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Peninim on the Torah

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Rabbi A. Leib Scheinbaum
Hebrew Academy of Cleveland


Then his master shall bring him to the door… and his master shall bore through his ear with an awl, and he shall serve him forever. (21:6)

The Talmud Kiddushin 22b explains why the ear, as opposed to the other organs of the body, is bored. Hashem said, "The ear that heard My voice at Har Sinai, at the moment that I said, 'For Me will Bnei Yisrael be slaves - and not slaves to slaves; yet, this person went ahead and acquired a (another) master for himself.'" This thief -- who either was sold by the rabbinical court to repay his debt or sold himself out of poverty-- was originally forced into servitude as a result of his predicament. He now seeks to extend his "working relationship" with his newly-acquired master. The Torah frowns upon this approach.

Horav Eliyahu Yurkansky, zl, wonders why such punishment is not meted out concerning other Biblical prohibitions. After all, they, too, were declared prohibitive at Sinai - and the "ear" heard those mitzvos, as well as Lo Signov, "Do not steal." Furthermore, if the original catalyst for his ear being bored was his act of theft, why was it not bored right from the beginning when he was sold into slavery?

The Rosh Yeshivah explains that the eved Ivri, Hebrew bondsman, is not sold due to his transgression of the laws concerning theft. It is possible that when he stole money, it was during a low point in his life, when he was down and out, penniless, with a family to feed; he simply did not care about the Biblical prohibitions. The Torah understands the meaning of extenuating circumstances. It is now, when he declares his desire to leave his new home because he loves his master and his newly-acquired wife, that the Torah takes umbrage with him. He has decided to take a lifetime position of bondsman. This decision indicates that his original act of theft was not the result of an extenuating situation, but rather, a lack of respect/adherence for what his ear had heard at Sinai. If he had really "listened," he would never have wanted to continue such a lifestyle. Obviously, he has no qualms about avdus, servitude. For this reason, his ear is bored.

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

Rashi places a question mark, bitmiya, after the word v'chadalta, "would you refrain" (from helping him)? Horav Yechiel Michel Feinstein, zl, was wont to say that this is the only instance in the Torah that the Torah turns to the person with a question. This means that the Torah is incredulous concerning a person that would ignore another Jew in his time of need - even if he is a person whom one is permitted to hate. Turning away from helping a fellow Jew is not in the Jewish DNA. How could a person act so callously? A person who was created b'tzelem Elokim, in the image of G-d, cannot possibly close his heart to the plight of his fellow/brother. It is simply not Jewish behavior.

Horav Moshe Rosenstein, zl, was Mashgiach of Lomza Yeshivah and one of the premier Mussar leaders of Pre-World War II. Prior to taking the position as Mashgiach, and beset with the responsibility of providing for the material sustenance of his family, Rav Moshe had opened a small pharmacy - which did fairly well. After a short while, he decided that his own spiritual subsistence could use some reinforcement. He traveled to Kelm to study in its famous Talmud Torah. The mere fact that he was readily accepted speaks volumes of his own eminence. In his absence, his family attended to the pharmacy. Whenever he came home, he filled in. This arrangement, however, did not last. Shortly thereafter, he closed the pharmacy and sought another business venture.

When questioned concerning his decision to change businesses, Rav Moshe explained that, while a pharmacy provides a physical and emotional benefit to the community, it is quite possible that it could lead him to cruelty. After all, it is a business venture, and any successful retail venture depends upon customers. By nature, every businessman prays for customers. He feared that, by owning a pharmacy, he might subtly pray for a larger retail market, for more customers. This would mean that, by extension, he was praying that people should be sick in order to be healed by the drugs in his pharmacy. He was not taking a chance on being part of such cruelty.

What a far cry from contemporary business practices, where everything revolves around the bottom line, the holy dollar. All scruples go by the wayside; ethics are thrown out the door, together with friendships, relationships and allegiances. Everything is justified in order to achieve the goal of success - earning more and more money. Why is this? Is it the money - or the kavod, prestige, that is a primary fringe benefit of business success? Of course, there is always the all-too-common excuse that, with greater maternal success, one is able to enable others, to support Torah growth, and to enhance Yiddishkeit. What a beautiful and meaningful reason to drive oneself to the bone in order to achieve material success. It would truly be saddening if, in the course of pursuing one's monetary goals, he loses sight of his "reason."

