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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)

The word re'eh, see, is written in lashon yachid, the singular form, while the word lifneichem, before you, is written in lashon rabim, the plural form. Why? Horav Aharon Kotler, zl, explains that while the Torah is speaking to the rabim, wider community, at times the yachid, individual, must make a critical decision to act counter to the rabim. Hashem wants each individual to look at the mitzvah, the endeavor, the situation, with a critical eye and act in consonance with that which the Torah dictates - even if the community does not agree. Indeed, sometimes the individual must stand up against the community. A community is comprised of individuals. Thus, each member of the community has his own moral and spiritual imperative to do the right thing - even if it is not a popular or accepted decision. Some individuals are afraid to make waves, to rock the boat, to do his own thing. To him the Torah says: "Re'eh," in the singular, you, individual see, on your own, without the effects of communal pressure. Nothing is wrong with being in the minority - when one is right. The Jewish nation has had this experience throughout the millennia. Avraham Avinu stood up against a world of idol worshippers. Our Torah leadership, throughout the generations, has followed suit, doing what is necessary to uphold the faith against tremendous pressure and overwhelming odds.

One should never belittle the efforts of an individual - even in his own eyes. The yetzer hora, evil inclination, attempts to dissuade the individual from taking action, challenging whether one person can really accomplish anything. Horav Baruch Sorotzkin, zl, comments that one should view the entire world as if it is on a scale with an even balance of virtue versus demerit. One act of virtue, one positive act, can change the balance in favor of z'chus, merit. We will never know the consequences until we make the attempt.

Re'eh, see, does not just mean to glance at something. It means to delve into the matter and take note of what one observes. In this sense, Rav Baruch understands the Torah's admonition to look deeply into the concept of blessing and curse, to understand the reality and true definition of blessing and curse and to choose cautiously. At a simpleú perfunctory glance, one might misconstrue blessing for curse and confuse the two. To all appearances, a life filled with accumulating the various material pleasures that this world has to offer is a life of blessing. Success is to be measured by pleasure and more pleasure. According to this perspective, the life of one who is cloistered, who is sheltered from the moral decay of contemporary society, who lives a lifestyle in which values are measured on a spiritual -- rather than on a physical -- scale, is a life of curse. After all, what kind of enjoyment does he have? Where is his pleasure?

If one delves with a discerning eye, however, he "sees" a completely different vision. He sees what true pleasure is, how to define enjoyment, what is lasting and what is temporary. We can demonstrate the variegated approaches to "seeing" something at face value versus intrinsic worth. Let us take the concept of death, for example. Mortality is a sobering and frightening concept, an idea that catalyzes two approaches. Some say: "Eat and drink, for tomorrow we will die." We do not live forever, so we might as well enjoy it while we can, and cram in every type of pleasure that is humanly possible. After all, we only live once. This hedonistic attitude is regrettably prevalent in today's culture and society. Another approach is one that takes into consideration that life truly is not forever. Thus, we must prepare ourselves for the time in which we will have to take our final journey. Are we prepared? Surely, indulging in every form of moral decadence is not the way to pack our bags for that journey. When one thinks about death, he should realize the value of life. People make the mistake of thinking that life is a destination, when, in fact, it is only a journey. It all depends on how one "sees."

You are children to Hashem, your G-d - you shall not cut yourselves…for a dead person. (14:1)

One of the many detestable practices employed by the pagans was to cut themselves as a sign of mourning. This expression of grief is abominable. A Jew should understand that, as children of Hashem, we have a special relationship that does not allow us to act in such a manner. In contrast, our perspective on death is quite different than that of the world around us. Death is the bridge that we must traverse in order to gain access to Olam Habah, the World to Come. Grief is certainly a natural outlet for the loss that we feel, but everything - even grief - has a limit. To lose control to the point that one mutilates his body is carrying grief too far, manifesting a distorted view of death and mourning.

Indubitably, one's faith in Hashem can best be measured during a period of travail. The vicissitudes of life challenge one's true conviction. When life is filled with sunshine, and everyone has a rose garden in his backyard, it is quite easy to declare one's emunah, faith, in Hashem. When the road of life becomes filled with obstacles, one displays his true character. In Sefer Tehillim 92:3, David HaMelech writes, "To relate Your kindness in the dawn and Your faith in the darkness." The true test of faith is to maintain one's belief even during periods of darkness.

