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Peninim on the Torah

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Rabbi A. Leib Scheinbaum
Hebrew Academy of Cleveland


You shall make vestments of sanctity for Aharon your brother, for glory and splendor.(28:2)

The Kohanim stood at the spiritual apex of the Jewish People. They represented true royalty as a result of their spiritual proximity to the Almighty via the service they performed in the Mikdash. The Kohen Gadol, High Priest, wore eight vestments, each representing a sin that required atonement on behalf of Klal Yisrael. When the Kohen Gadol wore these vestments, not only did they manifest glory and splendor, they would invoke Hashem's mercy. Thus, in conjunction with proper teshuvah, repentance, they would generate atonement for the people. In addition, the Kohen Gadol wore twelve precious stones on his Choshen, Breastplate, each symbolizing one of the twelve tribes.

Therefore, when the Kohen Gadol stood in service before the Almighty, he represented the entire Jewish People. He was the holiest person in the nation and stood in the holiest site, wearing vestments that were a constant reminder of the people's shortcomings. Does this make sense? Should not his clothing relate more to love, compassion, virtue and righteous deeds? The sin was not present in a negative sense. It was, rather, a request for penance, which could have been achieved through a more positive approach. It reinforces the concept that being judged by Hashem in and of itself engenders celebration. Rosh Hashanah, the Day of Judgment, is a Festival. One would think that the judgment day would be the one day on which we avoid celebrating. How are we to understand this?

In Forever His Students, an anthology of essays based upon the thoughts of Horav Yaakov Weinberg, zl, Rabbi Baruch Leff explains positive implication of the idea of judgment by Hashem. Hashem judges us because He wants to, not because He has to. He has no needs and, therefore, judges us solely for our benefit. Through His judgment, Hashem demonstrates that He cares about us. We are very important to Him, so He observes and scrutinizes everything that we do. We shape the world through our actions. Hashem's judgment makes us aware that everything we do makes a difference, every action has a repercussion. What we do matters to Hashem. This alone is cause for celebration. What greater cause for celebration could there be than the awareness that Hashem Yisborach cares about every move that we make? What greater motivation for self-esteem is there than the knowledge that Hashem scrutinizes our every action, weighing it meticulously?

We live in a society in which low self-esteem is the cause of many of its ills. Depression has become a way of life, as people find it harder and harder to achieve some perspective on their own success and self-worth. Some turn to external stimulants to raise their self-esteem, only to become trapped in the maze of drugs and alcohol. They find out very quickly that the therapy they have sought actually intensifies the illness. If we would only take the time to reflect on the fact that Hashem cares for each and every one of us and that every minute activity that we perform is important to Him, our self-esteem would be elevated. He tests us all of the time, because He cares for us - all of the time. His concern goes beyond anything we can possibly fathom. What greater source of joy is there than knowing that the Melech Ha'Olam, Master of the Universe, is concerned about us? Rosh Hashanah, the Day of Judgment, is a day of awe - and joy. It is a festival which enables us to contemplate the fact that our lives have significance.

Our sins are foremost on Hashem's agenda with us, since He loves us and seeks our constant improvement. The Kohen Gadol's vestments are, thus, a symbol of Hashem's love and concern for His People. We have a responsibility to serve Hashem, because He placed us here out of love and concern. It is a reciprocal relationship. We know that Hashem will do His part. What about ours?

Six of their names on one stone, and the names of the six remaining ones on the second stone… you shall place both stones on the shoulder straps of the Eiphod. (28:10,12)

The Eiphod was like a long apron, worn with the upper panel in the back and tied in the front with a belt. It has two shoulder straps sewn to its belt at the apron's corners. Each strap, which reached to the top of the shoulders, had a gold setting into which a shoham stone was set. The names of the twelve tribes were engraved on the stones, with twenty-five letters on each stone. There is a difference of opinion among the commentators exactly how the names were divided. One school of thought suggests that there were six names on each stone. Others feel that one stone had the complete names of six tribes and the other stone had the complete names of five tribes, while Binyamin's name was split between both stones; the first two letters of his name were engraved on the first stone, and the remaining four letters were engraved on the second stone. There obviously must have been something unique about Binyamin that granted him this distinction. Why was his name divided between the stones?

