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Peninim on the Torah

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Rabbi A. Leib Scheinbaum
Hebrew Academy of Cleveland


And I pleaded to Hashem at that time, saying. (3:23)

Moshe Rabbeinu relates how he entreated Hashem to permit him to enter Eretz Yisrael. Chazal underscore the power of Tefillah. Because no one exemplified the performance of maasim tovim, good deeds, more than Moshe, Hashem listened to his pleas and allowed him to ascend to the top of the cliff and gaze at Eretz Yisrael. His prayers catalyzed the fulfillment of part of his request. What is there about prayer that is so effective? In his Nesivos Olam, the Maharal writes that when one prays to the Almighty, he indicates that he is totally dependent, unable to exist without Him. This is the attitude one should manifest when he prays.

Horav Shraga Feivel Mendlowitz, zl, taught that an essential component of the prayer service is the prior preparation. While one's external behavior demonstrates who is an earnest Torah scholar, this is not necessarily the case when it comes to Tefillah. The length of his prayer service is no indication that the petitioner takes his prayer any more seriously than one who prays quickly. It is all in the preparation. Rav Shraga Feivel would compare one who is praying to a mountain climber, who exerts great effort to make it to the summit. Once he is there, however, he strolls around with ease. So, too, is it with prayer. When a person prepares diligently for his encounter with the Almighty, his prayer will then spring forth unimpeded from his heart. No foreign thoughts will enter his mind. Indeed, one's alacrity in prayer might even be an indication of his devotion.

Horav Moshe Aharon Stern, zl, was well known for his impassioned prayer. From deep within the recesses of his heart, he would supplicate the Almighty like a humble servant looking up to his master for salvation. He meticulously enunciated every word. When he would recite those sections of the prayer that praised Hashem, his enthusiasm was palpable. His focus was consummate; his worship was sincere and fervent.

He was particular to daven with a minyan. If he could not find a minyan, he still felt that one should pray in a shul, rather than pray at home. The synagogue is a place specifically designated for prayer, and its ambience is conducive to prayer. This environment stimulates greater devotion and concentration. Rav Moshe Aharon would cite the following incident which he heard from the Chazon Ish, zl. A young couple, who were about to be married in a week, met for the last time prior to the customary seven-day separation before the wedding. They met before shkiah, sunset, and did not part until late into the night. Before taking leave, the bride reminded the groom to remember to daven Maariv. He responded that he had already davened. This struck the girl as odd, since they had been together for the entire evening, and it is improper to daven before sunset. Disturbed, she told her father about the incident when she came home that night. Her father decided to consult the Chazon Ish in regard to the matter. The Chazon Ish advised him to break the engagement. This was no simple matter, especially in light of the fact that it was a week before the wedding, but how can one marry someone who does not pray?

When it was pointed out to Rav Moshe Aharon that one cannot compare not praying with simply not praying with a minyan, his response was unequivocal, "You are right. If my daughter was engaged to a boy, and we discovered one week before the wedding that he does not daven with a minyan, I would not break the engagement. Would I have known ahead of time that such was the case, however, I would never have agreed to the match in the first place. A boy who does not daven with a minyan is not serious about davening!"

Horav Elya Lopian, zl, frequently urged his students to pray with devotion. "Heartfelt prayer," he said, "can rend the Heavens, especially if accompanied by tears." He would quote the Sefer Chassidim who writes, "The Almighty answers the requests of some individuals solely due to the intensity of their entreaties and the copious tears they shed. Even though they might possess neither merit nor good deeds, Hashem accepts their prayers and fulfills their desires."

We often think that prayer is connected to a specific time and place. Undoubtedly, it is more propitious to pray the specific prayers outlined by Chazal and to do so in a proper shul. Yet, Tefillah is not bound by time or place. One may pour out his heart to Hashem with devotion and fervor whenever he chooses, wherever he is. Horav Simchah Bunim, zl, m'Peshicha writes that one is mistaken if he thinks that in order to pray one must wrap himself in a Tallis and seclude himself. It is not so. Wherever a person might find himself, providing it is a clean place, he may pour out his heart to Hashem, because He is always there and He always listens.

I recently saw a poignant story on Tefillah in Rabbi Yechiel Spero's Touched by a Story, which is well worth reading. It is about a survivor of World War II's ravages. Hitler, Stalin, the persecution in the camps, and the loneliness and bitterness filled with depravation and pain had all taken their toll. His name was Siberiate, and he was speaking to a group of survivors who, like himself, had suffered and were now prepared to go on. He began his short speech in the following manner:

"I always thought that the most valuable commodity was money, until I came to Siberia and worked eighteen hours a day mining gold. I figured that I could always smuggle a little bit into my pocket, and in a short while I would be rich. What a fool I was to think that my gold had value in Siberia. In the cold misery of the slave labor camp, money was worthless. It was food that we needed. What good was gold if there was nothing to buy!

