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Peninim on the Torah

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Rabbi A. Leib Scheinbaum
Hebrew Academy of Cleveland


But you, who cling to Hashem, your G-d, you are all alive today. (4:4)

This pasuk defines the meaning of life for us. One is alive if he clings to Hashem. Anything else is simply not living. In his commentary to this pasuk, the Ohr Ha'Chaim HaKadosh writes: "If you cling to Hashem, your life has relevance and meaning." A Jew who lives a full life performs mitzvos and carries out good deeds on a daily basis. Every day he davens three times. He makes blessings prior to eating. Shabbos is a day during which he has the opportunity to taste, to revel in the pleasure of Olam Habba, the World to Come. During the course of the year he is elevated by the spiritual enjoyment that is the result of celebrating the Festivals. This is life!

Horav Avraham, zl, m'Kalisk was about to begin his daily davening in his shul in Teveriah. He was stopped by an elderly man who was being supported by a cane. "The Rebbe is about to begin davening?" the gentleman asked. "Please remember me in his prayers." The man then proceeded to tell the rav his name and that of his mother.

"What should I request for you?" the rav asked.

"Rebbe, ask that I die today!" was the man's reply. The rav looked at the man incredulously. He had heard some strange requests during his tenure as rav, but this one literally "took the cake." The man explained, "Rebbe, let me explain why my request is not that strange. I no longer see very well. My hearing is practically gone. I have no teeth. It is very difficult for me to swallow. My digestive system is shot. I can hardly walk. I feel excruciating pain in every muscle and joint of my body. I have great difficulty sleeping. My mind is rapidly losing its battle with Alzheimer's disease. Now, I ask you: What value is there to such a life?"

The rav was a compassionate person; to hear this plea for help from a broken shard of a man melted his emotions. It was not as if the man's words did not make sense. He did have a "reasonable" complaint - at least, from his limited perspective. "Tell me," the rav asked, "did you put on Tefillin today?" "Of course," the man replied. "What kind of a question is that? I put on Tefillin with the first light of the day."

The rav looked the man square in the eyes and asked, "If you live another day, will you put Tefillin on again tomorrow?"

"Definitely," was the man's emphatic response. Suddenly, the rav became very emotional, as he asked, "And you are requesting death? You should know that it is worth it for a man to descend to this world and live eighty years in pain - the pain that Iyov endured - just so that he can put on Tefillin one time in his life! To recite Krias Shema! And you are blessed that you do not have to wait eighty years - but only twenty-four hours- until tomorrow; is life not worth it?"

Thus, when we merit putting on Tefillin daily, reciting Krias Shema daily, and we are not weighed down with debilitating pain, are we not fortunate? This is the meaning of life. We cling to Hashem, and thus, our lives have meaning.

Clinging to Hashem is a full-time job. Moreover, it is a bond which, when initiated, cannot be broken. Horav Arye Levine, zl, distinguishes between the "title" given to a sinner, baal aveirah, and that given to a young adult as he enters into the yoke of mitzvos, bar-mitzvah. Baal means husband. The relationship one has with sin is similar to a husband/wife relationship. It is a bond that can be severed, as it is when a couple no longer sees eye to eye. A sinner does not remain tied to his sin. He can extricate himself from the spiritual filth that has attached itself to him. One who repents and returns to a Torah-way of life erases his past.

One who performs a mitzvah establishes a different relationship with the mitzvah. He is a bar, "son," of the mitzvah. Just as a son remains a son forever, the relationship one has with a mitzvah is an enduring bond, one that is not severed, one that continues to exist throughout his life. Horav Levi Yitzchak Berditchever, zl, would say: "One can say that he is for Hashem, or he can say that he is against Hashem. He cannot, however, say that he is not with Hashem." Our bond with the Almighty is indestructible.

