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Peninim on the Torah

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Rabbi A. Leib Scheinbaum
Hebrew Academy of Cleveland


You shall smite the inhabitants of that city with the edge of the sword…And He will give you mercy and be merciful to you. (13:16, 18)

The last thing the Torah wants is for a Jew to be violent and cruel - especially to one of his own. Yet, we find regarding the Ir Ha'nidachas, wayward city that went astray and worshipped idols, that we are emphatically enjoined to destroy with malice every inhabitant, to burn its possessions, and never to rebuild that city. Certainly, just as positive, virtuous deeds enhance a person's character, negative, vicious behavior turns a person into a savage. The Torah is concerned about the effect some of its commands might have on the Jewish psyche. It, therefore, supplements the mitzvah of destroying the idolatrous city with the assurance that Hashem will have compassion on us. After executing such a difficult command, we need Hashem's compassion. We implore Him to look kindly at us. That is the pshat, simple explanation, of the pasuk. The Ohr HaChaim goes a step further, presenting a penetrating analysis of the human psyche. He explains that the act of killing an entire community can catalyze a natural inclination within a person towards cruelty. Did we not see this with the heartless Nazis, who insisted that they were only "carrying out orders"? The heinous cruelty which they exhibited went far beyond "carrying out orders." The Ohr HaChaim submits that when a person carries out a violent act against another human being, his natural proclivity towards compassion becomes abrogated, his feelings of warmth become cooled. Cruel activity makes a person cruel. Hashem will inspire us with a sense of humaneness and compassion in order to protect us from the effect of carrying out our mission.

By his very nature, the Jew is a rachaman, a benevolent and sympathetic person. It is one of the character traits by which a Jew is recognized and defined. For a Jew, cruelty is an anathema. There are times, however, Hashem demands of us to carry out acts that seem cruel to the external human eye. It is, however, Hashem's command - one that must be executed with commitment and devotion, with the understanding that Hashem does not ask us to do something which is actually cruel or wrong. Yet, it might have a harmful side-effect on our human nature. We are assured that if we act l'shem Shomayim, to fulfill Hashem's Will, He will protect us from any effect that is contradictory to our nature.

The raah. (14:13)

Among the unclean/unkosher fowl is a bird known to us as the raah. Its name, raah, is a derivative of the word, raoh, to see. Chazal indicate this when they ask, "Why is its name raah?" They respond that this bird has incredible powers, in that it can see very far into the distance. It is able to stand in Bavel/Babylon and see neveilos, carcasses, in Eretz Yisrael. This is striking! A bird has the power to see so far, and it is included among the unclean fowl. Why? One would think that a bird which possesses such uncanny eyesight would be venerated - not deemed unkosher. Is there something wrong with being able to see where no one else can see?

The Baalei Mussar, ethicists, say that there is truly something deficient about a bird that has such incredible eyesight, but can only see the dead carcasses. Sure - it can see, but look at what it sees - only the dead, the unclean, the unkosher. This is analogous to one who sees only the bad in a person - never noticing the positive aspects of one's personality and behavior. Let us ask, however, is it such a terrible character trait if one is shortsighted or if one's eyesight is deficient so that he is only able to see the bad and not the good?

Perhaps, if this would be the case, if one's eyesight were defective, then he could not be held responsible for his inability to see the positive. We suggest, however, that he whose eyesight is limited -- indeed, personally limits his eyesight-- cannot see because he does not want to see. He refuses to face the truth; he only seeks the negative, the evil, the unclean. He is a small person who cannot tolerate anything positive about a peer. He feels threatened due to his insecurity. He perceives a positive aspect in his fellow's personality as a negative aspect of his own character. Perhaps he is right.

You shall surely give him. (15:8)

One wonders, after all that has been expounded about the merit of tzedakah, charity, why there are some individuals who will not contribute. They either avoid the opportunity to share with those in need, manipulating people and organizations by using their financial power, or play G-d in determining who deserves a portion of their wealth. Perhaps this opening statement is a bit too strong. After perusing Chazal's statement in the Talmud Bava Basra 10a, however, it might not seem strong enough.

Rabbi Yehudah bar Ilai emphasized the power and significance of tzedakah with the following analogy: Ten strong things have been created in the world. The rock is hard, but the iron can split it. Iron is hard, but fire softens it. Fire is strong, but water quenches it. Water is strong, but clouds bear it. Clouds are strong, but the wind disperses them. Wind is strong, but the body bears it. The body is strong, but fear crushes it. Fear is strong, but wine banishes it. Wine is strong, but sleep makes one sober. Strongest of all of these is death. Charity, however, saves one from death, as Shlomo haMelech says in Sefer Mishlei 10:2, "Tzedakah tatzil mimaves," "Charity saves one from death."

Let us for a moment analyze Chazal's words: To say that charity is stronger than any of the aforementioned is to submit that it also encompasses and supercedes their individual strengths. This is a powerful statement. The merit of giving charity cannot be splintered. It remains strong and inextinguishable. It cannot be diluted or crushed. It remains with a person beyond the grave. It is his ticket, his entrance to the World to Come. It never leaves us. It is perplexing that people act so irresponsibly and disgracefully when it comes to the mitzvah of tzedakah. We have so much to gain; yet, we literally blow it away with our egos.

I recently read a noteworthy story which I feel has profound meaning, especially in light of the above. The story is about a doctor who had devoted his life to sharing his skills with the poor and under-privileged. He never charged his patients. They paid what they could, which was very little. He lived in a small apartment above a liquor store in the poor section of the city. In front of the liquor store was a sign that read: Dr. Williams is upstairs.

