Back to This Week's Parsha

Peninim on the Torah

subscribe.gif (2332 bytes)

Previous issues

Rabbi A. Leib Scheinbaum
Hebrew Academy of Cleveland


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

The pasuk begins with re'eh, see, which is lashon yachid, singular, as if Moshe Rabbeinu were speaking to an individual person. It concludes, however, lifneichem, before you, which is lashon rabim, plural. Why is there an inconsistency within the pasuk? Apparently, the Torah is according distinction to the individual who is part of the community. All too often, the individual becomes lost within the large scope of a multitude of people. He becomes a number, a blip, a faceless statistic; his name does not matter; who he is carries no weight, since he is assimilated into the group. While it is true that the Torah uses lifneichem, before you - all of you - each individual plays a leading role before Hashem.

We never know the extent of the impact we have on a single person, and how many others will be positively affected by the impact we have had on this one individual. A short while ago, a distinguished lecturer was invited to speak to the members of a middle-sized congregation. He was scheduled to speak following the Maariv, Evening service. As is common in many shuls, since Maariv is the last tefillah, prayer, of the day, people tend to gravitate towards the exit before the service has been completed. Indeed, by the time the last Kaddish is recited, many members of the minyan are already warming up their cars. For some reason, that night no one remained in shul, except for the shul's shamesh, sexton, and one other member. "Something must be going on tonight. I have never seen such a mass exodus from shul," the shamesh apologetically remarked to the speaker. "This is highly unusual. I guess we will have to try again another night."

"No," said the speaker. "I am here, and I will speak." The speaker ascended to the lectern and gave a brilliant speech in his usual passionate manner, as if he were speaking to a packed house.

After the speech, the shamesh thanked the speaker and once again underscored how surprised he was that he had gone all out for an audience of only two listeners. The speaker, who was the consummate professional, replied, "So what? Does an ambulance not use its lights and siren to save only one person? This is no different. Every individual is worth an entire speech - and more!"

A plethora of stories emphasizes the individual and how one who is involved in outreach should not hold back from giving "all" of himself to even the smallest audience. We never know what that one person, one student, one family, will achieve in life, as a result of our inspiration. I had such an incident and it made me a believer. It was the end of the 70's, and I was living in Phoenix, Arizona. Then, it was not the sizable Jewish community that it is today. I had advertised a class on the philosophy of Judaism to be held at the local Jewish community center. No charge, with refreshments, seemed to work in those day; despite the less-than-exciting topic. The class was called for 8:00 p.m. By 8:30, when no one had come, I decided to leave. I was somewhat upset and deflated, but it was an unpopular topic in a city that was fairly distant from Judaism and religious Jewish thought.

A half hour later, I cleaned up and began to walk to my car. A young man (about nineteen at the time) came over and asked where the "Jewish class" was being held. My response was simple: "Here." We began to talk. He was from San Jose, California, attending the university. He had just had a bad experience with drugs and was searching for some meaning in life. Although Jewish by birth, he had not seen the inside of a shul since his bar-mitzvah, and, truthfully, it had not been much of a shul or much of a bar-mitzvah.

Despite years of alienation from a religion about which he knew nothing, that night changed his life - and taught me the importance of each individual person. We spent the next few months in discussion, learning and celebrating the Shabbos experience with my family. Today, he is a grandfather who lives in Eretz Yisrael, learns half a day, supports three sons-in-law in Kollel, and is the pillar of his small community outside of Yerushalayim. Had I left five minutes earlier, or not bothered to speak with only one person, when I had planned on teaching a class - who knows where he, his children and grandchildren would be today?