Hear, O Yisrael, Hashem our G-d, Hashem is One. (6:4)

The stellar verse in Judaism is Shema Yisrael. It is the one sentence which preserves the Jewish consciousness of every Jew, regardless of how estranged he might be from the religion of his ancestors and fellow Jews. It is the first sentence a Jewish child masters as he begins his spiritual journey through life, and it is the last words a Jew utters as his soul takes leave of his mortal remains. It is the declaration the Jew has borne with him throughout his travels in exile. It is his standard of G-d. It is also the very last verity that a Jew discards as he discards his relationship with his People. Throughout history, the cry of Shema Yisrael! has exemplified Jewish faith and conviction in the Almighty. It has accompanied millions as they achieved the zenith of martyrdom. The declaration of achdus Hashem, the unity of G-d, is the very first and most basic fundamental truth for a Jew to bear in mind at all times, under all circumstances.

An awareness and constant belief in the unity of G-d is a prerequisite of Judaism, without which one is simply not a believing Jew. Why is oneness so important? It is because daily events in our lives seem to spur confusion. One moment life seems good. The next moment, we are confronted with pain. One day seems to go by successfully, while the next day can bring sorrow. Those whose perception of reality are limited by their physicality - so that they refuse to see beyond what their vision can perceive-- have a serious problem with such "inconsistency" in life. One who follows a perceptive Torah life looks through the spectrum of spirituality. As Horav Gedaliah Schorr, zl, explains, Hashem's oneness is like a light shining through a prism. Although on the outside we see many colors of the spectrum, in reality, it all emanates from a single source. Everything comes from Hashem: the good and what we perceive to be bad all have one point of origin.

Horav S. R. Hirsch, zl, posits that the awareness of Hashem's unity serves also to unite all aspects of our own individual personality. Thus, all facets of our personality, with all of its seeming disparities, physical and emotional, our responses to fate and fortune, all become melded into one unity of existence and will. Whatever we are, whatever we do, whatever we possess is devoted to one and the same purpose, one and the same mission, one and the same desire: to love and serve Hashem. We seek to serve Him through all aspects of our lives: to fulfill His wishes - not our own; to be worthy of His relationship with us. We subserviate ourselves wholly to Hashem, the one G-d, and our subservience to the one sole G-d engenders our own personal wholeness and perfection.

Rav Hirsch takes this idea to the follow-up pasuk of V'ahavta es Hashem Elokecha b'chol levavcha, "And you should love Hashem, your G-d, with all your heart." The most significant and far-reaching consequence of our awareness of Hashem's unity is that we are to love Hashem "with all your heart." Chazal teach us that b'chol levavcha, "all your heart," is a reference to b'shnei yitzrecha, "with your two inclinations": with the yetzer tov, good inclination, and yetzer hora, evil inclination. How does one serve Hashem with his yetzer hora?

The yetzer hora catalyzes within us a desire to gravitate to the base, evil, ignoble, sensual and unsavory. It has been implanted within us by the same Almighty G-d Who has granted us the capacity to be drawn to all things good, right, noble, spiritual and moral. Both of these inclinations - good and evil - are manifestations of the same love of the One G-d. He has intricately woven these two capacities into our human psyche. The question that gnaws at the reader: Does the fact that He has made us susceptible to the allurement of evil not indicate a lack of love for us? After all, why would He "set us up" for failure?

Rav Hirsch explains that this susceptibility is, indeed, Hashem's ultimate kiss, the greatest expression of His love for us. In this capacity to gravitate to evil lies our greatest nobility and moral dignity. Without the capacity to be drawn to evil, we would be considered less than human, and, hence, devoid of any indication of morality or virtue. All of our essence would consist of bodily desires and actions, much like an animal. We would be attracted only to that which is in sync with our functions. We would be indifferent to anything else. Animals are predictable. They gravitate to that which is the same with intensity and immutability. The definition of doing "good" is the overpowering of one's attraction to evil, so that he acts morally and good. If baseness and evil did not charm us, if they left us indifferent or if they repelled us as something antithetical to our nature; if we were only attracted to the good, moral and virtuous, and acting out goodness did not reflect renunciation and self-control on our part, then, while we certainly would not do "evil," we would also never do "good." The good that we perform would not be our doing; it would not be a moral, free-willed human act. It would only be our bodies following their human imperative to act in conformance with our natural tendencies. Thus, the disappearance of the yetzer hora would coincide with an end to human dignity. They go hand in hand.

