Back to This Week's Parsha

Peninim on the Torah

subscribe.gif (2332 bytes)

Previous issues

Rabbi A. Leib Scheinbaum
Hebrew Academy of Cleveland


You shall not turn from the word that they will tell you, right or left. (17:11)

The spiritual leadership of Klal Yisrael makes their decision only after careful deliberation into the halachah, law. It is rendered by individuals whose relationship with Torah is of a singular nature. Their exemplary love for the Torah goes hand in hand with their profound scholarship. Their interpretation of the Torah is law. We are commanded to listen to them, even when the decision they render seems unjustified or incorrect. They represent the final word. To undermine the words of Chazal is to attack the Torah. The following incredible story was related by Horav David Puvarsky.

The story takes place in Russia where Horav Moshe Feinstein, zl, was rav. In his city there lived a malshin, informer, who went out of his way to endear himself to the authorities at the expense of his Jewish brethren. As a result of his close relationship with the government, people were afraid of him, never knowing whether they would be his next sacrifice. Undoubtedly, he caused great difficulty and anxiety for the small Jewish community. People shied away from him, as they developed an intense hatred for him.

Everybody is destined to leave this temporary world at one time or another. The informer's turn had come to return his soul to his Maker. On the last day of his life, he asked for the chevra kadisha, Jewish burial society, to come visit him, so that he could make one special request of them. When they arrived, the informer told them that he was acutely aware of the many sins that plagued his life. He fully understood the evil he had perpetrated and the terrible hurt he had caused to so many people. In his desire to expiate a malevolent life, he asked them to bury him in the ground in a fashion similar to that of a donkey - with his legs standing in a vertical position.

The men standing around the informer's bed were moved by the wicked man's plea. Thus, they gave him their word and afterward signed a document stating that they would accede to his request to be buried as a donkey.

After the informer died, word got back to the rav , Rav Moshe Feinstein, that they were about to bury a Jewish person in a manner antithetical to Torah dictate. Rav Moshe was vehement; he would not permit a Jew to be buried in such a denigrating manner.

As soon as he spoke, the people accepted his decision and buried the informer in the proper manner. The next morning, the mishtarah, secret police, showed up immediately following the burial, demanding to have the corpse exhumed so that they could see in what manner the informer was buried. The chevra kadisha refused to exhume the body. They claimed it was against Jewish law to dig up a body. The police said that it was not their responsibility if the Torah law was being undermined or not. They wanted to view the body, and no one could prevent them from doing what they wanted to do.

The chevra kadisha saw that arguing with the police was to no avail. They had made up their mind to exhume the informer. They proceeded to dig up the grave. They peered inside, saw the manner in which the informer was buried and left peacefully. It was only then that the members of the chevra kadisha realized the incredible miracle that had just occurred for them. The reason that the police sought to search the burial site was because the informer told his gentile friends that the Jews hated him, and they would surely bury him like a donkey. Even as he stood at his death's threshold, the miscreant attempted to take one last shot at his People. This person's self-hate prevailed over his sense of reason. He was willing to go to his death, to his eternal punishment, with one more sin on his record. Had he been buried in accordance with his wish, the entire Jewish community's lives would have been in danger. Such was his evil.

It was only the Daas Torah, the wisdom that is the result of being immersed in Torah that characterized Rav Moshe, that prevented a tragedy from occurring. This narrative is a tribute to the greatness in Torah that personified the individual who was the posek hador, halachic arbiter, whose decisions encompassed and addressed every area of human endeavor. We also note the evil that permeates some people. The informer knew he was dying. Rather than repent, he was determined to make one more attempt to hurt the People from whom he had become estranged. While condemning this person is easy, we might want to ask ourselves what could have happened in his life that prompted such virulent hatred towards his People?

And it shall be with him, and he shall read therein all the days of his life. (17:19)

The Sefer Torah shall be the primary focus of the king's life. As it guides him through life, it shall be the object of his continual meditation. The love of Torah creates a bond that cannot be broken. Its influence is ever-lasting. Indeed, many years later, the original impact of the Torah upon a person retains its freshness and inspiration as evidenced by the following story. Horav Yitzchak Zilberstein, Shlita, tells of a Yerushalmi Jew, a profound talmid chacham, Torah scholar, who moved to Tzefas. The story takes place years ago when the opportunity and availability to own a complete twenty-volume shas was rare. This scholar possessed one volume, which contained mesechtos, tractates, Beitzah and Rosh Hashanah. This was the "shas" which he took with him to Tzefas.

