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Peninim on the Torah

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Rabbi A. Leib Scheinbaum
Hebrew Academy of Cleveland


You shall not kindle fire in any of your dwellings on the Shabbos day. (35:3)

Shabbos is one of the basic tenets of Judaism. The Torah teaches us that nothing takes precedence over Shabbos, even the construction of the Mishkan. Quite often, those who have returned to a life of Torah-observance have done so after experiencing the beauty and serenity of a Shabbos. This is what makes the following episodes all the more compelling. A family in Eretz Yisrael who had been living on a non-observant kibbutz decided to embrace a life of Torah Judaism. They were giving up the emptiness and sterility that are so much a part of life devoid of mitzvos. They decided to leave the kibbutz and the environment of spiritual negativity that it bred in order to move to the Meah Shearim section of Yerushalayim.

They quickly progressed in their Yiddishkeit, the husband soon becoming a devout and pious Jew. He seized every opportunity to study Torah. His wife, however, had one problem: It seems that she enjoyed smoking cigarettes, an addiction that became especially difficult to overcome on Shabbos. It was almost as if the onset of Shabbos brought about a sudden urge to smoke a cigarette. She did not know what to do. She chose the Torah way of life, a choice to which she meant to adhere. Yet, she had this overwhelming urge to smoke. What could she do?

One of the individuals who was guiding the family on the path of Torah observance decided to approach Horav Yosef Eliyashuv, Shlita, and seek his sage advice. The rav suggested that they thoroughly research this women's pedigree to confirm that her mother, grandmother and great-grandmother had all been Jewish. One can only imagine the shock when they discovered that the woman's great-grandmother had not been Jewish. This woman, who was having such a difficult time overcoming her urge to smoke on Shabbos, was not Jewish after all!

When the man who made the discovery returned to Rav Eliyashuv with the news, the rav explained the following to him, "Hashem saw that this woman was extremely dedicated to becoming an observant Jewess. She was prepared to eschew her entire past for a future of devotion to Torah and mitzvos. Hashem, however, was aware of something concerning this woman that did not cross anyone else's mind: She was not Jewish. If she were to observe Shabbos as a gentile, she would be guilty of a capital punishment. In order to spare this righteous woman the onus of guilt, Hashem increased her urge to smoke - specifically on Shabbos, so that she would not observe the holy day as a gentile."

When this was all explained to the woman, she gladly accepted upon herself to convert to Judaism. Incidentally, on her first Shabbos as a Jewess, she no longer had an urge to smoke.

In another episode, a woman who had recently been chozeres b'teshuvah, returned to a Torah way of life, came to her rav and complained that her husband, regrettably, was not progressing with her toward Torah and mitzvos. To make matters worse, on Shabbos, the day that meant so much to her, he would blatantly smoke cigarettes.

The rav gave her meaningful advice: She should request of her husband that, out of a sense of respect for her and her beliefs, he should not smoke while the Shabbos candles were burning. The husband agreed and, for a few hours, the sanctity of Shabbos was maintained in their home.

After awhile, the rav suggested that she use thicker candles that would burn longer. Once again, the husband respectfully acceded to her request, and his Shabbos observance was extended. A few weeks later, when the moment was propitious, the woman chose a new type of candle - a yahrtzeit candle that burned for a full twenty-four hours! The husband accepted this new challenge and became a shomer Shabbos. The case is especially interesting when we consider what might have crossed the mind of an innocent spectator. He might have thought that the woman was either eccentric or foolish, when, indeed, she was extremely sagacious and deliberate.

This brings to mind an anecdote that should give us something to ponder. A middle-school girl was enrolled in an afternoon Talmud Torah. She looked forward to learning all about her religion, but was upset when her parents blatantly refused to adopt any of the mitzvos or practices that were encouraged in her school. Their response was the usual, "It is always nice to learn about 'those things' in school, but we do not observe them in our home."

One mitzvah was very important to the young girl, more so than anything else: She wanted her mother to light Shabbos candles. Most of the girls in the class had responded affirmatively when queried if their mothers lit candles. Regrettably, her mother's response was the usual, "We do not do that in our home."

