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Peninim on the Torah

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Rabbi A. Leib Scheinbaum
Hebrew Academy of Cleveland


Acharei Mos

Hashem spoke to Moshe after the death of Aharon's two sons. (16:1)

In Shir HaShirim 3:11, Shlomo Hamelech says "Go forth and gaze…upon the King to Whom peace belongs, adorned with the crown His nation has made for Him on His wedding day (on the day His Law was given) and on the day His heart was gladdened (by His Sanctuary's consecration)." Two of the happiest days in the Jewish calendar of events, the Giving of the Torah and the Inauguration of the Mishkan, were marked by tragedy. Aharon HaKohen's two sons perished on the day of the inauguration of the Mishkan. During the period of the Sefiras Ha'Omer between Pesach and Shavuous, the prelude to the Giving of the Torah, the twenty-four thousand students of Rabbi Akiva died. We do not question the reason for their demise. We wonder, however, if it was necessary to tie these tragedies to the two days of ultimate joy.

The Maggid zl, m'Dubno responds with an analogy. There was a king who decided to build a new city from scratch. It was to be the perfect city. Its design, architecture and construction was to be planned to the smallest detail. He engaged the services of the most qualified city planning firm to make all of the arrangements. To the amazement of everyone, after the city had been completed, the king was still not satisfied. "What more can I do to enhance this city?" he asked the firm of advisors.

"If the king really wants to impress the world, we suggest that a world class medical center be built under the leadership of the most distinguished physician of our time. This will surely achieve an unparalleled position in history for the king," they replied. The king agreed, and they soon had a functioning hospital, prepared to treat the most complex medical problems. The chief of staff was a world- renowned physician, whose reputation as an expert diagnostician was superseded only by his skill and expertise in dealing with the most chronically ill patients.

The first patient arrived for treatment. After a short stay in the hospital, under the personal care of the noted chief of staff, he succumbed to his illness. This was a bad jolt to the physician's stature. The patient, however, had been so chronically ill that he was beyond all scientific help. Nonetheless, this did not cause people to look favorably upon the hospital or its chief.

The king called for the doctor and asked, "Why did you take it upon yourself to treat such a chronically ill patient? You were not successful, and now the hospital's reputation has been impugned."

"My dear king," replied the doctor, "let me explain to you the reason for my actions. My distinguished reputation preceded me to this city. All of a sudden, patients were lining up at the hospital door seeking treatment. I could accept this. There is something else, however, which gave me great cause for concern. I feared that, with the presence of the best hospital coupled with the finest physician in the world, the citizens of your community might become complacent and no longer care about their health. We all know that preventive care is the best therapy for illness. I know only too well how limited medicine really is. If people neglect their health, I will not be able to save them. When I saw that the first sick person to enter my office was someone whose illness was too far advanced for even the finest medical care, I was happy in an ambivalent sort of way. I did everything to help him, knowing fully well that it would be to no avail. When he died, the citizens of the community were confronted with the stark reality that if they do not take care of themselves, the finest doctor and best hospital will not be able to save them."

The lesson is clear. Hashem gave us the Torah which is to be the cure-all, the panacea for all spiritual ills. Herein, however, lies the greatest danger. People think that by learning alone - without developing their middos, character traits -they will succeed in warding off the blandishments of the yetzer hora, evil inclination. What did Hashem do to teach us this important lesson? Specifically, prior to the festival commemorating the Giving of the Torah, He acted with middas ha'Din, the attribute of Strict Justice, and He took the lives of Rabbi Akiva's distinguished disciples. Their infraction has been noted as "a lack of respect one for another." Veritably, the hairbreadth of sin concerning these great giants of Torah was employed on a level that is beyond our comprehension. For all intents and purposes, it was a blemish on their middos that led to this tragic punishment.