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

Moshe Rabbeinu does not say a blessing or a curse; rather, he informs Klal Yisrael of the blessing and the curse that he presents before them. Apparently, everything in life - every gift - contains within it both blessing and curse. Let us take Torah for example. Clearly, it is the greatest blessing, without which we could not survive in the spiritually-hostile environment which surrounds us. If, however, a person does not approach the Torah properly, if he does not apply seichal, common sense, to understand what is being asked of him, the Torah becomes his poison. In the Talmud Yoma 72b, Chazal teach that if one merits, the Torah becomes for him an elixir of life. If he does not merit, it becomes his death potion. Wealth is a blessing - only for he who knows how to use it - when to use it - for whom to use it. Otherwise, it becomes a vehicle which promotes self-aggrandizement and alienates its owner from the reality of life, the pain of others, and the primary purpose for which he has been granted the gift of wealth.

Indeed, Horav Aharon Leib Shteinman, Shlita, once remarked that a person who possesses millions of dollars can achieve wonderful things as a result of his wealth. His wealth can be the catalyst for his acquiring a sizeable portion in Olam Habba, the World to Come. When Hashem gives a person a plethora of wealth, however, He also takes from him "some" of his seichal, common sense. The thought process, the acute cognitive ability that once had been his, is sharply diminished. What the Rosh Yeshivah means (I think) is that commensurate with the wealth is a person's ability to think rationally and objectively. He must be aware that an abundance of money has a tendency to cloud one's vision, such that, before he had been able to see others, but now, he can see only himself. I believe it was Horav Yisrael Salanter, zl, who commented that a mirror is actually a piece of glass with a light veneer of silver coating it. When it is not glass, it retains its transparency, allowing the person to see through it and notice others around him. Once the silver is overlaid, he sees only a reflection of himself.

Horav Meir Shapiro, zl, was once on a fundraising trip on behalf of his prestigious yeshivah, Chachmei Lublin. He visited a well-to-do businessman who was infamous for his miserly attitude towards anything that did not incur financial gain for him. The Rav knocked on his door and was greeted, "Dear Rabbi, you must have the wrong address. I do not believe in charity." The Rosh Yeshivah countered, "You are mistaken. I did not come to solicit funds, but rather, to visit the sick person."

"Rebbe, who is this sick person? I know of no one in my home that is ill," was the miser's reply.

"You are wrong. Someone in this house is quite ill. You are the one that is not well," responded the Rosh Yeshivah.

"I think that you are wrong," the miser said. "I am fine, the picture of health."

The Rosh Yeshivah's tone changed somewhat as he said, "Shlomo Hamelech says, 'There is a sickening evil which I have seen under the sun: riches hoarded by their owner to his misfortune' (Koheles 5:12). Yet, you claim not to be ill!"

"Rebbe," the miser replied, "the p'shat, exposition, is nice, but if the Rav wants to visit sick people, there is a hospital down the block which is filled with sick people. There the Rav can visit to his heart's content. Why bother coming to me?"

"It is very simple," explained the Rosh Yeshivah. "Chazal teach us that one who visits the sick takes away one sixtieth of his illness. Thus, if I visit someone who suffers from typhus, I will leave with one sixtieth of his typhus. Your illness is (misplaced) wealth. Nu! If I visit you, I will at least leave with one sixtieth of your wealth. Is that so bad?"

If your brother will entice you… secretly saying, "Let us go and worship the gods of others…" You shall not accede to him and not hearken to him; you shall not take pity on him; you shall not be compassionate to him nor conceal him. (13:7,9)

The punishment meted out to the meisis, enticer, is very serious and finds no match in the Torah. The fact that the meisis is treated so badly is a clear indication of the egregious nature of his sin. Five negative commandments concerning how we should act with the meisis are derived from the Torah's unusual directives concerning our relationship with this evil man: we may neither accede to him, nor hearken to him; we may neither have pity on him; nor show any compassion towards him; we may not conceal him. He has committed a grave sin by attempting to subvert and mislead a person from serving Hashem. He did not just say, "Go worship idols!" He said, "Let us (together) serve idols."

