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Peninim on the Torah

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Rabbi A. Leib Scheinbaum
Hebrew Academy of Cleveland


And he shall provide him atonement for having sinned regarding the person. (6:11)

Rashi cites two opinions of Chazal to explain why the nazir is called a sinner. First, he should have taken greater precautions to avoid becoming tamei, ritually contaminated. Second, he deprived himself of the pleasure of drinking wine. The Kli Yakir supplements the second reason, explaining that a Jew should serve the Almighty amidst joy. Had the nazir truly been happy with his choice to become a nazir, he would have been more careful with regard to contact with tumah. His yetzer hora, evil-inclination, found an "in," an opportunity to bring him down, when it noticed that his whole heart was not into the nezirus.

The rationale behind the failing of tzieir atzmo min ha'yayin, "he deprived himself the pleasure of wine," is that a Jew should realize his good fortune in being able to serve Hashem. We err when we think that we are doing something for Hashem when we perform a mitzvah. On the contrary, it is a privilege to perform a mitzvah, an awesome opportunity to get closer to Hashem. Chazal tell us that Moshe Rabbeinu received great reward for taking Yosef HaTzaddik's bones out of Egypt. They cite the pasuk in Mishlei 10:8, Chacham lev yikach mitzvos, "The wise of heart takes mitzvos," as a reference to Moshe. Why is Moshe called a chacham, wise man? Rather, he should be called a tzaddik, righteous person. The Avnei Nezer explains that two mitzvos were presented before the Jewish people: Bizas Mitzrayim, collecting the spoils of Egypt; and gathering Yosef's bones. Klal Yisrael occupied themselves with the mitzvah of collecting Egyptian spoils, while Moshe saw to Yosef's bones. Does that mean he was wise? The difference is that bizas Mitzrayim had a negia, personal benefit, integral to the mitzvah, while taking Yosef's bones was "pure" mitzvah. Horav Aharon Kotler, zl, explains that a wise man understands that when he performs a mitzvah, he is not giving Hashem anything; rather, he is taking for himself a great spiritual benefit.

Torah protects a person when he views it from the proper perspective. If the study of Torah is nothing more than an intellectual pursuit, it will not have the same effect on the individual as when he focuses on the sweetness of Torah. Torah transforms the one who studies it if the lomaid, student, senses its sweetness and spiritual flavor. One who studies Torah like the nazir who "deprives himself of wine," who thinks that by learning Torah he is relinquishing fun and other frivolities, might develop intellectually, but he will remain spiritually deprived and stagnant. At the first sign of a challenge, he will quickly abdicate his commitment to Torah study.

Horav Avraham Schorr, Shlita, posits that this is the reason that a distinct minority of today's youth are at risk for becoming totally alienated from a Torah way of life. The wonderful education that they have received focused on scholastic achievement, on covering more ground, on a more profound level of understanding, but not on the love one should manifest for the Torah and the joy inherent in learning Hashem's Torah. The excitement, the sweetness, the passion and love are simply not there, because their teachers were not able to transmit these feelings. We are too busy creating lomdim, scholars, and not focusing on the ahavas Torah, love for Torah, that should be the crowning point of their learning. Torah learned with love creates a bond between the lomaid and the Torah.

When the founders of the cheder for young children in Bnei Brak were ready to open their school, they approached the Brisker Rav, zl, for his blessing. They showed the Rav their superior curriculum, indicating the amount of time that was to be devoted to each subject. The Rav listened and then replied, "If I did not know for certain that you are fine upstanding bnei Torah, I would eject you from my home. You sound like maskilim, heretics, whose only concern is mastery of the subject matter. What about inculcating our children with ahavas Torah, middos tovos, character refinement, and raising their level of yiraas Shomayim, fear of Heaven? The problem today is that children do not sense the mesikus, sweetness, of Torah." Torah must be taught and studied with joy, not as a deprivation from the "good life." Our heritage, the Torah, has been transmitted throughout the generations by individuals who have studied it in this manner, infusing themselves with its sweetness, inculcating themselves with its qualities and developing a profound appreciation of its value. I take the liberty of citing two inspirational episodes from Rabbi Yechiel Spero's, Touched by a Story; one about a Torah leader and one about a "common" Jew, that convey this appreciation of Torah.