The Zohar HaKadosh relates, "All songs are holy; [Shlomo HaMelech's] Shir HaShirim is Kodesh Kodoshim, Holy of Holies." What is the significance of Shir HaShirim such that it towers over all other songs of praise? Horav Yaakov Neiman, zl, explains that Klal Yisrael sang their other songs at a time of redemption, success, or freedom. Shlomo HaMelech, however, wrote his famous Song of Songs to express his praise to the Almighty specifically at a time of hikuni; He hit me, pitzuni; He wounded me, periods of exile, pain and travail. This is a true expression of faith.

The Belzer Rebbe, Horav Aharon, zl, lost his entire family during the Holocaust. His chassidus was decimated to the point that he was lucky to put together a minyan, quorum, of followers. Yet, he refused to comment about the tragedy. Many a time, his close followers begged to hear about what had occurred, but he refused to speak. He would relate, however, the many miracles that took place during his personal rescue from Europe. In fact, he decided to celebrate his survival with a seudas hodaah, a festive meal of thanksgiving to Hashem. His chassidim were surprised that he would do such a thing after having sustained the decimating tragedy of the loss of his family and his European chassidim. After pressing him a number of times for an explanation, he finally relented and gave the following response:

The Torah tells us concerning the exodus from Egypt, that Va'chamushim alu Bnei Yisrael me'eretz Mitzrayim, "Bnei Yisrael were armed when they went up from Egypt (Shemos 13:18)." According to the Midrash, the word chamushim, armed, is derived from the word chomesh, a fifth, implying that only one fifth of the Jews left Egypt. The rest were not prepared to begin a new life in a foreign land. They would rather stay in the spiritual depravity of Egypt. As a result of this attitude, they were punished. They died out in a plague during the three days of darkness that enveloped Egypt. Therefore, only a small portion of the great Jewish nation survived Egypt. Yet, we find that after the splitting of the Red Sea, the people sang Shirah, a song of praise and thanksgiving to Hashem. How could they sing with the full knowledge that so many of their brethren had perished in Egypt?

Chazal teach us that from the Torah's vernacular of Az yashir, which means, "Then (he) will sing," rather than Az shar, "Then (he) sang," we derive that Techias ha'meisim, resurrection of the dead, is min haTorah, alluded to in the Torah. What is the meaning of Chazal's statement? They are teaching us a powerful and valuable lesson about life. When a person knows that this world is nothing more than a preparation for a better, external world, for the world of Olam Habah, then he is able to sing shirah, even under the most extreme, painful situations. The fact that the Jews sang shirah to Hashem after leaving Egypt, knowing that they were just the few survivors of a nation of three million men, is proof positive that they understood with clarity of belief that the others were not really gone. This is why I am able to sing shirah, despite the heavy losses that we as a People and I as an individual have sustained. I believe that they have gone on to a better world and that one day we will all be reunited.

Our sages have been proficient in comforting those who are overcome with grief, because they believe what they say and write. They believe unequivocally that the deceased are in Olam Ha'Ba, in a better place. Thus, when they attempt to give solace and comfort to the bereaved, they speak with conviction. The words which emanate from their hearts, enter into the hearts of the bereaved. I take the liberty of sharing unique words of consolation with the reading audience.

In a letter to his sister-in-law and nephews, upon the sudden passing of their husband and father, Horav Yonasan Eybesch?tz, zl, wrote: "You have lost a father of flesh and blood, but you have gained Hashem as your Father, for He is called 'the Father of orphans and Judge of widows. (Tehillim 8:6)' It is a fact that orphans are among the most successful in Torah study, in wisdom, and in fear of Heaven. This is the result of Hashem's special supervision, for He is compassionate to orphans."

In his commentary to Devarim 14:1, the Ohr HaChaim HaKadosh writes, "One must realize that death is not a loss to the deceased - he has simply departed for a different place, similar to a person who travels abroad for an extended stay, but expects to return to see his loved ones again."

