivah student, and what had catalyzed his estrangement from Yiddishkeit. It was the church clock. He turned to the student and said, "I would like to give you a gift - a new watch. There is one condition, however, connected to this gift: you must set the time to coincide with the clock in the yeshivah."

The scheme worked and, before long, the troubled student became a ben Torah again. The lesson that we take from this incident is clear: one never knows the effect that tumah, spiritual contamination, has on the soul of a Jew. The most innocuous - is not innocuous. It is deleterious and devastating. The only way to protect oneself from its effect is to not come in contact with it - period.

And under his foot was the likeness of sapphire brickwork (24, 10)

Rashi explains that the "brick" was placed before Hashem during the entire shibud, enslavement that Klal Yisrael endured in Egypt. As they were forced to work with the bricks, Hashem noted their suffering and kept the "sapphire" brick in front of Him as a constant "reminder" of their affliction. The timing begs elucidation. The description of the brick was related by Nadav, Avihu and the Shivim Zekeinim, seventy Elders. This occurred following the Exodus, as they prepared for the Revelation at Har Sinai and the Giving of the Torah. At this point, was it really necessary to have a reminder? The shibud, bondage, had ended; the Jewish People had already witnessed the Splitting of the Red Sea. They were on to "bigger and better" things.

Horav Yitzchak Zilberstein, Shlita, suggests that as the brick recalled the enslavement, it also conveyed the message that as long as the Jewish People were not yet free - they were to be considered enslaved. There is no middle ground. The Jew is either free or he is a slave. When did the Jews truly become free men? When they accepted the Torah. It was only after they accepted and committed themselves to Hashem's blueprint for life that they became free.

Perhaps we might offer an alternative approach. There are those of us who have experienced trauma in our lives, as well as health and financial issues concerning our children. We prayed, and Hashem listened and responded favorably. Now what? We were grateful, but for how long did this gratitude extend? Hakoras hatov, recognizing the benefit we received and showing our appreciation, is only acting like a human being is supposed to act. We forget that gratitude should be a life-long endeavor. Imagine where we would be had we not received the favor when we did. In many cases it transformed our lives, saved relationships, kept families together, and put bread on the table, which in itself can make the difference in the health and welfare of a family. For the most part, however, as soon as the situation righted itself and we were back on the road to recovery, we forgot about the gratitude.

Let me just throw out a few instances that come to mind: the rebbe who made a difference in the primary grades; the shadchan, matchmaker, who changed our lives; our friends who were there when we needed them and quietly blended into the woodwork once we no longer needed them. The list goes on; the message is identical. We forget too quickly, ignore too easily.

When Leah Imeinu had her fourth child, she recognized the enormity of this gift. She had now been blessed with being the Matriarch with the majority of tribes. Twelve tribes - four Matriarchs - do the math. Each Matriarch could easily each have three sons. Leah already had four. She was filled with gratitude. Every time she saw her fourth son, she wanted to remember her unique Heavenly gift. She named him Yehudah, Hapaam odeh es Hashem, "This time I thank Hashem." Yehudah's name bespoke hakoras hatov.

Moshe Rabbeinu had a speech impediment. Surely, he could have prayed to Hashem to remove this deficiency. As Klal Yisrael's quintessential leader and mentor, his ability to communicate the spoken word was crucial. Yet, he seemed to cling tenaciously to this impediment. Why? Let us go back in time and see how Moshe developed this speech defect. He was not born with it. Apparently, as a young child in Pharaoh's palace, word went out that this child was exceptional. Could it be possible that he was the one about whom the astrologers forecast would be the Jewish savior? Did he have designs on the imperial crown, or was he simply a precocious child? They put him to a test, placing before him: the royal crown, replete with gold and precious jewels; and a pot of burning coals. To which one would the child gravitate? Would it be the gold or the burning coals? As Moshe moved his hand towards the crown, an angel pushed his hand instead toward the burning coals. Moshe burned his fingers and immediately put them into his mouth, which caused his tongue to be singed. Hence, his speech problem.

Moshe never forgot that he was saved as a child. The speech impediment was his constant inborn reminder. He did not want to forget. Every time he spoke, he realized that he was alive thanks to Hashem. His speech defect reminded him of his good fortune. He refused to give that up.

What greater proof is there than Moshe's name? Our Rebbe had ten names. Yet, he is referred to by the name given him by Bisyah, Pharaoh's daughter. Why? One good reason might be because she saved him. How can we forget that? In eternal remembrance, we perpetuate her act of rescue by committing the name she gave the child that she saved to eternity.

We now understand why Hashem kept the sapphire brick before Him even after its "purpose" had seemingly been completed. This is because the obligation to remember the pain, misery and persecution did not end with the Exodus. As long as one remembers the pain, he does not forget its relief. The Exodus is germane as long as one remembers the pain. How quickly we forget the troubles once the pain has dissipated. This was the lesson Hashem was teaching Nadav, Avihu and the seventy Elders: I will never forget the slavery. Neither should you!

Va'ani Tefillah

Azi v'zimras Kah, va'yehi li l'yeshua. G-d is my strength and song, and He was a salvation for me.

Horav Shimon Schwab, zl, interprets this statement as: My faith in Hashem developed into my salvation, which we have now experienced with Krias Yam Suf, the Splitting of the Red Sea. Many think that the lives of our forebears was one of constant suffering - whether it was early persecutions, pogroms, or even living in separate quarters, in ghettos, amid squalor and depravation. This is categorically wrong and the product of those who would undermine Torah Judaism so that they can achieve their pernicious goals. There were many among our brethren whose emunah and bitachon, faith and trust, in Hashem elevated their lives above the suffering and degradation of the Egyptian slavery and the ensuing European ghetto restrictions and persecutions. It was this adherence to trusting in Hashem, despite all forms of affliction, which led to their yeshuah, salvation.

We celebrate the combination of suffering and joy - catalyzing bitachon on Pesach night at our Seder tables when we dip the marror into the charoses. The charoses, which symbolizes the mortar which our ancestors were forced to make for their bricks, is surprisingly sweet. It is specifically the sweetness of this dip, however, that mitigated the bitterness experienced by our ancestors. They were sweetened by their bitachon, which ultimately led to their salvation.

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

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