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Peninim on the Torah

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Rabbi A. Leib Scheinbaum
Hebrew Academy of Cleveland


Then Moshe set aside three cities on the bank of the Jordan. (4:41)

The parshah of the arei miklat, cities of refuge, which Moshe Rabbeinu designated, seems to be misplaced. Up until now, Moshe has been rebuking Klal Yisrael, reminding them of their special relationship with Hashem, and informing them of the consequences of straying from this relationship. Later, in Perek 5, he exhorts them to listen to the Torah and to observe its precepts. He then underscores this admonition with a presentation of the Revelation at Har Sinai and repeating the Aseres HaDibros, Ten Commandments. Nestled in between the earlier rebuke, and later presentation and encouragement to follow the mitzvos, is the designation of the cities of refuge. Is this really the appropriate place for this parshah?

The Shem MiShmuel explains that this is certainly a fitting place for the parshah detailing the arei miklat. Moshe felt it necessary to rebuke the nation and to exhort them concerning the many mitzvos they must perform as members of Klal Yisrael. He was also aware that all of this can be quite compelling and even disheartening. While rebuke is an indication that one cares about -- and is concerned for -- the welfare of the subject of his rebuke, it can also create feelings of despair and hopelessness, "How can I succeed when so many before me have failed?" This depressive feeling could very well have coursed through the minds of those standing there that day.

Moshe attempted to assuage their feelings when he talked about Hashem's love for them. Nonetheless, they were acutely aware that, in the past, these feelings of Divine love did not prevent them from sinning with the Golden Calf and /or to prevent their forefathers from committing a number of other transgressions during their forty year sojourn in the wilderness. Indeed, they had every reason to be concerned. If their predecessors, who had lived in an environment replete with miracles had sinned, what should they say? They were going to enter a land in which they would have to lead normal lives. How could they possibly manage to maintain a compatible relationship with Hashem amid all of this pressure? They were overwhelmed with despair.

This is why Moshe recorded the parshah of arei miklat right in between the rebuke and the presentation of mitzvos. The city of refuge is a place where the unintentional murderer flees to protect himself from family members of his victim who are out for vengeance. Although the death which he caused was accidental, he, nonetheless, had terminated a human being's life. As such, he has lost his connection to his life force, his right to continued spiritual existence.

The arei miklat are administered by the Leviim, whose primary task (other than living in the six arei miklat and forty-two cities designated for the Leviim) was to sing hymns of praise to Hashem in the Bais Hamikdash. They served as the medium for elevating the spiritual inspiration with which the people were imbued when they visited the sanctuary. As such, the Levi is the vehicle through which the Jew comes closer to Hashem and feels more connected with the Almighty. The Levi will help the unintentional murderer renew his bond with Hashem, reestablish his life force, and thus rehabilitate himself from his error. The cities of refuge are the environment which engender hope for the murderer. They are the medium for returning him to normal life.

The very existence of the arei miklat imparts a basic truth: you can always return; there is hope for the future. One does not give up. Even one whose life force has been severed as a result of his committing an act of violence, albeit accidently, can return. He, too, has hope. Just as the murderer draws spiritual sustenance and renewed life force by way of the Levi, so, too, may any Jew, under any circumstance, draw renewed enthusiasm and hope from another. This is what Moshe taught the people when he injected the parshah of arei miklat in between the rebuke of the past exhortation concerning the future: one never despairs; one never gives up hope. One always has the opportunity for rehabilitation and renewal.

I was standing between Hashem and you at that time, to relate the word of Hashem to you - for you were afraid of the fire and you did not ascend the mountain. (5:5)

Moshe Rabbeinu served as an intermediary between Hashem and the people in the days leading up to the Revelation. During the Giving of the Torah, Moshe's services were even more necessary, since the people drew back in fear of the awesomeness of the experience. According to the commentators, the pasuk is informing us that Klal Yisrael did not ascend the mountain because they were afraid of the fire. In Shemos 19:12, the Torah teaches that the people were commanded to set boundaries around the mountain. They were enjoined, "Beware of ascending the mountain or touching its edge." The question is obvious: If they were in such fear of the fire, why was it necessary to command them to stay away? Is it necessary to warn a person to stay clear of a burning building?