Throughout the Torah, we are instructed to love our fellow as we love our-self. Yet, concerning the meisis, there is no room for compassion. Do we have any idea what is in store for those who actively mislead their fellow Jews on a constant basis? As in all things, there is a flip side, one that is quite encouraging. Horav Aharon Kotler, zl, quotes Chazal who teach that Hashem's desire to bestow reward is five hundred times greater than His desire to punish. Consequently, if a meisis is considered to be the worst of the worst and, thus, is dealt with in the harshest manner - can we begin to imagine what will be the s'char, reward, for one who brings a Jew closer to Yiddishkeit? If the mere fact that one who makes even a feeble, unsuccessful attempt at misleading a Jew from Hashem incurs the most serious punishment, the mere attempt to bring a person back - even if he is not successful - must earn incredible reward!

Horav Noach Weinberg, zl, addresses those individuals who devote their lives to helping others return, but who mistakenly believe that the result is either all or nothing. The idea that the subject either becomes an observant Jew or the kiruv worker is a failure - is wrong! If a person is considered a meisis just by virtue of his failed attempt to draw a person away from Yiddishkeit - then a person who attempts to bring someone back is considered successful just for undertaking to do it. Taking the initiative to try to help a lost Jew reconnect with his roots is considered by Hashem to be one of the greatest and worthiest deeds. Our actual impact on the Jew is a fringe benefit. It is the attempt that counts.

One who is attempting to lead a Jew away from Hashem is guilty of moving the world further away from Hashem. Hurting one Jew creates a distance, since he is decreasing the awareness of Hashem in the world. Likewise, one who attempts to reach out to a Jewish brother is raising the awareness of Hashem in the world. Hashem "owes" him, and He pays His debts.

Rav Weinberg quotes the well-known Chovas Halevavos (Shaar HaBitachon 4), "A person's good deeds alone do not make him suitable for the reward in the World to Come. G-d considers him suitable only because of two factors in addition to his good deeds. First, he teaches others about the service to Hashem and guides them to do good. Second, is G-d's kindness and beneficence." In other words, Olam Habba does not just happen. One can lead a virtuous and pious life, be fully observant, ethical and moral, and, yet, Olam Habba is not a given until he earns it by teaching others, by attempting to bring other Jews into the fold. Why is this? Why should kiruv, reaching out, be a prerequisite for Olam Habba? Why is not "old fashioned" being good sufficient reason for gaining entrance?

One who is not actively trying to bring Jews back to Hashem does not really love the Almighty and His children. When someone believes in something, he wants to share this belief with others. Avraham Avinu called out in the Name of Hashem because he wanted the entire world to know and love Him as much as he did. Thus, to the extent that we love Hashem, we will reach out to others to share this love. The meisis is trying to lead people from Hashem. Therefore, he is destroying the world. On the other hand, one who reaches out to bring people closer to Hashem is actually building the world.

á You are children to Hashem, Your G-d - you shall not cut yourselves and you shall not make a bald spot between your eyes for a dead person. For you are a holy people to Hashem, Your G-d. (14:1,2)

The Torah appears to be giving us a straightforward mandate: do not grieve excessively. When someone dies, his relatives should not mutilate themselves out of grief. As a holy people we do not conduct ourselves in such a manner. Chazal, however, see a different meaning for Lo sisgodedu. The sisgodedu is derived from agudah, group/gathering of people. They interpret Lo sisgodedu as, "Do not form factions." Hence, we learn that forming factions is prohibited. This plays itself out practically when two batei din, courts of law, are in one town; one rules in accordance with the decisions rendered by Bais Shamai, while the other supports Bais Hillel.

The two interpretations of sisgodedu - slashing or factionizing-- are not on the "same page." What does self-mutilation have to do with disharmony of the legal system? Since the interpretation of both - excessive grief and factionization - are connected to the same word, they must be linked at some level. The Shem MiShmuel quotes Ramban who provides us with insight into the prohibition against excessive grieving. He explains that the concept of a holy people is a promise of the eternity of the soul before G-d. A man is not lost once his mortal stay on this world comes to an end. He may not be here physically, but his soul is to be found in other good and exalted worlds, under the care of Hashem. This should be the Jew's perspective on life. The soul is placed into a human container, called the body, where it resides until the time that Hashem summons it back to the world of souls, where it will glory in His Presence. To deny this idea is to impugn the Jewish philosophy of life.

