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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. (29:9)

The Yalkut Shimoni cites a powerful commentary on this pasuk: "Why is it that the gentiles will not survive, and the Jewish nation will ultimately endure? It is because, when the gentiles are punished, they rebel and repudiate the Almighty. The Jews, on the other hand, grow stronger. They bow their heads in acceptance of Hashem's chastisement. David HaMelech says in Sefer Tehillim 116:3,4: 'Trouble and sorrow I would find, then I would invoke the Name of Hashem: Please Hashem, save my soul.' Hashem says, 'The curses raise them and give them the ability to stand.'" Klal Yisrael has been tempered by adversity. We have become stronger as a result of our troubles. While others use adversity as a reason to "break with the program," to remonstrate and sever their allegiance, we toughen up, become stronger and more committed.

I remind myself of a famous incident concerning a Marrano family that had escaped Spain prior to the expulsion. They wandered for weeks - starved, sick, empty handed - until they finally reached a refugee camp in Morocco. Conditions there were squalid, disease and death reigned throughout. Tragedy began to strike one after the other, as their young children succumbed to disease. Soon, all of their children had tragically died. The husband and wife were left bereft of their family, but, at least, they had each other. This, too, was not to last, as the wife took ill and, shortly thereafter, breathed her last breath.

At that moment, the husband - left alone in the world amid starvation, disease and death - lifted his eyes to Heaven and cried out, "Hashem, I know that everything has been a challenge: to see if I would stop believing in You; to see if I would break and renege my faith. What is left for You to break me with? When they forced us to convert to Christianity, we remained committed to You in private. We lived under constant fear of being caught. Yet, this did not deter us. When we were "given" the choice of death or escape with nothing, we fled. Then You took away one child. We did not complain. You took the next child. Still, we did not complain. Eventually, You took away all of our children. We were left alone, but we continued to believe. And now, You have taken my last gem, my soul-mate, my wife. Hashem, what else can You to do to me?"

"As I see it," he declared, "I have two courses left. You can either take my life or take my belief in You. If You want my life - take it. It is not mine anyway. It belongs to You. However, if You want to take away my love and belief in You - that even You, Almighty Hashem, cannot take from me. They belong to me - to me alone, and I am not giving them up!"

At times Hashem appears to be fighting us. Everywhere we turn, He places an obstacle in our path. We want to be good Jews, to serve Him with love and devotion, but He makes it hard for us. It is almost as if He is working against us, preventing us from succeeding. We should not despair. Yes, He may be challenging us; He might be engaging us, but He does so in order to temper our belief. He does so in order to enable us to discover the truth: that no power can take away our ability to love Him.

Since this is the last Shabbos of the year, as we are preparing to entreat Hashem, pleading for another year of good health and welfare for ourselves and for our loved ones, we strive to take this idea to heart and to apply it in confronting our daily challenges. Life is not easy. We have challenges, but they all come from the One Who is rooting for us to succeed and overcome the obstacles that He places in our path. It is His way of making us stronger. It is our way of demonstrating our belief and love for Him. Atem nitzavim, "You are standing." We stand because of the challenges. We do not rebuff Hashem when life becomes difficult. We have survived the greatest pogroms and holocausts, and we have become stronger. Atem nitzavim.

Yud ches Menachem Av, 1939, was a day of horrifying tragedy in Chevron. Arab hordes, their fires of hate enflamed by their mullahs, broke loose from their pens and slaughtered many of the Jewish inhabitants of the city. It was Erev Shabbos, and the slaughter reached the doors of the yeshivah bais hamedrash. The yeshivah's celebrated masmid, most diligent student, a brilliant Torah scholar, Shmuel HaLevi Rosenholtz, was the first sacrifice offered by the yeshivah. When he saw the wild beasts, with their blood-curdling cries piercing the air, he ran to the only place of refuge that he knew: the bais hamedrash. Fearing an Arab pogrom, the building had been sealed. Everything had been locked down. Shmuel broke through the window and climbed inside. He was going to sit and learn by his shtender as always. Whatever was decreed from Above, he would be at his place. He died on his shtender, as he was viciously struck down with an ax.

