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Peninim on the Torah

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Rabbi A. Leib Scheinbaum
Hebrew Academy of Cleveland


The entire people responded together and said, "Everything that Hashem has spoken we will do." (19:8)

The Revelation-- with all that preceded it -- including the actual Giving of the Torah-- was an unparalleled, awesome experience. Above all, it was a Jewish experience. With this in mind, we may wonder how someone who is megayer, converts to Judaism, relates to an experience that was so seminal and so inherently Jewish. Chazal teach us: The Torah writes: "Hashem came from Sinai - having shone forth to them from Seir, having appeared from Mount Paran." (Devarim 33:2) What was He doing in Seir and Paran? Rabbi Yochanan says, "This teaches us that Hashem went to every nation and asked them to consider accepting the Torah. They refused. He then went to Klal Yisrael, who accepted it wholeheartedly." Let us try to digest this statement. Is it not probable that some members of the gentile nations were quite ready to accept the Torah? Furthermore, is it certain that every Jew was ready to accept the Torah? Is it possible that some might have dissented?

The Gaon, zl , m'Vilna explains that this is exactly what occurred. A number of gentiles wanted to join Klal Yisrael. Regrettably, they were outnumbered and, thus, compelled to follow the majority. These neshamos, holy souls, are the source of all those who have converted and become geirei tzedek throughout the generations.

There is, however, a flip-side to this phenomenon. Regrettably, some of our own co-religionists were not prepared to accept the Torah. They balked, but were absorbed among the multitudes that declared, Naase V'Nishmah, "We will do and we will listen." Their neshamos were the souls of alienated and mixed up Jews who became meshumadim, apostates, throughout history. The weakness in their spiritual character did not allow them to withstand the vicissitudes that have confronted the Jew.

The Chida substantiates this idea from the fact that Chazal refer to the convert as ger she'nisgayer, a convert who converted. Clearly, prior to his conversion, he had not yet been a ger. Therefore, he should be referred to as goi, a gentile, she'nisgayer, that converted. This indicates that the neshamah of the ger stood with Klal Yisrael at Har Sinai. He was already then a ger. It just took some time until his relationship with Klal Yisrael was revealed.

The Yalkut Reuveni posits that the ger was originally a Jew who, due to his sin, was nisgalel, reincarnated, as a gentile and now has returned to his original Jewish state. Since he was sent back to this world as a gentile only for the purpose of atonement, a phenomenon which was achieved, it is as if he had never left the Jewish People.

Count Pototsky, the famous ger tzedek, Rav Avraham ben Avraham, zl, who was very close to the Gaon, zl, was burned at the stake on the second day of Shavuous in the year 1749, because he refused to denounce his Jewishness. When the Gaon became aware that Rav Avraham was about to die, he conveyed a message to him that he could have saved him from death by using the secrets of Kabbalah, mysticism. The Count replied that he did not want to be saved. He was prepared to die Al Kiddush Hashem, to sanctify Hashem's Name. "From the moment I acknowledged the existence of the true G-d, I have waited for the time in which I could fulfill the mitzvah of Kiddush Hashem. I am not willing to forego this singular opportunity just in order to save my body." No explanation exists, other than the above hypothesis, for such unparalleled devotion. He, as well as countless other geirim, stood at Har Sinai and declared: Naaseh v'nishmah, "We will do and (then) we will listen."

Horav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach, zl, was wont to relate from the talmidei ha'Grah, disciples of the Gaon, that among their group was a distinguished student who exemplified character refinement, as well as erudition. This young man and his wife sustained the loss of an infant son shortly after the infant's birth. The Grah came to visit them during the Shivah, seven day mourning period. He explained that when the ger tzedek's neshamah ascended to Heaven, it was noted that while he purified himself during his lifetime in a manner that was unprecedented and absolutely incredible, he did have one spiritual fault: his conception and birth were not b'kedushah, consecrated. In other words, his parents were not Jewish. Therefore, he was sent back to this world as a gilgul, in the body of their infant. He died shortly after birth, and, as his birth parents, they merited to complete his spiritual tikkun, restoration.