It is fundamental to Jewish thought that life continues on a spiritual plane after death and that the soul continues to live on in a higher sphere. Self-mutilation reveals a flawed level of grief, a misconceived impression concerning the deceased. It is an indication that one feels that the deceased is completely gone - forever - and that no trace of him remains at any level. While this addresses the soul, what about the body? Clearly, when one dies, his body ceases to exist. It is indeed lost forever, decomposing and returning to the dust from where it came. The bereaved who slashes himself actually mutilates his body, thereby manifesting his feelings of grief over the death of the body of the deceased. Why is this considered bad? One expresses on his own body the feelings he has about the body of the deceased.

The Shem MiShmuel explains that such action demonstrates an improper view of the body's function. The soul is our primary existence; the body is nothing more than the container, thus it is secondary to the soul. In reality, the body is not an end in itself, but, rather, it exists to facilitate the soul, so that it achieves its goals. The soul is a spiritual entity; as such, it is unable to exist in our physical world unless it unites with the body. Therefore, while the body is certainly needed - it is not there for itself; it is needed only for the purpose of serving the soul. When a person dies, the soul soars up to its Heavenly Source. It no longer requires the services of the body. The body is buried, because it really has nowhere else to go. Whatever honor we accord the body in death is due to its position as the soul's container. One who grieves excessively, to the point of slashing his flesh, indicates a misunderstanding of the principle of the body/soul relationship. The mourner has lost focus by attributing much greater significance to the body, as though it has a purpose of its own.

Let us now return to our original question regarding the relationship between excessive grieving and factionilation within the halachic system of justice. Factions are the result of dispute and a lack of unity, in which each individual wants to have his opinion heard to the exclusion of others. For the most part, this is a result of an overactive ego - not the pursuit of truth. We must realize that, at some level, the individual neshamos, souls, of all of the Jewish people are derived from the same source, the same root. We are all part of one spiritual entity that has been somehow divided in such a manner that each living Jew has a portion/soul. Thus, as far as our spiritual identity is concerned, we are all identical.

It is only with regard to the physical dimension that our physical characteristics differ from person to person. These physical variations can (and often do) give rise to diverse attitudes and requirements, which can often manifest themselves as disputes, divisiveness and factionization. When one focuses inappropriately on the physical component of existence, the differences among people are highlighted, a situation which most often leads to controversy. In contrast is the individual who focuses on the spiritual dimension of life. He will soon see the truth of similarities among people and realize that, after all is said and done, we all stand on common ground. This appreciation will lead to unity among Jews. Chazal's connecting two seemingly dissimilar lessons to be interpreted from one pasuk is not arbitrary. It is by design, because, essentially they are intricately connected. The individual who is guilty of excessive mourning and the individual who undermines the unity of halachic jurisprudence are closely linked in their flawed outlook, which focuses on the physical aspects of life. If they would each realize what is paramount, they would both center in on the spiritual scheme of things, thus allowing them to put bereavement in its proper perspective and also to avoid the pitfalls of a disjointed legal system.

If there shall be a destitute person among you… you shall not harden your heart or close your hand… rather you shall open your hand to him… you shall open your hand to your brother, to your poor, and to your destitute in your land. (15:7,8,11)

The Gaon, zl, m'Vilna, posits that this pasuk is intimating the proper guidelines one must maintain with regard to giving tzedakah, charity. There is a marked difference between an open hand and one in which he bends over his fingers, thereby partially closing his hand. When the hand is open and the fingers spread out/apart, the difference in physical size between each finger is apparent. When the hand is bent, however, all of the fingers are even; they all look the same.

