Back to This Week's Parsha

Peninim on the Torah

subscribe.gif (2332 bytes)

Previous issues

Rabbi A. Leib Scheinbaum
Hebrew Academy of Cleveland


Raise the heads of (count) the children of Gershon as well (after counting Kehas). (4:22)

Shlomo HaMelech writes, Yekarah hee mipeninim v'chol chafatzecha lo yishru bah, "It (the Torah) is dearer (more precious) than pearls, and all your desires cannot compare to it" (Mishlei 3:15). Following the census of the Jewish People, Hashem asked Moshe Rabbeinu to count Shevet Levi separately. Their count was carried out according to their sequence in birth: Gershon, Kehas, Merari. After their tasks within the Bais HaMikdash were designated, the sequence changed; as Kehas, the bearer of the Aron Kodesh, preceded Gershon, who carried the Curtains. The Midrash establishes the order of the counting of the Leviim according to the appointment of tasks: A talmid chacham, Torah scholar, precedes an unlearned Kohen Gadol. This is alluded to by the pasuk in Mishlei mentioned above: Yekarah hee mipeninim, "It (the Torah) is dearer than pearls." The word peninim is now understood as "before," a derivative of the word lifnim (v'zos lifanim b'Yisrael, "This was the custom before in Yisrael" (Rus 4:7). This refers to Kehas and Gershon. Gershon was the firstborn; as such, he should have been given the "pole" position of being counted first. Since Kehas carried the Aron Kodesh, which was the repository of the Torah, however, the pasuk lists his name first.

Studying Torah places a man on a level higher than that of firstborn or even Kohen Gadol. Torah study is the ideal vocation; it is our lifeblood. If so, why is a scholar not accorded the same privilege as the Kohen Gadol? Why can the Talmid Chacham not enter Lifnai v'Lifnim, into the Holy of Holies, as does the Kohen Gadol? Why can he not stand before the Almighty? The Sefas Emes explains that the difference lies in understanding the nature of Torah and what can be achieved by Torah study.

The Sefas Emes distinguishes between learning Torah and serving Hashem through worship. Anyone may study Torah; there are no eligibility qualifications. As far as worship in the Bais Hamikdash is concerned, the Torah limits who may serve. Distinct guidelines govern the involvement of the Kohen, Levi and Yisrael. The place in which the avodah, service, is carried out - whether it is in the Courtyard, Sanctuary, or Kodesh Kodoshim - also has parameters. In other words, the Temple service is restrictive. Only a select few may serve in specific places.

This does not mean, explains the Sefas Emes, that the place in which the individual serves is indicative of his having achieved a higher spiritual status than that of his peer who is serving elsewhere. He compares the situation to a king who has both children and servants. A servant's level is determined and manifest by his proximity to the king. While a minister may speak face to face with the monarch at any given time - night or day - the lowly servant stationed in a faraway post, working in the basement somewhere, may never come in contact with the king. Not so the prince, who always maintains an intimate, loving relationship with his father, regardless of his proximity - be it in the palace or in a far-off country. He always remains the son of the king.

One who learns Torah is the King's son. There is really no more precise way to describe this relationship. The ben Torah who delves in Hashem's gift to Am Yisrael experiences a spiritual existence, even while he is in the physical dimension of this world. He is so far from the King - yet so close. Our sages compare this world to a corridor that leads into a palace.

The Midrash quoted above, which delineates between Torah study and spiritual worship, is teaching us that a Jew who studies Torah in the "corridor" is dearer to Hashem than even one who enters the palace proper. The Kohanim who serve in the Bais Hamikdash are like servants who stand before the King. Their privileged position in such close proximity to the Melech Malchei Hamelachim, King of Kings, allows them but a mere taste of the reward to come in Olam Habba, the World to Come. Their full reward is reserved for the future, when they are divested of their mortal selves and have entered into Gan Eden.

Man has one primary purpose in this world: to study Torah and perform its mitzvos. As such, nothing is dearer to him than Torah study. This precludes all physical and spiritual pursuits. Torah is "it": "All your desires cannot compare to it." Chazal teach that "desires" here refers to spiritual aspirations, such as performing mitzvos and maasim tovim, good deeds. Yet, such magnificent aspirations cannot compare to even one word of Torah.

