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Peninim on the Torah

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Rabbi A. Leib Scheinbaum
Hebrew Academy of Cleveland


For all flesh had corrupted its way upon the earth. (6:12)

The people must have been extremely evil if Hashem saw no resolution to their sins other than destroying them all - literally putting an end to the world as it existed. How bad actually were they? We know they were immoral; bloodshed meant nothing to them; and we can throw in idol-worship for good measure. Did this warrant an end to society? Was there no one other than Noach that acted in a redeemable manner? The Torah writes, Ki hishchis kol basar, "Everyone - everything had become corrupt." How bad was their level of corruption?

Targum Yonasan ben Uziel gives us a clue to the level of their corruption. The Torah writes that, during the beginning of the flood, nivke'u maayanos tehom rabbah, "All the fountains of the deep burst forth (Bereishis 7:11). What did the people do when they saw water rising from the cracks in the ground? They used their own children to fill the cracks in the earth. Talk about evil! Can one imagine this perniciousness? Burying one's children alive in order to save themselves! Hashem responded to them, "Do you think that you are more capable than I? Let us see if you can stuff up the cracks of the Heavens." At that point, the Heavens opened up, pouring out a deluge that destroyed them all.

Having gained some insight into the sick minds of the people of that ill-fated generation, we now turn to the word hishchis to seek a proper definition of hashchasah, corruption. The Torah in Devarim 20:19 admonishes us not to cut down a fruit tree, Lo sashchis es eitzah, "Do not destroy its trees." In Hilchos Melachim 6:7, the Rambam writes that one may cut down a fruit tree only for a legitimate reason which mandates its removal. He concludes that it is forbidden to cut down the tree derech hashchasah, in a destructive manner. This implies that hashchasah is defined as doing something wantonly, for no reason, to waste something, without care, acting for no other reason other than he wants to do it. Hashchasah is malicious destruction for the sole purpose of destruction.

The people of that generation had other ways of stuffing up the cracks in the earth. They used their children as a way of showing G-d, "You cannot scare me. You try to hurt me - I will hurt my children!" with nothing to be benefitted other than pure malicious destruction. People were stealing, but, in most cases, what they stole was insignificant, not even the value of shavah perutah, "penny." Why did they do it? They wanted to. No other reason. Plain wanton, malicious destruction. It was their way of showing that they did not care. They were in charge, and no one could tell them how to live, how to act, or what to do.

When a generation plummets to such a nadir of depravity, whereby they sin maliciously, kill for fun, acted immorally simply because they want to, there is no reason to keep them around. They have not demonstrated anything about themselves that is of redeemable value. There is simply "nobody home." If this is the case, Hashem will close down the house.

For the earth is filled with robbery through them. (6:13)

The Midrash teaches that the members of that generation were no ordinary thieves. They made sure to steal less than a shavah perutah, value of a penny, which, according to Jewish law, is not accorded judgment in bais din. Therefore, they were punished by Heaven as a bnei Noach, who are treated differently by law. A ben Noach has seven Noachidic commandments. One of them is the prohibition against stealing. A ben Noach, however, is punished even for stealing less than the value of a perutah. A Jew must steal a perutah in order to be punished. Why is this? In his commentary to Eiruvin 62a, Rashi writes: "A Jew is mochel, forgives/overlooks, anything less than a perutah. A non-Jew does not." Money means so much to him that every fraction of a cent has meaning. Thus, if he steals less than a perutah - he pays.

The Alter m'Slabodka, Horav Nosson Tzvi Finkel, zl, derives an important practical lesson from this Halachah. Let us step back a moment and cogitate upon the difference between a Jew and a ben Noach: less than the value of a penny! The Jew overlooks what he considers an insignificant amount of money; thus, he forgives whoever takes it from him. The gentile neither overlooks, nor does he forgive. Half a penny divides us! For half a penny a person belittles himself to descend to the level of a ben Noach.

The lesson goes deeper. It does not take much to elevate oneself. The smallest upward movement makes a spiritual difference which goes beyond our ability to understand. Likewise, a backward movement - regardless how insignificant - is a negative spiritual drop. The eminence of the great is not to be measured only in the great steps. Every step forward, regardless of its size and significance, is a giant spiritual step. The barometer of spiritual excellence by which they are measured is much different from ours.

