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Peninim on the Torah

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Rabbi A. Leib Scheinbaum
Hebrew Academy of Cleveland


The Kohen shall inscribe these curses on a scrolland erase it into the bitter waters. (5:23)

Ordinarily, the Torah prohibits us from erasing Hashem's Name. In this circumstance, in order to promote marital harmony, Hashem allows His name to be erased. Interestingly, much of the discord that is manifest in a marriage originates in foolishness. The following story, which occurred with Horav Elazar Menachem M. Schach,zl, is anecdotal and certainly not the standard. Nonetheless, it demonstrates how far some people will go to propagate nonsense. Once, a young married student approached Horav Moshe Aharon Stern,zl, regarding a marital problem. Rav Stern was a man who was not only a great talmid chacham, Torah scholar, and tzaddik, he was also known for his unique ability to reconcile discord between husband and wife. The young man complained that he had not had a moment's peace since he had gotten married. Every night he would study practical halachah in the Mishnah Berurah. His wife, however, did not agree with this practice, claiming that this is not what she had expected when she married him. She had sought a yeshivah student who devoted himself totally to lomdus, in-depth analysis, of the Talmud and its commentaries.

The young man explained that since he spent an entire day engrossed in such study, he wanted to delve in halacha l'maaseh, practical law, at night. Unfortunately, this dispute was destroying the very foundation of their marriage.

Thinking that he had "heard it all," Rav Stern naively assumed that a simple conversation with the young woman would solve the problem. Therefore, he went to the young couple's house and endeavored to explain to the woman the significance of practical halachah. The young woman listened patiently and respectfully, but was unmoved by the Rav's words. "Rebbe, it might all be true, but this is not what I expected of him. I sought a lamdin, not a posek!" Her ideal was not in halachic arbitering; it was in in-depth analysis. Rav Stern left the home in a deep quandary. How could he help this couple?

A short time afterward, Rav Stern was speaking with Rav Shach and shared this troubling incident with the venerable sage. Rav Shach told him to send the young woman to him, asking, if possible, for Rav Stern to join them. Rav Stern immediately notified the young woman that Rav Shach wanted to see her. She was, of course, flustered and nervous, but one cannot say no to the gadol hador, preeminent leader of the generation.

They went to Rav Shach's home and were immediately ushered into his private study. Although the anteroom was filled with many people seeking an audience with the Rosh Hayeshivah, this young lady took precedence. As the two entered the study, Rav Shach dispatched his attendant to bring in refreshments, specifying that the serving plate should have two types of pastry on it. When the cake was brought in, Rav Shach directed the young woman to eat from the first piece. He then told her to eat from the second slice of cake. The young woman was a bit taken aback by this strange request, but respectfully complied.

As she finished the second piece of cake, Rav Shach asked her to tell him the difference between the two slices. As she stared back incredulously, Rav Shach explained, "I assume you know how to bake, so I want you to tell me the ingredients that comprise each piece of cake." Very timidly, she responded, "It seems to me that the piece on the left has a bit more cocoa, while the piece on the right has more sugar than its counterpart." "Very good," Rav Shach said, "Please continue. What other differences do you notice between these pieces?" The discussion continued about baking and the various techniques for making delicious pastry, with the young woman demonstrating a broad knowledge of the subject. Rav Shach finally concluded the conversation, saying to the young woman, "I see that you have expert knowledge of baking. I suggest that you return home and direct all of your attention to cooking and baking - and leave the decisions regarding your husband's learning to him." It did not take long for the Rosh Hayeshivah's words to penetrate her mind. She covered her face as she suddenly sensed the truth behind his words. From that time onward, the couple's relationship changed drastically, as respect, peace and harmony began to reign in their home.

I am sure that Rav Shach's response to the young woman might "rattle" a few people - both men and women. When you think about it, however, he dealt with the issue in a most brilliant manner. His practical approach to their differences was the catalyst for resolving them.

Rav Stern posits that the foremost requisite for marital tranquility is treating one's wife with respect. The words and tone that exit one's mouth have a great influence in shaping his household. Indeed, when Horav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach, zl, eulogized his wife, he commented, "It is customary for an individual to beg forgiveness of the deceased. However, in my circumstance it is unnecessary to do so, for I never once offended her during our life together." Incredible! What a remarkable statement to make. Sixty years of marriage, and never once did they do anything that would warrant asking forgiveness of one another. What a role model to emulate!

