Back to This Week's Parsha

Peninim on the Torah

subscribe.gif (2332 bytes)

Previous issues

Rabbi A. Leib Scheinbaum
Hebrew Academy of Cleveland


You are standing today… before Hashem, your G-d. (29:9)

Hayom, today, alludes to the special day, Rosh Hashanah, when we all stand in judgment before Hashem. This day is different, for on this day, as Horav Nosson Wachtfogel, zl, comments, we enter into the palace of the King. We have a private conference, during which we think of nothing else: not of the past; not of the future; just the present. Our conversation does not revolve around ourselves; it is not for our personal requests. Rather, on this day we coronate Hashem; we praise Him and pray that today will be the beginning when all creatures, all peoples, will recognize and acknowledge that He is the Creator of us all. " Today" is "His" day. It is a day that allows us to divest ourselves of "ourselves" and focus on what is really important - Hashem.

When someone approaches Rosh Hashanah with the realization that today he has the unique good fortune to stand lifnei Hashem, before Hashem; when he understands the significance of this moment, this private meeting, he will not waste it on personal issues. The difference between a small person and a big person lies in what is important to each of them. True, our lives, and the lives of everyone that we hold dear to us, are all-important, but, in the larger scheme of things, in terms of the purpose of our existence, in light of our own personal raison d'etre, is this not somewhat selfish? Imagine being allowed one request from the king, one favor. What would we ask for? Would we ask the king for a new suit, a better lunch, a nicer car, or would our request be more sweeping, more global, less self-serving?

It is all about V'yeida kol pa'ul ki Atah pi'alto, v'yavin kol yetzur ki Atah yitzarto, "Let everything that has been made know that You are its Maker, and let everything that has been molded understand that You are its molder." Horav Shimshon Pincus, zl, says that, on Rosh Hashanah, Hashem wants to maintain a Panim el Panim, face to face, relationship with us. This means that nothing is on our minds but Hashem. Our every thought, comment, nuance, should be focused on the Almighty.

The first step is to recognize that, when we enter Rosh Hashanah, we have just completed an entire year of life. We tend to focus immediately on the future, without recognizing our obligation to offer gratitude for the past. As we begin the New Year, we should commence it by thanking Hashem for allowing us to reach this juncture in life. Furthermore, as the Brisker Rav, zl, comments, we enter the New Year with nothing from the past year to support us, no promises, no chazakos, status quo. Just because we have a job, good health and money in the bank, does not mean that our good fortune is on autopilot and will continue. It is a New Year - a completely new judgment. It begins over again. Your driver's license has expired; your passport is no longer valid. It is a new year, a new list, a new judgment. Whatever we have been fortunate to have had until now is no guarantee for the future. Hayom, "Today," is a new day.

The hidden (sins) are for Hashem, our G-d, but the revealed (sins) are for us and our children forever, to carry out all the words of the Torah. (29:28)

An abundance of commentary is available to explain the application of the nekudos, dots, above u'l'vaneinu, "And for our children." We will address the commentary of the Chafetz Chaim, zl, because of its depth - despite its apparent simplicity. When a person writes a note, pens a statement, and he wants to make a point, underscore a certain idea, he will underline, bold, or highlight it in some noticeable manner. Hashem sought to teach Moshe Rabbeinu an important lesson, one that he should impart to the Jewish People, one that He wanted them to underscore in building their future: it is all about the children. Chinuch ha'banim, educating our children, is the only guarantee of our nation's future survival. If Hashem "dotted" the word children, it is a clear indication of its overriding significance.

The Steipler Gaon, zl, was wont to emphasize the change in the way contemporary children are raised compared to theway in which they were raised in the small villages of Europe, where abject poverty was a way of life, such that having "nothing" actually meant having nothing. Children grew up quickly knowing that one does not necessarily get what one wants. Indeed, the basics to which we are today accustomed were rare in those days. Children grew up hungry. They learned to realize that a mere meal was a luxury, and certain foods were an impossible dream. When children grow up with the awareness that one does not always get what he wants and life is not always a hedge of roses, they learn to accept those later moments when challenges confront them and a decision has to be made either to accept the situation as it is or to be bitter and complain.