Horav Yechiel Michel Feinstein, zl, relates that he heard that the Shabbos prior to the Count's conversion, his last Shabbos as a gentile, he could not rest. He did not stop speaking about the kedushah, sanctity, of Shabbos. He felt a transition about to occur, a metamorphosis taking place within him. He clearly possessed a great neshamah which inspired him to question, to anticipate and to yearn for the moment when he, too, could experience the kedushas Shabbos. This is one more sign that geirus, conversion, is more of a transitional about-face, in which one returns to an original sense of belonging, rather than a completely new beginning.

The entire people responded together and said, "Everything that Hashem has spoken we shall do!" (19:8)

Much has been written about Klal Yisrael's response. In fact, Naase v'nishma, "We will do and we will listen," has become a fundamental principle in Jewish thought. The Ohr HaChaim HaKadosh focuses on how they responded - in unison, unanimously accepting Hashem's Torah with enthusiasm and fervor. He writes: "No one responded later than his fellow, nor did anyone precede his fellow; no one altered his declaration or replied in a different version. Fortunate is a world in which this nation is a member of its nations." He concludes: "The word yachdav, together, indicates that everyone spoke simultaneously, at the same moment, in the same vernacular, with the same words. This demonstrates the incredible unity that reigned among Klal Yisrael at that time."

Never has there been such an unparalleled display of harmony among Jews. This awesome demonstration of oneness, solidarity and unanimity stands out as the pre-eminent "achdus moment" in our history as a people. Horav Yitzchak Hutner, zl, distinguishes between the unity of Klal Yisrael at Mattan Torah, the Giving of the Torah, and that of the Egyptians whose singular purpose was to annihilate the Jews. Concerning the Giving of the Torah, it is written, "And Yisrael encamped there, opposite the mountain" (19:2), which Rashi explains as, k'ish echad, b'lev echad, as "one man with one heart." In 14:10, the Torah describes the Egyptians chasing after us, "Egypt was journeying after them," rendering the entire Egyptian army into one "Egypt," a force united on one mission: killing the Jews. Here, Rashi describes them as focused in a totally opposite manner, b'lev echad k'ish echad, "with one heart as one man." What is the distinction between these two formulations?

Rav Hutner explains that the difference lies in the nature of Klal Yisrael as one entity - one person - one body. Although we are considered one organism, we do have individual retzonos, wills, and attitudes. In rare instances, however, all of our preferences and desires coincide, as they did during Mattan Torah, when we all yearned for the same goal: to accept the Torah. Then, we are of one body and one heart - a harmonic totality. This is possible because essentially we are one body. The nations of the world do not have this ascendancy, since they are individual bodies. At times, they are of one heart like one body. They can never have total unity, because their bodies do not comprise a single unit.

Horav Yitzchak Zilberstein, Shlita, cites Horav Sholom, zl, m'Belz, who notes the significance of achdus among Jews. He makes the following observation. On Monday and Thursday following Krias Ha'Torah, the Torah Reading, we recite five verses of Yehi Ratzon, "May it be the Will," in which we petition the Almighty for the fulfillment of the yearnings and desires common to us all: for the restoration of the Temple; for the preservation of the remnant of our people who have escaped destruction; for the life and welfare of the disseminators of Torah together with their families and disciples; and, finally, for the advent of the promised tidings of salvation, consolation and the ingathering of the exiles. These are wonderful and meaningful prayers. They are followed by the Acheinu, "As for our brethren," prayer, in which we pray that our brethren throughout the world be redeemed from oppression and distress, speedily in the not-too-distant future. Why, asks the Rebbe, is the Acheinu prayer preceded by a Yehi Ratzon, special plea to the Almighty?

The Belzer Rebbe explains that when Klal Yisrael is on the level of Acheinu, when all Jews view themselves as brothers, when harmony and unity reign, it will not be necessary to add the special plea. The merit of achdus will by itself catalyze Hashem's favor. No greater merit is accrued for our people than when we act as one people, as brothers, in mind, body and spirit.

