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Peninim on the Torah

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Rabbi A. Leib Scheinbaum
Hebrew Academy of Cleveland


Moshe went He said to them, "I am a hundred and twenty years old today." (31,1)

Parashas Vayeilech invariably falls before Yom Kippur. The parsha begins with Moshe Rabbeinu reflecting on his life, in preparation for taking leave of his nation. This perspective gives each and every one of us something to think about. Even the quintessential leader of the Jewish People prepared to meet his Maker. The confluence of the Parsha and the time of year gives us food for thought. I recently came across a lecture from Horav Yoshiahu Yosef Pinto, Shlita, which adds compelling insight and even trepidation to the thoughts ruminating through our minds at this time of year.

Moshe prayed fervently that he be allowed to enter Eretz Yisrael. The gates, however, were closed. Hashem was not going to rescind His decree. Rav Pinto observes that, when Moshe saw that his prayers had not achieved his desired efficacy, he asked Hashem immediately to have whatever allotted time he still had left in this world transferred to his disciple, Yehoshua. Let him have the extra time. This is an incredible statement. Apparently, Moshe felt that the last request he had of Hashem was to fulfill his dream of entering the Holy Land. If this was not acceptable, then he might as well transfer whatever time he had left to Yehoshua. He would put it to good use. Does one cavalierly give away his allotted time on this world? True, Yehoshua was Moshe's greatest disciple, but what about Moshe? Surely, he could have achieved more in the time that he had left remaining to him.

Rav Pinto cites the tefillah of Rosh Hashanah in which we mention that the sifrei chaim and sifrei meisim are open on this day. We can understand the significance of the Book of the Living being open and entries made into the book. What is gained by having the Book of the Dead open? Whoever has passed on is gone. Dead is dead. We have no second chances. We must say, explains Rav Pinto, that this is consistent with the Midrash Koheles which states that, at birth, it is decreed how long a person is destined to live. If he is worthy, he will complete his Heavenly allotted lifespan. If not - if he is doing poorly on this world - his lifespan will be shortened. This is the position held by Rabbi Akiva. The Chachamim disagree, saying that if he is worthy - years will be added to his lifespan. If he is unworthy - his lifespan will be decreased. In other words, Rabbi Akiva and the Chachamim are in dispute concerning whether he who is worthy will live longer than his allotted lifespan.

Hashem gives every person a certain amount of time to spend in the world. If he is unworthy, his lifespan is cut short, and the years that have been subtracted are transferred to another Jew who is worthy, but originally had not been assigned a long lifespan. Thus, the Book of the Dead is also opened, so that the righteous person whose time is up is to be "written off," has the opportunity to accumulate some of the extra years that another Jew who has proven to be unworthy has lost. Therefore, we ask Hashem, Zochreinu l'chaim, v'kosveinu b'sefer ha'chaim. "Remember us for life; inscribe us for life." We ask that the years allotted to us remain with us-- and not be reassigned to anyone else.

Why did Kalev ben Yefuneh and Yehoshua bin Nun live long lives? When Hashem decreed to cut the lives of the other ten spies short, He took their lost years and supplemented the lives of Yehoshua and Kalev.

Likewise, Moshe Rabbeinu saw that Hashem did not rescind the decree against him. He was not going to enter Eretz Yisrael. He asked that whatever time he had left be transferred to Yehoshua, so that Moshe could partner with Yehoshua when the latter entered the Land. Thus, although Moshe himself was not going into the Land, a part of him would enter through the medium of Yehoshua.

At this time of the year, when we are in the midst of supplicating for another year of life, we should be cognitive of the meaning of "life."

And many evils and distresses will encounter it. It will say on that day, "Is it not because my G-d is not in my midst that these evils have come upon me?" But I will surely have concealed My face on that day because of all the evil that he did. (31:17,18)

If the People finally came to the realization that the source of their troubles was Hashem's concealing Himself from them, why does Hashem continue the punishment by concealing Himself even more? Why add more punishment if the people already have become aware of the reason for their troubles? The point has been made; now, it is time to move on. Horav Shlomo Teichtal, zl, explains this with a parable. A person had tried for some time to meet with a government official to discuss a zoning variance. It was crucial for his business that the zoning laws be modified so that he would have more room for his business to grow. After repeated calls and a number of delays, he was finally able to obtain an appointment for the following Friday at 12:00 P.M.

