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Peninim on the Torah

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Rabbi A. Leib Scheinbaum
Hebrew Academy of Cleveland


See, I present before you today a blessing and a curse. (11:26)

Apparently, re'eh, see, is a reference to a certain level of comprehension. Sight, our most reliable and strongest sense, is a term used to describe a level of understanding. When a person is asked, "Do you see what I am saying?" the questioner really means, "Do you understand what I am saying?" In his book, "Forever His Students," Rabbi Boruch Leff cites Horav Yaakov Weinberg, zl, who distinguishes between the senses of "hearing" and "seeing" and the level of comprehension to which each alludes.

We find the Torah employing both terms with regard to comprehension. The opening word of the pasuk which describes the stellar dialogue between man and the Almighty, "Shema Yisrael," "Hear O Yisrael," is the enjoinment to "hear." The tone for the entire relationship is "hear." This is, indeed, how a relationship begins and is sustained - by listening. One must want to hear. He must want to listen. On the other hand, if the purpose of the pasuk is to internalize the understanding that, "Hashem is our G-d, Hashem is "One," should it not have said, See O Yisrael"?

Rav Weinberg explains that shema, hear, implies that we are making a commitment which involves our intellect. To hear means to communicate; to listen is to interface with what one hears. Re'eh, see, is a term which applies to our emotions. To hear demands greater and more penetrating cognition. To see requires a stronger reaction to an idea or fact that one already understands.

The cognitive level of hearing entails a greater sense of understanding, because when we truly hear someone, we are able to communicate with him. It is a level of communication in which every nuance and emotion in expressing oneself is a telling experience for the careful and astute listener. Sight is used to accumulate our emotions, so that they can better react to things that we already understand. Seeing is believing, because sight is a stronger sense. It has greater reliability and, once something is seen, it is undeniable. Thus, once someone "sees" something, he is more apt to believe in and commit to it than when he merely hears about it.

The opening pasuk in this parsha begins with re'eh, see. Based upon the subject matter of the request, "see" is a most appropriate term. Hashem is describing a ceremony that is about to take place. This ceremony, which involves blessings and curses, took place much later, after Klal Yisrael had crossed the Yarden into Eretz Yisrael. Why, then, does Hashem say "hayom," today? Indeed, the blessings and curses were not presented to them on that day.

While the actual ceremony did not take place "today," the announcement of its future advent was conveyed to them. This is an event that demands that one prepare properly for it, so that its impact be maximized. In order to ready themselves for this moment, the People had to be made aware "today," so that they could internalize and commit themselves emotionally in preparation for this event. Thus, the word "see" is used. See-prepare-commit, so that when the time comes you will learn what Hashem has to say.

With this idea in mind, I think we can now understand why some people refuse to listen, why they do not want to be bothered by what they hear. They prefer to live in a sort of twilight zone, in enchanted oblivion, because hearing might be too cumbersome and painful. Regrettably, there are many that refuse to be disturbed, who do not want their comfort level hampered in any way. They do not want to hear. Why is this?

It is because they have not "seen." They have not emotionally prepared themselves to listen. It is only when someone "feels" something for Yiddishkeit that he is willing to listen, to comprehend, to integrate what he hears into an observant lifestyle. One who is numb, who has not sensitized himself to listen, will not hear what is said.

Perhaps this is the lesson of the Midrash in Bereishis Rabbah 39:1, which describes how Avraham Avinu came to believe in Hashem. What made him take that first step? The Midrash cites the pasuk in Tehillim 45:11, "Listen, daughter and see, incline your ear." Avraham listened, a listening that led him to "incline his ear," to develop a penetrating cognitive appreciation of Hashem's existence and His constant guidance of this world. He "inclined his ear" - why? What prompted him to do this?