"As the hunger pangs gnawed within me, my focus turned to food. No longer did gold hold any significance. I needed food if I were to survive. The bitter hunger overwhelmed me until, one day, a passing guard walked by smoking a cigarette. The aroma of the cigarette filled the air and captivated me. Suddenly, my hunger pains became secondary to my cravings for a cigarette. The feeling of calm and relaxation that permeated my body after a cigarette lasted much longer than whatever food I would be able to scrounge.

"A cigarette became increasingly difficult to procure. While tobacco was not an elusive commodity, the paper in which it needed to be wrapped was very scarce. Even the guards were hard- pressed to find paper in which to wrap their tobacco. Now, it was no longer gold, food, or cigarettes that were of great value. It was plain paper which became my focus.

"I would yearn for days for that elusive cigarette, and the pleasure that I derived from it lasted me for the next few days until I could obtain my next cigarette. One day, my good fortune changed. An elderly peasant approached me and asked me if I knew how to read. His son was a soldier in the Soviet Union's Army; stationed hundreds of kilometers away. He would periodically write a letter to convey his personal news to his father. The father, an itinerant peasant, could not read, so he made a deal with me: I would read him his son's letter and, in return, he would give me the envelope to use as a wrapper for my cigarettes.

"I was overjoyed. This envelope had enough paper to roll at least three cigarettes! As I was preparing the envelope, however, I noticed that there was some lettering on the envelope. After closer perusal, I realized that it was Hebrew lettering! Reading the letters carefully, I saw that the writing was from davening. It had been years since I had davened, but I knew what I was reading. I picked up the envelope, folded it and put it in my pocket.

"One of the men in our labor group was learned. When I showed him my discovery, he exclaimed excitedly that this was a page from a Siddur. He was overjoyed. Hashem had not forgotten about us. How could we forget about Him? So we started a Minyan. Three times a day, the shliach tzibbur, reader, stood up and read from the envelope. Our one-page Siddur served as the primer for a group of depressed inmates to find solace and strength through the medium of Tefillah.

"This prayer meeting created a transformation that was incredible. The wretched souls who previously had nothing left for which to live, now had hope. Their lives now had meaning and purpose, and they looked forward longingly to daven together every day. It suddenly dawned on me that I had now discovered the most valuable thing in the world. It was not gold, nor was it food or cigarettes. It was prayer. The ability to connect with Hashem, to reach out and speak to Him, gave us hope. Without hope, we had nothing. With hope, we had everything.

"There was another aspect of this discovery, however, that was mind-boggling. The page of the Siddur contained a message that was both compelling and timely. The page began with the declaration in Az Yashir of, Hashem yimloch l'olam v'aed, "Hashem will rule forever!" With the small lettering on the page, the heartfelt plea of Ahavah rabah, Avinu! Av HaRachamim Ha'Meracheim racheim aleinu, "Our Father, our Compassionate Father, Who is merciful, have mercy on us!"

Do not add to the word which I command you and do no subtract from it. (4:2)

The sequence of these commands is enigmatic. One would think that the admonition against subtraction should precede the one against adding to the Torah. First, we should be taught not to remove anything from the Torah that Hashem has given us. Then, we should be exhorted against attempting to be more pious than the Creator by adding mitzvos to His Torah. Horav David Feinstein, Shlita, explains that the command against subtracting from the Torah is actually an explanation of why we are not permitted to add to the Torah. Whenever one attempts to add to the Torah, he is really subtracting from it, because, in effect, he is disputing the Torah's completeness. He indicates that it needs more. By taking the liberty to add, one is detracting from the Torah's perfection.

It is not uncommon for members of the Torah community to be questioned concerning their ability to compromise. We are called intractable and inflexible, because we are not willing to concede our position on Torah and mitzvos. There is a famous incident that occurred with the Bais HaLevi that is compelling. It took place during a rabbinical assembly in Russia when a number of Torah's greatest leaders were gathered to discuss the pressing issues of the day. One of the free-thinking, wealthy, lay people posed a question: "Rabbis! There are gathered here some of Judaism's greatest leaders. It would be only proper that you convene to discuss the possibility of "easing" the load of mitzvos on contemporary society. As you know fully well, many of the mitzvos of the Torah are outdated and not in tune with modern society."

The Bais HaLevi rose, responding to this contemptuous individual with the following mashal, analogy. "There was once a businessman who succeeded in only one thing: amassing large debts. He purchased large amounts of merchandise on credit and could not pay his bills. Understandably, his reputation waned as his debts rose. One night, shortly after midnight, he knocked on the door of one of his biggest creditors, someone whom he owed 100,000 ruble. He told the creditor that, given that it had been a number of years since he had last given him any payment on his debt, he wanted to make an exact accounting of the debt.

"The creditor was not really interested in meeting with the man at that time of the night, but the hope of collecting his debt motivated him to pull out his ledgers and go through the entire bill. They haggled back and forth, perusing every bill, every detail, until the debtor was able to adjust the debt to 50,000 ruble. The creditor was understandably upset, but he realized that even at fifty cents on the dollar, he was doing better than nothing at all. So he agreed to the compromise, expecting to receive a check immediately for the balance. We can only imagine his dejection and disgust when the debtor bid him good-night as he sauntered towards the door.

