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Peninim on the Torah

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Rabbi A. Leib Scheinbaum
Hebrew Academy of Cleveland


When a man or woman sins by committing treachery against Hashem… A man whose wife shall go astray… A man or woman who shall disassociate himself by taking a Nazirite vow of abstinence. (5:6,12) (6:2)

The Torah purposely juxtaposes three types of incidents: one in which the individual steals and swears falsely; the wayward wife; the Nazir who vows to abstain from wine and intoxicants. The Ralbag explains that the Torah is conveying a profound message. The ultimate goal of mankind is to live in a society dedicated to powerful coexistence, security and tranquility. This can be achieved only when peace forms the foundation of society. If the underpinnings are secure and based upon peace, the structure will grow upon this principle. The first portion of the pasuk addresses the failings of one who steals and swears falsely, which is a societal problem. This is followed by the incident of the wayward wife, which details problems on the home front. Domestic harmony is certainly an aspect of the infrastructure that contributes to a strong society. Third, we are challenged with what is probably the most basic fundamental issue of peaceful coexistence, one that is more basic than even the community or the home. It is serenity within oneself. Yes, one must be at peace with himself, a phenomenon which is symbolized by the third portion of the pasuk, the Nazir who vows to abstain from the pleasures of wine and intoxicating beverages. One who does not constrain himself from falling into the abyss of indulgence in sensory pleasures is clearly not at peace with himself. Such an individual does not have a tranquil life at home with his spouse and, ultimately, cannot coexist peacefully with other members of society.

While the Ralbag's thesis is certainly practical in light of our attempts to achieve this ideal state of living, his remark suggesting that the individual who indulges in physical pleasure reflects a disharmony within himself is troubling. One would think that indulgence leads to satisfaction, and self-gratification promotes tranquility. Why is the self-indulgent person characterized as one not at peace with himself?

Horav A. Henoch Leibowitz, zl, explains that man was not created to be a purely physical being. He is an incredible phenomenon which amalgamates the spiritual and the physical, the soul and the body, the Divine and the mundane, into one miraculous blend. Thus, the soul is not at peace if the body does not receive its due nourishment, and the body eludes tranquility if the soul is deprived of its spiritual sustenance. A man who ignores his Divine calling and lives only to satiate his physical cravings, is torn with internal strife. He experiences inner turmoil and ceaseless tension, as his soul cries out for fulfillment. Indeed, the pleasure-seeker will ultimately not find fulfillment, despite his constant self-gratification, because his soul continues to yearn to attain its perfection.

As the Rosh Yeshivah saw it, the person who is venerated by today's society, the individual who is glorified for his ascension upon the ladder of hedonistic pleasure and gratification, is actually a walking war zone, a battleground in which body and soul are locked in ceaseless struggle. He presents himself publicly as calm, collected and in control, living the good life as only his kind knows how to live. Within him, however, rages an incessant turmoil, a restlessness that eats away at whatever inner-peace he might think he has achieved. In reality, he is nothing more than a messed-up individual who has a difficult time living in harmony with anybody - his circle of friends and even his own family.

To achieve peace, one must attain fulfillment. It is quite difficult to attain fulfillment when a war is raging from within. One who seeks to promote peace within his community and family should first work on himself. Following the Torah as our guide is an excellent prescription for achieving personal success. Indeed, it is the only guide to perfection, eternal reward, true happiness and inner-tranquility.

A man's holies shall be his, and what a man gives to the Kohen shall be his. (5:10)

The Torah is alluding to the fact that one who gives the Kohen his due gifts will not sustain any loss thereby. On the contrary, Hashem will reward him for his generosity. Rashi adds that the Kohen or Levi might think that since the gifts are "coming" to them, they might just as well go and pick them up from the owner's house. We are taught that the gifts belong to the owner until the time that he chooses to give them to whichever Kohen he pleases. It is his decision. The Midrash teaches us that when he holds back the Maaser, tithe, from the Levi, his field eventually will produce only ten percent of its original yield. On the other hand, if he does perform his share, he will see his financial portfolio grow magnificently.

