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Peninim on the Torah

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Rabbi A. Leib Scheinbaum
Hebrew Academy of Cleveland


(I am G-d) Who rests among them, even amidst their (spiritual) contamination. (16:16)

How often do we hear a young person remark, "I am too far gone to change my lifestyle to live a Torah life. I have sunk too far to return"? This pasuk teaches us otherwise. Regardless of how far one has strayed from Hashem, the Almighty never rejects him. Hashem is always there, waiting for him to return. Regrettably, this attitude is one that people often use as a cop-out to absolve them of the responsibilities to do teshuvah, to repent, and to return. To those who say that they are tamei, spiritually defiled, Hashem replies, "I will be there with you b'soch tumasam, amidst their (your) contamination." The Berditchever Rebbe, zl, once commented, "You can be for G-d, and you can be against G-d. You cannot, however, be without G-d." Even if man abandons G-d, Hashem will never abandon man.

Parents do not abandon their children. Parents turn their back on their children only after bitter suffering and after having exhausted every attempt to reconcile with them. A parent, after all, is only human. Hashem is also a parent, but He never gives up. Regardless of how much pain we cause Him, His love is boundless.

Perhaps another lesson can be derived from here. If one wants to help a tormented soul, it is crucial that he understands the source of the individual's pain. He has to get into his mind, delve into his soul, feel his torment and sense what it is that is distressing him. This is the meaning of "resting amidst their spiritual contamination." If we do not understand what makes them tick, we cannot feel their pain, so we cannot address their issues. We have to remember that, at times, when we have to extricate someone from the mud, we have to get down into the mud and personally get dirty in order to pull them out.

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

In the Talmud Sanhedrin 74a, Chazal say that the mitzvah of V'chai ba'hem applies to all cases with the exception of the cardinal sins of idol worship, murder and adultery. A Jew faced with the choice of either giving up his life or transgressing any one of these three sins must choose death. Interesting. Why does the Torah tell us that human life precedes mitzvah observance as a prefix to the laws of forbidden relationships, which happen to be one of the three exceptions to the rule of V'chai ba'hem?

Horav Mordechai Gifter, zl, explains that by commanding us to choose life instead of sin, the Torah is conveying to us the significance of life. The Torah, however, has a different standard for measuring true life. Indeed, one who transgresses the three cardinal sins can consider himself among the living. Is this true life? Is a life devoid of ethics and morals to be considered a life? The Torah does not seem to think so. The Torah's enjoinment to sacrifice one's life rather than violate one of the three cardinal sins originates from its high regard for life - true life - with dignity and morals.

Any man shall not approach his close relative to uncover nakedness. (18:6)

And the end of our parshah, the Torah details a long list of forbidden relations: mothers, stepmothers, sisters, aunts, and mothers-in-law. All of these women are forbidden for life. Once a mother-in-law, always a mother-in-law. Even if a man were to lose or divorce his wife, his former mother-in-law remains prohibited to him for life. There is, however, one exception to the rule: A wife's sister is forbidden only during the lifetime of his wife. If a man's wife dies, he may now marry her sister. Why?

The Ramban gives a compelling explanation for this law, one that goes to the heart of Jewish ethics. The other forbidden relationships are, for the most part, incestuous. They are morally wrong. Marrying a wife's sister is not really incestuous. In truth, from a moral standpoint, one could marry two sisters. From an ethical perspective, however, it is not proper. Sisters normally love and care for one another. In their natural state of relationship, there is a healthy respect and admiration from one sister to another. If they were both permitted to marry the same man, they would then become tzaros, rival wives. No longer would love and harmony prevail in their home. They would soon become competitive and combative. Tension would reign, and dispute would become natural. Their loving-sister relationship would become a thing of the past as they both vie for their husband's attention. Hashem does not want to shatter the status quo that has developed between these two sisters. Therefore, a man cannot marry both of them at the same time. If one has died, however, it is now permissible to marry the other one.

We have just become exposed to a new aspect of Torah dictate - yashrus, or mentschlichkeit, human decency. Rabbi Yissachar Frand explains that this is one of the major themes of Sefer Bereishis, which is also called Sefer HaYashar, Book of Righteousness, or Sefer Yesharim, Book of the Righteous, because it details the lives of the Avos, Patriarchs, who embodied yashrus at its zenith.

He cites the Netziv, zl, who posits that the Avos distinguished themselves not only in their relationship with the Almighty, but also in their relationship with other human beings. Their decency and integrity in dealing with others earned them the respect and admiration of all, serving as a living example of the teachings of Judaism. They were acknowledged as righteous because of their mentchlichkeit. No one was interested in their religious observance, only in their interpersonal relationships.

One episode, which tells it all is the story of Avraham Avinu's daring rescue of Lot, his nephew. He put his life in danger, when he took the students of his yeshivah with him to battle the invading kings who had taken Lot hostage. Was this really necessary? Does it say anywhere in the Torah that Avraham was obligated to place his and his students' lives in danger in order to save Lot? Surely, a mission of such great danger was not a priority.

