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Peninim on the Torah

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Rabbi A. Leib Scheinbaum
Hebrew Academy of Cleveland


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

The simple meaning of this command is that the judges who are appointed to adjudicate various disputes should do so with integrity and righteousness, acting with impartiality in maintaining a system of justice that is above reproach. The Midrash Tanchuma adds that the appointed judges were to intercede before Hashem on behalf of the Jewish People and find merit for them. While this is certainly a noble calling, the choice that the Midrash presents as an example of a leader who exemplifies the trait of seeking merit in behalf of Klal Yisrael is enigmatic. The fifth Shofet, judge of the Jewish People, following the petirah, passing, of Yehoshua bin Nun was Gideon. He led Klal Yisrael for forty years. Apparently, he was quite good, having lasted that long. The problem is understanding what about his actions earned him such accolades.

The Navi teaches that the Jewish People had fallen into the labyrinth of sin. Hashem punished them with seven years of domination by the evil Midyanim who destroyed them materially, bringing the nation to its knees in a state of hunger and poverty. The suffering succeeded, such that the nation slowly put an end to their downward spiral and repented. Until that time, Gideon was a virtual unknown who commanded little respect. Hashem dispatched a Heavenly angel to appoint him as leader of the nation, to guide them back on their path of return. Gideon's response to the angel is incredulous: "If Hashem is with us, why has all this happened to us? And where are all of His wonders of which our forefathers told us, 'Behold Hashem brought us out of Egypt. For now Hashem has deserted us and He has delivered us into the control of Midyan.'" (Shoftim 6:12,13)

Rashi explains Gideon's reply to the angel. Apparently the angel appeared on Pesach, which prompted Gideon to say, "Yesterday, my father recited Hallel and he read to me how Hashem had taken the Jewish People out of Egypt, but now, Hashem has forsaken us! If our forefathers were righteous, Hashem should spare us in their merit. If they were not deserving, then we should be no worse than they. If He redeemed them despite their lack of zechuyos, merits, we should be no different." The angel wished him well, telling him that, in the merit of his having defended the Jewish People, he was chosen to lead them against the Midyanim.

Upon perusal of Gideon's reply to the angel, one is taken aback with his almost heretical response: Why did Hashem forsake His People, failing to protect them from their enemies? In the book, A Shabbos Vort, by Rabbi Sholom Smith, the author quotes Horav Avraham Pam, zl, who observes that it was precisely this advocacy on behalf of the nation that catapulted Gideon to become the nation's leader. Advocacy does not cover up the truth, painting a picture of righteousness over festering evil. Gideon told the truth. The people had sinned; while they might thus be unworthy of being spared from punishment, were they any different than their ancestors? If the earlier generation was saved, so should Gideon's generation. Hashem replied that it was this truth that He was waiting to hear. These words would ultimately vindicate the Jewish People. Cover-ups do not work. The best defense is the truth.

Gideon's defense of the Jewish People serves as the standard for how we should attempt to speak favorably of people. It is easy to find fault concerning anyone - as long as one looks hard enough. That same effort could be expended to seek the positive, to emphasize a reason to justify an individual's behavior. Criticizing a fellow Jew, finding fault in his shortcomings, will not do much for the subject and will only serve to distance one from Hashem. The Almighty wants to hear "good" about His children. When we knock other Jews, we are not causing much satisfaction for Hashem. No father wants to hear that his child is a problem. Advocacy on behalf of our brethren will help them and earns us "points" when it comes our time to be judged.

Horav Levi Yitzchak, zl, m'Berditchev was considered the consummate advocate on behalf of the Jewish People. He would find something positive in the most negative of behaviors. His love for Hashem's children was boundless, as evinced by his comment, "The mouth was created for two purposes - to speak words of Torah and to find merit in the Jewish People." Undoubtedly, there are "difficult" Jews, who have, by their actions and personal demeanor, alienated themselves from the community. Their behavior stymies us. They, too, deserve a chance. Everyone has a story, a pathology which sheds light on his individual behavior. A great tzaddik, righteous person, whose name eludes me, once said, "As one goes out of his way to farenfer, explain a shverer, difficult Tosfos, so, too, should he attempt to farenfer, justify, a shverer Yid.

