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Peninim on the Torah

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Rabbi A. Leib Scheinbaum
Hebrew Academy of Cleveland


And how is the land in which it dwells - is it good or is it bad? (13:19)

Prior to their departure for their ill-fated trip to reconnoiter Eretz Yisrael, Moshe Rabbeinu gave the spies a"shopping list" of things they should investigate. One of these questions for which Moshe sought an answer was: Is it a good land or not? It is almost impossible to pass over this pasuk without wondering how our quintessential leader could ask such a question. If Hashem had promised that He was taking us into eretz tovah u'rechavah, "A land that was good and spacious" (Shemos 3:8), then what need is there for investigation? Did anyone doubt Hashem's word? The mere fact that Hashem declared that it was good, makes it good. No proof is necessary. Even if to the human eye it does not appear as "good," it is good - because Hashem said so! The Rikanti asks this question and adds that he has no answer other than b'derech sod, by applying Kabbalistic knowledge which opens up the secrets of Torah.

Horav Shimshon Pincus, zl, turns to Yaakov Avinu's fear that, shema yigrom ha'cheit, "perhaps he had not reached his spiritual potential or his not being home to honor his parents," would serve as a censure against him. True, Hashem had promised to protect him, but that was before his transgressions. Maybe his indiscretions had negated Hashem's protection.

Similarly, Moshe feared the effects of the chet ha'eigel, sin of the Golden Calf. Eretz Yisrael is sustained by a special shefa, spiritual flow, that emanates from Hashem. The Almighty provides this gift out of His deep love for His People. What if they egregiously sin against Him, however, in such a manner that provokes Him to remove that shefa? This worried Moshe, prompting him to ask the spies to investigate the land.

To better explain this fear, we suggest the following: Yaakov felt unworthy of Hashem's protection because, by being away from home, he had not honored his parents properly. Clearly, this is an issue relative to the Patriarch's lofty spiritual level. Parents protect their children - even if their children are unworthy of this sense of security. Parents are always there. Yaakov felt that, since he did not hold up his part of the "bargain," Hashem might be "exempted" from protecting him.

Likewise, the spiritual flow which protects Eretz Yisrael is special and a unique gift from the Creator. What if we reject Him; what if the nation revels around a man-made molten calf and declares, "There are your gods, O' Yisrael!"? Are we then still deserving of this Divine gift, or has our mutinous behavior gone too far? This troubled Moshe.

We seek segulos, good omens, and perform various good deeds and behaviors in order to receive Hashem's favor in our time of need. We forget, however, that it is the "simple" and "ordinary" behaviors, like davening, studying Torah, giving tzedakah, charity that we must maintain. All the extras are great, but if one is missing the basics, he is missing the essential.

Calev silenced the people. (13:30)

How did Calev get the attention of the people? How was he able to halt the rebellion momentarily, so that he could get a word in edgewise? Rashi explains that Calev intimated that he, too, was about to disparage Moshe. How did he indicate this? The Sifsei Chachamim quotes the Mizrachi, that when Calev referred to Moshe Rabbeinu as Ben Amram, the son of Amram, the people thought that he was on their side. After all, he had referred to Moshe by something other than his given name. This constituted disrespect. Obviously, he did not esteem Moshe as a leader. Once he got their attention, however, he was able to attempt to reason with them.

Horav Mordechai Ilan, zl, comments that calling someone by a name denoting his relationship to his father, rather than by his given name, is derogatory. It implies that his legitimacy is connected with his pedigree. He is not worthy in his own right. The z'chus avos, merit of his fathers, plays a critical role in his distinctiveness. This concept is reiterated in Scripture and Talmud. David Hamelech laments ad meh levodi lichlimah, which is interpreted as, "Until when will you be calling me Ben Yishai, which is shameful for me?" David was implying, "I have my own name. I should not be referred to by my father's name." In Shmuel I, II, the Navi refers to Shaul Hamelech as Ben Kish. In Shmuel 20:23, David is referred to as Ben Yishai," "Why did Ben Yishai not come to eat bread?"

