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Peninim on the Torah

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Rabbi A. Leib Scheinbaum
Hebrew Academy of Cleveland


Justice, justice shall you pursue. (16:20)

Everybody wants justice, but how far are you willing to go to acquire it? The Torah enjoins us to "pursue" justice, run after it. Rashi explains that the idea of pursuing justice demands that we make every effort to seek out the most competent court to hear the case when a dispute involves another Jew. This applies even if it is a simple-- open and shut--case that any court could easily adjudicate. The Sifsei Chachamim adds that the claimant must go to the most learned and impartial court. We wonder to whom this law applies. Certainly not to a deceitful person who has no respect for the law and whose level of integrity is sorely lacking. Anyone intent on cheating another Jew will blatantly disregard this law. Apparently, the Torah is addressing an honest person, one who is a paragon of virtue, who feels that he has been cheated and would like to retrieve his hard-earned money. He believes in what he is doing, is confident in his position and would have no problem going to any court. Yet, the Torah insists that he go to a bais din of knowledgeable judges, the finest, most reputable judges to be found. Why should one who is certain that he is right have to travel far to attend the court of a famous judge even when there is an adequate bais din right in his own back yard?

Horav A. Henach Leibowitz, zl, explains that it is all a question of standards. The Torah requires us to maintain a maximum standard of integrity and honesty. We must always introspect, asking ourselves: Are we really sure that it is the way we claim? Are our motives above reproach, or is there a subtle hint of inappropriateness involved here? Horav Simchah Bunim, zl, m'Peshischa was wont to say, "Even the tzedek, justice, must be pursued with tzedek, righteousness." The end does not justify the means. A holy goal must be achieved by equally holy means. He would add, "All of the siyagim, fences, were erected by Chazal for the purpose of protecting us, so that we do not inadvertently commit a sin. The only harchakah, demanding distancing, from a sin which is Biblical is the admonishment, Midvar sheker tirchak, "Distance yourself from a false word." (Shemos 23:7) The Rebbe asked, "What is the difference between one who hates falsehood and one who loves honesty? One who despises sheker, falsehood, hates the entire world, because there is no one who is not tainted by a slight vestige of falsehood. The one who loves honesty loves the entire world, because everybody has a little integrity within himself."

Returning to the explanation of why the Torah demands that one seek the most competent court, even if it is a simple case and the claimant knows that he is right. It is our responsibility to protect the individual whom we are accusing. Thus, we are to eliminate even a slight chance that a court which is not that adept might adjudicate the law against the accused, thereby causing us to take someone else's money inappropriately. The Torah wants us to choose a court of law, not because it will grant us the best deal, but rather, because it will be the most accurate and precise, making sure that the accused will not be inadvertently wronged. In other words, we are not just out to win - we are out to seek the truth, regardless of the consequences.

If the Torah expects the individual to go that extra mile, regardless of how much trouble it might be, just in order to avoid the remote possibility of unintentional dishonesty, how much more so must he bend over backwards to refrain from any action that is questionable in nature. This does not mean direct dishonesty - but "questionable" actions, regardless of the percentages. A Jew should be the paragon of integrity in all of his dealings because that characteristic is integral to being a Jew. One must beware of the liar more than of the thief, because a thief steals one's money, while a liar steals his mind.

The Maggid, zl, m'Kelm would say, "The liar is even more disgraceful than the thief. The thief fears people; therefore, he commits his evil under the cover of darkness, hidden from sight and sound. The liar has no compunction about his acts of prevarication. He lies constantly, blatantly and publicly. The thief steals from individuals, while the liar has no problem lying even to the largest group of people. Clearly, he is more reprehensible. The truth cannot tolerate anything counterfeit, because forgery is the "father" of falsehood. This is why Hashem's signet is emes, truth. Whereas any other signet can be forged, truth cannot. An imitation of the truth is no longer the truth.