The Steipler observes that this spoiled attitude can play itself out, having a devastating effect on a child's educational development. Imagine a child growing up in a home in which parents hold nothing back, giving their child whatever they can put their hands on. While this is feasible with regard to food, shelter, comfort and other physical staples and amenities, they cannot give their child: respect, honor, acceptance. This is something one earns on his own. When a child who is accustomed to receiving whatever he wants attends a school/yeshivah, he suddenly discovers that he is not the smartest, the most diligent, the most caring student. As a result, he does not earn the respect for which he yearns, and he might develop serious issues. He is not prepared for this. His parents have led him to believe that he could have whatever he wants. Apparently, they were wrong.

For this mitzvah… it is not hidden and it is not distant… it is not in Heaven… nor is it across the sea… rather, the matter is very close to you. (30:11-14) The Ramban interprets "this mitzvah" as a reference to the mitzvah of teshuvah, popularly called repentance. The word teshuvah is thrown about very much at this time of year. It is especially appropriate on this last Shabbos of the year to focus on its meaning and necessary impact on our lives. The word repentance is a powerful word and truly does not define the essence of teshuvah. The process of teshuvah is the process of return. Thus, a baal teshuvah is not simply a "born again"-- repentant -- person, but rather, someone who is returning - either to his original state; or to the state in which he should be.

Many people wonder, "How can I be worthy of doing teshuvah? How can I become a baal teshuvah, knowing the difficulties that lie ahead?" Horav Yisrael Salanter, zl, answers that a person should neither lose himself, nor give up before he even starts. Every slight change for the better, every reversal from the path he is presently following, connotes a step toward teshuvah. To make up one's mind to change completely is difficult and dangerous.

The Rambam's vernacular in explaining the mitzvah/process of teshuvah is very exact: "He who sins should leave his bad ways, remove it from his mind, and make a serious commitment in his heart not to return to the aveiros, sins, that he had committed in the past." Interestingly, the Rambam does not say that the sinner should "leave his sin," but rather, he says, "He should leave his bad ways." What is the Rambam teaching us about teshuvah? The Alter, zl, m'Novarodok, quotes the Talmud Kiddushin 20a in which Chazal teach that one who performs the same aveirah more than twice is already viewing this activity as something which is permissible. The stigma surrounding this sinful act has dissipated. He is no longer acting outside of his comfort zone. The first time one acts against the Torah, he is troubled. It bothers him. He is hurt. If chas v'shalom, Heaven forbid, any one of us would consume unkosher food, we would be devastated - the first time. We would be heartbroken, miserable, trying to find the deepest hole in which to bury ourselves. After we have done the dastardly act a number of times, the shame vanishes, the pain dissipates, the hurt is no longer.

The Alter explains that a person, at times, will commit an aveirah, but it remains a singular occurrence. It is not something that he is used to doing. To refrain from doing it again is to "abandon one's sin." This is much different than "abandoning one's ways." "Abandoning one's ways" means that this activity is already part of his "ways." It has become his way of life. He has already decided that the path of sin is something with which he can be comfortable. To perform teshuvah means to begin the process - to turn around, to change direction. One has a long journey until he reaches his destination, but, unless he changes his course, he will never reach his destination. One who is walking slowly, carefully, trudging along a path which is ten miles long, will reach the end of the road, as long as he sticks to the path. If he is going the wrong way, however, regardless of his speed, he will never reach his destination.

