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Peninim on the Torah

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Rabbi A. Leib Scheinbaum
Hebrew Academy of Cleveland


And you shall serve Him and cleave to Him. (13:5)

"How does one 'cleave' to Hashem," ask Chazal in the Talmud Sotah 14a, "when He is described as an eish ochlah, consuming fire?" (Devarim 4:24) Chazal answer that the Torah enjoins us to cleave to Hashem's way. Mah hu - af atah. Just as He supplies clothes for the unclothed, visits the sick, comforts mourners and buries the dead, so should you do the same. I wonder. It should be easy - especially if doing so is considered following in the footsteps of the Almighty. We do not, however, see people lining up to clothe the needy, visit the ill and infirm, bury the dead and comfort those who are left behind? No! It is not easy. It is not geshmak, pleasant. Very little kavod, honor, accompanies these tasks. It is not pleasant going to a nursing home. It is not pleasant going to a hospital. It is surely not pleasant preparing the dead for burial. It is difficult to find the right words to comfort a mourner. There are no plaques given out to acknowledge these acts of kindness. I guess that is why Hashem does it. Those few who do not need their lives to be pleasant at all times follow in His footsteps. The rest of us wait for the plaques.

Having said that, I was thinking about what motivation could prompt those who really want to act kindly to be able to overcome the discomfort. The Jewish community is blessed with a host of well-meaning organizations that perform all sorts of kindness for the unfortunate. The same people are always involved. Can we change this unfortunate reality?

I recently read about a gentleman who, although he was a successful businessman, gave up literally every minute of his spare time to assist in building the Sephardic Bikur Cholim in New York. He wrote in his diary shortly before his untimely passing what it was that inspired him to become so involved: "I went on a Bikur Cholim visit last week. The lady had cancer. Her husband could not handle it and had left her. One of her children was autistic. While I sat with her and talked, she held her autistic son in her loving arms and described her nightmare of a life to me. While she was talking, her healthy three-year-old daughter began to cry. 'Why was she crying?' I asked myself. 'Was it because her mommy was spending so much time with her brother? Was it because she knew that mommy was sick and might one day die? Was it because she missed her daddy who ran off one day - never to return? Or was she simply hungry or tired?' I did not know why she was crying, but I did know one thing for sure - her mother could not help her. She had more than her hands full. I tried to calm down the little girl and tell her, 'It will be all right.' I was lying. That night as I lay down in bed, I could not sleep. The little three-year-old girl's crying kept me awake. My mind just would not let go of her.

"I could not help hearing her cries. I knew then that I had to do something to alleviate those cries. I could not let her cry forever. As I write these sentences, I am crying. I am not sure if I am crying with her or for her, but, I cannot stop hearing the cries."

So wrote Joseph Beyda. We must listen to the cries. Of course, it is not pleasant to go where the cries are overwhelming, where the pain is constant and debilitating. If we allow ourselves to hear the cries, we will eventually become the people we could be - the people Hashem wants us to be. After all, He wants us to cleave to Him, to follow in His ways. He always hears the cries.

It is the great people who are involved in acts of kindness. Perhaps it is the acts of kindness that make them great. Horav Yosef Chaim Sonnenfeld, zl, was exemplary in the application of the principle of mah Hu af atah to his own life. His acts of kindness were legendary. He did not merely delegate others to act; he personally participated in all areas of assistance to others. Already in his younger years he had become a gabbai, official, of the Chevra Kadisha, sacred burial society. Before long, he became the yosheiv rosh, head, of the chevra. In his position, he fought energetically and faithfully to see to it that the burial traditions of the Yerushalayim community were upheld. Although he was the head of the chevra, he did not see this office as a ceremonial position of honor or prestige. He continued to personally participate in the taharah, purification, and burial of the deceased. Mah Hu af atah.

There was one area in which Rav Yosef Chaim exemplified: visiting and giving solace to the terminally ill. In one of the small, vaulted alleyways of the Old City, there was a hospice for the terminally ill. Medicine in those days was not what it is today. The miserable, emaciated patients - who were relegated to a living purgatory on this world - had no reprieve from their unrelenting pain and depression. Even their relatives found visits to this institution too much to bear. To observe a loved one in overwhelming pain and suffering can be a devastating experience. The only ray of sunshine these pitiful souls could look forward to was a visit from Rav Yosef Chaim. He made it his business to frequent the hospice regularly and to sit by the bedside of each patient, providing much-needed words of comfort and encouragement. He found the time; he found the strength; he found the right words, because he was following in Hashem's footsteps.

