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Peninim on the Torah

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Rabbi A. Leib Scheinbaum
Hebrew Academy of Cleveland

PARASHAS SHEMINI

It was on the eighth day, Moshe summoned Aharon and his sons and the elders of Yisrael. (9:1)

Thrice daily, we recite the prayer, Al ha'tzaddikim v'al ha'chassidim v'al ziknei amcha Bais Yisrael v'al pleitas bais sofreihem, "(May Your mercies be aroused) upon the righteous, upon the pious, upon the elders of Your People, the House of Yisrael, upon the remnant of their sages." We must recite this prayer with consummate kavanah, intention/devotion. Chazal understood the value to the Jewish People of these varied leaders, without whom we would not exist as a people. We rely on them, and we are unable to function without them. Therefore, it is our obligation to pray for their continued good health. Interestingly, in the text of the blessing, the phrase amcha Bais Yisrael, "Your People, the House of Yisrael," is used only with regard to zekeinim, elders. We do not connect amcha Bais Yisrael with chassidim or tzaddikim. Why is this?

Horav Matisyahu Solomon, Shlita, explains that a chassid or tzaddik is able to lead an insular life, far-removed from the hubbub of the community. Not so the zakein, elder, to whom the community looks for inspiration and guidance. He does not have the luxury of closing his door, shutting his phone, making himself unavailable. He is "public property," the domain of Klal Yisrael. He does not live for himself - he lives for Klal Yisrael.

The Mashgiach made this distinction when he eulogized Horav Elazar M. Shach, zl, referring to the revered Rosh Yeshivah as Rabban shel kol Klal Yisrael, zakein shel Klal Yisrael, the quintessential rebbe of all of Klal Yisrael and its elders. He represented the last remnant of the yeshivah world of Pre-World War I days.

On the eighth day of the inauguration of the Mishkan, Moshe Rabbeinu summoned Aharon, his sons, and the elders of Klal Yisrael. He instructed them concerning the korbanos that were to be brought. Aharon sacrificed an eigel, calf, as a sin-offering, and a ram as a burnt-offering. The people sacrificed a he-goat as its sin-offering. Toras Kohanim explains that Aharon's eigal, calf, was sacrificed to atone for the sin of eigal, Golden Calf, while the people's he-goat atoned for their participation in the sale of Yosef (when they slaughtered a goat and dipped Yosef's tunic in its blood). The Mashgiach explains that mechiras Yosef is the source of all of the sins that occur between a Jew and his fellow man. Why is it that these korbanos were offered specifically during the Chanukas ha'Mizbayach, the inauguration of the Altar?

Horav Yosef Zundel Salant, zl, explains that the underlying sin of mechiras Yosef was that the brothers did not seek counsel and sage advice from Yaakov Avinu, who was the living institution of daas Torah, the wisdom as derived from Torah study. They should have consulted with Yaakov. He was the preeminent leader of the generation. Likewise, when Klal Yisrael sinned with the Golden Calf, they, too, did not bother to consult with the zekeinim. Had they first turned to them and listened to their advice, they would not have built the Golden Calf. Had we listened to our zekeinim, history would have been written differently.

Commenting on the term ziknei Yisrael, elders of Yisrael, the Midrash quotes Rabbi Akiva who compares Klal Yisrael to a bird. As a bird cannot fly without wings, so, too, Klal Yisrael cannot function without its elders. A bird without wings can live. It cannot, however, fly. It cannot soar. Likewise, Klal Yisrael can exist without its elders. It cannot, however, grow. Klal Yisrael remains lost on the ground, groping for a foothold, something that will catapult them upward. Without zekeinim, we lose our ability to achieve greater and more profound levels of kedushah, holiness. Our elders are the individuals to whom we look for direction, motivation and stimulation, so that we may grow correctly in order to realize our individual inherent potential.

The Mashgiach notes that, with the passing of Rav Shach, we have lost: an institution; the preeminent Torah giant and leader of our generation; the individual who personified yiraas Shomayim, fear of G-d, at its apex; the daas Torah, wisdom of the Torah as expounded by our sages. Rav Shach was all of these - and more. There is one point, however, that the Mashgiach feels must be emphasized in order to truly capture the essence and depth of the tremendous loss of Rav Shach truly. Our generation became orphaned! We are left bereft of the individual who represented the generation's "parent."