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

Rashi explains the Torah's enjoinment that we pursue justice as a demand that we seek out the most competent, knowledgeable court of law to adjudicate our dispute with another Jew. Sifsei Chachamim adds that, even though the case we have can really be listened to by any decent court of law, the claimant has an obligation to go out of his way to seek the most learned, qualified, impartial bais din available. A din Torah is often "cut and dry." Reuven owes Shimon, and all that is necessary is a judge who is not "blind," who has the courage to render judgment. The command, Tzedek, tzedek tirdof, is speaking to a plaintiff who himself seeks justice. The Torah does not address itself to crooks. For them, there is no hope. No court will make a difference, and any judgment which they hear will be impugned - unless, of course, they win. Clearly, a deceitful plaintiff, bent on cheating the defendant, is not interested - nor will he adhere to the Torah's admonition to seek the best court of law. The Torah is speaking to the honest Jew, the upright, moral, dignified Jew who feels he has been wronged and is now going to court to retrieve what he feels is his. If he feels confident about his position, and if he has great trust in, and respect for, the court of law in his town, why must he go elsewhere to seek the "Cadillac" of courts of law? Yes, the Torah commands him to search for the very best court of law - even if it means traveling - even if he trusts the court of law in his town.

To put it succinctly: Reuven claims that Shimon owes him a substantial sum of money, for whatever reason. Reuven, the plaintiff, feels secure in his legitimate claim and substantiates it with incontrovertible proof. In his eyes, the defendant, Shimon, is clearly wrong. Reuven has no qualms about having the case adjudicated by the local bais din. Yet, the Torah writes that he must make every effort to have his case heard by the most qualified court, which could entail traveling to another city and incurring some unexpected expenses. Why? If the plaintiff is satisfied, why not stay in town?

Horav A. Henoch Leibowitz, zl, derives a powerful lesson from here. The Torah requires a Jew to maintain an exemplary level of honesty and integrity. We may be certain in our heart and mind that we are correct, but, what if…? We must always introspect and question our motives. Do we seek the truth? Are we interested in retrieving our money? Do we want to hurt, destroy the fellow who hurt us financially? Is emes, truth, a priority in our lives, or, is it something with which we live when it coincides with our comfort level? We might be right, but if there is a remote chance that a less-scholarly court may err in our favor, thereby taking money from the defendant unjustly, we have participated in a fraud. Thus, the Torah expects us to seek out the most scholarly judges to ensure that the level of integrity never be impugned - even in error. We choose a bais din, not because it will provide us with a "win," but because of its impartiality and accuracy in deciding the halachah. In other words, we, the plaintiff, do not want to wrong the accused. We only want the truth.

People do strange things for money. While they maintain the strictest standards of observance concerning their relationship with Hashem, their attitude suddenly changes when money is involved. By his very nature, man has a strong gravitational pull towards money. There is a reason it is called the root of all evil. I think the greatest allure of money emanates from the fact that it grants one power without accountability. While some will use their material wealth for the pursuit of good - to help others, support organizations, etc., there are those who use their money to lord over others and not have to answer to anyone for their reprehensible behavior. The Torah is teaching us the importance of honesty and how we should go out of our way not to do anything that is not above reproach. A Jew should shudder at the thought of doing anything that might harm his fellow.

And do not erect for yourself a matzeivah (idolatrous pillar) which Hashem, your G-d, hates. (16:22)

Much of Sefer Devarim alludes to warnings concerning the idolatrous behavior of the nations inhabiting Eretz Yisrael. The Torah admonishes us not to learn from their nefarious practices, lest we fall prey to the yetzer hora, evil inclination, which seduces one to worship idols. One of the prohibitions is the erection of a matzeivah, pillar of stone, on which they would offer sacrifices. This is forbidden, even if the offerings are to Hashem. Rashi explains that Hashem abhors a matzeivah. He commanded us to make a Mizbayach avanim, Altar of stones, a Mizbayach adamah, Altar of earth, but not a matzeivah. He hates it because it had become the practice of the Canaanim. Although at one point, earlier in history, it had been beloved by Hashem, having become the altar of choice used by the Avos, Patriarchs. This all came to an end as a result of the Canaanim converting it into an altar dedicated to idolatry. Ramban notes that the Canaanim did not single out pillars as opposed to altars. They used both. Thus, according to Rashi, the Torah should have prohibited both types of matzeiva.

