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Peninim on the Torah

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Rabbi A. Leib Scheinbaum
Hebrew Academy of Cleveland


Hashem opened up the mouth of the donkey… the donkey said to Bilaam, "Am I not your donkey that you have ridden all your life until this day? Have I been accustomed to do such a thing to you?" (22:28,29)

We have before us an unprecedented phenomenon: A donkey opened its mouth to deliver a mussar shmuess, ethical discourse, to its master, the evil Bilaam. Chazal teach us that the "mouth of the donkey" - with which Hashem granted this animal the ability to speak - was among the ten things that were created at twilight on Erev Shabbos of the week of Creation. Bilaam accepted the donkey's admonishment, admitting the error of his ways and the folly of his actions. This leads Chazal to declare, "Woe is to us on the Day of Judgment! Woe is to us on the Day of Rebuke!" Bilaam was the wisest of all the pagans; yet, he could not withstand the reproof of his own donkey. What will we reply on our great Day of Judgment and Rebuke when Hashem rebukes each and every person according to what he is?

When Bilaam intended to curse the Jewish People, Hashem warned him to turn back, because he would not succeed in carrying out his scheme. Bilaam did not care. He forged ahead with his evil plan. Three times Hashem sent an angel to block his path. Bilaam was blind to the angel's presence. His donkey, however, was not. The donkey stood its ground in the presence of the angel, only to accept the merciless beatings of its master. Finally, the donkey "spoke out" against this mistreatment. It complained to Bilaam, "Why did you beat me? Is this what I deserve after my years of faithful service to you? Is it my nature to cause you distress and injury? If you saw me acting in a manner contrary to my norm, you should have realized that something extraordinary was taking place!" When Bilaam heard these powerful words, he conceded his error.

In his Ateres Avraham, recently translated by Rabbi Sholom Smith, Horav Avraham Pam, zl, derives two significant lessons from this rebuke. First, we should know how to respond to the actions of a person who suddenly acts in an uncharacteristic manner. It will occasionally happen that an individual who usually maintains self-control, who is quiet and relaxed, suddenly loses it and explodes. The mouth that is usually the paragon of refinement and calm suddenly unleashes a barrage of sharp, angry words. The usual reaction of bystanders is to reciprocate with their own impulsive cascade of words that parallel the original assault. Do they ever stop to think that this atypical behavior is the result of something gone extremely wrong? Perhaps there is a particularly serious situation that has developed in the man's home, an illness, a shidduch, matrimonial match, problem, a child at risk? Why do we immediately unleash a verbal assault on the offender? If we stop to think, we might discover that we are dealing with nothing more than a tormented and helpless victim crying out for help. Instead of criticizing him, we should realize that if a generally calm person suddenly "loses it," something unusual has provoked him. Allow him time to calm down and disconnect from the external pressures that are driving him.

This is what Chazal are teaching us. Bilaam saw his donkey acting in a strange manner. What did he do? He angrily beat it. Is that the way one should treat an animal that has been so faithful? This was the nature of the animal's rebuke. If something strange is occurring, ask: What is wrong? Be patient. Bilaam failed to understand that there was an extraordinary circumstance that was compelling his donkey to act strangely.

Second, we learn from this incident that people are not inclined to accept mussar. When we hear someone speak about a specific failing that plagues the general community, our initial response is to absolve ourselves of any onus of guilt - and blame it on our neighbor. He is the guilty one - not I! When a rav or rosh yeshivah speaks to us, we do everything within our power to deflect the criticism and justify whatever wrong we have committed. Then there is the one who disparages the mocheach, rebuker, asking, "Who are you to give me mussar? What makes you so special?" This is also a ploy to divert the reproof. Fortunate is he who can see beyond his ego to accept the constructive critique and direction of others. Bilaam was a wise man but, when it concerned himself, he was foolish. We should be able to learn to better ourselves from everyone. Bilaam would not. Regrettably, some of us are no different.

The following anecdote reinforces this idea. An elderly man was visiting his relatives in another city for Yom Kippur. Enjoying being in the forefront, he managed to obtain a seat in the front row of the shul, right in front of the rabbi's lectern.

The rabbi arose to address the congregation after Kol Nidrei. In the spirit of the sanctity and seriousness of the day, the Rabbi admonished the congregation with fiery oratory, urging them to repent. He warned them strongly of the grave punishment that awaits those who do not mend their ways. The visitor appeared quite amused with the rabbi's remarks. Indeed, several times an audible chuckle could be heard from his lips. The rabbi was slightly perturbed with this behavior, but elected to ignore it.

The Shacharis service was followed by a passionate appeal by the rabbi prior to Yizkor to repent. His eloquence and fervor captured the seriousness of the day for everyone - except for the elderly visitor, who kept on smiling and chuckling. Needless to say, the rabbi was chagrined by this response to his speech.

In his pre-Neilah speech, the rabbi fared no better. Once again, he poured out his heart, exhorting the congregation that time was running out. They had to decide right away to repent and return to Hashem. Everyone was moved. Well, almost everyone. Our visitor continued his visible amusement. The rabbi could take it no longer. He was counting the minutes until the baal tokeah would blow the Shofar, signaling the end of Yom Kippur. He would then have some choice words for the rude visitor.