The Talmud Shabbos 85, quotes the despotic prince of the Tribe of Shimon, who, as he was about to commit a hedonistic act with a Moavite woman, humiliated Moshe by calling him ben Amram. Likewise, when Moshe struck the rock, the people complained about him, employing the name ben Amram as a means for denigrating their leader. Likewise, in his commentary to Pirkei Avos, the Tosfos Yom Tov explains that Ben Bag Bag and Bein Heih Heih did not merit to be called by their own names. In the Talmud Sanhedrin 41, the revered Tanna, Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakai, was referred to as Ben Zakai, because he was learning Torah for himself. Yet, when he taught Torah to others, his full name was used.

Rav Ilan explains that this might be the reason for the prayer we say at a Bris, V'yikarei shemo b'Yisrael. The emphasis of shemo, his name, is our way of saying that we hope that the baby will not only be called by a name connecting him to his father. We would like him to have his own name, i.e., that he make a name for himself in his own right. This idea is underscored by the blessing we confer upon the rach ha'nimol, recently circumcised infant: zeh ha'katan gadol yiheyeh, "May this small one (child) become a gadol adult/great." We pray that this child manifest signs of growth in his own right, rather than rely on his father's merit. Z'chus avos, ancestral merit, is a wonderful bonus but, if it is all that one possesses, it is far from complimentary.

In this wilderness shall your carcass drop. (14:29)

During their forty-year trek through the wilderness, Klal Yisrael breached their relationship with Hashem, as they committed a number of transgressions. Yet, the Almighty punished the actual perpetrator and forgave the rest of the populace. These were not simple sins. The chet ha'eigal, sin of the Golden Calf, was no simple transgression. Shortly after they left Egypt, Klal Yisrael committed a sin of grave proportions, as they turned their backs on Hashem, Who had done so much for them. They were scared; their leader, Moshe Rabbeinu, was late in descending the mountain, so they sinned. This was no excuse. Yet, Hashem forgave them.

Klal Yisrael sinned when they were misonein, complained about the "conditions" to which they were subjected: no meat; Heavenly bread; let us go back to Egypt where we can have fish and melons. These were dreams, but if the dreams gave them reason to complain, they would use them. Such ingratitude, such lies - yet, Hashem forgave them. While the actual sinners paid with their lives, the rest of the nation received another demerit, but they were forgiven.

How can we forget the machlokes Korach, the debacle initiated by an individual who just was not happy with all of his wealth and prestige? He wanted more. He had his followers, but then all such despots present themselves as the hero of the oppressed, the man who caters to everyone's needs - not just to that of an elite few. Once again, lies and more lies. The perpetrators were punished by being swallowed alive into the earth. The rest of the people? Forgiven. In every sin, the immediate people were punished. Everyone else received a slap on the hands, and their teshuvah, repentance, was accepted.

What happened with the meraglim, spies? Until this very day, we continue to experience the aftershocks of that sin. It took place on Tishah B'Av, which became our national day of mourning, as we grieve for the two Batei Mikdash, Temples, which were destroyed then, as well. The decree went out, and every adult male between the ages of forty to sixty was going to perish in the wilderness. Essentially, the generation that left Egypt was told that it - in its entirety-- would not enter the Promised Land. No one was forgiven. How was this sin different from all of the others? A sin is a sin - is it not?

