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Peninim on the Torah

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Rabbi A. Leib Scheinbaum
Hebrew Academy of Cleveland


Hashem spoke to Moshe, "Behold, your days are drawing near to die; summon Yehoshua, and both of you shall stand in the Ohel Moed, and I shall instruct him. (31:14)

The changing of the guard, the transference of leadership, was about to occur. Hashem instructed Moshe Rabbeinu to summon Yehoshua. The time had arrived. In the Midrash, V'zos HaBrachah, Chazal teach that ten "deaths" were written concerning Moshe; ten times the Torah writes the concept of death as relating to Moshe - but the decree had still not been sealed… until… Moshe did not take the entire idea to heart. He conjectured, "Klal Yisrael sinned many a time, sins that were certainly much more egregious than anything I have ever done. Yet, when I entreated Hashem on their behalf - He listened and forgave them. I have never sinned, even as a young child. Is it not for certain that when I pray for myself that Hashem will listen to my entreaty?"

When Hashem saw how trivial Moshe had made his punishment, that he was taking his time engaging in prayer, Hashem retracted all of His favors. Moshe was not going to enter into Eretz Yisrael. Horav Eliyahu Lopian, zl, derives from here that if Moshe would have immediately taken the decree to heart and commenced praying, he would have averted disaster. Those moments of delay spelled the ultimate difference for Moshe. He did no wrong. He even prayed five hundred and fifteen times. Sadly, however, it was too late.

Moshe was acutely aware of the efficacy of tefillah. He just felt that he had time. Of course, he was going to daven - but not right away. Hashem would listen. He always did. Moshe was right. Hashem did listen. Regrettably, this time the answer was no. Moshe had waited too long. Tefillah requires immediacy.

Tefillah must be expressed with a sense of urgency, thereby indicating that the supplicant understands that there is no other way to achieve anything in this world. Praying at leisure, as if one is carrying out a service, fulfilling an obligation, is not prayer. We derive from Chazal that, although Moshe Rabbeinu was acutely aware of the significance of prayer, the mere fact that he did not express a sense of imperativeness, feeling compelled to immediately pray, was an indication - relative to the quintessential leader's exalted spiritual level - of a subtle laxity in his attitude toward prayer. As a result, his five hundred and fifteen prayers supplicating Hashem to allow him entry into Eretz Yisrael did not achieve the desired result.

It is a frightening thought, especially at this time of the year - Shabbos Shuvah. It is with great trepidation that I include the following two narratives, whose primary purpose is to inspire and motivate us to pray with greater urgency and deeper concentration at this compelling moment. As we approach Yom Kippur, may it be the will of Hashem that our tefillos be answered l'tovah, and that we and our families enjoy good health and Torah nachas.

In the introduction to his second volume on prayer, Touched by a Prayer, Rabbi Yechiel Spero relates that Horav Aharon Karliner, zl, was once asked how he prepared for tefillah. What did he think about as he put his mind in focus, his heart in concentration, as he prepared to ascend the spiritual realms to supplicate the Almighty? The Rebbe's answer should serve as a wake-up call for us all.

"I imagine that I am lying in bed," the Rebbe began, "and my strength is beginning to ebb away. I become weaker and weaker; my pulse slows down and then, I die. The Chevra Kaddisha, Jewish Burial Society, comes and prepares my mortal remains for burial. My tachrichim, linen shrouds, are placed on me. The members of the Chevra Kadisha ask mechilah, beg forgiveness, for any inappropriety they might have done in preparing my body, and they place me in the casket in which they will carry me to the cemetery. After a short walk, we arrive at the cemetery. I am about to be lowered into the ground which will serve as my final resting place.

"Suddenly, a Heavenly Voice is heard: 'Stop the funeral! The Almighty has decreed that this Jew is to be given one more chance to open his mouth in prayer.'

"I am allowed one prayer. That is all. Then the funeral will continue."

The Karliner looked at his questioner and said, "This is how I prepare myself for prayer."

A second episode demonstrates the motif of prayer and the significance of urgency in expressing one's emotions. It occurred with Horav Yeshayah Bardaky, zl, son-in-law of Horav Yisrael, zl, m'Shklov, a distinguished student of the Gaon m'Vilna. Rav Yeshayah was among the group of the Gaon's followers who emigrated to Eretz Yisrael. He eventually became the Rav of the Perushim community in Yerushalayim which was comprised of the Gaon's followers.

