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Peninim on the Torah

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Rabbi A. Leib Scheinbaum
Hebrew Academy of Cleveland


For on this day he shall provide atonement for you. (16:30)

In a drasha, lecture, during the month of Elul, the Klausenberger Rebbe, zl, told the following story. The author of the Yeshuos Yaakov lived in the city of Yarislov for a number of years following his marriage. He davened in that city's main shul. He witnessed the following story. One year, on Erev Yom Kippur shortly after Kol Nidrei, a man entered the shul and walked up to the amud to lead the service. This person gave the outward appearance of piety, virtue and dignity. He did not ask permission to daven; he just went up to lead the service. Something about this individual's appearance and his awe-inspiring davening prevented anyone from stopping him from "taking over," even though there were regular chazzanim in the shul.

As soon as the visitor completed Kol Nidrei, he went on to lead Maariv. After Maariv, when everyone left to go home, he stayed in the shul to recite Tehillim all through the night. Certainly, his physical stamina was superhuman. In fact, people began to suspect that he might be a malach, Heavenly Angel. Morning came, and the visitor was standing by the podium prepared to lead the services. This continued on all day: Shacharis, Krias HaTorah; he even blew the Shofar; Mussaf and Minchah. As they prepared for the climax of the day, the Neilah service, everyone was sure that this person was not a human being. How could anyone stand on his feet all day without food and rest, praying in such a heart-rending and emotional manner, and not be superhuman? After Neilah, the visitor led the Maariv service and wished everyone a Gut Yom Tov, referring to the upcoming festival of Succos. One of the more distinguished members of the shul invited the "Heavenly" visitor to his house to make Havdalah and break the fast, to which the visitor accepted.

The Yeshuos Yaakov, who was privy to the entire drama of the day, felt that now they would know whether the visitor was a human or an angel based upon whether or not he would eat. When a plate of food was placed in front of the guest, he said he was not hungry; he needed, however, a Gemara Succah so that he could learn. He said that he felt weak, not having had the opportunity to learn all day. The visitor proceeded to learn all night without pausing to eat. When he completed the entire mesechta, tractate, he went to shul to daven Shacharis. After davening, the people discovered that the visitor was none other than the saintly Kedushas Levi, Horav Levi Yitzchok, zl, m'Berditchev.

There is a postscript to this story, which conveys the essence of this narrative's profound message. The Klausenberger Rebbe noted that after an entire day of tefillos, which surely pierced the heavens, after the emotional pleas of a heart so pure that he was like an angel, the Berditchever still felt "weak." He needed his blatt Gemara, his Rashi and Tosfos to sustain himself. Torah is, after all, the soul's true sustenance.

Like the practice of the land of Egypt…and like the practice of the land of Canaan…you should not do. (18:3)

The Egyptian and Canaanite nations were the most degenerate of all nations. Immorality was their way of life, licentiousness was their culture. We are adjured not to follow in their statutes and traditions. The Sefarim HaKedoshim add that even in those areas which are permitted to us, we should act with restraint, holiness and refinement. In other words, we should abide by a Jewish standard of behavior, a Torah approach to living. As Torah Jews, we must strive to act, live and interact differently than the manner which is in vogue in contemporary society. Our lives are different, our goals are different, our purpose for living is different. Therefore, why would we want to act like those around us? Regrettably, the insecure nature of some of our people drives them to behave in a manner which, unfortunately, conforms quite well with contemporary society. The Piaseczner Rebbe, zl, the great tzaddik, wrote, lectured and inspired the broken-hearted Jews of the Warsaw Ghetto during World War II. When he reached the milestone age of forty, he said, "What should I accept upon myself? What should I undertake? To learn more? I think that, to the best of my knowledge, I waste no time. To distance myself from lust and desire? Baruch Hashem, I think I have overcome that. What am I missing? Pashut, simply - to be a Jew! I visualize myself as a human being with everything but a neshamah, soul. I now wait to convert myself to be a Yehudi!" What a penetrating statement from an individual whose moral/spiritual rectitude served as the paradigm of what a human being can achieve. The Slonimer Rebbe, Shlita, explains that one can look and act like a Jew, he can go through the motions of Jewishness, but he can still lack his essential Yahadus, Judaism, which must penetrate to his inner psyche. Indeed, when the great tzaddikim recited the daily blessing of "Shelo osani goi," "that He did not make me a gentile," they would momentarily reflect, asking themselves, "Is there any organ or part of me that might be lacking in Yiddishkeit?"