This is how you shall make it: The length of the Ark shall be 300 Amos, its width 50 Amos, and its height 30 Amos. (6:15)

We should not overlook the fact that the Torah records the details of the Ark's measurements, nor should we fail to notice the Torah's repeated mention of the fact that Noach follows every detail. Noach's compliance with every instruction is noted with the words, kein asah, "so he did." Horav S. R. Hirsch, zl, derives an important lesson from Hashem's entire act of saving Noach with a select group of representatives of the world's creatures. Hashem chose one man who was to save himself, his family and the animal world for the future, but that this man would be able to do so only if he did everything exactly in strict accordance with the commands given to him by Hashem.

Gadol metzuvah v'oseh, "Greater is one who is commanded and follows the command": It is a basic principle in Judaism that the value of an action executed because one is commanded by G-d is greater than that which is carried out spontaneously. Contrary to the opinion of the "misguided," only acts performed for the purpose of fulfilling Hashem's will have true value. Acts performed impetuously, on impulse, have only uncertain, secondary significance. One hundred twenty years elapsed between Hashem's command to Noach and the commencement of the Flood. During this time, Noach could have occupied himself with a number of things. He could have built a multitude of arks, but he built only one, and this took him one hundred and twenty years. Why? Because this is what Hashem told him to do - no more - no less. He restricted himself to doing - albeit with great accuracy and attention to the minutest detail - that which G-d had instructed him to do. The rest was up to G-d.

And as for Me - Behold, I am about to bring the Flood-waters upon the earth to destroy all flesh. (6:17)

The Flood was the greatest destruction of all time in the sense that it destroyed almost the entire world. It came as a Heavenly punishment to a generation of human beings that had gone totally awry. Evil was rampant; immorality was a way of life; idol worship was their mode of religious belief. Hashem gave them 120 years to repent, while Noach, his righteous emissary, labored strenuously building an Ark to save those who would repent. Then He gave them a seven-day reprieve to observe the seven-day shivah, mourning period, for Mesushelach. Perhaps the passing of this righteous person would arouse some positive thoughts, some contrition that would lead to repentance. Sadly, no one was interested. Hashem sent water to destroy them all. The earth was awash. People, animals, the entire world society was wiped out, drowned in a deluge of water.

Why did Hashem use water? Was there no other way to destroy the world? We have a rule that Hashem gives retribution middah k'neged middah, measure for measure. How does this rule apply to the punishment of water? What relationship exists between the flood and the various sins committed by the generation of the Flood? I recently saw a noteworthy dissertation concerning the concept of water, which I quote with my own supplement.

The Pirkei D'R'Eliezer writes, concerning Yonah HaNavi's fleeing from Hashem: "On the fifth day, Yonah ran from G-d. Why did he flee?... He said to himself, 'I know that this nation will repent. Now they repent and Hashem will release His anger on Yisrael.'" How did Yonah run from Hashem? He took a ship going to Tarshish, paid his fare and settled in as a passenger. Why did he choose a ship? Why use water as a means of travel? Why not take a donkey, a camel, travel the desert? He went out of his way to locate a ship and paid cash in full prior to the trip. The Midrash explains, "Yonah said, 'I am running to a place where Hashem has not rested His Glory. Concerning Heaven and earth, Hashem rested His Name during Creation. Not so on water." "On the fifth day," This corresponds with the fifth day of Creation when Hashem said, "Let the waters teem with teeming living creatures." The creatures of the deep waters were created then. Water began to function on the fifth day. Yonah chose this day to run from G-d. Apparently, water symbolizes an entity of Creation from which Hashem removes His Presence.

In his commentary to Bereishis 2:3, Ramban writes: "The Six Creation Days represent all the days of the world, for the endurance of the world is six millennia. As on the first two days, the entire world was filled with nothing but water, so, too, for the first two millennia, the world was without anyone who was korei b'shem Hashem, called out in the Name of G-d. As on the third day, the dry land was beginning to appear; likewise, Avraham Avinu, at the age of forty-eight commenced his mission to reach out to a pagan world and teach them about Hashem."

Water symbolizes heresy. Water flows everywhere and can be halted from spreading only by placing borders around to contain it. Water has no parameters. One cannot stop water. It has no form, no boundaries; it is literally unstoppable, unless it is contained by a solid wall. Water takes on the form of what container it is placed in. If it is spilled, it rolls and moves about at will.