Everyone who comes to perform the work of service and the work of burden in the Ohel Moed. (4:47)

The Talmud Arachin 11a seeks a Scriptural source for the obligation to have song in the Bais Hamikdash. Ten sources are cited. One source is from the above pasuk: La'avod avodas avodah, "To perform the service of the service." Chazal ask and others respond, "Which service requires another service? We must say that this refers to song." An earlier source quoted by the Talmud employs the pasuk in Devarim 28:47 to provide the reason for the various calamities visited on the Jewish People. Tachas asher lo avadita es Hashem Elokechem b'simchah u'betuv leivav, "Because you did not serve Hashem, your G-d, with joy and goodness of heart." According to this interpretation of the pasuk, the Torah seems to treat the mitzvah of song with uncommon stringency. The commentators offer a number of reasons for the unusual power of song. It drives away depression, which is the root of much of our sinful behavior. One who is satisfied and happy develops a positive self-esteem and does not get depressed. Song can elevate the soul to the heights of prophecy.

The Ein Yaakov writes, concerning the glory and splendor of song, that the beauty and goodness of the world of man, the world of angels and the Heavenly world of Hashem all correspond to the music and songs of praise. The soul is inspired by music to arise and ascend from the physical/mundane world in which we live to the Heavenly abode of the Creator.

In his commentary to Divrei Hayamim II, 29:25, Rashi writes that, while the Torah does not explicitly state that a korban, sacrifice, must be accompanied by song, our sages derive its significance and requirement from the words, Avodas avodah, "service of service." The service of the bringing of the sacrifice requires a musical accompaniment. The koach ha'neginah, power of song/melody, is underscored in the Sifrei Kabbalah. Indeed, Sefer Chassidim writes that one should seek out and select melodies that are sweet and pleasant and apply them to his tefillah, prayer service. These melodies gladden one's heart and allow him to better express his praise of Hashem.

In his sefer Nitzotzos, Horav Yitzchok Hershkowitz, Shlita, relates a number of episodes in which the compelling effect of a song has had a major effect on a person. His first episode takes place concerning the Talmidei Ha'Gra, students of the Gaon, zl, m'Vilna, shortly after his petirah, passing. It was just before Simchas Torah, the happiest day of the year, at a time when all Torah-loving Jews celebrate with Hashem's greatest gift to His People: the Torah. Yet, this group of devoted Torah students who had recently been left bereft of their holy mentor was steeped in mourning. They grieved for their Rebbe; they grieved for themselves.

"How can we even begin to celebrate Simchas Torah without our Rebbe? True, there are Sifrei Torah in the Aron HaKodesh, Holy Ark, but we are missing our Rebbe, the living embodiment of a Torah scroll." They wept and wept. A few hours went by, and the Gaon's primary disciple, Horav Chaim Volozhiner, zl, arose and banged his hand on the bimah, lectern, to call everyone to attention. Once they quieted down, Rav Chaim asked, "Do any one of you have an idea where our beloved Rebbe's neshamah, soul, presently rests? Can you imagine in whose proximity he sits?"

It was a very powerful question, but these were not simple Jews. They were scholars who had a far greater perception of the workings of Heaven than the average man. One student conjectured, "He most certainly sits in the proximity of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai, author of the Zohar HaKadosh. After all, our Rebbe expended great effort in understanding and explaining the depths of Kabbalah." Another student felt that, indeed, the Gaon was sitting in the midst of the great Tannaim and Amoraim, since, having elucidated their comments; he made their words accessible to the Torah world. Yet another student suggested that the Rebbe was surrounded by the Rashba and Ramban for having aspired to - and attained - their level of greatness in Torah.