Having given up on her mother, the girl decided to light candles herself. She went to the Jewish bookstore and asked the proprietor for the candles that she should light for her father and mother. Her parents were not home that Friday night, but the girl, who had lovingly saved the candles all week for the special moment, did not forget. She ushered in Shabbos by lighting two candles. Proud that she had fulfilled the mitzvah, she waited enthusiastically for her parents to come home. Her parents came home. When confronted with the sight of the two lit candles, they were horrified. They immediately demanded to know why those candles had been lit. "I lit one for you, mommy, and one for you, daddy," she innocently replied. "But those are Yizkor candles, not Shabbos candles!" her parents explained.

"I do not know what you mean," she said. "What is the difference anyway?"

Needless to say, the parents were impacted by the spectacle and their daughter's response. From that Shabbos on, candles were always lit in their home.

Every wise-hearted person among you shall come and make everything that Hashem has commanded. (35:10)

The commentators write that one who has a great desire to perform a mitzvah should do so immediately, with alacrity. Idle talk about what one is planning to do only delays the actual performance. This is implied by the pasuk: "Every wise-hearted person" - one who is truly a chacham, wise - should act immediately - not just talk about it. The Gaon, zl, m'Vilna interprets this into the pasuk in Mishlei 1:8, "The wise of heart will seize good deeds, but the foolish one's lips will become weary." The wise man does not procrastinate. He acts immediately, carrying out the mitzvah, while the avil sfasayim, "foolish one's lips," talks and makes plans - and in the end does not even do the mitzvah.

The Chida, zl, cites Chazal who says, "The righteous say little but do much, while the wicked talk a lot, and they do not even do a little." He explains that the righteous do not waste precious time talking about the mitzvah. They perform it. The reshaim, wicked people, talk and talk and make grandiose plans, until they have wasted so much time that the opportunity to perform the mitzvah has passed them by.

Meetings - this is what the yetzer hora, evil-inclination, wants. Talk and more talk, meeting after meeting, just as long as the mitzvah does not get done.

Moshe Rabbeinu instructed Klal Yisrael about the construction of the Mishkan. Their response was immediate: "The entire assemblage of Yisrael left Moshe's presence." (Shemos 35:20) Where did they go? asks Rabbeinu Bachya. They went home immediately to bring their contributions. Indeed, when the men came home, they noted that their wives had already left with their jewelry. So great was their alacrity for the mitzvah.

Zerizus is an attitude necessary for mitzvah performance. It denotes devotion, enthusiasm, diligence, ability and fervor in carrying out the Divine will. It is indicative of an overwhelming desire to please Hashem and a preparedness to perform His mandate. Avraham Avinu was noted for his zerizus. When given the command to sacrifice his beloved Yitzchak, he did not tarry, but rather, he rose at the crack of dawn and personally saddled the donkey, eager to carry out Hashem's command.

A person who fails out of indolence may not see his failure to be a result of his laziness. He will invariably attribute it to other factors. Some will give the excuse that they lack the acumen or skills for successful achievement. Others place the onus of guilt on others; parents, teachers, friends - everyone - but themselves. They rationalize everything in order to cover up the real reason: They are lazy. Psychologists note that the more intelligent one is, the greater is his ability to rationalize his lack of success. The most sophisticated are the most difficult to help, because they believe their own lies.

In his Mesillas Yesharim, The Ramchal cautions us about falling prey to the yetzer hora's cunning. He says that any desire that tends to ease one's burdens should be considered suspect. The alarm clock rings in the morning, waking us to go to davening. Immediately, the arguments for sleeping in and attending a later Minyan begin. They are generated by a desire to remain in bed, a decision that he will likely regret later on.

A chasid once asked the Rhiziner Rebbe, zl, for advice in maintaining proper conduct. After all, one does not always have access to the Shulchan Aruch, Code of Jewish Law, nor is a rav always available. The Rebbe replied, "Do as a tightrope walker does. The way he maintains his delicate balance is that when he senses himself drawn to one side, he leans towards the other side. When you feel yourself tempted to one side, to do something that might be improper, as you process the arguments that would satisfy your desire, give greater credence to the arguments that negate gratification. Those arguments that are pro-gratification are usually nothing more than spurious rationalizations."

