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Peninim on the Torah

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Rabbi A. Leib Scheinbaum
Hebrew Academy of Cleveland


Balak ben Tzipor saw all that Yisrael had done to the Emori… Balak ben Tzipor was King of Moav at the time. (22:2,4)

The sequence of the pasuk is enigmatic. Why does the Torah mention Balak's position as King of Moav only after relating what he saw concerning the Jewish People's destruction of the Emori? Would it not be more realistic to state, that "Balak, King of Moav, saw all that Yisrael had done to the Emori"? The Alter, zl, m'Kelm, explains that the answer to our question lies in the words, "Balak ben Tzipor was King of Moav". Why was he appointed king? It is not as if his lineage warranted his succession to the throne. Balak was a nobody. Yet, he was selected by the people to become their king, because they valued his ability to "see". Balak's perspective was highly appreciated, because he did not simply make a cursory obligation of a situation. He delved into the incident, analyzing it from all sides and venues, in order to determine the best approach to take.

Everyone was aware that the Jewish People had utterly destroyed the Emori, a nation that was all-powerful. It was Balak, however, who ruminated over their triumph, examining their strengths and weaknesses: how they did it; how they were able to destroy a nation that had dominated the countryside for some time.

Indeed, this is the difference between a human being and an animal. Both see - the human being, however, sees the "effect" and searches for the "cause". The animal simply sees. Most people are, regrettably, like the animal, which sees but does not see cognitively. They look at a tree and marvel at its height, stability, fruit, etc. How many will ask: How did this get here? What made it grow? What is the growth process of all vegetation? One does not have to be a scientist to ask a question. One simply has to live with seichel, common sense, to ask questions, seek answers, maintain a cognitive appreciation of whatever takes place around him, and "think".

Everyone was aware of Klal Yisrael's victory. Balak asked, "Why?" They saw the effect - he sought the cause: Who is leading them? What is their most powerful weapon? When he discovered that the Jewish leader, Moshe Rabbeinu, was from Midyan, that his wife was none other than the Priest of Midyan's daughter, he went there and asked what Moshe's secret power was. When he heard that Moshe's power lay in his "mouth," he figured that the best person to counteract Moshe's power of prayer would be Bilaam.

A successful leader has the ability to see the bigger picture and act upon it. Perception determines one's ability to achieve greatness. Those who do not look, do not see, and they rely on hindsight or tunnel vision; they do not go very far. There is a well-known classic short story entitled "The Stone-Cutters," of which there are three versions. Rather than recite all three versions, I will just tell the simple version and the three lessons derived from it. Each lesson is significant in its own right.

One day, a traveler walking down a lane noticed three stonecutters working in a quarry. Each one was busy cutting a large block of stone. After all, that is what stonecutters do. Interested in finding out what it was they were working on, he asked the first cutter what he was doing. The response was to be expected, "I am cutting a stone!" Still no wiser, the traveler turned to the second cutter and asked, "What are you doing?" He replied, "I am cutting this block of stone to make sure that it is perfectly square and its dimensions are uniform, so that it will fit exactly in its place in a wall". Now the traveler was a little bit closer to discovering the intended goals of the stonecutters. He turned to the third cutter and asked, "What are you doing?" This man appeared to be the happiest of the three cutters. He looked up from his work, and with a large smile, said, "I am building a cathedral".

While what he was building is unimportant, the story demonstrates how three different people can have three disparate perspectives concerning their work. All three stonecutters were doing the same thing, yet each gave a different answer. Each knew how to perform his job, but, for some reason, the third stonecutter had an edge over the other two. What set him apart?

He knew not just how; he knew why. He understood that his work had a purpose. He viewed the whole, not just the parts. He had a sense that there was a bigger picture. Thus, his work developed a significance to him beyond that which was found by the others. He also understood that he was part of a larger picture, whereby he was part of a force that was undertaking to build a structure that would benefit others for generations to come. He was establishing a legacy. This is why he smiled. This is why he was happy. His world had meaning.