In areas of kashrus, we are careful to demand the highest standards of supervision. If the symbol on the label is not representative of the most stringent form of kashrus supervision, we will not buy the product. Furthermore, we have no qualms about degrading anyone who does not maintain our standards of kashrus. Do we act with such integrity when it concerns our wallet? Why is it that the same people who are so exact with kashrus look for every loophole in their financial dealings, seeking to rationalize the most serious financial impropriety? The Rosh Yeshiva cites the Mesillas Yesharim who explains that man, by nature, desires money. To be truly free of money's influence requires a great deal of introspection and meticulous care. One who has achieved this zenith in human behavior, who has cleansed himself of this overpowering evil inclination, has truly reached a pinnacle in spirituality. Many individuals achieve epic levels of piety in many areas, but perfection in financial dealings seems to elude them.

Horav Chaim Soloveitchik, zl, related that the townspeople asked him if they were permitted to participate in a seudas mitzvah given by a known thief. Rav Chaim immediately summoned the thief to his home and asked him, "What would you do if you had occasion to burglarize a home on Shabbos?" The thief replied, "I would proceed as usual."

"If the act of theft necessitated lighting a candle or breaking a lock on Shabbos?" asked Rav Chaim.

"I would do it," the thief answered.

"Suppose it was the home of a gentile, and you discovered non-kosher foods, such as cartons of pork?"

"I would steal it and sell it to a non-Jew."

"Why would you not eat it yourself?" queried Rav Chaim.

The thief reacted with shock. "Eat pork? How dare you say that! Do you think that I am not a Jew?"

Rav Chaim was not phased. "Tell me," he asked, "How can you act with revulsion towards one Torah prohibition and totally disregard so many others?"

The thief looked at Rav Chaim incredulously and said, "I do not understand your question, Rebbe. Stealing is the way I earn a living, but how does that pertain to eating pork? I am still a Jew. Am I not?"

A person can grossly distort any situation if he feels that his livelihood is threatened. No prohibition stands in his way. He finds a way to rationalize it. Incidentally, Rav Chaim did allow the townspeople to attend the seudas mitzvah.

One of the Chassidic masters said that the yetzer hora, evil inclination, is willing to concede a person's adherence to the entire Torah in return for getting him to concede falsehood. This is compared to punching a hole in the bottom of a pitcher, because regardless of how much water one pours in, it will all run out. I think the worst, and quite possibly the most damaging form of lying, is lying to oneself. Self deception is a malady to which we are all prone. Rationalization is nothing more than lying to oneself. One who has deceived himself is beyond hope, since now he thinks that everything he does is correct. Indeed, the greatest form of self-deception is when one convinces himself that the sin he is about to commit is actually a mitzvah. It happens all of the time, and Heaven help him who attempts to prevent us from carrying out the "mitzvah"!

In conclusion, I cite a story that should give us an idea concerning the meaning of truth. The Chozeh, zl, m'Lublin, dispatched two emissaries to Tomashov to bring back a certain Reb Mendel, whom he wanted to have as a disciple. They spent some time in the city and found no one named Reb Mendel whom they felt fit the description of a talmid of the Chozeh. They decided to conceal themselves in the shul. Perhaps someone who was concealing his identity would enter and act "accordingly."

It was just past midnight when a young man meekly entered the bais medrash, approached the aron hakodesh and tearfully began to recite Tehillim. At one point, he opened the Aron and, with a heartrending voice, cried out, "Ribono Shel Olam, show me at least a hairsbreadth of truth!" At that moment, the Rebbe's emissaries came out of hiding and exclaimed, "We are emissaries of the Rebbe of Lublin. If you are seeking truth, come with us to Lublin." The young Mendel joined them, and shortly thereafter became the renowned Rebbe of Kotzk, an individual who exemplified and championed absolute truth.

Few of us pray for the truth, simply because we think in our little minds that we already possess it. The Kotzker knew better. The following story demonstrates the simple meaning of truth, and how much it meant to an ordinary Jew. On the other hand, any Jew who is so aware of the truth and practices it is not an "ordinary" Jew! Rabbi Avraham Twerski, in his, "Lights Along The Way," relates the story of Herschel, an immigrant from Russia, who grew up at a time when easy access to yeshivos was fairly difficult. While he was not a Torah scholar, he was a devout, believing Jew whose fidelity to the Torah way was uncompromising. He earned his living by collecting rags and scrap metal. When he became ill, and he realized that the end of his journey on this world was imminent, he called for his son in order to give him the following instructions. Immediately upon his death, he was to open a certain drawer and follow the instructions written therein on a paper.