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)

Azov taazov imo; "You shall help repeatedly with him." The Talmud Bava Metzia 32 uses imo, "with him" to teach an important lesson concerning helping one's fellowman. It must be imo, with him. If the intended beneficiary of one's assistance decides to sit back while he is being helped by others, he is not obliged to help him. We should reach out to those in need, but only when they are willing to work alongside, when they have exhausted every other means of income-generating endeavor.

The Kli Yakar adds that this Chazal serves as a response to those aniyim, poor people, who place a heavy burden upon the community, without indicating that they are willing to do something to earn their way. Indeed, they expect to receive alms, and, if they do not receive what they expect when they expect it, they complain bitterly, alleging that the benefactors are lazy or uncaring. Hashem commands that we work with the one in need. This does not permit the beneficiary to sit back and watch as others toil to supply him with his needs.

Horav Shlomo Amar, Shlita, acknowledges that we must help the poor man to help himself. Many a person who has been supported by others has lost his self-esteem, and, as a result, is depressed and no longer able to do much in his own behalf. The benefactor must understand, however, what goes through the mind of the individual who is in need. He is ashamed. He must be helped to the point that he is willing to help himself. We do not ignore the fellow that is doing nothing; rather, we must reach out to him and show him that he can support himself, that he can be a contributing member of society. We are prepared to work with him to help himself, and then we will add to his shortfall. We do not ignore someone in need. We also do not allow him to ignore himself - or take advantage of others.

Distance yourself from a false word. (23:7)

The Talmud Sanhedrin 97a relates that there was a city called Kushta that was unique in the phenomenon that none of its residents ever lied. Prevarication was to them the ultimate anathema. As a result, they were blessed with extreme longevity. No one in their community died. One Erev Shabbos, a woman came to the door of her friend's home and asked to see her. Her husband was aware that his wife was preparing herself for Shabbos (combing her hair), so he said that she was not home at the time. As a result of his untruth, his two sons passed away. During the Shivah, seven-day mourning period, he was asked concerning their cause of death, since this was a community where death did not occur. When he told them what he felt was the reason (for his simple untruth), they asked him to move from the community before the punishment which had prevailed on him would spread to the rest of the city. This was a community that had zero tolerance for falsehood.

This is a sad, but inspirational, story. Something, however, does not make sense. When this man moved to the city he knew what kind of community it was. He was acutely aware that this community had a zero tolerance level concerning falsehood. No one lied - everyone lived. How could he take a chance and endanger his entire community - men, women and children - by prevaricating? Furthermore, prior to his acceptance to that community, he was certainly vetted and emerged squeaky clean. How did it happen that he uttered an untruth?

Horav Moshe Aharon Stern, zl, offers a penetrating explanation. During his entire life, this man had fought to overcome the yetzer hora, evil-inclination, for uttering untrue, misleading, dishonest statements. He focused on honesty, distancing himself from any form of trivial or subtle untruth. So what happened when he moved to this town? He stopped fighting. He felt that he no longer needed to fight. He was living in a community in which no one lied. Therefore, he slacked off, no longer maintaining strict vigilance against uttering any form of misleading, dishonest statement. This was his mistake. The fact that everyone in your circle is perfect does not guarantee your perfection. This is the point at which the yetzer hora worms its way in, by connecting to the complacency that accompanies one who lives in a frum, Torah observant community. One must always fight, because the yetzer hora never gives up.