The Midrash to Sefer Shemos quotes Shlomo Hamelech in Mishlei 2:22, "One overeager for wealth has an evil eye; he does not know that want may befall him." Rabbi Levi says that this pasuk applies to the individual who does not properly tithe his produce. He cites an incident concerning an individual whose field yielded one thousand measures of grain, of which he would always separate one hundred measures for the Levi. Prior to his death, he instructed his son to do the same, claiming that this is why he had always had sufficient livelihood with which to support their family. The first year, the son followed his father's instructions. After that, he slowly began to "forget" to tithe as his father had done. Within a short time, his yield began decreasing, until he was left with only a ten-percent yield. He was blind to the punishment that Hashem was meting out against him, because his obsession with wealth was clouding his vision.

How many of us think that if we are frugal in our obligations to the poor, and to those organizations and institutions whose sustenance is dependent upon our good graces and open hearts, we will have more for ourselves? Horav Nosson Ordman, zl, cites an inspirational analogy from the Chafetz Chaim concerning Shabbos which can similarly be applied to tzedakah, charity. Those who keep their places of business open on Shabbos justify their lack of observance with the age-old excuse, "We need a parnassah, a livelihood." These people are very much like the foolish gentile in the following story. A Jewish merchant came to the village to purchase grain from its farmers. After meeting with a certain gentile farmer, the merchant ordered one hundred sacks of grain at a specific price per sack. Now they had to count the sacks and place them on the merchant's wagon.

Since the gentile found it quite difficult to keep track of all the sacks, he decided that for every sack that was placed on the merchant's wagon, the merchant would give him a small coin. This way, after all the sacks had been placed on the wagon, they would simply count up the coins and the merchant would reimburse the gentile farmer for the difference. All went well for the first few sacks, but then the farmer's yetzer hora, evil-inclination, got the better of him.

Seeing all those coins on the table drove him to reassess his proposal for counting the sacks. He could not wait until they concluded the count to receive his payment. He needed money now! He devised a "daring" plan. When the Jew was not looking, the gentile grabbed a handful of coins. This way, he would have his money now, and the Jew would never know.

How foolish was the farmer. True, he was able to acquire some pennies immediately, but, in the final analysis, the count would be short, and the Jewish merchant would receive an added number of sacks for nothing! The fool gained pennies, but lost many dollars!

We think that by working on Shabbos, we supplement our income. We do not realize that what we profit on Shabbos pales in comparison to what we will lose during the week. Likewise, explains Rav Ordman, we think that by hoarding our money and not sharing it with those in need, we are profiting. In the final conclusion, we will have saved pennies, but lost many dollars. The one who is "eager for wealth has an evil eye" does not understand "what will befall him." What we think we save now, we pay for later - many times over.

Conversely, there are those who are under the misguided assumption that by giving tzedakah, they are depleting their financial holdings. On the contrary, by contributing to charitable causes, helping the needy, and reaching out to those who are less fortunate than we are, we merit seeing our financial portfolio increase beyond the norm. Rav Ordman notes that scripture often refers to charitable giving as zeriah, planting. Shlomo Hamelech says in Mishlei 11:18, "One who sows righteousness, has a true reward," and the Navi Hoshea (10:12) says, "Sow for yourselves righteousness and you will reap according to your kindness." Indeed, Chazal say that "sowing righteousness" is a reference to giving tzedakah. We wonder why zeriah, sowing seeds, is used in reference to tzedakah?

Rav Ordman gives a practical explanation which illuminates the entire concept of tzedakah. When we think about it, the image of planting is an anomaly to one not knowledgeable of the process. We see a person take a sack of edible seeds and throw it all over a freshly-plowed field, only to "add insult to injury" by covering the seeds with dirt. A person who observes this procedure, but has no clue concerning what is occurring, will certainly think the farmer has taken leave of his senses. He seems to be wasting good seed. The individual in the "know," however, is acutely aware that these seeds will produce manifold crops that will sustain, nourish and satisfy many people.

Similarly, when one gives tzedakah, it might appear that he is wasting good money. In truth, he is making a solid investment in his and his family's future. Giving tzedakah is like planting, in that it reaps much merit - both spiritually and materially.

