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Peninim on the Torah

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Rabbi A. Leib Scheinbaum
Hebrew Academy of Cleveland

PARSHAS SHOFTIM

You shall come to the Kohanim, the Leviim, and to the judge who will be in those days… and they will tell you the word of judgment. (17:9)

We believe that the leaders of each and every generation are specifically suited for that generation. Therefore, we do not second guess our gedolim, Torah leadership. They are Hashem's choice. To impugn the integrity of their leadership is to question Hashem's decision. The leader of each individual generation is the last word in Torah ruling. We do not compare him to the leaders of earlier generations. He is our leader - not the leader of a previous generation.

Horav Shimshon Pincus, zl, relates an amazing story that occurred concerning the Gaon, zl, m'Vilna, which underscores this idea. We must remember that the Gaon was not only the greatest luminary of his generation, but he exceeded the scholarly and spiritual plateau of many leaders before him. Nonetheless, even the great Gaon deferred to the contemporary leadership of his time.

The story is told that one Erev Shabbos, the tailor whose house abutted the home of the Gaon, had a shailah, halachic question, concerning a chicken. In those days, every chicken was personally checked for any traifos, invalidations which would render it unkosher. Today, with quality control, very few issues arise, and, when they do, they are immediately addressed. The tailor was a G-d-fearing man, so he immediately dispatched his son to the Gaon's home with the question concerning the chicken. The Gaon paskened, ruled, that the chicken was treif, unkosher.

Meanwhile, unbeknownst to the tailor, his wife had sent someone to the Rav of Vilna, Horav Shmuel ben R' Avigdor, who ruled that the chicken was, in fact, kosher. They now had a problem: two rabbanim had ruled on the chicken - one kosher; one not kosher. This was a serious halachic dilemma.

The Rav represented the rabbinic leadership of the city of Vilna. Officially, he had the final word. The Gaon was the undisputed gadol hador, pre-eminent Torah leader of the generation. Would a "tug of war" ensue? When the Rav heard that the Gaon had ruled against him, he immediately proceeded to the Gaon's home. The Rav explained that, while there was no doubt that the Gaon was many times his superior in Torah knowledge, nonetheless, if his word were not to be respected and heeded, he would lose his standing in the community, and his halachic rulings would be rendered deficient. The only choice available was for both of them to go together to the tailor's house and both eat from the chicken. The Gaon agreed! The Gaon, who personally held the chicken to be unkosher, was prepared to eat from it! He understood that the viability of Torah ruling was at risk. To uphold the Torah, he would be compelled to eat a piece of chicken he held was treif.

By the way, when the two rabbanim arrived at the tailor's home, the oil lamp on the table had fallen, spilling some of the unkosher fat used as fuel on the chicken, thus rendering it unquestionably treif. The Gaon did what he had to do; Hashem did what He wanted to do.

Do not deviate from the word that they will tell you, right or left. (17:11)

Rashi explains that one may not deviate from the halachah as expounded by the sages, even if they tell you concerning "right," that it is "left" and, concerning "left" that it is "right." The question is obvious: if I know that something is definitely "right" or that something is clearly "left," a thousand sages are unable to change this reality. Does the Torah demand that I commit a falsehood, that I act out a lie? Obviously, this is not what the Torah wants of us. What is the meaning of Lo sassur, "Do not deviate," and what does Rashi mean when he says that we must follow Chazal, the sages, even when they are clearly contradicting reality?

Horav Yaakov Galinsky, zl, explains this pragmatically. The Torah does not say that we should listen to our sages when they say that "east" is "west" or vice versa - or, concerning night, that it is day. These are absolutes. Night is always night; day is always day; the directions east and west are unalterable entities. The problem occurs when the rav/sage/spiritual leader instructs you to go right, while simultaneously motioning with his finger to the north. The man who stands opposite him is obstinate. His right side points to the south, and the rav had insisted that he go right.

Understandably, this is only an analogy, but it is one that delivers a powerful message. The reason that we do not see eye to eye with Chazal is that we stand opposite them - not together with them, facing the other direction. If we are not on the same page as they are, then our "right" points to a different direction than their "right." Thus, when they are "right," we feel that they are wrong. We simply do not have their vantage point, which clouds our perspective.