Perhaps I harp on the subject too much, but, if it will awaken one family to be less complacent, thereby saving the tragedy of seeing a kid at risk, it will have been worth it. Some of us think that vigilance in raising our children is necessary only if we are living in rural Idaho, but in Torah communities, where Torah learning reigns supreme, where computers and smartphones have filters, and the filters have filters, we have nothing to worry about. Our children imbibe Torah from the minute they enter the world. What could possibly go wrong? Well, sadly it does - in the most Torahdik communities, in the most perfect and ideal Torah observant homes - it does go wrong. Why? There are reasons, although this is not the forum for conjecture or discussion. One thing is certain: We are not fighting the yetzer hora in the same manner as we would if we were living in a secular-oriented community. When our due diligence begins to wane, the yetzer hora has already won. That man's complacency was the cause of his downfall. The yetzer hora is willing to work overtime. So should we - at least for our children's sake.

You shall not take a bribe, for the bribe will blind those who can see and will make righteous words crooked. (23:8)

Rashi teaches that even a Torah scholar who takes a bribe will ultimately become confused, his learning forgotten, and his vision dimmed. This is a very frightening punishment. A person can spend his entire life developing his erudition to the point that he achieves the appellation of chacham, Torah scholar. Yet, if he takes a bribe, it will be the catalyst for his downfall. Veritably, we are all judges in one way or another. We judge people and situations. Imagine if we are bribed because someone comes across as the underdog; we perceive him to be the one who is being persecuted, and, as a result of our myopia, we pass judgment on another person, holding him/her guilty in our eyes. Is this not reason for Heavenly repercussion? What if the form of bribe is eminence, power, glory - not money - but just as dangerous? Is this any less of a bribe? Can we really assert that we are bribe-free, or do we tend to bend the law, because, in our mind, we can relate better to one of the litigants? The do-gooders who seek a wrong to be righted - an opportunity to achieve glory at the expense of someone for whom they do not care for anyway - are as equally guilty of taking a bribe as the one who accepts cash.

Having said this, we can move on to the punishment. It is guaranteed. The Torah warns us about the consequences of accepting a bribe. It affects one's mind, destroys his learning, and takes a physical toll on his vision. If the Torah, as per Rashi's explanation, informs us that this is the punishment for one who accepts a bribe - then it is a verity. It will happen. The judge whose decision is biased as a result of taking a bribe - regardless of the size or nature of the bribe - will lose his vision, in more ways than one. Horav Shlomo Amar, Shlita, states this emphatically, deriving from the text of Targum Yonasan that a judge who accepts a bribe will lose his physical ability to see. The Chida relates the reality of this punishment based upon an incident that took place in the Jewish community of Egypt.

Horav Chaim Kapusi, zl, was a Rav in Egypt. When he reached an advanced age, his vision became impaired. It came to his attention that his detractors, individuals who did not agree with the elderly Rav's rendering of the law - especially if it found them guilty - were spreading vicious rumors about him. They contended that the reason his eyesight had failed was that he was taking bribes when he halachically adjudicated the law. Rav Chaim was a saintly scholar who was greatly troubled by these reprehensible rumors. He decided that the only way to put the rumors to sleep was to take immediate and emphatic action.

That Shabbos, as the Sefer Torah was resting on the lectern, in front of the entire congregation assembled in shul, the Rav ascended to the podium: "I have heard reports of troubling rumors being spread concerning my veracity in adjudicating halachah. I have been slandered as one who accepts bribes. They support their villainous lies with the fact that I have lost my sight. Therefore, I decree, in front of the Torah and in front of the entire congregation, that if I accepted a bribe of any sort that I should continue to be vision-impaired. If, however, I am innocent of these iniquitous allegations, my sight should return!"

The next morning, the Rav arose and his sight had returned! The Chida adds that he saw the Rav's handwriting prior to his loss of sight, after he lost his sight, and again, once it had returned. There was no doubt that the Rav was the beneficiary of a Heavenly miracle sent to clear his impeccable reputation.

