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Peninim on the Torah

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Rabbi A. Leib Scheinbaum
Hebrew Academy of Cleveland


Pinchas… turned back My wrath from upon Bnei Yisrael… so I did not consume Bnei Yisrael in My vengeance. (25:11)

At the time that Pinchas jumped into the fray, striking down Zimri and his pagan partner and halting the plague that was destroying Klal Yisrael, the people had already sunk to the nadir of depravity. Lust, idol worship, and a complete lack of control reigned throughout the camp. Thousands were dying, with no end in sight, until Pinchas arrived on the scene and everything reverted to normalcy. Hashem was appeased, and the decree of grave punishment was arrested. It was not that this was a reward for Pinchas' act. Rather, Pinchas' act of zealousness catalyzed an awareness of the obligation of the Jews to Hashem, catalyzing them to do teshuvah and repent from their iniquity.

We wonder what about Pinchas' act convinced them to do teshuvah when the presence of all of the death surrounding them was unable to do so? When people are dying all around you, it makes sense that one begins to wonder, "Why is this happening?" This introspection should lead the individual to repentance, but, it did not occur this way. It was Pinchas' act that engendered this awareness. Why?

Horav Baruch Sorotzkin, zl, explains that when Klal Yisrael is absorbed in the spiritual filth of immorality, they cannot perceive the truth. It can be staring them right in the eyes and it will elude them. Even when a plague strikes them down, they will attribute it to everything but the truth. They will not see G-d's hand. Only after they see a man arise from their midst and risk his life for his convictions, demonstrate a willingness to die for Hashem, will they suddenly wake up and repent. Through the mirror of Pinchas' greatness, they were able to realize their own insignificance. When they saw the incredible and noble accomplishments of this one individual, they were able to realize their iniquity. Sometimes one individual's actions can transform a world. Pinchas had that privilege.

Of Shefufam, the Shefufamite family; of Chufam, the Chufamite family. (26:39)

This pasuk contains six words, each of which contain the letters "pay" and "mem." One word has the letter "pay" twice. The Sefer HaRokeach writes that the stone of Binyamin which was on the Eiphod was the yeshpah stone. The letters yeshpah, yud, shin, pay, hay, connote the words, yesh, peh; "There is a mouth, but he knows how to keep it sealed." In other words, Binyamin was blessed to have among the members of his extended family individuals who knew how to control what exits their mouths. They understood when to keep quiet. The following six people related to Binyamin each had a peh, mouth. Because they remained silent at critical junctures in their lives, they merited the status of malchus, monarchy (mem).

The six are: Rachel Imeinu, Binyamin's mother, who kept silent when she gave the simanim, signs, to her sister Leah. Also, when Lavan asked her about the terafim, idols, she did not answer. Binyamin did not reveal to Yaakov Avinu, his father, any information about the sale of Yosef. Shaul Hamelech, did not reveal to anyone that he was to become king. Michal, his daughter, did not tell her father that she had hidden David. Yehonasan, his son, did not tell Shaul that David went to the Plishtim. Mordechai and Esther did not reveal their Jewish lineage.

Likewise, we find that Hashem repaid Leah for seizing the opportunity to give hodaah, pay gratitude, to Hashem with the birth of Yehudah. In turn, Hashem blessed Klal Yisrael with progeny that were known for their ability to be modeh, confess, and pay gratitude. Yehudah came forward and took responsibility for Tamar. David Hamelech exclaimed, Hodu l'Hashem ki tov, "Give thanks to Hashem that He is good." Daniel also offered his profound thanks to Hashem.

Hashem compensates everyone for his good deeds. Regardless of the kindness, how great or how minute, the individual will somehow be recognized by Hashem. The following story, related by Horav Yitzchak Zilberstein, Shlita, demonstrates this idea.

An elderly woman who lived alone passed away in Tel Aviv. Because of the quiet life she led, very few people attended her funeral. About twenty people accompanied the coffin to its final resting place. There was one strange occurrence that stupefied all the attendees at the funeral. A large flock of birds seemed to accompany the cortege from the moment it left the home until it arrived at the cemetery. Wherever it went, this flock of birds flew along, very low in the sky. The people could not figure out why this was happening.

On the return trip, her son remembered that his mother had an interesting practice: She would never throw away bread. Whatever crumbs remained after a meal, she would put in a glass jar. The next day, she would feed the crumbs to the birds. In fact, it was a daily ritual at his mother's home. She would go outside with her jar, and all the birds flocked to her as she spread the crumbs on the ground. "I grew up with this image in my mind," said her son. "I guess the birds were sent to pay her back for her kindness."