Horav Moshe Aharon Stern, zl, tells the story of Reb Moshe Friedman, an intrepid member of the Yerushalayim community some ninety years ago. He helped establish the Batei Brodie. It was during the 1920's that the first cars were introduced to Yerushalayim. While the automobile has today become a way of life, in those days it was hardly accessible to the majority of the observant community. Many of these early settlers lived in abject poverty. Truth be told, they really had nowhere to go. Thus, for the most part, the automobile was a source of transportation for those who were not mainstream Orthodox. The first time Reb Moshe saw a Jew driving a car on Shabbos, he went out and began to sing, "Shabbos, Shabbos." The sight of this pious Jew walking around singing, "Shabbos, Shabbos," whenever he saw a Jew driving on Shabbos, was, at best, interesting. Someone approached him and asked, "Rabbi Friedman, he (the driver) does not hear you. Why do you keep singing, 'Shabbos, Shabbos'?"

Rabbi Friedman replied, "My dear friend, you are mistaken. I am not singing, 'Shabbos, Shabbos,' because of him. I am singing, 'Shabbos, Shabbos,' for myself. I want to hear the words, 'Shabbos, Shabbos,' because, once I see chillul Shabbos, Shabbos desecration, it sadly becomes less of an outrage to me. When a person is mechallel Shabbos once, it hurts him greatly. Once he repeats this behavior, however, it no longer hurts him. It has become his lifestyle." The pasuk implies that the mitzvah which, according to Ramban, is a reference to teshuvah, "is not hidden, nor is it far; it is not in the Heaven, nor is it in the sea; rather, it is very close to you." The geographic analogy must be clarified to say that an object for which one is searching is not in Tel Aviv, but rather, in Bnei Brak, is understandable. The distances are reasonable, and erring between them is not unusual. If, however, one were to say that it is not in Tel Aviv, but rather, in Alaska, that would be highly irregular. These areas are too far apart. One neither makes such a mistake, nor is this a normal manner of speech. Horav Moshe Aharon Stern explains this pasuk, applying to it a well-known episode in the Talmud Avodah Zarah 17a.

The Talmud tells the story of Elazar ben Durdaya, who was an individual who had plunged to the nadir of depravity. His reputation as a sinner was so well-known that he quite possibly had reached the position of greatest sinner of his generation. There was not an aveirah of which he was aware that he did not transgress. He acted with impunity. He did it all. The Talmud relates that one time he was in the process of committing a sin, when a Heavenly Voice declared, "If you do this, you will be lost forever. You will never be able to perform teshuvah."

When Elazar ben Durdaya heard that he was lost, he immediately halted his activity and stopped doing the aveirah. He went to a valley that was situated between two mountains, and he spoke to the mountains, "Mountains and foothills, ask for mercy on my behalf." (Exactly what this means and the significance of mountains and foothills is beyond the scope of this thesis. In any event, he was seeking their help in returning.) They replied, "Before we can ask for mercy for you, we must first ask for mercy for ourselves." Hearing this, Rav Elazar turned to the Heavens and earth and asked them to intercede on his behalf. They, too, shared the same feelings as the mountains and foothills. They had to address their own deficiencies before they could pray on behalf of others.

Rav Elazar received similar responses from the sun and moon and later from the stars and constellations. When he saw that he had nowhere to turn, no one could help him, he cried out, "The matter depends solely on me." He then put his head between his knees and began to cry bitterly. He cried incessantly until his neshamah, soul, left him. As soon as he died, a Heavenly Voice declared, "(Rav) Elazar ben Durdaya is destined for life in Olam Habba, the World to Come."

Rabbi Yehudah HaNasi heard the Bas Kol, Heavenly Voice, and immediately conferred the title "Rav" on Elazar ben Durdaya. Imagine going from being the greatest sinner of the generation to being granted the title Rav from Rebbi HaKadosh! Rebbi began to cry, "Some people earn their Olam Habba in the course of a few years; some earn it in one moment." There are people who live a full life, eighty, ninety years, and, by their actions and devotion, warrant and earn a place in Olam Habba. There is also that individual, who earns it in the space of a few moments.

Horav Eliyahu Lopian, zl, asks why did Rebbi cry? Does it matter how long it takes to achieve Olam Habba? The bottom line is that one made it; he has achieved the ultimate reward. Rav Elya explains that Rebbi was concerned with the waste of time that is characteristic of some people's lives. If a person can become a ben Olam Habba in one hour, how much time is wasted to become a ben Olam Habba when a person has to spend a lifetime of eighty, ninety years to earn the same reward!

