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Peninim on the Torah

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Rabbi A. Leib Scheinbaum
Hebrew Academy of Cleveland


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

The Torah declares Pinchas' praise in response to his mesiras nefesh, willingness to sacrifice his life. Despite the clear and present danger manifest by Zimri's relatives, Pinchas put his life on the line for Hashem. The reward that he received for his act of mesiras nefesh was the Kehunah, Priesthood, for himself and his descendants to follow after him. According to the Kli Yakar, Pinchas' reward of Kehunah was catalyzed by his mesiras nefesh. This indicates that the reward for an act of self-sacrifice is one in which the individual, and his progeny to follow, all benefit. The logic behind this is simple. If one were to die as a result of his mesiras nefesh, that would leave a void. He would no longer have any children to teach, to raise in the Torah way. Nevertheless, this person had come forward, risking everything out of his sense of conviction. The reward is, thus, commensurate with his sacrifice. Since he had been prepared to give up everything - his entire future - for Hashem, he was rewarded with a bright future, in which his future children will also benefit.

Avraham Avinu taught us mesiras nefesh when he was prepared to die in the fiery cauldron. He infused the attribute of self-sacrifice in his future descendants, a virtue that is part and parcel of the Jewish psyche. Horav Nosson Wachtfogel, zl, asserts that the foundation upon which the Jewish nation is built is mesiras nefesh. Avraham had not yet experienced any Divine Revelation. Yet, he went forward with his belief in the Supreme Creator Who is to be served.

There is a family living in Herzlia that originated in Georgia in the old Soviet Union. This family has had the good fortune of experiencing incredible nachas, satisfaction, from its children. Their sons are prominent talmidei chachamim, Torah scholars, and their daughters are married to distinguished scholars, who have assumed positions of leadership in their respective communities. How did they "luck out"? What was their merit to receive such reward? Their grandfather lived in Georgia during the earlier part of the century, at a time when the Russians had no qualms about demonstrating their virulent anti-Semitism. They focused on mikvah, and they did everything in their power to impede this ritual observance, knowing fully well that it would cause a disruption in family life.

One day, the government decided to visit the city's only mikvah to determine its cleanliness and to decide if it should be closed down as a result of being a "health hazard." Clearly, their intention was to halt the mikvah's usage, because, as we all know, there were no filters then and the mikvaos, at best, were not up to standard in cleanliness. When the officials entered the mikvah room and saw how filthy the mikvah was, they immediately declared it off limits and closed it down. It was at this time that this family's grandfather, who was guiding the officials, seized a bucket, filled it with the mikvah water and proceeded to drink the entire bucket! "How can you say this mikvah is not up to standard? I just drank a bucket of water, and the taste is exceptional!"

This was mesiras nefesh at its zenith. To drink the water and stand up to the anti-Semitic officials took courage and fortitude borne from fearlessness and devotion to Hashem. The merit of this outstanding self-sacrifice engendered a family that was a source of pride and joy to the grandfather long after he left this world.

Horav Shraga Feivel Mendlowitz, zl, the architect of Torah in America, commented, "In every generation there is a special avodah, form of service, to the Almighty which must be perfected. In our generation, it is mesiras nefesh."

Horav Shimon Schwab, zl, notes that in every generation in which mesiras nefesh was prevalent, the koach ha'tumah, force of ritual uncleanliness, that permeated society and gave strength and power to those who would undermine Torah was greatly impeded. Hence, during the period of the second Bais Hamikdash, there were no neviei sheker, false prophets, as there had been during the period of the previous Bais Hamikdash. The reason for this is that during the period of the second Bais Hamikdash, individuals such as Daniel, Chananyah, Mishael and Azaryah, refused to bow down to Nevuchadnetzar's idol and were willing to risk their lives for their beliefs. Furthermore, because of the preparedness of thousands of our brethren to sacrifice themselves for Hashem, the power and stranglehold that mazikin, various spiritual forces, and sheidim, demons, had over the people were abrogated. The power of the sitra achara, forces of impurity, was stunted. In every generation following an increase in mesiras nefesh, the power of Torah has reigned supreme. As we note, the glorious period of Torah that was ushered in with the Baalei Tosfos and Rishonim, followed immediately after the Crusades. When we demonstrate our willingness to sacrifice ourselves for the Torah, we indicate the esteem and value which we attribute to it, so that Hashem repays us in kind.