A couple once approached Horav Chaim Mordechai Katz, zl, and asked him to guide them through some marital "issues." Apparently, one source of tension stemmed from the husband's refusal to take out the garbage on his way to yeshivah. He claimed that as a ben Torah it did not "poss," it was beneath his dignity to perform such a degrading and menial task. Early the next morning, the Rosh Hayeshivah appeared at the couple's doorstep and asked, "Perhaps you have some garbage that needs to be thrown out. I am not a ben Torah, and it does not bother me to do such work." Actions speak louder than words.

A man's wife should be the focal point of his household. Indeed, as Rav Stern notes, Rabbi Yosi states in the Talmud Shabbos 118b, "My entire life, I never referred to my wife simply as my wife…but as my house." Rashi explains that one's wife is the essence of his house. We may add that Rabbi Yosi used the phrase "my entire life." Surely he did not spend his entire life with his wife. Perhaps he is intimating that his "life," his complete essence, began when he married his wife. In support of the above, we conclude with a remark from Horav Aryeh Levine, zl, which succinctly puts the ideal of marriage into perspective. Rav Aryeh Levine was once riding in a taxi, and the driver asked, "Rebbe, where is your home?" Rav Aryeh did not respond. It was only when the driver rephrased his question and asked, "On which street do you live?" did he give him his address. He explained, "Since my wife passed away, I no longer have a home. I may have an address, but it is not a home."

So you shall bless Bnei Yisrael. (6:23)

The heart breaks to listen to the sad stories related by the many who are not financially solvent. We are not referring to those who are too lazy to work, but to those who work long and hard to eke out a living to support their family -with little success. Some of us find it difficult to empathize. I think it is because one must experience this problem in order to be sensitive to another's financial woes. Someone who has no problem paying his bills every month, simply cannot understand the meaning of juggling bills to determine who is fortunate enough to be paid this month.

Horav Yitzchak Zilberstein, Shlita, gives a practical eitzah, bit of advice, for those whose financial straits overwhelm them: Listen to the Birkas Kohanim, apply yourself to the blessing of Yevarechecha, concentrate upon its meaning and message. The Chida, zl, writes that the Kohanim are Divinely inspired to be the individuals through whom the blessing of financial success flows forth to Klal Yisrael.

The Chida adds that the members of Shevet Levi are appropriately suited to be the individuals through whom the Divine blessing of financial stability should flow. He cites the Shach, who writes in his commentary to the Torah that when Klal Yisrael was instructed to divest the Egyptians of their gold, silver, and fine garments, Shevet Levi assembled together and decided that they should not be included. They felt that the dispensation for this activity was based on the fact that Klal Yisrael had been subject to demeaning, back-breaking labor in Egypt, so they had a right to the treasures. But Shevet Levi was not included in the decree. They, therefore, felt that they had no claim to the Egyptian fortune.

Hashem responded to this incredible strength of character by deeming Shevet Levi to be a catalyst in material blessing for the Jewish People for generations to come. We may add that to receive blessing one should be a kli machazik brachah, vessel/receptacle, that is predisposed to sustaining blessing. It would then make sense that we develop a similar strength of character whereby material benefits do not control our lives.

There is yet another area in which inner fortitude plays a dominant role - satisfaction. Rashi explains the concept of v'yishmerecha, "and guard you," as an assurance that robbers will not steal the gift that Hashem bestows upon you. Horav Elyakim Schlesinger, Shlita, explains that the term "robbers" can have another meaning. One may have an item and not enjoy it due to a deficient character trait. He is never happy, never satisfied, always complaining. Whatever he accumulates is not enough. Whatever he has is insufficient. Such a person is being robbed by his own poisoned personality. "Who is a wealthy man? He who rejoices with his lot." One who lacks this character trait leads a miserable life. What good is all of his wealth if he does not enjoy it, if he is never satisfied?

When Hashem bestows blessing He also adds a safeguard that we will not lose it to ourselves. This is true blessing!

So shall you bless Bnei Yisrael…Let them place My Name upon Bnei Yisrael, and I shall bless them. (6:23, 27)

The Kohanim are instructed to bless Klal Yisrael at specific intervals. If one peruses the above pesukim, we find an apparent contradiction. The pasuk begins by saying that the Kohanim shall bless the people, and ends by saying, "and I shall bless them." Is Hashem blessing Klal Yisrael, or does the blessing emanate from the Kohanim? The Chasam Sofer gives the following explanation of Bircas Kohanim, its application to us, and Hashem's "involvement" in the blessing.

By its very nature, Bircas Kohanim is a brachah gashmis, physical blessing, pertaining to the wealth one accumulates in this world.

