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Peninim on the Torah

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Rabbi A. Leib Scheinbaum
Hebrew Academy of Cleveland


And you shall not erect for yourself a pillar. (16:22)

It is forbidden to set up a single stone for worship - even if it is in order to worship the true G-d, Hashem. He has despised these stones ever since the pagans decided to employ them as a means for their own worship. Only an altar comprised of numerous stones or of earth creates the proper modality of worship. Horav Levi Yitzchak, zl, m'Berditchev, renders this prohibition homiletically as referring to the most common form of worship: self-worship.

Chazal state (Pirkei Avos 4), "This world is compared to a vestibule before Olam Habba, the World to Come." Our world is but a bridge, a means of attaining entrance into the real world, the World of Truth, of eternity, Olam Habba. Any type of physicality is a medium by which we survive our stay in this world. Thus, physicality must be recognized as nothing but a means, a vehicle, but certainly not an end unto itself. Without food, we cannot survive. We eat to live - we do not live to eat.

Lachem, for you, denotes man's physical dimension. We find that, on Yom Tov, we celebrate lachem: half for "you"; and half for Hashem. Lecha/lachem, both represent preoccupation with physicality. Therefore, the pasuk is teaching: Do not transform the lecha, you/physical dimension into a single pillar of significance, through which it becomes an entity in its own right, rather than a means for spiritual ascendancy.

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

Some individuals find it hard to follow the direction set forth by the Torah sages of each generation. They feel that the guidance of the gedolim, giants of Torah, must be consistent with their personal line of thinking. Accepting the sage advice of a Torah leader is a bit too much for them to handle. The ben Torah who conforms to the direction of the chachmei haTorah, wise men of Torah, lives a life of peace and calm, serene in the knowledge that he is following the path that Hashem has established for him. He realizes that, after all is said and done, the gedolim have a perspective unlike that of the average person. The wisdom which they have accumulated through the Torah, in addition to their righteous adherence to the word of Hashem, grants them Divine favor and insight - which they share with us.

Horav Chaim HaKohen, zl, m'Gerbah, offers the following meaningful analogy. A young man, not proficient in any specific trade, sought a vocation in order to earn a living. He went to the market to investigate his choices. He spoke with the wagon drivers to inquire whether they needed an apprentice. After all, why not? He would earn an honest living, save his pennies, and one day - he would own a wagon and horse. Then he would be in the big time. He was given an offer for a job, but he decided to check out another vocation before settling on becoming a livery driver.

The young man walked over to the wharf where he met a ship's captain and asked him about employment as a sailor. The captain said that it was hard-- but satisfying--work. He could work his way up the ladder to one day becoming the captain of his own ship. During the conversation, he began to think out loud, "If I become a wagon driver, my life will be predictable. The road straight before me. I know my destination and how long it should take me to reach my goal. What more does one need? The ship's captain and sailors travel in wide, open, unchartered waters. The sea is imposing, without markings to indicate where one is. A person can get into a boat with a plan to reach a certain destination and, within a few days travel, he can become completely lost! He could conceivably be traveling in circles and never reach his destination. Why would I want such a vocation? While it is true that I would get to see the world, visit exciting places, meet people from all over, but it would be true only if I reach these places. If I travel in circles, I will meet no one and see nothing!"

The captain looked at him with knowing eyes, as if to say, "My dear young man, you are truly clueless about the ways of the world." "Come with me," the captain said, as he drew the young man into the captain's office. On the large desk were spread a number of maps. "Let me explain to you. These are maritime maps which show the various ports of call where the ship stops. We draw a line from point A to point B and follow our navigational chart. We have no obstacles, no hills or valleys, no rained-out roads, or construction which we must divert. Our path is straight in accordance with the map. The only one who must worry about reaching his destination is the wagon driver who must contend with the poor roads that he must travel."

This is to what Shlomo Hamelech alludes when he says in Mishlei 31:14, hoysa k'anios socheir, "One who follows the path of Torah has before him a straight journey, just like the one who travels the sea by ship. He has no obstacles, since he follows the Heavenly map which charts his trip."