The businessman was not going to be late. Knowing how long he had waited for this appointment and acutely aware of certain failure if he were to be late for the meeting, the man left early in the morning, allowing sufficient time for him to arrive at his destination. He was not counting on the traffic or the two accidents that stalled traffic for some time. Finally, at 11:40, he arrived at the government office. Alas, parking was non-existent. He drove around the block twice, checked the "full" signs at all of the parking lots and still had no parking space. It was 11:55. He began to pray, promising Hashem that he would be on time to daven three times daily in shul. He would even recite Tehillim before davening and learn Mishnayos after davening. What more could Hashem want from him? "Please Hashem, help me!" he cried out.

Suddenly, a spot became available, as a person leaving for lunch pulled his car out. It was 11:58. As he was pulling into the parking spot, he looked up and said, "Hashem, thank You, but I was able to work things out. A spot became available, and I will be on time for my appointment." No Mishnayos and no Tehillim. The situation improved "all by itself." Apparently, he had not needed Heavenly intervention.

We have all been there - some more, some less. When the situation appears bleak and we are up against the wall with nowhere to turn, we turn to Hashem. We pray; we cry; we beg; we make all forms of promises, well-meaning and sincere. Suddenly, our problem is resolved; the situation takes a positive turn. We have hope. Our promises disappear. Our tefillos are as dispassionate as always. Our fervor is, at best, tepid. Why? Because the challenge has passed. When they have no imminent adversity, people turn back to themselves - not to Hashem.

What we often fail to realize and acknowledge is that the relief that we experienced was Hashem's way of listening and responding to our prayers. If we stop praying, the problem might return with a passion. V'amar ba'yom ha'hu, "and it will say on that day" - only on that day will he pray. Only on that day will he acknowledge that he is beholden to Hashem. What about the next day - when the scare is over? Will he then forget all of his promises to be good, his many prayers to keep his word to Hashem? Otherwise, Hashem will conceal Himself. The Jews turned to Hashem, but, as soon as the tide changed and life was looking up, they reneged on their promises. They forgot to Whom they had made promises. After all, what difference did it make? The situation had changed. Life was now good. When Hashem sees that our commitment was short-lived, that our promises were made out of necessity, that we no longer care, He will surely conceal Himself. We must always keep our word, maintain our commitments - especially to Hashem.

So now, write this song. (31:19)

The Talmud Megillah 3A relates the conversation that occurred between Yehoshua bin Nun and a Heavenly angel that visited him. The purpose of citing the conversation is to prove that limud haTorah, the study of Torah, is more stringent than sacrificial service: "The angel said to Yehoshua, 'This afternoon, you neglected to offer the Korban Tamid Shel Bein Ha'Arbaim, daily afternoon sacrifice, and now (after dark) you neglected the study of Torah.' (This conversation took place during the battle for Yericho, shortly after Bnei Yisrael entered the Land and performed circumcisions on the men who had not been circumcised in the wilderness. During the stress of entering the Land and performing the circumcisions, Yehoshua had allowed the people to neglect Torah study. During the day, when they were engaged in battle, they were exempt from study. At night, however, when the fighting stopped, they were no longer exempt.) Yehoshua asked the angel, 'For which of these two misdeeds did you come?' The angel replied, 'Atah basi, I have come now,' which implies that he came to rebuke him for the sin that was presently being transgressed, the neglect of Torah study."

Tosfos asks how Chazal derived from the vernacular of the pasuk that the sins were the neglecting of the Korban Tamid and failure to study Torah. They explain that Yehoshua asked, "Halanu atah, Are you with us" (or with our enemies)? The word halanu, according to Tosfos, refers to the lanu of Torah tzivah lanu Moshe, "The Torah which Moshe commanded us." To this the angel responded, "Atah basi, I have come now," which, according to Tosfos, refers to the above pasuk, V'atah kisvu lachem es ha'shirah ha'zos, "So now, write this song," which is a reference to Torah. In his Minchas Asher, Horav Asher Weiss, Shlita, questions why Yehoshua alluded to the pasuk, Torah tzivah lanu Moshe, which clearly relates to Torah study. On the other hand, in his response, the angel alluded to the pasuk, V'atah kisvu lachem es ha'shirah ha'zos, which addresses the mitzvah of kesivas Sefer Torah, writing a Torah scroll. First, they should have alluded to the same pasuk. Second, how is the writing of a Torah scroll, which in the pasuk is referred to as a shirah, song, connected to Torah study?

