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Peninim on the Torah

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Rabbi A. Leib Scheinbaum
Hebrew Academy of Cleveland


If a woman will conceive and give birth to a boy, she will be impure seven days. (12:2)

Parashas Shemini concludes with the laws concerning animals. Parashas Tazria commences with the laws that address the human condition. Should it not be the other way, the laws of animals following those of humans? Rashi cites the Midrash which notes that, actually, this sequence reflects the creation of the universe, where we find the creation of man following the creation of the animal kingdom. Thus, following this precedent in creation, the Torah writes the laws of man following those of animals. This might solve the issue of precedent, but it ignores the original question of "Why?" Why is man one step lower on the totem pole? Why does man follow after animal - and everything else, for that matter?

In the Talmud Sanhedrin 38a, Chazal address this issue and offer the following solution. We tend to allow things to go to our head, thereby laying the seeds for unabashed arrogance to take hold of our lives. Yes, we humans tend to think that we are "it." Haughtiness is especially evident in an individual who, by nature, is insecure. The Torah "encourages" the arrogant person to ask himself, "Who do you think you are? What makes you so smug? Do you know that the lowliest creature, the tiniest insect, preceded you in Creation?" This should raise his awareness. When man realizes his place in the sequence of Creation, he will have second thoughts about elevating himself above and beyond the reach of reality. Incredibly, Hashem designed the entire sequence of Creation, with man being the last creature He created, all for the purpose of humbling him, of making him realize that it is not "all about him." The rest of the world out there deserves to be acknowledged.

It seems unusual that the extraordinary sequence of Creation was executed in this manner for the extreme purpose of humbling the human psyche. Let us face it; we cannot exist for one second without Hashem's beneficent will. We are dependent upon Him for everything. Yet, there is a realistic fear that we might become haughty. Why? For what? Exactly what do we have to be arrogant about? Horav A. Henoch Leibowitz, zl, explains that, regrettably, we forget all of this. We conveniently forget our own inherent frailty, our constant need for Hashem's support and favor. We subsist entirely on Him, but, as soon as we receive what we need, we forget its Source.

This might, indeed, be true, but there is a counterargument to consider. Man is the crowning glory of Creation. It all exists for him. Therefore, it makes sense that he should be last in the sequence of Creation. He entered into a world that had been fully prepared for him, like the master surgeon who enters the operating room after everything has been prepared for his arrival. He administers his expertise and leaves. This argument is actually presented by Chazal as another reason for the sequence of Creation. Man is last by design, not due to his haughtiness, but because he is the purpose of Creation. This explanation gives him reason to be arrogant. After all, he is "it."

The Rosh Yeshivah explains that while the above is true, and a haughty person can always conveniently find a way to justify his behavior, after all is said and done, he still possesses an intuitive receptivity to the truth. He knows that it is all just talk. Without Hashem, he is nothing. He has, therefore, no excuse to be arrogant. Essentially, both interpretations of Chazal are true. Given the gifts with which Hashem has blessed man, he has the capacity to soar; his potential for spiritual growth is phenomenal. After all, he has been created in Hashem's image. Concomitantly, man possesses nothing of his own. All of his merits are G-d- given; his potential for growth is amazing, but - he cannot do it on his own. Therefore, man is confronted with two truths: his potential greatness; and his corporeality, which means that, without Hashem, he really has and is nothing. Each truth has its own unique application. A haughty person who hears the message of humility might convince himself to argue intellectually, but, deep within his heart, he knows better. A resonating voice echoes throughout his body, pointing out the truth: "You may think that you are something. The real truth is that, indeed, you are something and, with Divine assistance, you will become even more. You must, however, face the fact that, of your own accord, you are powerless."

The Rosh Yeshivah notes that it does not take much to detour our road toward self-improvement. Progress is slow and, thus, discouraging. We want to get better, to mend our ways, but, for some reason, whenever we take two steps forward, we fall one step backward. Chazal, however, have placed great confidence in the power of truth to penetrate and break through even the most formidable obstacles which the human personality throws in our way. They believe that truth will prevail. This reality should inspire us to continue upon the path of renewal, purifying and elevating ourselves to heights previously unknown. They believed in us; so should we.

If a woman will conceive and give birth to a boy, she will be impure seven days. (12:2)

Rashi explains that the sequence of the laws addressing the human condition follows those of the members of the animal kingdom, which follows the sequence of Creation. Animals were created prior to man. Thus, the toras ha'adam, laws inherent to man, follow the toras beheimah, the laws pertaining to animals. Rashi's choice of words, "toras" ha'adam, the Torah/law concerning man, is striking. What specifically, is toras ha'adam? Is not the entire Torah toras ha'adam? After all, for whom else is it relevant, if not for man? This parshah addresses only a few of the mitzvos imposed on man, yet, they are referred to as toras ha'adam. Why?