You shall observe My decrees and My judgments, which man shall carry and live by them. (18:5) In the Talmud Yoma 85, Chazal derive from this pasuk that the mitzvos are given to us to live by - and not to die by. In other words, we are obligated not to allow the fulfillment of a mitzvah to stand in the way of human life, except for the three cardinal sins: murder; adultery, and idol-worship. While there are other places which imply that pikuach nefesh, saving a life or any life-threatening situation, does not override these three sins, there is a profound lesson to be derived from the implication of "vchai bohem". Horav Yitzchok Goldwasser, Shlita, infers from here that a life of murder, adultery, or idol-worship is not living; it is death! Hence, the command, "Vchai bohem"; "and live by them," does not apply to these sins.

With this idea in mind, he explains the connections between the destruction of the first Bais HaMikdash, and these three sins, which Chazal say provided the catalyst for its destruction. The Bais HaMikdash is commonly referred to as "Bais Chayeinu," the house of our life. The Bais HaMikdash is the source of our spiritual sustenance. It supports and sustains our spiritual well-being. When these three sins are rampant in Klal Yisrael, a force runs counter to the life-preserving effect of the Bais HaMikdash, stimulating its premature "demise".

You shall not present any of Your children to pass to the Molech. (18:21)

The Bais Hamedrash of Horav Yehoshua Tzeitles, zl, was eclectic in nature. Jews from all walks of life felt comfortable entering to ask questions or to have a dialogue with Rav Yehoshua. At times, some of the most erudite Christian Bible scholars would come to ask him to elucidate some of the "difficult" passages in the Torah and Chazal. Rav Yehoshua was patient, responding with lucid and penetrating answers to the most complex questions. Once, a Christian scholar asked him about Chazal's commentary to the prohibition of passing one's child through the deadly fires of the Molech idol. Chazal state that one incurs the death penalty only if he has passed one of his children through the flames. If he, however, has passed all of his children through, he does not become subject to the death penalty. Why? One would think that the more one does, the greater the sin and, similarly, the punishment.

Rav Yehoshua responded, "Your question is truly troubling. A similar question may be asked in regard to the laws of Terumah, a portion of one's grain that must be separated from his silo and given to the Kohen. Chazal have not established a set amount to be given for Terumah. Indeed, "one stalk of wheat exempts the entire silo from Terumah. "If he consecrates the entire silo for Terumah however, it is considered nothing, and it does not become Terumah. What is the logic behind this ruling? If one kernel is sufficient to exempt an entire field, certainly if one were to relinquish the entire silo for Terumah, it should be acceptable.

"Our Sages, in their penetrating wisdom, have taught us a profound lesson with this law," said Rav Yehoshua. "The Torah requires a Jew to share with the Kohen. To that end, he is to give a portion of his harvest as Terumah to the Kohen. Some people might give more than others, but, when one goes and gives everything to the Kohen, it is considered irresponsible. Such a person, who jeopardizes his family's financial stability by giving everything away to the Kohen, is not completely stable. We do not accept contributions from such a person, since we would only be adding to his emotional insecurity. Likewise, one who sacrifices his child to the Molech, as the pagans would do, is considered to be an idol worshiper and should be punished as such. One who sacrifices all of his children to the Molech is not considered a devoted idol worshiper. He is not an idealist; he should be committed to a home for the criminally insane. We judge only those who are certifiably sane, but nonetheless sin. This person does not fit that standard."

Vignettes on the Parsha

This shall be for you…to bring atonement… once a year. (16:34)

At the funeral of the Lisker Rebbe, zl, one of the maspidim, eulogizers, said, "Three things bring about atonement. Yesurim, suffering; misas tzaddikim, the deaths of the righteous; and Yom Kippur. We ask Hashem that it should suffice for us to have only one atonement during the year, Yom Kippur.


Like the practice of the land of Egypt in which you dwelled, do not do. (18:3)

Horav Bunim, zl, m'Peshischa rendered this pasuk homiletically. If one seeks to break the grasp that his taavos, desires, have on him, then he should observe those nations that have deferred to their base desires. Let him see what has become of them, and what a life they really lead. There is no greater deterrent to sin than to look perceptively at those who have sinned and note where this path has led them.


Do not turn to the idols, and molten gods shall you not make for yourselves. (19:4)

Rashi's explanation of the pasuk conveys a profound message. The elil, idol, is nothing. It is man made and has no powers. Yet, explains Rashi, if someone is foolish enough to turn to this elil, he will slowly begin to respect it and, before he realizes it, it will have become a god to him. Rashi is teaching us, says Horav Yeruchim Levovitz, zl, that idols are gods made by man. At first they are nothing, and man knows that they are nothing. Regrettably, however, it does not remain that way. He transforms them into a god!