Obviously, with a question of such a compelling nature, the commentators, each in his own manner, render their understanding of the sin of the meraglim and its collective impact on Klal Yisrael. Horav Yitzchak Elchanan Spector, zl, offers a profound explanation - one that goes to the very crux of the attitude manifest by many of our co-religionists - both observant and non-observant. The rav derives from here that all aveiros, sins, are forgivable. Hashem embraces those who sin and allows them back into the "family" of Klal Yisrael, as long as they repent with sincerity. Hashem does not distinguish between those sins that are bein adam laMakom, perpetrated against G-d, and those which are bein adam l'chaveiro, sins against one's fellow man. A sin is a sin - and teshuvah is mechaper, atones. Thus, the sins of the Golden Calf, the misonenim, the complainers, who complained to Hashem, were forgiven, as well as the sins bein adam l'chaveiro of Korach and his henchmen. There is, however, one type of sin that is not forgivable: ben adam l'atzmo, sins against oneself. There is absolutely no excuse, and hence, no room for forgiveness, when a person sins against himself. Klal Yisrael cried in a manner which Chazal term a b'chiyah shel chinam, unwarranted weeping. They had nothing to worry about, yet, they cried. This is unwarranted and represents a sin against oneself. One who acts with shortsightedness, whose actions reflect simpleminded obtuseness, does not warrant forgiveness. The nation that sinned on that fateful night was not ready to enter Eretz Yisrael.

The concept of sinning against oneself has many ramifications, and, because I feel it is of critical importance, I use my writer's license to expound on the subject. There are those who deprive themselves of their G-d-given ability to live. Anecdotally, a middle-aged man collapsed in his office and succumbed. His physician, who had known him well for many years, confided to a mutual friend, "Jim sacrificed for his beliefs." "What beliefs did he cherish?" the friend queried. "Jim believed," the physician replied, "that he could live a thirty-five-year old life in a fifty-year-old body."

It is what one would call a bitter gelechter, bitter joke. Are we honest with ourselves? We are driven to succeed, run to achieve, go out of our way to acquire and amass more and more. For what purpose and at whose expense? Do we spend enough time with our children and our spouses, or are we too busy making money?

There is another form of sinning against ourselves. People make mistakes. This is a fact of life. It is how we react to these mistakes that determines our character. One should learn from his mistakes, so that he does not repeat them; in this way, he becomes a better person. There are, regrettably, those who ruminate over their past, becoming fixated on the errors of the past, to the point that they cannot go forward. Such a person loses his initiative to grow, to be productive, since he is constantly burdened with remorse. This does not mean that remorse is not a good thing. It is a vital component of the teshuvah process, but there is a difference between sincere regret and obsessive remorse. The essence of spirituality is to fill one's mission in life with positive activity, Torah study and maasim tovim, good deeds. When one is in a state of inaction due to his morbid approach to his past, he becomes paralyzed by depression and achieves nothing in life - other than making everyone around him miserable.

No one is perfect. The experts in emotional and mental health urge us to accept ourselves. While we may not necessarily approve of everything about ourselves - be it our origins, character, acumen or physical appearance - it is who we are, who Hashem created. Unless one comes to terms with "himself," he courts disaster. Indeed, Hashem only expects us to be "ourselves" - not someone else.

In a novel about Yeshiva life during World War II, a noted observant author relates the story of yeshivah students from different yeshivos who developed a relationship. As they began talking about their origins, one student said that he was an aveil, in mourning, for his mother who was murdered by the Nazis. The other student confessed, "I, too, am an orphan." Later in the story, this same student admitted that actually both of his parents were still alive: "But do not be disturbed that I told you I was an orphan. I was not lying. I meant that I am an orphan in a special way. Do you understand? I am an orphan - from myself."

Many of us do not realize that we have made ourselves into orphans by disregarding who we really are. We do not know ourselves. We underestimate our potential. We refuse to go that extra mile of achievement, as we eschew accepting new responsibilities for fear that we will not execute them appropriately. We shirk challenge, run away from responsibility; indeed, we deprive ourselves of the chance for success out of fear that we will not make it. One cannot win the race if he does not enter it. We have so little confidence in our G-d-given abilities. Is there a greater sin than this? In the event that, under pressure, we discover that we have risen to the challenge and excelled, our reaction is: "I did not know I had it in me." Is there anyone but ourselves who we could blame? We are compared to that yeshiva student who commented, "I am an orphan from myself." He was superior to us in that he was, at least, honest enough with himself to concede to the truth. We spend our lives hiding from the truth, blaming the entire world - but not ourselves.