Horav Shlomo Wolbe, zl, writes, "If the cessation of the body was the cessation of the man himself, there would be no consolation in mourning, but it is not so! The body ceases, but the person remains alive. Emunah does not recognize death. The deceased is alive; he is aware and feels and is close to his relatives always. Believe and be faithful and light will then shine upon your ways forever."

Some individuals "claim" that they do not believe in Techiyas Ha'Meisim - or so they say. Horav Reuven Elbaz, Shlita, relates that he once walked by two men who were in a dispute concerning the veracity of Techiyas Ha'Meisim. One was observant, the other was not yet observant. Understandably, the observant Jew posited that there would one day be a resurrection of the dead. The other individual told him that it was impossible, absolutely totally unbelievable. Hearing this statement, Rav Elbaz approached the scoffer and said, "My friend, I promise you that you will not arise during Techiyas Ha'Meisim!"

"Why do you curse me?" the man asked, somewhat frenzied.

"I am not cursing you!" the rav replied. "After all, you do not believe in Techiyas Ha'Meisim. Why would it bother you when I assure your exclusion from an event in which you do not believe?"

Any rational person understands what has taken place. As usual, the skeptics claim not to believe. Their lack of belief lasts until they are excluded from an experience, or until they have exhausted all other attempts at validating their disbelief. Everybody seems to turn to Hashem when he enters the emergency room.

Last, I relate an episode cited by Horav Yehudah Tzadakah, zl. The venerable Rosh Yeshivah would relate the following story when he visited with aveilim, mourners. Horav Yisrael Abuchatzeira, zl, the saintly Baba Sali, had a brother who was referred to as the Baba Yitzchak. He was rav of Ramalah until his untimely, tragic death in a car accident. The Baba Sali was inconsolable. Grief-stricken, he would cry bitter tears during the night. One night, out of sheer exhaustion, he dozed off and his late brother, the Baba Yitzchak, appeared to him, challenging him, "I am in Gan Eden, and you weep?"

You shall tithe the entire crop of your planting, the produce of the field, year by year. (14:22)

The Midrash Tanchuma derives from the compound verb, aseir te'aser, that the second word, te'aser, should be read as te'asher, you will become wealthy. Thus, the Torah is teaching us that if one tithes and gives to the poor, he will become a wealthy man. One should not complain that contributing to charity depletes his portfolio. Hashem will not only make up his losses, this loss will ultimately be the foundation of his material success. This is surprising since we rarely find osher, material wealth, equated with anything positive. Wealth is certainly a wonderful gift from Hashem, but it is one that is fraught with challenges, which many are not able to surmount. Shlomo HaMelech reiterates this idea numerous times in both Sefer Mishlei and Sefer Koheles. Why then would the Torah encourage tithing and add that it will be the precursor of wealth?

Horav Shimon Schwab, zl, takes a novel approach to explaining the reward of osher. In the Talmud Nedarim 38a, Chazal state that Hashem rests His Presence only on one who is strong, wealthy, wise, humble, etc. Apparently, ashirus, wealth, is one of the criteria for achieving the level of nevuah, prophecy. Clearly wealth is not all negative. What are Chazal trying to tell us? We turn to the Rambam in his Shemoneh Perakim, Perek Shevii, seven, where he states, "A prophet will not prophesy until after he has acquired all of the maalos he'sichliyos, intellectual virtues, and most of the maalos ha'middos, ethical virtues. This is implied by Chazal in the Talmud Shabbos 92a, 'The spirit of prophecy will rest solely on a wise man, who is valiant and wealthy.' The term 'wise man' surely includes all the intellectual virtues. The term 'wealthy' includes all the ethical virtues, for it refers to the quality of histapkus, satisfaction. In Pirkei Avos 4:1 Chazal consider a person who is sameach b'chelko, satisfied with his portion, to be wealthy. This means a person who is happy with what fortune presents him and does not grieve over what fortune does not present him.