Horav Chaim Shmuelevitz, zl, explains that the concept of being orphaned does not mean that no one is taking care of the orphan or that he is alone in the world with no one to fend for him. This is untrue, since we are blessed with a number of social services and chesed organizations who do nothing but look out for and address the needs of those unfortunates who are alone. An orphan is someone who has no one who knows about his unique needs. A mother knows what her child needs. She is acutely aware of what makes her child sad and what cheers him up. A father battles to the point of self-sacrifice to see to it that his child's needs are satisfied. Thus, a child who is left bereft of his parents is an orphan, despite all of the wonderful people who reach out to him. He has people who care about him, but he does not have his parents - who know what he needs and what makes him happy. No organization can replace a parent. With the passing of Rav Shach, our generation lost the one individual who knew and understood our needs, who cared and fought for us, who loved each and every Jew like his own child - yet would not compromise on the integrity of our mesorah, heritage, regardless whom he was compelled to challenge. He was a father and mother, a loving parent. This is what zekeinim, elders, represent, and this is why we as a nation cannot function without our zekeinim.

Aharon raised his hands towards the people and blessed them… and they blessed the people - and the glory of Hashem appeared to the entire people. (9:22,23)

A person can follow all the rules, do all that is expected of him; yet, without that special blessing, that prayer, that everything he has done find favor in the eyes of Hashem, it could all be for naught. Klal Yisrael had done it all, executed everything in accordance with the direction of Moshe Rabbeinu; still, the Shechinah, Divine Presence, had not reposed upon the Sanctuary. Something was missing. Only after they received the blessing of Moshe and Aharon did the work achieve fruition, and Hashem's Shechinah reposed on the Mishkan.

One can have the correct and proper intentions; his goals may be lofty and noble, but he still requires a blessing that his endeavor will increase kavod Shomayim, the glory of Heaven. Throughout the millennia, the gedolei Yisrael, Torah giants, would pour out their hearts in profound weeping when they established a makom Torah, a place which would serve as a bastion of Torah study. They prayed for its success, because they knew that, without the Heavenly blessing, their work would be rendered futile.

Horav Ephraim Zalmen Margolis, zl, established a yeshivah in his city, Brody, which was in the Lvov district of (then) Austria/Poland. While it was a good yeshivah, it nevertheless did not achieve the fame or success that was enjoyed by Yeshivas Volozhin. Once, Rav Ephraim Zalmen met Horav Chaim Volozhiner, zl, founder of the Volozhiner Yeshivah. After comparing notes, he asked Rav Chaim what could be the reason that the success of his yeshivah was limited.

Rav Chaim asked him, "What did you do on the day that the yeshivah was dedicated? How did you celebrate the milestone event?"

"We arranged a large, festive meal, accompanied by a band and much sensation and festivity," replied Rav Ephraim Zalmen.

"When we dedicated the Volozhiner Yeshivah," Rav Chaim said, "we decreed a fast and recited Selichos, accompanied with great emotion and weeping. Indeed, anything for which tears is part of its foundation will endure."

When the Ponevezer Rav, Horav Yosef Kahaneman, zl, laid the foundation stone for the Yeshivas Ponevez in Bnei Brak, he was suddenly overcome with extreme emotion, and he broke down crying. Everyone in attendance was moved by this expression of emotion. The Chazon Ish, zl, told him, "When one initiates a Torah project with liquor and sweets, there is a question of whether it will succeed or not. When one 'sows with tears,' he is assured that he will 'harvest with joy.'" Tears are the guarantee of success, because it is an indication of the sanctity of the project.

ויאמר משה אל אהרן הוא אשר דבר ד' לאמר בקרבי אקדש ועל פני כל העם אכבד וידם אהרן

And Moshe said to Aharon: Of this did Hashem speak, saying: "I will be sanctified through those who are nearest Me; thus, I will honored before the entire people", and Aharon was silent. (10:3)

Horav Shlomo Levinstein, Shlita, relates that he heard from Rav Eliezer Yehudah Finkel, son of Horav Eliyahu Baruch Finkel, zl, that the Rosh Yeshivah told him the following thought two weeks prior to his petirah, untimely passing. The thought is a powerful insight into Aharon HaKohen's reaction - or better, non reaction, to the tragic death of two of his sons, Nadav and Avihu. Rashi observes that following the tragedy, Moshe Rabbeinu rendered a powerful eulogy for his nephews. Moshe said to Aharon, "My brother, I knew that Hashem would sanctify His Sanctuary with His beloved close ones. I figured that it would be either me or you. Now, I see that they are even greater than you and I." Now that Moshe, the leader of Klal Yisrael, had spoken, it would have made sense that the next eulogy would be delivered by the father of the deceased. He should have spoken about their history, relating that, at a young age, it had already been apparent that Nadav and Avihu would grow into Torah leaders of unparalleled greatness. Yet, Aharon did nothing. He remained silent, mute. How are we to understand this?