He shall say to them, "Hear, O Yisrael, today 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. (20:3)

Chazal (Talmud Sotah 44) teach that, during a war, it is absolutely prohibited to run from the enemy. While today, outside of Eretz Yisrael, we cannot really say that the Jewish People are involved in a physical war, we are certainly embattled in a spiritual battle against an anti-Semitic world that does not want to see us observing Torah and mitzvos. What a sad commentary it is that anti-Semitic gentiles have a greater perception of the value of Torah and mitzvos to the Jew than do our secular brethren. They have long ago relegated our People's treasure, Hashem's Divinely authored guide to Jewish life, to the dung heap of history: it is antiquated; it is not in tune with the times; its demands are not sufficiently liberal to satisfy their base desires and disjointed code of morality. Thus, the Torah and mitzvos are outdated and are not relevant to today's progressive society - which would compete favorably with the pagan, Roman and Greek cultures.

The anti-Semites of the early twentieth century, under the leadership of Joseph Stalin-- self-styled dictator, a human fiend who found his equal in the Nazi chancellor-- made life very difficult and almost impossible for people of any religious affiliation. He reserved a special place in his ignoble heart for the Jews under his rule. Public study of Torah and mitzvah observance were punishable with imprisonment, often in the wasteland of Siberia from which very few returned alive. Yet, there were those who fought valiantly - and succeeded. When Stalin came to power following the Bolshevik Revolution, he focused on obliterating the religious affiliation maintained by the younger Jewish generation. Once the youth were his, the nation no longer had a future. They systematically picked on observant Jews - especially those affiliated with a chassidic movement, of which Lubavitch was the largest and most outspoken. Arrest, persecution, torture, exile and even death were the usual punishments for anyone caught participating in such mitzvos as Bris Milah, Shabbos and kashrus. The majority of Jews deferred to the enormous pressure on their lives. Others served Hashem clandestinely, at great risk to their lives and the lives of their families.

The man who was singly most responsible for rallying the troops was the Lubavitcher Rebbe, sixth in line of succession from the Baal HaTanya, Horav Yosef Yitzchak Schneerson, zl. He once told the Czarist police, "Schneersons do not run away!" As such, he remained the primary Jewish leader to guide the remnant Jews who survived the many purges and continued to live in the Soviet Union.

The Rebbe created a widespread network of underground institutions throughout the length and breadth of the Soviet Union. Whatever religious life still pumps in the veins of descendants of that generation may directly be attributed to his leadership and the efforts of his students and emissaries. One night in 1924, the Rebbe met in Moscow with a group of young men. They made a pact, a covenant, to devote their lives to the preservation of Torah Judaism in the Soviet Union. They were blessed with incredible siyata di'Shmaya, Divine assistance, establishing schools, shuls, building mikvaos, anything that maintained the spark of Judaism in the hearts and minds of the Jews living there. Some were caught and sent to the firing squad. As soon as one was taken, another immediately stepped in and shouldered his responsibilities. Indeed, throughout the years of the accursed communism, hundreds of Lubavitcher Chassidim sacrificed their lives for the sake of preserving our Torah.

Our story begins one night as a group of activists convened with the Rebbe. Among the Lubavitcher devotees were also a number of Yevsekas, apostate Jewish police, who would do anything to slander their brethren. These people were biologically Jewish, but every fibre of their souls was aligned with Amalek. The Rebbe was acutely aware of the incursion of these vile insurgents, but he did not care. His mission transcended the work of Eisav and his minions. It was an emotional evening, with the Rebbe exhorting his emissaries to continue their work despite the danger of exposure. "Every time they close a school - we will immediately open another one" was their attitude. The Rebbe explained why he was so driven to achieve success at all costs: "When the first salvo of the war against our religion was thrown out by the Bolshevicks, the Rebbe asked his father, the Rashag (Horav Sholom Dov Ber, zl), 'Like Nicolai?' the Rashag replied, 'Yes, like Nicolai.'"

