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Rabbi A. Leib Scheinbaum
Hebrew Academy of Cleveland

PARSHAS ACHREI MOS

After the death of Aharon's two sons. (16:1)

Nadav and Avihu were great tzaddikim, righteous and pious persons. Indeed, Hashem attests to their virtue when He says, Bikrovai akadesh, "I will be sanctified through those who are nearest to Me" (Vayikra 10:3). The average person taking a cursory look at this tragedy will, no doubt, have pressing questions that challenge the core of his faith in the Almighty. After all - why? The question screams out at us. Let us posit that, indeed, Nadav and Avihu erred by getting so carried away by their consummate love for Hashem that they just had to go into the Mishkan and offer ketores, incense, without first being commanded to do so. Is this a reason, however, for their sudden, untimely, tragic deaths? Did Aharon HaKohen, a man who was the essence of goodness, a man who loved every Jew, whose love for Hashem was boundless, deserve such a klop, punishment?

When the Aron HaKodesh was being pulled along in a wagon it was about to fall, and Uzah took hold of it, thereby preventing it from falling. Nonetheless, when he touched the sacred Ark, which he was not supposed to do, he immediately died. Did he deserve such severe punishment? "David (HaMelech) was upset (with himself) because Hashem had inflicted a breach against Uzah" (Shmuel 2, 6:8).

During the Counting of the Omer, we are careful not to make joyful public celebrations, such as wedding feasts. This is out of respect for Rabbi Akiva's 24,000 students, who perished during this period. These were not simple Jews. They were Klal Yisrael's spiritual elite, but they had not manifest proper respect toward one another. So, they were punished. Did it have to be so final? It is true that Hashem has a different standard for those close to Him. Did they have to die? Imagine a Torah world with 24,000 Torah giants!

It is very difficult to understand the death of the righteous. Obviously, we are not privy to the larger picture, the Heavenly perspective, where it all makes sense. We look at the vicissitudes of life through our one-dimensional outlook. We see only the here and now. We have no clue concerning the yesterday and tomorrow. We certainly do not have any idea concerning Hashem's viewpoint and all that He factors in before He makes a decision. Yet, we ask; we have complaints. It is because we are short-sighted, stigmatized by our own myopic perception of life.

The Melitzer Rebbe, Shlita, suggests the following analogy to address some of the questioning. A villager who lacked education and culture, as well as all of the accoutrements and perspective that comes with proficiency in these areas, was broke. He had lost his house in a fire; all of his material belongings had gone up in smoke. The last few months he and his wife and family had been living in absolute, abject poverty. He simply could not go on. He decided to travel to the big city. Perhaps he would meet a wealthy man who would be kind and generous enough to help him in some way.

Hashem listened to the villager's pleas, and the man met a wealthy individual who took pity on his plight and offered to help. He gave the man a fine home outfitted with the necessary furniture and appliances. They now had a place to live. In addition, he gave the man a stipend of four thousand dollars a month! All of this was for nothing in return. He told the poor man, "Get back on your feet. You are my welcome guest." The man could not believe his good fortune. The family moved in, and life was good.

Three years passed, and the wealthy benefactor decided that it was time to give his home a makeover. The man lived in an elegant mansion, but, with time, even mansions require some fixing up, a little modernization. Never leaving well enough alone is a way of life. It was time for an upgrade. He put ads in the local paper and hung posters all over the city seeking architects, carpenters, plumbers, painters, specialists in every field of construction. This was going to be a makeover to end all makeovers. Money was clearly no object. The very next day, the poor man, who had been living off the dole on the benefactor's property, presented himself at the man's door: "I can do it all. I am proficient in all of these professions. "Wonderful," replied his benefactor. "Get to work, and we will work out the payment."