Take to yourself Yehoshua bin Nun, a man in whom there is spirit. (27:18)

When Moshe Rabbeinu saw that Tzlafchad's portion in Eretz Yisrael had been transferred to his daughters, he hoped that the same would apply to his sons, whereby they would inherit the leadership of the nation from him. There is no doubt that Moshe placed the concerns of the people above those of his personal issues. He just thought that his sons would be suitable leaders. Hashem responded in the negative and said, "Your sons sat by themselves and were not involved in Torah. Yehoshua, on the other hand, served you and prepared the house of Torah study by spreading the mats for everyone and cleaning up at night." Horav Sholom Y. Elyashiv, Shlita, explains that, without question, Moshe's sons had achieved a high level of scholarship, and they certainly did not sit around doing nothing all day. They studied and were highly proficient. It is just that they studied alone. They did not study together with others. Yehoshua, however, spent time with others; first, by preparing the mats upon which they would sit. He would then be involved in teaching and discourse. Last, he cleaned up the Bais Hamedrash at the end of the day. This demonstrated his total commitment to Torah study - and its dissemination to others.

The Mishnah in Pirkei Avos 3:5 comments: "One who stays awake at night and one who goes on his way alone and one who turns his head to idleness, sin against their souls." Rav Elyashiv renders this Mishnah homiletically. There are individuals within the community, who see that members of their community are asleep, captivated by the darkness, ensnared by the night created by a base society. Such an individual is awake during this darkness, and he ignores his responsibility to arouse the others from their slumber. He is acutely aware of his obligation to overcome the darkness and not fall asleep. He is successful with regard to himself, but what about the others? He, regrettably, stands alone. Furthermore, he is "one who walks by himself," who has determined for himself the proper and correct path upon which to tread. He has the right "derech," but he is alone - walking alone and not helping others onto the same path. Does he not care that others are stumbling along on the wrong derech?

He might also be one "who turns his head to idleness." He claims that reaching out to others is a waste of time. He will not succeed. They do not care, so why should he bother? This person is mischayeiv b'nafsho, "sins against his (own) soul," for he is not secure that he will continue on the correct path - alone. He has an obligation which he has reneged.

David Hamelech says in Tehillim 26:11, "As for me, I will walk in my perfect innocence, redeem me and show me favor." If I will walk in perfect innocence, thinking only of myself, without having anything to do with anyone else, then I will constantly be in need of Your redemption and favor. However, David continues, "my foot is set on the straight path - (if) in assemblies I will bless Hashem." Rav Elyashiv sees David Hamelech's words as an inspiration and motivation towards reaching out to our less observant brethren, to those who are lost and have wandered off the correct path.

Last, Rav Elyashiv cites an intriguing Mesorah which he explains along the same lines. The word es'haleich, "I shall walk," is mentioned three times in Sefer Tehillim. In Tehillim 116:9, David says, "I shall walk before Hashem in the lands of the living." In Tehillim 43:2, he asks, "Why must I walk in gloom because of the foe's oppression?" Last, in Tehillim 101:2, he says, "I walk constantly with innocence of heart in my house." What is the relationship between these parallel terms?

David declares his aspiration to make the world an eretz ha'chaim, a "land of the living." Yet, he sees that regardless of his desire to create a utopian environment, he is plagued by "gloom and the foe's oppression." What is the cause of this gloom, this oppression, this lack of success in making the land a "land of the living"? It is because "I walk constantly with innocence of heart in my house" - alone. Because he does not go out of his house to interact with others who need him, he is unsuccessful in enriching the spiritual lives of those who could benefit from his care; he is, instead, confronted with gloom. Success in life is measured by how much we do for others - not by what we do for ourselves.