The Chassidim were noticeably taken aback by this dialogue between their holy mentors. One of those who were present explained the interchange, "I hail from a chassidic family, and Chabad Lubavitch was our sole source of spiritual nourishment. When the government closed down a school, it was they who placed their lives in danger and opened up another school. Until Czar Nicolai rose to power, the country was always at war. When Nicolai became Czar, things changed. The reason is that, prior to Nicolai, whenever a battle took the life of one of the soldiers, the remaining soldiers left the corpse and ran for their lives.

"When Nicolai entered the fray, the rules changed. Now, when a soldier fell, his gun and ammunition were retrieved, and the battle continued. Regardless of how many soldiers fell, no one left the battle. When a soldier fell, another one immediately took his place. 'When we are at war, we fight until the end': This was Czar Nicolai's rule.

"This is what the Rebbe asked his father: 'Is our attitude in the battle for Yiddishkeit to be fought in the same manner, with a like strategy as that employed by the Czar's Army? When a soldier falls, he is immediately replaced. The Rebbe's emissaries throughout the Soviet Union knew only too well the risks of reaching out to Jews, but this was a war against a godless regime, a government bent on destroying the Jewish soul. The only way to triumph over such an evil was to fight relentlessly, never giving an inch, never waning in one's commitment and, certainly, never giving up.'"

Who is the man who is fearful and fainthearted? (20:8)

Prior to selecting those individuals who were to represent the nation in war, we find the Kohen Gadol asking all those who had just made family commitments-- a new wife; a new house; a new vineyard-- to leave the circle and return home. The Kohen left the scene, and the officers took charge. According to Rabbi Yosi HaGelili, the last declaration, which exhorted he who was afraid to leave, focuses on a person who is not as much a coward as he is afraid of dying. He is fearful of the impact that his sins will make on his successful transition home from the battlefield. A sinner is justified in being afraid. His behavior does not warrant Hashem's pardon. In order to protect even the sinner's dignity, the Torah also freed the others -- such as a person who has just built a new home--from going to war. Thus, when the sinner leaves the field, spectators might conjecture that he is leaving for one of the other reasons.

The concept that one should be fearful of his negative spiritual behavior is quite a serious one. The great giants of Torah were extremely cognizant of every infraction, deficiency, any spiritual shortcoming which could undermine their ability to garner reward in Olam Habba. Ironically, it was specifically those who were very distant from sin who were most concerned about their reward.

There is a well-known story told concerning Horav Yisrael Salanter, zl, the founder of the mussar, ethical character refinement, movement. One night, Rav Yisrael had occasion to be out late. Walking through the quiet streets of town, he passed the house/store of the local shoemaker. He was surprised to see the man still working so late. He had a small candle burning at his table. Rav Yisrael knocked on the door and was immediately ushered into the home, "Is it not late for you to be working?" Rav Yisrael asked. "Rebbe," the shoemaker replied, "as long as the candle is burning, I can work. Once the candle burns out, I am in total darkness and can no longer work."

When Rav Yisrael heard these words emanating from the shoemaker, he became emotional. Thinking for a few moments, he realized that he could well apply the shoemaker's words to life in general. "If for the needs of the body/physical dimension, we understand the critical importance of working as long as the 'candle is burning,' how much more so should we apply this attitude to our spiritual advancement. As long as the candle burns, there is life and physical ability to continue our spiritual growth, and we may not slow down - even for a moment. Wasting time is wasting our most precious commodity."

Days later, Rav Yisrael could be heard reminding "himself" - as long as the candle burns, there are still things to do - areas to correct. He never allowed himself to wane for a moment. After all, the candle was still burning.

