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Peninim on the Torah

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Rabbi A. Leib Scheinbaum
Hebrew Academy of Cleveland


You must not act in the (same) manner as (the people of) the land of Egypt, where you dwelled, nor may you act in the (same) manner as (the people of) the land of Canaan…(18:2)

Rashi explains that the behavior of the inhabitants of Egypt and Canaan was more degenerate than that of any other nation. Furthermore, the inhabitants of the area in Egypt in which the Jews settled were more depraved than those in any other area. In the Sifra, Chazal go so far as to suggest that Klal Yisrael's presence in Egypt provided the catalyst for the moral depravity of the Egyptian People. This same deviation of the native population occurred when Klal Yisrael entered Canaan and became its inhabitants. The prospect of the Jewish settlement in Canaan stimulated the Canaanite's corruption. This is paradoxical! The Jewish People are to be a "light unto all the nations," a beacon of G-dliness and moral purity. Yet, here they are considered to be the reason for the immmoral behavior that surged in these two degenerate nations. How is it feasible that, just by living in the land, the Jews had such a detrimental effect upon the people?

Chazal compare the Jewish People's settlement in Egypt to a rose growing among thorns. In fact, Hashem told the people, "In Egypt, you were as a rose among thorns. As you enter Canaan, you are to continue to be worthy of that title. Do not be influenced by the actions of the Canaanites." Chazal compare this to a king who places his only daughter in an environment populated by people of base moral character. He enjoins her not to be influenced by their deviate behavior.

When we analyze Chazal's analogy, we wonder why the king placed his daughter there in the first place? This question extends to Egypt and Canaan: If they were such immoral places, why did Hashem place Jews there? Why did He play mind games with their spiritual welfare? In explaining this anomaly, Horav Mordechai Miller, zl, first examines the obligation, which is incumbent upon every Jew, to sacrifice his life to sanctify the Name of Hashem. One must be prepared to sacrifice his very life, if that is what it takes. This phenomenon has been heroically played out during our tumultuous history, as individuals and whole families sacrificed themselves on the sword and the flame, rather than renege on their commitment to the Almighty. While this has been our heritage, can we say that we would grasp this legacy with open arms, displaying the fortitude and courage to face our persecutors with the necessary strength to say, "No! We are ready to die for our beliefs!"?

Rav Miller cites a statement from Horav Chaim Zaitchik, zl, that illuminates this issue. He says, "Opposition sharpens one's spiritual strength." When an opposing force challenges the individual, he rises to the challenge specifically because of the challenge he is facing. A response is always stronger than a proactive action. A practical example to which we can relate, is when a child misbehaves, his mother invariably threatens him with some form of punishment. During that moment, her love for the child is "momentarily" on hold. If she were to then see someone attacking her child, however, her reaction would be swift and furious, as she defends her child. The opposition which her child faces arouses her love.

Rav Miller cites the Talmud Chagigah 5b, which relates a conversation that took place between Rabbi Yehoshua ben Chananyah and the sages of the time,as Rabbi Yehoshua lay on his deathbed. They wondered to whom they would turn in order to counter the heretical arguments of the Tzedukim, the Jews who only believed in the Written Law. His response has become a classic. He said, "When wisdom departs from the children (of Yisrael), then wisdom (that of the Tzedukim) also departs." This means that Hashem grants wisdom to the forces of evil to provide a challenge for the Jewish People. At a time in which the Jewish People are left bereft of their intellectual spiritual giants, He has no need to increase the wisdom of their antagonists. When Rabbi Yehoshua would pass from the world, so, too, would pass the extraordinary wisdom of the Tzedukim. There is nothing constructive in endowing the Tzedukim with challenging intellect and wisdom, because there was no one available to counter their heresy. If no one will benefit from the challenge, the challenge has no purpose.

After the Bais Hamikdash was destroyed, the forces of impurity greatly increased. In reaction to this void and ensuing evil, so many righteous leaders, such as Daniel, Ezra and Mordechai, appeared.