Take to yourself Yehoshua bin Nun, a man in whom there is spirit. (27:18)

Rashi defines "spirit" as a reference to the spirit of G-d, so that the potential leader will know how to treat each person according to his own spirit. The various commentators continue along the same lines in explaining ish asher ruach bo. Horav Yitzchak Zilberstein, Shlita, elaborates on the depth of character that exemplifies a Torah leader. Human nature dictates that when we hear about a person from afar, someone with whom we have not yet come in contact, we are greatly impressed by his achievements, personality and character. As we get closer to him, either by meeting people that know him intimately or by coming in contact with the subject himself, we develop a totally different perspective on the person. As we interact with him on an almost daily basis, we notice a different person, one that is quite different from the one about whom we "heard" from a distance. This is a natural occurrence. After all, do not one's neighbors know more about an individual than others who do not live in his proximity?

It is completely different with regard to a Torah leader. Indeed, as we get closer to him, our perspective on his eminence and distinction becomes more acute. We see that he is even greater than we had thought! His neighbors and confidantes reveal his virtues in a manner that we did not imagine. As we get closer to him, he seems that much greater.

The reason for this disparity is that the average person attempts to conceal his deficiencies, while the Torah leader conceals his virtues. Therefore, as one moves closer to the gadol, he becomes aware of greater virtue and rectitude. The opposite is true regarding the average person. As we become more knowledgeable of him, we discover what it is about himself that he has been hiding.

This also explains why when the gadol is alive among us, when we are able to hear his lectures and talks, to receive his guidance and inspiration, that we do not realize how fortunate we are. It is only after he is taken from our midst, when the source of this blessing is no longer walking and breathing among us, that we come to realize what it is that we had. We try to stretch out our hand, to perceive his greatness, to sustain something from the past, and we realize how lost we are, what kind of treasure we have lost. How important it is for us to value what we have - while we have it among us.

He (Moshe) took Yehoshua… He leaned his hands upon him and commanded him, as Hashem had spoken through Moshe. (27:22,23)

The Torah recounts the changing of the guard as Moshe Rabbeinu transferred the leadership of Klal Yisrael to his talmid muvhak, primary disciple, Yehoshua. This transmission of leadership's detailed in the first Mishnah in Pirkei Avos, Moshe kibail Torah mi'Sinai, u'mesorah l'Yehoshua, "Moshe accepted the Torah from Sinai and gave it over to Yehoshua." We would assume that Yehoshua merited becoming Moshe's successor because of his erudition, his depth of understanding of the profundities of the Torah, his proficiency in acquiring the vast storehouse of wisdom that is to be found in the Torah. The greater one's aptitude and expertise in Torah, the more prone he is to fill a leadership position in Klal Yisrael. Why is this? What is there about Torah scholarship that renders one suitable for leadership?

Horav Simchah Wasserman, zl, cites his father, Horav Elchanan Wasserman, zl, who explains this. The Torah is referred to as tushiah, counsel, because it is the only valid source of advice and counsel for the Jewish People. An individual does not necessarily know what is the best approach for him to take, or from which endeavor he will benefit most. He does not know, but the Torah does. There is no question concerning Jewish life, both general and particular, communal and individual, which does not have its appropriate answer in the Torah. There is nothing that is not alluded to in the Torah. One only has to search, to know where to look and how to interpret what he has discovered.

Anyone who has had the privilege of receiving counsel from gedolei Torah is cogently aware of their remarkable and penetrating insight into all areas of human endeavor. This applies to both Torah and secular issues, be they of a scientific/medical nature or in areas of commerce. There is a special gift granted to them, a gift of daas Torah, the wisdom that is derived from delving into the profundities of Torah. Just as the Torah is ultimately a gift to those who study it sincerely and diligently, so, too, is the wisdom that is inherent in it. As they absorb its eternal knowledge, they become suffused by its eternal wisdom.

