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Peninim on the Torah

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Rabbi A. Leib Scheinbaum
Hebrew Academy of Cleveland


You are standing here today, all of you… the heads of your tribes, your elders, and your officers… for you to pass into the covenant of Hashem, your G-d, and into His imprecation… in order to establish you as a people to Him. (29:9,11,12)

This is not the first time that the Jews entered into a covenant with Hashem. Har Sinai demonstrated a powerful commitment. What innovation did this new covenant that took place in Arvos Moav reflect? Was it really necessary? Furthermore, why does the Torah emphasize the various people that comprised the assembly and their individual positions in life? The Ohr Ha'Chaim Hakadosh teaches us a fundamental lesson to be derived from this pasuk. During the first covenant at Har Sinai, each member of Klal Yisrael personally committed him/herself as an individual to accept and carry out the mitzvos of the Torah. There was no collective responsibility, however, to see to it that one's friend or neighbor would also follow the Torah's imperative. In contrast, in Arvos Moav they accepted the responsibility as a nation, as one people committed to Hashem's Torah.

Let us ask: Is there really a difference if the Torah is accepted on an individual basis or on a collective national basis? As long as everybody accepts and is committed to the Torah, what is the difference on what basis it was accepted? There is a compelling difference. As long as the nation of Klal Yisrael was together in the wilderness, in an environment that was -- for the most part -- spiritually pristine and conducive to growth, there really was no difference in the manner of acceptance. As the people were on the verge of entering Eretz Yisrael and were about to move apart to live among others, it was essential that a unifying umbrella be in place to protect their collective spiritual future. Who was going to be their spiritual areiv, guarantor? Who would see to it that they took care of one another?

Enter the new covenant at Arvos Moav. This was a covenant that demanded of each individual Jew to commit to a collective responsibility, in which he would see to it that not only he was committed, but his friend would also maintain his commitment. No longer was Torah observance an individual obligation. It now became a collective responsibility. I am no longer simply a Jew. I am a member of Am Yisrael! Kol Yisrael areivim zeh la'zeh, "All Yisrael is responsible for one another" means that if one Jew desecrates Shabbos, he is threatening the entire Jewish family. It is my responsibility to reach out to him and to set him straight. If my neighbor reneges on his responsibility toward properly educating his children, I must do something about it. It is no longer "him" or "them." It is "me" and "us."

Furthermore, when Moshe Rabbeinu declared the words, "In order to establish you as a people to Him," he set a new and unique standard for nationhood. Unlike other nations, whose national structure is based on language, geographic proximity, or ethnic culture, the Jewish nation is bound by its Torah.

Rav Saadia Gaon says, "Yisrael is not a nation without its Torah." Two hundred and ten years slaving for Pharaoh, followed by forty years of journeying together in the wilderness, did not create our nationhood. It was only in Arvos Moav, when we accepted upon ourselves the collective responsibility to observe the Torah, that we became a nation.

This is the reason that those assembled are announced according to their individual station in life. We cannot hold everyone to the same level of responsibility. He who is on a lower rung of the ladder of influence has a diminished responsibility towards others. Some are responsible for their homes; others for their neighborhood; still others for their communities; and then there are the gedolim, Torah leaders, who carry the entire national responsibility on their shoulders. The eternal nature of Klal Yisrael is concretized with this covenant. An individual might lose his way over time. He might be confronted with powerful challenges to his faith which he alone cannot handle, but the nation, Am Yisrael, will never be lost. It will last forever.

You are standing today, all of you… not with you alone do I seal this covenant… but with whoever is here, standing with us today… and with whoever is not here with us today. (29:9,13,14)

Rashi explains that the statement, "Whoever is not here with us today," is a reference to future generations. His words are supported by the Midrash Tanchuma which states that the neshamos, souls, of all Jews were present at the making of the covenant. While they were not there physically, they are considered "with us today," albeit not "standing with us today." This is one of the most difficult concepts in Jewish theology to comprehend. If we are to understand the Midrash literally, it was our souls - not our bodies - that accepted the Torah. If so, how could an oath taken by our souls be binding?

In Forever His Students by Rabbi Boruch Leff, a collection of essays based upon the talks of Horav Yaakov Weinberg, zl, the Rosh Hayeshivah explains that the Midrash does not mean that we are committed to the Torah because we personally made an oath. This cannot be, since we, in our present corporeal forms, were not there. Furthermore, while it may be true that in some cosmic way our souls accepted the oath, that would not carry weight for us. The Midrash is saying that our generation was at Har Sinai because of our connection with the original generation of Jews who stood at Har Sinai. Our people comprise one continuous entity that has existed throughout history. While the faces and bodies may have changed, the entity of Am Yisrael, the Jewish nation, has not. It exists forever and we today, who are a part of this glorious nation, were there then through the medium of our ancestors.