Horav Elyakim Schlessinger, Shlita, gives a novel interpretation for toras ha'adam. By nature, man is unique and quite different from any other creation. His uniqueness lies in his ability to change from good to bad, tamei to tahor, ritually contaminated to spiritually pure. An animal that is born kosher will, by its very nature, remain kosher - unless it falls ill or is involved in an accident. A human being, however, can be born tahor and fall prey to sin, which contaminates him. He then repents, returns to favor, and is once again tahor. This cycle is part of life. This is the meaning of toras ha'adam.

Man's spiritual ups and downs are commensurate with his spiritual plateau. The simple Jew falls into the clutches of the yetzer hora often, because the evil inclination knows its customers. It knows who is easily influenced and who rarely falls for its ruses. The average man, however, is subject to this rollercoaster of life, in which he is tahor, becomes tamei, purifies himself - only to become tamei once again. And then the cycle begins anew. It can become very depressing, until the yetzer hora taunts us, "Why bother? It is only going to happen again." The toras ha'adam challenges this accusation, presenting the notion that this is intrinsic to the human condition. Man sins, regrets, atones, and sins again. Each time that he repents, however, he receives a Heavenly reward.

Rav Schlessinger compares this to a homemaker who sweeps the floor only to have it become dirty once again. So, she sweeps it one more time. This is a constant endeavor - clean, dirty, clean, dirty. The alternative is to ignore the dirt and allow it to pile up; then, the house would be considered a filthy home. By cleaning it daily, it develops a reputation as a tidy home. The fact that it becomes soiled later is part of the cleaning process. This is what living in a home is all about. One can seal the home, and it would never get dirty, but then he would not be living in it.

Toras ha'adam challenges the person not to give up and say, "Since I am going to sin again anyway, why bother cleaning up?" The law of man replies that this is all part of the foibles of the human condition. He has ups and downs. The alternative is, regrettably, all downs.

Then she shall take two turtledoves or two young doves, one for a burnt-offering and one for a sin-offering. (12:8)

Rashi comments that, in the sequence of offerings brought by a yoledes, a woman who gives birth, the Chatas, sin-offering, precedes the Olah, burnt-offering. This law applies, despite the fact that the Torah mentions the Olah first. We must endeavor to understand the rationale which requires the Korban Chattas to precede the Korban Olah. First, of course, let us understand why each korban is brought. The Chattas is brought "just in case." Perhaps, as a result of a painful labor, the woman intended never to go through this again. As a result, even though she did not actually verbalize an oath, she may have made a mental note not to be in such a situation again. Thus, she must bring a sin-offering.

Horav Moshe Feinstein, zl, explains the rationale behind the burnt-offering. A woman is required to know that the goal of all education is for the child to know that he belongs completely to Hashem, and that everything - life, livelihood, and all one possesses - is a gift from G-d. While every believing Jew takes this for granted, the mother is the child's primary teacher at home. She infuses him with emunah, faith, in Hashem. She inculcates within him the meaning and passion of serving the Almighty. Therefore, she must herself know what Judaism demands. She must herself be cognizant of - and adhere to - its tenets.

Since this is the goal of education, the Torah makes a point of conveying to us the laws of the burnt-offering before those of the sin-offering. The Korban Olah is completely consumed upon the Altar, thereby indicating that everything belongs to Hashem. This awareness is not inherent. Rather, one develops such a perspective as he follows and studies the Torah. Meticulous adherence to a Torah way of life brings a person to understand and acknowledge this concept of avodas Hashem, serving the Almighty. One does, at times, fail. Our faults often interfere with our perfect service, tainting it. If something inappropriate does occur, one is expected to repent immediately, before the taint of sin becomes a scourge that controls his life. Thus, the burnt-offering is written first, as this is the goal of every Jewish mother in raising a child; in practice, however, the sin-offering atones for anything inappropriate in the mother's life. The sin must be "cleaned up" and the slate wiped clean before the symbolism of the burnt-offering can be realistic.

We mentioned earlier that it is the mother's overriding responsibility to infuse her children with a sense of total commitment to Torah. Since I am observing my mother's yahrzeit this week, this would be an appropriate time and venue to elaborate on the subject. Horav Yitzchak Zilberstein, Shlita, expounds on the valuable educational lessons that he received from his mother. She imbued him with a reverence for Torah scholars and a desire to learn whatever he could from them -both by lecture, and example. Whenever the opportunity availed itself for him to be in the presence of talmidei chachamim, Torah scholars, his mother arranged for him to take advantage of the moment. Commitment to Torah study and its proficiency was paramount. She would negate the aspects of material benefits and emphasize the significance of spiritual success.