With this principle in mind, we can now understand why Hashem chose to exile the Jewish People specifically to Egypt and Canaan, countries that were infamous for their moral depravity and perversion. Hashem knows the unique constellation of strengths and weaknesses of each individual. Only He can place His People in a situation that is challenging, for only He knows who will emerge triumphant and who will benefit from the ordeal. Man cannot undertake to make this decision due to his lack of objectivity concerning himself and certainly his cluelessness regarding the situation. Hashem knows whether a person will rise to the challenge, and, therefore, if He challenges him, it is because He knows that the person will succeed. Challenges draw out one's inner strengths and hidden potential. This is the reason that Hashem placed the Jews in countries which were morally depraved, for it is here that they would confront their greatest moral obstacles. From here, from the crucible that was Egypt and later Canaan, they would triumph and become a better people.

Let us go one step further. Talmud Sanhedrin 39b makes the following statement: Let Ovadiah (the Navi) -- who lived among two wicked people (Achav and his wife, Izevel, King and Queen of Yisrael), yet did not learn from their deeds -- challenge Eisav, who lived among two righteous people (his parents, Yitzchak and Rivka) . Horav Eliyahu Eliezer Dessler, zl, explains that Eisav was the archenemy of Yaakov and, eventually, his descendants. Indeed, Satan, who represents the concept of evil, is his guardian angel. Amalek, his grandson, initiated an unprovoked war against the Jewish People, for no reason other than his hatred for the representatives of truth. Amalek sought to suppress the spiritual effect of the Jewish People, the Exodus and its accompanying miracles on the cosmos. An implacable hatred burned within him to erase the Jewish People from the face of the earth. Why? He inherited this virulent animus from his grandfather, Eisav, who had been raised in a loving spiritual home, but rejected it. The lofty, awesome deeds to which he had been privy only further tempered his obstinate resolve to continue hating with a vehemence. He transmitted this hatred to his offspring to such an extent that their love for falsehood passionately drove them with a suicidal force to destroy the nation that symbolized truth.

This thought illuminates for us why the Jewish People's presence in Egypt and Canaan catalyzed and even necessitated the corruption of these nations. "Opposition sharpens one's spiritual strengths": In order for the Jewish People to grow spiritually, they had to be challenged by depravity and corruption.

Rav Dessler concludes with a powerful warning to members of contemporary society. One who lives in a society that is morally and spiritually upright is paradoxically in a dangerous position. If he has chosen to oppose the righteous, he will regrettably develop an overwhelming hatred for their ideals and values, to the degree that it will even supersede that of the individual who has not been exposed to true good. Opposition brings out the resolve - and hatred. Those of us who are blessed to live in an environment that is inherently good, righteous and moral must be thankful, but also very careful to guard ourselves against any possible danger.

On the other hand, considering the moral perversity of contemporary society, we are in a unique position to react strongly against this pervasive evil and to develop our spirituality in a positive manner. It all boils down to one question: Are we challenged by contemporary society? Do we struggle against contemporary society, or have we capitulated?


You shall not hate your brother in your heart; you shall reprove your fellow and do not bear a sin because of him…you shall love your fellow as yourself. (19:17, 18)

Horav Gedalyah Schorr, zl, was wont to say that when one reproves his fellow, he should see to it that he does not magnify his sin more than necessary. This is the underlying meaning of Lo sissa alav cheit, which is translated as, "Do not bear a sin because of him. The word sissa, however, can also be interpreted as "to raise up." Thus, we are exhorted to take extra caution that we do not make the sinner feel that his sin is too much to bear and that teshuvah, repentance, is no longer an option. Horav Avraham Schorr, Shlita, supplements this with the notion that one should search for some form of merit to counter the intensity of the sin.

The Ohr HaChaim HaKadosh wonders why the Torah's vernacular is: You shall not hate in your heart your brother. It should have said, "Lo sisna b'levavecha es achicha," putting "your heart" before "your brother." Horav Menachem Mendel, zl, m'Rimanov explains that the Torah is telling us not to judge someone else's sinful behavior in accordance with "our heart." Perhaps for us, with our lev tov, good, refined heart, we would never have sinned. The other fellow, however, has a difficult heart with its own set of failings. His heart is more susceptible to sin. Thus, we are admonished not to use our heart as the barometer for judging another person's sinful behavior. How often do we judge others with our "holier than thou" attitude? Just because we are able to overcome our yetzer hora, evil inclination, we have no proof that our fellow man has a similar ability.