The Rav offers an insightful explanation, which teaches us an important yesod, principle, concerning the mahus, essential nature, of Torah, thus, suggesting a deeper understanding of the mitzvah of Torah study. The angel understood that during wartime the mitzvah of limud haTorah is suspended. It was a milchemes mitzvah, a holy war, which only they could carry out. While nighttime is not a time of battle, a soldier must rest; otherwise, he will not be able to hold his own during the next day's battle. Furthermore, we have a rule that, osek b'mitzvah patur min ha'mitzvah, one who is actively involved in carrying out one mitzvah is exempt from performing another one. The Jews were not battling a discretionary war. This was kibbush ha'aretz, conquering the Land, which is a mitzvah. Thus, they should have been exempt from Torah study. Why did the angel rebuke Yehoshua?

The angel demanded of Yehoshua to realize that the Torah was not only a mitzvah from which the Jewish soldiers could be exempted. Torah is also a shirah - a song; thus, it has an altogether different character. A song bursts forth from one's heart; it emerges as a result of unbridled passion that springs forth in a song of praise. It is passion rising to impulse, erupting in an expression of song. Yes, there is Torah: the code of Jewish Law; the blueprint for Jewish life; Hashem's eternal gift to His People. There is also Torah: the song of the heart; the praise which "explodes" from within the Jew; a song which cannot be continued due to its overwhelming and overpowering expression of love for Hashem.

The angel intimated to Yehoshua: The mitzvah of limud ha'Torah might be suspended due to the exigency of war, but how can you contain yourselves? How can your love refrain from the self-expression of Shiras Ha'Torah? When one feels the urge to sing, he must sing! How can a Jew restrain himself from studying Torah?

Hashem assures Klal Yisrael that Torah will never be forgotten, regardless of the adversity and bitter travail which have been our companions throughout our tumultuous history. Torah will always be at our side. I think the fact that the Torah is a shirah, a heartfelt expression of love that bursts forth from us, is the reason that it is always with us. People do not forget a tune. It becomes ingrained in their psyche and remains with them - always: "Then this song shall speak up before it is a witness, for it shall not be forgotten from the mouth of its offspring" (Devarim 31:21).

A Torah scholar was interned in a concentration camp together with his nephew. The young boy had lost everyone. All he had left in this world was his uncle, the talmid chacham, Torah scholar. The uncle and nephew spent their free time studying Talmud Moed Katan together. The uncle knew that his allotted time on this world was rapidly reaching its end. Every day, more of his contemporaries, men who had prematurely aged from the oppression and pain, were of no use to the labor force. When the time came for the uncle to take leave of his precious charge, when he saw death staring him in the face, his last request to his nephew was not to remember him, not to say Kaddish for him; rather, his request was, "My child, promise that, if you survive, you will finish this meseches of Moed Katan."

What thought preoccupied the mind of this kadosh, Jewish martyr, shortly before he died? What ran through his mind amid the misery and privation that enveloped him? That the Talmud should be studied! This was his last wish on earth. Finish the meseches. Torah may not be forgotten. This was not a man gone mad due to the pressure. This was a man who was conveying his most important legacy to his nephew: continue learning. Finish what we started - and continue on to the next meseches. Pass on the "tune" to the next generation. The Torah is our song. It is the secret of our survival.

Perhaps, we can take this idea to the next level. A song implies perfect harmony, with every note fused together to create a flowing score. The Torah is like a symphony in which all the elements, the various instruments of the orchestra, the voices of the choir, the musical score, all join together to create a perfect harmony. While this most certainly is true of the Torah, the one who studies Torah must himself represent shirah. His life-- actions, relationships with Hashem and with his fellow man-- must all reflect a perfect symbiosis, a fusion of Torah, righteousness, chesed, loving kindness, Yiraas Shomayim, fear of Hashem, and middos tovos, positive character traits. These all meld together to make him a ben Torah who, by his very essence, comprises a song of praise to Hashem.