Horav Yaakov Kaminetzky, zl, explains that it was not a halachic question, but an ethical one. It was a shailah, question, of yashrus, fundamental human decency. Haran, Lot's father, had supported Avraham, who stood up to the pagans of their day, declaring monotheism to the world. Since Haran had come to Avraham's side when he needed him, Avraham felt that it was his moral obligation to save his son. Avraham Avinu acted out of a sense of yashrus. It was for him an obligation of mentchlichkeit that carried the same weight as halachah.

Rabbi Frand addresses a number of mentchlikeit infringements, such as cell phones going off in the most inopportune places and times, or just plain crudeness on our part. I, however, would like to focus on two areas of which I regrettably have had the opportunity to be on the receiving end. Rebbeim are individuals who devote their lives to educating Jewish children. They put in time and gezunt, both physically and emotionally towards the goal of producing a ben Torah. Their financial remuneration is inadequate, but they do not do it for the money. Most teach l'shem Shomayim, for the sake of Heaven, to share in the awesome responsibility and privilege of educating our youth. On the other hand, they do need appreciation. A little thank you goes a long way if it is delivered with sincerity and feeling. If so, why is it that when a rebbe goes beyond the call of duty and spends time with our child, do we seldom remember to say those "two words"? How often do our children return from a trip, and, in our great rush to pick them up and go home, we "forget" to say, "Thank you for spending time with my son"? Trust me, the rebbeim are not getting paid for all of the time and effort that go into making an extra-curricular activity successful. This applies to so many instances when our children benefit from the love, attention and extra care that a rebbe manifests.

Next is car pool. I write this at 11:00PM, while I wait for those few parents to pick up their children after an extra-curricular event that ended on time - at 10:00PM. For some, it is simply not convenient to come until later. The fact that it is inconvenient for the rebbe does not seem to matter.. There are always children who are relegated to staying after school, waiting for their parent to return from his or her errands, job, or appointments. What adds insult to injury is that the parent picks up his or her child and does not even bother to wave, "Thank you" or "I'm sorry". Is the parent ashamed? Probably. It does not, however, stop him or her from doing it again - and again. I am sure I have given my readers food for thought, under the purview of yashrus - mentschlichkeit.

Do not profane the Name of your G-d. (18:21)

Chillul Hashem, desecrating Hashem's Name, is a severe transgression for which teshuvah, repentance, cannot atone. Teshuvah suspends the punishment of death, which ultimately purges one of the sin. The Rishonim cite a number of vehicles through which one can atone for this dreadful sin. In Parashas Emor (22:32), the Torah repeats its admonition against chillul Hashem and juxtaposes upon the mitzvah of Kiddush Shem Shomayim, "You shall not profane My holy Name, rather I shall be sanctified among the Bnei Yisrael." Rabbeinu Bachya explains that the Torah is alluding to a way of rectifying the sin of chillul Hashem - by sanctifying Hashem's Name. When one acts in a manner that increases the honor of Hashem's Name in the world, he is atoning for the sin of chillul Hashem. One must attempt to rectify his sin in a manner similar to the way he has sinned. Rabbeinu Yonah writes in his Shaarei Teshuvah that acts of chesed, loving-kindness, and the pursuit of emes, truth, which are hallmarks of the Jewish People, bring about Kiddush Hashem. When Jews act appropriately, they sanctify Hashem's Name, thereby contributing to the rectification of the sin of chillul Hashem.

In a shmuess, ethical discourse, on the concept of Kiddush Hashem, Horav Avraham Pam, zl, in his Sefer Atarah l'Melech, anthologized by Rabbi Shalom Smith, cites the pasuk in Tehillim 87:1, "A psalm, a song, whose foundation is in the holy mountains." The Midrash Socher Tov explains that this is a reference to the two mountains upon which Yiddishkeit, as a religion, is based: Har Ha'Moriah, the mountain upon which Yitzchak Avinu was prepared to sacrifice his life during the Akeidas Yitzchak; and Har Sinai, the mountain which was the scene of the Revelation where the Torah was given to Klal Yisrael. As Rav Pam explains so beautifully and meaningfully, Har Ma'Moriah taught the Jews how to sanctify Hashem's Name by their willingness to sacrifice their lives for Him, and Har Sinai taught the Jews how to live a life of constant Kiddush Hashem by adhering to the mitzvos of the Torah. One taught us how to die for Hashem, while the other taught us how to live for Him. The Jew is guided in life and death. Both scenarios must be dedicated towards serving the Almighty with every fibre of our being.

Rav Pam notes that a close student of the Chafetz Chaim related how, during davening, he would often hear the Chafetz Chaim entreating Hashem to give him the zchus, privilege, to give up his life Al Kiddush Hashem in the long and productive life that he had. His service to the Jewish People was the quintessential embodiment of Kiddush Shem Shomayim, a service that endures beyond the parameters of his mortality.