Shlomo Hamelech says in Mishlei 26:13, "A lazy person says, 'There is a young lion on the path, a lion between the streets.'" What does this mean? If there really is a lion out there, then the person has something to fear. If there is no lion, why is he called indolent? He is a liar! My rebbe, Horav Chaim Mordechai Katz, zl, explained that, indeed, there is a lion on the road, but a person who is a zariz, filled with alacrity, who is diligent and agile, will find a way around the lion. Nothing stands in the way of he who is a zariz. One who has a mission and is dedicated to carrying it out will surely find a way around, under, or over the lion.

Chazal teach us that the Nesiim were chastised for not coming forward to donate to the Mishkan. They said, "We will wait until everybody else has contributed, and we will then complete whatever is missing. The commentators see a laxity on their part and suggest that, had they acted with greater alacrity, they would have come forward to contribute. When we think about it, what did they really do wrong? They wanted to make sure that everything needed for the construction of the Mishkan would be supplied, so they waited until the end to contribute their share. Their intentions were certainly noble, as well as practical.

Horav Reuven Grosovsky, zl, explains that man's function in this world is not to complete the Mishkan, but instead to complete himself. Hashem will take care of the Mishkan. The nesiim should have been concerned with themselves, with their personal completion. They should have manifest greater zerizus, which they, regrettably, did not.

Every man and woman whose heart motivated them to bring for any of the work… Bnei Yisrael brought a donation to Hashem. (35:29)

The pasuk seems to have a redundancy. It begins by saying that every man and woman contributed towards the Mishkan and then concludes with the phrase, "Bnei Yisrael brought a donation." Are these not the same people that were mentioned earlier as "every man and woman"? Horav Avraham Pam, zl, in Ateres Avraham, cites the Kehillas Yitzchak that offers a noteworthy explanation, which conveys a powerful lesson. He relates a story that occurred concerning the Maharasha, Horav Shmuel Eidlish, zl, who had a yeshivah in the city of Ostrova. This yeshivah was a Torah center for students from Eastern and Central Europe.

As the yeshivah's popularity grew and students flocked to it from throughout Europe, it was necessary to initiate a building campaign, since space had become a major issue. A fund-raising campaign was launched with the usual opportunities for eternalizing one's name through support of the yeshivah. There was even an auction to sell the z'chus, privilege, of laying the cornerstone of the new building. On the designated day of the auction, an individual approached the gabbai, sexton, in charge of the auction, with a unique request. He wanted to purchase the z'chus of laying the cornerstone, but he wanted to remain anonymous for the time being. Would the gabbai bid for him? The gabbai agreed, and the auction was held. At the end, the gabbai bid 500 rubles, a considerable sum of money which was unmatched by anyone. The anonymous gentleman had won the z'chus of placing the cornerstone.

All eyes were on the gabbai to see whom he would approach with the privilege. Everyone wanted to know the identity of the anonymous donor. Perceiving this problem, the anonymous benefactor had prearranged with the gabbai that this distinction would be reserved for the Mahrasha, himself.

The ceremony was over, and the crowd dispersed and went home. The Maharasha asked the gabbai if he could arrange to have the elusive benefactor come to his house, so that he could personally express his gratitude for his generous contribution and for honoring him with the cornerstone laying. When the benefactor arrived at his home, the Maharasha was surprised to discover that the benefactor was not wealthy. "What motivated you to make such a large contribution?" the Maharasha asked. The man replied, "I have no children, and I wanted to do something to promote the growth of Torah in Ostrova."

The Maharasha was impressed with the man's generosity, but it was his modesty that especially left an impact on him. He gave the man the blessing that had heretofore eluded him: He would have a son. Moreover, that son would one day be a student in the yeshivah to which the man had contributed so generously.