In his Sefer Darkei Mussar, Horav Yaakov Neiman, zl, relates the following episode that occurred concerning the Alter, zl, m'Kelm. A businessman came to the Alter seeking his advice concerning a business opportunity that had presented itself. He was able to purchase a large tract of land. The problem was, however, that Jews in Russia were not permitted to purchase property under their own names. Apparently, he was friendly with an honest landowner, whom he felt he could trust, who was willing to purchase the property under his name and transfer it over to the Jew. While there was always a risk, the Jew felt that this landowner was not only a paragon of integrity, he was his friend, and could, therefore, rely on him to follow through. His question was whether he should trust his gut instinct or did the Alter have other advice to offer?

The Alter replied, "Every question has its solution in the Torah. One must know how and where to look. Let us take a Chumash and see what the holy Torah teaches us." It happened to be Parashas Chayei Sarah, and the Alter said, "Let us peruse the parsha." After a few moments the Alter said, "Interesting. Eliezer was Avraham Avinu's trusted servant. Yet, our Patriarch did not trust him to carry out his mission until he made him take an oath. The commentators question this. After all, if Avraham did not trust Eliezer, why did he not go himself? They reply that for a number of reasons Avraham could not personally go. He, therefore, relied on Eliezer because he had no other alternative. This teaches us that when it involves a primary issue that directly concerns one's life, we do not trust anyone else, unless we have no other recourse. This applies even with regard to Eliezer, the servant of Avraham." The end of the story was that the man did not accede to the Alter's advice. He trusted his gentile friend, who proceeded to deny that he had purchased the land for the Jew. Our friend, who did not listen to daas Torah, went bankrupt.

We still must determine which specific traits of Yehoshua elevated him above the 600,000 Jews in the wilderness. Certainly, they also studied the Torah diligently. Undoubtedly, there were many whose level of erudition paralleled that of Yehoshua. What was unique about him? The Baalei Mussar, Ethicists, explain that it was not Moshe that chose to transmit the Torah to Yehoshua. Rather, it was Yehoshua who selected Moshe as his rebbe and did not leave his side. He devoted every aspect and fiber of his being to being the perfect disciple. He chose a rebbe, and he remained deeply committed to him. He never left Moshe's side. He, therefore, became worthy of studying from Moshe and eventually becoming his successor. What an incredible lesson for us all. It is the talmid, student, who has to make the move. He must select and establish a relationship with the rebbe, so that he becomes worthy of becoming a talmid.

Va'ani Tefillah

Baruch omeir v'oseh. Blessed is He Who speaks and (thereby) does.

Hashem's word created the world from nothingness. Nothing in this world possesses any intrinsic existence except for Hashem. His Will, as expressed by His word at the time of Creation, continues at this very moment through His ongoing desire to maintain the existence of all matters. Hashem does not merely speak and then do. His word is a reality because it becomes true. In a deeper explanation of the terms omeir v'oseh, Horav Yeruchem Levovitz, zl, distinguishes between a human being's manner and ability to follow through on his commitment, to keep his word, and that of Hashem. A person commits and attempts to carry out his word as soon as possible to demonstrate his trustworthiness. Hashem does not merely "follow through." His word is absolute truth. Hence, the utterance constitutes action. There is no "distinction" between speaking and doing. It is one entity David HaMelech says in Tehillim 33:9. "For He spoke and it came to be." His speech catalyzed immediate realization. Rav Yeruchem goes on to explain that tzaddikim, the righteous, "say little and do much." This means that they act immediately. Veritably, speaking is, for all intents and purposes, contraindicated. After all, what is accomplished by speaking? If one is going to act - then he should act. If he is not prepared to act, so what will speaking accomplish? The righteous attempt to emulate Hashem by acting - not simply speaking and then acting.

The Chofetz Chaim, zl, exemplified this trait. The words "speak" and "say" did not appear in his lexicon. It was "do" and "purpose." He never said, "I will do." He did. When he would be asked to write a letter of some sort, he would immediately begin writing. To him, speaking was an exercise in futility.

Moshe Shimon and Tibor Rosenberg
in memory of their father

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