The Moavites were well aware that anyone with brute strength and tactical skills could serve as their leader. They also knew that Klal Yisrael was not like other nations. They would need a leader who was astute - a chacham, wise man, who saw everything and thought it out before he made a decision.

Seichel, common sense, is sadly an uncommon commodity - not because it is unavailable, but because people rarely use it. Living in an age in which electronic technology has speeded up our lives, we no longer take the time or the luxury to think. A talmid, student, once visited Horav Elazar M. Shach, zl, to speak in learning. Being a brilliant, erudite scholar, he impressed the Rosh Yeshivah with his analysis of the Gemorah and commentaries. Yet, when he left, Rav Shach seemed a bit perturbed. His close talmid asked what was bothering the Rebbe. Rav Shach replied, "I spoke to him in learning and was greatly impressed with his depth and understanding. Afterwards, he discussed with me a number of personal issues involving his future. I was shocked how unchartered was his thought process. Pashut, simply, he was not using his mind to think!"

Similarly, Horav Shlomo Hoffman, zl, a celebrated Torah mechanech, educator, student of Horav Aizik Sher, zl, related the reaction he received from his Rosh Yeshivah when he informed him that he was becoming engaged. "What does your future kallah, bride, do?" asked Rav Aizik. "She does not yet have a job. They are presently hard to come by," Rav Shlomo replied. "This is not good," countered Rav Aizik. "Free time leads to boredom, which can be dangerous, in that it is a precursor of many troubles".

"I was hoping that she would find work after the wedding" was Rav Shlomo's response. "To go out to work right after the wedding, once she is the wife of a ben Torah, is not so simple", Rav Aizik said. "So, what should I do?" Rav Shlomo asked. "I did not come to give you advice. I just want to teach you to think. We take nothing for granted. Everything must be well thought out".

Ben Zoma says (Pirkei Avos 4:1), "Who is wise? He who learns from all men, as it is written, Mikol melamdai hiskalti, 'From all those who have taught me, I have learned understanding' (Tehillim 119:99)". The classic definition of wisdom, as understood by Ben Zoma, does not seem to coincide with Chazal's statement: Eizehu chacham, zeh ha'roeh es ha'nolad, "A wise person is one who sees what the future will bring". This has nothing to do with clairvoyance. It simply means that the wise man is a visionary; he sees the consequences, results, ramifications of his actions. How do the two definitions of chochmah, wisdom, reconcile with one another?

I think that a person who is astute enough to see what might be the results of his actions will also take the time to learn from all people, since he understands that, in the future, he might require the knowledge he gleaned from the least expected source. A chacham is one who has assimilated all of this accumulated knowledge into himself, putting into perspective all he has learned from everyone, so that whenever he needs it - he will be prepared.

Ben Zoma asks "Who is wise?" but answers with a pasuk whose root is seichel/hiskalti. This teaches us that wisdom is an acquired skill. Even a person who is not naturally gifted can become a chacham if he applies himself to Torah. His mental faculties will improve. If he uses his seichel to apply himself to the principle of learning from all men, he will develop a deeper cognitive understanding of the Torah's secrets. It is more than just intellectual effort, which produces the chacham. Becoming a well-rounded person requires the coalescing of seichel, humility (to learn from all men),and vision to foresee and analyze how it will all work out.

Interestingly, the opposite of the ben-rasha, wicked son, of Haggadah fame is the chacham, wise son - not the tzaddik, righteous son. Why? I think that, without wisdom, one cannot be a true tzaddik. One must apply his learning: use his seichel; think before he acts; and give advice. A tzaddik is a chacham. A rasha is actually a tipeish, fool. Anyone with a modicum of common sense would never become wicked, since he would see from the very beginning the fruits of his negative deeds. He just did not think or refuse to open his mind. In any event, his evil consequences are the result of his foolishness.