Rav Galinsky concludes with an interchange that took place between the Chelkas Yoav and his Rebbe, the Avnei Nezer. The Chelkas Yoav wrote a chiddush, novel thought, and sent it to his Rebbe to solicit his approval. The Avnei Nezer did not agree with his student's exposition and consequently, rebuffed it. When the Chelkas Yoav next visited the Avnei Nezer, Rebbe asked the student, "Nu?" which was his way of intimating, "Do you accept my ruling?"

The Chelkas Yoav replied, "I accept my Rebbe's ruling." The Rebbe asked, "But what do you feel in your heart?" The talmid replied, "In my heart, I feel justified in my ruling, but…"

Hearing this, the Avnei Nezer stood up and became emotional, "Is this the meaning of, 'The fear (awe) (that one has) for his Rebbe should be similar to the fear one has of Heaven'? If the Rebbe says the opposite of you - then you must alter your opinion." "Accepting" is insufficient, since accepting means that I have a valid opinion - my Rebbe has a valid opinion; I must accept his opinion because he is the Rebbe. Otherwise, this is not what the Torah teaches us. There is only one reliable opinion - that of the Rebbe.

And the man that will act with willfulness… that man shall die, and if you shall destroy the evil from among Yisrael. The entire nation shall listen and fear, and they shall not act willfully anymore. (17:12,13)

How often - upon confronting a young Jewish boy or girl and inquiring why he or she has suddenly opted for living a life of spiritual risk, or of turning off completely to religious observance - will the response be, "I was turned off by the lack of truth, the dearth of intellectual honesty, the improper behavior such as chillul Hashem and hypocrisy"? Veritably, the response that we receive has a ring of truth to it. The system is perfect; the people, however, are human, and human beings err - some by not thinking, while others are simply dishonest. In our parsha, we confront an entirely new dimension to the meaning of truth. While this has very little to do with our opening question, it does go to the core of the truth as seen through the eyes of gedolei Yisrael, Torah leadership. Thus, while truth is considered the absolute only path to follow - this might not necessarily be objectively "true." The Torah addresses the episode of the zakein mamre, rebellious elder. He is an acknowledged ordained sage, who is qualified to sit on the Sanhedrin - yet defies their ruling and encourages others to follow suit. The Torah teaches us that such defiance may not be countenanced, thus mandating that this elder be put to death during the most public venue, such as the next Festival, when throngs of Jews visit Yerushalayim. This is done so that the nation will "hear and listen" and refrain from emulating such mutinous behavior.

Let us attempt to analyze this incident, so that we are able to judge it in its true perspective. The Sanhedrin has ruled. This sage is no spiritual slouch. He is a Torah scholar of the same caliber as the members of the Sanhedrin. He feels that the ruling Judicial body grievously erred in rendering their decision. What should he do? Ignore the truth? If anybody is guilty of sheker, falsehood, it should be the Sanhedrin! This is what the rebellious elder feels, and he is prepared to stake his reputation, even risk his life, to stand by the truth - as he sees it. Yes, I added, "as he sees it." He might be right; he might be sincere. What he says might even be true. Halachah, however, follows the Sanhedrin's ruling - even if they are wrong! They are right, simply because they are the Sanhedrin.

The rebellious elder screams, "I am the truth - you are false." He is put to death. Here is a case when "too much truth" is false! He may be greater than they are; he may see the error of their decision. He must still accept the Sanhedrin's ruling. Otherwise, he will die for his commitment to the truth "as he sees it"!

What does this teach us? How are we to understand this episode, which, for all intents and purposes, can rock the faith of a young person whose conviction is one of rote, habit, religious upbringing, without much time spent on explaining the beauty and truth of Judaism? Horav Yeruchem Levovitz, zl, derives an important principle herein: Everything has good and bad within it. The greatest, most loftiest attribute, has good - and bad. Tzedakah, charity, is clearly a wonderful attribute. Yet, our sages admonish us not to give all of our wealth away. Chazal provide parameters to follow in the tzedakah process. This idea applies across the board, in every area of human endeavor. The most refined middah, character trait, has good and bad within it. Eating is important. One must receive nourishment, or else he will become ill and die. On the other hand, many illnesses are the result of what we eat. Does that mean we should stop eating? Why do we eat, if it might prove dangerous to our health?