The Meshech Chochmah explains that Hashem gave him this distinction by having the Bais Hamikdash built in his portion of Eretz Yisrael. He cites the pasuk in Devarim 33:12, where Moshe Rabbeinu says: "To Binyamin he said, 'G-d's beloved, he dwells securely beside Him.' (G-d) protects him throughout the day and dwells among his keseifav, slopes." The literal meaning of keseifav is "shoulders." The commentators explain that just as a human beings' head is situated between his shoulders, so, too, the "head" of Klal Yisrael, the Bais Hamikdash, was located between the slopes of Binyamin. Hence, Binyamin is associated with the shoulders. Since he is Hashem's beloved, it is only natural that out of all the tribes, his name should be the one engraved on the two stones.

I feel we can supplement this with two other ways in which Binyamin distinguished himself from all the other tribes and why, accordingly, he should be the one in whose portion the Bais Hamikdash should be situated. Indeed, his character plays an integral role in this designation. Let us go back to when Binyamin was born, and even further back to the events preceding his birth. The Torah records Rivkah Imeinu's death, followed by the death of Devorah, her nursemaid. Then, to add more tragedy to Yaakov Avinu's life, Rachel Imeinu, his wife for whom he had sacrificed so much, also died - in childbirth. This succession of events must have been devastating. What was left for him to keep his faith intact, to keep his hope "alive"? It was Binyamin, for with Rachel's passing, Binyamin was born. The sun set in midday, but then it rose immediately. There was hope. There was a future. Yaakov Avinu shed tears for his wife, for his mother, for her nursemaid. These tears, however, were not tears of hopelessness, tears of desperation. Instead, they were tears of hope. Binyamin was alive. He would carry on, a ben yamin, the son of the right hand, the hand that represents struggle, fortitude and hope.

Two tribes personify this concept. The Izbitzer Rebbe, zl, suggests that we are called Yehudim after Shevet Yehudah. After Yosef confronted his brothers with the planted incriminating evidence, all the brothers gave up hope - except for Yehudah. He immediately approached Yosef and drew himself near to establish a dialogue. Yehudah never gave up hope, regardless of how overwhelming and desperate the situation seemed. All Jews ought to embrace this attitude.

This relationship has characterized the Jewish people throughout the millennia. When the Northern Kingdom seceded - Binyamin and Yehudah stayed together. When the ten tribes were exiled - Binyamin and Yehudah remained together. Indeed, there are opinions that today's Klal Yisrael is comprised primarily of their descendants. As long as there is hope, we will survive.

Alternatively, we suggest that Binyamin demonstrated his unique character in another area. Chazal teach us that Binyamin begot ten sons, each of whom he named after his lost brother Yosef. Every name alluded to his missing brother, his character and virtue, as well as Binyamin's feeling of loss. Binyamin wanted to make sure that the memory of his brother, Yosef, would never be forgotten. He concretized and eternalized his memory by naming his sons after him. This type of action planted the seeds of redemption. The Baal Shem Tov says, "Forgetfulness leads to exile. Remembrance is the beginning of Redemption." If we are to warrant the return of the Bais Hamikdash, we should never forget that it is gone. Binyamin taught us the meaning of remembrance. It is only natural that the Bais Hamikdash should be erected in his portion. His inexorable bond with his lost brother symbolized a level of kinship that could be "shared" between the two stones.

Aharon shall bear the names of Bnei Yisrael on the Breastplate of Judgment on his heart. (28:29)

The Torah dedicates an unusual amount of space to the fabrication of the Eiphod and the Choshen. While it might be somewhat difficult to clearly visualize the exact features of these vestments, their purpose and function are not as elusive. The Torah tells us clearly what was to be their function and purpose. The names of the tribes were engraved on the two stones that Aharon wore on his shoulders, six on each of the stones. Aharon "carried" these when he went in to serve, as a remembrance before Hashem. The fact that Aharon wore those on his shoulders conveys an important lesson about leadership. The leader must "carry" the needs of the nation on his "shoulders," so that he never forgets them. He is not here to enjoy the fruits and benefits of leadership. He has a load to carry. He concerns himself with the people, empathizes with their needs and struggles, and always is there to be their champion. A leader may never shrug off his load. It is his responsibility.

Yet, this is not enough. Aharon Hakohen was commanded to wear the Choshen with the names of Klal Yisrael over his heart. Carrying the weight of their necessities on his shoulders is one component of leadership. The second component of leadership is empathizing with his heart: feeling their pain; being sensitive to their needs. A Jewish leader carries the nation's needs on his shoulders and also engraves them on his heart. Their needs are his needs.

We may add that the leader should not be sensitive only to the general needs of the populace. He must be attuned to the individual requirements and demands of his flock. There are some people who need more attention than others, and it is up to the leader to distinguish between the general needs of the people and the individual needs of each person.