After the pogrom was over and relative calm had returned to the community, Rav Avraham Yaakov Rosenholtz, the young scholar's father, arrived from Lithuania. He accepted Hashem's decree, but he asked one favor: He wanted to visit the bais hamedrash and stand at his precious son's shtender to recite Kaddish! He did not ask for reparations. He had no complaints. He requested only one thing: Kaddish. The British authorities acquiesced and accompanied the distraught father. The situation was still volatile. Arab unrest continued, and security had to be maintained.

As Rav Avraham Yaakov was about to enter the study hall, he stopped, and, in a low-pitched voice, said, "Avraham Yaakov, take off your shoes, for the ground upon which you tread is holy ground. This is the place where your beloved son sanctified Hashem's Name."

The place looked as it did on the day of the slaughter. The blood on the shtender was still there. I do not think any of us can imagine what went through this father's mind as he stood by the place where his son was slaughtered, staring at his son's dried blood on the shtender! He began to say Kaddish. His cries shook the walls. The bitter tears that rolled down his cheeks mingled with the dried blood on the shtender. He carefully articulated every word, demonstrating his extreme love for Hashem, and then it was over. He had done his part. It was time to return home. He had grieved, and he was now consoled.

Atem nitzavim. "You are standing." We shall continue to stand until Moshiach Tzidkeinu heralds the end of our exile.

You are standing today, all of you… the heads of your tribes, your elders, and your officers - all men of Yisrael. (29:9)

Moshe Rabbeinu gathered together every member of the Jewish nation - from the elite to the commoner, all ages, men and women - to initiate them one last time in Hashem's covenant. This is not the first covenant. What makes this one unique? The Ohr HaChaim HaKadosh explains that the novelty of this covenant was the concept of areivus, responsibility, for one another. This is applicable to all Jews of all stripes - regardless of status or position. Every Jew is obligated to help his brother and sister observe the Torah, and is mandated to restrain them from committing a sin. This is why Moshe specifically mentioned Jews of all strata. Our mutual responsibility for every Jew is a powerful mandate. We cannot bury our collective heads in shame when one of our co-religionists does something foolish, inappropriate, or even scandalous, and say it does not affect me; he is not one of mine. If he is Jewish, he is one of ours. We are all in this together.

We wonder why this enormous responsibility is placed upon us. Is it not difficult enough to police oneself and his immediate family, without having to worry about everyone else? Horav Gershon Leibman, zl, explains that responsibility for others is an indicator of one's personal affiliation with something. When one cares about something, if he has an internal bond, an intrinsic sensitivity to something, then he goes out of his way to inspire and even impose his feelings upon anyone with whom he comes in contact. It means that much to him. If we see another Jew being lax in his respect, or exhibiting lack of knowledge, lack of sensitivity, lack of caring, and do not respond, then we really do not care very much about our own observance. There is a deficit in our frumkeit, if we are not concerned about other Jews.

What is more compelling is the fact that our responsibility extends beyond time: "But with whomever is here, standing with us today before Hashem…and with whoever is not here with us today" (ibid.29:14). We have a moral responsibility for the next generation - and beyond. The mistakes we make today live on. Our indifference today leads to assimilation tomorrow. If we care today, they will care tomorrow. If we do not care today, there will be no tomorrow. It is our responsibility.

For you know how we dwelled in the land of Egypt and how we passed through the midst of the nations…and saw their abominations and their detestable idols - of wood and stones of silver and gold that were with them. 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. (29:15,16,17)

The pasuk makes it sound as if, in the end, Egypt was quite bad for the Jews. That is not true. The last year preceding the Exodus was an entire year in which the Jews experienced miracles of an unparalleled nature, wonders they had previously never even heard about. True, they lived in Egypt, in a world center of decadence, evil and debauchery, but they were exposed to such Heavenly revelations that they clearly had not been influenced by their immediate environment. This was followed by the Exodus, the Splitting of the Red Sea with its accompanying miracles, protected by the Pillars of Cloud and Fire, led by the three quintessential leaders - Moshe Rabbeinu, Aharon HaKohen and Miriam HaNeviah. It, therefore, seems unreasonable that to such an august group who had experienced so much G-dliness, Moshe would declare, "Perhaps there is among you a root flourishing with gall and wormwood." This is not the Mafia he was talking to - it was Klal Yisrael, the Dor Deiah, generation of knowledge, the greatest of generations, the ones who received the Torah at Har Sinai! Are they to be suspected of harboring second thoughts, questionable musings, concerning their commitment to the Almighty?