This question is not about Aharon's silence as a reaction to the tragedy. His response is explained as the penultimate level of accepting Hashem's decree. He manifested total acquiescence; he had reaction; he was mute. Now we wonder why he did not eulogize his sons. A eulogy is an intellectual appreciation of the life and character of the deceased. Why did Aharon not pay his sons their kavod acharon, last respects, as befitting personages of such unprecedented spiritual stature?

Rav Eliyahu Baruch explained that, indeed, Moshe presented a powerful and inspiring eulogy for his nephews. As great as his eulogy was it paled, however, in comparison to the one rendered by their father, Aharon. When did Aharon deliver his eulogy? Of what did it consist? His eulogy was silence! When one is silent at a time when speaking is appropriate - and even recommended - the silence becomes that much more compelling. When one speaks, the laudatory comments he is about to say are secondary to the words that he actually expresses. When one is silent, however, has no restrictions, no limitations, to his eulogy. Everything that one can conjure up in his mind is included in the poignant silence.

Moshe was unable to remain silent. For the quintessential leader of Klal Yisrael to remain silent would have represented a taint, an insult, to the memory of the venerable deceased. People might have wrongfully thought that he was upset with Nadav and Avihu. Aharon, their father, had the opportunity to express himself in the most glowing terms. Yet, he did not. This constituted the greatest hesped, eulogy.

Two weeks later, at the funeral of the Rosh Yeshivah, his son recaptured this Torah thought. The most compelling eulogy is silence, the internalization of the greatness of the deceased.

The Zohar HaKodesh (cited by Maayanei HaChaim) writes, Kol bechiah d'lo yachil l'mirchash b'sifsosai - zu hee ha'bechiah ha'shleimah, "All weeping which is not/cannot be expressed vocally - this is the complete (perfect) weeping." Such weeping will (more readily) generate a positive Heavenly response. Likewise, explains Horav Chaim Zaitchik, zl, joy which is so great, so intense, so overwhelming that one cannot possibly restrict himself to verbal expression, this is the most complete "expression" of joy.

Expressions of joy and grief communicate powerful emotions. Once they have been externally expressed - vocalized, articulated, put to words - they compromise some of their compelling nature. When one is speechless - he has achieved the ultimate, most profound, most complete level of emotion. [A short note of addendum: not all silence is positively significant. In some cases, silence denotes depression, denial, or the lack of being in touch with one's emotions.] Contained emotion, controlled emotion, demonstrates perfect harmony, an achievement of perfect balance, whereby the person is able to soar to much loftier heights of emotion.

Body language has greater profundity and is more compelling than verbal expression. Rav Zaitchik quotes the Talmud Sanhedrin 58b, in which Chazal state that one who raises his hand to strike his fellow is considered to be a rasha, wicked person, even though he has not struck him. This is supported by the pasuk in Shemos 2:13, in which Moshe Rabbeinu refers to the Jew who raised his hand to strike his fellow as a rasha, "He said to the wicked one, why would you strike your fellow?" He had not yet struck him, but his nefarious intention was clear. Likewise, in the battle against Amalek, when Moshe raised his hands, Klal Yisrael began to overpower the enemy. Moshe prayed with his entire body - every fiber of himself petitioning Hashem on behalf of the Jewish People. What Moshe did not express with his lips, he expressed with his "body language." The hands and the movements of the body are agents of the heart.

Following the song of gratitude to Hashem, Moshe and the Jewish men and, after the Splitting of the Red Sea, Miriam and the other women, took tambourines and expressed their shirah, song, via the medium of instruments. Why did they not sing? Horav Yehonasan Eibeshutz, zl, explains that it is forbidden to hear the sound of a woman singing; thus, the women expressed their gratitude with tambourines. In an alternative approach, Rav Zaitchik explains that the women sensed even greater joy than did the men. First of all, women are by nature more sensitive than men. Thus, their feelings of gratitude were greater. Additionally, Pharaoh subjected the women to performing a man's job, which represented greater physical difficulty. Furthermore, from a spiritual/moral perspective, Egypt presented a greater challenge for the women than for the men. Therefore, their expression of gratitude exceeded that of the men. They used tambourines, because they felt gratitude that was beyond words.

