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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 to cleanse you, from all of your sins. (16:30)

Yom Kippur provides atonement - if it is not too late. Horav Yitzchak Blazar, zl, the famous Rav Itzele Peterburger, primary disciple of Horav Yisrael Salanter, zl, spoke prior to Rosh Hashanah in the Bais Hamussar of Kovno. After his ethical discourse, the assemblage began to recite various perakim, chapters, from Sefer Tehillim. At the end, they together recited the verses of Shema Koleinu, Hear our Voices, a heart-rending appeal which follows the Selichos prayer. When they reached the pasuk, Al tashlicheinu l'eis ziknah, "Do not discard us when we grow old," Rav Itzele stopped, turned around to the kahal, those gathered in prayer, and related the following story:

The Czar Nikolai conscripted men into the Russian Army in a manner unprecedented in its cruelty. Once they were in, it was extremely difficult to leave. Being a soldier in the Czar's army was a lifelong ordeal. Anyone of draftable age would hide from the "recruiters," knowing fully well what it would mean if they were drafted. Anyone caught avoiding the draft was immediately sent to Siberia. There, they would work at hard labor in the frigid cold without any letup. Most of those who ended up in Siberia were never heard from again.

One day, the Czar made an announcement to all of his subjects. As a one-time dispensation, he was allowing anyone who had previously been avoiding conscription to come forward and all would be forgiven. They would be "accepted" into the army, and their pasts would be overlooked.

The announcement provided results for the Czar. Tens of thousands of Russians came out of hiding. Young, strong men, middle-aged and older men, stood together in the recruitment centers waiting to be accepted into the Czar's army. As bad as the army was, it was a fate that was far more favorable than Siberia. The officers walked into the rooms and immediately separated the young, strong men from the older applicants. These young men were immediately inducted into the army, while the others were taken to a kangaroo court where an army judge was to decide their fate.

"How could this be?" they clamored to the judge. "We were told that if we come forth, we would be inducted into the army." The judge looked at them and laughed, "Yes, the young, strong ones will be inducted into the army. What does the army need from you? You are no longer strong. You cannot fight. As far as the Czar is concerned, you are worthless. Yes, we will take you to Siberia where you can live out the rest of your lives. You should have come forth earlier when you could have provided a service. Now, we have no use for you."

As Rav Itzele finished the story, all those assembled began to cry. A number of them fainted. They understood the meaning of the story and its relationship to the Selichah, Al tashlicheinu.

Rav Itzele continued, "We entreat Hashem, Hashiveinu Hashem eilacha v'nashuvah, Return us Hashem to You, and we will repent. When a young man, with his whole life ahead of him, utters these words, there is some validity to them. He will be accepted by Hashem. He will grow and mature as a returnee. When an older man, however, one who has enjoyed much of life, supplicates these words, is there any efficacy to his request? This is why we cry out to Hashem, Please do not discard us when we grow old. When we age, we need even greater compassion. Please, Hashem, do not discard us like a worthless object that has little value."

Perhaps we may supplement this with a thought from the Mezritcher Maggid, zl. He explains that every person is sent to this world to perform a function, to fulfill a purpose. Once that purpose has been completed, he is called back. In order to increase our longevity, every person should accept upon himself new and greater responsibilities, so that there will be a "need" for him to remain on this world.

You shall observe My decrees and My laws, which man shall carry out and by which he shall live. (18:5)

Targum Onkelos explains the words, V'chai bahem, "By which he shall live," as referring to chayei alma, eternal life. In other words, as the Chafetz Chaim, zl, explains in his preface to the Mishnah Berurah, the Torah is the spiritual food of the neshamah, soul. By studying Torah in this world, we are preparing ourselves for chayei olam, eternal life in Olam Habba. This is the meaning of the phrase, V'chayei olam nota b'esocheinu, "He planted eternal life within us." With the study of Torah, we plant the seeds from which we will one day subsist in the eternal world.

We neither have any idea of the value of every minute of Torah study nor can we even begin to grasp the meaning of the word "eternal." For every moment of Torah study, we earn a portion of eternity - a concept which is incomprehensible to us. To demonstrate the incredible value of even one moment of Torah study, Horav Yaakov Beifus, Shlita, relates a story concerning the Chafetz Chaim. When Horav Naftali Tropp, zl, the Rosh Yeshivah of Radin, was gravely ill, the yeshivah students decided that each of them would donate a certain amount of their time studying Torah as a merit for a refuah sheleimah, speedy, complete recovery. They decided to include the Chafetz Chaim, whose love for Rav Naftali was overwhelming. They approached the great sage and asked if he would contribute a portion of time for Rav Naftali's benefit. The Chafetz Chaim listened to them intently before responding, "I will contribute one minute of my time for a refuah sheleimah for Rav Naftali." The students who heard this could not conceal their incredulous reactions to the revered sage's donation. The Chafetz Chaim could not help noticing their surprise. He said, "You have no idea of the infinite value of one minute of Torah study. I dedicate the incredible reward achieved for one minute of Torah study to Rav Naftali's refuah!"