Pinchas ben Elazar, ben Aharon HaKohen, turned back My wrath from upon Bnei Yisrael. When he zealously avenged Me among them. (25:11)

The term "war," by its very nature, conjures up images of evil and devastation. Peace is the relationship that seems to elude so many people, and nations. It is, therefore, difficult to understand that Pinchas' act of zealousness, his striking down a Nasi and his partner in a lewd act of defilement, should effect peace and halt a devastating plague. We are aware that Hashem dispenses reward and punishment on a middah k'neged middah, "measure for measure," basis. Pinchas basically declared war on the defilers. Why was a warlike act rewarded with eternal peace? Is this measure for measure? Are we to associate a kanai, zealot, with peace?

In an anthology of his lectures, compiled by Rabbi Boruch Leff, Horav Yaakov Weinberg, zl, teaches that wars are, at times, a necessary vehicle. Indeed, there is a notion of a "justified war." In Sefer Koheles 3:8, Shlomo Hamelech writes, "There is a time for war."

Pinchas' act of zealousness, his battle against the treachery of Zimri, his campaign against an incursion on morality, was not an act of war. It was an act of peace. Peace is not a passive refrain from war. Peace is a state of being in which a relationship is created, nurtured and solidified. It does not mean a state in which people stay away and do not bother one another. Peace is something two or more parties must work on. They must strive together to build a harmonious and unified relationship. Peace is a coexistence in which all parties complement one another. Those who simply do not fight with each other, but never speak to each other, are not necessarily at peace. They are not at war, but they may be relating to one another in a "passive-aggressive manner." Such a situation is a far cry from peace.

It is no different on the home front. A husband and wife who do not fight are not necessarily the paradigm of marital harmony. The fact that they do not yell at each other is not an indication that domestic tranquility reigns in their home. There must be a relationship in which both parties share in each other's successes, are sensitive to each other's pain, and strengthen each other when they are in need. Peace is an active force whereby the principals work at maintaining a harmonious relationship. Thus, any obstacle which might disturb this idyllic state must be immediately abrogated. This is where war is sometimes involved. At times, we must go to war in order to maintain peace. Pinchas' act of war, his zealous act of striking down a spiritual insurgent, was an act of peace. Through his violent act of war, he prevented the plague from spreading, bringing peace to Klal Yisrael.

We must sometimes take aggressive action in order to create a lasting peace. This does not mean that the end justifies the means. Rather, the means are in themselves an inherent component in achieving the end. It is necessary, and often the only way to accomplish the goal. One must remove the issues that cause tension and disrupt the harmony that can exist between people, if peace is to prevail and endure. This is not always possible to implement. You cannot deal non-violently with a terrorist or with one who is evil incarnate. Violence must be met aggressively; its source must be expunged in order for peace to exist.

In closing, we must realize that peaceful coexistence can be a reality only as long as all of the principals are willing to unify and live in harmony. Pacifism, however, cannot prevail if one or more of the parties create tension and urge discord. Then, they must be taken out of the playing field - by whatever means are available.

Harass the Midyanites and smite them. (25:17)

We cannot say that the enjoinment to harass the Midyanim was a call to war, because this did not occur until later in Parashas Matos when Klal Yisrael was instructed to "take vengeance for Bnei Yisrael from the Midyanites" (31:2). The Ohr HaChaim Hakadosh distinguishes between the sin of immorality and other sins in the Torah. While the other sins leave a negative effect on a person's soul, the sin of immorality leaves an indelible imprint on a person's nature. It catalyzes lust within a person, a burning desire for sin. It distorts his ability to think rationally, driving him to fall into the abyss of immorality to the point from which he cannot extricate himself.

Those original sinners who fell prey to the women of Midyan and Moav had already perished in the plague that followed their transgression. Although the remainder of Klal Yisrael was not involved in the actual sin, they were, nonetheless, influenced by it. They developed hirhurei aveirah, sinful, lustful thoughts. Their minds became tainted. These individuals needed something to extirpate this spiritual contamination from their minds. It was necessary to do something that would cleanse and purify their thoughts, so that they could maintain their status as a holy and spiritual nation.

This was the purpose of the original command to harass the Midyanites. Human nature dictates that when a nation is at war with another nation, discord reigns and enmity is a natural consequence. The hatred permeates his entire being to the point that he wants nothing to do with his adversary at all. This contentious state is the byproduct of two nations that are in a state of war.