But this you shall not eat from among those that bring up their cud or have a completely separated hoof…(14:7)

The criteria for identifying the kosher animal is repeated once again in Parashas Re'eh, thus emphasizing the significance of kashrus. Two identifying characteristics of kosher animals are mentioned: they chew their cud; and they have completely split hooves. In the entire creation, just four animals have only one kosher sign. The overwhelming majority have neither sign. Only the One Who created these animals can make such an undisputed statement. As the Alter, zl, m'Kelm notes, this attests to the Divine authorship of the Torah. No human author would publicly make a claim that could be refuted. Yet, there are those who are still foolish enough to claim that Moshe Rabbeinu was not merely the lawgiver - he was the lawmaker.

Interestingly, in citing these animals, the Torah mentions the kosher sign first, then mentions that they lack the second sign. If they are indeed not kosher because they lack the second kosher sign, should that not be emphasized first? The Kli Yakar explains that the presence of their kosher sign adds an insidious element to their non-kosher status. He cites the Midrash that compares Edom/Eisav to a pig which presents its cloven hooves in an attempt to delude people into thinking that it is kosher. In reality, the fact that it does not chew its cud is the reason it is declared not kosher. It puts on a good show, presenting itself as kosher. In truth, it is all a sham - just like those chameleons who attempt to deceive people with their acts of piety while concealing their inner evil. This, in essence, makes them much worse than those who have no shame and publicly manifest their sinful behavior.

Horav Avraham Pam, zl, cited in The Pleasant Way, explains that a person also needs two kosher signs to declare him an adam kasher, an expression found in the Talmud denoting a righteous and upright person. The two signs are gut tzu Got and gut tzu leit; he performs those mitzvos that are bein adam laMakom, between man and G-d, and those mitzvos that are bein adam lachaveiro, between man and his fellow man.

Regrettably, just like the pig that exhibits his one kosher sign, there are Jews who go to great lengths to fulfill the obligation between themselves and G-d and totally ignore the other side of the coin. They spare no expense when it comes to purchasing the most beautiful Tefillin, the most beautiful Esrog. They make sure that everyone knows this. Otherwise, what value would their "public" display of devotion have? They pray with great intensity and devotion, seeing to it that they are among the last to complete Shemoneh Esrai, all the time making sure that everyone is aware of their devotion to prayer. Yet, when it comes to dealings between themselves and other people, they are sorely lacking. They will destroy anyone who has the nerve to compete with them in commerce or other pursuits. They are never present when a member of the community is down and out and must be helped. Suddenly, they have other commitments. They mistreat their wives and children and everybody who gets in their way, but they daven a long Shemoneh Esrai and buy a beautiful Esrog. Thus, their kosher sign is of the same significance as that of the pig - worthless!

This deficiency is much worse when it is manifest by a Jew who possesses one kosher sign than by a Jew with none. A Jew who does not act in accordance with the dictates of the Torah is simply not a Torah Jew. Hence, we do not expect as much from him in the way of ethical behavior. When someone expounds the Torah way of life, however, when he arrogantly publicly displays his frumkeit for all to see, we expect him to maintain exemplary ethical conduct with his fellow man. Indeed, such a person undermines and even humiliates the very Torah that he emphatically claims to observe.

Rav Pam asks a noteworthy question. If true ethical behavior is inextricably bound with one's relationship with Hashem, how is it that we meet gentiles that are fine, honest, decent, well-mannered human beings who perform kindness in a manner becoming the most righteous person? They certainly do not observe mitzvos bein adam laMakom, according to the standard demanded of a Jew. Rav Pam explains that their meritorious conduct is manifest only under normal conditions. Under extenuating circumstances, however, when they are under duress or in pain, their personality flaws appear. They become angry and irrational, acting in a cruel and selfish manner. The gentile world has yet to produce anyone who can compare with our gedolei Yisrael, Torah leaders, who exemplify ethical conduct even under the most stressful situations. Such zachus hanefesh, purity of spirit, is possible only by one who exemplifies total commitment to the entire Torah.

Last, a ben Torah who spends his days and nights immersed in the sea of Torah should see to it that he expends the same time and energy in going beyond the letter of the law to fulfill mitzvos bein adam lachaveiro that he does for mitzvos bein adam laMakom.

You shall tithe the entire crop of your planting. (14:22)

Chazal teach us aseir bishvil shetisasheir, "tithe so that you will increase your wealth." There is a distinct corollary between the mitzvah of tzedakah, charity, and wealth. One who gives will be worthy of receiving. One who does not give has no merit for which to receive. When we think about it, what really is wealth? Better yet, how do we estimate one's worth? Usually, the idea of evaluating one's worth is a reference to his financial assets. Actually, that approach identifies a very limited perspective of one's true worth.

