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Peninim on the Torah

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Rabbi A. Leib Scheinbaum
Hebrew Academy of Cleveland


A man's holies shall be his. (5:10)

The Chafetz Chaim, zl, was wont to say that the above pasuk teaches us that an object or endeavor which a person dedicates/consecrates for sacred use is what actually belongs to him, and this is what ultimately accompanies him to the eternal world of Olam Habba, the World to Come. This means that the only objects/endeavors that we may call "ours" are those which are linked to a spiritual goal. Otherwise, we cannot consider it to belong to us. Moreover, we should not rely on others to carry out our responsibilities. True, many wonderful and generous people are around who are available to help a person in need, but what about "our" responsibility? Who will address our obligation to serve Hashem?

Indeed, in his Ahavas Chesed, the Chafetz Chaim underscores this issue. He writes: "Who is greater than Hillel, who certainly had sons who were holy Torah scholars, which in itself is a great merit for the Tanna? Yet, it was Hillel who declared, Im ein ani li - mi li? 'If I am not for myself - who (else) will be for me?' (Apparently, Hillel did not rely on his many z'chusim, merits. He continued to endeavor on behalf of Torah.) If so, what shall 'we' say, as we see the spiritual persona of the generations in decline… Each and every one of us must exert himself to the fullest to achieve spiritual perfection."

Horav Eliyahu Eliezer Dessler, zl, emigrated to Eretz Yisrael in 1947, to serve as Mashgiach in Yeshivas Ponevez. He returned to his home in Gateshead, England, after one year, stayed for a while, and then returned to the Holy Land. During his short stay in England, he delivered a number of shmuessen, ethical discourses. In one, he spoke of his observations concerning the spiritual climate of the Holy Land, and how its residents were imbued by its sanctity. Among the many anecdotes, he related one about a meeting he had with a successful businessman. This individual was blessed with a large family whom he was supporting both prior to and following their marriages. He had an interesting practice -- almost a ritual to him-- which he performed prior to marrying off a child. It was this practice, which inspired Rav Dessler.

Traditionally, when one marries off a child, new clothing for the wedding is either sewn or purchased for each member of the family. (This was before the days of the G'mach; and this is assuming one had the wherewithal to outfit his entire family. This was, sadly, not always the case.) This man was not satisfied with merely having new clothes made for his children. He went one step further. He would go to the Diskin Orphanage and ask the director to give him the sizes of ten orphans who were in need of new outfits. If it was a daughter whom he was marrying off, he would go to the orphanage of Rav Weingarten and do the same for ten girls!

Rav Dessler observed that he had yet to see such acts of chesed in Europe. Indeed, he felt that it was the unique sanctity endemic to Eretz Yisrael which imbued its residents with such thoughtfulness and sensitivity for others not as fortunate as they are. He added that there was something about this man's practice that, indeed, left much to be desired. The individual in question shared with him what he felt was a personal shortcoming concerning the chesed he was performing. Apparently, when he had clothes made for his family, he used the finest silk, but the garments he had sewn for the orphans were made of simple linen. What bothered him was that the clothes he had made for his family were not destined to last very long. The garments that he had made for the orphans were quite special, since they would accompany them to the World to Come. If he would have been a better businessman, he would have spent even more on these garments. They were his ticket to Paradise. Why would he pinch pennies on a mitzvah that garnered such reward?

Veritably, we are often unaware of the spiritual weight engendered by what appears to us to be simple actions, often of little meaning. The Heavenly scale, however, factors its reward based upon a different quotient. The following examples shed light on this premise. The Midrash comments that, had Boaz been aware that his simple act of giving Rus some kernels of grain would be recorded for posterity in the Torah, he would have fed her fattened calves. Chazal's statement causes one to pause. Are our Torah giants politicos who thrive on publicity and would do anything to garner attention for themselves and their purported cause? Certainly, Boaz would have downplayed anything that he did. Why would feeding Rus be any different?

Horav Tzvi Kushelevsky, Shlita, explains the following. If we were to ask Boaz to state his achievements during his long life, he would clearly not allude to the few kernels of grain that he gave to Rus. He would talk about his education, scholarly achievements, his family, his students, people whose lives he touched - everything - but the bit of food to Rus. Why? In his eyes, he probably did nothing earth -shattering.