Likewise, the Mishkan/Bais Hamikdash is supposed to be the place whose spiritual stature, its quintessential sanctity, has the power to atone for sin, via the korbanos, sacrifices, and ritual service that takes place there. Once again, this can lead to complacency in which people forget the significance of middos tovos, good character traits, and the need to constantly refine them. As a reminder, the two sons of Aharon, men of incredible lofty spiritual eminence, were tragically taken from our midst, also because the middas ha'Din was employed to delve deeply into their middos. The lesson for us is apparent. If the fire can fall on the cedars, if the greatest Torah leaders can perish as a result of the middas ha'Din, how can we respond?

You shall observe My decrees…and by which he shall live - I am Hashem. (18:6)

Rashi interprets "Ani Hashem, I am Hashem," to mean, "I can be relied on to reward those who obey Me." There are laws that are beyond the ability of human logic to comprehend. In the previous pasuk, Rashi explains that the promise, "Ani Hashem," applies to those laws that tax the mind, that raise questions which we cannot answer. While there is certainly a powerful spiritual reason for these laws, it is beyond our ken, and therefore, it takes a leap of faith to observe them. In truth, many mitzvos that were understood centuries ago, before society became the bastion of immorality that it is, have become archaic and irrational in the eyes of society today. Hashem will reward those who maintain the fortitude and commitment to see beyond their ability to comprehend, who believe in a heritage that has sustained our people throughout the dark exile.

This idea holds true also of those mitzvos which people take for granted or view as irrelevant. In his Mishnah Berurah (90:29) the Chofetz Chaim zl, relates an incident that occurred concerning the Rav of Hamburg. As he was walking to shul one morning wearing his Tallis and Tefillin, he was stopped by a man with a proposition. It seems that he had in his possession a bag of diamonds which he was willing to sell at a greatly reduced price. This was an opportunity for the Rav to make an incredible amount of money. The Rav asked the diamond merchant to wait until after Tefillas Shacharis. The man said that he could not wait. It was either now or never. The Rav bid the man a good day, saying that tefillah b'tzibur, davening with a minyan, quorum of ten men, was more important than any money he would earn. Indeed, the Rav was overjoyed at being able to overcome the inclination to make a small fortune and instead affirm his commitment to tefillah b'tzibur.

In citing this story, Horav Yitzchak Zilberstein, Shlita, adds that while the Hamburger Rav did not earn a fortune, he was the recipient of an outstanding reward in being the progenitor of generations of Torah scholars and leaders. Hashem does not let any mitzvah go uncompensated. He will pay us back when we need it most and in a "currency" that we value and appreciate. For the Hamburger Rav, sons and sons-in-law that are talmidim chachamim, Torah scholars, had greater significance than an increased balance in his checkbook.

You shall observe My decrees…and by which he shall live. (18:6)

Horav Shlomo Wolbe, zl, notes that when a person is born, his abilities and talents are already present in the "potential" mode. As he grows and develops, as he lives and travels throughout the highway of life, he has the opportunity to actualize these dormant abilities. In other words, man's life, his focus and objective should be the realization of his G-d-given powers. Every bit of Torah that he studies, every mitzvah that he observes, gives him the tools for growth and the fruition of his inner skills and capabilities. Life is filled with opportunity. We must make the most of it.

As we grow and confront the various milestones in life, each one is a test of commitment and belief. How will we respond? What type of attitude will we have? Will we approach it with zest and enthusiasm, or will it be something we feel compelled to do? We had an opportunity during our youth to grow in a positive and exciting manner. Did we? The opportunity arose again when we married and raised a family. Did we apply ourselves to the education of our children with interest and vigor - or was it another one of the many things on our mind? How did we act with regard to finding a suitable mate for our child? Did we go through the motions and say, "What is bashert, destined, is bashert, or did we act astutely, with sensitivity and decency?

Some of us live our lives in the "b'dieved," ex-post-facto mode. We get married because we do not want to be alone. We enter the field of Torah chinuch, education, because nothing else works easily. This lackadaisical, complacent attitude is a grave mistake. We were granted life with all of its challenges for a purpose: to live, to grow, to realize our potential. To take the gift of life and simply exist as if it has no meaning, no value, is not only self destructive, but it is insubordinate. Indeed, every day should demand of us a renewed awakening, a fresh and exciting approach to its challenges, an enthusiastic resolution for success and growth.