Moshe took the blood and threw it upon the people. (24:8)

The Mechilta teaches that on the last day of the Shloshes Y'mei Hagbalah, three-day waiting period prior to receiving the Torah, Klal Yisrael entered into a covenant with the Almighty. This covenant comprised their commitment to be tied, fastened and bound (keshurim, anuvim, tefusim) to the Torah. Only afterwards, did Moshe Rabbeinu say, "Come and accept upon yourselves all of the mitzvos." This was followed by the Giving of the Torah. Horav Shmuel Yaakov Burnstein, Shlita, Rosh Yeshivah of Kiryas Melech, derives from here that, before one can actually receive the Torah, before he can enter into a covenant of commitment and thereby receive all that the Torah has to offer, one must be totally committed - "tied, fastened and bound" to the Torah. Unless one realizes the extraordinary value of the Torah and the need to be unconditionally bound to it, he will not adhere to the Torah.

Torah demands extreme dedication, steadfast commitment, constant loyalty, without which one indicates that he is not bound completely to the Torah. When one maintains such a relationship with the Torah, he demonstrates his true appreciation of its value in its own right and its significance to him. L'Sitcha Elyon relates that when Horav Eliyahu Lopian, zl, entered into his twilight years, his eyesight became dimmed, and he was compelled to undergo eye surgery. Following his surgery, he was unable to see. As a result, his students would learn with him by reading to him from the sefarim. Additionally, he requested of his grandson, Horav Avraham Pinsky, Shlita, to come to him in the evenings to learn. Rav Avraham related that he would read to his grandfather from Mishnayos, Seder Kedoshim, with the commentary of the Rav (Rav Ovadia Bartenura), and Rav Elya would correct him whenever he missed a word in the Rav!

His grandson asked, "Sabba, do you know all the Mishnayos in Zevachim and Menachos by heart?" Rav Elya was silent. He did not answer him. A short while later that grandson reached the age of thirteen, when he would be ushered into adulthood by accepting upon himself the yoke of mitzvah observance. The night before his bar mitzvah, Rav Elya spoke with him. It was a conversation replete with emotion and inspiration. A young boy about to enter adulthood was no small milestone. Rav Elya wanted his grandson to appreciate the responsibility that he was about to undertake. In the course of the conversation, Rav Elya informed his grandson that he did not begin working on his personal spiritual development at age fifty. He began when he was twelve years old. If one wants to achieve greatness, he must begin as soon as possible. It is a long, steep climb, and, the earlier one begins climbing, the greater possibility of success.

Rav Elya concluded with the following admonition: "You should be aware that one must prepare himself so that whenever, wherever, he is to be found, regardless of the circumstances or his personal ability, he must continue his learning. Nothing may stand in the way of Torah study." This is why he had studied a number of Mesechtas, Tractates, of Mishnayos, with the commentary of the Rav, so that in case he was unable to access a sefer, or he was in a situation where the structured learning to which he was accustomed was unattainable, he would always have access to the Mishnayos stored in his mind. One of the primary distinguishing characteristics of a Torah leader is his inextricable bond with the Torah. I would not know where to begin, which gadol to select, which story to relate, but one vignette does, for some reason, stand out in my mind, concerning Horav Chaim Zaitchik, zl, which I take the liberty to recount.

First, a little background. Rav Chaim was a Novarodoker talmid, a student of the famed yeshivah founded by Horav Yosef Yoizel Horowitz, zl, the Alter m'Novarodok. The yeshivah's mussar outlook stressed the total negation of ego and the physical, mundane world. It focused on shattering one's personal desires, eradicating any vestige of evil desires or habits. Its students lived an austere lifestyle wholly devoted to Torah study, which was to them their very life. Obviously, a life of such intense deprivation took its toll on those students who were not hardy - both physically and spiritually. It required extraordinary stamina and commitment. Those who "made it" represented an elite yeshivah student who was in total control of himself.

Rav Chaim had acquired a sterling reputation, earned through years of complete devotion to Torah learning amid extreme deprivation. He was once invited to the home of Horav Yeruchem Levovitz, zl, legendary Mashgiach of Mir. He walked in and gazed in amazement at the scene before him. Rav Yeruchem sat at a table surrounded by bachurim, students, standing, listening in awe and fear to every word that he said. Rav Yeruchem looked up and noticed Rav Chaim. He asked, "If the students of Novoradok are in a constant state of search, why do they not come to Mir?" Rav Chaim did not respond. Rav Yeruchem then asked, "Why is it that some fall? Why are the Novoradok bachurim broken? Why - if they leave the yeshivah - are they broken?" (Apparently, Rav Yeruchem felt that the intensity demanded of Novoradok students was too much.)