Indeed, this idea is expressed by Rav Shach, in his description of Bilaam, the wicked enemy of our People. Chazal (Midrash Rabbah, Bamidbar 20) state: "It would be better for the wicked to be blind, for it is the eyes (vision) which brings them to commit evil". The Rosh Yeshivah asks: Is it the rasha's vision, which brings about his evil? It is his actions, his wicked activities, for which he is censured. Rav Shach explains that, veritably, it is the rasha's actions, which constitute his evil essence. Chazal are teaching us, however, where it all began. It is the rasha's negative perspective, his desire to manipulate everything in his life for a negative purpose, which is the cause of his downfall. If the rasha would not "see" or if his vision would not be tainted, he would not act inappropriately. It all boils down to perspective - what one sees; how he views it; how deeply he looks at it; and in what frame of mind - negative or positive - he responds.

And not be reckoned among the nations. (23:9)

The Viznitzer Rebbe, zl, was wont to interpret this pasuk as an imperative. The Jew does not want, nor should he care, if he is nechshav, acknowledged, considered, appreciated by the gentile world. Our goal as Jews is to be acknowledged by Hashem and by our people. What the world thinks of us is a factor only in the sense that a negative impression made by us will somehow create a chillul Hashem, desecrating Hashem's Name. If, for some reason, the gentile people view us as "different", who cares? Their opinion of us has no bearing whatsoever on our lives.

Indeed, if one were to peruse history, he will note that, regardless of our bending over backwards to be accepted by the gentiles, it has proved unsuccessful. Their opinion of Judaism and its adherents has never changed, in spite of our assimilation with them. The Klausenberger Rebbe, zl, would relate the following story. Sadly, it is repeated often in Jewish life, when those who have turned their backs on Hashem and His People realize that they are still viewed as "Jews," either as people of no consequence or in an even more negative manner.

In the camps, the Rebbe was forced to share quarters in a small, stuffy room with forty-one other inmates. There were no beds. Thus, the men were forced to sleep on the floor. Forty-two starving men, exposed to disease, enveloped in darkness, surrounded by insects, was a recipe for disaster. Within two weeks, forty of the original prisoners who had shared these quarters had succumbed to the elements. The Rebbe and an assimilated Jew from Budapest were all who survived the horrors of those first two weeks.

The Rebbe asked the man, "Are you Jewish?" "Of course, otherwise why else would I be here?" he answered. The Rebbe continued to probe the man's background. "Who are you?" he asked. "You do not know who I am? I am the president of the National Bank of Hungary. I am (was) the most important financial figure in the country. Indeed, my picture is on Hungary's currency".

The Rebbe asked again, "Are you Jewish?" This time the response was negative. "But I thought you said earlier that you were Jewish". The Rebbe asked, "Are you Jewish or not?"

"Well, I was born Jewish, but I converted to Christianity, and I have lived most of my life as a Christian". Clearly, seeking to better himself and achieve acceptance in climbing the cultural social ladder, the man had reneged his Judaism.

"Are you married?" the Rebbe asked. "Yes," he replied, "but my wife, too, is Christian". "Did she join you here?" the Rebbe asked. "Why should she come to this wretched place? She is not Jewish. Why should she be subjected to such indignity and suffering as I?" he retorted somewhat angrily.

The Rebbe looked at the man and responded innocently, "I do not understand. Does she not care for you? I would think that a devoted wife would follow her husband wherever he is taken. Would a good wife leave her husband in midst of such travail?" The Rebbe did not wait for an answer, nor was one forthcoming. "Tell me", the Rebbe asked, "Did you have a good marriage?"

"Good marriage? In our thirty years together, I bought her expensive jewelry; we traveled all over; our lives were intertwined in happiness", was the man's reply.

"Yet, in hard times, she left you alone. This seems difficult to understand".

The night passed, and a new day was dawning. Time for more questions. "Did you have a prominent position?" "Of course," the man answered, "I was personally responsible for designing and ultimately saving the financial structure of the economy. Do you really mean that you never heard of me?"

The Rebbe shrugged as if it was a meaningless question. What would he have to do with the fields of finance and banking?

"Do you have children?" the Rebbe asked. "Yes. Three sons: a lawyer; a physician; and a prosperous businessman. I provided them with a superior education, and they are eminently successful," the man proudly declared.