"You are not paying me?" the creditor exclaimed.

"No, of course not," the debtor replied, "you know I have no money."

"Why did you bother to go through the entire bill, inferring that you were going to do something about it?" the credtor screamed.

"You do not seem to understand," the debtor responded. "Every time I borrowed money, I felt bad that I was taking someone else's money, when I knew I would not be able to repay. This feeling lay like a stone on my heart. I knew I had to do something about it. That is why I came here tonight to go over the bills. At least now I feel better. I no longer owe you 100,000 ruble. I only owe you 50,000 ruble. This brings joy to my heart, since I feel that I have at least placated you somewhat."

This Bais HaLevi concluded the analogy, as he looked with piercing eyes at the arrogant skeptic, "You do not seek compromise for the purpose of strengthening your service to Hashem. Even if you only had the Ten Commandments to observe, you would find a way out of it. For people like you, no compromise will suffice; you seek one thing and only one thing: to abolish the Torah - totally and unequivocally. You have no desire to pay your debt. You only want to alleviate your conscience. The Torah is immutable and unalterable. It is perfect and complete. Accept it in its totality, with devotion and self-sacrifice, as your ancestors have done. You will never receive from us a dispensation to diminish your holy debt to Hashem."

You shall teach them to your sons and you shall speak of them while you sit in your home and while you walk on the way, when you lie down and when you rise. (6:7)

Rashi explains that word v'shinantom is a lashon chidud, a word which expresses sharpness, implying that the words of Torah should be sharp in one's mouth. This way, if a person were to question you in a matter of Torah, you will not hesitate, but rather respond immediately. The Boyaner Rebbe, zl, Rav Avraham Yaakov, rendered the pasuk in the following manner. Once a wealthy businessman approached the Rebbe with regard to his son. It seems that as the man was climbing the ladder of success in the world of commerce, he became slightly delinquent in his relationship with the Torah and mitzvos. As he was becoming more modern and distant from the traditions of his forebears, his attitude towards his son's Torah education became equally alienated. The yeshivah was replaced by the secular school. His friends were free-thinking and free-spirited, and slowly the son looked at Torah, mitzvos and Yiddishkeit in general as archaic and foreign. What was the father to do?

The Rebbe invited the man to attend the Tisch, festive meal, together with his son that Friday night, and he would offer his reply. The man came to the Tisch that night together with his son. The Rebbe greeted him and assigned him to a prominent seat at the Rebbe's side. The Rebbe commenced to deliver his divrei Torah on the parshah with the pasuk, V'shinantom l'vanecha v'dibarta bam. Focusing on the sequence of the text, he questioned the Torah's placing the exhortation," And you shall speak of them," directly following the enjoinment, "You shall teach them to your sons." Should not one first become personally proficient in Torah and then teach his sons Torah? Moreover, the "when you lie down, etc." is part of one's own Torah study. First, one should address his own Torah lessons in whichever place or position he may find himself and then concentrate on his son's Torah study.

The Rebbe explained that the Torah is teaching us a practical lesson. When one teaches his son Torah, if he fulfills the "V'shinantom," then he will have no problem with the "V'dibarta bam." He will then be able to speak divrei Torah with his son. If, however, he has neglected to teach his son Torah, if he has indicated that there are other more important areas of intellectual endeavor to which to devote one's time, then he will have nothing about which to speak to him, since they will, regrettably, have very little in common - spiritually. The son does not fathom his father's language, because their vernacular is no longer the same. This is underscored by the continuation of the pasuk, "While you sit at home, and while you walk on the way, etc." Everywhere you go, under all circumstances, you will have the same ideology as your son, and, thus, you have something with which to converse with him. If you send your son to places that teach material that is antithetical to Torah perspective, then you can expect the scope of your relationship with your son to be extremely limited.

Va'ani Tefillah

Ha'Meichin mitzadei gaver, Who directs the steps of man. We take much of our natural functions and abilities for granted. The simple ability to get out of bed in the morning and walk around is natural to us and expected. We forget, however, that there are people who cannot walk about freely, or those to whom walking is a great and difficult task. As mentioned above, with regard to the other brachos, we should take stock of our faculties with the various intricacies involved in their function and realize that only Hashem could have created such a perfect creation.

We are also reminded that the ability to walk carries with it great responsibility. The Baal Shem Tov explains that everywhere we go has a spiritual purpose. As we move about from place to place, even from city to city, the people we meet, the places we visit, all are part of a Divine spiritual agenda which the Almighty has mapped out for us. Often we "end up" in a place, because Hashem wants us to perform a kindness for someone or to influence someone in a positive manner, to help someone spiritually. When a person recites this blessing, he should keep in mind that Hashem directs the steps he takes and he should, thus, see to it that wherever his "steps" may lead, he should make a positive contribution.

Arthur & Sora Pollak and Family

in loving memory of our mother & grandmother
Mrs. Goldie Jundef

Peninim on the Torah is in its 14th year of publication. The first nine years have been published in book form.

The Ninth volume is available at your local book seller or directly from Rabbi Scheinbaum.

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