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Peninim on the Torah

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Rabbi A. Leib Scheinbaum
Hebrew Academy of Cleveland


You are standing today, all of you…from the hewer of your wood to the drawer of your water. (29:9,10)

The prefix mem, followed by the word ad, to, denotes a contrast between two subjects, as in, "from the smallest to the largest" or "from the bottom of his feet to the top of his head." Likewise, "from the hewer of your wood to the drawer of your water" denotes two ends of a spectrum. Horav Shlomo Yosef Zevin, zl, explains this contrast as applying to two disparate approaches to teshuvah, repentance/return: from below to above and vice versa. This may be explained in the following manner: A person is acutely aware of the insignificance of his puny life, the various thoughts and actions in which he is involved. When he realizes the foolishness for which he wastes his life, he will become appalled, remorseful and filled with regret. He will be broken-hearted over the things - both evil and foolish - that he has committed. This attitude will motivate him to return to a life of commitment, a life of enthusiasm for Torah and mitzvos, a life of serving the Almighty.

For some people, the negative approach does not seem to work. On the contrary, when one feels "down," he finds it difficult to ascend, to rise up and elevate himself to the proper spiritual plateau. Giving up on oneself is so much easier than trudging uphill, overcoming the many obstacles that stand in the way. This individual needs to take an aggressive, more positive, approach. If he has been lax in davening attendance, he should be determined to come ten minutes early for davening. If he would normally study one daf, page, of Talmud daily, he should now study two pages. He should ignore his own inconsequence and instead focus on the positive in order to do more.

Rav Zevin cites the Zohar HaKadosh concerning the pasuk in Sefer Tehilllim 51:19: Lev nishbar v'nidkeh, Elokim lo sivzeh, "A heart broken and humbled, O G-d, You will not despise." The Zohar asks, "What is done to a piece of wood which will not catch fire? One cracks it open, and it can then be kindled." A block of wood that is so hard that the flames cannot penetrate and set it afire must be split, so that the fire will be able to kindle it from the inside. Likewise, one who is so tough and hardened that the fire of his neshamah, soul, cannot set him aflame with a passion to return and serve the Almighty should resort to "cracking" himself open." He should introspect and engage in self-rebuke until he penetrates his heart, thus allowing the glow of the neshamah to burn passionately.

There is an individual, however, for whom the broken-hearted approach does not work. He either cannot handle the introspection, or he is simply disinterested in self-rebuke and anything that means putting him down. It is just not his personality. He should take the approach to which the Navi Yeshayah 55:1 alludes, Hoi kol tzamei lechu la'mayim, "Ho, everyone that is thirsty, go to the water." Water has the incredible ability to quench thirst and also to dissolve even the most hardened materials. In Sefer Iyov 14:19, we find, Avanim shachaku mayim, "Stones are worn away by water." The Navi Yechezkel 36:26, says, V'hasirosi es lev ha'even mibsarchem, "I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh." The heart of stone is neutralized through the Torah, which is compared to water. In this approach, we ignore the individual's self-generated low self-esteem. The individual who cannot handle eradicating the darkness by breaking down the door that blocks his light takes the road by which he suffuses himself with so much light that it eventually overpowers the darkness. In other words, one either finds a way to bring out the light from within or he floods the area with an abundance of light.

This is what it meant by the hewer of the wood: the individual who breaks through the hard wood, allowing for the fire to penetrate and burn; while the drawer of water, suffuses the darkness with enough light to overpower it. There are two disparate and perhaps extreme measures which work for different types of people, in varied situations. They both have one goal: returning to Hashem.