Travel on the high seas in the rickety boats which was the mode of overseas travel two hundred years ago was dangerous, but, then, so is crossing the street today. One does what he must do, and leaving Europe for Eretz Yisrael was a primary goal for the Gaon's talmidim, students. With great yearning, these families left the "comfort" of their Eastern European environment to brave the dangerous seas and hostile environment, just to live in the Holy Land.

Rav Yeshayah was among the last group to set sail from Europe. He traveled with his young son and daughter. Their ship, which was not much to begin with, was wrecked by a storm and sank. Lucky to survive the wreck, Rav Yeshayah instructed his children to climb on his back, as he made a desperate attempt to swim to shore. After a few hours of rigorous swimming, Rav Yeshayah could no longer continue. The weight of both children was too much. They would all drown-- unless one child "volunteered" to let go.

This is neither the place nor the forum for a discussion on the halachic decision that renders priority to the male child. In any event, Rav Yeshayah explained to his young daughter that, sadly, she was the logical choice. Anyone reading this story will certainly feel the emotion that an exhausted father, after hours of swimming in the treacherous waters, must have sustained during the moments of his final goodbye with his young, precious daughter. It is a decision no human being should ever have to make. Father and daughter held each other very tightly, as the implication of Rav Yeshayah's words sunk into his daughter's mind.

Suddenly, the young girl cried out, "But, Abba, I have no other father!" She implied that she had no one to whom to turn. He owed it to her. Upon hearing these words, Rav Yeshayah gathered his strength together and told his daughter to hold on. With superhuman effort, fueled by fatherly love, he reached the shore, where he collapsed, entirely spent and exhausted. As he touched the ground, he passed out.

After a short while, Rav Yeshayah woke up. He turned to his daughter and asked her to forever remember the profound words she had said when she was on the brink of drowning. "Remember that, whenever you are in trouble," he told her, "just turn to Hashem and say to Him exactly what you said to me, that you have no other father except for me, and you will discover that actually you do have another Father, Who can and will come to your rescue."

So now, write this song for yourselves, and teach it to the Bnei Yisrael, place it in their mouths. (31:19)

Chazal (Eiruvin 54b) derive from the words simah b'fihem, "Place it into their mouth," that Torah must be taught in such a manner that the student fully comprehends the material, to the point that he becomes fluent in it. Indeed, Ramban opines that a rebbe, Torah teacher, must review the material as often as necessary until his students are proficient. If the going is slow, he may not become angry; rather he must keep on explaining. In a letter to educators, Horav Michel Yehudah Lefkowitz, zl, underscored the need for a rebbe to present an amicable countenance, so that the student will be better inclined to accept his lesson. Patience and forbearance mark the qualities of a successful rebbe. In addition, the rebbe should pour out his heart to Hashem daily during his recitation of the Ahavah Rabbah prayer, for success in Torah study and its dissemination.

It is noteworthy that, when we conclude the Bircas HaTorah with the blessing of La'asok b'divrei Torah, "To engross ourselves in the words of the Torah," we add another entreaty: V'haarev na. "Please G-d, sweeten the words of Your Torah in our mouth… May we and our offspring and the offspring of Your People… know Your Name." Why is this appendum recited only concerning the mitzvah of limud haTorah? Why do we not ask Hashem: "May all Your mitzvos be sweet in our mouth?"

Horav Shimshon Pincus, zl, explains that the primary goal of the educator is to imbue his student with a desire, passion, for Torah. By infusing the child with the feeling that the Torah is sweet, he imparts to him that concealed within the pages of the Torah is a hidden light that illuminates his life and gives it meaning and "sweetness."

The rebbe, however, cannot successfully confer this emotion unless he has it himself. The rebbe who himself does not sense the sweetness of Torah cannot endow his students with the feeling. The rebbe who does not love every page of Chumash, Navi, Gemorah, Halachah, b'lev v'nefesh, with heart and soul, is unable to transmit to the student the inherent love one must have for the Torah. The students must sense the rebbe's excitement as he enters the classroom. "I am about to teach you Torah - the greatest and most significant body of knowledge that the world has ever seen! You are so lucky to learn. I am so fortunate to teach!" With this kind of attitude, we can hope that the mesikus, sweetness, of the Torah will be felt by the students.