Horav Bentzion Firer, zl, suggests a practical reason for this enjoinment. Fear is an insufficient deterrent to prevent one from crossing the line. When the Torah "provides" us with a prohibition, it obviously takes this into account. Out of complacency, people slowly became used to the fear, and it was no longer overwhelming to them. As a result, the fear which at one time had captivated their attention, preventing them from acting negatively - no longer had that hold on them. Thus, Hashem bolstered them with a command prohibiting them from coming near to the mountain.

This hypothesis may be supported with the Aseres HaDibros, Ten Commandments, of which five are quite common-sensical. Theft, adultery, murder, honoring one's parents, false testimony: all are prohibitions which make sense, mitzvos which any decent human being would observe. The Torah clearly does not rely on a person's sense of decency. People will find excuses to justify their errant behavior. When there are no excuses, the reply will be, "I felt that I had to do it" or "I really do not care." Emotions are stronger than seichel, intelligence and common sense. Nonetheless, apparently seichel and regesh, emotion, are insufficient deterrents even to something as obvious as fire. Only Hashem's command suffices.

Safeguard the day of Shabbos to sanctify it. (5:12)

The vernacular of this pasuk is ambiguous. If Shabbos is holy, why do we have to sanctify it? It is already holy. If it is a mitzvah like all mitzvos, one that imbues us with its kedushah, holiness, what role does remembering play in the scheme of shemiras Shabbos, Shabbos observance? Perhaps we may suggest the following: secular society recognizes that Shabbos is designated for the Jewish People as a day of rest. This does not necessarily mean that they view it as a day replete with unusual holiness. The kedushah is something that we infuse into the Shabbos. Otherwise, it is nothing more than an off-day, a day to rest from work, even attend services in the local synagogue; but that is the extent of it.

How does remembering fit into the equation? Well, there was a time when Shabbos was a critical mitzvah, just like all of the rest. Then along came the secularists who relegated Shabbos, together with most other mitzvos, to the dung heap of antiquity. Suddenly, we had no recollection of Shabbos. It is a new world, and, sadly, Shabbos does not play an active role in it. Furthermore, even those who remember Shabbos - are they remembering to keep it holy? Are they sanctifying Shabbos, or is it simply a day off from work, a day to catch up on relationships and much needed rest?

Rabbi Zakai was a great Tanna who lived to be four hundred years old. When he was queried by his students, Bameh he'erachta yamim, "In what merit were you blessed with such incredible longevity?" he replied, "You should know that I never missed having wine in honor of Shabbos kodesh. One erev Shabbos, my mother noticed that the wine cellar was empty; she sold her head-covering and used the proceeds to purchase a large amount of wine. When she died, she bequeathed to me three hundred barrels of wine." Rabbi Zakai left three hundred barrels of wine for his children and grandchildren. He attributed his blessing to the pasuk, Likras Shabbos lechu v'nelcha ki hee mekor habrachah, "Let us go greet the Shabbos, for she is the source of all blessing."

Horav Yechezkel Abramsky, zl, prepared his Shabbos table early on Friday. One of his talmidim, students, questioned him concerning this custom. His response was: "My father-in-law, the illustrious Ridvaz, was once very ill. At the lowest point of his illness, as he lay between life and death, he turned his head upward and whispered. He concluded his whispering, turned to his wife, and said, "Prepare the Shabbos table. You should know, my wife, that the only thing that can save me is that we prepare the Shabbos very early. I spoke to Hashem and pleaded, 'Hashem, I wrote a commentary on the entire Yerushalmi. If You will allow me to live, I promise to write a commentary on Talmud Bavli.' When I saw that this offer did not elicit a positive response, I realized that there was only one merit that would pull me through - Shabbos - hiddur Shabbos, beautifying the Shabbos, is my only chance."