Idolatry is a relative term, because what one worships is apt to change with time and place. Every society places its emphasis on a variety of vacuous items or values. These, in turn, become idols for some people, because if one respects them long enough, he will begin to worship them. Let us look at materialism, for which money is the god-head. There are people who worship money, who are totally subjugated to it. How did money become so important? How did it develop the power to control the entire lives and destinies of people who used to be intelligent? The answer is that the very people who became its subject endowed it with power. They made it into an idol.

Once, the Alter m'Slabodka grabbed a hold of a handful of coins. In a raised voice, he exclaimed to his students, "You are playing with broken shards!" He was teaching them about the insignificance of money by comparing it to broken shards of earthenware. Their desire for money and the material things it could buy was transforming these shards into an obsession. They were becoming its subjects. At the same time, if we would approach a wealthy man who is already considerably old and tell him what the Alter said, that the money he has amassed and with which he is still obsessed, is worthless, he would laugh at us - even at his advanced age when he should be thinking about more spiritual values. How do we reconcile his line of thinking more about spiritual with the Alter's approach? It appears that these two points of view are as antagonistic to one another as they are extreme.

The answer lies in our original idea: man creates his own avodah zarah, idol. For some, it is a molten god; for others, it is money; and, yet for others, it is a sport, a vocation, or field of endeavor in which one venerates an ideal or object to the point that it becomes deified in his eyes. The wealthy man has placed his material assets above his own spiritual values. He was no longer able to fathom the insignificance of his wealth, especially in light of the fact that at his advanced age, his spiritual orientation was of great consequence.

You shall not lie to one another. (19:11)

One day, a number of the prominent householders of Brisk came to their rav, Horav Yosef Dov Soloveitchik, zl, the Bais HaLevi, complaining that the kefirah, heresy, spouted by members of the Haskalah, enlightenment movement, was rampant. These people were being eminently successful and making serious incursions into the observant community. Regrettably, this was the scenario in many Jewish communities. Why were they succeeding? After all, everything they were expounding was founded in falsehood. Rav Yosha Ber turned to them and queried, "Why are you surprised? Truth always prevails." "Rebbe, how can you say that? How can you refer to apostasy as emes, truth?" they asked, somewhat incredulously. The Bais HaLevi explained, "The kofrim, heretics, are battling for their sheker, false ideals, with emes. They are devout atheists. They truly believe in what they are doing. This is why they are successful. Unfortunately, we cannot say the same in regard to our level of observance. We demonstrate a lack of integrity in our adherence to mitzvos. Moreover, quite often when we battle for the emes of Torah, it is for the wrong reasons. Even when one fights to preserve the truth, it must be based upon virtue and principle.

You shall love your fellow as yourself. (19:18)

This pasuk has become the global standard-bearer for defining human inter-relationships. Love your fellowman as yourself. What does it mean to care about someone else as well as we care about ourselves? Horav Yosef Zundel Salant, zl, explains that the word kamocha, like yourself, applies to an individual who has the same vocation or position as you. It once happened that a Jew opened a grocery store on the same block as another Jew. One can imagine that the resulting competition brought about ill will. When the man who had been there first complained to Rav Yosef Zundel, the rav told him, "We are told to love our fellow as ourselves. This means that if he is a storekeeper like me, or a shoe-maker like me, or any profession similar to mine, I must love him, even though his chosen vocation infringes on mine."

In another instance, the Gaon m'Vilna, while yet a young child, went out to play on a teeter-totter with other boys his age. After a few moments, he returned home. His father asked, "Did you play quickly? Why do you not continue playing with your friends?" "I cannot go against the Torah's command to love a fellow Jew as we love ourselves. I cannot play on a plaything whereby in order to raise myself, my friend must be lowered!" If this is the sensitivity of a young child, we can only begin to imagine what levels of sensitivity he eventually reached. Obviously, he was a gaon in middos, character traits, as well as all aspects of Torah.

Vignettes on the Parsha

Do not steal. (19:11)

In Kotzk they would say, "Do not steal" - even from yourself. By extension, this applies equally to lying. Do not lie to yourself. Do not fool yourself.


And you shall have fear of your G-d. (19:14)

Some people fear the Shulchan Aruch, while others fear Hashem.


You shall love your fellow as yourself. (19:18)

The Noam Megadim notes that in regard to spiritual matters; people often care more about others than about themselves. We are admonished: Love your fellow; worry about his spiritual development as much as you worry about yourself, not more.


You shall rise in the presence of an old person. (19:32)

The Toldos Yaakov Yosef says; Before you become old, rise up and attend to the needs of your neshamah, soul.


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