Regrettably, the city of Tzefas did not possess added volumes. Thus, these two mesechtos became the focus of his love and devotion to Torah. During his stay in Tzefas, he reviewed this volume over three thousand times! While this individual was a talmid chacham of repute, he nonetheless asked his children, prior to his death, to inscribe on his tombstone only the fact that he had reviewed one mesechta over three thousand times. "Who knows," he said, "if this feat will one day inspire another Jew to love the Torah as I do."

Many years later, a distinguished family in Bnei Brak was shocked to learn that one of their sons had left the yeshivah where he had been studying, trading his seat in the bais hamedrash for a place in the street with a gang of young, rebellious hoodlums. The parents were broken-hearted. They made every attempt to bring their child back to the living - to no avail. The more they tried, the more he rejected their pleas. The influence of his newly-found friends kept him in a stranglehold that was unyielding.

One day, out of the clear blue, the young man returned to his family and to Hashem. He asked to return to the yeshivah, and, in a short while, he was counted among the masmidim, more diligent students, of the yeshivah. Today, he is a great Torah scholar, a disseminator of Torah, par excellence. In fact, that episode in his life, when he had left Torah, is long-forgotten, erased as if it had never occurred.

What catalyzed his about-face? What brought about his return to Torah Judaism? A short while after his spiritual metamorphosis he related the reason to his parents. "I once had occasion to visit a cemetery in Tzefas," he told his parents, "and I noticed by chance the tombstone of a Torah scholar, upon which was engraved the fact that he had reviewed one volume of Talmud over three thousand times! What impressed me the most was the fact that a basically simple Jew - not a rosh yeshivah or a rav - just a simple Jew, whose overwhelming love for Torah inspired him to review the Talmud so many times. This man's exemplary devotion, his incredible love for Torah, awakened within me a spark that became a passionate flame. If he could do this, why could not I? I then made up my mind to pursue my own studies with a similar enthusiasm and fervor."

What a poignant and beautiful story! There are a number of lessons to be derived herein. Quite possibly, the most significant is the impact our actions have on others, even over a period of time. Who would have thought that this young man would be walking in the cemetery and would notice a stone with a simple, but profound, message on it? But then, who are we to attempt to understand Hashem's ways?

What man is there that is fearful and faint-hearted?… lest his brethren's heart melt as his heart. (20:8)

The one who is afraid of the dangers that accompany war, whose anxiety overwhelms him, is sent home, lest his faintheartedness affect those around him. The Tchortkover Rebbe, zl, was once asked by one of his chassidim which shul he should attend. It seems that his community had two synagogues; one was a large community shul, while the other was a small shteibel frequented primarily by chassidim. The Rebbe responded that whichever shul had a member who prayed with a broken heart; that is the shul in which he should daven.

He supported his answer with the above pasuk. We derive from the pasuk that one person with a faint heart, who is devastated by his fear of battle, is sent home because of his negative effect on those around him. Certainly then if there is a shul member who is heart-broken, his effect will be all-encompassing.

And they shall measure unto the cities which around about he who was slain. (21:2)

If a corpse is found in the open country and the identity of the murderer is unknown, the elders of the town nearest the corpse perform the ritual of eglah arufah, the axed heifer. There is a dispute in the Talmud in regard to a circumstance in which the decapitated head of the corpse is found a distance from the rest of the body. From where do we measure: from the head or from the body? In addressing the second Kenessiah Gedolah in Vienna in 1929 the Sokolover Rebbe, zl, asked, "When the deceased is a spiritual casualty, when we did nothing to stem the spread of the plague of heresy, who is to be considered responsible? Should it be the 'head', the spiritual leaders of the community, who did not take the threat to the spiritual fiber of the community seriously, who did little to teach the people to fortify them against the disease of heresy? Perhaps, it should be the body, the general public who did not do enough to strengthen the spiritual foundation of their community."

Is it much different in contemporary times? A young man or young woman, at times even an entire family, fall through the cracks and are lost to their People. Whose fault is it? Is it the spiritual leadership who should have taken a greater interest, or is it the community who are too involved with themselves to worry about the individual who just does not fit in? Unfortunately, while we are arguing regarding where to place the onus of guilt, more souls are being lost.

And they shall axe the back of its neck in the valley. (21:4)

The murder of a Jew is a terrible tragedy which is compounded when the perpetrator might be another Jew. The parsha of eglah arufah, the axed heifer, addresses a situation where a corpse is found lying in the open. We have no idea who the murderer is. The Torah requires that the elders of the town nearest to the corpse perform a public ritual in which they proclaim that they are not responsible, neither by neglect nor by indifference, for the tragedy of this person's death. The primary purpose of this parsha is to convey an important message: We are responsible for our brother. Everyone must feel a share of guilt. Did we attend to his needs? Did we make sure he had accompaniment as he left town? Passive neglect and indifference are quite often as destructive as active hatred and abuse. They achieve the same degree of devastation.