Perhaps there is among you a man or woman…whose heart turns away today from being with Hashem…perhaps there is among you a root flourishing with gall and wormwood. (29:17)

The "beginning" plays a predominant role in one's upbringing, ultimately effecting his future. It might only be a "root," but an improper root might grow into something monstrously evil. The Yerushalmi, as cited by Tosfos in Meseches Chaggigah 9b, relates the story of Avuyah, father of Elisha, who became infamous as Acher, the Other One, a name describing his banishment from the centers of Torah Judaism. How did it all begin? What was the precursor of Elisha ben Avuyah's spiritual demise? Apparently, at the Bris, circumcision, of his young son, Avuyah was enraptured by the "fire" that surrounded Rabbi Eliezer and Rabbi Yehoshua. He was so impressed by the awesome power of Torah and its effect upon those who study and become proficient in it, that he vowed to dedicate his infant son to Torah study. Chazal say that since his intentions were not l'shem Shomayim, for Heaven's sake, the "beginning" that engendered Elisha's growth as a Torah sage constituted an "improper root." As Horav David Povarsky, zl, explains it, the reason that Avuyah dedicated his son to Torah was not because Torah itself was important, but, rather, that it could lead to eminence. He saw the fire that surrounded the sages, and that impressed him. The Torah was not a goal; it was a means to acquire honor and glory. The growth of anything is dependent greatly on its root, its beginning. Avuyah had the wrong intention, incorrect goals and objectives. He was not machshiv Torah; he did not appreciate Torah. The accoutrements that accompanied success in Torah were what meant so much to him. One who does not appreciate the true value of Torah does not deserve to reap its benefits.

The Rosh Yeshivah applies a similar idea to explain an incident that occurred concerning Yirmiyahu HaNavi. Fearing the prophet's effect on the people, the officers flung him into a pit filled with mud. When Ebed-Melech, one of Tzidkiyahu HaMelech's senior officers, heard about this, he went to the king and complained. The king listened and instructed Ebed-Melech to remove the prophet from the pit. The officer threw down rags and a sturdy rope. He told Yirmiyahu to place the rags under his armpits, beneath the rope, which would go around him. Then, they pulled him up from the pit. Chazal relate that Yirmiyahu lamented, "If only I would have had a ladder (rather than having to be pulled up by a rope)." Hashem responded, "You want a ladder? Just as your grandmother (Rachav) helped the two Jewish spies in Yericho (Calev and Pinchas) escape by way of a rope (rather than a ladder), so, too, are you to be saved by a rope."

Chazal are telling us that since Rachav used a rope, which is associated with some pain, rather than allowing the spies the comfort of a ladder, generations later, her grandson, Yirmiyahu, was pulled up by a rope. Here was a woman who had risked her life for two Jewish spies, yet, she is being held accountable for not using a ladder! We derive from here, explains the Rosh Yeshivah, that everything is included in the equation. If Rachav's act of self-sacrifice could have had some minute form of improvement, it still affected her grandson, many years later. That is the effect of the "beginning." The Rosh Yeshivah remembers that when women would rock their babies to sleep, they would sing to them, A Gaon zalst du zein, "You shall grow up to become like the Gaon of Vilna," so profound was the impact of his life on them. Hundreds of years later, mothers still wanted their sons to become like the Gaon. This is the emotion, the love of Torah, the desire for gadlus, greatness in Torah, that the mothers of yesteryear wanted to instill in their children. They realized how important is the beginning, how great and enduring is its impact.

In earlier generations, the appreciation of Torah was ever present. The Rosh Yeshivah relates that in Volozhin, where Horav Chaim Volozhiner established the first full time Yeshivah, the respect that even gentiles had for a yeshivah student was absolutely unreal. They would refer to a yeshivah bochur as a "student," which was a title of honor in those days, recognizing the preeminence of studying in a yeshivah. How far have we distanced ourselves from those days and that form of acknowledgement.

Returning to Elisha ben Avuyah, we wonder why he never repented. Clearly, he was aware of what he was doing. To have achieved the eminence of Tanna status, to have had a student such as Rabbi Meir Baal HaNess, who refused to stop learning from his rebbe even after he had gone off the derech, left the Torah way of life, demonstrates the greatness of this individual. Apparently, his "beginning" was crippled enough to stunt his total growth, but what prevented him from returning? Perhaps, this indicates all the more respect we must demonstrate for a baal teshuvah, one who returns and changes his life. We have no idea what this transformation entails. Elisha ben Avuyah obviously was not capable of doing it.