Rav Chaim shocked everyone by responding to the venerable Mashgiach's queries. "They fall, because you cannot fall from the floor - only from high places. They are broken, because they cannot meet the incredible demands. They are bitter because they were tested and they failed."

These responses characterized Rav Chaim and Novoradok. It was a difficult grind, but those who reached the summit represented a uniquely committed Torah personality, armed with bitachon and emunah, trust and faith in the Almighty, that was without peer.

A Siberian labor camp was "home" to Rav Chaim during World War II. The bitter cold and hunger did not bother him as much as the inability to properly learn Torah. The study of Torah was his lifeline, without which he found it difficult to survive. What kept him going was the hope that somehow, someway, he would find a medium for studying Torah.

One of the "jobs" which everyone dreaded was water carrier. Because the nearest source of water was three kilometers from camp, the water carrier was compelled to carry the heavy buckets of ice water the entire way. Rav Chaim volunteered for the job. Why? He heard that not far from the spring there lived a Jew. He was hopeful that the Jew might have a sefer which he could borrow. Anything which could allow him to learn would be a life-saver. He was literally suffocating without his precious Torah.

Rav Chaim left with the empty pail to go fetch water for the group. After walking for hours through the forest, he located the spring of water. He put down his buckets and went in search of the village. After a while, he found the village. Now, all he needed was the city's "smart list", so he could find the one Jew who lived there. He did the next best thing. He looked for a house with a mezuzah affixed to the doorpost.

Rav Chaim found the elusive home, and knocked on the door. A woman answered, and noticing that before her stood a co-religionist, she compassionately offered to share some of their meager rations with him. "I do not need food!" Rav Chaim cried. "Please, do you have a sefer from which I could learn? It has been so long. I am starving for Torah. Please help me!"

The woman called her husband who said that he had one sefer from which he could not part. It was all he had.

"What is it?" Rav Chaim excitedly pleaded with him. "I have a Gemorah," the man replied. "Let me at least see it," Rav Chaim begged. The man brought out a Gemorah, in which Nedarim and Nazir were bound together. With eyes filled with tears, Rav Chaim hugged and kissed the Gemorah. When he saw it was two Mesechtas bound together, he looked at the man, and his eyes did the rest. They tore the Gemorah in half, and Rav Chaim left with a Meseches Nedarim. The pain, the schlepping, the difficult walk, were all worth it. He now had his life back.

Va'ani Tefillah

Elokei Avraham, Elokei Yitzchak v'Elokei Yaakov.

The name of Yaakov Avinu was changed to Yisrael. Thus, his descendants are referred to as Bnei Yisrael, Children of Yisrael. The commentators wonder why the opening blessing of Shemoneh Esrai which introduces the Avos, Patriarchs, refers to Yaakov Avinu (Elokei Yaakov) by his original name. Why not say Elokei Yisrael - which was Yaakov's new name?

Horav Shmuel David Walkin, zl, explains that by acknowledging our Patriarch by his original name, we lend support to the notion that Hashem attached His Name to an individual Jew - namely the Avos. This idea can only be gleaned from the name "Yaakov," which was the Patriarch's personal name, which represented him alone - not Yisrael, which is a name alluding to the collective Jewish People. Avraham Avinu and Yitzchak Avinu each had one name which served both as their personal and national name. Yaakov Avinu had two names. By referring to his personal name in the context of the blessing, we indicate that the reference to Avraham and Yitzchak is also personal. This gives each and every one of us something to consider - a personal relationship with the Almighty. He is not only "our" G-d; He is our personal G-d.

In loving memory of
by his family:
David, Susan, Danial, Breindy, Ephraim, Adeena, Aryeh and Michelle Jacobson
and his great grandchildren<

Peninim on the Torah is in its 20th year of publication. The first fifteen years have been published in book form.

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