When Hashem took his sons from him, Aharon HaKohen was able to maintain total emotional composure. The tragedy was great; the grief was profound; the expression of grief was restricted to containment within the parameters of "self." Aharon internalized the tragedy in such a manner that no external manifestation portrayed his inner sorrow. This represented control at its apex.

The challenge of confronting the inevitability of death is overpowering. We refuse to take serious note that life as we know it on this physical world is one day going to come to an end. The mention of death brings concern, fear and even hysteria. We would much rather go on believing in the delusion that life goes on forever - or He does not mean "me." This attitude is understandable, since we are dealing with the unknown - something which raises our insecurity quotient. There are, however, unique individuals of outstanding character and clarity of purpose, who transcended these emotions, who confronted death with readiness and complete lucidity. They did not view death as an end, but as a beginning of a new and "real" life. This was the consciousness that permeated the Torah mindset of the residents of Kelm, Lithuania. This was a Jewish city wholly centered and focused upon its yeshivah which was called the Kelm Talmud Torah, and the yeshivah was the manifestation of its founder and leader, Horav Simcha Zissel Ziv, zl, popularly known as the Alter of Kelm. The yeshivah's goal was to become a unique dwelling place for truth and character improvement. Its students reflected the epitome of these qualities.

Our episode focuses on the Alter's son and successor, Horav Nochum Velvel, zl, who died an untimely death, leaving an irreplaceable void in the yeshivah and its attending community. Rav Nochum Velvel was well-known as a saintly person, a primary student of his revered father. During the closing days of his short life it was evidenced that this unique person possessed a soul that soared in the Heavens. In Mussar circles it was said, "It is k'dai, worthwhile, to come from the greatest distance to witness the last days of Rav Nochum Velvel, to learn how one should behave when he is leaving this world."

His last illness took a terrible and painful physical toll on him. He underwent difficult and excruciating therapies. Yet, he remained calm, completely composed, experiencing the ordeal with acceptance and equanimity. His gentile physician informed him that his days were numbered - the end was near. Rav Nochum Velvel stoically accepted his G-d-given fate. Indeed, when he queried the physician why he had broken protocol to inform him of his impending death, the doctor replied, "I see that you perceive death as the transport from one world to the next."

On his last night of mortal life, Rav Nochum Velvel delivered a shmuess, ethical discourse. His theme was the well-known statement, "The day of death is preferable to the day of birth." It was not the first time that he had addressed this subject, but, at this time, he added, "It is particularly beneficial for a person to contemplate this concept at the time of death. This is the thought that comes to me, now, in my final hours."

Rav Nochum Velvel's mind was clear until the final moments, as he directed his family concerning how to conduct themselves during the funeral and, afterwards, during the shivah. He commanded them not to be pained by his passing and stipulated that his wife and daughter, who had difficulty walking, should not have to walk when accompanying the bier to the cemetery. To ensure their compliance, he ordered a carriage to be at their disposal. He also instructed that, on the Shabbos following his passing, the family should take extreme care when eating. He feared that, due to their preoccupation with their grief, they might be careless with regard to the bones.

A person who lives his mortal life with such spiritual consciousness can truly view his day of death as preferable to his day of birth.

To distinguish between the contaminated and the pure, and between the creature that may be eaten and the creature that may not be eaten. (11:47)

Due to the spiritual repugnance associated with maachalos asuros, forbidden foods, they affect and compromise the Jewish consciousness, which is particularly sensitive to spiritual incursion. Thus, a Jew whose body has been satiated and nourished on tarfus, unkosher, unclean foods, lacks the spiritual finesse and ethical/moral qualities inherent to Jews who are spiritually refined. Throughout the millennia, Jews have sacrificed themselves to remain loyal to the Torah's code concerning the laws of kashrus, maintaining a strong degree of personal stringency in adhering to its halachic demands. The following episode demonstrates how a grandfather's fidelity to the laws of kashrus impacted the spiritual renaissance of his grandson, some sixty-years later.