The pasuk says, "Listen, daughter, and see." It follows with, "Incline your ear." Avraham "listened" by "seeing." He saw a world filled with idolatry, immorality. He saw a world on fire! He saw a world of falsehood, people living a life filled with lies. He saw and understood that there must be more to life than what he had been seeing. This perception, this penetrating introspection, started him onto the road to belief in a Supreme Master Who guides the world. Once he "saw," he was able to internalize his observation and develop an emotional foundation for accepting what he would hear.

It is difficult to seek an understanding for what one does not feel in his heart. The Torah exhorts us to "see," to open our eyes and perceive the truth, to distinguish between what is bogus and what is genuine, so that we acknowledge the blessing that is a direct consequence of adhering to Hashem's commands. Hashem gave us our senses for a purpose: to use them to serve Him.

See, I present before you today a blessing and a curse. (11:26)

Sforno's commentary to this pasuk gives us a profound insight into the level of commitment that Hashem expects of us. He writes: "Look and perceive that your affairs (as a people) are not of an average nature, as is the case concerning other nations. For today I set before you a blessing and a curse: two extremes. The blessing implies success and good fortune beyond what is sufficient. Curse implies a state of deficiency, whereby attainments of bare necessities are out of reach. Both of these (blessing and curse) are before you to attain, according to your choice."

Klal Yisrael is faced with a pendulum that sways to extremes. It represents their future: one of extremes. Their fate is marked either by complete prosperity or total devastation. Our lot as Hashem's People is destined to be most uncommon, with no middle road. It is either blessing or curse. This is signified by the word re'eh, see - something new, something different. Moshe Rabbeinu cautions the nation that the choice that will catalyze these extremes is lifneichem, before you. They either choose blessings by observing Hashem's mitzvos, or they select curse by rejecting His mitzvos. It is that simple.

According to Sforno there can be no moderate stance for Klal Yisrael. The Torah brooks no compromise. Hashem demands total and unequivocal commitment. The consequences are equally extreme: absolute blessings or unmitigated curse. Our history has been characterized either by ceaseless blessing or by unbearable curse. Why? Should this be so? Why should our lot not mirror that of the other nations of the world, who live a more stable existence?

Horav Mordechai Miller, zl, suggests that indeed this question is not novel. It was first asked by Eisav when Yaakov Avinu sought to relieve him of the privileges of the firstborn. Eisav said, "Behold, I am going to die (as a result of it), and so what is the birthright (worth) to me?" (Bereishis 25:32) Rashi explains that Eisav was concerned with the many warnings, punishments and death penalties associated with the position of the firstborn. Eisav felt that this esteemed position would be the cause of his premature demise. So, why should he bother?

Horav Yeruchem Levovitz, zl, derives a fundamental principle herein which illuminates our earlier query. The detriment of the loss corresponds to the greatness of the spiritual level. The more elevated and sublime the spiritual level, the greater is the void in its absence. An example is the Kohen, who is obligated to a greater level of Divine service than the common Jew. Consequently, he is subject to harsher punishment should he fail to carry out his mission.

So, the question glares at us: Is it worth it? Is it better to achieve the heights of spirituality with the incredible reward that it brings, or does the fear of reprisal and personal degradation that comes with failure outweigh the benefits? Should one eschew the benefits, so that he not suffer the penalties?

Rav Yeruchem posits that this question has been raised a number of times. When Klal Yisrael stood at Har Sinai, they were overawed by the fantastic Revelation at the Giving of the Torah. They, thus, requested that Moshe convey the commandments to them, rather than their hearing them directly from Hashem. Why? Because the greater the clarity of truth experienced, the greater lies the responsibility incumbent upon the person. They feared their inability to live up to the overwhelming obligation of hearing the truth directly from Hashem. While their rejection of this opportunity disappointed Moshe, Hashem Himself assured him, saying, "They did well in what they spoke." (Devarim 5:25) Why did Hashem agree with their behavior? Were they not reacting in a manner similar to that of Eisav?

Rav Miller cites the Avnei Nezer, who distinguishes between two forms of fear. The first is fear of punishment, whereby man fears the suffering he will sustain if he does not accept his responsibilities and fulfill his task in the world. The second type of fear is one that stems from love. Man loves Hashem so much that he fears that something might interfere and cause a distance to come between them.