The answer, explains the Mashgiach, is that, while it is true that eating can prove dangerous, not eating can be even more dangerous! Therefore, one must follow what is more likely to be beneficial for him. We weigh everything, crunch the numbers, and then compare the averages. We follow the numbers and go with the majority. Certain medications are, by their very nature, dangerous, but, for people with life-threatening illnesses, the option of not taking these medications presents a greater risk of death. In other words, there is "true" and there is "true." It is all a matter of perspective.

When an individual confronts a situation, the correct and true approach is in accordance with the variables involved; he must assess which option presents the greater good. "True" is determined by "good." Therefore, the zakein mamre might feel that he is acting for the benefit of the truth, even if it goes against the principles established by the Sanhedrin; even if he feels that they are wrong, the definition of what is true changes. They might be wrong this one time, and he might be right this one time; nonetheless, their ruling is what the Torah says we should follow. Thus, they are right and true; the zakein mamrei is wrong and false. Truth is most often to be found by the majority, the Sanhedrin. They might err once in a great while, but since they are right most of the time, they represent the truth. Whoever defies their ruling is a rebellious elder and must be expunged.

Rav Yeruchem derives a life lesson from here. An individual who has occasion to look into an endeavor - and notices what one would consider an infringement of the truth - should learn a lesson from the rebellious elder. Truth gravitates to the majority. If something is true most of the time, or if most of the leadership is comprised of honest, upstanding, decent Torah Jews, then the endeavor is true. The few rotten apples do not define the endeavor. One should not judge Judaism by the actions of a few people, who, by their nefarious activities, impugn the integrity of religious observance. There will always be those sick, selfish, despotic individuals who present a picture of righteousness, while simultaneously ripping off the community. These individuals are sick. Why should the rest of us be blamed for - and suffer as a result of - the actions of a few?

Who is the man who built a new house… and who is the man who has planted a vineyard… and who is the man who had betrothed a woman… who is the man who is fearful and fainthearted? Let him go and return to his house. (20:5,6,7,8)

The Torah's sensitivity toward all Jews - regardless of background, personal status, or self-imposed emotional baggage - is evidenced in this parsha. Prior to the nation's leaving for battle, the Kohen Gadol Mashuach Milchamah, High Priest anointed specifically for the purpose of leading the people in battle and serving as their spiritual advisor during this stressful time, made a declaration telling the troops that anyone who was not emotionally fit for fighting in a war should return home from the battlefield. The emotional toll on a person during such a period of adversity is enormous. If a soldier's mind begins to wander to his new home, vineyard or bride, his mind is not focused on the battlefield. This could prove a danger to both him and his fellow soldiers. A lack of enthusiasm on the part of one soldier can have a devastating effect on the morale of an entire unit.

The Torah addresses four individual types who leave the battlefield, three of them having recently experienced a new milestone in their lives. The thought of not being there to share in its fruition - or knowing that someone else will - can preoccupy a soldier's mind, so that he is mentally not in a fighting state. Rashi teaches that, actually the first three are sort of a cover up to allow the fourth soldier, the yarei v'rach ha'leivav, the one who is fearful and fainthearted, to make an easy exit without calling much attention to his self-generated incapacitation.

Concerning the definition of he who is fearful and fainthearted, the Talmud Sotah 44a presents a dispute. Rabbi Akiva feels this is in reference to the truly fainthearted, cowardly person, who, due to his diffidence, will generate a sense of fear in the unit. Someone who lacks faith in Hashem's ability to deliver him from trouble has no business on the battlefield. He will adversely influence others. Rabbi Yosi HaGalili contends that fearful and fainthearted refers to one who has sinned and fears the negative implications of his behavior. Such a person feels himself unworthy of Hashem's favor. In order to protect the dignity of the fainthearted, the Torah also freed the three others, so that when the sinner or the coward went home, people would assume that he was one of the "good guys," one of those fellows who had just betrothed his wife, built a home, or planted a vineyard.