Employing the lesson implied by the episode of Rav Elazar ben Durdaya, we are now able to give meaning to the geographical discrepancy of our pasuk. Rav Elazar ben Durdaya came to his senses and realized that, unless he did teshuvah, all would be lost. It was the last straw. It was now or never. Wherever he turned, the answer was no. This is what is meant by, Im ein ani li - mi li? "If I am not for myself, who will be for me?" It was up to him - no one else could do it. He sincerely wanted to return, to repent, to seek atonement for all the wrong that he had committed. He cried his heart out, putting his heart and soul into the endeavor, until he became a baal teshuvah. His sincere teshuvah was accepted. What is the explanation of all this?

The Mashgiach puts it succinctly. If a person wants others to help him become a baal teshuvah, it will be very difficult and distant from reality. This is much like saying that the teshuvah is in the heavens or the deepest oceans. It is a stretch to reach. If a person makes a serious decision to return, however, knowing fully well that it is all up to him and no one else-- if he realizes that the entire matter is dependent upon him, so that if he wants to change, he will be able to change -- then there is hope of achieving success. It is that "easy." One must have the initiative and resolve to see it through and stop relying on everyone else for support. He can only succeed if he does teshuvah.

See - I have placed before you today the life and the good, and the death and the evil… and you shall choose life. (30:15, 19)

After all, what else should one choose? Why would anyone be so foolish as to choose death? Apparently, some of us remain clueless with regard to the definition of evil and death. Indeed, some still have difficulty distinguishing between good and evil - life and death. Yes, there are those who think that they are very much alive, despite the fact that they are "living" a slow death. The Torah gives us a clue as to the meaning of life when it exhorts us to choose life. Why? Because - "so that you will live, you and your offspring." In other words, if the choices that we made will destroy our legacy; if, as a result of my cravings, my obstinacy, my children will lose their opportunity for a life of Torah, a life with a future; then I have not chosen life. A life that does not ensure a viable future for our progeny is a bad choice - a choice of death.

Bechirah, free will, is one of the basic tenets of our faith. We are not compelled to do a thing. The choice to succeed or to fail is ours exclusively. Horav Eliyahu Lopian, zl, asks: What is bechirah? We would answer that a person can choose what he wants. Rav Elya explains that this is not bechirah. Anyone, anything, can choose what he/it wants. An animal can choose what it wants. A gentile can choose what he wants. No one is standing with a gun to his head, forcing him to make a specific decision. The ball is in his court. He may decide as he pleases. So what makes bechirah so special for the Jew? Bechirah means that we can choose what we do not want! If our desires run counter to our intellect - we have the ability to transcend our desires and choose against them. We have the capability of waging war with the yetzer hora, evil inclination, and emerging triumphant. We can break the hold that the yetzer hora has on us. This is the meaning of bechirah. If a person is willing to gird himself and overcome the challenges that the yetzer hora presents, he can prevail. He then proves that he is a shomer Torah u'mitzvos, an observant Jew who is willing to go in the ways prescribed by Hashem. We can choose to do what is right, despite our desires.

Much of what we do is a derivative of the chinuch, education, that we received primarily from our parents, but also from our rebbeim. It is noteworthy that we learn -- either directly or by osmosis -- from the little things that we noticed growing up at home. Likewise, we must acknowledge some of the less-than-proper lessons that our children have learned from us. How important it is to be alert and vigilant concerning the lessons we are indirectly imparting by virtue of our thoughtless actions. No one consciously intends to teach his child a lesson/behavior that can harm him later in life. More lessons detrimental to a child's spiritual/ethical development are taught indirectly than we care to concede.

Horav Moshe Aharon Stern, zl, Mashgiach of Kaminetz Yerushalayim and one of the premier baalei mussar, ethical mentors, of recent generation, relates how an episode that occurred fifty years earlier still impacted his mindset.