The venerable Rosh Yeshivah of Ponevez, Horav Elazar M. Shach, zl, was noted for many things. His erudition in Torah was overshadowed only by his extreme diligence in studying it. When he advanced in age, he no longer accepted the sandek honorarium, which was given to a close relative or Rav/Rosh Yeshivah. (The sandek holds the baby on his lap as the infant is circumcised.) Once, one of his close students asked him to consent to act as sandek at his son's Bris, circumcision. Rav Shach demurred, explaining, "I have already been blessed with advanced age. It will not be long before I am summoned to stand before the Heavenly Tribunal to give an accounting of my life. Once I concede to act as sandek at your Bris, I will no longer have an excuse to refrain from attending other such functions. This will preclude me from learning Torah. How will I be able to explain my lack of knowledge? I will not be able to say that I spent every available moment studying Torah diligently." Indeed, as attested by Rav Shach's close students, the Rosh Yeshivah always carried with him the Sefer Even Shleimah, with a fold in the page that addresses the yom ha'missah, day of death, and what is to follow afterwards. This is how he lived - with one eye on the future. He lived a life that exemplified fear of sin.

One morning, Horav Yehudah Tzedakah, zl, Rosh Yeshivas Porat Yosef, arrived at the yeshivah to give his daily shiur, lecture. He began the lecture with the following episode. "On my way to the yeshivah, I stopped at the bank with the intentions of making a withdrawal. I was certain that my available balance was sufficient to cover this withdrawal. How shocked I was to learn from the bank manager that I did not have even one agurah (smallest coin denomination) in my account!

"What a powerful mussar lesson may be derived from this," Rav Tzedakah continued. "A person goes about his business in this world, calm and serene, confident in the belief that he possesses yiraas Shomayim, fear of Heaven, many mitzvos and good deeds - sufficient in number to gain him entrance into Olam Habba, the World to Come. The truth is: Who knows? Perhaps, he is deluding himself into believing that his account is full, when, in fact, he is overdrawn! Veritably, he performed many mitzvos, studied much Torah, and prayed fervently, but what about all of the worldly pleasure that he experienced? What about the honor and accolades that he received, the joy and fun? These are withdrawals! How careful we must be that when we arrive 'there,' that our account will be substantial."

The Sefer Shaal Avicha V'yageidcha quotes an inspiring parable from Horav Yosef Leib Bloch, zl, concerning Chazal's depiction of Olam Habba. The Talmud Berachos 17a, makes the following statement: "A familiar lesson often stated by Rav. The World to Come is not like this world. In the World to Come there is no eating, no drinking, no propagation, no business, no jealousy, no hatred and no rivalry; rather, the righteous sit with their crowns on their heads and delight in the radiance of the Shechinah, Divine Presence." What are Chazal teaching us concerning Olam Habba, and why are they emphasizing the difference between the World to Come and our temporary world?

The Telzer Rav explained that once a Lithuanian native had to go travel to America. A century ago, this meant months of travel with various layovers. The ship first traveled to France, where it picked up supplies for the overseas voyage. The schedule allowed for a two-week stay in France. The traveler knew that it is quite difficult to navigate a country without knowing its language. Since he would be visiting both France and America, it made sense to learn both French and English. There was, however, insufficient time remaining to learn both languages. He decided that, since France was his first leg in the journey, he might as well become proficient in French. He was a quick study, and, in short time, he picked up French. It was to his benefit, for, upon arriving in France and throughout the duration of his stay, he was able to converse with people, thereby getting around without any drawbacks. On the other hand, when he arrived in America, he was at a total loss. He could not go from point A to point B without assistance, for which he had difficulty asking, since he was not conversant in the language. When questioned why he chose proficiency in French over English, he replied, "France was my first layover." The idea that he would remain in France for two weeks, while America was his final destination where he would probably reside for years, probably never entered his little mind.

The lesson is simple. Rav would reiterate this constantly. "Ben adam, man/human being, you come to this world for a short time, seventy, eighty years. This world is merely a layover, a stop along the journey to eternity. Your final destination is Olam Habba, where you will reside forever. The language of the World to Come is quite different than this world. In the World to Come, there is no conversation whose language is comprised of envy, hatred and rivalry. Food and drink are also not discussed. There, it is all Torah and satisfaction, basking in the glory of Hashem."

People spend a lifetime on this world picking up the wrong language. In Olam Habba there are other "interests," another way of "speaking," and an altogether different language. If we do not prepare ourselves for our ultimate destination, we will not be able to navigate ourselves there, so that we will be relegated to remaining outside.