In the drawer, his son discovered a bag with silver dollars in it. Attached to the bag was a note that read: "My son, the silver dollars in this bag are dollars I received throughout the years as a result of the mitzvah of Pidyon HaBen, Redeeming of the Firstborn. While I always tried to conduct my business dealings with utmost integrity, I cannot be certain that I never inadvertently overcharged anybody. This money, however, is mine without question. I earned it honestly, because my father was a Kohen and I am a Kohen, so this money is mine legitimately. Therefore, I wish that my tachrichim, shrouds, and all burial expenses be paid for with this money. I realize that my merits before the Heavenly Tribunal are few, but perhaps when I appear before the Almighty in garments that were purchased with honest money, He will look upon me with compassion."

He certainly was no "ordinary" Jew.

He shall write for himself a duplicate of this Teaching in a book…It shall be with him; he shall read from it all the days of his life. (17:18,19)

When the king ascends the throne, his first act shall be to write for himself a copy of the Torah. By doing this he acknowledges that he is not above the law, but rather that the law is his immutable guideline for life. A king who abides by the letter and the spirit of the law, presents himself as a fitting model for the people to emulate. The king is commanded to read from the Torah "all the days of his life." How is that achieved? After all, he is the king, and as the chief executive of the country, he must certainly have a number of obligations that are time consuming. How does he adjust the "days of his life," so that he is constantly studying the Torah, while simultaneously administering to the needs of the country and its people?

The Chasam Sofer, zl, explains this from a practical perspective. One must understand the nature of the Torah in order to perceive its inestimable significance to every aspect of our lives. It is not merely a book of wisdom, law and narrative. The Torah is Divinely authored and, therefore, is unique in its ability to inspire. Indeed, as the Ramban writes in the preface to his commentary to the Torah, every wisdom found in the world is already concealed in the Torah. Furthermore, this applies not only to the klal, general community, but to each and every individual Jew. In the Torah, he will find an answer to every vexing circumstance in his life. He must know where to look and how to "view" it.

This is to what the Torah is alluding when it says that the king should read in the Torah "all the days of his life." The Torah should be with him at all times. It should be his lens through which he views every situation that arises. He should read in it all of the time, because the answer to every issue confronting him as king and as an individual is to be found in the Torah. "All the days of his life" - every incident of his life should be interpreted by the Torah. It should never leave him, because without it he does not have the ability to achieve a clear perspective. The Torah defines "all the days of his life."

Who is the man who has built a new house…Let him go and return to his house, lest he die in the war and another man will inaugurate it. (20:5)

When Klal Yisrael goes to war, the people know that their success or failure is dependent only upon Hashem. He fights for them and, thus, they have nothing to fear. In a milchemes reshus, discretionary war, the Mashuach Milchamah, Kohen Gadol -who has been specifically anointed to lead them during the battle-- proclaims that not everyone is to be drafted. Those who have deep-rooted fears are not permitted to join the army, lest their self-imposed fear spread to the other soldiers. Three people who would be concerned about dying are singled out: one who just recently married and is still in his shanah rishonah, first year of marriage; one who recently built a house; and one who recently planted a vineyard. In these cases, the individuals are deeply concerned that if something were to happen to them, another person would conclude what they had only begun. This fear is compelling. Therefore, these men are asked to return home. Their weakness will impact others.

This law begs elucidation. Imagine an individual who has a large inventory of real estate, houses and estates in various cities, worth millions, is mandated to go to war. Yet, the fellow who has just purchased a small ramshackle hut must return from the battles - not because he is afraid for his own safety - but because he is concerned that someone else will take care of his property. He has a tiny new vineyard; he goes back. The fellow, however, who has orchards and fields galore, acres and acres of fruits and vegetables, he can go to war. The one who has a house full of children at home goes to war, even though he "might" be concerned with who will care for his orphans if he does not return from battle. Certainly he has sufficient reason to worry, but not as much as the man who has just entered into matrimony. Does this sound reasonable? Should it not be the other way around?