The story begins during the closing days of World War II in one of Germany's infamous death camps. The Nazis realized that the end was near. They could almost smell the Soviet tanks approaching what used to be their fortress of security. The Nazis quickly began to prepare for their escape. The commandant of the camp was especially vicious in his virulent hatred of the Orthodox inmates of the camp. To be compelled to run like a frightened animal was sufficient humiliation for him, but, being relegated to run while allowing the hapless Jews to continue living was too much for him to tolerate. He could not allow them to emerge victorious from the camp. He ordered the guards to assemble all of the Jews, so that he could complete the job he had begun. He did not seem to care about his personal safety - if it meant persecuting and murdering Jews. He looked for the one Jew who had been a constant thorn in his side. Rav Shraga Moskowitz, zl, had already been an old man when the war broke out. Five years later, his body was aged and broken, having suffered every physical indignity to which the diabolical animals in the guise of men could subject him. He had once been a distinguished Rosh Yeshivah in Hungary, a beloved mentor to thousands. Even during the war he guided and inspired others, while his own meticulous observance of mitzvos was unwavering.

The commandant made Rav Shraga get down on his knees. He stood before him with a fork of unkosher meat in one hand - and a loaded gun pointed at the Rav's head in the other hand. With anger borne of cruelty, he screamed, "The war is over. I am sure that if you will want to return to your family, you will be able to do so. You may leave now - if you will eat this slice of meat. Otherwise, you will die right here. You have one chance - one choice. What will it be?"

Rav Shraga looked up at the commandant and, with a half-smile on his face, said, "Throughout my internment in this camp, I have been observant of every one of the Jewish laws of kashrus. At times, when stretched to the point of exhaustion, indeed, even when my life was in danger, I refused to eat non-kosher food. I will not succumb to your threats now. My allegiance to G-d is stronger than my fear of death."

The German commandant saw that he had lost the battle. The spiritual commitment of the Jewish rabbi was greater than his fear of death. The Nazi pulled the trigger, and Rav Shraga was martyred al Kiddush Hashem, sanctifying Hashem's Name in his last moments of mortal life.

The story does not end here. It continues some sixty-years later when a successful businessman was calmly sitting in his well-appointed office in downtown Tel Aviv, and the phone rang. It was his wife with a request. She was running late and did not have time to prepare dinner. Could he stop by the restaurant and pick up dinner? It was a simple request, since the restaurant was right around the corner from his office.

The man finished his day's work, locked his office and proceeded to the non-kosher restaurant which, in the past, had provided him and his wife with many dinners. He waited in line as the customers were picking up their non-kosher dinners. Suddenly, out of the blue, this man remembered the story his parents had often related, the one about his saintly grandfather who had rather taken a bullet to the head than eat non-kosher food - and here he was waiting in line to purchase non-kosher meat!

He was not alone, as the restaurant was filled with like-minded, non-practicing Jews gorging themselves with non-kosher delicacies. Something was terribly wrong - either he and all of the other customers were not normal, or his grandfather had been insane. One perspective was very, very wrong. He left the store. Some spark of "normalcy," an inspiration going back sixty-years to the moment when his grandfather gave up his life, took hold of him and guided him back to the observance which he had rejected earlier in life.

Everyone has a history, ancestors who in the past made the ultimate sacrifice to remain committed Torah Jews. Why do so many turn their backs on them? Sadly, when we view the future without guidance refracted through the prism of the past, the result is a myopic and jaundiced perspective.

Va'ani Tefillah

Emes ve'emunah chok v'lo yaavor. True and faithful, it is an unbreachable decree.

Two terms: Emes - true, emunah - faithful, have the same root, but represent different forms of belief. Emes is absolute truth. We accepted the Torah with clarity of vision in the sunshine of our history, as our nation stood at Har Sinai and witnessed the Revelation during its nascency. This was a time of gilui Shechinah, the Divine Presence was revealed for all to see. Throughout the darkness of our exile, we maintained our emunah, faith, in Hashem, although His Divine Presence was covert, veiled from our eyes.

Horav Shimon Schwab, zl, explains that during the period of hester panim, when Hashem's Countenance is concealed from us, our emunah, faith, in Hashem is based upon the emes, truth, to which our ancestors were privy at Har Sinai. We believe that the emes of Torah is chok v'lo yaavor, an unbreachable decree, and will never disappear. While some of the mitzvos may appear to be outdated, archaic, or difficult to understand, it has no bearing on our commitment to the Almighty and His Torah. We believe b'emunah shleimah, with perfect faith, in the absolute truth of the Torah - despite, at times, our inability to clearly understand the mitzvos. This is what is defined as Kabbolas Ol Malchus Shomayim, accepting upon oneself the yoke of the Heavenly Kingdom - which is the central theme and message of Krias Shema.


Dedicated
Sponsored by
Mr. and Mrs. Kenny Fixler
in memory of his father


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

The Fifteenth volume is available at your local book seller or directly from Rabbi Scheinbaum.

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