I recently read an anecdotal story that underscores this idea. The story is about a famous conductor who was rehearsing with a distinguished symphony orchestra. Everything seemed to be going well as the 150 skilled musicians blended together to create a balanced harmony of song. The conductor waved his baton, and everyone responded to his instruction.

Suddenly, in the middle of a fortissimo passage, the conductor rapped on the music stand. Immediately, everyone became silent. "Where is the piccolo?" the conductor asked.

The piccolo player had missed his entry, and the disciplined ear of the conductor, even amidst the imposing volume of sound which emanated throughout the hall, had noted its absence.

A trained and seasoned leader keeps his eyes, ears and heart attuned to all aspects of the community. He is acutely aware of the role and mission of each of its members and knows how best to cultivate their strengths, as well as how to downplay their weaknesses. The leader must lead, but it is only when the community follows in harmony that his efforts meet with success.

And make for them sashes. (28:40)

In the Talmud Arachin 16b, Chazal teach that the Avnet atoned for hirhur ha'lev, improper thoughts and emotions. A chasid once came to the Mezritcher Maggid, zl, and lamented his inability to empty his mind of inappropriate thoughts. They simply entered his mind against his will and impugned the integrity of his spiritual ascendancy. He wanted to do the right thing, but these hirhurim, thoughts, kept creeping into his mind. What should he do? The Maggid suggested that he travel to Horav Ze'ev, zl, m'Zitomir, who owned an inn, to speak with him.

The man traveled to Zitomir, which was a small village. He arrived at night at the home of Rav Ze'ev. The door was locked and, regardless of how often and how loud he knocked, no one answered the door. It was cold and windy, and the elements were getting to the weary traveler. As he knocked, he cried out, "Please answer the door. I am tired and cold. I must rest." After a while, he became angry with Rav Ze'ev, the owner, for not opening the door. He began to berate him, "How dare you not open the door for a Jew in need? I am freezing out here. Open up!" From the house, there was no response, not even a peep.

The man stood there throughout the night. With the light of dawn, Rav Ze'ev opened the door and invited the man in. The chasid remained at the inn for a few days, during which Rav Ze'ev never spoke to him. The man was incredulous, "Why would the Maggid have sent me here?" he wondered. "First, Rav Ze'ev does not let me in, and then, when I finally take a room in the inn, he ignores me." The chasid decided that before he left he was going to speak to Rav Ze'ev in an attempt to get to the bottom of things.

"Pardon me," the chasid turned to Rav Ze'ev, "could you tell me why the Maggid sent me here? It seems that it was all for naught."

Rav Ze'ev looked deep into the eyes of the chasid and said, "The Rebbe sent you to learn a lesson from me. The lesson is: A man is the baal ha'bayis, owner of his home. He allows whomever he wants to enter, and, whomever he does not want, he does not allow entrance into his house!"

The lesson was simple. The man did not know what to do about the inappropriate thoughts that were creeping into his mind. He is the baal ha'bayis, and therefore, he allows in only whom and what he desires. Apparently, he was neither firm enough in how he closed the door nor discerning enough concerning whom he allowed in. Furthermore, such thoughts cannot penetrate where they are not wanted!

Va'ani Tefillah

Ki rove maaseihem tohu, v'yemei chayeihem hevel Lefanecha.

For most of their deeds are desolate, and their lives are empty before You.

In dealing with our own insignificance, we have come to realize that whatever we are and whatever we achieve is all due to Hashem's Divine compassion. With regard to the nations of the world, we recognize that for all intents and purposes, their deeds are desolate and empty. How can we say this? What about their major developments in the fields of medicine, science, art, humanities, music and philosophy? Are we to ignore these incredible achievements? True, there have been incredible accomplishments for mankind, but has it promoted human welfare? Has it created a change in the people who have made these achievements, or have they remained nothing more than intelligent animals? We only have to look back a few years in world history to see what the most advanced nation at the time did to the Jews in the course of the European Holocaust. Are scientists more moral? Do the masters of culture have the franchise on ethics, or are we today suffering from ethical anarchy and jungle morality? The bottom line is that as long as man's ambitions and achievements are devoted to fleeting goals, to a life of sensuousness and selfishness, he will be doomed to the same transient life as the beast. We cannot bequeath a legacy if it has no meaning and value. When man remains morally bankrupt and ethically desolate, when his life is empty of any meaning, than the "human" aspect of the human being is missing.

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