Indeed, none of our inclinations are in themselves "good" or "evil." All of our impulses, from the most sensual to the most moral and sublime, are defined as "good" or "evil" solely by virtue of the use to which we put them. When we are passionate for Avodas Hashem, service to the Almighty, passion is "good." When this passion is used for sensuality, it becomes the product of "evil." It all depends on how we use our intense emotions and for what purpose.

Hence, to love Hashem "with all our hearts," with both the yetzer tov and yetzer hora, means to consecrate all of our thoughts - together with our natural tendencies, aspirations and ambitions - exclusively for the purpose of carrying out G-d's will, in such a manner that it brings us closer to Him.

Horav Yosef Sholom Elyashiv, Shlita, takes an alternative approach towards the manipulation of the yetzer hora for the positive service of Hashem. When we open up our eyes and see how the yetzer hora destroys people, how it takes individuals who were once decent, moral, and understanding and arouses their passions, causing them to make foolish choices and become victims of poor judgment, it serves as a wake-up call for us. We are repulsed by what we see, disgusted by the downfall and disgrace of those who have fallen prey to the clutches of the yetzer hora. In such an instance, the yetzer hora assisted an individual on the path of positive observance.

Concerning the pasuk in Ovadiah 1:1, "A vision of Ovadiah - so said Hashem Elokim about Edom," Chazal in the Talmud Sanhedrin 39b, comments about why Ovadiah was selected to deliver Hashem's rebuke to Edom/Eisav. Hashem said, "Let Ovadiah who lived among two wicked persons (Achav and Izevel), yet was not negatively influenced by their evil ways, come and rebuke Eisav, who lived among two righteous persons, (Yitzchak and Rivkah), and was not positively inspired by their virtue."

Rav Elyashiv explains that Ovadiah's service of Hashem was catalyzed by the effects of the yetzer hora of Achav and Izevel, the king and queen who redefined evil, plunging it to a new nadir. He witnessed their malicious acts of depravity, yet was able to overcome its effect. In fact, it made him a stronger person. In contrast, Eisav retained his evil streak, despite living in close proximity to his parents, the Patriarch Yitzchak and Matriarch Rivkah. They had no positive effect on Eisav. He could have learned so much, but, instead, he rejected it all. Let Ovadiah rebuke Eisav, since, in a sense, they both battled against their environmental influences.

You shall love Hashem, Your G-d, with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your recourses. (6:5)

The question is on the lips of everyone who reads this pasuk: How can this mitzvah be fulfilled? How can one be commanded to love Hashem? Love is not intrinsically connected to action. It is an emotional reaction. One either loves or does not love, but he cannot be forced to love. The Sefas Emes suggests a remarkable insight concerning the human psyche and our relationship with Hashem. The fact that the Torah has commanded us to love Hashem is an indication that imbedded deep within the heart of every Jew is a profound, innate sense of love for Hashem. It is there, and, as such, it is our mission and goal to seek it out and bring it to the surface. We are not commanded to create a new sense of love, but, rather, to unearth the original, reveal it and bring the potential to fruition. Once he has succeeded in doing that, he is overwhelmed with love for Hashem. After all, it is a part of him that has always existed.

How do we manifest our love for Hashem? Probably the most basic way is mitzvah performance - with love, passion, zeal - as if we mean it. In the preface to the Aleinu l'Shabeach, Horav Yitzchak Zilberstein, Shlita, quotes an incredible story from a sefer written by one of the lamed vov, thirty-six tzaddikim, righteous persons, Meisharim Magid. In it, the author relates revelations which came to him via a Heavenly angel. One Erev Rosh Hashanah, the tzaddik was depressed concerning his niece, who was a kallah about to be married, when her chassan abandoned her and broke the engagement. The girl was distraught, and her uncle empathized greatly with her plight. He could not stop weeping. That Rosh Hashanah, he was visited by the angel who told him that he was being criticized in Heaven for his concern for the kallah. "You are weeping for the pain of an individual girl to whom you are related. What about Hashem Who 'weeps' incessantly over His many children who have abandoned Him?"