Horav Meir Shapiro, zl, addresses an interesting Chazal in Meseches Yoma 23a which relates to the laws of eglah arufah. Chazal teach that it once occurred that two Kohanim were racing up the ramp to the Mizbayach, Altar, to perform the service. As one saw the other about to overtake him, he took out a knife and thrust it into the other Kohen's heart. When the great Sage Rabbi Tzadok heard this, he stood on the steps of the Ulam, Hall leading to the interior of the Bais Hamikdash, and said, "My brethren, of the House of Yisrael, Listen! Behold, it says in the Torah (Devarim 21:1) 'If one is found slain in the land… then your elders and judges shall come forth…' On whose behalf shall we offer the heifer whose neck is broken - on behalf of the city, or on behalf of the Temple Courts?" Upon hearing this, all of those assembled burst out weeping. Obviously, Chazal are addressing a very profound matter. Certainly, Rabbi Tzadok is not referring to the need of an eglah arufah for the victim of this wanton act of murder. As the Talmud itself notes, there is no provision for eglah arufah in Yerushalayim. Moreover, the ritual of eglah arufah is performed only when the identity of the murderer is unknown. This is surely not true in this circumstance. What is the underlying meaning of this Chazal? Rav Meir Shapiro views this story in the context of the period in history in which it occurred. It was during the Herodian period in Jewish history when the discord that reigned in Klal Yisrael was rampant and devastating. The hostility between the Perushim and the Tzedokim, the observant against those that would undermine the validity and authority of Torah, was tearing apart the spirit of brotherhood that had once existed. Demoralization, depression, spiritual and moral bankruptcy are words that aptly characterize the situation of Jewish life in general and the individual Jew in particular.

When Rabbi Tzadok saw a Kohen murder his brother in cold blood, he was acutely aware that it was not the love of the mitzvah that had motivated this wanton act of murder. He realized that it was a deep-seated hatred that had lain dormant, waiting for an opportunity, looking for an excuse to justify killing another Jew. The mask of frumkeit, religious observance, concealed a venomous animosity towards a fellow Jew. It was not frumkeit, because an observant Jew does not act in this manner. This hatred grew out of the streets of Yerushalayim, from the shallow drifters, from the alienated and assimilated, those whose hatred for Hashem's service and for those that serve Him dominate their lives. This virus was brought into the holy Bais Hamikdash where it festered into an act of murder.

Rabbi Tzadok asked, "For whom shall we bring the eglah arufah? Who is guilty of this innocent blood: Is it the city? Is it the streets of Jerusalem? Or is the Temple Court itself?! Is this fight a hatred between brothers, or is it a milchemes mitzvah, a holy war to purge evil?" Perhaps, as a postscript, we might want to ask ourselves a similar question in regard to the infighting that seems to ensue in the various camps of our People - between the observant and the non-observant and, regrettably, even among the observant. Is it a milchemes mitzvah, or simply a milchamah?

Vignettes on the Parsha

Judges and officers you shall make for you. (16:18)

The Klausenberger Rebbe, zl, interpreted this pasuk as an enjoinment to appoint judges for you, that they shall not fear judging you, the one who appointed them. It is important that the leadership we appoint be individuals who fear no man, whose integrity is impeccable, who do not feel beholden to anyone - even the individual who appointed them.


And they shall judge the people with righteous judgment. (16:18)

When a stranger comes to a community in which he knows no one, he inquires of the rav or the shochet, ritual slaughterer, if they are G-d-fearing men. If the leadership is G-d-fearing, it indicates that the community is probably spiritually reputable. The Arugas HaBosem interpreted the pasuk in this light: If you will appoint reputable judges, G-d-fearing men of integrity, then you can expect people on the outside to "judge the people of your community" in a righteous light. If the leadership is upstanding, we can hope for the same from the common man.


You shall not deviate from the word that they tell you, right or left. (17:11)

We must obey the decision of the Rabbinical court, even if we are convinced that they are wrong. Horav Isser, zl, m'Bobroisk, observed that it is better to accept a crooked answer from a straight person than a straight answer from a crooked person.

Sponsored by
Rabbi and Mrs. Sroy Levitansky
in memory of
Mr. Sol Rosenfeld


Peninim on the Torah is in its 7th year of publication. The first five years have been published in book form.

The fifth 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