The poor man was assiduous and quite adept at what he was doing. He went to work immediately. A month went by, and the benefactor was at the point of settling a business deal concerning a large parcel of land which he owned. This was a real estate deal in the millions of dollars. Everything was all set. The buyer was there with his lawyers; the seller was there with his attorneys. It was all about to go down, when the poor man burst in: "Mr. Benefactor, I have completed my job. I want payment - NOW!" Obviously, the man's lack of culture was showing. He should have realized that the benefactor was in the middle of an important meeting. He was nice to him, but could he not have waited a little bit longer until the meeting was over, and the money had changed hands?

Despite all of this, the benefactor was a real mentch, decent human being, who understood his worker's background. "Ok, let me pay you. How much do I owe you?" he asked. "Six thousand dollars, and I must have the money now." The benefactor was slightly taken aback, but he took it all in stride. "Fine, come back a little bit later, and I will pay you."

"Absolutely not!" the worker replied emphatically. "I worked for a month. I did the carpentry, painting, everything that you requested of me. I worked from early in the morning until late at night. I demand my money - now!"

The businessman who was about to purchase the real estate parcel became agitated, thinking, "What is this man's [the benefactor's] problem? This poor man worked from day to night for an entire month. All he is asking is six thousand dollars, which is probably nothing more than a drop in the bucket for this wealthy man. Why does he not pay him outright and move on?" The question gnawed at him until he decided that he really did not want to do business with such a person.

"Excuse me, sir," he said to the owner of the real estate, "I am not feeling well right now. I would like to rest, do a little thinking, and perhaps later I will sign the papers. Forgive me now, I must go to my hotel."

On the way to the motel, he met the city's banker, an individual who was well aware of the financial portfolios of his customers. Plus, he was a very good judge of character - both in business and otherwise. The businessman shared with the banker his current hesitations concerning closing the deal with the land owner. The banker assured him that he had nothing to worry about. The man was the paradigm of integrity. Feeling reassured, he returned and closed the deal.

The wealthy landowner was no fool. He understood what had taken place. He felt that he owed the businessman an explanation: "My friend, you probably had questions concerning my behavior vis-?-vis my worker. Let me share a bit of history with you. I took in this man and his family three years ago. I gave him a monthly subsidy of four thousand dollars. During the past three years, I have never once asked him to do a thing for me. Yet, when he completed a job, he demanded to be paid immediately! This took place while I was involved in a major business transaction, and, if I tarried momentarily, he would scream at me!"

Let us ask ourselves how far removed we are from this villager, how different is our lack of hakoras hatov, gratitude. The poor man was taken in off the street. For three years he had been supported by the wealthy landowner. During this time, he obviously had forgotten the meaning of the term, "thank you." Yet, he had the audacity to demand payment immediately - if not sooner - or else he would slander the landowner!

Now, let us examine ourselves with a critical eye. Our heart beats approximately seventy beats per minute, over one hundred thousand beats a day. Do the math and calculate how many beats per year. Then calculate the amount of beats experienced by the heart of a thirty-year-old person in his lifetime. Do we ever say, "Thank you, Hashem," for that beating heart? One missed beat means a visit to the emergency room - if we are lucky! Yet, as soon as something goes awry- we do not feel well, our day is not perfect - we ask, "Why is Hashem picking on me? Why should I be in such pain?" The complaints come one after another. It is always Hashem - never us. The nature of man is to see the negative, notice what is missing - rarely to observe, appreciate and pay gratitude for what is good. Therefore, the moment that we are challenged, we should ask ourselves: "What does Hashem want? Why?" And then thank Hashem for all the good that we have already received from him.

Every time something occurs which takes us out of our comfort zone, we should not immediately complain to Hashem. We are no different than the uncultured, ungrateful villager who did not appreciate a good thing when he had it.