We find a similar statement made by Chazal concerning Aharon HaKohen. He was an individual who devoted his life to advancing Jewish relationships. Whenever two Jewish men gravitated towards a dispute, Aharon would do everything within his power to prevent controversy from occurring. When two people were embroiled in a machlokes, dispute, he used his convincing powers to encourage a quick resolution. Shalom bayis, peaceful harmony between husband and wife, was another area in which he excelled. When Aharon died, his coffin was followed by 80,000 youngsters who carried the name Aharon. They were the products of his marriage counseling successes. Can we imagine how many families he brought back together - daily?! All this was in addition to the Torah that he taught to the multitudes. Aharon lived a long life replete with much spiritual achievement. Therefore, he would not have thought that his happiness at his younger brother being selected to lead the Jewish People out of Egypt was exemplary. Yet, we see that underscoring Aharon's benevolence would have made a great impression on him.

What makes Aharon's attitude even more incredible is the fact that had he not been happy about his younger brother's ascension to the leadership of the Jewish People, Moshe Rabbeinu would not have taken the Jews out of Egypt. He refused to accept the leadership if it meant hurting his brother's feelings. Now that Aharon had acquiesced, he played a pivotal role in the Redemption! Therefore, looking back at his agreement, at his favorable attitude, had he known that, by his attitude, he was changing the course of Jewish history, he would have accompanied his acquiescence with a drum roll, band and huge festivity.

Likewise, had Boaz known that, by giving Rus a few kernels of grain, he was facilitating the entire cycle of events that led up to Rus' marriage to him - a union that produced the seeds of Moshiach Tzidkeinu - can we even begin to imagine Boaz' reaction? In a way, by his very action, Boaz became the catalyst for Sefer Tehillim, written by his grandson. This book has accompanied the Jewish People throughout the millennia, and it has been our source of consolation through pain, persecution and even death.

Now that we have both Aharon's and Boaz' actions in perspective, is there any doubt that their reaction once they discovered that the exodus from Egypt and Sefer Tehillim and the future Redemption are the results of their actions - that they would not be overjoyed? We now have an idea of the long-term results of each and every spiritual endeavor that we perform.

Horav Shlomo Levenstein, Shlita, explains that, actually, Boaz and Rus themselves were the greatest beneficiaries of their actions. Boaz was the baal chesed par excellence, performing acts of lovingkindness with all of Klal Yisrael, as a loving leader who cared for all people. Boaz merited longevity and a prolific family. Chazal say that he fathered sixty children. Nonetheless, Hashem judged him (as He judges all tzaddikim, righteous persons) b'chut ha'saarah, like a hairsbreadth. Apparently, Boaz did not invite Manoach, the father of Shimshon, to the wedding of his children. He felt it was wrong to accept presents from a man who was childless, because he would not be able to repay him at his own simchah, joyous occasion. As a result of this, each and every one of Boaz' children died, cutting off his ability to establish a living legacy. Thus, Boaz was truly all alone, with no one to even recite Kaddish for him.

Part two of Boaz' life was quite short, but incredibly successful. He met the young Rus, who returned with her mother-in-law, Naomi. He reached out to her with his unique sensitivity and generosity, an action which ultimately resulted in their marriage, which, in turn, produced a very unique Kaddish for Boaz - David HaMelech, the progenitor of Melech HaMoshiach!

Rus was also a beneficiary of this act of chesed, but the primary beneficiary was none other than Boaz. Rus performed her own acts of kindness with her mother-in-law, meriting her to become the Mother of Royalty, the grandmother of David HaMelech and his son, Shlomo HaMelech. She witnessed David author Sefer Tehillim, and Shlomo build the Bais HaMikdash. While her mother-in-law benefitted greatly from Rus' chesed, it was Rus, herself, who was the greatest beneficiary of her lovingkindness.

We now have a deeper understanding of the meaning of V'ish es kedoshav lo yeheyu. When one acts kindly towards others, he is the greatest recipient of his benevolence. The gomlei chassodim see how their dedication to helping others pays off handsomely for themselves. Indeed, the benefactor becomes his own beneficiary.