Chazal teach that the mitzvah of tzedakah demands that a person must be reinstated to his original standing. For example, a wealthy man who had been used to riding in a horse drawn wagon should not be deprived of this amenity - despite the fact that many other people are used to getting around by the power of their own two feet. Since this poor man had been used to the lifestyle of the wealthy, we must provide for him what he is lacking. In other words, there are degrees among the poor. When we support the poor man, we are not to look only at the here and now, but rather, to look back in time, when this man had been able to sustain himself in a lifestyle of which we only dream.

This is the pasuk's message. The tzedakah that we give should be given with an open hand, acknowledging the various backgrounds of the poor who seek our support. Just as an open hand manifests the varied lengths of the fingers, so, should our tzedakah contribution be reflective of the poor man's background. All poor men are not created equal. Some, at one point, have been quite wealthy. This should be taken into consideration.

Rashi notes the spelling of the word aniyecha, your poor, which in the above pasuk is spelled with one yud. According to the rules of grammar, aniyecha with two yuds refers to at least two poor men, while aniyecha with one yud is singular, denoting one simple poor man. Why does the Torah speak to the solitary poor, when, in fact, the halachos of tzedakah be directed toward the single ani, poor man?

Horav Shmuel David Walkin, zl, gives a practical explanation. We like giving to organizations, to groups, to programs, where it involves a multitude of people, who will benefit from our funds. When our money is going to help a single Jew who is in need; when the tzedakah is not exotic; when we will not receive a plaque or a double spread in the newspaper, we hesitate; we are not as forthcoming with our contribution. The Torah seeks to circumvent this problem by writing aniyecha with one yud, in the singular, so that we will remember that the single poor man who petitions our support is just as important as the organization which dispatches a talented fundraiser. We must consider the person in need, regardless of the lack of recognition that accompanies such giving.

Va'ani Tefillah

V'zeidim tibata v'yedidim be'evarta va'yichasu mayim tzaareihem.

As noted earlier, the sequence seems misplaced. Klal Yisrael passed through the "dried" Red Sea prior to the drowning of the Egyptians. Yedidim he'evarta should have preceded the drowning of the Egyptians and the water descending on the oppressors of the Jews. Yalkut Katan quotes the Midrash which teaches that, prior to punishing a nation, Hashem will first punish its Heavenly Sar, Angel. Thus, Hashem first "drowned" the Angel of Egypt, then the Jewish People passed through the walls of the water, shortly before these walls came crashing down on the pursuing Egyptians.

The Chasam Sofer explains that when Bnei Yisrael passed through the Red Sea, their faith in Hashem was elevated exponentially. As a result, Hashem purged their premeditated sins, which are called zidonos. This removal of sin stood in Klal Yisrael's defense against the accusation leveled against them by the Heavenly Angels, who asked; "They (the Egyptians) worshipped idols, and they (the Jews) also worshipped idols; why should one die and one live?" After their sins were expunged, however, Klal Yisrael became virtuous in comparison to the Egyptians. Thus, the zeidim, sins of the Jews, were drowned, followed by the passage of the Jews through the waters. Now, it was time for the ones who persecuted the Jews to receive their due punishment - which they did.

in honor of

Dr. Stanley and Libby Brody

May the Almighty grant you many more years of health and happiness together .

Peninim on the Torah is in its 20th year of publication. The first fifteen years have been published in book form.

The Fifteenth volume is available at your local book seller or directly from Rabbi Scheinbaum.

He can be contacted at 216-321-5838 ext. 165 or by fax at 216-321-0588

Discounts are available for bulk orders or Chinuch/Kiruv organizations.


This article is provided as part of Shema Yisrael Torah Network
Permission is granted to redistribute electronically or on paper,
provided that this notice is included intact.
For information on subscriptions, archives, and
other Shema Yisrael Classes,
send mail to
Jerusalem, Israel