For in a Cloud will I appear upon the Ark-Cover. (16:2)

No one was permitted to enter the Kodesh HaKedoshim, Holy of Holies, except for Aharon HaKohen and future Kohanim Gedolim. This would take place once a year, on Yom Kippur. It was in the Kodesh HaKedoshim, from within a Cloud hovering above the Kapores, Ark Cover, that Hashem's Glory was manifest. Hashem's Glory is hidden beneath many veils. It is within the innermost area of sanctity and, even then, it is shrouded within a cloud. Horav Gamliel Rabinowitz, Shlita, derives a powerful, inspirational lesson from Hashem's clandestine Presence. Ki be'anan eiraeh, "For in a Cloud will I appear." Every time, every moment, at every juncture that a person feels his life inundated with darkness; he is within a murky cloud of ambiguity; his problems have trapped him into a corner; the vicissitudes of life have gotten to him; he sees no way, no avenue, no light at the end of the tunnel - he should not give up. Concealed within the problems and darkness is Hashem's Presence. He is behind, hidden within the challenges. If one maintains his spiritual stamina, if he keeps the faith, he will find Hashem.

In his commentary to the Torah, Devarim 31:8, the Baal Shem Tov, zl, explains, V'Anochi astir panim…, "And I will have surely concealed My Face." How can Hashem hide Himself from us? He explains this with an analogy. A king placed a number of optical illusions on the road and in the palace, as he concealed himself within a room in the back of the palace. The average person might believe that the king is nowhere to be found. The astute observer understands that a king who cares, a loving Father in Heaven, does not leave. He is present, taking refuge behind various cover-ups which enshroud His Presence. The true believer keeps looking for Hashem. He never gives up, because he realizes that Hashem will never forsake His children. The various canopies which seem to conceal Him are actually figments of our imagination. If we look - we will find Him.

This is what our pasuk is teaching us. Whenever there appears to be a hastoras panim, concealment of the Divine Presence, it means that we must look harder and deeper, because Hashem is "hidden" within the Cloud.

A well-known analogy is worth repeating. There was once a man who was continually stricken with misfortune. Nothing seemed to go right. If it was not an illness, it was a financial problem, or an issue with a child - it was always something. Feeling alone and forsaken, he looked Heavenward and asked the One Above, Keili, lamah azavtani? "My G-d, why have You abandoned me?"

One night, the man dreamed that he was walking on a long path. When he looked back, he saw two sets of footprints. The prints were not consistent, since in areas in which the path narrowed, he saw only one set of prints. He contemplated the meaning of the dream, quickly realizing that the dream was about his life. The path represented his journey through life, from birth, childhood, youth and middle age, and finally the present: old age. As he traveled the road of life, he was accompanied by Hashem; hence, the two sets of foot prints. The wider road represented the good times, the happy times, when the sun shone on him. The narrower road symbolized the periods of adversity, times of challenge that he had experienced. This part of the road was bumpy, as well as narrow.

He was now even more troubled, since apparently when the road became difficult to traverse, there was only one set of footprints. Apparently, when he needed Him most, Hashem had abandoned him. What other explanation could there be for the single set of footprints? He cried out to Hashem, "Why, why did You forsake me when I needed You most? Why did You leave me to travel alone at my most difficult time? It was then that I needed Your support more than ever!"

Suddenly, he heard a Voice gently say, "My beloved son, you are greatly mistaken. While it is true that there are difficult times, when the road narrows and it seems that you are walking all alone, it is specifically during these times when you perceive loneliness and abandonment, that quite the opposite is true. During those times a wide path is unnecessary, because there is need for only one set of footprints - Mine. I do not walk beside you; rather, I carry you. Please realize that during those times when you feel most forsaken, when you feel that I have abandoned you - I am closer to you than at any other time. I know that you need Me, and I am there."

The man woke up a transformed person. He learned to rely on emunah, faith, in Hashem during his times of travail. Adversity no longer frightened him; challenges no longer overwhelmed him. He walked with Hashem.

We tend to ignore another aspect of adversity: Hashem's pain. A parent who cares, a teacher who is sensitive, invariably feels pain when punishment is required in order to maintain his child's / student's proper behavior and attitude. No one enjoys punishment - least of all the parent or teacher who is charged with meting it out. Why should our Heavenly Father be different? The average person does not think this way. It is all about "me" and "my" pain. The following vignette should prove inspirational.