This idea can be compared to the regenerative process which affects every living organism. If one were to break down any living organism scientifically into individual cells, he would discover that over time the original cells die and new ones grow in their place. Indeed, not one cell which had comprised the organism's physical makeup at birth remains present as it ages. Hence, when we look at an older animal, we see a structure of cells totally different and distinct from with which it was born many years ago. Yet, this is the same animal, although its cells have been rejuvenated.

A parallel holds true for the Jewish nation. While individual generations of Jews have passed from this world, in a manner which is similar to the death of individual cells of an organism, they are replaced with new generations. Am Yisrael, like the organism, continues on. Only its individual people change. Our nation was present at Har Sinai and accepted the Torah. It is the same nation that lived in the time of the Bais Hamikdash and through the Holocaust. The people have changed, as the generations have passed on.

Returning to our original question: Did we accept the Torah at Har Sinai? The answer is contingent upon whether we are perceived as individuals or as a collective nation. Certainly, we are all part of the one great and glorious organism that comprises the Jewish nation. As members of Klal Yisrael, we were there, and we responded, "Yes!"

å And you will return unto Hashem, your G-d. (30:2)

The first step in performing teshuvah, repentance, is perhaps the most difficult. One cannot repent until after he has recognized and acknowledged that he has erred. To recognize one's guilt, to concede that one has erred, that he has wronged Hashem, is a compelling act. One cannot engage in returning to Hashem, however, until after he has conceded that he did something wrong. Even the concession itself must be weighed carefully and carried out with utmost integrity. Let me explain. Sin, for the most part, can be broken down into three categories. The actual act of sinning is a form of challenge to Hashem's Divine authority. This challenge can occur in any of three instances.

First, is the pesha form of sin. One simply acts however he pleases, manifesting a form of treachery and betrayal against the Almighty. Hashem has instructed him to act in a certain manner and he has rebelled against the instructions. He broke the rules, because he does not care. I would not go as far as to say that the individual has gone out of his way to defy Hashem. No. He simply does not care. He does whatever he wants, and Hashem's demands are of no concern to him.

Second, is the individual who truly loves Hashem and wants to carry out His mitzvos. He seeks to conform to his mandate and follow all of the rules. There is, however, one problem. He is weak. Temptation grabs hold of him and slices through him like a hot knife through butter. He is overruled by his desire to steal, to lust, to disparage another person. He knows he is wrong, but he cannot control himself. This is referred to as avon.

The third form of sin is cheit. It is an unintentional, undeliberate act of transgression. Either the person does not know it is wrong, he forgot, or he is such a creature of habit that he did not think before he acted sinfully. He was careless and inadvertent, but no less a sinner, because the truly committed person does not forget, does not act impulsively.

While a person may concede to his sin, he might conveniently assert that an activity that should be rendered an avon is really a cheit, or that a clear act of rebellion, a pesha, was nothing more than an act of forgetfulness. A person must not only confess his sin, he must likewise own up to the form of sin that he has committed. His repentance must be in accordance with his sin. To take this one step further, we suggest the following: When a person sins, he moves away from Hashem. His transgression distances him from the Almighty. A sin is an act of imperfection. Hashem, Who is perfect, cannot "tolerate" an imperfection. Thus, by his actions, the sinner removes himself from Hashem's circle. Teshuvah is the process by which he returns to that circle, because Hashem has allowed for a system to exist in which a sinner can correct the imperfection and return to Him. This process works only when the person who is repenting does so correctly and for the appropriate form of sin. If, for example, he performed a pesha and repents for an avon, his teshuvah is lacking, and he still remains distant from Hashem. Thus, recognition is the first step on the road to return.

And you will return unto Hashem, your G-d. (30:2)

The idea of returning to Hashem, to being welcomed home, regardless of what act we have committed, is truly incredible. The thought that, although I have sinned and, thus, have estranged myself from Hashem's proximity, I can now return and be accepted is thought-provoking. Everything aside, it should engender a tremendous outpouring of hakoras hatov, gratitude. One who has distanced himself, returned, and has been accepted should be the happiest person alive. It should be no different than he who had been deathly ill and literally has returned from the dead. His gratitude should be overwhelming. His appreciation should be boundless. It should, but is it? How many of us defer to human nature and quickly forget where we were and what could and should have happened, but did not. Hashem brought us back, just like He brought the baal teshuvah back and accepted him. Now, our sense of gratitude should be constant.

I was inspired with this idea from a story I recently read in Rabbi Yechiel Spero's book, Touched By A Story 3. The story is about an elderly Russian melamed, Torah tutor, Rav Mordechai Leib Hakohen Kaminetzki, zl, who could be seen walking the streets of Yerushalayim in the wee hours of the morning on his way to the Bais Hamedrash. This was the early part of the twentieth century, and street lighting was not yet in vogue. As he trudged down the dark streets, lantern in hand, he was an amazing sight. He continued his early morning routine, despite the weather, and regardless of whatever violence reigned in the neighborhood. He maintained his schedule and continued to be the first one in the bais hamedrash - every single day.