Horav Yitzchak Zilberstein, Shlita, relates that the mother of Rav Bentzion Felman died at the age of ninety-seven. She was followed two years later by her sister who was two years younger than she, who also died at the age of ninety-seven. These women merited unusual longevity in the merit of an act of chesed which they had performed as young girls. They were both born and raised in Baranovitz, Poland, the city which was home to the distinguished yeshivah under the leadership of Horav Elchonan Wasserman, zl. As was the case with all yeshivos prior to World War II, the economic situation was bleak. Some had it worse than others, but none escaped financial insecurity. In Baranovitz, however, it was not a question of meat or chicken; it was a question of bread. The yeshivah had exhausted all avenues of economic sustenance. There was not even bread for the proverbial "bread and water" diet on which many yeshivah students subsisted. This situation greatly troubled the two teenaged girls - ages nineteen and seventeen - respectively.

In their desire to help the students of the yeshivah continue their learning without starving, these two girls took a sack and daily walked from door to door throughout Baranovitz, petitioning the householders for a slice of bread, so that a student could have some food upon which to nourish himself. They did this throughout the difficult period during which the yeshivah was financially challenged.

When word of their personal benevolence reached the ears of the Rosh Yeshivah, Rav Elchanan, he blessed them both with longevity. His blessing was fulfilled.

Many of us think that chesed is an opportunity which presents itself, and one person jumps at the opportunity, thus granting him great merit. Rav Levenstein quotes the pasuk in Devarim 13:18, V'nasan lecha rachamim v'richamcha v'hirbecha, "And He will give you mercy and be merciful to you, and multiply you," which alludes to the idea that, at times, the chesed opportunity which presents itself is by Heavenly design, specifically designated for an individual upon whom, under the circumstances under which it was decreed, should undergo a Heavenly chastisement - but was awarded the chesed in an attempt to circumvent its effect on the individual, thereby sparing him a dose of adversity. We never know what our act of chesed will achieve - for us, and the beneficiary; nor do we realize that it is an opportunity which was availed to spare us from perhaps being on the receiving end of the act of chesed of someone else.

The Kohen shall take sacred water in an earthenware vessel, and the Kohen shall take from the earth that is on the floor of the Mishkan and put it in the water. (5:17)

The "bitter waters," which the sotah, wayward wife, must drink, are the instrument of an ordeal which can have either negative or positive results. On the negative side, if the woman has, as accused, been involved in an extra-marital relationship, she will die a bitter death. On the positive side, if she has been wrongly accused, she stands to benefit considerably. She will be blessed with healthy children. The process begins with the Kohen reading the curses contained in Parashas Sotah on a piece of parchment. The verses of the Torah in which these curses are written are then erased with the dried ink which forms the words including Hashem's Name, erased and mixed with water from the holy Kiyor, Laver. These bitter waters are given to the Sotah to drink. The waters then determine whether she has sinned or not.

In the Talmud Sotah 17A, Chazal teach that the Sotah waters and the accompanying dust/earth to which the guilty sotah succumbs, were actually a reward given to Avraham Avinu (to be used by his descendants), as a result of his exceptional humility. Avraham declared, V'ani afar va'eifar, "I am but dust and ashes" (Bereishis 18:29), symbolizing his utter nothingness. Rashi explains that our Patriarch was acutely aware that his very existence was a gift from G-d. When he fought in the War of the Four Kings, his life miraculously was spared. Likewise, when Nimrod threw him into a fiery furnace, he emerged whole and unscathed, once again, as a result of Hashem's kindness. For acknowledging Hashem's benevolence to him during these two instances, he merited two special mitzvos, which are vehicles for glorifying Hashem's Name. How is the dust of the sotah related to Avraham's declaration comparing himself to dust?

Horav Avraham Pam, zl, quoted by Rabbi Sholom Smith in his collection of the Rosh Yeshivah's Torah thoughts, says that the dust of the sotah, mixed with the water which comes from the floor of the Bais Hamikdash, is a vehicle for promoting peace and harmony between husband and wife, in a home plagued by discord, resulting from suspicion and bitterness. Marriages do not just "break up." There are underlying reasons, most often connected with damaged egos and egos, which need to be stroked. Little people require greater assuaging, more attention; bigger people, secure in their skin, require less. The Torah teaches us that, in order to promote and preserve harmony in a home, it is permissible to erase Hashem's Name, because, in a home disrupted by contention, broken by controversy, destroyed by constant dispute, Hashem's Name no longer reigns. True humility of both husband and wife will circumvent the issues, which tear apart a relationship.

