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Peninim on the Torah

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Rabbi A. Leib Scheinbaum
Hebrew Academy of Cleveland


He (Moshe) said to Aharon: Take yourself a young bull for a Sin-offering… Take a he-goat for a Sin-offering. (9:2,3)

The Targum Yonasan comments that Aharon Hakohen's korban was brought as atonement for the sin of the Golden Calf, and the korban brought by the people was to expiate the sin of mechiras Yosef, the sale of Yosef by his brothers. One wonders why it was precisely now after yetzias Mitzrayim (the exodus from Egypt), Krias Yam Suf (the splitting of the Red Sea), and Matan Torah (the Giving of the Torah), that Klal Yisrael needed to atone for the sale of Yosef. If it did not prevent the other miracles from taking place, why should it be brought to the fore now, of all times?

The Meshech Chochmah gives a practical explanation. Up until now, Klal Yisrael could have maintained an excuse to justify their ancestors' sale of Yosef: he would bring evil reports about his brothers to his father. Rather than speak disparagingly of their activities, he should have personally rebuked them. Now, after the sin of the Golden Calf, when Chur was killed for condemning Klal Yisrael's actions, they could no longer justify the sale of Yosef. Apparently, they were unable to accept reproach. Especially now, their actions indicated that their long-standing excuse was not valid.

Horav Yitzchak Zilberstein, Shlita, notes that we are all like that. Everyone attempts to gloss over his sins, seeking to justify his indiscretions with flimsy excuses that he might even personally believe. There will come a day when our excuses will not be valid, when we will have to confront the Heavenly Tribunal and the hypocrisy of our actions will become clearly visible. This is the meaning of the words we recite in the Tefillah of U'nesaneh tokef, "You will open the Book of Chronicles - it will read itself, and everyone's signature is in it." We, by our actions, sign our own verdict.

We go through life deceiving ourselves, refusing to concede that we might be wrong. While this is a problem in regard to our relationships with our peers, it is an insurmountable barrier in our relationship with the Almighty. As Horav Shlomo Freifeld, zl, points out, the stellar dialogue between man and Hashem begins with the words, Shema Yisrael, "Hear, O Yisrael." The initial word of Krias Shema is, Shema, hear/listen. The relationship can begin only after we are willing to hear, to listen, to accept. We must listen to each other, but we must first listen to ourselves. We must listen with honesty, with humility, with courage and without fear. We must listen to who we are, what our goals are, and how we expect to achieve them.

Regrettably, many of us do not want to listen as we delude ourselves, living a life of illusion, until the day that the bubble bursts. We would rather live a life of blissful ignorance than confront the implications that accompany facing the truth. The burden of truth can be very cumbersome. Klal Yisrael did not hear that there might have been two sides to the Yosef story. They did not realize that Yosef might have had a good reason for not rebuking his brothers. He felt it would not have accomplished anything. For many years, this was the belief, an opinion that was accepted throughout the generations. Then Chur tried to get a word in edgewise. He attempted to rebuke Klal Yisrael. They killed him. This indicated that Yosef had been justified in his assumption. Now, they listened.

And they died before Hashem. (10:2)

What is the meaning of dying "before Hashem"? Is that not a given? Horav Yitzchok Zilberstein, Shlita, tells a story about an elderly Jew that lends insight into the meaning of this term. He was approached by an old man and asked if he would study Mishnayos with him. The man's face made it obvious that he was quite serious in his request. Rav Zilberstein asked the man what had prompted this request. The man's response should have a compelling effect on all of us. "I am a survivor of the concentration camps. I was beaten, persecuted and the subject of a number of heinous medical experiments," he said. "At war's end, I had survived, but the Nazis made sure that I would be the last member of my family. I could never have children after the war. I became older and began to realize that, before long, I would have to confront my mortality. I began to think about the future, and I became concerned about who would learn Mishnayos for my neshamah, soul, after my death? I then decided that it would be me; I would learn Mishnayos for myself. Rebbe, I am preparing myself for that time when I will have no one to learn for me. That is why I ask you to study with me."

This is the meaning of "dying before Hashem." One who "lives before Hashem," who understands during his lifetime that he always stands before the Almighty, that he is never alone. About him, it can be said that in death he died "before Hashem."

Do not leave your heads unshorn and do not rend your garments. (10:6)

The period of the Chanukas ha'Mishkan, Inauguration of the Sanctuary, was a time of great joy and festivity. In order not to interfere with this joy, Hashem prohibited the usual expression of grief, even for the brothers of Nadav and Avihu. In the Musrai Ha'Shalah, cited by Horav Yitzchok Shraga Gross, Shlita, it is written that if we are exhorted not to tear the garments that cover the body, certainly we must be careful to protect the neshamah, soul, to insure that it remains whole and complete without any tears. In his Mesillas Yesharim, The Ramchal writes that hesach ha'daas, distraction, from reflecting on the two truths that one must keep in mind constantly in order to acquire the middah, attribute, of yiraas Shomayim, fear of Heaven, results in attenuation of yiraah.