This was the purpose of the directive to harass the Midyanites. It was not a one-time command, but, rather, a steady, constant command to vilify everything for which the Midyanites stood. They represented the evil of immorality. It was necessary for the Jewish nation to harass them, so that the evil that they implanted in the Jewish psyche would be abolished.

We derive an important lesson from this thesis. It is not enough to simply distance ourselves from the opportunity to commit certain transgressions. With regard to immorality, which is probably a term we would use to describe contemporary society, it is essential that one develop a disdain and even an abhorrence for it. So many of the spiritual ills from which we and our children suffer can be linked to a society in which immorality is not only acceptable, but has become a way of life. This spiritual filth taints the mind and soul of our community unless we learn to view it for what it really is.

The eighth day shall be a restriction for you. (29:35)

During the entire festival of Succos, seventy bulls were offered on behalf of the seventy gentile nations, to protect them from affliction. Indeed, Chazal teach us that if the nations of the world would realize how much they benefited from these sacrifices, they would have sent their armies to surround Yerushalayim and guard it from attack. After the Yom Tov, when people who made their pilgrimage to the Bais Hamikdash were prepared to return to their homes, Hashem said to Klal Yisrael, Kasheh alai peridaschem, "It is difficult for Me your separation. Make a small banquet for Me, so that I can enjoy your company (exclusively)." So, too, following the offerings on behalf of the nations, Hashem longs for the company of His own nation. This is the significance of Shemini Atzeres.

Horav Yitzchak, zl, m'Boyan suggests an insightful homiletic approach towards the statement of Kasheh alai peridaschem. In the Talmud Sota 2a, Chazal say that Kasheh zivugo shel adam k'Krias Yam Suf, "It is as difficult to pair them (husband and wife) as the splitting of the Red Sea." Likewise, it says in the Talmud Pesachim 118a, Kasheh mezonosav shel adam k'Krias Yam Suf, "Providing man's sustenance is as difficult as the splitting of the Red Sea." How are we to understand these statements? Is there anything that is "difficult" for Hashem to execute?

The simple pshat, explanation, is that the word kasheh, difficult, is a metaphor to emphasize the significance and distinction of these two miracles. One should not think that finding a mate or earning a living are simple projects. They are both miracles of epic proportions of the caliber of Krias Yam Suf. The Boyaner Rebbe offers a different understanding of these statements. He explains that all of these statements are connected. Hashem is saying to Klal Yisrael: Kasheh Alai, "Concerning these" two phenomena (marriage and livelihood), about which I say that they are 'difficult' for Me, it is due to peridaschem, the fact that there exists within your ranks a pirud, separation. The discord that reigns among My People renders it difficult for Me to bless them with marriage and livelihood. When achdus, unity, prevails in Klal Yisrael, no difficulty stands in the way. When people think only of themselves, they create a situation in which Hashem finds it problematic to provide for them.

The success or failure of these two endeavors is based largely upon interrelationships. One who seeks to be successful in an area that demands tolerance, flexibility, and compromise must himself be an individual who gets along well with others. How can we turn to Hashem for Siyata Dishmaya, Divine assistance, in these areas, if we are not deserving of it? In other words, nothing is difficult for Hashem. We create the difficulty.

Va'ani Tefillah

Ketores - Incense

The Ketores, if used properly, can be therapeutic, saving one from plague. Chazal teach us that Ketores haysah maashirah, the Ketores service catalyzed great wealth for he (the Kohen) who performed it. This is why the service was granted to a Kohen only once during his tenure. One time was sufficient. On the other hand, if the Ketores is not performed properly, with attention paid to every detail, the consequences can be devastating. The powerful treasure that exists in the Ketores is cited by the Rema in Shulchan Aruch 132 who says, "One should recite the Ketores service from the written word and not by memory." Recital takes the place of the actual service. There is always the fear that one may miss one of the ingredients and, consequently, incur the punishment of death. Indeed, there are those who recite the Parshah of Ketores three times daily, twice during Shacharis and once during Minchah.

The Mabit suggests a remez, allusion, to be noted concerning the Ketores and its powers to protect one from death. The chelbenah, which is foul-smelling, is overwhelmed by the sweet odor of the other ten spices. Likewise, the Malach Ha'maves, Angel of Death, who is compared to the chelbenah, will be vanquished by the kedushah of Klal Yisrael when Klal Yisrael repent and turn back to Hashem.

Peninim on the Torah is in its 14th year of publication. The first nine years have been published in book form.

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