The relationship between husband and wife - if it is to remain harmonious - must be a giving relationship, whereby each spouse thinks of the other one, rather than of himself or herself. Shalom bayis is most often disturbed when a husband or wife must get his or her way without regard for the other. Then there are the complaints in which the most minor infraction or shortcomings are blown out of proportion. It is all about the ego of the individual; a small rift; a tiny tear in the relationship, becomes a large rip when his ego comes into play.

Avraham Avinu realized that, if not for the grace of G-d, he would be dust or ashes. Life is so fragile. Ask anyone who has been sick or who has had a spouse who has been ill. Is it worth getting upset over minor issues, which are, for the most part, foolish? When one takes a moment to reflect upon the "dust and ashes" of the sotah, a person will develop a sense of humility that will enhance his shalom bayis.

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

The Chida, zl, offers a compelling interpretation of this pasuk. Shevet Kehas, the Tribe of Kehas, was part of Shevet Levi, the tribe which represents the lomdei Torah, those who devote themselves to the study of Torah. As such, says the Chida, the chiyuv, obligation, to study Torah is never-ending. It is a ceaseless commitment on the part of the devoted to learn Torah literally until his last ounce of strength, until his very last breath. One cannot retire from Torah. One whose vocation is teaching Torah will, upon retirement, move on to studying Torah full time. This idea is alluded to in the pasuk. The work of Bnei Kehas is an avodas ha'kodesh, holy endeavor, which is on them until b'kasef yisau, they die and are carried out to the grave upon the shoulders of others. The work of the lomeid Torah is from cradle to grave - with no vacation in between.

When Horav Yosef Shalom Elyashiv, zl, was thirty years old, he was stricken with a heart ailment for which the doctors claimed there was no cure or therapy. According to natural causes, he had but two weeks to live. When he heard the devastating news, he immediately sought a second opinion, which was consistent with that of the first physician. According to scientific precedent, his young life would be cut short within the next two weeks.

Rav Elyashiv returned home and related the news to his rebbetzin. He then bid her good day and prepared to leave for the bais ha'medrash to learn. The rebbetzin asked him, "What about the doctor's diagnosis?"

"What should I do? According to them, I have but a few weeks to live," he replied. "Better I should die in the tent of Torah than anywhere else." This is what Chazal mean when they say, "Torah is not acquired unless one gives up his life for it." (Shabbos 83B) As long as one lives, the Torah is his source of life, his fount of vitality from which he draws his strength.

When Rav Elyashiv was in the last years of his life he dealt with physical issues of a critical nature. A number of times, Klal Yisrael responded with Tehillim, Tefilliah, prayer, and Torah study on his behalf. At one juncture, he was at a point that a very serious surgery stood between his life and death (according to science). It was a dangerous surgery with barely a twenty-five percent chance for success, and only one surgeon was willing to fly in from America to Eretz Yisrael to perform the surgery. Perhaps it might be best to leave the situation status quo and see what would happen. If the surgery were not to succeed, the risk was large that he might not survive. It was up to Rav Elyashiv to pasken, render a halachic decision, concerning the surgery. Rav Elyashiv listened to the question and replied that he would render his decision in the morning. He went to sleep in his hospital bed in the ICU, as an entire world waited for his decision. Meanwhile, the surgeon was already in flight on his way to Eretz Yisrael to perform surgery on the gadol ha'dor, preeminent Torah leader of the generation. Rav Elyashiv asked to be woken at his usual time of 3:00 a.m., so that he could learn. The Torah world is well aware that the surgery was successful, granting Rav Elyashiv more time to serve Hashem and guide Klal Yisrael.

In L'Hisadein B'Ahavasecha, Rav Meir Levi quotes Horav Chaim Shmuelevitz, zl, who questions a statement made by Chazal in the Talmud Yoma 35B. Chazal state: Hillel mechayeiv es ha'aniyim, "Hillel obligates the poor people who do not study Torah." The Talmud relates that, although he lived in abject poverty, Hillel spent part of his meager wages to pay the guard at the bais ha'medrash to allow him to enter. One day, he did not earn sufficient money to cover his entrance to the bais ha'medrash, so he suspended himself at the edge of the skylight of the roof to listen to the lecture. It was a bitter cold day, and snow was descending upon him. He was so engrossed in the lesson that he did not notice the freezing snow that had covered his entire body. Hillel teaches us that poverty is not an excuse for laxity in Torah study.