The Shem M'Shmuel explains that actually there is a conceptual variation between the altar, made of several stones, and the pillar, consisting of one stone. One of the most famous altars was built by Eliyahu HaNavi, using twelve stones - one for each shevet, tribe.

Eliyahu's mizbayach connotes the essence of what an altar should be - and what it should represent. Comprised of twelve stones, it represented the Jewish nation - all twelve tribes - functioning as one. Each tribe, symbolized by its individual stone, made its unique contribution to the wholesomeness of Klal Yisrael. Together, the stones represent an integrated unit devoted to the service of Hashem. This is the principle of Divine worship - everyone together as one unit. An individual may not bring his own offering connecting to the integrated unit. A disenfranchised Jew has no business offering a sacrifice. He should coalesce with the rest of Klal Yisrael, because that is what we are: a klal, united congregation.

We now understand the contrast presented by the matzeivah, single pillar of stone. By the very nature of its singularity, it fails to symbolize the need for an amalgamated unit, symphonized by a unifying belief. The pillar represents the individual who has yet to join the klal. Thus, the pillar fosters a distorted, perhaps spurious, perception of Divine service. A word of caution must be interjected. It is not as if the individual has no bearing. Indeed, individuality is encouraged. With regard to Divine service, however, an entire nation comprised of individuals, each making his own conscious decision to unite with the group in worshipping Hashem, has greater meaning and efficacy.

Having said this, we must understand why the use of a matzeivah was not only permitted, but beloved by Hashem, when the Avos, Patriarchs, were offering the sacrifices. This does appear to be some form of spiritual double standard. The Sochachover explains that during the tenure of the Avos, prior to the formation of the Jewish nation, the Avos were Klal Yisrael in microcosm. Each Patriarch was the standard bearer for the belief in one G-d. Monotheism coursed through their veins, and the message of Torah - its values, observance, and the character traits of its adherents - was part and parcel of their lives. While it is true that they were individuals, their feelings represented the values and qualities of an entire nation.

Avraham Avinu inherited the Holy Land, just as the entire nation which is registered under his name was destined to do. Yaakov Avinu's immediate seventy descendants who descended with him to Egypt are represented as "one soul." The Patriarch embodied all of the traits and elements of the nation that would originate from him. Yaakov stood alone, as did Avraham: as the nation's Patriarchs they - in their individual, singular selves - represented the entire nation.

With this in mind, we understand the permissibility of the pillar in the era of the Avos. The Avos were a complete nation unto themselves. It was, thus, entirely appropriate for them to offer sacrifices on the pillar comprised of a single stone. The sacrifice on the single stone represents the service of the individual, which, in the case of the Patriachs, was synonymous with the entire nation. The Canaanim specifically chose the pillar as their mode of service. Idolators, by definition, have no sense of unity - each one doing what he sees fit - worshipping whatever he sees fit. Essentially, the idolator worships none other than himself. Selfishness marks the character of the idol worshipper. As such, the pillar, the symbol of personal devotion, was well-suited for their needs. The idol worshipper never attains a sense of unity. It goes against the grain of his theology.

The Kohen shall approach and speak to the people. He shall say to them, "Hear, O' Yisrael, you are coming near to the battle against your enemies; let your heart not be faint; do not be afraid; do not panic; and do not be broken before them." (20:2,3)

There is a well-known passage in the Talmud Berachos 5a which addresses the strategy one should employ upon being confronted by man's greatest enemy from within: the yetzer hora, evil inclination. Chazal give us four options which, based upon a person's spiritual level, should assist him in staving off the yetzer hora's crippling influence. The first approach is yargiz yetzer tov al yetzer hara, agitate one's good inclination against his evil inclination. Take the yetzer head on, using the good inclination within him to overwhelm the evil. If this does not prove effective, Chazal advise engaging in Torah study. If this does not succeed in vanquishing the yetzer hora, Chazal suggest that one recite Shema Yisrael. Apparently, reciting Shema garners greater devotion on one's part than Torah study. If these three methods have failed, the last suggestion rendered by Chazal is, yazkir lo yom ha'missa, "one should remind himself of the day of death." While this last approach carries with it the possibility of the dire side effects of sadness and depression, the alternative of falling into the clutches of the yetzer hora apparently outweighs the negative.