When they had all completed their suggestions, Rav Chaim summed up, "One thing is for certain: our Rebbe has acquired for himself a most lofty place in the Olam Habba. To this we all agree. Now, let us go back to a moment shortly before our Rebbe's mortal body left this world. Remember how he bemoaned the fact that in this world for a few pennies one can purchase a pair of tzitzis which will earn him immeasurable reward for the fulfillment of a mitzvah. In Olam Habba, however, it is all over. One can no longer earn reward. He either has earned it here in this world, or it is too late. Therefore, Rebbe wept bitterly that he was leaving this world of spiritual opportunity. It was over! Despite the incredible reward in store for Rebbe, he would rather have remained here!"

At that climactic moment, he burst out in song, "Olam Habba is a gutte zach, lernen Torah is a beser zach. Varf avek fun dir der yoch, lernen Torah nach un nach, 'The World to Come is a good thing; studying Torah is a better thing.' "Throw away from yourself the yoke and learn Torah more and more."

When the Gra's students heard this, they all arose from their seats and began to sing in honor of the Torah. They sang and danced for the privilege of being able to remain in this world to achieve growth in Torah. The lyrics of the song, with its lively melody, catapulted them out of their melancholy, as they now understood the significance of the gift of life.

Before we continue, an understanding and appreciation of the power of music is in order. Music has the amazing power to sweep us up in its rhythm. We might be in no particular mood, or even in a negative mood, but as soon as we hear a lively tune, a joyous musical score, the beat envelops us; in the course of a few moments, we are transported to an entirely different sphere. Our mood has been altered. Our low spirits have been forgotten, as a sense of hope takes hold of us. Lovers of music will attest to its power to captivate and mold their deepest emotions. Indeed, some individuals hum a tune throughout the day.

Rhythm captivates - but its feeling is temporary. Only music has the power to entrance and engage the individual on a more lasting basis. While rhythm plays a critical role in establishing the energy and mood of the music, it is the melody that speaks to the heart and soul. In Torah terms, the melody is on a higher level than the rhythm. The next level is "holy music," a term applied to a melody emanating deep from within the recesses of the soul. Horav Shaul Taub, zl, the second Modzitzer Rebbe, would say, "I sing from an overflowing heart." Such melodies are far more than entertainment. It reflects a deep-rooted holy wisdom. To paraphrase Horav Nachman Breslover, zl, "Know that every wisdom in the world has its own unique song and melody; it is from this song that this wisdom is actually derived; and so, from level to level, a higher wisdom has an even more exalted song and melody."

When we talk about the significance of music, a name that immediately comes to mind is Modzitz. This small town in Poland was host to a Chassidic Rabbinic lineage which viewed song and music as not merely contributory to prayer, its melody not simply a manner of liturgical expression. In Modzitz, music was the very essence of spirituality, the primary path towards achieving true avodah she'b'lev, service of the heart. Horav Yechezkel, zl, m'Kuzmir, ancestor of the first Modzitzer Rebbe, felt that he could not commence Shabbos until he had composed a new niggun, song. It was an essential requisite for his Shabbos experience.

The founder of the Modzitz dynasty was Horav Yisrael Taub, zl, author of the Divrei Yisrael. He emphasized song as a primary component of Jewish worship. While he composed hundreds of nigunim, the song by which he is most remembered is entitled, Ezkerah, "I Will Remember," a compelling melody composed at a time of great travail. In his later years, he had to undergo a serious surgical procedure during which his leg was to be amputated. Weakened by his disease, the physicians feared for his life if they were to administer anesthesia. They knew, however, that without the surgery, the Rebbe's chances of living were nil. In a quandary, they asked the Rebbe what to do. He offered a unique suggestion: He would compose a niggun. As soon as the doctors saw that he was completely engrossed in the song, they should begin to operate.

That is what they did. As they performed the painful amputation, the Rebbe sang the song - feeling no pain. The song has thirty-six stanzas, because it was a long surgery. He was concentrating so deeply on the song that he was unaware of anything else: thus, he did not feel any pain. How did he do it? It is all about concentration. We are not on the Rebbe's madreigah, level, to be able to shut our minds to excruciating pain. When it hurts - it hurts! It has to do with how much we allow what takes place around us to affect us. Some of us retain memories of a sad experience for a lifetime. Others have the capability of shutting them out of their mind. If we do not think about it, the pain will cease. Yes, we are capable of controlling what goes into our minds. It is not easy, but it can be done. Song has the ability to either block or assuage unpleasant thoughts. It has that power.