It is the same old clich?: man thinks that he observes Shabbos almost as if he is doing Hashem a favor by taking time off from his busy work week and dedicating one day to Hashem. He forgets that more than he (thinks he) does for Shabbos - Shabbos is doing for him.

The Rama, zl, Horav Moshe Isserlis, was an undisputed Gaon. Indeed, the Heavenly Angel that studied Torah with the Bais Yosef instructed him to write his Shulchan Aruch, Code of Jewish Law, because there was a great Gaon in Poland who was writing such a commentary on the Tur Shulchan Aruch. How did the Rama's father - who, for all intents and purposes, was a simple, G-d-fearing (although not so simple) Jew - merit to have such an illustrious son born to him? Apparently, the Rama's father owned a store which sold silk material. He had a weekly ritual such that, regardless of the workload, he closed his store every Friday afternoon at chatzos, midday, in order to prepare for Shabbos. One Friday, a wealthy customer visited the store fifteen minutes before closing time. He was prepared to purchase a large amount of silk, a purchase which would have rendered the Rama's father a substantial profit. At precisely twelve o'clock he told the customer that he must close the store. The man could not believe that this Jew was prepared to relinquish the deal of a lifetime due to some medieval religious observance. The customer warned him that, if he closed, he would not return and, thus, the storekeeper would forfeit an incredible profit. Naturally, the Rama's father was in a quandary concerning what he should do. In the end, he told the customer that he answered to a Higher Power and must close the store. He lost the profit, but gained a son that illuminated the Torah world for generations to come.

One more story! Horav Chaim Pinto is a distinguished Torah scholar residing in Ashdod. His father, Rav Moshe Aharon, was a well-known tzaddik, holy and righteous man. Rav Chaim was born on a Friday, with the Bris set for the following Erev Shabbos. Sadly, tragedy struck the Friday of the Bris, when his mother entered the room and noticed that her infant had stopped breathing. She came running to her husband, who calmly instructed her that the Shabbos Queen would soon come to visit, and they were, therefore, forbidden, to weep or grieve. Furthermore, she was to tell no one that their child had died.

His wife was a righteous woman in her own right and agreed to remain stoic throughout the Shabbos. They covered the infant with a white sheet and kept the door closed. Shortly before Shabbos, a number of well-wishers visited to convey their blessing of mazel tov to the new parents. The rabbanis smiled and thanked them for their good wishes. When they asked to see the child, she replied that presently it was not a good time.

Wonder of wonders! Miracle of miracles! Motzoei Shabbos, Rav Aharon told his wife to enter the room where their newborn infant lay covered in a white sheet. "You have been given a gift," he said to her. "You guarded the Shabbos, making sure that its sanctity was not in any way impugned. Hashem has rewarded you in kind. Now, your simchah, joy, for which you were hoping, will not either be impugned." She entered the room to see that her child (the future Rav Chaim Pinto) was alive and well. Today, he is the Chief Rabbi of Kiryat Malachi. Once again, we note: when one guards over the Shabbos - the Shabbos watches over him.

Honor your father and mother. (5:16)

To render honor to one's parents is an awesome task. Honor means much more than respect. It means: to value; to cherish; to appreciate; to understand that one's presence in this world is attributed to his parents. The Sefer HaChinuch writes: Heim sibas heyoso b'olam, "They are the cause of his being in this world." When one realizes that his basic "being" is due to them, he should be filled with an overwhelming sense of gratitude. Honor should be the result of this emotion. Sadly, this emotion, or lack thereof, can backfire, when one has determined for himself that he owes his parents nothing. There are individuals raised in families that function only by some Divine miracle, who feel that whatever they have achieved in life is despite their parents. Thus, they have little to no respect for their parents, because, in their minds, they owe their parents absolutely nothing. Understandably, this is not a Torah-oriented perspective on the mitzvah of Kibbud Av v'Eim. Hashem commands us to respect parents, because they partner with Him in our creation. To honor parents is to honor Hashem. To disrespect parents is to dishonor Hashem.