Horav Yosef Sholom Elyashiv, Shlita, explains that the person who owns many homes does not think about them individually. Thus, his mind does not constantly revolve around them. The poor man who has never had anything, but finally is able to acquire a small home - this is his palace. He does nothing but think about it all day. It is his life, his hope, his destiny. This applies whenever a person has "one" of something,and is especially true if he has waited some time for it. Such a person will not focus his mind totally on the battle, which is an attitude necessary in order to achieve victory in battle.

These three dispensations do not apply to a milchemes mitzvah, in which Klal Yisrael must fight to eradicate the land of its pagans, so that they can assume their rightful ownership over Eretz Yisrael. In reality, what use is a new home, a new vineyard, a new life - if Eretz Yisrael is not freed? There is no joy in our homes if we do not have our homeland. If a corpse will be found on the land…it was not known who smote him. (21:1)

Communal responsibilities and collective guilt are lessons to be derived from the Eglah Arufah, the Axed Heifer. It is a tragedy when a Jew is found murdered with no witnesses or suspects to his death. The elders of the town nearest the corpse must perform a public ritual in which they declare that they had nothing to do with this unfortunate man's death. They beg forgiveness from Hashem if - as a result of neglect or indifference- they have contributed to the individual's untimely death. The Talmud in Sotah 47b makes an interesting statement. They ax a heifer only under such circumstances in which they have no clue whatsoever concerning the identity of the murderer. If, however, there is someone - even if he is on the other side of the world - who is aware of the identity of the murderer, the Eglah Arufah ritual is not performed. This statement is enigmatic. What is the difference if a witness to the murder exists thousands of miles away? Right now he is not here, and there is no way to bring him here. Furthermore, even if he were to come and testify to the murder, it would be to no avail, since we do not accept the testimony of only one witness in most cases of Jewish law. In addition, according to halachah, if there happens to be a murderer with an infamous track record in the area, the ritual is not performed. Why? After all is said and done, we have no proof of his culpability. We still do not have our murderer. Why should we not perform the ritual of Eglah Arufah ?

Horav Tuvia Lisitzin, zl, explains that a situation in which we are clueless concerning the identity of the murderer is worse than a situation in which we know who he is and can not act upon that knowledge. When one has no idea who the murderer might be, it is indicative of a much more serious and malevolent state of affairs. It means that there exists a person in the community who, to all appearances, seems to be a fine, upstanding member of the community, when, in fact, he is actually a murderer! Is there something worse than that? When the community possesses such an individual in their midst, and the elders are unaware of his existence, they must truly offer penance.

Va'ani Tefillah

Tov Hashem lakol, v'rachamav al kol maasav.
Hashem is good to all, and His compassion is upon all His works.v The Chovas HaLevavos explains that, due to Hashem's great beneficence, He has endowed every father with a sense of compassion for his young, to the point that fathers care more about their offspring than they do about themselves-- or, at least, they should. Furthermore, this middah, attribute, of mercy extends to all mankind. We have compassion for others only because Hashem has conferred that wonderful middah on us. Thus, the Beer Shmuel, Horav Shmuel Rosenberg, zl, explains the meaning of this pasuk, "Hashem is good to all": Hashem, Himself, in His great compassion performs acts of goodness for all mankind. Regrettably, most of us are blind to these acts of lovingkindness and do not understand the benefits of His actions.

Moreover, "His compassion is upon all His works": He has bestowed His compassionate Essence on all of His works, so that they will also experience this sense of compassion and share it with others. Indeed, most creatures have a sense of mercy on their young. This feeling is accorded to them by Hashem. Last, the Chovas HaLevavos says: "Hashem is good to all" - even when one experiences what seems to be the vicissitudes of life, when his situation appears bleak and miserable, he should be aware that this too is part of Hashem's good. "All" that comes from Hashem is good. We do not always realize what is good, but we must acknowledge it.

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