I came across a vignette about Horav Eliyahu Moshe Shisgal, zl, that puts the above thought into perspective. Rav Shisgal was a unique individual who represented the symphony of Torah. He represented everything positive about Torah. Shortly after his untimely petirah, passing, his rebbetzin received the following letter.

"With tears rolling down my face, I must relate how your late husband saved my family from much pain. Six years ago, your husband visited my store. I cannot remember why he came, I just remember him coming through the door, and it suddenly hit me, 'This is the man I should talk with. He would listen to my problem. He would help me.'

"My son had earlier that week announced that he was getting married - to an Italian girl. The event would take place in a few months; the girl's family had approved the match. It was a done deal. I could not do a thing. My son was a man, twenty-four years old, independent, with a mind of his own. I was far from Mr. Religious, since I only attended the synagogue twice a year. The Rav agreed to meet with my son in a week's time. He left the store, and I waited every minute of that week's time. Finally, a week passed, and your husband once again visited my store. My son was there waiting. He was doing me a favor. They left together, the Rav and my son, for a walk around the block that took all of fifteen minutes. When they returned, my son said nothing; the Rav said goodbye and that was it. The next morning, my son came over and said to me, 'Dad, if we have such a great man among our people, I cannot marry out of the faith.' The subject was closed. Our family's ordeal had ended.

"So you see, your husband saved many people from heartache. My son went on to marry a nice Jewish girl, and just last week they registered their little girl in an Orthodox day school. We have lost a good public relations man for Judaism. Who can replace him?"

When Torah is more than a book of law, when it is the defining guide, the moral and ethical compass for our lives, it transforms us into a shirah, a song, a perfect harmonious symphony of praise to our Creator. V'rau kol ha'amim ki Shem Hashem nikra alecha, "Then all the peoples of the earth will see that Hashem's Name is proclaimed over you, and they will revere ." (Devarim 28:10) A Jew who is symbiotically connected with the Torah becomes an example for others to emulate.

When Rav Shisgal left the hospital at the end of what was to be his last stay, a nurse called out, "Come everyone! The Rabbi is leaving!" The Rav entered the elevator, with every last nurse trailing behind him. At that moment, one of the nurses exclaimed, "There goes a beautiful man!" Rav Shisgal embodied a synthesis of pure Torah with yiraas Shomayim, mussar, middos tovos and chesed. He reflected the beauty of Yiddishkeit in his entire demeanor.

It shall be when many evils and distresses come upon it, then this song shall speak up before it as a witness. (31:21)

The Torah states that when the terrible evils and afflictions, the curses, of which many have taken their toll on us, descend on us, we will (despite the many travails) ultimately be spared. The Torah, which is referred to here as the shirah, song (of Torah), will serve as a witness in our defense - a testimony that will help turn the tide in our behalf. Nothing will be held back. We will sin, and we will deserve whatever fate is decreed against us, but we will be spared. Interestingly, the prophecy concerning the evils and distresses that will fall on us begins with the word v'hayah, "it shall be." Chazal teach that the word v'hayah, is a lashon simcha, vernacular which implies joy. What joy can there be in such a prophesy?

Horav Yitzchak Yedidyah Frankel, zl, Rav of Tel Aviv (as quoted in U'masuk Ha'or) offers an insightful explanation based upon a dialogue which is quoted in the pesichah, preface, to Midrash Eichah; "Avraham Avinu came before Hashem and asked, 'Master of the World, why did You exile my children, handing them over into the hands of gentile nations who persecute and kill them in the most heinous manner? You destroyed Your Temple and drove my children from the Land - Why?' Hashem replied, 'Your children sinned, transgressing the entire Torah, including the twenty-two Hebrew letters that are included therein.' Avraham immediately countered, 'Hashem, who is testifying against them?' Hashem said, 'Let the Torah testify against the Jewish People.' When the Torah came forward, Avraham asked, 'My daughter, you come to testify against the Jewish People! Are you not ashamed? Do you not remember that Hashem took you from nation to nation, and no one was willing to accept you?' Only when Hashem brought you to Har Sinai and offered you to the Jewish People, did you find a home. They accepted you, when no one else would. Yet, you are willing to testify against them!' As soon as the Torah heard this admonishment from the Patriarch, it moved to the side and refused to incriminate the Jewish People.