Moshe Rabbeinu himself alludes to our question when he says, "For you know you dwelled in the land of Egypt, and you passed through the midst of the nations." It has not always been miracles and spirituality. What about "their abominations and detestable idols - of wood, stone, silver and gold"? You cannot simply ignore your exposure to such moral corruption. For all of the good which you experienced, there was also spiritual down time, periods of laxity, when the blandishments that surrounded you could have taken an effect. This, comments Horav Sholom Schwadron, zl, demonstrates the far-reaching effects of a corrupt environment. They saw miracles; they experienced revelations, but they were in Egypt. As long as Egypt plays a role in their lives, the fear always surfaced that "…perhaps there is among you a root flourishing with gall and wormwood."

Rav Sholom quotes an inspirational thought from the Brisker Rav, zl. The pasuk details what seems to be three different foci of idol worship: abominations and detestable idols; wood and stone; silver and gold. The Brisker Rav explains that, in reality, this refers to only one idol, but from three descending levels of perspective. The first time Klal Yisrael observed the idols, they appeared to them as detestable, reprehensible, abominations to which they could never relate. The second time they encountered these "abominations," they were no longer revolted by them. After all, what harm can a little wood or stone create? The abominations had now become a "statue." The third time they chanced upon Egypt's "finest," they saw silver and gold. No longer detestable, not even a statue: Now it was artistic, a silver museum piece, a gold artifact. Such beauty; such symmetry; the lines were exquisite. The abomination became an accepted way of life. This was the tragedy of Egypt. They saw so much, and so often, that it no longer disturbed them. When a Jew is not repulsed by what he sees around him in contemporary society, it does not bode well for his spiritual well-being. This is why Moshe could conjecture, "Perhaps there is something evil festering within."

Parashas Vayeilech

But I will surely have concealed My face on that day.

So now, write this song for yourselves. (31:18,19)

The Midrash makes a frightening statement: "There was no moment so difficult as the one where it is written, 'But I will surely have concealed My face on that day.'" The Talmud Megillah 31b comments, "Ezra decreed that Jewish People everywhere should read the curses detailed in Sefer Devarim prior to Rosh Hashanah. This way, the year should end with its curses. Parashas Netzavim enumerates curses. Thus, we read it prior to Rosh Hashanah. Parashas Vayeilech is often read following Rosh Hashana. Yet, Chazal teach that the curse of hastoras Panim, Hashem's concealment from us, is graver than any of the preceding curses. How are we to reconcile this with the fact that it is usually read after Rosh Hashanah?

Horav Shimshon Pincus, zl, explains that teshuvah makes the difference. In the previous parshios, the Torah details in which areas we were deficient and the ensuing consequences. In Parashas Vayeilech, the Torah follows the curse of hastoras Panim with: "…So, now, write this song for yourselves." We are immediately provided with a remedy: teshuvah. This is not just a random form of penance, but the most powerful form of teshuvah: Torah study. By toiling in Torah, we avail ourselves the opportunity to bring back Hashem's Presence within our midst, thereby reversing the curse of concealment. How does this work? What is unique about teshuvah through Torah study? What grants it greater efficacy?

We live in an age of synthesis. Reality is something that only the trained, experienced eye can perceive. Modern scientific technicians have become so proficient in their individual areas of expertise that they are capable of duplicating many things, creating an excellent look-a-like replica of the original. Formica gives the appearance of wood; synthetic material is made to look and feel like marble. Who knows if one day we might be eating fruits that have been synthetically created? An apple that grows on a tree requires a brachah, blessing, of Borei pri ha'eitz, while a synthetically created apple will require a She'hakol niheyeh bidevaro.

Thus, despite the synthetic apple's comparable appearance, taste and color, it differs from the original in a number of ways. First, the seeds of the original fruit have the ability to produce other apples; in contrast, even if the synthetic apple were to have seeds, it would be incapable of producing another apple. Second, the nourishment value of the original apple outweighs that of the synthetic apple, which only provides an apple that looks and tastes like an apple, but, in reality, is not an apple.