Horav David Dubiner, zl, was an outstanding holy Torah scholar who lived in Tzefas. For many years this righteous Jew, together with his wife, lived alone. Hashem had not yet blessed them with a child. When a son was finally born to them, the simchah, rejoicing, was reflected throughout the entire community. The boy was raised in a pure Torah environment and, at the age of seventeen, he was engaged to be married to a wonderful like-minded girl. Alas, shortly prior to the wedding, the young man became ill and succumbed to his illness.

The shock and pain reverberated throughout the entire Torah community. The city's Jewish population all attended the funeral. Everyone shed bitter tears of grief over the tragedy and for the pain that the parents were experiencing. One person did not cry - neither at the funeral, nor during the first three days of shivah, seven-day mourning period. Rav David listened to the visitors' comments, bent his head, and said nothing. There was no manifestation of grief on his face - only silence. On the fourth day, he began to weep and continued to do so for the remainder of the shivah.

After the shivah, he explained his seemingly strange behavior: "I believe with complete faith that Hashem, Who gave me a precious gift - my son, took him back with complete justice. This is why, for the first three days of shivah, I remained silent. I did not protest Hashem's decree by shedding tears. On the fourth day, however, I became calm enough to accept my tzarah, trouble, and reflect on the tragedy and how to react to it.

"I felt that Hashem is certainly correct in punishing me so cruelly. In as much as the blow is immense, I must accept it without question, without protest. Thus, for the first three days, I did not shed a tear. On the fourth day, however, I realized that when a father strikes his child, regardless of the justification, it causes the father great pain - even more than that of his son. It then came to my attention that Hashem's 'pain' over having to punish me so severely is far greater than my own pain. For this pain of the Shechinah, I cried."

The Kohen who has been anointed or who has been given the authority to serve in place of his father. (16:32)

The Kohen Gadol's son is first to succeed him, providing that he is suitable for the position. The Torah underscores the notion that he serves in place of his father. This teaches us, observes Horav Gamliel Rabinowitz, Shlita, that the Kohen Gadol must deeply understand his roots and realize that he is there only b'zchus, in the merit of, his father. If the Kohen Gadol appreciates that his position is an "inheritance," that he has succeeded in achieving the apex of spiritual leadership due to z'chus avos, the merit of his past lineage, then he is fitting to be Kohen Gadol and atone for the nation.

If, however, the Kohen Gadol loses sight of his past, arrogating himself to believe that this is all about "him" - not "them" - then his pompousness impugns his character and will be an impediment in his efforts to advocate on behalf of Klal Yisrael. He must feel that others are actually more deserving than he to be in the place of distinction, to serve as Kohen Gadol. He is there not in his own right, but tachas aviv, "in place of his father."

When we follow the mesorah, tradition, of the holy legacy that has been preserved and transmitted throughout the generations, from father to son, rebbe to talmid, then we are able to achieve the pinnacle of observance which will affect a healthy and fortuitous future for us and our children. If, however, we break with the mesorah, if our every attempt to bring back those who have waned in their observance by hacking away at the age-old traditions for which our ancestors lived and died falls on deaf ears- we will have failed miserably. This is true, regardless under which banner we refer to ourselves. Adding the term Orthodoxy to any flagrant aspersion of tradition does not grant it a hechsher, approbation. If it breaks with the holy mesorah, it cannot be approved, regardless of what mask we put on it, and what name we give it. We may never disassociate ourselves from our past, because, without it, we have no future to speak of.

Do not perform the practice of the land of Egypt in which you dwelled; and do not perform the practice of the land of Canaan… and do not follow their traditions. (18:3)

Rashi explains that Klal Yisrael is herein enjoined not to emulate the customs and practices of the nations, such as attending theaters and stadiums to watch the gladiators battle one another. We are being taught here a new perspective on Judaism. There are areas of human endeavor which, although not Biblically or Rabbinically prohibited, are nonetheless inappropriate for the Jew. As we will see in the next parsha, which begins with the words, Kedoshim tiheyu, "You shall be holy," the Jew has a higher calling: to sanctify himself. It is not enough to perform mitzvos and distance oneself from sin; one must achieve a level of kedushah, sanctity and adinus, spiritual refinement.