Rav Beifus writes that he heard this story from Horav Shlomo Zalmen Aurbach, zl, who added that the Chafetz Chaim's remarks left an overwhelming impression on the yeshivah. We may add that, now that we have some idea of the vast reward earned for one minute of Torah learning, we should shudder to think of the other side of the coin - the negative aspect of wasting a minute of time.

Living a life of Torah is more than a motto, it is as Jewish life should be lived. Chazal have a phrase that aptly describes that which should not be a Jew's focus in life: Manichin chayei olam v'oskin b'chayei shaah, "They leave the eternal life, and are involved with temporary life (Shabbos 10a)." While we certainly live on this temporary world, it should not be the focus and thrust of our existence. Our lives should have a deeper meaning, a more profound set of values. Horav Shalom Schwadron, zl, would often cite the following story which is written in The Maggid Speaks by Rabbi Peysach Krohn. Rav Belfus cites the episode, adding an ethical perspective to it.

Ten years after the passing of the Gaon M'Vilna, many of his disciples decided to leave Europe to settle in Eretz Yisrael. Indeed, this was the beginning of the Ashkenazic Yishuv, settlement, in Eretz Yisrael. The voyage was a dangerous one. The hazards were life-threatening. Yet, it would be worth it, if it would bring them to the Holy Land. It was 1809, and Horav Yisrael, zl, m'Shklov, one of the Gaon's greatest students, led a group of one hundred fifty men, women and children to Eretz Yisrael.

After a month at sea, the frail ship was besieged by torrential rain and gale force winds. Wave after wave slammed the ship, as it was wildly thrown about in the churning sea. After two days of this ceaseless misery, it became clear that the objective of reaching Eretz Yisrael was unrealistic. The hope now centered on staying alive. People were ordered to throw overboard whatever belongings they could, since every extra bit of weight added to the ship's burden. The people were left with their barest necessities. Even this seemed to no avail. The ship was still in grave danger.

The captain approached Rav Yisrael and, in the simplest terms, explained that they were at the end of the rope. In the captain's thirty years of seafaring, he had never come across such a storm. He felt that he must warn the passengers to be prepared for the worst. Rav Yisrael was heartbroken, as he turned to his fellow travelers. They had dreamt of settling in Eretz Yisrael for years. Now, they were to prepare for their deaths instead. Could he give them some hope, something for which to aspire, a miracle? No. He had to prepare them to depart this world as a Jew, with Vidduy, confession, and teshuvah, repentance.

The Rav could hardly bear to look at the shocked faces of the passengers, as he began what would probably be his last few words to them. Restraining his tears, he said, "Soon we will be in the Olam ha'Emes, world of truth. Prior to leaving this world, one should recite Vidduy. While we usually do so quietly in order not to embarrass anyone, in this instance - since we are going to perish - it makes no difference. Moreover, the embarrassment will in itself serve as an atonement for us.

The students of the Gaon were not simple people. Each in his own right was an accomplished Torah scholar. Piety and virtue were their essence. They decided that the youngest student should begin with his Vidduy. The one chosen for the "honor" was a young man who lived near Vilna.

The wind howled, the rain slammed down on the ship, as the young man came forward. Overcome with emotion, trembling with fear, he burst into tears as he said, "For two years, I violated the mitzvah of Kibbud Av v'Eim, honoring my parents. I lied and deceived my mother daily. While I am sorry for my sin, I wish to explain the circumstances that led to it.

"I was thirteen years old when my parents moved to Vilna. We became next-door neighbors to the Gaon. In fact, we shared a common wall. One night, my father - who had just returned from a hard-day's work in his grocery store - heard the Gaon repeat the phrase, Manichin chayei olam v'oskim b'chayei shaah a number of times. The intensity and fervor, coupled with the repetition made such an indelible impression on my father that he immediately decided to leave his job and study Torah exclusively. He felt this was his life's mission. He must learn Torah - incessantly.

"My mother took the responsibility of supporting the family. It was too difficult to take care of nine children and run a store, so she sold the store. She supported the family by selling some bread and cleaning people's houses.

"One day, my mother gathered together the family and told us, I can no longer feed you twice each day. There is no money. We will have to make do with one meal a day. It was so difficult to watch her divide the meal into eleven portions that I could not tolerate to see my brothers and sisters live like this. I decided that I would no longer take a portion. I invented a story that the cheder, school, where I studied served lunch every day. For two years, I lived on the scraps that some of the boys left over. Every time my mother asked me if I had eaten, I lied. I now beg Hashem's forgiveness for this terrible sin."