The following incident is related in the Talmud Chagigah 15a, which sheds light on the anomaly of Elisha ben Avuyah's rejection of the Torah. He was riding on a horse on Shabbos, which is Rabbinically prohibited. His talmid, primary student, Rabbi Meir, was following him on foot in an attempt to pick up yet another Torah lesson. When they reached the techum Shabbos, boundary of Shabbos, Elisha said to Rabbi Meir, "Meir, return, I have estimated upon my horse's steps, that we are on the edge of the techum, two thousand cubit boundary at the outskirts of a city," Rabbi Meir countered, "You should also return (and not transgress the techum Shabbos)." Elisha replied, "Did I not tell you I have heard (from Heaven), 'All can return (repent) except for Acher (Elisha ben Avuyah).'" This is why he did not repent; he knew it would not be accepted. Alas, he had gone too far.

Rabbi Meir was aware of this Heavenly verdict. Why, then, did he insist that Elisha repent? It was pointless to do something which was to no avail. Heaven had already made its declaration. Elisha was out of the box. In his Michtav M'Eliyahu, Horav Eliyahu Eliezer Dessler, zl,cites the Reishis Chochmah, Shaar HaKedushah 17, that this is expressly what Elisha was supposed to do: repent, despite the fact that he was told that it would not be accepted. Had he done this and performed teshuvah regardless of the implied consequence, his teshuvah would have been accepted. Hashem waited patiently for Elisha to return, despite every indication otherwise. Hashem wanted originality in Elisha's repentance. Repenting, undeterred by its lack of recognition, indeed, repenting with the advance knowledge that it will not be acknowledged-- and certainly not accepted-- is very innovative. This is what Hashem was waiting for: innovative teshuvah. Had Elisha come forward, his teshuvah would have been embraced.

Rav Povarsky adds that this all reverts to his flawed beginning. Since from the "get go" Elisha's approach to Torah was based upon a false premise, he had to make a break with his past, to do something new, something creative, cutting-edge teshuvah which would place him at a fresh beginning, allowing him to start anew. Indeed, asks the Rosh Yeshivah, what difference should there be if his teshuvah were to be accepted or not? The main focus of a Jew is to fulfill Hashem's command. Hashem wants us to observe mitzvos, and, if we stray, we repent and return to Him. So what if He does not accept our teshuvah? That is not a reason not to repent.

All too often, we decide not to climb the mountain for fear of failure. Hashem wants us to climb. Whether or not we reach the top is unimportant. It is the climb that counts. It is the climb that determines one's commitment. Veritably, it is not even the climb that is important; it is the willingness to attempt to climb that is meaningful.

Parashas Vayeilech

Hashem said to Moshe, "Behold, your days are drawing near to die." (31:14)

On the last day of Moshe Rabbeinu's life, the Almighty presaged his impending death with the word, hein, behold. In the Midrash, Chazal relate that when Moshe heard his death sentence pronounced with the word hein, "behold," he called out, "With the word hein, I praised You (this is a reference to Devarim 10:14, where Moshe declares, "Behold! To Hashem, your G-d, are the heaven and highest heaven, the earth and everything in it."); and now You use that same word to announce my death?" Hashem replied, "Moshe, you seem to have forgotten that when I sent you to Egypt to redeem the Jewish People, you demurred, saying, 'Behold! They will not believe me and they will not heed my voice' (Shemos 4:1). Therefore, I now decree death upon you with the word hein."