Veritably, what distinguishes us most from other nations and cultures is our emunah, faith. While other nations may also have faith-based religion, our faith is comprised of an inner-feeling of G-dliness. A Jew does not feel distant from Hashem. Indeed, this dimension of spirituality permeates a Jew's entire essence. Everything that we do, all of our mundane, physical acts should be infused with G-dliness. Our culture is spiritual in nature; our goals and objectives are focused on spirituality. The concept of reward for a good life is spiritual. Thus, one may observe the Torah, perform acts of loving-kindness, never sin; yet, if he is not focused on G-dliness, he is missing the essential component which defines Judaism.

The Torah describes our nation as an am segulah, a treasured People. This does not define us as racially superior, but as racially unique. It describes us as a nation that is especially close to Hashem, a relationship that is qualitatively better than that of the other nations of the world. In other words, we may not necessarily be better, but our relationship with Hashem is closer. This is because we accepted the Torah and live by the Torah. We made the responsible choice to accept additional obligations and responsibilities on our collective self. This grants us greater and more personal access to the Almighty.

To maintain this unique closeness one must be infused with G-dliness. Mitzvah observance and Torah study cannot be extraneous activities. They must be intrinsic parts of our lives. Therefore, any practice which does not contain a G-dliness component within it is a practice which distances us from Hashem. It is just not the "Jewish" thing to do.

The Nesivos Shalom questions the Piaczesner Rebbe, zl, who, upon reaching the age of forty, said, "What can I now accept upon myself? To study more Torah? I think that I am doing all that I can. To distance myself from desire? Baruch Hashem, thank G-d, I am not in any way subject to the blandishments of the yetzer hora, evil inclination. What am I missing? I am missing, simply, to be a 'Jew,' I appear as a human being, similar to a figure on a drawing. What is missing from the picture? The neshamah, soul, of a Jew! Therefore, I hereby want to 'convert' myself to become a 'Jew'!"

Powerful words from an individual whose depth of understanding taught him the profound truth concerning the meaning of Judaism. Even if a person observes everything that is demanded of him, and he follows along the path of Torah and Kedushah, it still does not define him as a Jew. He must devote every aspect of his life - everything that he does - to Hashem. The Nesivos Shalom concludes that, when we recite the blessing of Shelo asani goy, "Who has not made me a non-Jew," we should ask ourselves if this applies to every limb and organ of our bodies. Could it be that a component of non-G-dliness exists within certain areas of our bodies? Are we "Jewish" through and through?

Va'ani Tefillah

V'nasati metar artzechem b'ito yoreh u'malkos.
Then I shall provide rain for your land in its proper time, the early and late rains.

At first glance, one who reads the Shema Yisrael quickly might err, and think that the purpose of observing the mitzvos is that we will be rewarded with rains at the proper time. This is, of course, not the meaning of the pesukim. Horav Shimon Schwab, zl, relates that a member of one of the secular synagogues said to him that they had removed the second parsha of Shema from their siddur. He claimed that V'hayah im shemoa, "And when you will listen to My mitzvos," was applicable when the Jewish People lived in the Holy Land and was an agricultural society. They needed the blessing of rain to produce an adequate livelihood Today, we are past this; our modern society is removed from agriculture. Rav Schwab immediately replied to the man that apparently he did not understand the flow of the pesukim. V'hayah im shemoa - "when you will listen to My commandments…"l'ahavah es Hashem Elokecha u'l'avdo b'chol levavchem, "to love Hashem, your G-d and to serve Him with all your heart." The purpose of mitzvos is not to catalyze agricultural blessings; it is to demonstrate our love of Hashem and to serve Him.

When one carries out mitzvos, it has nothing to do with him. He is serving Hashem out of love - end of story! Nonetheless, Hashem rewards us with blessings, but the purpose of serving Him has nothing to do with the receiving of blessings. It is all about our love of Him.

In loving memory of
Mrs. Fanny Brunner Feldman
by her family


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