Horav Shmelke, zl, m'Nicklesburg was once asked how one fulfills the mitzvah of loving his fellow Jew, when the other individual acts inappropriately towards him? He explained that the entire Jewish People has one great unified neshamah. No one would ever think of hitting himself every time he has inadvertently hurt himself. It happens. One stubs his toe, bumps into the wall, bangs his hand. Is this a reason to hit himself again? Certainly not! Likewise, when another Jew hurts us, it is the result of a lack of daas, sense, intelligence. He did not realize the folly of his action. Now, if one were to reciprocate and harm him, he is actually harming himself - again! One must learn from the kamocha, yourself. Hurting another Jew is hurting ourselves. To care about and love another Jew is actually a manifestation of love for ourselves, because we are all one.

Perhaps we may suggest another understanding of the kamocha, "like yourself." concept. A secular writer once wrote the following: "Not until I became a mother did I feel how hurt my mother was when I disobeyed; not until I became a mother did I know how proud my mother was when I achieved; not until I became a mother did I realize how much my mother loves me."

We seldom put ourselves in another person's shoes. To love another person as one loves himself is to demand that we put ourselves in his shoes and feel his hurt and his joy, because until we are able to divest ourselves of ourselves and think only of our friend, we have not yet achieved a worthy relationship. We are always putting someone in "his place." What about putting ourselves in his place; feeling what he feels, going through what he is going through? Perhaps, then, our perspective would change. If it does not, then there is something seriously wrong - with us.

You shall be holy for Me…and I have separated you from the peoples to be Mine. (20:26)

Rashi explains that if we keep ourselves apart from the nations, maintaining our distinction, dignity and self-respect, then we will belong to Hashem. If, however, we do not maintain our distance, if we make every attempt to acculturate and eventually assimilate, then we will belong to Nevuchadnezzar and his cohorts. Rashi's comment has justified itself throughout history. Horav Gedalyah Schorr, zl, would often comment that there was no other nation in which the Jewish People had gone to such lengths to be accepted and integrated as they did in Germany. Many went out of their way to assimilate, to the point that apostatizing oneself and intermarriage were no longer viewed as unforgivable anathemas. Yet, it was specifically from Germany that the evil emerged. It was the source of all of the anti-Semitism against the Jews of Europe. The reason for this is that we have a distorted perspective on the root of anti-Semitism. It has nothing to do with our being different, or the fact that we do not intermingle with them. The Torah, in the above pasuk, spells it out very clearly. Our lack of separation brings about a negative reaction from the nations. When we maintain our distance, we are under Hashem's protection. Otherwise, we become part of Nevuchadnezzar's milieu.

When we peruse history, we note that anti-Semitism does not follow a rational pattern. The success of the German nation was largely due to its Jewish contribution. The secular Jews were involved in every aspect of commerce, science and the arts. They elevated German culture and brought it to its position of prominence throughout the world. Yet, they were scorned and the subject of every libel. Why were they hated so? What did they do to warrant such a virulent response to their dedication to the fatherland?

Hashem's love for the Jewish People engendered this bitter animosity. The Jews must remain distinct and separate. They either accomplish this on their own -- maintaining their sense of pride and dignity -- or Hashem will be "compelled" to create a distance between the gentile and the Jew. Furthermore, we derive from here an important principle: The greater the distance between the Jewish People and the nations, the more we are protected from our enemies. This is a clear corollary that the astute observer can see by studying history.

The Derashos Chasam Sofer explains Rashi, based on Chazal's dictum in the Talmud Bava Metzia, Shomer she'masar l'shomer chayav. "A watchman who gives the object he is watching to another watchman to watch (without the owner's permission) is held responsible for its loss." There is one stipulation to this halachah. If the shomer, watchman, gives the object to an individual to whom the owner regularly gives his property, he is not chayav, held responsible, since he is not really altering procedure from the owner's usual practice. This concept applies equally in our relationship with Hashem, Who is the Shomer Yisrael, Guardian of the Jewish People. We say in Tefillas Arvis, Evening prayer, B'yadcha afkid ruchi, "In Your hands I deposit my spirit." Hashem is the guardian of our spirit. When the Jewish People give themselves over to the gentile nations, thinking foolishly that this will protect them from their wicked machinations, then we are demonstrating that we also consider the nations to be our guardians. As "owners" of our spirit and destiny, we are indicating to Hashem that He can give us over to Nevuchadnezzar and his cohorts, because we are not in conflict with them. In other words, we asked for it by our very actions. When man accepts "natural" events as his compass, his barometer for life, then he is unfortunately relegated to live by the course of these events - regardless of their tragic consequences. If, however, he lives by Hashem's guidance, then current events are the natural order and have no effect on him, because Hashem functions above all of that.