They shall speak up and say, "Our hands have not spilled this blood, and our eyes did not see." (21:7)

The elders of the city closest to the unknown victim of a homicide declared, "Our hands have not spilled this (innocent) blood, and our eyes did not see." Rashi explains that this does not mean that the elders are in any way suspected of homicidal intent. They lament that they had not seen the victim; thus, they had not sent him off properly with food and accompaniment, as is the appropriate procedure for sending off a welcome guest. It seems from Rashi's explanation that had we accompanied the victim, he might not have become a victim. People pick on loners, those who have no friends, those who stand out in a crowd, because they appear to be different, unattached, without friends, isolated from society.

Horav Yaakov Neiman, zl, suggests a novel interpretation of Rashi. Rather than learn that Rashi is referring to the victim, he suggests that Rashi is speaking about the man who turned to violence and murder. What type of person takes a human life? Can someone who murders a fellow Jew be considered a member of humanity, or do we ascribe to him the appellation of fiend, beast - certainly nothing that would grant him equality with us? Rav Neiman feels that Rashi addresses these questions, pointing out that murder is an act of desperation with life. It is an indication that this person has no self-esteem, is so down on himself that he is envious of everyone and wants to lash out at anybody who gets into his way.

Perhaps all of this could have been prevented had Bais Din made the effort to reach out, to befriend the murderer. This down and out fellow came to town looking for something - a change, some recognition, a little respect. As had happened so often in this wretched man's life: no one cared about him; no one wanted to know him. His frustration grew and became so overwhelming, so overpowering, that he lashed out against the first people whose path he crossed. Most ignored him; one did not - his victim.

All the murderer sought was a little bit of love, a little bit of kindness. He was probably not the type of person whose charisma attracted people to him. Thus, for him, friends were at a premium. People gravitated away from him, with each instance slowly bringing his pent-up emotions to the boiling point. The murderer was a hapless person, whom no one really liked, and concerning whom no one really cared. Well, now, he thought, through his perverted perspective, people will once and for all take notice: he will catalyze conversation; he will no longer be ignored. This is quite often the line of thought evinced by those who have been rejected by society.

What about his parents? What role did they play in the equation? Perhaps it all started with his parents. They might have had some issues--economic, social--and the place to drop and take out all of one's problems (after taking it out on one another) is on the children. The children, more often than not, suffer the brunt of parents' idiosyncrasies and failures. The end result is a messed up, troubled young man, who badly needed attention - and did not get it, so he took it all out on the poor victim.

Had the elders taken notice and invited the murderer to dinner, his problems might have been diffused, and a murder might have been averted. Now, they assert that it was not their hands that shed this innocent blood. They tried. It was simply too little - too late.

V'zeidim tibata. V'yedidim he'evarta.
Va'yechasu mayim tzareihem.

The Abarbanel addresses the obvious change in sequence which the above verse portrays. We know that the Jews first passed through the "dried" bed of the Red Sea - then the Egyptians drowned. The verse would have us think differently. He explains that the level of evil which the Egyptians exemplified was not consistent among them. There were some who were more evil than others. Those who personified evil at its nadir, who truly enjoyed persecuting the hapless Jews who were their slaves, did not die immediately as the water rushed over them, but were flung to and fro throughout the crashing waves. They descended to the depths like light straw, suffering deservedly until they finally died. There were also the beinonim, average, middle of the road Egyptian, who fell to the bottom of the sea like stone - not too slowly, but not terribly fast. Last, were those who were the least evil, who, for the most part, "followed orders," but never had the courage to stand up for what was right. They descended to the depth like heavy lead. They died - but quickly. This is the meaning of the verse v'zeidim tibata, "they died immediately." Although they were evil, they were not as malevolent as the others, who took their time and received due punishment in death. After the zeidim drowned immediately, then the Jewish nation passed though the dried sea. Once they had passed, the real persecutors, who were being flung about the waters, finally died.

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