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Peninim on the Torah

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Rabbi A. Leib Scheinbaum
Hebrew Academy of Cleveland


When a woman conceives and gives birth to a male. (12:2)

Presenting various perspectives on the human condition, the Midrash cites the pasuk in Tehillim (139:5), "Back and front You have fashioned me," as referring to human life. "Back" refers to the last day of Creation, while "front" refers to the beginning of Creation. If man is worthy and leads a life of virtue, he is told, "You preceded creation," since it was all created for him. If he sins and is, consequently, found to be unworthy, he is told, "Even a gnat preceded you; even an earthworm preceded you." Why really was man created last - after all other creatures? His neshamah was created on the first day. His body, however, was last in the order of creation. The Midrash implies that man is to reflect upon the fact that even the lowest creation preceded him.

Man thinks that he is everything. His brilliance, his knowledge, his ability: they all join together to produce the crown of creation. All of this is imaginary, because no one is as weak and as dependent as the human being. Even the gnat preceded him. Man must search and work for his food. It is not ready-made and prepared for him, as it is for all other creatures. The Kesav Sofer compares this to a gravely ill patient in a hospital. The nurses and doctors minister to his every need. He is connected to many machines, each performing a vital function that keeps him alive. A young, innocent child who confronts this scene might envy the special care that the patient is receiving. He would also like to get such attention! That is the folly of our lives. We think that with all the inventions and gadgets that modern science has made available for us, we are better off than the simple animal who must fend for himself. We forget, however, that the animal world really has everything ready-made and accessible. We need all of the help that we can get. Yes, at times the most insignificant creature takes precedence over man.

How, then, are we to understand the other side of the coin, that if man is worthy, he takes precedence over the creatures of creation? The answer, explains the Kesav Sofer, lies in one word: purpose. True, other creatures have a soft, easy life. Everything is prepared for them. They do not have to go out and labor to eke out a living. But, is there any significance to their lives? Do they have goals or objectives to their lives, or do they merely exist without purpose, without reason for living?

Man has a matarah, a raison d'etre, a purpose for his existence. It is to serve Hashem, to study His Torah, to gain access to Olam Habah, the World to Come. One thing is true, however: He who lives for the wrong reasons, whose values, goals and objectives are somehow confused; he who thinks life revolves around the almighty dollar and the temporary power it generates, who is obsessed with fleeting honor which is as artificial as the people who grant it, he really is on a lower plateau than the lowliest creature.

On the eighth day, the flesh of his foreskin shall be circumcised. (12:2)

The mitzvah of Milah, circumcision, leaves an indelible mark on a Jew, one that is with him throughout his life. It is a mitzvah which connects generations, since one's father is obligated to make sure that his son is circumcised. It is a rite of passage for a Jew, a mitzvah for which Jews throughout the millennia have died. Many stories demonstrate the Jew's commitment to this special mitzvah. The following is a very poignant story, which demonstrates not only Jewish resolve, but Jewish commitment under the most trying circumstances.

Horav Arye Levin, zl, was accustomed to go to shul early on Erev Shabbos, so that he could recite Shir Hashirim in a relaxed atmosphere with great joy. Once, he sat next to his rebbe Horav Chaim Berlin, zl, the rav of Yerushalayim, and together they recited the Shir Hashirim.. They came to the pasuk, "Behold, you are beautiful My beloved; behold, you are beautiful, your eyes are doves" (1:15). This pasuk extols Klal Yisrael for their deeds and resolve and liken its leadership, the "eyes" of the nation, to doves, who remain faithful to their mates, Rav Chaim's eyes began to tear. "Why are you crying?" Rav Arye asked his rebbe. "These pesukim praise Klal Yisrael's faithfulness. It is no reason to cry." Rav Chaim explained his display of emotion with the following story:

"When I was rav in Moscow, a distinguished gentleman once came over to me and asked to speak to me in private. He related that his wife had just given birth to a boy, and would I honor him by being the Mohel, ritual circumciser. Since this request was not uncommon, I was somewhat taken aback by his desire for secrecy. He soon explained that his business was in the wholesale vending of crucifixes. It would certainly not serve his business well to acknowledge publicly that he was Jewish. A public affair was definitely out of the question.