The young man completed his story and a solemn hush fell over all those assembled. Rav Yisrael was visibly moved by what he had just heard. Despite his travail, the young man had developed into a great scholar. His piety was now clearly undisputed.

Rav Yisrael turned his head Heavenward, stretched out his hands and cried out, "Hashem Yisborach! In the first Selichos before Rosh Hashanah we entreat you saying, Pnei na el ha'telaos v'al la'chataos, "Turn to our travails and not to our sins." We beg You to look at our afflictions, - the tzaros, pain and anguish that we have endured -and not to look at our sins. Now I plead with You, Hashem, to look at our sins! Look at what this young man considers his eternal sin. These are the sins of Your children. In his merit, have mercy on us."

Rav Yisrael's supplication made a powerful point. He had barely finished his plea, when the rains subsided. Sunlight soon shone through, as a Kiddush Hashem had been witnessed by all of those on board.

This story is incredible. Its messages are powerful, valuable and very meaningful. Rav Beifus emphasizes one important lesson: the underlying cause of the family's transformation. It was the Gaon's repetition of Chazal's statement rejecting materialism at the expense of spirituality. The Gaon was so inspired with Chazal's maxim that he kept reiterating it over and over with such fervency that it left a stirring impression upon his neighbor and his entire family! He was acutely aware of the significance of chayei olam over chayei shaah.

Let not the Land disgorge you for having contaminated it. (18:28)

Eretz Yisrael will tolerate us as long as we act appropriately, as befits a land that is pure and holy. The Maggid m'Dubno offers a valuable analogy that sheds light on the reason Klal Yisrael is compelled to go into exile. A wealthy man exemplified the middah, character trait, of hachnosas orchim, welcoming wayfarers and providing for their immediate needs. His home was a veritable restaurant that fed anyone in need - from the abject poor to the business traveler who needed a home-cooked meal and a bed. Acutely aware of the varied backgrounds of his guests, he divided his dining room into two rooms that provided for the individual needs of his guests. The poor subsisted on breads, potatoes, herring and onions. Those who were used to a more refined diet of meats, fish and salads ate in the other dining room.

Once, a well-dressed traveler appeared at the wealthy man's home, and the host promptly seated him in the dining room in which he felt he would be most comfortable. Surprisingly, when the guest looked at the small serving of fancy bread and vegetable salad, he quickly went over to the table set for the poor and began to partake of a hefty portion of bread and potatoes. Apparently, his eating habits did not coincide with his station in life. Noticing this, the host went over and said, "I see that you are trying to take food from the other table. Why do you not simply go over there, sit down and eat to your heart's content?"

The Navi in Chavakuk 3:6 says, "He stood and measured out the land; He looked and dispersed nations." Chazal explain that Hashem assessed each nation in order to determine the appropriate place for it to live and thrive. Gilaad was home to people that were bloodthirsty and manifest no respect for human life. Bavel was a country in which people who were always angry - and were constantly involved in disputes - lived. Egypt was the center of witchcraft, and the list goes on. Eretz Yisrael is a place where spirituality thrives. Its kedushah, holiness, and taharah, purity, are suitable for achieving a high degree of spirituality. There is no Torah like the Torah studied in Eretz Yisrael. Nevuah, prophecy, which is one of the highest levels of Divine Inspiration, only reposes on an individual while he is in Eretz Yisrael.

When Klal Yisrael sins and behaves in a manner befitting the gentile nations of the world, Hashem says to them, "Why should you live in Eretz Yisrael and stretch out your hand to partake of the lifestyle endemic to chutz laeretz, the land outside of Eretz Yisrael? Why live in the Holy Land and live like a gentile? If you want to adapt their lifestyle - go to live with them!" This is what the Torah means when it says, "The land will disgorge us." Economy class meals are not served in the first-class section.


For in a cloud I will appear upon the Kapores. (16:2)

Horav Meir Shapiro, zl, interpreted this pasuk homiletically. A Jew should never give up hope and fall into depression, even during the most difficult times, when life seems "cloudy." When darkness envelops the earth and hope seems to be clouded over, one should remember that Hashem will appear in a cloud. He is always there. We are never alone.


You shall observe My decrees… which man shall carry out, and by which he shall live. (18:5)

Degel Machne Efraim notes that the word, osam, is spelled without the vav, leaving the letters aleph, taf, and mem, which are the same letters as are in the word emes, truth. The Torah teaches us that one who makes emes the foundation of his life, speaking the truth, confessing to the truth, and maintaining integrity in every endeavor will live a long life. Emes is a virtue which produces longevity.

The Kotzker Rebbe, zl, would say that one should perform mitzvos enthusiastically, with chiyus, life. The mitzvos should be our primary source of joy, excitement and life. We are to live through the mitzvos.

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