The tzaddik realized that he had become aware of his niece's plight only so that he should introspect and think about Hashem's pain. That is love of Hashem. If we would think about His pain over the many Jews who have assimilated and abandoned Him, things might be different. To love Hashem is to "care" about Him. It should hurt us to know that someone Whom we love is in pain.

You shall teach them thoroughly to your children. (6:7)

The individual thinks that when he spends half an hour in shul davening to Hashem, he has just performed a mitzvah. In contrast, when he takes that same half hour and spends it studying a daf, page, of Talmud with his son, it suddenly becomes a sacrifice, time taken off from his busy schedule, time during which nothing was accomplished. It is almost as if one is compelled to learn with his son. There is no one else, so it has to be him.

This is a grievous mistake. Learning Torah with one's son is a mitzvah like any other mitzvah. A person does not stare at the clock when he davens. He should, likewise, not stare at the clock, counting the minutes, when he learns with his son. The mitzvah, V'sheenantam l'vanecha, "You shall teach them thoroughly to your children," is a mitzvah just like davening, and, thus, warrants the same attitude. There has not always been a day school movement. It was Rabbi Yehoshua ben Gamla who established schools of Torah instruction in every Jewish community. Prior to that innovation, fathers studied Torah with their children. Horav Shimshon Pincus, zl, quotes the Maharal and Shalah HaKadosh, who posit that there is no replacement for a father's Torah study. It is a totally different level of kedushah, sanctity. It is Torah which is connected to Har Sinai. Teaching our children Torah is an integral part of our avodas Hashem, service to the Almighty.

In order to teach, one must be knowledgeable. Hence, V'sheenantam is an exhortation to study Torah. Veritably, a Jew is supposed to study Torah during every free moment. Therefore, one who is occupied does not reject the mitzvah by working, since he is currently not free. Rav Pincus observes that one who studies Torah all day, but takes off a few moments for "down time" is nullifying the mitzvah of limud haTorah during this time. It is as if he did not listen to the blowing of the Shofar on Rosh Hashanah! Torah does not just have to be studied - it has to be studied all of the time!

Rav Pincus decries the erroneously accepted premise that learning all of the time is only for the individual who is a masmid, diligent student of Torah. No, it is a mitzvah as any other mitzvah. One would never suggest that the mitzvah of Lulav does not apply to him. If he is a Jew, he has a mitzvah of limud haTorah. It just happens to be one of those mitzvos that are in force all of the time.

It seems difficult. That is why we entreat Hashem daily, V'haarev na Hashem Elokeinu es divrei Torasecha b'finu, "Please Hashem, our G-d, sweeten the words of Your Torah in our mouth." We realize that it is not easy to be dedicated to Torah learning during every waking moment. That is why, unlike any other mitzvah, we ask Hashem for Divine Assistance. Make it sweet; help us to enjoy it; make it our life. Let it be like the air we breathe, we cannot get enough of it, and we certainly cannot be without it even for a minute.

Every day, we recite a quote from the Talmud Shabbos 127a: "These are the precepts whose fruits a person enjoys in this world." Chazal go on to detail a number of wonderful acts of kindness, activities which one would assume are the most meaningful activities one can perform. They certainly are, but Chazal conclude with the words, V'talmud Torah k'neged kulam, "And the study of Torah is equivalent to them all." Apparently, all the acts of loving kindness take a backseat to Torah study. This rule was the guiding principle that shaped the life and perspective of Horav Aharon Kotler, zl. As manhig ha'dor, leader of his generation, he was confronted with questions and issues on a constant basis. The underlying principle which served as his beacon, his inspiration, was: How will this affect your/one's limud haTorah? What does the Torah say concerning this issue? It was all about the Torah, because he had no greater love.