Rav Wolbe views the time of seeking shidduchim, finding a suitable mate for our children, as a period during which one can achieve excellent spiritual growth. It is a time of compelling nisayon, challenge. Commensurate with the challenge, however, is the opportunity to transform that challenge into good fortune. When one takes this idea to heart, he will be certain to live through this period l'chatchilah, a-priori mode. One should realize that min haShomayim, through Divine assistance, he is being walked through this seemingly "difficult" period. Every step of the way, he is being accompanied and guided. One can not then take away what is predestined for one individual, nor can he take what is designated for another.

One who views this period in his life through the lens of Torah will never allow such thoughts as , "I wish I could get through this already," or "When will it end?" to pass through his mind. He will, instead, accept this opportunity for growth and act accordingly. These challenges are a vital part of life, and the way he reacts to them determines what kind of life he will live.


When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not complete the reaping to the corner of your field. (19:9)

The Torah enjoins the field owner not to reap the entire field, but to leave over a small corner of the field for the poor. Why is this? Would it not be easier to simply reap the entire field and give the poor a bag of grain? This way, the poor man would not have to go to the field and do the actual harvesting himself. The Alshich HaKadosh offers a cogent insight that should encourage us to raise our sensitivity level to the needs and feelings of others. By leaving over a corner of the field for the poor, the owner is implying, "This is your part of the field. It belongs to you." The poor man no longer feels like a beggar. He is an owner, albeit of a very small tract of land, but an owner nonetheless. This is the Torah's way of granting some entitlement to the poor man.

This is why the Torah prefaces the mitzvah of Peah, leaving over a corner of the field, with the words, "When you reap the harvest of your land." The Torah is telling the owner, "Look and understand. Hashem grants you land and He blesses it with an abundant crop. This may seem to be a natural occurrence, but it is not. Nothing is natural. It is all based upon Hashem's will. Why does He conceal His part of the relationship? Because He wants you to feel like an owner, as if it were your work that caused this abundant harvest. Just as Hashem cares about your feelings of ownership, so, too, should you be sensitive to the emotions of the poor. Let them also feel like an owner."

You shall not curse the deaf. (19:14)

The Torah focuses on the individual who cannot hear, and thus, cannot be embarrassed by the curse. The fact that the Torah chooses to focus on a deaf person, rather than anyone else, is noteworthy. After all, the prohibition against cursing applies in all cases. One is not permitted to curse his fellow - regardless of that fellow's ability to hear. In his Derashos, the Ran posits that the Torah is teaching us a powerful lesson.

If we were to ask ourselves why it is prohibited to steal, the answer would be: We are not allowed to take something that is not ours. One may not violate the property rights of another person. What is his - is his, and, by implication, off limits to me. The Torah ostensibly seeks to protect the victim. Applying this thesis, the reason one is not to curse his fellow is because one may not harm his fellow. Cursing is a form of inflicting damage. When the individual hears the curse, he becomes hurt, humiliated and depressed.

If this would be the case, it would, by implication, be permitted to curse a deaf person, since he is not sustaining an injury. He is unaware of the curse, and thus, not victimized by it. On the contrary, it is beneficial for the one who did the cursing. He is now calmer, his anger has been dissipated by releasing his invectives against the unfortunate man. Therefore, why is it forbidden to curse a person who does not hear what we are saying? If there is no victim, then there should be no prohibition.

From the fact that the Torah prohibits cursing a deaf person, we derive that we have confused the victims. The victim in this case is not the deaf person, but, rather, the one who is cursing. He is blemishing his soul and destroying himself with the revenge he is taking against the deaf person. In addition, this implies that the prohibition against stealing is not necessarily only protecting the individual from whom he has stolen, but also protecting the thief himself. The Torah is sensitive to the harm one causes to himself, as well. Our Torah's dictates are unlike any other volume of jurisprudence. It is concerned not only with the obvious victim, but even with the one who is perpetrating the act, because he is also a victim - of himself.