But if the woman had not become defiled, and she is pure, then she shall be proven innocent and she shall bear seed. (5:28)

The woman not only was not defiled by the man whom her husband accuses, she is considered to pure of any sin with anyone else as well. Her reward is fruitfulness in bearing children more successfully. If she had previously suffered difficult labor, she will now give birth more easily. Her babies will be born healthy and with a healthy appearance. If otherwise she had been infertile, Hashem will give her a child to compensate her for the ordeal she had experienced. The commentators wonder why this woman is worthy of a reward of any kind. This is a woman who had heretofore acted inappropriately, cavorting with strange men, to the chagrin and shame of her husband and family. Clearly, her husband had accused her of being a party in an illicit affair for a reason. She was not acting like a model Jewish woman or wife. Yet, because she did not actually sin, she is rewarded! Should that be the criteria for reward? What about the life of moral abandon that had been her favorite pastime until now? - Are we to ignore that?

Horav Eliyahu Lopian, zl, offers two explanations, both of which go to the core of sin and repentance. First, we must take into consideration the devastating humiliation which she had undergone, as she was the subject of much degradation, which was to stimulate her to confess to her infidelity. She was on public display for one purpose: to encourage her to realize what she did and its deleterious effect, so that by confessing, her life would be spared. She sustained the pain, the embarrassment, and the disgrace. This is applied in her merit, as she is, therefore, not only spared a tragic fate, but she is blessed with successful childbirth.

Second, Rav Elya explains that each individual is judged commensurate with his spiritual/emotional/moral status quo at the moment of his sin. This woman descended to the nadir of depravity, as she liasoned with a man other than her husband. She ignored her husband's warning, was oblivious to her family's pleas, and rejected the scorn and derision that her illicit activities catalyzed. Apparently, her desire to sin was so overpowering, so intense, that it all did not matter. She was in the midst of carrying out her desires. Who cares about consequences?

Yet, despite having plummeted to the depths of degeneracy, she exhibited self-control and did not sin. She was with her companion, but she was able to prevail upon her emotions to keep herself from sinning. The desire was just as intense, but she was stronger. She triumphed over her yetzer hora, evil-inclination. For overcoming her inclination to sin, at a time when it was available and willing, she is rewarded. The Torah does not deprive anyone of his or her due reward.

Speak to Aharon and his sons saying, "So shall you bless the Bnei Yisrael." (6:22)

The Kohanim are instructed to direct Hashem's blessing to the people. The Zohar HaKadosh adds that a Kohen must purify and sanctify his hands through one who is holy, prior to blessing the people. This is a reference to the Levi, who is holy, and who washes the hands of the Kohen. What is the significance of this required dimension of sanctity provided by the Levi? Horav Mordechai Miller, zl, explains that various levels of sanctity inspire the individual to rise to the service of the Almighty. He divides them into four primary categories, each viewed as a rung on the ascending ladder of Divine Service.

At the base of the ladder are those deeds which Hashem had expressly commanded. These actions provide firm footing, a solid foundation, from which to rise to the lofty spiritual heights in which one's body is actually attuned to-- and synchronized with-- his spiritual exertion. At this advanced stage, the body performs Hashem's will automatically, much like metal gravitates to a magnet. There is a danger, however, when one is so strongly connected to the Divine. In his Haamek Davar commentary to Vayikra 9:6, the Netziv, zl, writes that certain groups within the Jewish nation greatly yearned spirituality, longing for a more profound closeness to G-d. What could be wrong with that? A hazard lies deeply beneath this overwhelming yearning. It is the danger of breaking the clearly defined parameter prescribed by the Torah. In their attempt to get closer to Hashem, people might overstep the boundaries of right and wrong. Even in love for Hashem, strict discipline must be enforced. This was the error that catalyzed the tragic downfall of Korach's 250 followers, who, albeit obsessed by a desire to attain even greater holiness, were emotionally driven to breach the restrictions of the law. They wanted to approach the Altar and offer Incense, which is a lofty desire, but it was a service that was exclusively mandated to the Kohanim. Their blatant disregard of the Torah's law led to the dire consequences which they suffered.

We have a spiritual "road map" to reach the Almighty, to achieve closeness. Hashem has given us paths which we must follow, despite the "inconvenience" and the "delay." We may not take the "express lanes," since the Torah restricts us from using them. We must realize that any motivation to achieve spirituality inconsistent with the Torah's road map is nothing more than the work of the yetzer hora, evil-inclination, in the guise of spirituality. It seeks nothing more than to deceive and ultimately to destroy us.