Whenever I permit My Name to be mentioned, I shall come to you and bless you. (20:21)

In Pirkei Avos 3:7, Rabbi Chalafta ben Dosa talks about the presence of the Divine Spirit among men who study Torah. He first proves this to be true when the group consists of ten men. He substantiates this idea even when it is a group of five, or three, or even two. Then he concludes by saying, "And from where do we know that this is true even if one Jew studies alone? Because it is said in Shemos 20:21, 'Whenever I permit My Name to be mentioned, I shall come to you and bless you.' The commentators note that the word azkir, "I permit My Name to be mentioned/remembered," seems to be out of place. Should it not have said, tazkir, "You will remember Me." Horav Meir Lehmann, zl, explains that the "place" is understandably a reference to the Sanctuary, where the korbanos, sacrifices, are offered, and which serves as the only place in which the Shem Ha'Meforash, Ineffable Name of Hashem, may be pronounced in its written form. Rabbi Chalafta chooses this pasuk to teach us a profound lesson. Even when a man attempts the difficult task of studying Torah alone, Hashem supports him and helps him to succeed. Furthermore, lest one think that having studied alone without the benefits accrued in studying with a chaburah, group of scholars, diminishes his merits, for he has become utterly dependent upon Hashem's help, the pasuk concludes: "I shall come to you and bless you." It will be considered as though you accomplished this all by yourself.

Thus, the Torah writes azkir, "I cause My Name to be remembered;" it is with Hashem's intervention that the individual succeeds, yet he receives merit. Wherever Hashem's Name is remembered, even if the individual is alone and needs Divine help to succeed, the Divine Spirit grants him enlightenment.

People turn to gedolim, Torah leaders, and admorim, chassidic rebbes, for brachos, blessings, in all areas of life and human endeavor. This is appropriate, since they are tzaddikim, righteous people, and this is consistent with the Rabbinic axiom, Tzaddik gozeir v'Hakadosh Boruch Hu mekayeim, "The righteous person decrees and Hashem fulfills (his decree)." We forget, however, that every Jew who focuses his mind and effort on it has his own unique powers. Often, we rely so much upon the blessings of others that we forget to act on our own behalf.

Chazal are teaching us that each and every Jew has the ability to be blessed directly from the Source of all blessings, from the same Source that the tzadikim receive their blessings: from Hashem. All one has to do is study Torah with sincerity and diligence. The Shechinah, Divine Presence, comes and sits next to him, hovering over him, helping him to understand until He ultimately blesses his endeavor.

A chosson, groom, came to Horav Meir Chadash, zl, to seek his blessing and counsel before his wedding. The venerable Mashgiach told him, "I am certain that you are following the tradition of visiting with Rabbinic leaders of the present and also of the past, petitioning them for their blessing. Surely, you must want the blessing of He Who is the Source of all blessing. Clearly, you want Hashem's blessing. I advise you that on the day of your chupah, you set aside a specific block of time as a seder to study Torah. Hashem will then come to you and bless you. In this way, you will proceed to the chupah accompanied by Hashem's blessing."

Otzros HaTorah puts it succinctly when he cites the pasuk we recite three times a day: Karov Hashem l'chol kor'av, l'chol asher yikra'uhu b'emes, "Hashem is close to all who call upon Him; to all who call upon Him sincerely." This pasuk means exactly what it says. Hashem moves near to anyone who calls to Him with sincerity. We have no need to look for any other panaceas - only to turn to Hashem. When He is close, we can ask Him to address our needs.

When the Chafetz Chaim became known as the great sage and tzadik that he was, people flocked to him from all over, seeking his blessing. He commented: "Is it possible that in the place where the King is to be found and available that a person would instead come and seek out the favor of His servant? The Ribbono Shel Olam is in your midst. He is available to hear your pleas. Why would you, instead, turn to someone like me? I cannot help you on my own. Turn directly to Hashem!"

The Chafetz Chaim once visited a community and was greeted by a large throng of people, all waiting to speak to him, to petition him to pray for them and their families. He looked at them and said, "No father is pleased when one son sends his request via another son. The father wants the petitioner to turn directly to him without any intermediary. We are all banim la'Makom, sons of the Almighty. Each and every one of us should turn directly to Him. He who feels that as a result of his sins, Hashem is angry with him, should perish the thought. I assure you that Hashem waits and desires your prayer. He will appease you as soon as you turn to Him. This is what a father wants."

He would advise people to go into their own private little corners and pour out their hearts to Hashem, like a son to a father: no platitudes; no speeches; no fancy kavanos, devotions, or esoteric meditations; just plain talk in simple terms, with warm tears and a broken heart. Tell it like it is and ask in simple terms.