Rav Chaim wonders how Chazal could expect "us" to compare ourselves to the holy Tanna, Hillel. We have no idea of the sanctity of this unusual sage. Are we able to derive a lesson from him on how our Torah lives should be lived? The Rosh Yeshivah explains that Hillel teaches us the significance of Torah study. We must feel that, without Torah, we are non-existent, dead to the world, of no value, our lives meaningless. Therefore, when Hillel was about to lose out on a Torah shiur, lecture, given by his rebbeim, Shmaya and Avtalyon, he was able to risk his health by being suspended from a skylight, not feeling the cold snow that was rapidly covering him.

Rav Elyashiv taught us very much the same lesson. One must maintain his seder, Torah lesson, at its designated time. One should not waste time, for it cannot ever be returned. Every minute of Rav Elyashiv's life was accounted for. When one lives like this, impending surgery is no longer compelling. There are greater, more compelling things in life - like Torah-study.

I think another lesson can be derived from Hillel, based upon another practice, which was made famous by him. Annually, we sit at the Pesach Seder, surrounded by family and friends to share in a festive meal and relate the story of the Exodus. It is during this festive meal that we also eat bitter herbs, as a reminder of the bitter enslavement to which we were subjected in Egypt. We are told not to recline during the eating of the bitter herbs, despite the fact that we recline for all of the other traditional foods that we eat that night.

Hillel added a new dimension to eating marror, bitter herbs. He did not eat them separately. Instead, he made a sandwich, combining matzah, marror and Korban Pesach, and he ate the sandwich while reclining. I recently saw Hillel's action explained as symbolic of his positive approach to life. Matzah and Korban Pesach are foods, which symbolize freedom, redemption. Within the two pieces of matzoh and next to the matzo of the Korban Pesach, Hillel placed his bitter herbs. He viewed the bitter aspects of his life as being part of G-d's plan. Hashem does nothing bad. Hillel understood that Hashem made him poor, because poverty was beneficial for him.

Hillel's life appeared difficult, since, to the average spectator who sees life from the "here and now," poverty is not a good thing. He taught us that, if Hashem metes it out, it must be good - even if we find it difficult to accept. So, he placed the bitterness in between the matzoh of redemption, and he ate it while reclining like a free man, so that future generations would know that from G-d only comes good. This is a lesson that is applicable to all Jews, under all circumstances and situations. Serving Hashem brooks no excuses. Hillel taught us that poverty is no excuse, because Hashem is its Source. Therefore, it must be to our benefit. The sooner we get over it and accept this verity, the sooner we will serve Hashem with greater intensity.

Va'ani Tefillah

Magen u'Moshia livneihem achareihem b'chol dor vador
You also shield and save their children after them in every generation.

Once again, we find words which we recite daily in our davening which, upon careful perusal, convey a compelling message. We refer to Hashem as Magen u'Moshia, a Shield and a Savior. This means that (a) Hashem shields/protects us from mishaps; (b) if, for some reason, our spiritual level is deficient, thereby causing us to sin and warrant punishment, Hashem will be our Moshia and save us from our troubles. This applies to b'neichem achareihem, their children after them. Simply, this means that Hashem is also a Shield and a Savior to our children who follow after us in the sequence of our lives. (Parents are first, children follow.) Horav Shimon Schwab, zl, interprets b'neichem achareihem, as referring to children who adopt the way of their parents' lifestyle by observing Torah and mitzvos. This explanation is consistent with Chazal (Yevamos 42A) who understand the words zaracha acharecha, "Your offspring after you" (Hashem will rectify the covenant He made with Avraham Avinu-- (Bereishis 17:7), with zaracha acharecha generally describing those children who keep the faith and follow in the footsteps of their parents. Those who decide not to follow - obviously reject, by their very actions, the covenant made between Hashem and our Patriarch, Avraham. Thus, they have no one to blame but themselves.

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