One must always be aware that the Divine Presence is everywhere and that He looks upon all things, great and small, and nothing is hidden from Him. If one is masiach daas from this awareness, he is in danger of losing his yiraas Shomayim. Indeed, the Melech Yisrael, Jewish king, was to have with him his personal Sefer Torah from which he would read everyday of his life, so that he would learn to fear Hashem.

Horav Chaim Shmuelevitz, zl, comments that this enjoinment is not only for a king, but for each and every Jew: not to become distracted from the Torah and our avodas Hashem, service to the Almighty. The reason that so many fail to reach the summit of Torah erudition is hesech ha'daas, distraction. For example, a new z'man, semester, begins in the yeshivah, and every student charts his course for exemplary achievement. Regrettably, as we all know, it does not happen. What happens? It is always the same problem. They come across a difficult passage in their learning or encounter a difficult situation. Instead of rising to the challenge, they defer, pushing it off until "another time" or the next zman. This goes on all the time. Every time there is a "bump" in the road to success, we push off the problem, claiming that next time it will be different, we will work harder. The Baalei Mussar, Ethicists, compare this to a person who is heating water for coffee. Every time, just before it boils, he removes the pot from the flame. He can do this one thousand times and, in the end, he will not have a cup of hot coffee, because it never has the chance to boil!

The Chazon Ish, zl, would say, "It is easier to learn eighteen hours a day than to learn six hours." The reason is simple. In a period of six hours, one still has a good part of the day remaining during which he can push off or get around the mandatory six hours. In an eighteen-hour seder, however, there is no time left over. After all, one must sleep. The only alternative to learning is - learning.

A distinguished kollel fellow came to the Chazon Ish and poured out his heart to him: "My whole purpose in getting married when I did was that I could continue pursuing my Torah studies, uninterrupted and unimpeded. Yet, ever since my wedding, my wife, who is truly a special person, constantly interrupts my studies. She is always encouraging me to go places with her or sending me on errands. If it is not that, she finds things for me to do around the house, activities that are innocuous, but, nonetheless, interfere with my studies."

The Chazon Ish looked deep into the man's tear-streaked eyes and began to smile. "My dear young man," the Chazon Ish began, "there are two who know whether a man's intentions are sincere: Hashem Yisborach and his wife. If your spouse senses that you truly want to study without interruption, she would be the first to help you achieve your goal. She would sacrifice everything for you. However, I am certain that she feels that your intentions are not as noble as they may seem. Most likely, she is aware that you leave your studies for a few minutes here and there for no apparent reason, wandering aimlessly about the house. When she sees this, she thinks to herself, 'If he is not going to study, he might as well help me!'

"Trust me," the Chazon Ish concluded, "if you apply yourself to your studies genuinely, with sincerity and diligence, you will quickly see that your wife will rush to support you."

The young man took heed of the Chazon Ish's words and accepted upon himself to study Torah, unhindered and uninterrupted. His wife took note of the change in her husband's study habits and made every effort to be supportive of him. This young man eventually developed into one of Yerushalayim's outstanding Torah scholars.

This dual lesson concerning Torah study and the husband-wife relationship is both timely and practical.

Do not make yourselves abominable by means of any teeming thing; do not contaminate yourselves through them lest you become contaminated through them. (11:43)

The aleph is missing from the word v'nitmeisem and it can, therefore, be read as v'nitamtem, "lest you become dulled." This causes Chazal to posit in the Talmud Yoma 39b that one who consumes forbidden food causes his spiritual potential to become limited. In his Moreh Nevuchim, the Rambam writes that the reason that the Torah forbade ingesting non-kosher/unclean animals is that the nature of the animal will "stick" to the person who eats it, and these creatures have a nature that is not desirable for Klal Yisrael. Chazal suggest a number of catalysts for Elisha ben Avuya's apostasy. His transformation from being the rebbe of Rabbi Meir to becoming an apikores, heretic, was attributed to one factor: when his mother was pregnant with him, she walked by an avodah zarah, idol, and whiffed the aroma of the sacrifices that were being offered. Another Tanna contends that she ate a small piece of meat. In any event, whatever she consumed traveled through her body like a poison, compromising the spiritual development of her yet unborn child. He was born with a spiritual defect: an intense desire to sin. Imagine the devastating impact of forbidden food! It goes so far that the Shach posits that in the event a woman legally partook of non-kosher food, such as if she were critically ill, she should nonetheless not nurse a Jewish childú due to the effect of the food she ate on the child. Last, the Zohar Hakadosh writes that there is a ruach ha'tumah, spirit of contamination, that hovers over forbidden foods, which causes the mind of one who consumes them to become unclear and indecisive.

Horav Chaim Soloveitzhik, zl, would often relate the following incident that occurred concerning the Rambam. A similar version is written in the Sefer Degel Machne' Ephraim.