Just over sixty years ago our People underwent an epic Kiddush Hashe,m as six million martyrs perished in the most heinous ways, due to a single factor: they were Jews. The Holocaust decimated a large portion of our People and left a scar on the lives of every Jew from that day on. Rav Pam notes that today, there are hundreds of thousands of Jews, descendants of those kedoshim, martyrs, who carry their names - with distinction. They died Al Kiddush Hashem. Our function is to live a life of Kiddush Hashem. We can do this by maintaining a holy demeanor, by acting courteously, with integrity, and by speaking in a kind, polite manner. Our actions, our inter-relationships with people, all promote a feeling of good-will, respect and, ultimately, Kiddush Hashem.

And the he-goat designated by Lot for Azazel shall be stood alive before Hashem, to provide atonement through it. (19:10)

When Yaakov Avinu followed his mother Rivkah's orders to provide two goats for Yitzchak Avinu, the pasuk says, "And fetch me from these two choice young kids of the goats" (Bereishis 27:9). The Midrash comments, "These goats will be good for you, since they will access for you Yitzchak's blessings, and they will be good for your offspring, since through the two he-goats, one to Hashem and one to Azazel, they will achieve atonement on Yom Kippur." The Midrash begs elucidation. What is the connection between the goats that Yaakov was to bring to Yitzchak at the behest of Rivkah, and the two he-goats offered on Yom Kippur? Furthermore, why did Rivkah try so hard to see to it that Yaakov received the brachos, blessings, instead of Eisav? These brachos were material in nature, something about which Yaakov did not really care anyway. Why then go to all the trouble? Last, ultimately, Yaakov received the blessings, but as we can see, the material benefits of this world were all delivered to the hands of Eisav. So, in the end, Yaakov suffered at the hand of Eisav for the blessings that he received instead of Eisav - which Eisav enjoyed nonetheless! So, was it all worth it?

In his commentary to Parashas Toldos, The Bais Halevi explains that Rivkah sought the material blessings for Yaakov by design, and it was her intention that Eisav should steal from him. This way Yaakov's reward was magnified. If Yaakov were to have received the material blessings, then all of the world's material and physical bounty would be destined for him and his descendants. Eisav and his descendants could not tolerate this. Therefore, they acted accordingly and seized what was appropriately Yaakov's, leaving him with little or nothing. This is all l'tovas Yisrael, for the benefit of the Jew, who now achieves atonement as a result of his "loss." On the other hand, if Eisav would have originally received the blessings, then the material bounty that he possessed would, by right, be his. Then, Yaakov's lack of material bounty could not serve in his spiritual merit.

There is another advantage to the brachos that Yaakov received from Yitzchak. One who takes a vow not to enjoy any pleasure from his possessions does not revoke his ownership of these possessions. While he may not derive benefit from them, he still retains his ownership over them. Furthermore, he may use these possessions in the performance of a mitzvah, since Chazal are of the opinion that mitzvos lav l'henos nitnu, mitzvos are not given for the purpose of our deriving benefit from their fulfillment. In other words, the pleasure gained from mitzvah performance is not considered a benefit. Likewise, the material resources that Yaakov received from Yitzchak remain his, even though he did not necessarily have access to enjoy them. This idea has two applications. First, Eisav was a thief and, by using Yaakov's possessions, he caused a reduction in Yaakov's spiritual demerits; second, Yaakov would be permitted to appropriate his possessions which were seized by Eisav and use them for mitzvos, such as charity or supporting the study of Torah.

We now understand the relationship between Yitzchak's blessings and the Yom Kippur service. On Rosh Hashanah, Klal Yisrael prays for a positive judgment from Hashem. On Yom Kippur, Hashem formalizes and signs the final decree. In order to achieve a positive decree, we send the he-goat to Azazel as an allowance from which Eisav and his descendants sustain themselves the entire year. When they enjoy our material blessings, our demerits are diminished and we merit a positive signature from Hashem.

Va'ani Tefillah

Ashreinu she'anachnu mashkimim u'maarivim b'chal yom tamid paamayim b'ahavah v'omrim Shema Yisrael. How fortunate are we that we lovingly begin and end each and every day by twice proclaiming: Shema Yisrael.

The simple meaning of this prayer is our expression of gratitude that we are among those who twice daily proclaim the unity of Hashem. Why do we emphasize the fact that we make this declaration twice a day - in the morning and in the evening? Why do we not simply make a general statement concerning our fulfillment of this mitzvah? The Chasam Sofer gives an insightful explanation. We express our good fortune for being able to maintain our enthusiasm and fervor for this mitzvah, even though we perform it twice a day - day in and day out. While doing any activity on a regular basis leads to complacency and a lack of passion, we are just as excited as if it was our first experience.

Horav Shimon Schwab, zl, offers an alternative interpretation for mashkimim u'maarivim. The first words that a father should teach his son are: Torah tzivah lanu Moshe, "The Torah that Moshe commanded us…" and Shema Yisrael. In other words, the earliest words (mashkimim) uttered by a person is Shema Yisrael. During life's closing moments, one should once again proclaim Hashem's oneness. Therefore, the maarivim is a reference to the fact that on the evening of one's life,when he takes leave of his mortal self, he does so with Shema Yisrael. Life begins and ends with Shema Yisrael.

Peninim on the Torah is in its 14th year of publication. The first nine years have been published in book form.

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