The Modzitz manner of prayer worship incorporates melody with prayer to produce an ecstasy that is spiritually and physically uplifting. Once one had experienced a davening in Modzitz, he was no longer the same person. He felt the words as he "lived" the prayer. Indeed, this is how one should daven. Song transports one to a different world, to a different mood. One has only to experience a Kabbolas Shabbos at any Chassidic center to understand the full meaning of song and music.

I conclude with one last story related by Rav Yitzchak Hershkowitz. Reb Yehonasan Schwartz is a noted singer at Jewish weddings. His grammen are words put to song which touch layers of the psyche that mere words alone cannot touch. They reach into the inner recesses of the soul and leave an imprint which impacts far beyond the wedding celebration. Reb Yehonasan employs the power of song within the four walls of a hospital room. Together with his good friend, Reb Michoel Schnitzler, another well-known singer, they are often seen in the hospital wards uplifting the patient's spirits with their captivating melodies.

One day, the duo arrived at Sloan Kettering, a hospital noted for its treatment of patients suffering from dread diseases. They came to visit the patients and, in some way brighten their lives. As they were walking through the hall, they were stopped by someone who asked them to go to a certain room where an eighteen-year-old boy from Lakewood was a patient. He was suffering from a brain tumor, and the doctors had basically told the family that there was nothing more they could do. The way they perceived the situation, it was a matter of weeks before the teenager would succumb to the disease.

The two entered the room to see a young yeshivah student with tubes and drains coming out of him, his face swollen, his eyes filled with fear. They began their work. They sang niggunim and grammen and were even able to engage the patient, as he himself began to sing with them. After a short while, it was time to go. Clearly, they had elevated the patient's spirits. As they were walking out, Reb Yehonasan, not thinking of the ramification of his words, said, "Im yirtze Hashem, we will entertain him at his wedding." As soon as the words exited his mouth, he realized the absurdity of his statement. The boy was no fool, and he commented, "Yes, im yirtze Hashem, in my next gilgul, reincarnation." Reb Yehonasan felt terrible, but what could he do? He had spoken without thinking.

Two and a half years passed, and Reb Yehonasan received an invitation to a wedding in Lakewood taking place in four weeks. He looked at the names of the chassan and kallah and had no clue as to their identities. It must be a mistake, because he had no idea who these people were. Yet, he was curious. Just in case it was for real, he would show his face and leave.

On the wedding night, he entered the chasunah hall to see the chassan sitting on a chair in the middle of a circle of friends and relatives. It was a very Yeshivish crowd; Reb Yehonasan, dressed in chasidish garb, felt totally out of place. He still had no idea why he was present. The invitation had clearly been a mistake. Suddenly, the chassan noticed him. He arose from his seat of honor and beckoned for Reb Yehonasan to join him. As Reb Yehonasan moved closer into the circle, the chassan grabbed him and embraced him. He began to dance with a level of passion and fervor that Reb Yehonasan had not seen in a long time. Yet, Reb Yehonasan still had neither an idea who the chassan was, nor the reason he had been invited to the wedding.

Suddenly, the chosson looked deeply into his eyes and asked, "Do you not know who I am? I am the young man from Sloan-Kettering about whom you quipped, "We will entertain him at his wedding!" I never forgot what you said and the songs you sang. They literally changed my frame of mind, delivering the hope and strength to fight the disease. So far, I am winning! Now you understand why I invited you to my wedding. You are the biggest mechutan!"

A man or woman who shall disassociate himself by taking a Nazarite vow of abstinence for the sake of Hashem. (6:2)

The translation of yafli, "shall disassociate," follows Rashi, who views the Nazir as someone who breaks with society's norms, seeking to separate himself from the temptations of his environment. It is a noble position to take, one to which not all of us can aspire. Ibn Ezra takes it a step further. He defines yafli as wonderment. The nazir is doing something astonishing. It is truly out of the ordinary to undertake a vow that will sever oneself from the taavos, physical desires, which others find so "life-sustaining." Ibn Ezra is teaching us a powerful lesson. To overcome one's habits; to deny oneself a deferment to his yetzer hora, evil inclination; to withstand the pressures of one's taavos, physical desires, takes a very strong person. Such a person commits an astounding act. To change requires greatness. It is a pele, wondrous act of heroism, to break away from one's taavos, desires.