Horav Chaim Zaitchick, zl, Novarhdoker Rosh Hayeshivah, was exiled to a Soviet labor camp in Siberia for the "grave" sin of learning and teaching Torah. We do not need a description of life in Siberia. Food was at a bare minimum, and work was back breaking and brutal. Even the water they drank was brought from a spring located three kilometers from camp. Bringing the water was a difficult and thankless job. The pails were heavy, and the road was treacherous. One day, Rav Chaim asked to be the water carrier, because he had heard that there was a village near the spring where there lived another Jew.

He made his way along the difficult path, carrying the heavy pails until he came to a small ramshackle hut at the edge of the village. His heart began to pound when he saw the mezuzah on the door. He knocked softly, and a poor woman opened the door. The home was sparse and obviously poverty stricken. Yet, the woman gave Rav Chaim a small slice of bread, saying, "I am sorry, but this is all I can spare."

"I am not looking for food," replied Rav Chaim. "I am looking for a sefer, volume of Torah literature, anything - even one page, so that I can learn. I am starving for Torah - not for food."

The woman went back inside and called her husband, who responded, "I have only one sefer which I am not going to part with. I am sorry that I cannot help you."

"Please, I beg of you," Rav Chaim pleaded. "I will take anything, but I must learn." The sincerity of Rav Chaim's pleas moved the man, and he offered, "I have a volume of the Talmud of Nedarim/Nazir which I will split with you."

With tears and trembling hands, Rav Chaim tore the Talmud in half and took Meseches Nedarim for himself. He returned to his quarters, filled with joy at having obtained an entire Mesechta to quench his thirst for Torah.

The second story took place in Eretz Yisrael, shortly after the European Holocaust, as a young teenager came to the Ponovez Yeshivah in search of the Rosh Hayeshivah, Horav Yosef Kahaneman, zl, the Ponevezer Rav. When he located the Rav, the boy introduced himself as a survivor of Auschwitz, the dreaded Nazi death camp.

"Do you have any family?" the Rav asked. Silence was the answer. Obviously, this boy was left alone in the world to fend for himself and see to his future.

"Where did you learn before the war?" the Rav asked. The response was "a Hungarian yeshivah - four and a half years ago." "Do you remember which Mesechta you learned at the time?" The boy closed his eyes and thought. He momentarily returned to those idyllic days when studying Torah was a way of life. He saw his friends in the bais ha'medrash poring over the folios of Talmud and the commentaries. A smile emerged on his face. "Yes, I remember that we were studying Mesechta Chullin shortly before we were sent to Auschwitz," he replied.

"Can you remember anything from the last sugya, topic, that you learned?" Once again, the young boy went back in time to see if he had retained anything from his yeshivah days. He was lost in thought for a few moments, and then his eyes lit up as he exclaimed, "Yes! I remember a machlokes, dispute, between Rashi and Tosfos on Daf mem cheis, page 48." He related the machlokes as if it were a testament to his determination to retain that spark of Torah which had been ignited before the war.

As the young boy finished speaking, the Rav embraced him, and, with tears in his eyes, kissed him lovingly, repeating his name over and over again. He then took the boy by the hand and ran with him from the Ponovez bais ha'medrash. Through the streets of Bnei Brak, they ran to the home of the gadol hador, preeminent Torah leader of the generation, the Chazon Ish, zl. As they entered his home, the Ponevezer Rav shouted, "Rebbe, Netzach Yisrael lo yeshaker! Klal Yisrael and the Torah will survive forever! This boy has lost everything to Hitler; he has no mother, no father, no brothers and sisters; everybody is gone. One thing survived, the machlokes Rashi and Tosfos that he learned four and a half years ago in the yeshivah. He held onto the Rashi and Tosfos throughout the terror of Auschwitz." And then all three began to weep: the Rav, the gadol hador and the young boy who was Klal Yisrael's future.