Without saying more, we now have an idea concerning to what lengths the Torah will go to protect the feelings of a person who is ether a coward or a sinner. Neither of them is very worthy, but the emotions of each are to be considered nonetheless. Imagine, if that year had been a boon year for real estate, enabling more people to build new homes. The agricultural system was in its prime, and more and more people were planting vineyards. The Shidduchim crisis for some reason seemed to ease up on families, extorting fewer demands in order to allow their children to get married. Thus, if so many people had left the ranks of the army to cover up for the few fainthearted individuals, it would have left a large deficit in the armed forces. Yet, the Torah says that a person's feelings take precedence. He must be protected. If it means allowing a few thousand soldiers to leave, so that a few cowards or even sinners should not be embarrassed, then, so be it. We are different than the rest of the world. Our Torah does not deal in numbers of soldiers, but in sensitivity to each and every individual Jew.

Horav Chaim Zaitchik, zl, explains this further. The Sifri rules that the one who fears for his sins should return from the battlefield lest, due to his lack of merit, he might become a casualty of the war. If he does not return, it may be because his sense of shame over having committed a sin is so intense that he is willing to chance being killed in battle, rather than to confess to his sinful behavior! Hashem wants the Jewish soldier to know and to feel the frustration and pain, the shame and remorse, that overwhelm one who has sinned. He feels terrible; he is all broken up, but he is still not willing to let anyone know what he did. This is why others must leave, in order to provide a cover-up for the sinner.

Rav Zaitchik supports his claim that the fainthearted sinner is willing to die rather than confess his sin. Concerning the first three soldiers to return from the field, the Torah gives a reason: pen yamus ba'milchamah, "lest he die in battle." It does not write this concerning the sinner. Why? Because he is not afraid of death! He would rather die than be embarrassed!

We now have somewhat of an idea regarding the extent of sensitivity we must demonstrate towards others. The Manchester Rosh Yeshivah, Horav Yehudah Zev Segal, zl, was a gaon in mussar, brilliant ethicist; he was also a gaon in kindness. Reading his biography exposes the reader to the true meaning of nosei b'ol im chaveiro, "Sharing his fellow's burden." The Teshuvos Chasam Sofer, Orach Chaim 166, writes: "When a tzaddik worries and turns and feels compassion towards his fellow, he turns his full attention to his suffering; the tzaddik's anguish is so great that it is literally like the anguish of the person himself. Due to this phenomenon, Hashem relieves that person of his suffering, for He demonstrates mercy towards the suffering of the tzaddik." In other words, Hashem heals the sick person, because He does not want to cause undue pain to the tzaddik.

Sensitivity towards another person's pain and joy was one of the hallmarks of the Rosh Yeshivah. Many people care and are sensitive, but they do not always act with thoughtfulness. He thought about everything. Every moment of his life was brilliantly and meticulously thought out, so that, whatever he did for others was wholesome and without blemish. For instance, he was once attending a sheva brachos dinner in honor of a young couple with whom he was close. It was a festive meal accompanied by much singing and music. During the meal, his host received a call from a single woman who had endured many unsuccessful years of dating, to no avail. She was single and miserable. She put on a lovely show, but it was all show. Inside, she was falling apart. The host asked if the Rosh Yeshivah would mind speaking with her. Apparently, she was a close family friend of the host, and he cared deeply for her plight.

The Rosh Yeshivah readily agreed to speak with her, but insisted on speaking by extension phone from another room. He was concerned lest the young woman be aggravated by the sounds of wedding music accompanied with lively singing. The host cared and the Rosh Yeshivah cared, but the Rosh Yeshivah thought about every single aspect of the girl's feelings.