For some, the respect they harbor for their parents is the last vestige of what is left of their relationship with Yiddishkeit. They have long reneged the yoke of mitzvos, turned their backs on Judaism in general, but, out of respect for their parents, they return home during the year for milestone celebrations and traditional festival family gatherings. There are those who wake up too late to accord their parents the respect they deserve. By the time they return to their senses, their parents are in the Olam HaEmes, World of Truth. So, they memorialize their parents in shul via the Yizkor service. This affords them the opportunity to visit the synagogue four times each year for the specific purpose of reciting a memorial prayer in honor of their parents. The following story underscores this idea.

Prior to World War II, Germany was a den of iniquity. The wave of assimilation had taken its toll on German Jewry. What the secular movements had initiated over a century past had long devastated the spiritual relationship the Jews had with Hashem. For the most part, traditional Judaism had become a relic of the past, mitzvah observance being adhered to only by a small minority who still clung to the Torah as their anchor in a sea of confusion. The most illustrious families had been breached, especially in the larger cities, such as Berlin.

Nonetheless, there were still those who clung steadfastly to the Torah, guided by such illustrious leaders as Horav Yechiel Yaakov Weinberg, zl, author of the Seridei Eish, and rector, Rosh Yeshivah of the Hildsheimer Rabbinical Seminary in Berlin. In Western Europe at that time, Rav Weinberg was the posek acharon, final adjudicator, of Torah law. A brilliant talmid chacham, Torah scholar, he held the respect of the entire frum, observant, world. In addition to his encyclopedic knowledge of the Torah, he was a symbol of middos tovos, positive character traits. His eidelkeit, pleasant disposition, and humanity were the products of the many years he had spent in Slabodka Yeshivah under the guidance of Horav Nosson Tzvi Finkel, zl, reverently known as the Alter of Slabodka. His distinguished disciple, Horav Avraham Abba Weingort, has spent years publishing his revered Rebbe's works and disseminating his chiddushim, innovative discourses.

One day, Rav Weingort was asked by a resident of Modiin to deliver a lecture in the community shul. Rav Weingort acceded to the request and delivered a shiur, lecture, on the topic of the mitzvah of Kibbud Av v'Eim. During the course of the lecture, Rav Weingort reminded himself of an incident that had occurred many years earlier in Berlin. Since there is nothing like a good story to concretize an idea, he related the story in middle of his shiur.

The central Orthodox synagogue in Berlin was filled to capacity during the Yamim Noraim, High Holy Days. For many members of Berlin's Jewish community, this was the one and only time that they entered the holy sanctuary of a shul to pray. While prayer was not part of their daily ritual, and public prayer was certainly not their norm, Rosh Hashanah, and especially Yom Kippur were special days. The spark of Judaism, the Pintele Yid, which is concealed within each and every one of us, begins to burn and glow brightly on these days. Indeed, the Jew to whom these holy days have no significance is truly distant from his source of life. On Yom Kippur, Rav Weinberg would walk the long distance from his home to the central synagogue, because he wanted to daven with the community. A special place in the front of the shul was reserved for the leader of Western European Jewry.

The davening was in accordance with tradition, adhering to all of the minhagim, customs, of the Berlin community. Each Jew prayed, conversing with Hashem, expressing his regrets over the past and articulating his aspirations for the future. It was a solemn worship service, since, after all, it was Yom Kippur. There was no looking back - only looking forward, praying, beseeching, begging Hashem to accept their sincere teshuvah, repentance, and grant them and their families another year of life.

Finally came that solemn moment when the gabbai, sexton, called out, "Yizkor!" The time had come for the reciting of the prayer memorializing the dead. The young people, whose parents were still counted among the living, made their way to the exits. This was a time when the senior members of the shul, those who had sustained the loss of parents, were to be alone, to pray for the dead, and to be inspired by the temporal nature of life.