The Chafetz Chaim would offer the following analogy: A poor man approaches a wealthy miser and cries his heart out to him, insisting that he is unable to get money from anyone else. He has exhausted all avenues of relief. "Please help me. There is no one else," he pleads. Even the most miserly, tightfisted individual will open up his wallet to give. Surely, if one turns to Hashem, his G-d, his Heavenly Father, the Creator of the universe, saying, "No one else can help me but You, Hashem." Surely, Hashem will listen. Try it.

You shall not ascend My Altar on steps, so that your nakedness will not be uncovered upon it. (20:23)

The Kohanim ascended to the Altar by means of walking up a ramp. Had they been required to mount it on steps, it would mean raising their legs in a manner that would represent a slight immodesty on their part to the steps of the Altar. On a ramp, they would not have to spread their legs, and they would instead move more evenly. The last two pesukim of this parsha teach us a profound lesson. The preceding pasuk adjures us not to use metal as the raw material to cut the stone used for the Altar. The Altar is here to extend life, while metal is often used to shorten life, as in weapons. Both pesukim deal with sensitivity towards the Altar and its steps, both inanimate objects that have no feelings or consciousness. Yet, if the Torah sees fit to warn us to refrain from causing "shame" to those inanimate objects, then surely we should be extremely vigilant not to cause shame or embarrassment to any human being.

Sensitivity towards another human being occurs in two ways: negative, which is understandable and acceptable; positive, which some of us find difficult. In other words, while we all agree that humiliating someone is a terrible thing to do, not all of us seem prepared to go out of our way to provide support or to make someone feel good. Let us first focus on the dreadful consequences stemming from negativity towards one's fellow.

The Chasam Sofer relates the following incident which took place during the Maharsha's tenure in Ostrow. An individual, who was notorious for the evil he had perpetrated, died. This man, albeit Jewish, did not act in a manner becoming a Jew. Nonetheless, as often occurs, he wanted to die as a Jew even if he had not lived as one. As the deceased was being prepared for burial, one young man, a student in the yeshivah, went over and pinched the deceased on his nose. The other members of the Chevra Kadisha, sacred society, who were doing the taharah, washing and purification of the body, snickered. That night, following the burial, the young man who had committed the dastardly act had a dream in which the deceased appeared and summoned him to a din Torah, lawsuit, before the Heavenly Tribunal.

The next morning, the young man spoke to his father and shared his fears with him. His father told him not to worry. It was nothing. The deceased apparently did not agree with the father, because he appeared again - and again, demanding the young man's presence before the Heavenly Tribunal. It reached the point where the young man became gravely ill as a result of the anxiety catalyzed by the recurring dream. He was brought to the Maharsha, who had him go to sleep in his home, with instructions that the Maharsha be called as soon as the dream repeated itself.

A few hours after the young man fell asleep, he awoke screaming, gripped by a deathly fear. The Maharsha was immediately notified. When he arrived at the bed where the shaken young man sat trembling with fear, he immediately asked the "deceased," "Why are you bothering this young man?" The "deceased" replied that he had been humiliated by him.

"But you are a rasha gamur, totally wicked person. Your entire life was focused on committing evil. What do you expect from this young man?" the Maharsha asked.

"It is not true. I was not totally evil. I once noticed a Jewish scholar fall into the river, and, as he was about to go under, I jumped in and rescued him from certain death. As a result of this incident, we established a relationship and became good friends. I even secretly supported him and his family. Thus, when I arrived in Heaven, I was treated with the utmost respect. Indeed, one would think that I was a devoted Torah sage. No sins were recorded against me, because one who saves a fellow Jew is considered as if he sustained the entire world. Furthermore, due to the fact that I supported a talmid chacham, Torah scholar, I share in his Torah achievements. I am also considered a scholar. Yes, I certainly have the right to demand reparation for the humiliation which I sustained."

The Maharsha thought for a moment and responded. "In truth, while you have achieved tremendous merit, you still have a considerable amount of unrepented sin that must be accounted for. It can neither be ignored nor brushed away. The Satan is waiting with a record of your life of sin and wickedness. He is being blocked from going forward, due to the one life that you saved, but Satan is relentless. He will not halt his indictment of you, and he continues to seek some way to "trip you up." If, through your dogged pursuit of revenge against this young man, you cause his death, Satan will come forward clamoring that there is no middah k'neged middah, measure for measure. True, you saved a life, but you also will have taken a life. They should cancel each other out, and you should have to answer for your sins. Is that what you really want? I suggest that you acquiesce and forgive this young man before your redress claims you as its victim."