When the Nesiim, Princes, came forward with their offerings, Moshe Rabbeinu did not accept it from them until after he had received Hashem's approval. Their sentiments might have been in order, but were their actions in sync with Hashem's instruction? Emotions can manifest themselves in a manner that is actually antithetical to Hashem's will.

We return to the original question concerning why it was necessary for the Leviim to wash the Kohanim's hands prior to the Bircas Kohanim. First, however, we must understand the basic natures of the Kohen and the Levi, in order to determine how the Levi complements the Kohen's service. In Devarim 33:8, Moshe gives the following blessing to the tribe of Levi: "You have given your Urim v'Tumin to your pious one," the Levi as ish chasidecha, a man of chesed, loving-kindness. His piety is defined by acts of loving-kindness and expansiveness. Rav Miller compares this quality to water bubbling up from an underground spring. By the time it penetrates the surface, it is backed by tremendous pressure. This will cause the water to spray in every direction, depositing sparkling droplets of water all over the surrounding area. If the water is not directed, it might cause weeds to sprout instead of flowers.

Chesed is a quality that exemplifies an outpouring of giving and expansiveness. Yet, is this the same outpouring and expansiveness that can undermine one's goals and negatively impact the outcome of his actions? There is a danger when one gives at an inappropriate time or to an inappropriate recipient. To give against the will of the Almighty is not chesed; it is not expansiveness; it is mutinous. Therefore, there are dangers and pitfalls surrounding the Kohen's quality of chesed. He must carefully navigate between what is beneficial and what is dangerous.

The Levi has another quality, one that was noted during their response to the sin of the Golden Calf. It was only the tribe of Levi that responded affirmatively to Moshe's clarion call of Mi l'Hashem eilai, "Who is for Hashem, is to (come to) me." It was only they who were prepared to take sword in hand and fight for Hashem, for righteousness, against evil and sin. By their actions and commitment, they demonstrated a preparedness to adhere to strict justice, with exactitude and discipline. They manifested an eagerness to carry out the will of Hashem meticulously, with every detail followed exactly. The Leviim demonstrated rigidity by remaining unwavering and unaffected by personal sentiments as they executed justice against the offenders. They wiped out every sinner, regardless of familial connections, because Hashem's Name had been desecrated and the infraction had to be expunged.

By washing the hands of the Kohanim, the Leviim increased their level of sanctity. The scrupulousness and upright quality of the Leviim coalesced with the expansiveness and aspirations of the Kohanim, in order to produce a well-balanced sense of holiness and beauty. The parameters set by the Leviim provided the structure in which to channel the sublime emotions and lofty ideals of the Kohanim. When these two elements merge, when the exactitude of the Leviim fuses with the expansiveness of the Kohanim, we are ensured the correct and appropriate intentions necessary for blessing the people with love.

Va'ani Tefillah

Ashrei Yoshvei Veisecha - Praiseworthy are those who dwell in Your home.

The Tefillah of Ashrei is actually a misnomer, since the Psalm which is Perek 145 in Sefer Tehillim begins with Tehillah l'David, a Psalm of David. Two pesukim: one taken from 84:5, followed by a pasuk from 144:15, which were added to the beginning of the prayer. In these two pesukim, the word ashrei is repeated three times, consistent with the Talmudic dictum, "Anyone who recites Ashrei thrice daily is certain to have a portion in the World to Come" (Berachos 4b). We do, however, recite Ashrei three times during the course of the day: during Pesukei d'Zimra, "in Ashrei u'va l'tZion," and during Minchah. In the Talmud Berachos 10a, Chazal state that when any Psalm was especially dear to David Hamelech, he would begin and end it with the same words. Thus, the Hallelukahs, which begin and end with the same words, were especially important to him. Likewise, Tefillas "Ashrei" which begins with Tehillah l'David and ends, Tehillas Hashem yedaber pi, "A Psalm of Hashem does my mouth speak," was very important to David Hamelech.

David Hamelech says that it is impossible to do justice to Hashem's greatness. Therefore, in reality, we have no right to praise Him, since whatever we say, we are actually detracting from His distinction. Nonetheless, since the Patriarchs did praise Him, we rely on their historical procedure. This is why he begins speaking in the third-person plural and switches to first person singular. "They", refers to former generations. "I" refers to David Hamelechs way of explaining his praises of G-d. While the essence of Hashem cannot be described, we are aware of His many kindnesses, which we enumerate in this prayer.

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