The family lived in Brownsville, New York, a section of Brooklyn which at that time was home to many observant Jews - individuals who took their Judaism seriously. They lived simple lives, worked hard to eke out an honest living, and spent every available moment learning Torah, davening, and seeing to it that their children were following in their footsteps. As we explained earlier, this is the meaning of u'bacharta ba'chaim - "and you should choose life." Rav Stern's father was an accountant who worked in an office in Times Square, approximately eight miles from home. A shomer Torah u'mitzvos, he was fortunate to have a job that allowed him to leave for Shabbos. Nonetheless, as a worker for someone else, he did not always have the luxury of leaving early enough to go home and prepare for Shabbos in an unhurried, relaxed manner.

One Friday afternoon in the winter, with temperatures hovering in the single digits and heavy snowfall, he saw that making it home in a timely fashion was inconceivable. Mr. Stern called his wife when it was barely a half an hour before licht bentchen, candle lighting, and said that he had been unable to leave the office earlier so that taking the train was out of the question, since he would not arrive before Shabbos. Therefore, he was emptying his pockets, leaving everything in the office (since he could not carry on Shabbos), and going downstairs to find the nearest shul in which he would daven Minchah, be makabel Shabbos and daven Maariv. Afterwards, he was walking home (eight miles). He instructed his family not to wait for him to recite Kiddush, since he would not be home until it was quite late.

Of course, the family waited, looking at the clock, trying to calculate how long it would take him to get home. They had not factored in the fact that it was freezing and that snow was falling at a steady clip. He had originally called at four o'clock. He arrived home at ten o'clock, soaked and frozen, but with a smile on his face. He quickly dried himself off, changed clothes, and recited Kiddush.

What a Shabbos that was. For the rest of his life, the Mashgiach has remembered that Shabbos, his father's appearance when he came to the door frozen and soaking through and through. The example of mesiras nefesh, devotion to the point of self-sacrifice for a mitzvah, remained etched in his mind. He understood how far one must go to serve Hashem, how prepared one must be to undergo the most difficult trials and challenges, to fulfill the mitzvos of the Torah. The lessons imparted that Friday night were more valuable and had a greater and more enduring impact than many of the lessons that he learned in the classroom.

Va'ani Tefillah

Mashpil Geiim u'magbiha shefalim. Who humbles the haughty… and lifts the lowly.

Horav Yosef Chaim, zl, m'Bagdad, explains this verse with a parable. There once were two poor men: one was tall, well-built and hardy; the other was skinny, bent, almost puny in comparison to his powerful friend. The stronger of the two would often rib his friend, poking fun at his dismal physique and poor health. The weaker of the two would counter, "Are you not afraid of Hashem, Who humbles the haughty and uplifts the lowly?" These words did not seem to bother the other, as he kept up with his harangue. Generally, someone who has nothing will attempt to lord it over anyone who has even less than he does. This must have been the case.

One day, the two beggars happened to be in the vicinity of the royal palace, on a day on which two men applied for a position in the royal workforce. One was a powerfully built, tall soldier, whose claim to fame was his declaration that he could take on anyone and, in a manner of minutes, transform him into a broken person. The other fellow was a doctor who claimed that he could heal anyone in no time. The king ordered his soldiers to put these two men to a test, by providing individuals to challenge the veracity of their statements. Interestingly, when the solders went outside they discovered the two poor men, who seemed to fit the bill for the king's challenge. We can imagine what happened. The tall, powerful, poor man was immediately dispatched to the hospital for what would be a long recuperation, while the other sickly, poor man was healed and walked away the picture of health. This is what the pasuk is teaching us. At times, one's power is the source of his downfall, while at other times his weakness catalyzes his success. It is all up to Hashem.

k'siva v'chasima tova

l'zchus u'lilui nishmas
R' Baruch ben R' Zev Yehuda z"l
niftar 24 Ellul 5751
In memory of
Baruch Berger z"l
Whose contribution to Peninim was immeasurable.

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