The Kli Yakar posits that these four approaches toward our constant battle with the yetzer hora are alluded to by the pasuk, Shema Yisrael atem krovim lamilchamah al oyveichem, "Hear O'Yisrael, you are coming near to the battle against your enemies." War is an especially dangerous time for the soldier - not merely in a physical sense, but also from a spiritual perspective. When one is exposed to an enemy bent on killing you, surrounded by a harmful environment without the protection of the stability of home and family, the Satan in the guise of the yetzer hora can wreak havoc on his spiritual demeanor. How does one vanquish the yetzer hora, assuring his continued affinity with good, and not falling victim to the evil? Chazal's four approaches are suggested. The Kli Yakar applies these in his interpretation of the pasukim which relate the declaration made by the Kohen Mashuach Milchamah, High Priest, who was anointed especially to be the spiritual anchor during the Jewish nation's wars.

Let us digress and address the last approach: yazkir lo yom ha'missah, "Let him remind himself of the day of death." I have always wondered why Chazal emphasize "day" of death as opposed to "death." One would think that it is the thought of death which shatters a person and causes him to tremble from head to toe. It is the concept of mortality that makes an individual wake up from his spiritual slumber and fortify himself in his battle with the forces of evil. Why the "day" of death?

I think that Chazal are teaching us a profound lesson. While some of us can possibly reconcile ourselves to the concept of death, we realize that no one yet has lived forever. Every man has his ultimate end, his last hurrah, his final curtain call, but how many of us think about that "last day", the events leading up to his demise? Imagine sitting at a wedding and enjoying oneself with friends and family and, suddenly, an uninvited guest, the Malach Ha'Maves, Angel of Death, appears and announces that your time has come! "But I am not ready," "I have unfinished business to address; I have not said my final good-byes!" The Angel of Death does not care. One dies at the exact moment, the precise time that has been decreed by Heaven Above. His excuses fall on "deaf" ears. Yom ha'missah is like that. It catches us by surprise. Even one who is terminally ill and who has reconciled himself to the end is not prepared for the yom ha'missah. It is the one day when all our preconceived plans and notions are shown to be futile. That is more frightening than even death itself.

In his sefer, Nitzotzos, Horav Yitzchak Hershkowitz, Shlita, has an inspiring analogy about death, one that-believe it or not - spurs one to think positive, one that heartens and encourages - rather than depressing us and makes us sad.

It was moving day. The post- middle-age couple had sold their sprawling house and were about to take up residence in a much smaller, more functional and practical apartment. The children were all married with large families of their own. Yom Tov was spent with the children and grandchildren at their homes. It was time to move on.

The movers were quickly emptying their beloved home of years of habitation. Each time another piece of furniture, another box, another fixture was removed, it brought back memories. It was a quiet time for reflection, a time for a subtle tear, a secret smile. The move was very emotional. The goodbyes to trusted neighbors were made, new phone numbers transferred. Forty years were being moved out of the house - forty years of family life, challenges, struggles, successes, failures, joys and sadness were all locked away in the boxes and furniture pieces.

The new apartment was carefully sought out. Location, accessibility, and opportunity for the children and grandchildren to visit were all taken into consideration. Nothing was left to "chance." The apartment was well-lit, spacious, comfortable and very clean. For what more could a person ask? But, after all was said and done, it would take some time to get used to it. It was not the "old house."

The husband turned to his wife and said, "You know, this move is much like Olam Hazeh, This World."

"What did you say?" she asked, clueless about his line of thinking and what he could be suggesting with his somewhat strange remark.

"When we leave our earthly abode," her husband began, "we know that we are leaving This World for a much better world. Our separation from this world is very difficult, in that we are leaving family, friends and the life we have made for ourselves. The leaving, however, is somewhat ameliorated with the knowledge that we know that we are going 'home' to our Source."

When his wife heard his ruminating, she said, "I think it is time to leave. There is really no reason to tarry any longer. It is time to move on."

When they arrived at the new apartment, the husband almost passed out when he noticed that their dining room window had an incredible view of - the cemetery! He had never bothered looking earlier when they had negotiated for the apartment. What could he do now? How could he live opposite a scene that was a constant reminder of yom ha'missa, the day of death?