One whose service to Hashem is rooted in fear of punishment is counseled not to adopt extra obligations and practices. This individual, instead of having a sense of privilege and honor in being able to carry out even greater obligations and establish an even closer relationship with the Almighty, will instead constantly fret over the consequences of these added obligations. He will be so overwhelmed with the negative that he will be unable to enjoy and benefit from the positive.

When Klal Yisrael stood at Har Sinai, they achieved an unparalleled spiritual plateau. Indeed, their entire spiritual persona became transformed. Their fear was not of punishment, but a trepidation borne of sublimity, of total holiness, to the point that they feared they could not endure such an unprecedented closeness to the Almighty. Their fear stemmed from love, from total devotion, from ultimate proximity to the Almighty.

Infinite blessings or torturous curse is the choice that is placed before Klal Yisrael. Mediocrity is not something that coincides with our spiritual DNA. We stood at Har Sinai and accepted the Torah through the medium of an experience that elevated us high above the rest of the world. This elevation makes us different, as it simultaneously brings with it greater responsibility which can also lead to our downfall. No one ever said that it was going to be easy.

Yet, there are those who prefer to live an unencumbered life, an existence oblivious to the beauty and richness of a pulsating Torah life, a life that accedes to being content with merely avoiding retribution. One who truly recognizes the inestimable value of Torah joyfully commits himself to it, regardless of the hardships that he may encounter along the way. The Eisavs who have refused to accept a life of spirituality are guided by their base nature and an attachment to materialism. Theirs is a life of fear. Regrettably, their fear is realistic, because that is the choice they have made for themselves.

There shall you bring everything that I command you …and the choicest of your vow offerings that you will vow to Hashem. (12:11)

The Sifri says that the Torah is implying that when one chooses an animal for an offering, it should be a choice one. This is a new dimension in our avodas Hashem, service to the Almighty. Although one may be virtuous, pious, very devoted to Hashem, he still must remember that whatever he offers, be it an animal or even himself or his time, he must give his all, the most that he has. All too often, we dedicate our efforts and talents to everything but avodas Hashem, relegating our service to a distant second place. Horav Yitzchak Zilberstein, shlita, notes that this was Kayin's sin. Both Kayin and Hevel sought to serve the Almighty, to find favor in His eyes. Hevel brought his choicest herd for a sacrifice. He gave Hashem his best. Kayin did not. He brought a sacrifice from the fruits of the land, which Rashi interprets to mean from the inferior portions of his crop.

Herein lies the difference between two people, two services, two offerings. Both served Hashem, but only one gave his best. Only one showed that he really cared. He indicated his priorities. Hashem should be our priority, and the manner in which we serve Him should manifest our true commitment.

What happened to Kayin? Certainly he received the same educational experiences as Hevel did. Rav Zilberstein compares this to the two students who arrive together at yeshivah, both with a tremendous desire to study Torah and excel. They each have purchased new Gemaros, volumes of Talmud, they both have set up good chavrusos, study partners. Yet, one succeeds in excelling, while the other one just manages to keep his head above water. The reason: the one who excels never stops working, never refrains from fully exerting himself in every endeavor. The other one does exactly what he must - and no more. Every opportunity can become a wasted opportunity if one does not use it to its fullest potential. Kayin attempted to get by, but when he saw how far ahead of him Hevel was - he killed him. Instead of introspecting and realizing that he was at fault, he blamed Hevel for excelling.

When we compromise in our service to Hashem, our service becomes nothing more than a sterile, dispassionate experience, which will ultimately decrease in its feeling and frequency. This is especially true when we water down our service and commitment in order to favorably impress someone who has had very little to do with religious observance. Horav Mendel Kaplan, zl, a legendary rosh yeshivah and rebbe of the previous generation, once had occasion to spend the summer at a camp which served young people from non-observant backgrounds. He was concerned that the camp directors spent too much time providing fun-filled activities for the campers. "Why must you provide them with so much fun?" he asked. "Why do you not get them to do something constructive like picking fruit? Why must it always be fun?"