A similar concept applies in the spiritual realm. Judaism maintains a "body" of 613 mitzvos. This corpus of commandments takes on the form of the guf, body, of Yiddishkeit. In order to render life to this body, it is necessary to inject it with a neshamah, soul. If the mitzvos do not come alive, one lives as nothing more than a synthetic Jew. One can perform all the mitzvos, even endow his actions with all of the hiddurim, added embellishments, but it still remains much like a "body without a soul" experience. If no Torah study accompanies his actions, they remain synthetic, sterile, lifeless deeds which lack spiritual nourishment and cannot generate anything of value that will transcend generations.

Rav Pincus cites the Ramchal in his magnum opus, Mesillas Yesharim, who writes the following (Perek 5), "Torah leads to zehirus, watchfulness. This is in keeping with Chazal's statement in the Talmud Kiddushin 30b, 'I created the yetzer hora, evil inclination, and I created Torah as its antidote.' Since Torah is the specific antidote to counteract the blandishments of the yetzer hora, it is absurd to think that we can escape the yetzer hora without applying Torah. The yetzer hora is insidious, extremely powerful, and can overwhelm a person without his knowledge. Unless one takes the specific antidote, he may be unaware of the yetzer hora's dominance until it is too late."

No other stratagem for combating the yetzer hora will succeed other than the application of Torah. By studying Torah diligently and observing mitzvos meticulously, we have the power to triumph over the yetzer hora. In addition, Torah study for the purpose of acquiring knowledge, without having express intent to have this study lead to character refinement, will not quite accomplish the goal. Kavanah, intention, is required. The yetzer hora is tricky, and often distorts even Torah teachings for its malevolent purpose.

It is related that one of the great Rebbes was once seen running up and down the aisles of the bais ha'medrash, as if in pursuit of someone. Finally, after a short while of breathless running, the Rebbe fell against the bookshelves, exhausted and out of breath. His students who followed this "chase" asked what had occurred. "I saw the yetzer hora in the bais ha'medrash," replied the Rebbe. "He was quicker than I was. Just as I was about to grab hold of him, he hid himself among the volumes of Torah."

The yetzer hora gets involved even in the study hall, the shul, anywhere that we perform mitzvos. We are never free of him. When the study of Torah is used as an opportunity to gain esteem, it is the yetzer hora who is talking. There are those who feel that, because they are learning, they are better than others who are less fortunate and do not have the opportunity to learn Torah. Such thoughts are the work of the yetzer hora in prime form.

The only way to subdue the effects of the yetzer hora is through sincere Torah study. Sincere Torah study is to learn Torah as a means of fulfilling Divine will, not for any form of personal gratification. Under such conditions, he will have the antidote which will develop his moral values of good and evil, giving him a clear perspective of what is right and what is wrong.

What is the essence of teshuvah? We think that repentance is defined as regretting the past, remorse over our sins, and a commitment to banish such activity from our lives. While this is a significant aspect of teshuvah, it is neither the complete job nor does it achieve the primary goal of teshuvah. Teshuvah means return. We return to Hashem. The Navi Yirmiyahu (4:1) declares: "If Yisrael returns, says Hashem, to Me, you shall return." If is as if Hashem were saying, "It is wonderful that you no longer speak lashon hora, slander, that you observe Shabbos properly, that you observe the dietary laws and make the proper blessings before eating. This is all very commendable, but do not forget what is most important - that you return to Me, that you reestablish your relationship with the Almighty." That is what teshuvah is all about. This is what the parsha is teaching us. There will come a time when Klal Yisrael will stray after strange gods. These gods will have an assortment of names and "isms" but will be strange gods, no less. This will cause a rift in their relationship with Hashem. When we turn away, we catalyze Hashem's concealment. After all, He is not going to go chasing after us. There is one way - and only one way - to repair this rift: by turning to the Torah, the antidote for dealing with the yetzer hora, who caused us to sin in the first place. Torah study will turn us into "real" Jews, thus allowing us to come "home" and return to Hashem. This is why we read Parashas Vayeilech after Rosh Hashanah. Yes, it contains the worst of curses, but it also holds the recipe for salvation and return.