When the Rambam visited Yemen, he met with a great gaon, Talmudic scholar, with whom he later started a correspondence. In one of the first letters from the rav, a question was presented that struck the Rambam as very odd - almost sacrilegious. He wondered how such an erudite and pious Jew could ask such a philosophic question that bordered on heresy. There was only one excuse: the man had an impure soul. The letters kept on coming, and the Rambam's response was always the same: inspect the shochtim, ritual slaughterers, of your community. The matter was taken under strict advisory after which it was discovered that for the past thirteen years a number of indiscretions had taken place and, from a halachic standpoint, the people of that community, including the rav, had been eating non-kosher meat! The Rambam's observation had been correct. For a person of this stature to present heretical questions could mean only one thing; his soul was spiritually compromised due to the food he was ingesting.

A similar incident occurred in contemporary times as related by Horav Chaim Kanievski, Shlita. An elderly man, who had been a successful professor and had raised a family of bnei Torah, came to Rav Chaim and related, "I have been troubled by the following thoughts for over seventy-seven years. When I was a young boy, I was reputed to be an illui, genius. I was proficient in Talmud, grasping and retaining the material quicker and longer than anyone else. The yeshivah that I attended would have vacation once or twice a year. One day after we returned from the Shavuos "break," shortly after my Bar-Mitzvah, I could no longer learn as I had before. My brilliance was suddenly a thing of the past. My secular proficiency however, increased, regrettably at the expense of my Torah studies. No secular subject was too difficult, but my ability to achieve any kind of proficiency in Torah studies had reached its limit.

"This went on for years," he continued. "I made some brilliant investments that paid off handsomely, allowing me to support my family in great wealth. I was successful in everything, except Torah study. I could not learn a blatt Gemorah, page of Talmud.

"Recently, I read a story in the Sefer Yerushalayim Shel Maalah which relates how a woman came to seek advice from Horav Akiva Eiger, zl, concerning her son who had suddenly, for no apparent reason, ceased to have a desire to learn Torah. What should she do? He was refusing to go to the bais hamedrash. Rav Akiva Eiger thought for a few moments and replied, "Probably he ate something that was unkosher, and it affected him." The woman's response was to be expected, "It is impossible. We only keep kosher in our home. There is no way that my son could have even come in contact with unkosher food."

The woman returned home and began to search for clues regarding the true kashrus of her home. After some investigation, she discovered to her dismay that the rav of her community, upset by the moral rectitude of the community's shochet, had invalidated his shechitah. The shochet was a mechutzaf, insolent, and disregarded the rav's decision. Hence, the people of that town who continued to eat his meat were actually eating unkosher food. It happened that a member of the community had made a wedding and - in order to defray the cost of the food - ordered the meat from the disputed shochet. This women's son had attended the wedding!

"Keeping this story in mind, I reminded myself of an incident that took place in my youth, shortly before I lost my ability to study Torah," the man continued. My family was staying at a hotel, and one day I went out for a short stroll. I met a group of non-Jewish teenagers who began to taunt me for being different. The pressure was building up as they began calling me all kinds of names due to my religious leanings. I contended that I was no different than they were. They put me to a test: 'You must eat some pork,' they demanded. I sought every excuse to dissuade their demand, but they persisted. I finally agreed to take a piece of pork home to eat. They did not fall for my ruse and insisted that I, at least, suck a bone. Regrettably, I agreed. When I returned home I related the incident to my parents, who became upset with me. I remember until this day the petch, physical reprimand, I received from my father that night. When I think about it, ever since that day I have not been able to understand a blatt Gemorah."

This is an incredible story that carries with it a compelling message.

Because of the love which You adored him and the joy with which You delighted in him, You name him Yisrael and Yeshurun.

Klal Yisrael is referred to by two names: Yisrael and Yeshurun. Not only do these names have disparate meaning, they are also written differently. Yisrael is written in lashon yachid, the singular, while Yeshurun is written in lashon rabim, plural form. How are we to understand this distinction? The Baruch Taam gives the following explanation. It is the natural tendency of a father to exhibit greater love to his only child than to any one child in a family of many children. The reason is simple: He channels all of his emotion and love to his one son, while one who has a large family has to divide his love among all of his children. On the other hand, one who has only one son is always nervous lest something happen to him, so that the father will be left with only memories. Certainly, one son does not ever replace another; nonetheless, one who has a large family will not be left bereft of children. In other words, one who has an only child will have greater love, but it will be a love filled with a certain amount of tension. On the other hand, one who has a large family might have to spread his love around a bit, but his joy is greater than his counterpart.

Hashem loves Klal Yisrael, and He experiences great joy from them. It is simultaneously, as one who has one child and as one who has many children. When it comes to love, the singular is used to demonstrate the great love Hashem has for Yisrael, His only son. In regard to the joy Hashem has with Klal Yisrael, the plural is used to emphasize the great joy that accompanies a large family.

Peninim on the Torah is in its 14th year of publication. The first nine years have been published in book form.

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

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