"Hashem then said to Avraham,'Let the twenty-two letters of the alphabet come and testify against the Jewish People. Immediately, the letters assembled before the Heavenly Tribunal and were each prepared to take its turn to testify that the Jewish People had transgressed the Torah which is comprised of Hebrew letters. As soon as the aleph rose and was about to speak, the Patriarch looked at it with accusing eyes and said, 'Aleph, you stand at the head of the alphabet and, yet you have come to testify against the Jewish People. Perhaps your memory fails you. Do you not remember when Hashem revealed Himself to the Jewish People on Har Sinai amid thunder, lightning and smoke? He proclaimed, Anochi Hashem Elokecha, I am Hashem, Your G-d. Anochi begins with the letter aleph. No other nation was willing to accede to Hashem - except for the Jews. Yet, you are willing to testify against them.' When the aleph heard this, it quietly moved to the side. It was not going to testify.

"The next letter to come forward was the second letter of the alphabet - the beis. Here, too, Avraham Avinu declared, 'What! The letter which begins the Torah - Bereishis bara Elokim, "In the beginning of G-d's creating". How quickly you have forgotten that it was the Jewish People who stood at Har Sinai and accepted the Torah, when every other nation rejected it!' The letter beis immediately moved to the side. Right is right; the Jewish People did not deserve such treatment.

"Next, the letter gimel was called into the witness box. Avraham Avinu was relentless in his defense of his descendants. 'What? You are coming to testify against the Jewish People? Is there any other nation that fulfills the mitzvah of tzitzis, concerning whom it is written: Gedilim taaseh lach, Fringes you shall make for yourself,' (Devarim 22). (Gedilim begins with a gimel.) Hearing this, the gimel also moved aside. It, too, was not prepared to demonstrate ingratitude by testifying against the Jewish People. Once the other letters saw how Avraham quieted the testimony of the first letters, they were too ashamed to get involved. Thus, they all moved aside and did not testify against the Jewish People.

"This," explains Rav Frankel, "is the reason for v'hayah, which denotes a sense of joy. We understand that, at the end of the day, it will be the Torah that will attest to the reality that we - only we - were willing to accept it at Har Sinai." We have not been perfect over the years, but, after all is said and done, we were there to accept the Torah when every other nation rejected it. Therefore, the Shiras haTorah, Song of Torah, will support us when necessary.

Va'ani Tefillah

V'oneh l'amo b'eis shavam eilav He answers His People when they call to Him for help.

Horav Shimon Schwab, zl, cites the Zohar HaKadosh that teaches, when a person prepares himself for Shemoneh Esrai, he should imagine himself as poor and dejected, totally helpless and in great need of Hashem's beneficience. Rav Schwab quotes Horav Yeruchem Levovitz, zl, who explains that this is how the Avos, our Patriarchs, prayed to Hashem. He supports this from Rashi's commentary concerning the manner in which the Jewish People who were standing at the banks of the Red Sea prayed to Hashem. Rashi explains that they emulated the prayer form of their forebears, the Patriarchs. When the Avos established the three daily tefillos-- and throughout their lives when they prayed to Hashem-they, too, were gripped with fear and trembling throughout their entire bodies. They were acutely aware that they stood helpless before Hashem. Were it not for the constant kindness of Hashem, they would be unable to move, to speak, to hear, to see, to even live for another second! No aspect of their lives would be possible without Hashem. They understood that, without the will of Hashem, they stood as hopeless as did their future descendants generations later, standing at the Red Sea. In times of their greatest despair, the Jewish People emulated that which had been taught to them by the Patriarchs: we are nothing without Hashem.

Thus, as we are about to begin Shemoneh Esrai, we reflect upon our total dependence on Hashem; on our own insignificance. We realize that, without Him, we are as helpless as our ancestors were when they confronted the pursuing Egyptians. They were exposed, defenseless, forlorn - standing between the powerful army of Egypt and the Red Sea. They had nowhere to look but up - towards Hashem. As He answered their prayers, then - v'oneh l'amo b'eis shavam eilav - so, too, we ask Him to listen to our prayers today. !

In memory of a
dear friend
on the occasion of
his yahrtzeit

Hachaver Harav Tzvi ben Hachaver R' Moshe z"l
niftar 4 Tishrei 5773
Mr. Bjorn Bamberger

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