Rav Zilberstein relates that during the shivah, seven day mourning period for his mother, he was visited by the present day Ozorover Rebbe, Shlita. The Rebbe quoted his grandfather, the venerable author of the Aish Dos, who asked a question that surely is on our mind during Rosh Hashanah. The Torah portion which we read on the first day of Rosh Hashanah addresses Sarah Imeinu, her experience as a first-time mother, and the incident with her maidservant, Hagar. On the second day of Rosh Hashanah, we read the episode of Avraham Avinu and his son, Yitzchak (Avinu) and their preparation for the Akeidah. In other words, the first day we read about the Imahos, Matriarchs, while on the second day, we read about the Avos, Patriarchs. Why is this? Why do the Matriarchs precede the Patriarchs?

The Aish Dos explains that when a child falls down, his father scoops him up and supports him as he continues along his way. His mother, on the other hand, guides and educates their son to exert care, so that he will not fall altogether. A father offers comfort after the fall. The mother sees to it that the child is prevented from falling. This is why the merit of the Matriarchs exceeds that of the Patriarchs. Mothers provide the foundation that prevent us from falling in the first place.

It is not always about intensity of service; it is also about appreciating the value and premium one places upon Torah and its overriding significance in Jewish life. There is no dearth of stories to demonstrate a mother's impact on her son's distinction in Torah learning. Examples include the mothers of famous Torah leaders, such as: Rashi; the Chafetz Chaim, zl; Horav Meir Shapiro, zl; and Horav Betzalel Zolti, zl. Their stories have been recorded in these pages in the past. They were stories of extreme mesiras nefesh, self-sacrifice, for Torah. This time, I would like to record an episode which depicts a mother's love for Torah and how she imbued her son with this appreciation.

Rabbi Yechiel Spero relates the story of an eleven-year-old boy in Europe. He was an exceptional student in cheder, who went out of his way to make his parents proud of him. Clearly, the feeling was reciprocated, as evidenced by the following episode. In the beginning of the twentieth century, most Jews did not have large bank accounts. In fact, most had no bank accounts. Indeed, those who could provide three meals a day were considered quite fortunate. Clothing was a different story altogether. One purchased new garments only after the old garments could no longer be adequately mended. Yom Tov was usually the time to purchase a new garment. Purchasing a dress, for instance, was no walk in the park. It meant picking out the fabric, going to the seamstress a number of times for fittings, and then waiting until she completed the garment. Yitzchak, which was the young boy's name, was very excited that his mother was finally getting a new dress. It was supposed to be finished sometime before Pesach, and the whole family could not wait. Their mother was so devoted to them. Now, she was finally doing something for herself. Since this purchase was such a major event, she would not wear the new dress until Pesach. The children were disappointed, but anxiously, and with great anticipation, they counted the days until Pesach.

Yitzchak was really getting into his learning. He had recently been elevated into an accelerated class and had completed Meseches Bava Kamma, which was a significant feat for a young boy. He mentioned this to his mother as an aside, not wanting to bring attention to his achievement. His mother kvelled with pride. This is what mattered most in her life. When she expressed her enthusiasm about his accomplishment, Yitzchak simply shrugged it off. "It is nothing," he said. There was so much more to be learned. He had barely begun to scratch the surface.

The next evening, when Yitzchak returned from cheder, he was met with an incredible sight. The table was bedecked with their finest linen tablecloth; the dishes which were usually set aside for special occasions were set, candles were lit, and his mother was wearing her new dress!

The young boy was shocked and unable to speak. Finally, after collecting his thoughts, he asked, "What is happening? Why is the table set with our fancy dishes and the candles lit? And, why are you wearing your new dress? I thought you were waiting for Yom Tov?"

His mother smiled, as she asked her son to sit down at the table. "Yes, I was saving the dress for Yom Tov, but yesterday you told me that you were mesayeim, completed, Meseches Bava Kamma. What bigger Yom Tov is there than that? It is what I live for. Nothing is more important to me than my child's Torah study. And if you are making a siyum, then it is a Yom Tov."

The young boy remembered these words all of his life. Even when he became the distinguished Rosh Yeshivah of Mesivta Rabbeinu Chaim Berlin, Horav Yitzchak Hutner, zl, he kept dear to him those special words that his mother expressed to him that day.

If a tzaraas affliction will be in a person. (13:9)

Much has been written about the evils of lashon hora, evil speech. Regrettably, it is an evil that affects everyone in one way or another, and I do not think that my pen will have any ability to curb this scourge. Therefore, I have decided to take the opposite road, and, instead of writing about the evils of lashon hora, I will write instead about the benefits of lashon tov, good, positive speech.

Words are important. The right word can make someone's day, change someone's life, lift someone's spirits, while the wrong word can do the converse. We can speak with feeling, with compassion, with empathy. When we do so, we create joy, imbue self-confidence, engender positive feelings, raise hopes. When a poor man comes to the door, some individuals can help him by giving him a check. Others, however, have unfortunately fallen on hard times and can no longer help financially. What should they do? Talk to the man; make him feel good; lend him hope; give him courage; help him to understand that he is not alone; tell him that there are people who care about his plight.