This is the underlying idea behind Chazal's statement of aseir bishvil shetiasher, "Tithe so that you will become wealthy." They want a person to develop the middah of histapkus, satisfaction. This is perfected through the giving of Maaser. When one sets parameters to how much he keeps for himself, when he places limitations on his material and physical objects of desire, and instead shares with others less fortunate than he, he merits acquiring true ashirus, through the medium of the middah of histapkus. It is not in the money. There are people who are extremely wealthy, but not necessarily happy. Happiness is the result of satisfaction - a virtue not acquired through wealth, but through understanding that what one has is a gift from the Almighty, Who has determined how much he needs. When an individual accepts this mindset, he has acquired enormous wealth - something that money cannot buy.

You are children to your G-d, you shall not cut yourselves…for a dead person. (14:1)

Sforno explains that this prohibition is based on the idea that their cutting oneself is a sign that one does not acknowledge the close relationship that Hashem has with him. While it is understandable for an individual to grieve over the loss of a loved one, overly extensive grief that leads to physical mutilation indicates that the individual does not perceive that Someone is even closer to him; Someone Who is of greater significance. We cannot question the validity of the concept that Hashem has a clear Presence in our lives. This is why we wonder about Yaakov Avinu's reaction to Yosef's disappearance. Why did he refuse to be consoled? How did he plummet to such a nadir of depression? Furthermore, when he met Pharaoh, he remarked that his years were "few and bad" (Bereishis 47:9). How could this defeatist attitude prevail ďn an individual who had attained such an elevated spiritual relationship with Hashem? How could he complain, knowing full well that "all that Hashem does is for the good"?

Horav Chaim Mordechai Katz, zl, explains that Yaakov did not mourn the physical loss of Yosef, but, rather, he mourned his spiritual contribution to the entity known as Klal Yisrael. The Patriarchs were invested with a mission of critical importance: to build Bais Yisrael, the House of Israel, which would serve as the basis l'takein olam b'malchus Shakai, "to perfect the world with the kingdom of Hashem." To achieve this lofty objective, it was necessary to establish a foundation firmly rooted in conviction, characterized by the spiritual qualities that each individual member of this family could contribute. The tree is only as strong as its roots. The family endures on its foundation of values. This is why Yaakov was inconsolable. Klal Yisrael had to be built upon the foundation of twelve shevatim, tribes, each contributing its own unique qualities to the equation. Yosef Hatzadik was irreplaceable. His loss created a spiritual void in the House of Yisrael. The family was blemished. The roots would not be as strong. The tree was weakened. Yaakov had every reason to grieve, to feel that he had failed, that his life was incomplete and unfortunate. He lived with a different set of ideals, measured by a different standard of success. According to his barometer of success, he had failed. This is why he grieved relentlessly. The loss in the spiritual fabric of Klal Yisrael is something from which one does not "recover."

Va'ani Tefillah

Hashem hoshiah, Ha'Melech yaaneinu, b'yom kareinu
Hashem save! The King will answer us on the day we call.

The term yeshuah is used for a salvation that is unexpected. A situation that seems hopeless, in which one is nevertheless spared, is referred to as a yeshuah. Yeshuas Hashem k'heref ayin, "The salvation of Hashem is like (can occur in) the blink of an eye." Nothing is ever hopeless, for Hashem can always "step in" and affect a cure, bring relief, grant salvation. The term yeshuah is used to describe the time in which the Jews were at the Red Sea and were closed in by its waters on one side and the menacing Egyptians on the other. It seemed hopeless. It seemed that there was no way out. Hashem sent a yeshuah. We must achieve the level of belief in the Almighty that raises our awareness to the point that we understand that every situation is really hopeless without His intervention. Thus, the Jews standing at the Red Sea is paradigmatic of all moments of need when we must turn to Hashem for salvation. Some of us think that praying to Hashem is a last resort. When we need a yeshuah, and the situation looks bleak, we throw up our hands and look to Hashem. It should not be that way. Turning to Hashem should be our first and primary course that may be followed up by conventional hishtadlus, endeavoring. Horav Avigdor Miller, zl, comments that one must acknowledge that Hashem is the only real Source of salvation. This is why Hashem's Name precedes the word salvation: to teach us that He alone brings about the yeshuah. Hashem hoshiah.

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