How far did Rav Aharon's ahavas Torah, love for the Torah, stretch? Horav Shmuel Faivelson, Shlita, explains the following. Chazal teach us Rabbi Yochanan and Rabbi Chiya bar Abba were once walking together when they chanced upon a field. Rav Yochanan said, "This used to be my field. I sold it so that I would be able to study Torah." They later passed an olive grove, whereupon Rav Yochanan said, "This also used to be mine, but I sold it in order to continue learning Torah." This "line" went on as they kept passing properties.

Rav Chiya bar Abba began to weep. "You left yourself with nothing. What will happen to you in your old age?" he asked. Rav Yochanan cited a pasuk in Shir HaShirim 8:7, Im yitein ish es kol hon baiso b'ahavah… "If someone were to offer him all the money in the world (to tear him away from Torah) boz yavuzo lo, 'he would rebuff him in derision.'" Nothing could tear him away from learning. This is the idea behind the pasuk in Shir HaShirim which describes Klal Yisrael's love for Hashem, Ki cholas ahavah oni, "I am sick with love." What does it mean to be "sick" with love?

Rav Faivelson explains that our love for Hashem makes us act in such a manner that someone who does not understand, an outsider to Torah, might consider us foolish, not normal. Sick with love means that one is not concerned with anything except Torah. If he is lacking something, it has no significance. In fact, he does not even notice that he is lacking. It means not noticing that you are lacking something at home. In relationship to Torah, it is inconsequential. Talmud Torah k'neged kulam means - k'neged der velt. Torah overrides everything in the world. Ki cholas ahavah oni. I am sick with love for Hashem and His Torah. Nothing else has meaning! While this plateau is unattainable by most, it should serve as the apex for which one strives in his Torah endeavor.

Rav Aharon would relate that his father-in-law, the venerable Rosh Yeshivah of Slutzk and Eitz Chaim, Horav Isser Zalman Meltzer, zl, would leave home at the beginning of the z'man, semester, and travel to the yeshivah in Slutzk. He remained there from Sukkos until Pesach - without going home to his family. He would see his wife and family only during bein hazemanim, semester break.

During one of his train rides, he met Horav Mordechai Slonimer, zl, a great tzaddik, righteous person, whose reputation for his piety was well-known. In the course of their conversation, Rav Isser Zalman divulged the reason for, and nature of his trip. When Rav Mordechai heard of Rav Isser Zalman's devotion to and love for Torah, he was so impressed that he gave Rav Isser Zalman a brachah, blessing. Rav Aharon would say that it was that brachah which was the primary factor in the outstanding harbotzas, spreading of Torah that resulted from Rav Isser Zalman's family. It was all because of his Ki cholas ahavah oni, "consummate love for Torah."

Va'ani Tefillah

You found his heart faithful before You.
In his commentary to Devarim 7:9, V'yodaata ki Hashem Hu Ha'Elokim HaKeil ha'ne'eman, "You must know that Hashem, your G-d - He is the G-d, the faithful G-d." Sforno defines ne'eman, faithful, as "Who unswervingly (keeps His word) and is unchanging." The word ne'eman, "faithful," also means something that is sure and secure, reliable and unchanging. This, explains Horav Eliyahu Lopian, zl, characterizes Avraham Avinu's faithfulness to Hashem. It was constant, consistent, secure and without change.

Someone once wished Horav Yosef Chaim Sonnenfeld, zl, that his son should be a G-d-fearing Jew. The venerable Rav replied, "First, let him be an ish ne'eman, a faithful Jew." Rav Yosef Chaim supported this with the fact that Hashem selected Avraham as the progenitor of the Jewish nation when he was still a ben Noach, not yet a Jew. It was after he demonstrated his unswerving commitment to Hashem in the face of life-threatening trials, miraculously emerging unscathed, that Hashem chose him and made His Covenant with him. It was only after he demonstrated his ne'emanus, faithfulness that he could go on to fearing G-d. Ne'emanus precedes all.

In loving memory
our dear Mother & Bubby

Mrs. Chana Silberberg
Chana bas Moshe Zev a"h
niftar 20 Av 5760

Zev & Miriam Solomon & Family

Peninim on the Torah is in its 18th year of publication. The first fourteen years have been published in book form.

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