I believe it was the Kotzker Rebbe, zl, who said, "The Almighty cannot be deceived, your neighbor must not be deceived; and one who deceives himself remains a fool." He also said, "Not only is one who hates another soul called wicked - but he who hates himself is also called wicked. This brings us to the last and quite possibly, the most egregious of sins, because of its impact upon everyone around us: self-loathing. An eighteenth century secular lawyer once said, "More of us than we care to admit live in self-made dungeons behind bars erected by our own resentment."

Self-hate is perhaps the most destructive form of hatred, since it is rarely identified and almost never placated. As a result of malignant self-hatred, one is plagued with self-imposed demons, and must take out his loathing on others. This is especially true in the area of religion, where we find the most radical usurpers of Torah Judaism are nothing more than demoralized individuals seeking to justify their own inadequacies and lack of faith by slandering those who are observant, undermining the religion.

A noted secular psychotherapist writes about his decades of dealing with troubled individuals, "I have dealt with maladjusted and troubled individuals… If I were to search for the central core of difficulty in people as I have come to know them, it is that in the great majority of cases they despise themselves, regard themselves as worthless and unlovable." The cruelty we inflict upon others is matched only by the cruelty we inflict upon ourselves. Old transgressions - real and imagined - are kept stored away in our mind, as if by keeping them fresh and bristling, we will succeed in exacting atonement by harsh self- condemnation. What we fail to realize is that atonement is achieved by positive change - not by self-flagellation. All we achieve by our self-hate is to create a miserable life for ourselves and all those who have the misfortune of being connected to us. Only someone who believes in himself and has a positive outlook can believe in others. One who himself is an emotional wreck inevitably inflicts his own failings on others.

It shall constitute Tzitzis for you, that you may see it and remember all the commandments of Hashem. (15:38)

What is it about the mitzvah of Tzitzis that the Torah, more so than for any other mitzvah, emphasizes that it will engender within us the remembrance of all of the other mitzvos? The commentators render explanations, ranging from the simple p'shat, to the homiletic and even to the esoteric. Perhaps, we might suggest the following: Tzitzis, unlike any other mitzvah, also comprises the Jew's uniform. A Tallis katan is worn all day. The Tallis gadol is worn during davening, and some righteous Jews even sit in their Tallis and Tefillin throughout the day. In any event, the Tallis is the Jew's uniform, which he wears with pride. When a person speaks with Hashem during his moments of prayer, the Tallis ensconces him. When a person leaves this world, the Tallis covers his mortal remains. In other words, what greater witness to a person's avodas Hashem, service to the Almighty, is there than the Tallis/Tzitzis which he wears constantly? What does this have to do with remembering all of the mitzvos? Simply, he needs the support of his Tzitzis when he stands before the Almighty. One does not "mess around" in front of his most critical witness. Therefore, the Tzitzis reinforces his commitment to all of the other mitzvos.

Horav Aharon Rokeach, zl, the Belzer Rebbe, would encourage Bar-Mitzvah boys, as they entered the mitzvah of Tefillin, to accept upon themselves never to speak divrei chullin, mundane matters, while wearing the Tefillin. Understandably, this is a powerful commitment to accept and even more difficult to maintain. One of the special young men, who with great resolution succeeded in keeping with the Rebbe's adjuration, became a chassan. On the day of his wedding, he appeared before the Rebbe to ask for his blessing. The Rebbe asked, "Are you prepared to accept upon yourself never to speak mundane matters while you are wearing your Tallis - as you accepted with regard to your Tefillin?" The chassan replied in the affirmative.

The Rebbe then explained the reason for his request. "After one hundred and twenty years, when you will come before the Heavenly Tribunal, you will be judged for your actions in your mortal life. The eimas ha'din, fear/awe of judgment, will be compelling. You will stand there entirely overwhelmed. You will have one support, however, one merit in your behalf: you are standing wrapped in your Tallis, the Tallis that you wore all of your adult life. This Tallis will attest to the fact that you never spoke mundane speech the entire time that you wore your Tallis. You will say to the Tribunal: During my mortal years, I spoke nothing but words of Torah while I was wearing my Tallis. This time should be no different. Let us talk Torah!"