As he related this story a few months later, he said, "Actually, living opposite the cemetery had a most calming effect on me. Whenever things do not go my way, when life's challenges seem to all fall at my feet, I take a look out the window and realize, 'It won't be long now. Life on this world is temporary. There is a better place where these problems will have no effect.' Indeed, when I look out my dining room window I relax and am comforted with the realization that there is a better world, with a noble purpose. We do here what we can so that we will merit a ringside seat in the World to Come."

"Horav Nachman Breslover, zl, writes that the thought of yom ha'missah should engender a feeling of joy. Shlomo HaMelech says in Mishlei 31:27, 'She joyfully awaits the last day.' She awaits the inevitable last day of life with confidence that she will have earned the respect and honor. Now that I am exposed to a constant reminder concerning the yom acharon, last day, I realize the futility of life, the brevity of life and, thus, the overriding importance of not wasting one minute! I hope Hashem will bless me with continued arichas yamim, longevity, and that I should not lose sight of the yom acharon."

I conclude with yet another perspective on yom ha'missah. I came across an article written by Rav Avraham Fishman, zl, a yedid from Telshe, who wrote an appreciation of the Rosh Yeshivah, Rav Mordechai Gifter, zl. The Rosh Yeshivah would place great emphasis on the words of Rabbeinu Yonah in his Shaarei Teshuvah: "When a man begins to grow old, and his strength begins to dwindle, he should give heart to the closeness of his end and understand what will become of him. It is indeed cause for great wonderment. If one finds himself in the middle of his days and sees his days passing, how can his eyes be so blind and his heart not understand that he is continually advancing to his final resting place."

Rabbi Eliezer's comment quoted in the Talmud Shabbos 153 was one of Rav Gifter's more famous quotes. "Let a person repent today for he may die tomorrow; this way he will find himself living all of his days in a state of teshuvah, repentance." This is how the Rosh Yeshivah lived his life - ever-cognizant that tomorrow might be fraught with insurmountable challenges. One must reach for the heights of achievement - today - because tomorrow it might be out of reach. He would often relate concerning the famous Rav Meir Anshel Rothschild, who had an aron, coffin, custom made for himself. He would lie down in it nightly as a reminder of the day of death which no one escapes.

A student once remarked to Rav Gifter that it was no great feat for the Rosh Yeshivah to be so proficient in every Tosfos, commentary to the Talmud, since the Rosh Yeshivah was considerably brilliant.

Rav Gifter immediately responded to the student, "You are mistaken. When I learn a blatt, page of Talmud, or a Tosfos, I view it as if it is the very last time I am going to see this blatt Gemorah or Tosfos, before I stand before the Heavenly Tribunal and take my ultimate farher, test, on what I have learned in this world. That is why I remember it well. If you would learn Gemorah and meforshim, commentaries, in the same manner, you would also remember it."

This is how he lived - recognizing at every moment - that it could possibly be his last. He had to be prepared for the ultimate bechinah, test.

Va'ani Tefillah

Avinu Malkeinu. Our Father, our King.

Previously, in the brachah of Yotzer or, we referred to Hashem as Elokei Olam, G-d of the World, while now He is referred to as Avinu Malkeinu - our Father, our King. Horav Avigdor Miller, zl, distinguishes between these terms and explains the significance of knowing that Hashem is our Father and our King. First, as G-d of the world, Hashem is being recognized as the universal Ruler, which applies to all men collectively - not only the Jewish People. In the brachah that addresses our relationship with Hashem via the Torah, the terms change from "universal" to "individual" with "our Father, our King" referring only to Klal Yisrael - the receivers of Hashem's Torah. Through the medium of Torah, our relationship with Hashem takes on a nature of singular significance. It is about "us" and "Him," with the Torah the point of attachment.

The notion that Hashem is our Father denotes that He especially created us, with the word Av/Father emphasizing the unique love that He has for His people. The word av is related to ahav, love, and likewise associated with yahav, to give. A Father gives to his child out of a sense of love: yahav/ahav/av. As Malkeinu, our King, Hashem is noted for HIs special interest, guidance, and supervision by means of His consummate wisdom and awesome power.

Avinu, Our Father, intimates that just like a loving father, all of His love is for us - His children. Our King connotes that all of His interest, His management of the affairs of the world, are solely due to Klal Yisrael. After all, He is "Our Father, Our King."

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