One year later, the man's wife gave birth to a son. Thirteen years later, after his son's Bar Mitzvah, the benefactor brought his son to be enrolled in the yeshivah. The hanhalah, yeshivah administration, refused to admit him, claiming that the boy was too young. The man was not deterred. He went to the Maharasha and reminded him of his blessing and his pledge to accept his son as a student in the yeshivah. The Maharasha remembered his pledge and honored his word. The boy was immediately accepted as a student.

The Kehillas Yitzchak wonders why the man was blessed with a child just because he undertook to sustain Torah? He explains that the purpose of a Mishkan is to be a place where the Shechinah can repose. In reality, however, the primary resting place of the Shechinah is not in an edifice, but on the people themselves. When Hashem notices that people labor to build a Mishkan or a similar edifice, such as a yeshivah for Him, He rewards them with banim tzaddikim, righteous children, who will themselves one day be worthy of being receptacles for His Shechinah.

The architecture of our religious buildings is not our greatest asset. From an artist's point of view, the architecture of a religious edifice may be impressive, but in reality Klal Yisrael's greatest natural resource is not its magnificent buildings, but its pious and virtuous children. Their faces radiate kedushah, holiness, and it is their souls that are the veritable Mishkan for Hashem's Presence. Thus, the meaning of the extra phrase, "Bnei Yisrael brought a donation." This is written to emphasize the notion that when the Jewish People responded with great generosity to building the Mishkan, they were blessed with righteous children who would themselves embody the Divine Presence. When parents appreciate and value the significance of the Mishkan and its contemporary counterpart, its role and function in Klal Yisrael, they merit children that embody and continue this legacy.

Rav Pam gleans from the Maharasha that a segulah for being blessed with children is to involve oneself in building a center for Torah and Tefillah. Hashem compensates us in the manner that we demonstrate devotion to him.

I think this idea is conveyed to us by way of the primary component of which the walls of the Mishkan were constructed. Chazal tell us that the Atzei Shittim, special Shittim wood - or as some translate, Acacia Trees - which comprised the walls of the Mishkan, eino oseh peiros, "do not bear fruit." There is a profound lesson to be derived herein. It is not the structure that bears fruit, nor will the beautiful and impressive architecture produce the spirit of holiness. The soul of Yiddishkeit, the continuing legacy of our People, is the teaching that goes on in the building. We make the building, but Hashem's Shechinah reposes b'socham, within the people that study and pray in the building. Our hope for a future is in the children. The finest teachers, the greatest scholars, can only plant the seeds. The building produces the suitable climate for the inspiration to grow, but it is children who must learn, who must be encouraged to study and to daven with kavanah, devotion, or all will be in vain. The reward is commensurate with the value one places on the endeavor.

Va'ani Tefillah

Ki hakol hevel - For (all man's efforts) are for naught.

After all the thousands of years of civilization, we see that man's superiority over the animals is really nothing. We might have more intelligence, but where has that brought us? Horav Shimon Schwab, zl, has an excellent explanation of this Tefillah. When we look at its construction, we note that it is based upon the pasuk in Koheles 1:2, "Futility of futilities," said Koheles. "Futility of futilities! All is futile'!" There are a total of seven havalim, terms, applying to futility (if we count the plural form as two havalim). In the Midrash, Chazal explain that these seven futilities constitute a reference to the seven time periods of a man's life, from birth to old age. Shlomo Hamelech refers to all of these as hevel, nothingness. Furthermore, the word mah, what (are we), describing our weaknesses, is used seven times in this Tefillah.

However, when the Tefillah focuses upon our inherent joy in being amcha, bnei brisescha, Your nation, Your covenanted children, these seven futilities are offset by seven expressions of praise. When we study the structure of Tefillah, we see how much chochmah, wisdom, Chazal applied in creating it. We now leave the world of futility to focus on our role as Hashem's nation and His children. While we recognize that we have, regrettably, failed in our mission to improve the world, we note that we have, at least, succeeded in maintaining our separatism as Hashem's nation.

l'zchus u'refuah sheleima
Malka Chaya bas Chana

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

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