The dream came to an abrupt end. The lesson of this story is compelling. The Heavenly Tribunal was about to summon the soul of this young man prematurely as a result of the minor humiliation he caused to the deceased. How careful we should be concerning the feelings of our fellow man.

There is no dearth of stories which relate to the actions of those whose sensitivity for their fellow man was acute. There are two, however, that I have treasured, due to the individual involved and the sensitivity which he demonstrated. Horav Chaim Ozer Grodzenski, zl, guided European Jewry during the first half of the twentieth century. An acknowledged source of Torah perspective concerning everything Jewish, he was a source of counsel,Torah erudition and adjudication to thousands of European Jews. His living room at any given time would be filled not only with roshei yeshivah and rabbanim, but also with widows, orphans, yeshivah students and communal leaders from all over.

He would often spend his summers in Druskenik, a resort town near Vilna. As a result, this became the summer address for Jews to visit. They came by the scores to talk, ask advice, seek a blessing, and speak in learning.

The rabbi of Druskenik made it his responsibility to seek suitable quarters for Rav Chaim Ozer and his rebbetzin. When the rebbetzin passed away, Rav Chaim Ozer said that all he needed was a bed and a book case. After the rabbi had shown him the quarters that he had selected, Rav Chaim Ozer said, "I must check with her before I make a decision."

The rabbi was taken aback, but said nothing. It was one of the bystanders that whispered quietly, "Is not Rav Chaim Ozer a widower?" The mystery surrounding "her" was soon solved, when they discovered that he was referring to his cook. Apparently, the kitchen in the bungalow was some distance from the dining area. Rav Chaim Ozer feared that carrying the food and the dishes all the way from the kitchen to the dining room would be too much for the cook. Only after she arrived and gave permission did he acquiesce to renting the bungalow.

He would often take health walks in the forest while he vacationed in Druskenik. Each time he would be accompanied by a group of students and a rav seeking his counsel. They were once walking when a young man with a speech impediment came over to ask directions to a certain place. One of the rabbanim who accompanied Rav Chaim Ozer was about to give the directions, when Rav Chaim Ozer suggested that they walk with the young man. It was a not-so-short walk and completely out of their way. The other rav asked Rav Chaim Ozer why simply giving the directions would not have sufficed. The sage replied, "That young man has great difficulty speaking. The directions are far from easy to follow. He would, therefore, have to stop a few more times to ask people for directions. I am sure that, as a result of his speech impediment,he finds it difficult to ask something of others. By accompanying him, we made certain that he would not have to ask anybody else for directions." This is the meaning of sensitivity to the needs of others.

Va'ani Tefillah

He will do the will of those who fear Him; He will hear their cries and save them.

The text of this prayer seems redundant. The Divrei Chaim, Horav Chaim Halberstam, zl, m'Sanz explains that the righteous are embarrassed to petition Hashem for all things material. It is inappropriate for a person whose life is one of total devotion to the spirit to be concerned about gashmius, physicality and material needs. Hashem, however, does what has to be done. He takes care of His devotees, even if they do not ask. This is the meaning of Retzon yireiav yaaseh, "He will do the will of those who fear Him." Hashem knows what is their will - even if they do not express themselves. How does Hashem do this? The pasuk continues: V'es shavasam yishma v'yoshieim, "He will hear their cries and save them." Shavah is a silent cry from the heart. Hashem listens to the heart of the tzadik. He hears his internal cry. This is his ratzon, will. Hashem listens to the heart and fulfills the will of the tzadik.

In memory of
Meir Bedziner
R' Meir ben Betzalel HaLevi z"l
niftar 24 Shevat 5764
on his yahrzeit.
Reb Meir loved people and was beloved by all.
His sterling character and pleasant demeanor were the hallmarks of his personality.
He sought every opportunity to increase the study of Torah and that it be accessible to all.
yehi zichru baruch
The Bedziner and Meltzer Families

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

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