Yevarechecha Hashem: "May Hashem bless you and safeguard you." He shall bless you with material abundance and safeguard you from any evil.

Ya'er Hashem: "May Hashem illuminate His countenance for you and be gracious to you." Ordinarily, one who is successful in the field of commerce, who has achieved material success, is envied. This form of jealousy can be most damaging. We are herein blessed that we will find favor in the eyes of our friends and neighbors and that they will rejoice in our success. Yisa Hashem: "May Hashem lift His countenance to you and establish peace for you." One who is wealthy, who has achieved material success, will quite often be weighed down by various worries. One may exhibit anxiety over losing what he has amassed, and he may manifest the drive to accumulate even more. He may never be satisfied. Regrettably, without the unique blessing of peace, the individual who is wealthy has very little peace. He is driven by fear and anxiety. He is hereby blessed with satisfaction.

One would think that he has it all. He has achieved the ultimate blessing. But wait! Something is missing - something which can suddenly transform the brachah into a klalah, curse. A person must have a sheifah, ambition, a desire to grow, to achieve, to accomplish specific goals. One who has no ambition, who is complacent, who has no worries, who leads a carefree, smug life, is really not blessed. In fact, I am not sure if we can call this living! Quite possibly, one can breeze through life without realizing that he is missing its essence. He arises in the morning, takes his time getting dressed in his finery, goes to shul and davens, followed by a nice, leisurely breakfast. He goes to work in a comfortable car, puts in his few hours and goes home to complete his uneventful and meaningless day. Is this living? One might agree that, indeed, this person has attained success. He has raised a family and imbued another generation with values. He has the wonderful nachas of seeing grandchildren, of sharing in their joy and watching them grow up. Is this really blessing? Has he taught his children to follow in his footsteps and live a vacuous, unfulfilled life? If this is so, our query surfaces again: What is the meaning of the blessing of the Kohanim?

The Chasam Sofer explains that the Torah has sort of "sandwiched" Bircas Kohanim between two pesukim. The lesson implied is that only through the fulfillment of the terms of this context does the real blessing apply. First, the blessing begins, "So shall you bless Bnei Yisrael." You, the Kohanim, the spiritual mentors and standard of the Jewish People, should bless Bnei Yisrael with this brachah. When the people see who it is that is blessing them, they will understand that this blessing is basically the precursor for the real treasure, the true blessing: the ability to serve Hashem and study His Torah. When one takes his material abundance and uses it to enhance his ability to serve Hashem, to elevate his spiritual relationship with the Almighty, then the blessing is truly a blessing - and not a curse. The difference between the blessing of wealth and the curse of wealth is how one utilizes his gift. If it furthers his spiritual development - it is a blessing. If it does not - it is not a blessing and, regrettably, he has failed the test.

The Torah closes with, "Let them place My Name upon Bnei Yisrael." If the Kohanim understand the compelling significance of infusing Klal Yisrael with the Shechinah, Divine Presence, catalyzing the name Yisrael to become synonymous with the Name of Hashem, then I (Hashem) will bless them. Klal Yisrael will be the recipients of an added blessing - the Divine blessing in conjunction with the Kohanim's blessing.

Indeed, this is what we pray for daily, V'chayei olam nota b'socheinu, "and (and He, Hashem has) implanted eternal life within us." After Hashem has granted us the blessing of life, we entreat Him, "May He open our heart through His Torah and imbue our heart with love and awe of Him." We are acutely aware that without Torah and fear of Heaven, all of our toil on this world is for naught. Furthermore, if we have no Torah, can we expect any better from our offspring? L'maan lo niga larik, "So that we do not struggle in vain or produce for futility."

Questions & Answers

1) Where were the metzoraim situated when the Jews traveled in the desert?

2. Why are gezel ha'ger, stolen goods from a convert who has died, returned to the Kohen?

3. Why did the Nessim bring their sacrifices using one wagon for every two Nesiim?

4. Why did Efraim merit that his sacrifice was offered on Shabbos, when an individual korban does not override Shabbos?


1) They would travel between the flag of Shevet Efraim and Shevet Dan (Ibn Ezra).

2. When an owner is no longer alive, restitution is made to the owner's master, who - in this instance - is Hashem. The Kohanim are representatives of Hashem and consequently receive the returned property (Sforno).

3. Two Nesiim shared a wagon to demonstrate the unity which reigned in their midst (Sforno).

4. His grandfather, Yosef, observed Shabbos even before the Torah was given (Daas Zekeinim).

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