This is a clear indication, as noted by Horav Chaim Shmuelevitz, zl, that Hashem is precise in His dealing with people middah k'negged middah, measure for measure. Hashem acts toward us in the same manner in which we deal with others. Normally, this would be a reference to a manner of behavior. If we lack compassion, He will not manifest compassion. If we act with sensitivity, He will act likewise. Rav Chaim goes one step further with his explanation. Hashem's punishment is not punitive. His punishment is not a form of revenge. It is therapeutic. Thus, the purpose of suffering and other forms of Heavenly responses to our actions, is to instruct and educate us concerning our wrongdoing. How else would we really know for what we are being punished? We analyze the response and introspect our actions. Indeed, the Hebrew word yissurim, suffering, is a derivative of the word mussar, which means to instruct.

We do not always realize our sin, and we certainly do not quite estimate the full extent of its seriousness, the harm that it caused, the spiritual chasm that it created. Hashem's punishment reflects all of this, so that the sinner will give some thought to the punishment, question why, and arrive at the correct answer. This will, hopefully, catalyze the initiation of the process of teshuvah, repentance, in the thinking person's mind.

Returning to Moshe's "improper" use of the word hein, what really was so inappropriate? He was making a valid statement. The people had reason neither to believe in him nor to listen to him. Aside from the obvious skeptism, they were simply broken people, filled with pain and misery, with very little reason to hope for any form of change. It is not as if Moshe's statement did not make sense. For what was he held accountable? The Chafetz Chaim explains that our quintessential leader sorely underestimated the nation which he would soon lead. Moshe underrated the potential of the kedushah, holiness, of the nation. Indeed, as soon as he came before them and demonstrated the miracles which Hashem had empowered him to perform, the people reacted in a most positive manner.

With this in mind, we now have a deeper perspective into Moshe's error of using the word hein. The Chafetz Chaim explains that "behold" is an expression of crystal clear certainty. Something is here, tangible and exists with extreme and unequivocal clarity. Moshe was implying with indubitable certitude that Klal Yisrael would refuse to listen to him. They would not believe in him. For this, he was punished measure for measure. The future leader of the Jewish Nation had gone too far in miscalculating his flock. Thus, when Moshe repeatedly entreated Hashem to revoke His decree forbidding him to enter Eretz Yisrael, he was handed a clear, unequivocal, and final "no." "Behold" - your days are drawing near. It was not going to happen. Hashem used the same word, hein, which Moshe had used to negate the spiritual potential of the Jewish nation, to quell his aspirations for entering the Holy Land. It would not occur.

In his inimitable manner, Horav Avraham Pam, zl, derives an intriguing lesson from here: one can never give up on a Jew. We always have hope. There is always a chance, however remote, that he will return. Regardless how far one has distanced himself from his people and his G-d, the depths of depravity to which he has plummeted notwithstanding, it is always possible to wipe away the taint of sin and return to become a full baal teshuvah. Every Jew has within him the Pintele Yid, an indestructible spark, imbedded deep within his neshamah, soul. This spark waits to be ignited by an authentic connection to Torah. Artificial stimulation might catalyze it, but in order to have it ignite properly and eventually burn brilliantly, it needs authenticity. This comes only from Torah chinuch, education. It will then blaze into a fire of spiritual holiness, which will rapidly destroy the impurities that tarnish his past. He is now ready for the future. His slate is clean. He can ascend to the present as a Jew loyal to Hashem and His mitzvos.

The key to a Torah life is a Torah education. This is a syllabus which has a Divine Author and is, thus, not subject to the constraints of aptitude, method and background that weigh so heavily in the area of secular scholastics. One with limited or even no background has only to avail himself diligently and to devote himself with sincerity, so that he can achieve success in Torah knowledge. This applies equally to the Jewish child who was born into an observant environment, but, through no fault of his own, his G-d-given capabilities do not conform with the rigorous self-imposed standards of today's factories of instruction. How often do we hear those who vie for the mantel of mechanech, Torah educator, declare that it is just not worth putting too much effort into this child because he will never reach a high level of achievement? The Rosh Yeshivah states emphatically that this is a tragic mistake, since, when it concerns spiritual matters, nothing stands in the way of one who desires to succeed. I am sure that everyone knows of an instance when the child who had been deemed least likely to succeed became a talmid chacham, Torah scholar, beyond anyone's expectations.