Rav Mordechai Leib was no longer a young man. His routine continued on, even as he celebrated his 96th birthday! While some thought he was simply an old man who could not sleep, Rav Mordechai Leib himself would reiterate that he would have loved to get back under his warm blanket for a few more hours of sleep. Why did he do this? If he could sleep, and he wanted to sleep, why did he not sleep? It was Horav Sholom Schwadron, zl, who finally approached him and asked for an explanation. His reply is inspirational and should galvanize us to act similarly.

Rav Mordechai Leib explained, "Every night, I go to sleep. The first time I wake up, regardless of what time it is, I do not go back to sleep. Instead, I get up and go to the bais hamedrash. I feel it is only right that I do this. Think back to the dor hamidbar, the generation that went through the wilderness. After the decree that they would not enter Eretz Yisrael, they knew that they were doomed. They just did not know when this would occur. Therefore, every year on the night of Tisha B'Av, the men between the ages of twenty and sixty would dig their own graves and lie down in them. Every year, a number of them died in their sleep. Now, imagine in your mind the reaction of those who did wake up. Do you think they rolled over for a few catnaps? They certainly jumped out of their "graves" and celebrated their continued life.

"Many years ago, as a young man, I became ill with a serious, life-threatening disease. I should not have survived. To the surprise of the medical community, I was miraculously spared. Eventually, I recovered completely. I realize that I should have died. I do not know why I was spared.

"So now, when I wake up in the early morning, whatever time it may be, I am exhilarated. Hashem has granted me a reprieve - another day. How can I go back to sleep after receiving such a gift? I am filled with gratitude, so I jump out of bed and go to the bais hamedrash to study Torah. This is what motivates me. Now, you know."

It is a powerful story, reflecting an incredible sense of gratitude. It portrays a lesson we should all take to heart - and to bed.

And you will return unto Hashem, your G-d. (30:2)

The opportunity afforded us to perform teshuvah, repent, and return to Hashem, is one that our Torah leaders of the past have viewed as an incredible gift. Horav Shmelke, zl, m'Nickolsburg once remarked, "I worry what kind of bliss there can be in the Eternal World if there is no Yom Kippur. What kind of existence is it if one cannot perform teshuvah?" This sums it up. It is one of those unique gifts that we do not sufficiently appreciate.

The problem is that we find all kinds of excuses not to repent: either it is too late; or too difficult. These are examples of common responses to explain why we do not change. A man once remarked to a rabbi, "I would perform teshuvah if I was sure it would relieve me of all my misery." The rabbi quickly replied, "Did you also make your sins conditional?" It is just another excuse.

Veritably, one must be sagacious in performing teshuvah, since it takes guile to triumph over the cunning of the yetzer hora, evil-inclination. The yetzer hora tells a person, "Do not bother, as you have sinned far too much. You have no chance to return." The yetzer hora is right. As long as a person feels that even after teshuvah he will still carry the burden of guilt on his shoulders, he will not perform teshuvah. After all, why should he? He must believe that teshuvah wipes the slate clean. Repentance is like an eraser. The sin is gone. Horav Yechiel Meir, zl, m'Gustenin once commented about why he refused to learn how to play chess, "They told me I could not retract a wrong move. I believe that teshuvah can undo every wrong." It just takes sincerity.

Va'ani Tefillah

Korbanos - Sacrifices

The next set of Sin-Offerings are the Parim Ha'Nisrafim and Seirim Ha'Nisrafim, bullocks and he-goats that are burned outside the Sanctuary and slaughtered on the north side. First is the Par He'elam Davar - shel tzibbur, communal sacrifice, which is offered separately by each tribe in the event the Bais Din Hagadol, Highest Court, has made an error in halachah. In this case, the entire nation inadvertently committed a transgression that carries with it the penalty of kares, Heavenly excision, if committed intentionally. The second bullock is the Par Kohen Ha'Moshiach, a bullock offered by the Kohen Gadol, in the event he has erred in his interpretation of the law and committed a transgression that carries the penalty of kares, if committed intentionally.

The Seirim Ha'Nisrafim are the Seirei Avodah Zarah, he-goats that are offered by the tribes for committing an act of idol-worship due to an error in halachah made by the Bais Din HaGadol.

These Korbanos are referred to as Nisrafim, burned, because they are burned outside the Temple City upon the place where the ashes are deposited. They differ from other Sin-Offerings, which are eaten by the Kohanim once the various parts that are burned on the Mizbayach, Altar, are consumed. The act of removing the Korban from the environs of the Bais Hamikdash signifies that this sacrifice represents a sin which the entire nation, its spiritual leaders, or its Kohen Gadol have committed. Thus, it is removed from the area of kedushah, holiness. Unlike the bullock and he-goat of Yom Kippur, the blood of the Nisrafim is not sprinkled on the area of the Bein HaBadim, between the Poles of the Aron Kodesh.

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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