In his Daas Torah, Horav Yeruchem Levovitz, zl, elaborates upon this theme, deriving from Ibn Ezra that one who follows his cravings is a true slave to his desires. He is not in control of his life. His desires are in control of him. The mindset of a slave is one in which he wholly subjugates himself to his master. A person who is intrinsically a free man does not sell himself. His self-esteem just does not allow for that. One who sells himself is by nature already a slave. His self-esteem has long been gone. As a slave, he has no self-image. He is a component of his master.

Likewise, the baal taavah, one who is a slave to his physical desires, has no natural ability to break the strangle-hold that his desires have on him. The taavah beckons, and he immediately responds: "Hineni. I am here." He has no choice, no ability to say no. His "master's" choice is his choice. He is always thinking of ways to satisfy his lusts, because that is what a slave must do: always think of ways to earn the master's praise.

Thus, when a person is able to extricate himself from the vice grip of his yetzer hora, evil inclination, he is a pele, an astounding person. He was able to go against his natural proclivity. He said no! The Yerushalmi teaches that Rabbi Akiva was once teaching his students when a man who passed by the bais ha'medrash caused the entire bais ha'medrash to light up. Rabbi Akiva asked the man to enter the bais ha'medrash and asked, "What have you done that creates such an aura about you?"

The man explained, "I lusted for a certain woman. It had become so over-powering that I almost lost myself and sinned. At one point, the woman had acquiesced, but she first rebuked me for what I was about to do. I listened to her and overcame my desire." We see a clear indication from Chazal that breaking a desire is a compelling deed. It shows strength of character that only an "astounding" person possesses. This is what Ibn Ezra is teaching us. The average person falls prey to his physical passions. The one who is a pele, an astounding person, an awesome person, is able to overcome his natural gravitation to sin.

There are those who, albeit ensconced in the grips of desire, comment, "I can stop whenever I want." Rav Yeruchem emphatically states that this is untrue. This person is ashamed to admit that he is too weak to break the hold the yetzer hora has on him. He is just a "regular" person. He is not a pele.

Va'ani Tefillah

Hashem Elokeinu - Hashem is our G-d.

Horav Avigdor Miller, zl, explains that the possessive expression of Hashem Elokeinu has two perspectives. First, He is ours in the sense that a child would say, "He is my father," a term which denotes His special interest in people and His special interest and benevolence towards them. Second, we are "His" in the same sense that one refers to his employer, which denotes that all of our interest is surely on Him. Therefore, this reciprocal expression bespeaks our connection to Him and His connection to us. The Almighty bestows holiness and blessing upon us, and we direct our praises, gratitude and all of our hearts' thoughts towards Him. He acquires us as His People, and we acquire Him as our Father, Protector and King, forever. This is all because "Hashem" means forever. Whatever commitment we make must be an everlasting one - because that is the type of bond Hashem has established with us. Thus, Hashem Elokeinu is the proverbial two-way street: We do ours, and He does His.

Sponsored in loving memory of our
dear father and zaidy on his yahrzeit

Rabbi Shlomo Silberberg
Harav Shlomo ben Nosson z"l
niftar 14 Sivan 5759

Zev and Miriam Solomon and Family

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

The Fifteenth volume is available at your local book seller or directly from Rabbi Scheinbaum.

He can be contacted at 216-321-5838 ext. 165 or by fax at 216-321-0588

Discounts are available for bulk orders or Chinuch/Kiruv organizations.


This article is provided as part of Shema Yisrael Torah Network
Permission is granted to redistribute electronically or on paper,
provided that this notice is included intact.
For information on subscriptions, archives, and
other Shema Yisrael Classes,
send mail to
Jerusalem, Israel