The Arugas HaBosem adds that since Klal Yisrael is the least of all nations, they should have become bateil, nullified, in the Talmudic sense of bateil b'rov. The minority becomes nullified by the majority in an admixture. This rule does not apply when the minority is distinct. When Jews maintain their distance, they do not intermingle and become part of Nevuchadnezzar and his partners in crime.

The mere fact that there was a distinction between Jew and Egyptian played an integral role in Klal Yisrael's exodus from that country. The Meshech Chochmah makes a powerful observation. The Jews in Egypt had forgotten the basics of Torah, its mitzvos and traditions, to the point that at the Red Sea, the ministering angels could not distinguish between Jew and Egyptian. They were both ovdei avodah zarah, worshipped idols. Even Bris Milah was rejected by them. On the other hand, they observed and adhered to every one of the siyagim, protective fences, that maintain our religious and national individuality. They did not change their Hebrew names, language and manner of dress. This commitment stood in their merit for redemption. In the Babylonian exile, in contrast, the tables were turned. Here, the Jewish people were knowledgeable and committed to Torah, although they ignored the fences by adopting Babylonian names, speaking the language and intermarrying. The Meshech Chochmah concludes with the following statement, "During the periods of exile, it is of critical importance that Klal Yisrael not ignore the fences, for they protect us from assimilating with the gentiles."

How important it is for us to reflect on these timely words. The Meshech Chochmah's penetrating vision saw the consequences that resulted from the assimilation of the "enlightened" European Jew. Once the protective fences were torn down, they fell prey to the gentile influence, which was something they regrettably sought. Their insecurity and lack of pride drove them to yearn for a gentile acceptance. The results were catastrophic. At the end, they achieved neither acceptance nor pride. We wonder what it will take to learn that we Jews have no one upon whom to rely other than our Father in Heaven.

Va'ani Tefillah

Hosheinu…v'kabtzeinu min hagoyim, l'hodos l'shem kadshecha, l'hishtabeach bishilashecha.
Save us…and gather us from among the nations to thank Your holy Name, and to glorify in Your praise.

What is the meaning of the double form of thanks: l'hodos - to thank (Your Holy Name) and l'hishtabeach - to glorify (in Your Praise) ? The Maggid, zl, m'Dubno explains that Hashem has two approaches to sanctifying and exalting His Name in the world. When Klal Yisrael is on an elevated spiritual plane; when the world sees their noble bearing and refined demeanor; when their character traits are refined and exemplary, then Hashem's Name is exalted and sanctified through them. The world recognizes that the Jewish People, representatives of Hashem, are but a miniscule manifestation of the greatness of the Almighty. A second approach, which sadly is a bitter pill for us to swallow, is manifest when we descend to the other extreme, to the antithesis of kedushah, holiness, then Hashem "recaptures" His holiness through the manner that He punishes us. The world recognizes His eminence from His negative reaction to our rebellion. This is the meaning of the phrase we recite in our prayers, Vayigbah Hashem Tzevakos ba'mishpat, v'ha'keil ha'kadosh nikdash bitzdakah, "Hashem (either) elevates Himself through Justice ( and the world sees how He metes out justice to Klal Yisrael )" (or) "the Holy G-d becomes sanctified through charity," a reference to the kindness and compassion which Hashem expresses to His People when they are deserving. In both circumstances, Hashem's Name is sanctified.

When Hashem is sanctified by punishing Klal Yisrael, it is not something that we are eager to announce. It is certainly not complimentary to us. Therefore, we entreat Hashem to save us so that we can (also) glorify in "Your praises."

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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