"I agreed to perform the Bris in secrecy. The man's servants were given a day off and the father and I attended to the ceremony. Afterwards, I asked the father to notify me on the third day as to the child's welfare. On the third day, the father arrived with the good news that the baby was well. He also brought an envelope of cash to pay for my services. I refused his money, stating that I do not take remuneration for this mitzvah. The father thought I was really waiting for more money, which he immediately gave me. I said, "No - I do not take money for the mitzvah of Milah." Before the father left, I asked him to explain his behavior to me: "I visited your home and did not notice even the slightest testament to your Jewish heritage. Why would you risk everything for the mitzvah of Milah? Why chance exposure after so many years of hiding your true faith?" He responded, 'Rebbe, I know that I have distanced myself from the faith of my ancestors. I do not know if I personally can ever go back to my roots. One thing I do know for certain: my son will never know his Jewish heritage. I was, at least, raised among Jews. He has nothing of the sort. If one day in the future, when he grows up and meets other Jews who will inspire him to come back, I do not want to be the one that precluded his return. He was born a Jew, and I will raise him as such. I cannot deprive my son of his legacy.' "Now you know," said Rav Chaim, "why I cry when I recite these pesukim. As the dove remains faithful to its dovecote, never flying farther than its eyes can still see the dovecote, so, too, do our People retain their inner commitment to Hashem, regardless of how far they have strayed."

He must dwell in solitude, his camp shall be outside of the camp. (13:46)

One would think that enough has been said and written about lashon hora, slanderous speech. Everyone knows what it is, the seriousness of this sin and the tragic effect it has on those involved in it. Yet, this does not seem to prevent the baal lashon hora, slanderer, from plying his trade. Is there anything left to be said that might have an effect on the baal lashon hora? There might be.

As punishment for the baal lashon hora's evil words, he is sent away from the community to live in solitude until that day that his tzaraas, spiritually inflicted leprosy, is gone. He may now prepare for re-entry. What does living alone do for the metzora and how does it change his outlook on slanderous speech?

When we ponder the mindset of one who speaks lashon hora, we discover a characteristic of his personality that for some is probably the primary factor that motivates them to disparage others. They think they endear themselves to people when they are the primary source of information. They feel that people want to engage them in conversation because they will provide them with something interesting to talk about. Who is not curious to hear juicy gossip about others? He wants to be the medium for disseminating this information, thereby providing for himself a constant following of "friends."

To a certain extent and for a short term, he is probably correct. People enjoy, and some even thrive on gossip about others. Does a relationship, however, based upon smut, gossip and disparaging others really endure? Does anybody with a drop of intelligence in his head want such a person for a friend? True, we might choose to listen because that is a human shortcoming; but who really wants to call such a person a friend? He is dangerous. He is destructive. He is sick. He may be the delight of the evening, but he is never someone we choose to invite to our home or with whom we associate on a regular basis.

People with a modicum of refinement would fare well to distance themselves from the slanderer. Indeed, anyone who keeps company with a baal lashon hora is probably as degenerate as he. In the end, the slanderer will be left alone, without friends. No one wants to be a friend with someone who will stab him in the back the next day. The metzora's excommunication from the community is an appropriate and fitting punishment. Maybe, by being alone, he will come to realize the true effect of his evil tongue.

Vignettes on the Torah

If the tzaraas will erupt on the skin…wherever the eyes of the Kohen can see. (13:12)

Chazal say that the Kohen must be able to see the plague clearly. Consequently, he may not view tzaraas on a cloudy day; neither, may a Kohen who is blind in one eye render judgment on a plague. Gelilei Zahav renders this homiletically. When clouds conceal the sun/success of Klal Yisrael, when we suffer under the pressure of terrible decrees and persecution, the plagues and blemishes that emerge in our spiritual behavior should not be held against us. Look at Klal Yisrael's hardships, not at their sins. View the whole nation in the perspective of its troubles. A Kohen/leader/individual who is blind in one eye - and sees only our blemishes and not the over-all surrounding circumstances - should not render judgment. One must take everything into account.


(The plague) having turned completely white, it is pure. (13:13)

The Chasam Sofer explains that a metzora is quarantined, since his moral shortcomings which have caused his affliction are not readily apparent and can, therefore, effect those around him. One whose plague has spread throughout his body can no longer conceal his true evil. Everyone knows what he is and that his sinful speech and character have catalyzed his tzaraas. The one who is completely covered with leprosy is not a danger to anyone, since his true sinful character is revealed to all. He cannot conceal his blemish with his virtue, because he has no virtue.


He is to call out, "contaminated, contaminated!"

Horav Mordechai HaKohen, zl, interprets this pasuk in a homiletic, but practical, manner. Is it not ironic that the one who is himself tamei, contaminated, calls others tamei? He sees the blemishes of others, but never his own.