And My sanctuary shall you revere - I am Hashem. (19:30)

The Torah enjoins us to demonstrate the proper respect for the Sanctuary. Obviously, today, when there is no Bais Hamikdash, the enjoinment extends to the mikdash me'at, miniature sanctuary, the shul or bais hamedrash. Indeed, there are laws governing how one should act in a shul. Regrettably, there are those individuals who view the shul as their all-purpose center, where everything from that day's stock prices to the latest community gossip is exchanged. The dress code that should prevail has long been ignored. Perhaps the following story might give us some insight into the preeminence that should be accorded the present day sanctuary. In addition, we never know if the merit that was derived in the story may be used by those in need of Hashem's favor.

One day, a woman and her young daughter stood by the door of a kollel in one of Eretz Yisrael's growing communities. This was a distinguished kollel whose fellows were talmidei chachamim, Torah scholars, of note. After awhile, one of the avreichim, kollel fellows, arose and asked the woman if he could help her. She replied, "My daughter has been diagnosed with a serious illness. The doctors say that conventional medicine has no treatment available to cure her. I am originally from Morocco where I heard from my father that it was a tradition in his home that one who cleans the bais hamedrash finds favor in the eyes of Hashem. One who loves Hashem is happy to clean His "house." This was how he demonstrates his reverence and gratitude to the Almighty. Please allow us to clean the bais hamedrash, so that my daughter will have a zechus, merit, to live."

That night, the avreichim left as usual, and the woman and her daughter took over. They swept, cleaned, washed, and polished everything in the bais hamedrash. When the young men returned the next morning for Shacharis, they did not recognize their "home." It sparkled. It was obvious that during the past night, the woman and her daughter must have worked themselves to the bone to present a bais hamedrash that was aesthetically clean and worthy of being a sanctuary for Hashem.

A few days passed, and the woman and her daughter once again appeared by the door of the kollel. No longer did they look depressed. In fact, there seemed to be a sparkle in the mother's eye. Her inner joy seemed to manifest itself outwardly. "I have come to inform you that my daughter went today for a test and, to the doctor's astonishment, the tumor that threatened her life is no longer there. Clearly, it is a miracle. They asked where I had taken my daughter for treatment. I told them the truth. I cleaned Hashem's home! This is His reward. Thank you so much for allowing us to clean the bais hamedrash. It has saved my daughter's life."

Perhaps there is more to the story, and quite possibly the child had other zechusim also. One cannot deny, however, the logic behind this zechus. If we will only put away the seforim and siddurim to circumvent bitul Torah, the loss of Torah study, while one searches for them, this would in itself be a noble gesture and zechus. In any event, I have written this story as a public service. There is no reason that what worked in Morocco should also not work here.

Va'ani Tefillah

Ba'erev yalin bechi, v'la'boker rinah. In the evening one lies down weeping, but with dawn - a cry of joy!

Horav Avigdor Miller, zl, explains that the weeping Hashem causes a man is the "storm before the calm," the preface and preparation for joy in the morning. This applies especially if the weeping is properly utilized for introspection and repentance. Then the morning will produce a song. The term "morning" is a reference which includes all forms of happiness which follow a night of weeping. This includes Klal Yisrael's redemption after the "night" of exile, as well as the light associated with Olam Habah, the World to Come, which follows after the "night" of his life. In Bereishis 1:5, the Torah writes, "There was evening and there was morning." Chazal derive from here that in the Torah's perspective each day begins with the preceding night. This signifies the principle that the light of Olam Habah must be preceded by the darkness of this life.

Perhaps this is what David Hamelech means when he says, "For anger endures but a moment; life results from His favor." Even the anger which is fleeting is the source of life, for it precedes and is the cause for life. If we realize that what we think is "anger" is the precursor of life, then when we lay down weeping, we will arise to newly found joy.

in honor of
Miriam Bas Avrohom

Dr. Marijah McCain

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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