So now, write this song for yourselves, and teach it to Bnei Yisrael. (31:19)

For the first time, the Torah refers to itself by an uncommon term: shirah, song. While this new term defines the philosophical perception we have of the Torah, does it affect our relationship vis-?-vis the Torah? Is Torah as a song different from Torah as a mitzvah? The Talmud Megillah 3b discusses the significance of Torah study in contrast to other noble, spiritual endeavors. The Talmud relates a conversation that took place between Yehoshua and an angel who visited him at night during the siege of Yericho. The angel said, "This afternoon you neglected to offer the Korban Tamid, daily afternoon sacrifice, and now, after dark, you have neglected to study Torah." Yehoshua countered, "For which of these two misdeeds did you come?" The angel replied, Atah bassi, "I have come now!" which means, "I have come for the sin which is presently transgressed: neglecting to study Torah." Immediately, Yehoshua regretted his misdeed, and, the next time a similar situation arose, he rectified it.

Commenting on the Talmud, Tosfos elaborated on the dialogue that ensued between Yehoshua and the angel. Yehoshua asked, "Did you come because of the misdeed of neglecting to study Torah at night, when the men were not involved in battle? Torah tzivah lanu Moshe. 'Torah is a commandment which has been commanded to us by Moshe Rabbeinu.' Or did you come because we neglected to offer the sacrifice which protects us from our enemies?" The angel replied, "I came because of the Torah, about which it is written, 'So now, write this song for yourselves and teach it to Bnei Yisrael.'" The question is obvious: When Yehoshua asked his question, he referred to the study of Torah as a mitzvah. When the angel responded, however, he described the Torah as a shirah. Is there a difference with regard to the sin of bitul Torah, neglecting to study Torah, if Torah is a mitzvah, or a shirah?

The Ponovezer Rav, zl, explains that the angel changed the pesukim which describe the Torah by design. He sought a way of explaining to Yehoshua that Torah must be studied even in times of war, in the heat of battle. Torah is our life - twenty-four /seven. Had he applied the pasuk of Torah tzivah lanu Moshe, describing Torah as a mitzvah, it might be possible to reason that this "mitzvah" is suspended during times of war. The anxiety and constant travail connected with war are not consistent with Torah study. Now, however, that Torah is referred to as a shirah, a term that connects with the inner recesses of one's being, it transcends time, place and circumstances. Torah is the song of one's life, and, therefore, as long as one lives, he sings the song of Torah. Torah is part and parcel of his essence, something from which he cannot divest himself. This was the angel's message to Yehoshua. Given the nature of Torah, we have no acceptable excuse for neglecting to study it.

Va'ani Tefillah

V'charos imo ha'Bris lasseis es Eretz ha'Canaani…la'sseis l'zaro.

The word lasseis, to give, is redundant, as it is mentioned twice. The Sefas Emes derives from here that the gift of Eretz Yisrael to our nation is due to two merits: our ancestral relationship as Bnei Avraham, Yitzchak and Yaakov; because of our own merit as Am Yisrael. First, V'charos imo, Hashem made a covenant with him/ Avraham Avinu. We inherit from our Patriarch. It was given to him. Now, by right, it is ours. Second, lasseis l'zaro;, Eretz Yisrael is given to his children as a direct gift in their own right.

These two nesinos, gifts, are different from one another. The gift to the Patriarchs applies to the Heavenly Source of Eretz Yisrael. The gift to the nation is a reference to the physical land itself. This is what is referred to in the Shirah, Song at the Red Sea, Te'veeimo v'sitaeimo, which alludes to the two individual "givings" of Eretz Yisrael. Machon l'shivtecha poalta Hashem mikdash Hashem konenu yadecha, "The Foundation of Your dwelling place, which You Hashem have made: the sanctuary, my Lord, that Your hands established."

Chazal teach us that this pasuk is a reference to the two Batei Mikdash/heaven and earth which coincide with one another. Likewise, Eretz Yisrael of this world corresponds to its Heavenly "other." The Avos, Patriarchs, merited Eretz Yisrael of Heaven Above. In their merit, their descendants received Eretz Yisrael of this world.

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

Mishpachas Mayer

Rabbi & Mrs. Harry Mayer and Family
Queens, New York

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