When someone has a bitter taste in his mouth, whatever he imbibes will also have a bitter aftertaste - regardless of its original sweetness. When Klal Yisrael came to Marah, they could not drink the well water. The Torah says ki marim heim, "Because they were bitter" (Shemos 15:23). In the plain sense, the bitterness is a reference to the waters which were bitter. The Baal Shem Tov HaKadosh interprets the pasuk homiletically, with the bitterness focusing on the people. The people were embittered; thus, everything they tasted had a bitter taste. Their outlook was jaundiced. Therefore, the water tasted bitter.

A student who has difficulty learning feels miserable. The difficulty may be the result of a simple learning disability which, when properly addressed, is easily corrected; or it can be the result of deep-rooted issues which are emotional in nature, the result of some form of trauma. Regardless of the cause, the consequence is the same: the child is miserable; thus, he is unable to "taste" the sweetness of Torah. Ultimately, this has an effect on his entire spiritual persona. It explains why some young Jews from observant families just seem to lack the geshmack, satisfaction and pleasure, of Torah study and all of its fringe benefits.

So, what does one do? The answer is elementary. Perhaps, the following vignettes will be illuminating: One of the close chassidim of the Bais Yisrael, zl, of Gur, related that as a youth he had studied in Yeshivas Sefas Emes in Eretz Yisrael, the principal Yeshivah of the Gerrer Chassidic movement. At the beginning of the z'man, semester, the Rebbe asked him if he had already arranged for chavrusos, study partners. He replied with satisfaction, mentioning the names of some of the preeminent students in the yeshivah.

When the Rebbe heard the names, he said, "You have selected for yourself the 'lions of the group,' the top students in the yeshivah. So, what will be with the weaker students? Who will study with them? Who will help them learn?"

Understandably, the Rebbe was communicating a powerful message to his close student: one might think that he loses out by studying with the weaker student. This is an error. It might seem that way at first glance, but it will work itself out. Hashem will repay him. Torah is Divinely authored, and the ability to grasp its profundities goes beyond the natural approach to success. Spend time with weaker students, and Hashem will spend time with you.

Horav Michel Yehudah Lefkowitz, zl, had a group of students who had great difficulty in understanding the Talmudic lessons in the yeshivah. He brought them before the Chazon Ish, who was not only the gadol hador, preeminent Torah leader of the generation, but he also had a warm, sensitive heart that matched his encyclopedic knowledge of Torah. "How do I imbue these boys with a love and taste for Torah?" Rav Michel Yehudah asked the venerable sage. The Chazon Ish replied, "Each and every Jewish soul has its own unique, individual chelek, portion, in Torah. When he learns that specific portion which is inherently his, he will sense the pleasant taste of Torah. Once he achieves this, the student will be inclined to study further and delve deeper into other areas of Torah."

Then this song shall speak up before it as a witness, for it shall not be forgotten from the month of its offspring. (31:21)

The Torah guarantees us that it not be forgotten. This refers to the Torah in its entirety. It will be with us until the end of time. This assurance has been put to the test during each generation, reaching epic proportions during some of our darkest periods of history. In his Chayei Olam, the Steipler Rav, zl, takes the reader on a journey throughout history, demonstrating for us the many challenges that we have confronted. We were hurt; we were exiled; we were persecuted; but our commitment to the Torah remained intact. The Torah has undergone nine exiles: Bavel; North Africa; Egypt; Italy; Spain; France/Germany; Poland/ Lithuania. These countries have served as home to Torah development, its literature and dissemination.

Horav Chaim Volozhiner, zl, premier disciple of the Gaon, zl, m'Vilna, founder and Rosh Yeshivah of the famed Yeshivas Volozhin, was once davening Shacharis together with the Yeshivah. Suddenly, he emitted a large sigh and began to cry bitterly for a few moments. Following davening, he customarily went to his office where he would spend a good part of the day. Obviously, the students were concerned about the cry. It was highly unusual for the Rosh Yeshivah to show such extreme emotion. The students prevailed upon Horav David Tebel, zl, author of the Nachalas David and probably Rav Chaim's greatest student, to enter the room and ask Rav Chaim for an explanation.