No one lives forever, and Dr. Williams followed the path of all men. When he died, he had no relatives and left no funds for his burial. What were the people of the town to do? Friends and patients gathered together and made an appeal for a gravesite for their dear friend and benefactor. They scraped together enough money for a tombstone. How could they not have a marker for their friend? It appeared that his grave would go unmarked until someone suggested a brilliant idea. They took the sign from in front of the liquor store and nailed it to a post over his grave. It made a fitting epitaph for the good doctor: Dr. Williams is upstairs.

His good deeds, his acts of charity earned him access to "upstairs." No one lives forever, but charity can play a pivotal role in determining where the neshamah, soul, will go. Will it go "upstairs" or not? Perhaps the next time we decide to use our wealth to play games with people's lives or manipulate organizations and schools to fit our needs, we will think of the simple -- but good -- Dr. Williams and his "place" in the scheme of things.

And you will look malevolently upon your destitute brother and refuse to give him - then he may appeal against you to Hashem, and it will be a sin upon you. (15:9)

The Dubno Maggid, zl, explains that this pasuk is based upon the Mishnah in Avos , "He who does not give and repudiates others who give is a rasha, evil." Is this not a bit extreme? It is one thing if one does not personally share with others, but what kind of individual prevents others from giving? We understand that miser refuses to give because he is miserly. When he is questioned about his lack of participation in charitable drives, his response is simple: he does not want to; he cares too much about his money. He refuses to part with it. He might be cheap, but at least he is truthful. There is another type of miser: one who is truly a disgrace to society. When he is questioned regarding his miserly attitude towards helping others, he quickly responds by defaming the one in need, degrading the organization or its administrators. He is not satisfied with merely being stingy; he must justify his penurious attitude by besmirching those in need. Such a person is contemptible.

While neither miser contributes to the poor man in question, a difference remains between them. The miser who refuses to give because he is simply stingy does not by his selfishness prevent others from giving the poor man his due. Conversely, the one who violates his tightfistedness by maligning the individual who begs for assistance is also causing others to suppress their support of the individual or the institution. This is the meaning of "he should not give and others should not give." He directly influences others not to give.

We now understand the underlying meaning of our pasuk, "If you will look bad upon your brother," meaning that you will make him look bad in your eyes. This includes: saying to others that he is not deserving of their support, that he really is not poor, that he squanders his money, or that he is not "worthy"( a word used to destroy many a Jewish life). If you do so, you will carry an enormous sin. It is noteworthy that stinginess can catalyze a sin that will ultimately destroy another human being. This stingy individual clearly does not care about another person's feelings. His wealth has generated within him a myopia which prevents him from seeing beyond himself.

Three times a year shall all your males appear before Hashem your G-d. (16:16)

In the Talmud Chagiga 2a, Chazal explain that a Jew must travel to the Bais Hamikdash to visit the Shechinah and to appear before it. Just as the Shechinah views a person through a total perspective, (i.e. with "both eyes") so, too, shall the Jew view Hashem with both eyes -- or with a total perspective. This idea is derived from the halachah that the mitzvah of "Reiyah," the pilgrimage a Jew must make to Yerushalayim to be seen and to see, is incumbent only upon one who has complete eyesight. One who is blind even in one eye is exempt from the mitzvah.

Horav Mordechai Rogov, zl, elaborates upon the halachah from a homiletic view. Regrettably, some individuals view Torah and mitzvos from a limited perspective, with only one eye. They maintain their "other eye" to view Torah from a viewpoint that is antithetical -- and certainly not conducive-- to a Torah way of life. These people publicly practice mitzvos, but they have questions in their hearts. They foster a desire to indulge in activities that are not consistent with Torah dictate. Hashem desires and expects total commitment from us, a devotion that is internally synchronized with our external behavior. It is easy to put on a show. Indeed, there are those who feel that religious observance is primarily a "show." They manifest all the trappings of observance, but without the inner commitment.

There are others, conversely, who feel that a strong, heartfelt dedication is all that is demanded of a Jew. Active religious involvement is, in their minds, archaic. They are both wrong. Judaism is proactive - not spectator-oriented. It demands commitment and action - seeing Hashem with both eyes. Just as Hashem views us with both eyes, so too, must we appear before Him with both eyes focused upon a Torah lifestyle - exclusively.

Questions & Answers

1) A. How many years after they entered the Land did Klal Yisrael erect the Mishkan in Shiloh? B. During this time, were they permitted to use Bamos, private altars, for their sacrifices?

2) In the midbar, what did a person do if he wanted to eat meat?

3) A. How many times does the Torah repeat the prohibition against eating blood? B. What is derived from this?

4) Which city in Eretz Yisrael cannot become an Ir Hanidachas?

5) May a Korban Olah be purchased with Maaser money?

6) A. The Torah lists ____ categories of people that a Jew should include in his own joy. B. How are they divided?


1) Fourteen B. Yes

2) He brought a Korban Shelamim, peace offering.

3) A. Four B. They refer to the three types of blood. a) dam ha'nefesh, the blood that gushes from the incision when the animal dies, b) dam ha'tamtzis, the blood that seeps slowly from the incision, c) dam ha'nivlah b'eivarim, blood that is absorbed in the limbs of the animal (Rashi).

4) Yerushalayim. It was not designated to be primarily for dwelling. It was meant to belong to all the tribes.

5) No.

6) A. Eight. B. Levi, ger, orphan and widow - son, daughter, slave and maidservant. B. Four of them are poor and four of them are members of one's own family. Hashem tells us, "Your four correspond to My four. If you will gladden those of "Mine" who are in need, I will gladden yours."

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Peninim on the Torah is in its 11th year of publication. The first seven years have been published in book form.

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