This shall be the law of the metzora on the day of his purification. (14:2)

We do not realize the power of the words that exit our mouths. Indeed, it is possible that a simple, innocuous comment made needlessly can have a far-reaching effect, as demonstrated by the following story: The Chafetz Chaim and another rav once set out on a three-day journey on a dvar mitzvah, a matter of religious significance. They stopped at an inn, whose impeccable kashrus standards were well-known, to have dinner. After the meal, the proprietress of the restaurant came over and asked them if they were pleased with their dinner. The Chafetz Chaim immediately responded in the affirmative. His co-traveler concurred, but added that a bit more salt would have enhanced the meal.

As the woman left, the Chafetz Chaim turned white and exclaimed. "I cannot believe it. All my life I have avoided hearing or speaking lashon hora. Now I travel with you, and I hear lashon hora. This is an indication that the purpose of the trip is not really a mitzvah. Otherwise, this would not have happened to me.

When his companion saw the Chafetz Chaim's reaction, he became flustered and frightened: "What did I say that was so bad? I only mentioned that a bit more salt would have been appreciated!" "You do not realize the impact of your words," cried the Chafetz Chaim. "Our hostess probably does not do her own cooking. Her cook could very well be a poor widow who has been forced to take this job to support her family. As a result of your criticism, the owner will complain to the cook, who, in self-defense, will deny the claim and say that she did put in enough salt. This will escalate to an all-out argument between the owner and the cook, resulting in the poor widow's dismissal. So, you have caused unnecessary strife between two people, as well as a loss of livelihood for a widow and her orphans. Look at how many sins you committed with your "innocent" words. You spoke lashon hora, and you caused the owner and myself to hear lashon hora. You caused the owner to repeat the lashon hora, which created a situation in which the cook was compelled to lie. You also caused pain to a widow, and an argument between the owner and the cook. Six sins: Is that enough?"

The rabbi looked at the Chafetz Chaim, smiled and said, "You know, you are carrying this a bit far. Surely a few words could not have caused such harm." The Chafetz Chaim said, "Come, let us go to the kitchen and see for ourselves." They turned towards the kitchen and entered, only to hear and see everything exactly as the Chafetz Chaim described it would happen. The owner was berating the cook, who, amid tears streaming down her face, was gathering her few things together and preparing to leave the employ of the restaurant.

The rabbi absorbed all of this and felt terrible. He immediately went over to the cook and begged her forgiveness for any distress he might have caused. He pleaded with the owner to reconsider her position vis` a vis` the cook, which she did. Indeed, she quickly remarked, "I only wanted to impress the need to be more careful upon her."

He shall be brought to the Kohen. (14:2)

The Kohen plays a pivotal role in the tumah and taharah, contamination and purity, of the metzora. Horav Meir Yechiel, zl, m'Gustinin offers a profound explanation for the Kohen's significance in this process. Realistically, when we rebuke the slanderer for his disparaging tongue, he is quick to respond, "But, I am only telling the truth." He is justifying his iniquity with a spurious display of virtue. This false righteousness is an integral part of the slanderer's trade. He conceals his evil with a facade of piety.

This is why we bring him to the Kohen. The Kohen is a descendant of Aharon, the rodef shalom v'oheiv shalom, who loved peace and pursued peace. Aharon was "also" pious; he would never lie - unless it was in the course of bringing about peace among people, harmony between husband and wife. He felt it is permissible to alter the truth "slightly," if it is in the pursuit of shalom. Aharon's idea of a falsehood was to tell each one of the individuals involved that the other one wanted to make peace. This generated a feeling of remorse and shame in the other fellow. They eventually made up. This was Aharon's "lie".

The Torah insists that the slanderer, who claims he is saying the truth, should come to the Kohen who, at times, is prepared to present a falsehood to help promote unity. If the Kohen, who sometimes bends the truth, says the slanderer is tamei, he is tamei b'emes, truly tamei.

Vignettes on the Torah

This shall be the law of the metzora.

The Bais Yisrael was wont to say, "It is not enough that one learns the Torah; it is also important that the Torah teaches him" ("Der Torah zal im oich epes oislernen"). The metzora should learn from this experience and mend his character.


They shall take for the person being purified…cedar wood, crimson wool and hyssop. (14:4)

These items are the metzora's remedy. He should lower himself like a worm, whose dye is used for the crimson wool, and like a lowly hyssop. Why should he bring cedar wood which, because of its height, denotes arrogance? This is a character trait from which one should certainly distance himself. The Chidushei Ha'Rim explains that one who lowers himself at a time when he should be taking a stand is in grave error. When one sees that Hashem's Name is being defamed and - out of a sense of misplaced humility - refuses to take a stand, he sins. He should raise his head up as a cedar tree and battle for the honor of Hashem's Name.


The Sefas Emes would say, "He who considers himself high and mighty is, in reality, low and inferior. He who views himself as being insignificant is, in effect, noble and elevated.

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