"Yet, they are neither here, nor do they seem to identify with your plight," the Rebbe intimated.

"Why are you provoking me?" the man asked. "Perhaps you can tell me why you are imprisoned here?"

"I am just a poor rabbi. I never did a thing for the gentiles. I never even gave them a glass of water. You, however, did so much for them. Yet, you are relegated to suffering alongside me. I would have expected them to come to the concentration camp and demand your release. They should carry you out on their shoulders!

"I cannot understand it. You converted to Christianity. You gave them everything - your life, your marriage, and your children. What did they do in return? They placed you in a death camp. Please forgive me; I do not want to aggravate you more. I just want you to understand how bitter your situation is".

They continued talking throughout the night. The Rebbe spoke about the beauty of Yiddishkeit, the religion of this man's ancestors, and how, regardless of his sacrifices, he would never be accepted or reckoned by the outside world. They spoke until sleep overcame both of them.

The next morning, the man said to the Rebbe, "I have been thinking about your words, and I have come to the conclusion that I really have made a mess of my life. I committed a gross error in thinking that conversion, a gentile wife and gentile children would gain me entry into their world". He then began to cry bitterly, "I am a Jew! I will always be a Jew! I only hope that G-d will take me back!"

That night, the banker was taken for his final earthly walk. The Rebbe later remarked that he was grateful for the opportunity somehow to have encouraged this man to die as a repentant Jew, realizing that this is the only way for a Jew to live and die: U'bagoyim lo yischashav.

How goodly are your tents, O Yaakov, your dwelling places, O Yisrael. (24:5)

Chazal interpret the terms ohalecha, your tents, and mishkenosecha, your dwelling places, as allusions to the habitats, which house our spiritual heritage, namely our bais haknesses, shul, and bais hamedrash, study hall. The ohel is the ohel shel Torah, tent/study hall where Torah is studied; Mishkan is the place where the Shechinah, Divine Presence, reposes, the synagogue. Targum Yonasan ben Uziel elucidates the pasuk uniquely, "How goodly are your study halls, the place where Yaakov, your father/Patriarch, served/studied". He makes a point of including an inference to our Patriarch for his devotion to Torah study and as the one who represents the principle of Torah in Jewish life. After all, it was Yaakov, who was the first to study in a formalized yeshivah, when he went to Shem and Eiver for fourteen years of intense, diligent Torah study (the Torah curriculum, which our Patriarch studied, is beyond the scope of this dvar Torah).

When Horav Moshe Shmuel Shapiro, zl, Rosh Yeshivas Be'er Yaakov, spoke at the stone-laying ceremony of Beth Medrash Govohah in Eretz Yisrael (Lakewood East), he quoted the above commentary of Targum Yonasan. He underscored the notion that a bais hamedrash/yeshivah/shul, with its unique individual qualities that allow it to serve as a home for Torah and tefillah, apparently still requires the power of the Avos HaKedoshim, holy Patriarchs. Thus, Bilaam (being no fool) understood this, and, therefore, he included the power of Yaakov as a reason for the preservation of Torah.

The concept of b'ruach Yisrael sabba, in the spirit of our grandfather, Yisrael/Yaakov Avinu, has been the beacon of light that has illuminated and guided us throughout our tenure in galus, exile. It also served as the GPS for Torah chinuch, education, in the Holy Land during the latter part of the nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth century, when the Jewish ?migr?s from Europe and Russia spurred the establishment of schools for their children. There were those who had fallen under the influence of the Haskalah, Enlightenment, and, as a result, sought an education for their children, which stressed the secular and ignored the spiritual. Little did they realize that such an education would succeed in their children's abandonment of Judaism.

Our people have confronted many challenges to both our physical and spiritual well-being. We have attempted not to be influenced by the winds of change by staying true to our heritage. The clarion call, b'ruach Yisrael sabba, has been the supporting spirit, which has encouraged us to return to our forefather's roots and "hang in there" until that time in the near future when Hashem will redeem us from this exile.