The Rosh Yeshivah explained that Torah has been compelled to journey through ten exiles. It is now in its ninth exile. There is one more - one more place where the Torah will be studied and developed, America: "I fear for the hardships the architects of Torah in America will experience as they confront the various challenges and obstacles in its development. I am afraid of what they will have to endure during this process. And I wonder if they will succeed in establishing a yeshivah that will follow in the tradition that has been transmitted down to us from generation to generation. Yes, I wonder what image Torah will have in America."

Be that as it may, the Torah's journey to America has succeeded, but is it on the hallowed level that it was in pre-World War II Europe? What we must understand is that the Torah we study today in America is the same Torah that has survived generations of exile. Thus, by studying it, we establish and concretize it as an inextricable bond with the generations that have preceded us. Hashem guaranteed that the Torah will never be forgotten. We are part of that Divine promise. Every time we immerse ourselves in the sea of Talmud, we maintain the guarantee. How fortunate is one who devotes himself to Torah study - be it on a permanent or even part-time devotion--for he is playing a crucial role in fulfilling Hashem's promise.

If we peruse history, we will note that it was the promise that the Torah will never be forgotten that has spurred and maintained the growth of our People. After the recent Holocaust, a few Torah scholars, themselves embers saved from the raging fires that consumed most of European Jewry, came to these shores. This handful of dedicated men succeeded in planting the seeds of the Torah renaissance we enjoy today. This is due to the power of Hashem's promise. The Steipler writes that this promise was given to us collectively as a nation. In other words, the Torah will not be forgotten from the nation. In order for each individual to benefit from and reap the fruits of this promise, he must attach himself to the nation. This means not "once in a while," or on "specific holidays," or "when I am in the mood," but all the time.

While it might sound that the above words are written for those who act like part-time Jews, who saunter in and out of shul as they please, they are written for all of us. We do not know how our "participation" in Judaism is viewed from Above. I recently read a story concerning Horav Aharon Karliner, zl, which I think is frightening and should give us all something to consider this Shabbos Shuvah.

The Karliner was standing in his customary place in front of the congregation. It was the first day of Rosh Hashanah, and the chazzan, cantor, began Tefillas Shacharis with his rendition of the one word which describes the awesome nature of the holy day: "Hamelech! The King!" This is, of course, a reference to Hashem whom we "coronate" on Rosh Hashanah. At the very moment that the chazzan intoned this word, Rav Aharon fainted!

A few moments went by, and the Rebbe came to and continued the prayer service. After davening, one of his close students asked him, "What happened to cause the Rebbe to pass out?" The disciple understood that nothing "just happens." There is a deep reason and meaning for everything that occurs.

The Karliner replied, "The word Hamelech reminded me of an incident related in the Talmud Gittin 56a. Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakai presented himself to Vespasion, the Roman governor, who was in the midst of laying siege to Yerushalayim. The sage greeted the governor with the words, "Peace to you, your majesty. Peace to you, your majesty." Vespasion was taken aback. After all, he was only the governor. He countered, "You deserve to be executed… for if I am king, why have you not come until now to pay homage to me?"

The Rebbe continued, "On the Days of Awe, when we proclaim Hashem as King of the Universe, He might respond to us, 'If so, if I am King, why have you not come before Me until now?'"

As an added explanation, the Karliner was intimating that even on their exalted level of devotion to Hashem, the Almighty might find fault in their awareness of Him during the rest of the year. We think that we are devoted; we think that we attend services in shul; we think that we learn properly. What if we are wrong? At this time of the year when introspection is a constant-- or at least it should be-- we should give some thought to these questions. Are we doing enough, often enough, and with sincere devotion? To be included in the nation's renaissance, we must play an active role in being part of the nation.

Moshe wrote this song on that day, and he taught it to the Bnei Yisrael. (31:22)

It is noteworthy that the prophecy concerning the vicissitudes and challenges facing the Jewish People in the future is written as a song. The Bostoner Rebbe, zl, observes that, indeed, it is typical of the Torah and Hashem's great love for the Jewish People. Even when the Almighty wanted to warn and rebuke the nation through Moshe Rabbeinu, He did so with a song. For a song has the ability to move the heart, to rebuke with love, to involve the whole person and to teach him as well.