We measure one's worth in spiritual terms. It is not what we have that matters. That can all change in an instant. What counts is who we are. One can amass great wealth but still remain a pauper in character, still have little value in terms of what he provides for others. One who assumes his responsibilities in life has worth. A person should ask himself: What am I worth to my community? What am I worth to my family? What am I worth to myself? What am I worth to Hashem? If a person can find a positive value in all these questions, then he has value. If his responses are negative, then of what value is all the wealth he has amassed? He is truly destitute.

One of the great millionaires of the early twentieth century writes in his autobiography that when he was yet a young man he had accumulated his first million dollars. Excited, he went to his father and shared with him his good fortune. His father was a wise man and told his son, "I am not impressed." The son was taken aback. "Father," he said, "I am not yet thirty years old, and already I have made my first million - and you are not even happy?"

"No, my son," answered his father. "I am not impressed. What I want to know is how you will spend the money you have earned."

Money is intrinsically neither good nor evil. It has potential to be both. It can be used for the greatest good, or it can catalyze the most devastating evil. It all depends upon how it is used. We can act in indifference, with interference, or with intelligence. The manner in which we apply our wealth will define our morality and ethicality, indicating our true net worth.

His requirement whatever is lacking him. (15:8)

While we are not obligated to make the supplicant wealthy, we are enjoined to see to it that he receives his due in accordance with his needs. Everybody's needs are different. One who had previously been wealthy and lost everything cannot subsist on the meager alms that would suffice for one who had always been poor. The Torah is probably the only ethical system that takes the poor man's self-esteem - his present frame of mind - in account when it prescribes the manner in which we are to sustain him. We have to make a person feel good about himself by assessing him according to his self-image. If he was once wealthy, he should not be treated like a beggar. Return him to his previous station in life.

Even if he was used to receiving a certain amount of kavod, honor, because of his previous financial position, he must be accorded the same honor as before. We must feel for him. Horav Elazar M. Shach, zl, relates that in the shul of Horav Meir Michel Rabinowitz, zl, in Vilna, there was a certain wealthy member who would give large donations to the shul every Shabbos when he received the shishi, sixth, aliyah. Shishi was considered the preeminent aliyah, and he received it weekly because of his large contributions. After awhile, he lost all of his money due to a bad investment. He could no longer contribute in the manner that he did before. The gabbaim who were in charge of giving out the aliyos felt that to continue giving him shishi would be self-defeating, since he could no longer contribute the large sums he had before.

Rav Meir Michel refused to defer to the gabbaim's demand. Instead, he insisted that the individual receive his shishi as before, despite his inability to contribute to the shul in his previous magnanimous manner. He cited the above pasuk to substantiate his ruling. He felt that once a person had become used to a certain lifestyle, to deprive him of what he once had was to divest him of a part of himself.


See, I present before you today. (11:26)

Hashem is constantly giving and giving, but we never take notice, because we are too busy taking. The Chassidishe seforim emphasize that one should take notice of the anochi, "I," himself. Man's focus should be on knowing himself - who he is and where he is going.


And that prophet… shall be put to death, for he had spoken perversion against Hashem, your G-d … to make you stray from the path. (13:6)

The Alter, zl, m'Kelm notes that the meisis, enticer, who only attempts to cause someone to turn away from Hashem is punished with death because of what he sought to do. Chazal teach us that Hashem rewards good behavior at a much greater rate than that with which He pursues bad behavior. From this fact the Alter deduces that a person who seeks to enable Jews to return to Hashem will most certainly merit incredible rewards.


For destitute people will not cease to exist within the land (15:11)

The Kelmer Magid, zl, once admonished a group of wealthy, but tightfisted Jews, "It is for your own good that you should give tzedakah, charity, for the pasuk says, 'For destitute people will not cease to exist within the land. If the poor man is not sustained, he will unfortunately succumb to ill-health and disease.' Since the Torah says that there will not be an 'end' to the poor man, someone will have to take his place. There have to be poor people. It might even be you that will be called to take their place."


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

Horav Shmelke, zl, m'Nicholsberg explains that if one goes out of his way to "check out" the poor man, to see if he is really in need, Hashem will do the same for him - He will check out the would-be benefactor to see if he is really acting appropriately. He who seeks the negative in his fellow Jew will find that Hashem will reciprocate in the same manner to him.

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