In The Mashgiach, the biography of Horav Meir Chodosh, zl, Rebbetzin Shulamit Ezrachi writes concerning the educational crisis confronting the religious families prior to the mid-1930's. The chareidi schools were not structured according to the strict educational standards demanded by the Mashgiach. He was an educator par excellence and felt that the methods employed by the two dominant chadorim, Chayei Olam and Eitz Chaim, were not what he was seeking. The alternative was the modern religious schools whose teachers were far from religious. Sadly, a number of well-known bnei Torah sent their children to these schools. When a young kollel fellow approached the Mashgiach for advice concerning a livelihood, the Mashgiach suggested that he open a cheder for young children and work his way up. Indeed, he was prepared to give him his son, Aharon, as his first pupil.

"How can I manage a group of small children? I have no experience in handling this age group," the young man asked.

The Mashgiach was not dissuaded. "Do you love small children? Do you have patience with them? Do you aspire to educate our children to have yiraas Shomayim, fear of Heaven, and ahavas Torah, love of Torah? If so, you are assured Divine assistance. And, if your efforts are for the sake of Heaven, with all your heart, you will surely succeed!"

The young man replied, "Yes". Thus was established the Talmud Torah Yavneh in which most of the children of the European yeshivah immigrants were educated. A number of the Holy Land's gedolim were products of such an education.

Girls did not fare much better. The nascent Bais Yaakov movement was having difficulty enrolling girls into its school. Due to the lack of observant professional teachers, the parents hesitated sending their daughters to the school. They invested great significance in the high educational level of secular studies. They felt that a girl could not function in society - even if it were primarily chareidi - if she did not have a strong background in secular studies. The parents were prepared to sacrifice their daughter's spiritual studies (and spirituality) for an education that would allow their daughter to be comfortable in the outside world.

Obviously, the Mashgiach made every attempt to change their way of thinking. "In the end, you will lose your children. They will grow up and stop listening to your views and following your ways". he pleaded. (We must emphasize that the teachers in these schools were non-observant, either due to lack of knowledge or because they were freethinkers who did not believe in a Torah-oriented way of life.)

The parents replied that the schools were, indeed, religious, "They daven every day".

"Tefillah is not the determining factor - the teachers are!" was the Mashgiach's counter argument. "Of what use are a few pieces of better education, if your daughter ends up reneging the yoke of mitzvos?"

A school does not take the place of a good home. Furthermore, a dysfunctional home will not be corrected by the best of schools. Parents must work in harmony with a school, supporting its teachers, administrators and hashkafah, religious perspective. A child that receives mixed messages will end up like the messages he receives - mixed up. Mutual support in a Torah-oriented institution that is guided by ruach Yisrael sabba still requires much Tehillim and siyata diShmaya. Only then can we be assured of success.

Va'ani Tefillah

Mechayeh meisim Atah rav l'hoshia. The Resuscitator of the dead are You; abundantly able to save.

Death is certainly frightening, because it means confronting the unknown. When we take into consideration Hashem's awesome power to resurrect the dead, it makes it a bit more "palatable". Upon contemplating the concept of Techiyas Ha'meisim, Resurrection of the dead, one is infused with an inordinate sense of faith and conviction. We now realize that life never really ends, nor is death forever. Our faith in Hashem is strengthened to the point that one no longer fears sanctifying Hashem's Name through death. He who fears death believes that it is final and forever. People of faith, who believe in the Yud Gimmel Ikrim, the Thirteen Principles of Faith, of which Techiyas Ha'meisim is an integral principle, are not intimidated by death. They understand that upon leaving this world, they enter into an afterlife that is filled with spiritual bliss and ends with Techiyas Ha'meisim.

In his volume on the Shemoneh Esrai, Rav Avraham Chaim Feuer, Shlita, relates that when the Lubavitcher Rebbe, zl, Horav Yosef Yitzchak, was arrested in Russia for disseminating Torah to the masses, the arresting officer pointed a gun to his head. The Rebbe refused to be intimidated. He remarked, "Fear of death occurs only when a person has one world, but many gods. However, to him who has only one G-d and two worlds, death is not frightening".

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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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