When the camp was about to take their charges to a country fair, Rav Mendel questioned the necessity of such a trip. The camp director responded, "This is the only way to bring these children to Torah observance. If we do not give them this trip, we will lose them."

Rav Mendel replied, "So you will lose them."

It took some time before the camp director comprehended the depth of Rav Mendel's reply. On the one hand, the camp's message was: Torah study and mitzvah observance is supreme, but through its activities it was undermining its own primary message. They were, instead, indicating that fun and having a great time were to take precedence over Torah. Such a program would produce Jews who would pay lip service to Torah and mitzvos, while enthusiastically embracing any experience that promoted self-gratification. The Torah demands that our choicest offering be brought for Hashem - not for ourselves.

Hashem, your G-d, shall you follow and Him shall you fear; His commandments shall you observe and to His voice shall you hearken; Him shall you serve and to Him shall you cleave. (13:5)

We are enjoined to follow in Hashem's ways and to cleave to Him. Horav Eliyahu Schlessinger, Shlita, suggests that the focus must be on the "Him"/"Hashem" as the only One to follow. In other words, there is no room for any alliance or conglomeration of beliefs. One either believes in Hashem or he does not believe in Him. There is no option of including any other entity in this belief. It is only to Him that we seek to cleave. This is why the Rambam established the Thirteen Principles of our faith in which the first principle tells us that Hashem alone created and continues to guide and supervise the world. One who believes that Hashem is all of these, but does not accept the levado, that He is alone, is a kofer b'ikar, total apostate. He denies the very foundation of our faith.

The Brisker Rav, zl, related that his father, Horav Chaim Soloveitchik, zl, said the following at a Rabbinic conference in St. Petersburg. "In Melachim I 18:4, it is recorded that Eliyahu HaNavi admonished the Jews who were following the Baal idol, 'How long will you dance between two opinions? If Hashem is the G-d, go after Him! And if the Baal, go after it!' What is Eliyahu saying? We can understand his encouraging the people to choose G-d and follow Him, but what is the meaning of, 'If the Baal, go after it!' Why? For what reason should they follow the Baal completely? Is it wrong for a believer in the Baal to share his god with another entity?"

Rav Chaim explained that it is not the Baal that would "mind," it is Yiddishkeit that has a problem with a believer in the Baal who decides he also wants to perform mitzvos! While it is true that a sinner is obligated to carry out the same mitzvos as any other Jew, this does not apply to an apostate. One who denies any of the Thirteen Principles of faith has no business doing mitzvos. One either believes in Hashem unequivocally or he does not believe in Him at all. There is no gray area with regard to emunah, belief in Hashem.

Va'ani Tefillah

Baruch meshaleim sachar tov l'yireiav

Sachar tov, good reward, is a reference to the ultimate reward one receives in Olam Habah, the World to Come. A "good" reward is unique in its permanence. It is a reward that has no end, that continues eternally. This can only occur in the Eternal World. Indeed, Chazal state that there is no reward for a mitzvah in this life. The idea of eternity is a concept which goes beyond the realm of our understanding. Horav Shimon Schwab, zl, explains that chayei olam, eternal/everlasting life, is a reference to the fact that Hashem has given us the opportunity to connect ourselves eternally with Him, through the fulfillment of His mitzvos. Thus, by establishing this relationship with the Almighty, we transcend the restrictions imposed upon us in our corporeal state. Furthermore, the concept of "good" as expressed here is not only a relative term in comparison to something else, rather it is the intrinsic good that endures without limitations, and it represents the greatest form of happiness that Hashem bestows. This everlasting reward is given to those who fall under the category of yireiav, those who fear Him. Yiraas Shomayim is the awareness that there is no place or moment that is devoid of Hashem. One is aware that he is always in the presence of the Almighty, so that he acts accordingly.

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