This describes the sin of the dor ha'mabul, generation of the Flood. They acted freely, without restraint, without control whatsoever. They did whatever they wanted, wherever they wanted, with whomever they pleased. No parameters, no constraints, no boundaries. Pure lust, unrestrained sin, unimpeded evil, thoughtlessness of others, uncaring: these are words which describe the generation of the Flood. They acted like water. They were destroyed by water. They catalyzed the land's transformation into water. When Klal Yisrael left Egypt, they achieved an exalted level of Vayaaminu b'Hashem, they believed in Hashem. As a result, the Almighty transformed the Red Sea into dry land. The water deferred to them.

Noach, the man of the earth, debased himself and planted a vineyard. (9:20)

The Midrash comments: Vayichal Noach, "He (Noach) was nischalleil, profaned. Why? Vayita kerem, 'He planted a vine.'" He should have planted something else. Chazal are teaching us that, from the get-go, planting the vineyard was a disgraceful, baneful act. The fact that Noach later drank from the fruits of the vine and became inebriated is merely the consequence of his earlier chillul, profanation. Elsewhere, Chazal state; Vayichal Noach ish ha'adamah, "Since he (Noach) required the earth, he became profaned." Originally, he was referred to as Noach ish tzaddik, "the righteous man." Now that he planted a vineyard, he was transformed into an ish ha'adamah. Clearly, we must understand the planting of the vine. What about planting a vineyard could be so harmful? Wine gladdens the heart; it is used for the Altar's libations, for Kiddush, etc.

When we take into consideration the source of this wine shoot, we become even more perplexed. The Baal HaTurim cites Pirkei D'R'Eliezer that says that this shoot was originally in Gan Eden. It was later used by Avraham Avinu for his famous eishal, hospitality place. Certainly, if Noach was taking a shoot from Gan Eden, it was for a holy purpose. It was not for the mundane. Noach felt it was the correct thing to do. Why is he held in contempt for this fact? In Asufas Maarchos, Horav Chaim Yaakov Goldvicht, zl, explains the error of Noach's act based upon a similar act of misplaced devotion exhibited by Avuyah, father of Elisha, the Tanna who, as a result of his heretical views, later became known as Acheir, the Other One. Elisha ben Avuyah was once a great man, destined to become one of the greatest Tannaim. His distinguished disciple was Rabbi Meir, who continued to repeat the lessons he had learned from his Rebbe prior to his turning away from the Torah. Yet, he ended up as the infamous Acheir, a man with no name. What happened?

Shlomo Hamelech says, Tov acharis davar meireishis davar, "The end of a matter is better than its beginning" (Koheles 7:8). Rabbi Akiva commented concerning this pasuk, "The end is better." When? "At such a time that it is better than its beginning." What is the meaning of this statement? Chazal (Yerushalmi Chagigah 2:1) explain that this refers to Avuya, the father of Elisha, who was himself one of the primary Torah scholars in Yerushalayim. On the day of Elisha's Bris, circumcision, he invited all of the sages of Yerushalayim, placing them all in one large room. Rabbi Eliezer and Rabbi Yehoshua had a separate room for themselves. While the others were occupied with celebrating the festivities, Rabbi Eliezer said to Rabbi Yehoshua, "While they are busy with themselves, let us be occupied with ourselves." They immediately sat down to learn Torah with a fervor that was expected of such Torah giants. Their studies covered the entire gamut of the Written Law, Chumash, Neviim and Kesuvim. Their learning was so intense that a great fire descended from Heaven and surrounded them.

At this point, Avuyah noticed them and said, "If this is the power of Torah, I dedicate my son to the study of Torah." Chazal say, since his intention was not completely l'shem Shomayim, for Heaven's sake, the Torah did not endure in his son, Elisha.

Let us understand this Chazal. Avuyah was not an insignificant person. This is indicated by the fact that the distinguished sages of Yerushalayim attended his celebration. Furthermore, the mere fact that he saw the Heavenly fire surrounding the two Tannaim as they were learning, something which no one else was able to notice, indicates his spiritual stature. Undoubtedly, Avuyah's intention was for his son to develop into a Torah giant, just like the other rabbis. So, what did he do so wrong that warranted such a tragic end to his son's Torah stardom?