When Torah is learned in the right manner, with areivus, sweetness, it can endure and sustain us through the darkest moments of our lives. Tomorrow, when we say the Tefillah of V'haarev na, we should take the meaning of these words into consideration.

It was the day that Moshe finished erecting the Mishkan. (7:1)

Recently, someone remarked to me that it takes a greater person to find a kula, a way to be lenient in halachah, than it takes to find a chumra, a way to be stringent. I can see where someone who is always seeking the easy way out would develop such a distorted view of halachah. I think our Parshah indicates otherwise. Rashi teaches that it took Moshe Rabbeinu seven days to erect the Mishkan. He would erect it and then take it apart until it was precisely in accordance with the exact dimensions. Finally, on Rosh Chodesh Nissan it remained erect and was then dedicated. Chazal tell us that although it was Betzalel, Ohaliav and their associates who built the Mishkan, the Torah attributes it to Moshe because of his extreme dedication to making sure that everything was executed with perfection according to Hashem's instructions. Moshe did not look for the easy way out; he did not search for kulos, leniencies. He followed the letter of the law in accordance with the will of Hashem.

This has been the practice of our Torah leaders throughout the millennia: strict adherence to halachah. The Brisker Rav, zl, was in excruciating pain as a result of his final illness, shortly before his passing. Yet, he insisted on following every halachah, every minhag, custom, according to the letter of the law and in accordance with the mesorah, tradition, that had been transmitted throughout the generations. He insisted on dressing himself in accordance with the prescribed halachah, although this caused him terrible pain. One night, he could not fall asleep because of the intense pain. As morning was nearing, the pain was finally subsiding and he could have now fallen asleep, but he refused. The reason for this was that it was already daylight and he had not yet recited bircas haTorah, since he had been awake all night. He feared that he might think in divrei Torah while he slept and this was inappropriate to do without first reciting a brachah. After his son cited Rav Akiva Eiger, zl, whose opinion it was that sleeping during the day was sufficient for a bircas haTorah, he could now rely on the short nap that he had taken earlier in the day. It was only then that the Brisker Rav gave into his pain and fell asleep.

Adherence to halachah defines one's level of yiraas Shomayim, fear of Heaven. One who is knowledgeable of halachah, but is not meticulous in its observance, is deficient in his yiraas Shomayim. Consequently, he is lacking in his personal development as a talmid chacham, Torah scholar. He might be a scholar - but without the Torah.

And to the sons of Kehas he did not give; since the sacred service was upon them, they carried it on the shoulder. (7:9)

In the Talmud Sotah 35a, Chazal ask why David Hamelech was punished such that Uzzah died because of him. They cite the pasuk in Tehillim 119:54, "Your statutes were music to me in the house of pilgrimage." Hashem said to David, "Words of Torah…you recite as songs! I will cause you to err in a matter in which even schoolchildren are proficient." It is written (Ibid) "And to the sons of Kehas, he did not give; since the sacred service was upon them, they carried it on the shoulder." David Hamelech placed the Aron Hakodesh in a wagon, rather than have it carried by hand. For this, he was punished.

In an attempt to sort out the meaning of Chazal and the degree of middah k'neged middah, measure for measure, in the punishment in which Uzzah died and David was critiqued thereby for referring to Torah as music to his ears, we cite from Horav Yehonasan Eibeshitz, zl, in his Ahavas Yehonasan. He explains that Hashem instructed that the Aron be personally carried on one's shoulder as a lesson concerning the manner in which one acquires Torah as a part of himself. Torah must be studied with amal and yegia, labor and toil. One must exert himself physically and emotionally to attain Torah. When David likened Torah to music, he indicated that it was not difficult to grasp. Thus, he erred in an area that was simple knowledge for even a schoolchild.