Loneliness is a terrible predicament. When one is alone, every situation, no matter how benign, becomes that much more threatening. Loneliness brings on feelings of hopelessness, which is the source of most sin. A person who has lost hope has no where to turn and is at risk for deviating from all rational activity. One can be surrounded by people and still feel alone. It all depends on one criterion: Does anybody care?

Every Jewish community is blessed with elderly Jews, most of whom have outlived their friends, and, who, for the most part, are very much alone. Some live within the community, while others are carefully "placed" in retirement homes, senior citizen villas, assisted living and nursing homes. Many of them are lying around in old, frail gowns and pajamas, staring at their windows, or the ceiling. We think that senility is the by-product of old age. No - it does not come from old age. It is the result of a feeling that one is unloved, one is not useful, no one cares. Psychologists have proven time and again that when the elderly are visited, spoken to, made to feel important, they respond with vigor, enthusiasm and excitement. Suddenly, they feel important - someone cares.

Es chatoai ani mazkir ha'yom. I have been planning on visiting a number of elderly friends for some time now, but "somehow" my plans seldom achieve fruition. I do not think that I am an isolated case. We all conjure up excuses to justify why we refrain from doing what is right. Regrettably, the excuses do not take the place of a visit. The elderly person is still alone, while we have nothing but an excuse.

We can use our positive speech to make someone feel good, to calm his nerves, to raise his self-esteem. The best part about it is that it takes very little effort on our part to generate a positive feeling within someone else. Regrettably, many of us do not have it in them to expend even the slightest effort in order to help another person. We are so wrapped up in ourselves, in our lives, that we forget that others around us are crying out.

What about giving someone a compliment, telling them they look good, spoke well, wrote an inspiring article, did a great job, prepared a good dinner? This is just another situation in which a few words can go a long way. Another way that positive speech can make a difference is by promoting peace between two people, two groups, two factions. Dispute is a reality we cannot ignore. Controversy is a scourge that threatens the finest communities, families, groups. While there are some disturbed people who relish controversy, who thrive on discord, and who go out of their way to fan the fires of dispute, for the most part, most of us seek to distance ourselves form machlokes, controversy. While this is a noble and proper approach, we must strive to attain a higher, more desirable plateau: creating peace; promoting harmony; attempting to iron out the discord between various factions; helping them to see that nothing good can come out of a machlokes. Giving good advice, and providing good counsel, are yet other ways in which good speech helps others.

Last, is the idea of praying for others. The Jewish community is plagued with illness. Jews are falling prey to disease, both physical and mental. Prayer can spare a person. We all know someone who is in need of rachamei Shomayim, Heavenly mercy. What does it take to encourage our prayer? The shul recites Tehillim at the conclusion of davening. Many are already starting their motors, while others are busy texting. The day has started. The fact that the community is reciting Tehillim does not seem to be a legitimate deterrent to the supremacy of routine. Praying for the sick is part of the mitzvah of Bikur Cholim. This is especially true when one prays for another Jew at a point when he, the petitioner, is himself in need of the same blessing. In fact, Chazal teach us that the petitioner will be blessed first!

In summation, the power of speech is awesome. We often focus on the negative efforts, so that we tend to deemphasize its positive powers. Words do make a difference. Each of us has the power to make a difference in someone's life simply by using the right words at the right time.

Va'ani Tefillah

Natisa yemincha tivla'eimo aretz.
You stretched out Your right hand - the earth swallowed them.

Rashi cites the Mechilta that derives from here that the Egyptians merited burial. This is because they had earlier declared, Hashem Hu hatzadik, "Hashem, He is righteous" (Shemos 9:7). This is a reference to the plea rendered by Pharaoh and his people following the devastation wrought by makas barad, the plague of hail. Although this concession on their part was short-lived, it was, for all intents and purposes, an affirmation of sorts reflecting their teshuvah, repentance. Hashem applied this to their credit. In his Aznaim L'Torah, Horav Zalman Sorotzkin, zl, quotes the well-known phrase we say in the Shemoneh Esrai of Neilah, Yemincha peshutah l'kabel shavim, "Your right hand is stretched out to receive penitents." This indicates that Hashem's yemin, right hand, is equated with the acceptance of baalei teshuvah, those who return, those who shift to committing themselves to a Torah life.

The Rosh attributes the Egyptian merit to burial to something their ancestors had done. When the coffin of Yaakov Avinu was taken to be buried in the Meoras Ha'Machpelah, the Egyptians joined in the funeral procession. As a result of this chesed, Hashem returned the favor, rewarding them with burial. No good deed goes unrequited.

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