We stand at the last Shabbos of the year when everyone searches for a z'chus, merit. This is a time when self-improvement is the greatest source of merit, but it seems so hard, so distant. By remembering that nothing is impossible for the Jew who seeks to connect with the Almighty, the path of return does not need a GPS. It does, however, need courage, resolve and conviction. With these ingredients, one need only allow Hashem to do the navigating.

One aspect of teshuvah is intrinsic to the conviction one has, and, without it, the teshuvah will not be efficacious. One must believe with deep conviction that teshuvah works, that he can erase his past, that through heartfelt prayers and inner toil to correct and achieve atonement and forgiveness, he will succeed and be purified by Hashem. Only when our tears emanate from the depths of our hearts will Hashem bless and embrace us as a father cradles his son. Our repentance becomes real when we believe in it. Then, we facilitate its effectiveness.

With all of its benefits, however, teshuvah still alludes many. Since this is a monumental undertaking, it is understandable that it is fraught with hardship. Yet, some make it. It takes desire and a little help. The help is available - one must muster the courage to ask. Perhaps the following story will lend some insight into what I mean. The Bluzhover Rebbe, Horav Yisrael Spiro, zl, became friendly with a secular Jew in the concentration camp. One night, the sadistic Nazis took out a group of inmates and told them to jump over an impossibly long pit. Those who completed the jump would be allowed to live until another day, when other impossible challenges would be forced upon them. Those who tragically failed to clear the pit would be shot, and the pit would become their graves.

The line did not move quickly, since everyone knew the outcome. Regrettably, every Jew failed to clear the pit and was immediately shot. The mass grave was filling up. The secular Jew turned to the Rebbe and said, "Let us not give those sadists the satisfaction of playing their game. We should not budge and just let them shoot us right away. In any case, we are going to die."

The Rebbe replied, "What is the difference if we enter Gan Eden a minute earlier or a minute later? Let us at least try. The worst that could happen is that we will fail and get killed." Soon it was their turn and, they found themselves at the edge of the pit, and they jumped. Incredibly, they both ended up on the other side.

"Rebbe," exclaimed the other Jew, "how did you do it?"

The Rebbe said, "I held on to the coattails of my ancestors, and they pulled me across, but, my friend, how did you do it?"

"I held on to your coattails," the man answered tearfully.

Some of us need that push, that nudge. Others need to grab onto someone's coattails. As long as one is willing to extend himself and reach out, there will always be someone there to help. Hashem will see to that.

Va'ani Tefillah

Meodeid anavim Hashem
Hashem encourages the humble.

Horav Avigdor Miller, zl, explains this pasuk practically. When we see someone who is bold and strong-hearted, unafraid, and has risen to a great position of power or wealth, we must understand that this did not "just happen." Hashem encouraged, emboldened and elevated him for a purpose. If not for Hashem, this person would be meek and lowly, afraid and poor, scared of his own shadow. Indeed, this is why Rabbi Yehudah HaNasi would give honor to the wealthy. Their wealth testifies that Hashem wished them wealth. We are conforming with Hashem's wish by honoring those whom He decided to elevate. While they do not present themselves to us now as humble, because of their exalted position, they are, in fact, intrinsically humble and lowly, with all of their courage and dignity a gift from Hashem.

In addition, since all greatness and nobility are solely in the hands of Hashem, one should realize that the One to whom we should turn for encouragement and salvation is none other than Hashem.

l'zechar nishmas ovinu moreinu
R' Avraham Aharon ben Yekusiel Yehuda z"l
shehalach l'olamo b'erev Rosh Hashana 5753

Mishpachas Mayer

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