Rav Goldvicht explains that, indeed, his failing was miniscule. Regrettably, great people are not allowed even the minutest infraction. When Avuyah observed the incredible honor granted one who studies Torah, that tinge of honor affected his thought process, so that when he dedicated his son to Torah study, a vestige of personal prejudice was involved. It was not all for the sake of Torah. There was a speck of kavod, honor, intermingled. It was not much, but it was enough to affect the purity of the lishmah, for Torah's sake. When is the "end" good? Only when the "beginning" is good.

Reishis, "the beginning," must be pristine - if the conclusion is also to be without taint. This concept does not appear to be consistent with Chazal's statement (Pesachim 50b), "One should occupy himself with the study of Torah and mitzvah observance even if it is not lishmah, for its sake, because mitoch shelo lishmah bah lishmah, from doing it not for its sake one will come to study Torah and perform mitzvos for the sake of the mitzvah." Indeed, Horav Chaim Volozhiner, zl, posits that it is impractical, almost impossible, for one to achieve the spiritual plateau of lishmah initially, from the very beginning, without first going through a period of shelo lishmah. He compares this to one who attempts to climb to a high place without the use of a ladder. The steps, one at a time, facilitate his ascent. Likewise, the shelo lishmah allows for the lishmah to be realized.

The Rosh Yeshivah explains that, when a seed is planted, the tree's potential growth is determined. The very beginning of growth must be pure, free of any vestige that might blemish its growth. The young plants' growth is based on the beginning, because this is when it takes root, when its foundation is established. Later on, when it has reached a certain level of maturity, the effects of outside negative influences are not as detrimental.

In establishing an organization, institution, or any major endeavor or undertaking, what takes place in the beginning has compelling ramifications. Altering of the lishmah factor by Avuyah produced a spiritual cripple who would one day earn the infamous appellation of Acheir, the "other one." How careful we must be - especially at the onset of any project - to remain focused on its purity, pristine goals and objectives.

Where did Noach go wrong? He planted a vine. Having survived the destruction of the world, Noach was charged with rebuilding it. When he first entered the Teivah, Ark, he took along seeds and shoots from every growing plant and vegetation. Now that he was leaving the Ark with the intention to commence the rebuilding, he had the opportunity to begin by planting the agricultural products necessary to sustain the human race. Yet, rather than select wheat to make bread, he chose to plant a vine. There is nothing intrinsically wrong with wine; on the contrary, as mentioned earlier, it is used to gladden the heart and poured for the sacrificial libations. As the first planting, however, as Noach's commencement to rebuild the world, it left something to be desired. The world is not rebuilt on the foundation of the vine. Wine is wonderful, but it requires great care upon imbibing it. Without control, wine can be dangerous. It was, therefore, not a good choice as the beginning for establishing the standard for human sustenance.

Rav Goldvicht goes a drop further in applying the idea of reishis, beginning, to explain the unpardonable sin of Amalek. The Amalek nation was not the only people who challenged the Jews. Yet, they are the only one whom we are to make a point to remember to obliterate. Why? They were the first to rise up against the Jews, to challenge Hashem's protection to His people. After the liberation of the Jews from Egypt amidst unprecedented miracles and wonders, no nation had the gall to start up with us - no nation - except Amalek. Furthermore, it was no ordinary period in our history. Amalek attacked at a time during which our relationship with Hashem was just beginning. It was the period when our spiritual foundation was in the process of being concretized. We were on an unparalleled spiritual high. Amalek's incursion was purposeful - to destroy our relationship with Hashem; to demean our faith; to undermine the glorious rapture that ensconced us during the early moments of nationhood.

Amalek plunged into the burning hot pool of spiritual elevation, something which no other nation dared do, and succeeded in cooling the existing temperature. True, he was burnt, but the fiery heat was now abated. Other nations could now make their own attempt. One who attacks the "beginning" deserves his own "beginning": a singular punishment, unprecedented and unsympathetic, one that endures for eternity.

The European Holocaust was a cataclysmic destruction much like the Flood - only it did not devastate the entire world, "only" European Jewry. Six million souls ascended to Heaven, as they sacrificed their lives to sanctify His Name. If not for a handful of survivors whose goal was to rebuild the glorious Torah world of Europe, their memory would have vanished together with them. I have selected the life of one these visionary builders due to his devotion to the ideal of maintaining the pristine nature of reishis, the beginning.