In his preface to the Avi Ezri, Horav Elazar M. Shach, zl, raises a compelling question. If, in fact, David erred when he referred to Torah as music, why is this pasuk included in Sefer Tehillim? It is Tehillim; it is Torah; when one recites it, he receives reward. According to the Talmud, however, it is wrong. Rav Shach explains that zemiros, comparing Torah to music/song reflects two misconceptions. First, it suggests that observing Hashem's mitzvos is as easy as music. Performing mitzvos is like singing a song; there is no strain. This was David Hamelech's error. He did not attribute enough significance to mitzvah performance. He did not take into consideration that as one grows spiritually, so does his yetzer hora, evil-inclination, creating newer and more difficult obstacles for him to overcome.

Second, the spiritual pleasure and ultimate reward one experiences through Torah study are so great that nothing on this world can compare to it. Torah is sweet; it is rich; it is pleasant. This is the meaning of comparing Torah to a song. Hence, it was designated to have a place in Sefer Tehillim.

Rav Shach relates that, as a young boy, he was very poor. He was sent to yeshivah where he had no food, no drink and no clothes. He had only Torah. When the First World War broke out, the Jews of Lithuania were exiled and dispersed throughout Europe. The students of Yeshivas Slutzk where Rav Shach was a student were sent home. Rav Shach had nowhere to go. Having no idea where his parents were, he was left alone to fend for himself. Hungry, with no clothing and no home, he made the town shul his home, sleeping on the benches and living off whatever food he could beg. His wardrobe consisted of one change of clothes which he washed every Friday on the roof, waiting for them to dry. No one saw him; no one really cared. His hair grew long and coarse. This went on for a number of years until the Rosh Hayeshivah, Horav Isser Zalmen Meltzer, zl, discovered his plight and took him into his home. Rav Isser Zalmen said that to survive this war, one needed an amulet, a special merit: "This young boy would be his amulet."

Rav Shach concluded his memoirs, saying, "If I were to write down all the agony and misery that has been my lot throughout my life, I would fill volumes that would be much thicker than my Avi Ezri. I can honestly say that I never had a good day in my life. I never had any pleasure in this world. Nonetheless, I consider myself the most fortunate man in the world. There has never been a moment in my life that I have not been b'simchah, filled with joy. Why? Because I learn Torah!"

Va'ani Tefillah

Blessed are You, Hashem, who sanctifies His Name among the multitudes.

The Tefillah climaxes with the blessing, Mekadesh es Shimcha bo'rabim, the blessing for sanctifying Hashem's Name. Horav Shimon Schwab, zl, relates that he heard from Horav Elchanan Wasserman, zl, of a tradition which is connected to the famous ger tzedek, righteous convert, the Polish count, "Graf" Pototsky. The Catholic church, which at that time controlled the Polish government, decreed that the count be executed for the grievous crime of converting to Judaism. The Gaon, zl, m'Vilna was able to bribe the guards, so that the count could escape. The ger tzedek, however, rejected the offer, claiming that he wanted the opportunity to be mekadesh Hashem publicly. He asked the Gaon which brachah does a Jew recite at the time of his execution. He was instructed to begin with the Tefillah, Atah Hu, "You are the One who existed before the world was created," and conclude with the brachah, Mekadesh es Shimcha bo'rabim.

The baal Yesod V'shoresh Ho'Avodah disguised himself and mingled among the crowd of blood-thirsty Poles at the famous execution, so that he could hear the brachah recited and answer Amen to it. The Gaon and the ashes of the ger tzedek were buried next to each other.

l'zechor nishmas
Chaim Tzvi ben Ephraim HaLevi z"l
Dr. Harry Feld

Donnie and Debbie Norowitz

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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