Rebuke is also an attitude. For example, one sees another person doing something that is offensive to him. He can either rebuke the offender or leave the room. Once he leaves, no one is present to take offense. Thus, the activity in which the offender is engaged is no longer offensive.

A classic example of the above scenario would be the following episode. Horav Yosef Dov HaLevi Soloveitchik, zl, the Bais HaLevi, once visited Horav Yankele Gezundheit, zl, Rav of Warsaw. The Brisker Rav and the Rav of Warsaw were having a delightful conversation in the living room when suddenly they heard the Jewish maid break out in song.

Since it is forbidden for Jewish men to listen to a Jewish woman, other than family, sing, Rav Gezundheit immediately jumped up from his seat and proceeded to the kitchen to tell the young woman to quiet down. Rav Yosha Ber also jumped up - but not to go to the kitchen. He grabbed Rav Yankele's arm and steered him outside of the house, straight into the street.

Two different reactions. Two great men. Rav Gezundheit was startled, but before he could express himself, Rav Yosha Ber explained his actions, "Your maid works hard all day. Apparently, the work is getting to her, and her only form of pleasure is singing. While the halachah clearly prohibits us from listening to her sing, it is not sufficient reason for us to prevent her from singing, thereby taking away her joy. We should just simply walk outside and the issue will be resolved."

There is a time for rebuke, and there is a time to circumvent rebuke. Perhaps, the woman should have thought twice before beginning to sing loudly, but if this was her way of joyful expression, so be it. The rabbi should pick himself up and walk outside, allowing her to have some pleasure. Yet, there are those who often look, almost lay in waiting, for someone to make a mistake, thus allowing for them to issue words of rebuke. Giving mussar, reproach, is important and very helpful, but it should be something that one does only because he must. Otherwise, it is not mussar, but rather, self-aggrandizement.

I just had occasion to read a vignette that presents a similar connotation. An "older" bachur, thirty-year-old single yeshivah student, was davening shacharis in a shul. When the worshippers came to the tefillah, Va'yevarech David, they all, as customary, stood up to recite the prayer. The bachur recited the prayer without budging from his seat. One of the more "outspoken" worshippers was peeved by the young man's actions and not-so-subtly brought it to his attention. "What? Are you too good to stand up for David Ha'Melech's blessing?" the man snarled.

Not one to take this rebuke "sitting down," the young man replied, "I have been 'sitting' for thirty years (waiting for a spouse), but that does not seem to bother you. You are only concerned with my 'sitting' through the Va'yevarech David prayer."

There are those who seem to enjoy rebuking others, actually waiting for the opportunity to present itself. This is not the Torah way. Rebuke should be expressed as a song - with harmony throughout.

Va'ani Tefillah

V'sein b'libeinu binah, l'havin u'l'haskil, lishmoa, lilmod u'l'lameid. Instill in our hearts a depth of perception, to perceive, and to understand, to hear, to learn and to teach.

L'havin, to perceive, is the highest level of understanding. Through his sense of understanding, one actually perceives a level of profundity which is unlike any experienced by a regular man. Only the Neviim reached this level of understanding. Why does binah, perception, precede wisdom? Binah is explained by the commentators as maivin davar mitoch davar, understanding one thing from another. In order to perceive the second item, one must first understand its predecessor. If there is no shmiah, listening, and lilmod, learning, there is nothing to understand. Why is lishmoa not first? Horav David Cohen, Shlita, explains that we are being taught the proper approach to Torah. One should not simply take a cursory attitude towards Torah learning. There are those who are only interested in studying "concepts," but refuse to get down to real learning. Thus, we are being taught that one must strive to understand with depth, to plumb the profundities of Torah in such a manner that he is able to understand one thing from another. Then - he is ready to learn the Torah and absorb its wisdom.

l'zchus ul'refua sheleima for
R' Tzvi Halevi ben Chava sheyichye

Peninim on the Torah is in its 20th year of publication. The first fifteen years have been published in book form.

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