The Taz left over in his will that, should he die, he insists that he be buried in his old Tallis, because it would testify before Hashem that its wearer never had inappropriate thoughts during the Shemoneh Esrai prayer. Therefore, the Tzitzis garment, with the accompanying Tallis, spent the "day" with its wearer - a phenomenon not unknown to the wearer. He is acutely aware that the Tzitzis are with him for the duration of his physical journey - even serving as his "chaperone" and life witness as his soul stands before the Heavenly Tribunal. Thus, the Tzitzis is a perfect reminder of his religious affiliation and concomitant responsibilities. One expects a witness to testify to the truth. In order to facilitate this, it is necessary to provide the witness with positive activity, so that his testimony will be in his behalf - not to his detriment.

Horav Yosef Berger, Shlita, relates a well-known story, which also, in an earlier edition, found its way into Peninim. It is one well-worth repeating for the lesson it imparts concerning the significance of the garments one wears in the performance of a mitzvah. In a small town, it was discovered that an individual whose reputation as a tzaddik, righteous person, preceded him, had been buried without the traditional tachrichim, shrouds, and Tallis. Instead, this saintly Jew had been buried wearing the vestments of a priest. After research into this anomaly, it was discovered that it was at the tzaddik's behest that he had been buried in such a strange uniform. The reason was based on an incident which had occurred during his life.

Apparently, aside from his spiritual devotion, this man was also very devoted to the poor of his community, seeing to it that those who had unfortunately been unable to put bread on the table would have the means to do so. He reached out to widows and orphans, young men and women who stood at the threshold of matrimony, without a cent to their name. He found ways to help them all. Not being a wealthy man himself, this meant dedicating a number of hours each day to knocking on doors, raising money for those in need. Over the years, he became the address for all those who were down and out.

One day, during his house-to-house collections, he chanced upon a group of men who were having what they perceived as a good time. The cards were out, and the whiskey was flowing. In the midst of this revelry, there was a knock on the door and a solemn-faced rabbi stands there asking for alms to marry off a poor orphan girl. These men were perhaps fine people in an inebriated state. Now, they were into having some "fun." "We will give you what you want. In fact, we will pay for the wedding, if you don a priest's vestments and walk through the city - all day."

This was a pretty heavy request, but the tzaddik was unfazed. He went to the local monastery and borrowed a uniform of the church. He walked throughout the town all day, to the jeers and banter of all who beheld his strange costume. At the end of the day, he appeared at the house of "fun" and asked the men to pay up. Having sobered up a bit, they realized what they had promised, but they were true to their word and paid for the wedding.

Prior to his passing, the tzaddik asked the members of the chevra kaddisha, Jewish Burial Society, to bury him in the priestly vestments, which he had saved: "They will be my protection before the Heavenly Tribunal. The shame which I sustained on behalf of a poor orphan girl will confirm my entrance into Gan Eden."

Va'ani Tefillah

Hashem Echad - Hashem is One.

We note that the daled at the end of the word Echad is written in a larger "font" than the rest of the letters. This is done to insure that it not be misread as a reish, which would form the word acheir, other (gods). Likewise, in the word acheir of the pasuk, lo sishtachaveh l'eil acheir, "Do not prostrate yourselves to an alien god" (Shemos 34:14), the reish is written in a large font, to avoid the error of reading the reish as a daled, which would form the word echad. This would imply that a Jew should not bow down to the True One G-d.

In his commentary to Sefer Devarim 6:4, Horav S.R. Hirsch, zl, comments, the reish of the polytheistic thought is accommodatingly rounded, while the daled which expresses the Jewish truth is sharply angular. This intimates that, with the loss of a little sharpness/acuity, the echad, one, becomes acheir, alien. The message is quite clear and concise: Hashem Echad is a sharply defined concept. There are no "grays," no other possibilities. It is this way - and only this way.

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