I conclude with a letter sent to the Rosh Yeshivah's family shortly after he passed away. It is not an unusual letter, but it does convey a specific message concerning the unique needs of those who are less fortunate than others. The letter was written by a woman who had been widowed for many years. "I have been a widow for twenty-one years. Most people do not realize that what is missing most for a person who is alone is the warmth and caring of another human being. This is where the Rosh Yeshivah excelled. His genuine warmth and concern were comforting. His initial, 'How are you?' and his inquiry about my health, livelihood and other pertinent matters in my life always engendered within me a feeling that someone cared about me. It also enabled me to have the strength to continue carrying my burden. His readiness to listen to my problems at any time and to give them his utmost attention was quite unique.

"His brachos, blessings, were an inspiration. When I would call him before Yom Kippur, he always took time from his busy schedule to offer his blessings. My eyes were never dry after hearing his heartfelt brachos. It gave me strength for all of Yom Tov. I cannot express in words the emotions I experienced at that moment.

"I do not know how I could have managed without his emotional support and guidance all of these difficult years. Though my life is, Baruch Hashem, easier now, I still find it hard to continue without his help."

When people are alone, they just want to know that someone cares about them. Is it too much to ask each of us to be that someone?

Who is the man who built a new house… and who is the man who has planted a vineyard… and who is the man who had betrothed a woman… Let him go and return to his house. (20:5,6,7,8)

The Torah exempts the fellow who has recently built a home, planted a vineyard, or betrothed a young woman from going into battle. These people will not be good soldiers, since their minds are preoccupied with what they have left at home. Interestingly, if someone owns a huge estate, has many orchards, or has a wife and seven children - he does not go home. Why? Does one who has great wealth and familial responsibilities have less on his mind than the poor fellow who has one small home, brand new vineyard, or has just become united with a woman? Apparently, the one who has much does not worry as much. Why?

Horav Yosef Shalom Eliyashiv, zl, explains that one who has amassed great wealth or has a large family is not preoccupied with it. During battle, he will concentrate on what is in front of him. He will fight. On the other hand, one who has just built a house, planted a small vineyard, or has betrothed a woman is finally at the edge of getting something of his own. Such a person cannot stop thinking about his achievement - an achievement that might have eluded him for years. The Torah recognizes the frail mindset of those who have yet to actualize their dreams, who are "almost" there. They will be concerned with only one thing: themselves. Such a person cannot be a soldier.

V'asu lahem Tzitzis. And make for them Tzitzis.

Upon reading the parsha of Tzitzis, it seems that the Torah is speaking to two types of people: the observant Jew who is spiritually healthy; the non-practicing Jew who seems to have a spiritual ailment. U'reisem oso u'zchartem, "And you will see it and remember." This pasuk is clearly addressing the Jew who is spiritually healthy, telling him that in order to maintain his present spiritual wellness, he should look at the Tzitzis. They will be sort of a spiritual vitamin to keep everything in shape. V'lo sasuru Acharei levavchem, "Do not stray your heart" is clearly speaking to the fellow who has a problem. He is in danger of following his heart's desire, which is a reaction to what his eyes are seeing. This Jew is in sad shape. He needs the Tzitzis as a serious treatment for his ailment. How can the Torah prescribe the same pill for two different types of people - one who is well; and the other who is on the brink of spiritual extinction?

The question was asked by Horav Chaim Mednick, zl, Rav in Lithuania and later in Chicago. He explains that spiritual health is different from physical health. One does not become ill overnight. A healthy person becomes weak and rundown; over time he becomes susceptible to illness. It is a process. Therefore, he requires two different pills: one to maintain health; another one to cure illness. Spiritual health is different. Regardless of one's spiritual plateau, he can fall into the nadir of depravity almost overnight, because the yetzer hora, evil inclination, is constantly at battle - ready with strategy upon strategy in an attempt to trip him up and tempt him into sin. Thus, the very same pill that maintains health will, likewise, cure him. The line between righteous and wicked, between saint and sinner, is very narrow. One must always be on guard.

This is why, observes Rav Mednick, Parashas Tzitzis concludes the parsha which relates the sin of the meraglim, spies. They were once great men, but overnight they became corrupt, the effects of an all-powerful yetzer hora, who played on their fears.

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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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