The Ponevezher Rav, Horav Yosef Shlomo Kahaneman, zl, can be credited with re-establishing the Torah world in Eretz Yisrael post-Holocaust. Indeed, most of the yeshivos functioning in Eretz Yisrael today are either a direct result of his efforts or offshoots of his work. The Ponevezher Rav was a brilliant Talmudic scholar who was well-known as such prior to World War II, at a time in which Europe had no dearth of Torah giants. It was his fiery love of Torah and firm trust in Hashem which served as the foundation upon which he erected his yeshivah. He had no money, no financial support - only a dream, a vision which he sought to transform into reality.

He was asked by Horav Shlomo Lorincz, zl, a close confidante, how a person in his position, having lost his entire family, his community, all of the European Torah institutions, could exhibit such a degree of extraordinary creativity and acumen that would shame a man much younger than he. He explained, "The truth is, I am engulfed by dejection and despair; yet, this is precisely why I am involved in building… In my situation, there are just two options: either I roam around and break windows, or I build and I build without stopping!"

His tormented spirit was soothed by devoting himself to rebuilding the devastated yeshivos. He did not permit the empty feeling within him to fester and destroy him. Instead, he garnered his pain, harnessing it into a source of unparalleled creativity. There is insufficient space available to describe this Torah giant, but, for our purpose, I cite from a letter he sent to Eretz Yisrael in 1955:

"Upon one of Bnei Brak's beautiful inclines, there rises a huge building bearing the name of the Ponevezh Yeshivah. This great edifice was erected in the proximity of Rabbi Akiva and his colleagues without assistance from any official sources, without any allocations from the government, the Jewish Agency or political parties; rather, it was established in the merit of the holy Ponevezh Yeshivah in Heaven. This yeshivah was built through the merit and the pure spirits of holy and pure individuals, the many hundreds of roshei yeshivah and talmidim, students, of Ponevezh Yeshivah in Lithuania, who sanctified Hashem's Name throughout their lives, until their very last moments, when they returned their pure souls to their Creator. In their merit, Torah is being increased within its walls and hundreds of sons of Tzion, who are more precious than gold, study the Torah of our G-d, day and night. In their merit, our holy yeshivah is suspended between Heaven and earth, alive and well, aspiring to and achieving its one and only goal, spreading Torah among our holy people and elevating the prestige of Torah in Klal Yisrael…"

Everything about the founding, establishment and maintenance of the yeshivah was beyond the realm of reality. The founder was a physically ill person who stopped at nothing to build Torah. He had no funds, but he was considered a master fundraiser. He gave up his ability to be known as a gaon olam, prodigious Torah scholar, to become instead a Rosh Yeshivah, builder of Torah for thousands. As he himself once said, "I sacrificed the status of the Ponvezher Gaon for the sake of the Ponevezh Yeshivah."

Va'ani Tefillah

V'shinantam levanechah - teach them thoroughly to your children.

In an alternative interpretation of this pasuk, Chazal say, "Do not read, it v'shinantam, but, v'shilastem." V'shinantam would be derived from shnei/shnayim, two, while v'shilashtam is a derivative of shlishi, three. Chazal are teaching us that a teacher should personally study the subject matter three times. He must have himself learned it twice in order to absorb and retain the lesson. The third time is when he teaches it to the student. The word shinun, which means study, is derived from shnayim, two, or to repeat. The Talmud Eiruvin 54b compares the learning of something only one time to a hunter who has captured a bird and, although not rendering it unfit to fly away, expects it to stay with him. When one repeats his studies, he retains it; otherwise, it will "fly" away.

V'dibarta bam - and speak of them.

The Torah seems to be presenting us with two criteria for teaching Torah. Shanein/v'sheenantem means to teach the subject matter by means of terse, forceful and easy to-be-remembered statements. V'dibarta bam implies to talk of them, explain them, elucidate them. Horav S. R. Hirsch, zl, observes that, by combining these two approaches, we can readily discern the correct manner for disseminating Torah to our children/students. First, teach it in the form of brief, concise statements. Then, impress them upon this memory by more detailed comment and discussion. This means that they must be taught Torah She'B'Ksav and Torah She'Baal Peh.

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