The doors to the sanctuary were closed, and the prayer of Yizkor was about to begin when suddenly a government limousine pulled up to shul. In front of the limousine rode two motorcycle police and two other motorcyclists brought up the rear of the motorcade. The doors to the limousine were opened and out stepped Walter Rathenau, the Foreign Minister of the Weimar Republic. He was one of the most powerful statesmen of the German government. (He was assassinated on June 24, 1922 an act of violent murder which many believe was the result of anti-Semitism due to his Jewish heritage.) The minister walked up the steps of the synagogue and entered the sanctuary. It was Yizkor. He was here to recite the prayer service for his Jewish parents.

A tumult broke out in the shul. This man was probably the most infamous assimilated Jew in Berlin. How dare he enter the sanctuary on this holiest day of the Jewish calendar year? This man had long ago turned his back on the religion of his ancestors. Yom Kippur certainly had no meaning to him. He did not acknowledge his Jewish heritage. Why would he be coming to shul? They were outraged.

Walter Rathenau did not care what people might have been whispering. He was the Foreign Minister - a Jew like everyone else in the synagogue. He wanted to recite the prayer for his parents. It was as simple as that. As soon as he concluded his prayer, he left the synagogue, went to the limousine and was driven off.

The worshippers were in a furor. The chutzpah, nerve, of this apostate Jew: To come by car and publicly desecrate the holiest day of the year was an outrage! He had profaned Yom Kippur and humiliated the Jewish community. The chazzan, cantor, ascended to the lectern and was about to begin Tefillas Mussaf, when suddenly Rav Weinberg left his seat and walked up to the lectern and asked everyone to be seated. A lull fell over the entire assemblage. Not a sound was heard, as everyone sat quietly to listen to the Rav.

"Rabbosai! My friends," the Rav began, "how does it enter your minds to shame a Jew who came to shul to honor his parents? The man had no ulterior motive, other than a sincere desire to pay his respects to his departed parents." The Rav was silent for a moment, and then he raised his voice, declaring, "Anyone who honors the memory of his parents is assured that one day his descendants will return to the embrace of the Jewish people!"

With these words, Rav Weinberg returned to his seat, and the Mussaf service commenced. His words impacted the worshippers. No one would ever forget what the Rav had said.

Rav Weingort concluded the story and waited to see how it would impact the audience that had sat on edge to listen to him. Suddenly, one of the members of the audience stood up and asked to be recognized. The man seemed quite nervous, actually shaking, as he asked Rav Weingort, "Did the Rav say Rathenau? My name is Rathenau, and the Foreign Minister about whom the Rav is speaking was my great-grandfather! He was my father's grandfather!" When asked how it occurred that he, the great-grandson of Walter Rathenau was frum, he explained that his father was chozeir b'teshuvah, having become an observant Jew when he moved to Eretz Yisrael.

Rav Weinberg's words rang true. When one honors the memory of his parents, his descendants will ultimately become observant.

Va'ani Tefillah

U'mekayeim emunaso liyisheinei afar. And maintains His faith to those asleep in the dust.

Interestingly, since we believe in Techiyas Ha'Meisim, Resurrection of the Dead, we apply the term, "asleep in the dust," rather than (the more final), "buried in the dust." According to Rav Saadiah Gaon, only those who are deserving, who had led a life of commitment, will be revived. Those who are apostates and unrepentant sinners (and not tinokos she'nishbu, individuals who are viewed as children taken captive by gentiles, who had no opportunity to become observant) will forever remain in the grave. Rambam agrees with Rav Saadiah Gaon. Abarbanel, however, disagrees and says that Techiyas Ha'Meisim will include all mankind.

Horav Eliyahu Lopian, zl, explains that there are two forms of resurrection. Ordinary people, whose bodies decay into dust, obviously require abundant mercy in order to be revived. The truly righteous, whose bodies do not actually rot, who, during their lifetime remained unequivocally firm in their faith and commitment to Him, will have a much easier resurrection. They are merely "asleep in the dust." Thus, we distinguish between those who are asleep in the dust and those who have become one with the dust.

l'zechar nishmas Nosson Aryeh ben Zev
niftar 18 Av
u'l'zechar nishmas Yekusiel ben Yechiel Zeidel z"l
niftar 20 Av the Feigenbaum family

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