After Maariv, the congregants each went up to wish the rabbi a healthy year and to thank him for an inspiring service. When the elderly visitor came up to pay his respects, the rabbi could not refrain from asking him, "Tell me, sir, I delivered what I feel were three powerful speeches today. I addressed the seriousness of religion, the need to elevate our fear of Heaven, and the importance of repentance. I did my utmost to imbue the congregation with a feeling of the spirit of the day. Yet, for some reason, you seemed amused at every speech I delivered, and you even seemed to enjoy my words of serious reproach. You appeared to relish the thought of the severe punishments that await those who do not repent. Tell me, what did you find that was so entertaining about all of this?"

"I will tell you the truth, Rabbi, I thoroughly enjoyed all of your speeches. In fact, I thought they were quite good. I enjoyed the way you really told off your congregation. It was true fire and brimstone. You see, however, I am not a member of your congregation, so what you said does not affect me. Therefore, I just sat back and enjoyed!"

This story tells it all. We listen to our spiritual leaders exhorting us, condemning certain behaviors, but we ignore them. Why? Because we are sure they are not referring to us. We came to enjoy a good speech. Everybody else is here because they need to be here. That is the beginning of the problem.

Bilaam raised his eyes and saw Yisrael dwelling according to its tribes, and the spirit of G-d was upon him. (24:2)

Rashi explains that Bilaam took note how every tribe dwelled unto himself, maintaining its individuality, not intermingling with one another. Furthermore, he observed that the entrances to the tents were not aligned opposite each other, so that one would not be able to peer into the tent of his neighbor. When he saw this, he could not curse the Jews. Horav Yitzchak Zilberstein, Shlita, cites a novel homiletic exposition of the words, she'ein pischeiham me'chuvanim, "that the entrances (to their tents) were not aligned opposite each other." He says that this is a reference to Chazal who say, "Hashem says, 'Open up for Me an opening the size of a pin point, and I will open up for you an opening the size of a large hall.'" This means that if a Jew demonstrates a sincere desire to repent and return to Hashem, he has only to create a small opening to allow an opportunity for his return. Hashem will, in turn, magnify this opening, giving him every opportunity for a teshuvah sheleimah, complete repentance. Hashem wants the Jew to come home, to return to a life of observance and commitment. He just wants us to make the first move - however small it may be. He will enlarge it, allowing for our repentance to take effect.

This is the meaning of "their entrances are not aligned." The Jew only has to create a small entranceway for his return. Hashem will do the rest. Bilaam saw that the "entranceways" do not coincide. Hashem does so much more for us, because of His overriding love. When Bilaam realized how distinctive we are to Hashem, he decided not to curse us. Why is this? Why are we privileged to have such a unique relationship with the Almighty? Rav Zilberstein suggests that this idea applies not only to repentance, but even to every day mundane activities. The little that we do can have great ramifications. There is a domino effect based on the actions that we take. A smile, a few pennies, a good word - every little thing that we do can mushroom into a great act of kindness that can actually change someone's life. Hence, the small opening that we make can catalyze an awesome consequence.

Rav Zilberstein relates the story of an Israeli baal chesed, individual known for his many acts of loving-kindness, who met a family in the lobby of a hotel in Switzerland. He was checking into the hotel, and the family - consisting of a father, mother and daughter in her early twenties - were checking out. At the end of the day, he returned to meet this family once again. He asked them what they were doing in the lobby. They explained that their flight to Eretz Yisrael was leaving early in the morning and, rather than pay for an extra night's lodging, they preferred to spend the night waiting in the lobby.

"I cannot permit this," the man said. "What do you mean, that you cannot permit this?" they asked. "I cannot allow you to sit in the lobby all night while I sleep in my comfortable bed," the baal chesed replied.

A man of few words, but much action, he immediately went up to his hotel room and returned shortly with cakes, chocolates and fruit. He then proceeded to spend the night talking with the family about everything, from the weather to belief in the Almighty. Finally, they parted; the family left for the airport, and the man went up to his room for a much-needed rest.

A number of months later, the man received an invitation to a wedding, with a special note requesting his presence, since he was one of the primary mechutanim, relatives by marriage. The problem was that he had no clue to the identity of any of the principals involved in this wedding. The next day, he received a phone call that explained everything. It was the father whom he had met in the hotel lobby in Switzerland, who related the following story.

"Our daughter had moved to Switzerland in search of a change from the lifestyle she had grown up with in Eretz Yisrael. Soon, mitzvah observance became history, as she adopted a way of life completely antithetical to ours. Then came the tragic news: She had met a young man whom she wished to marry. Regrettably, he was not Jewish. Nothing we said could deter her from this drastic decision. We flew to Switzerland with the hope that we could plead with her. This was to no avail. When you met us, we were returning to Eretz Yisrael with our daughter, so that she could pick up her belongings in preparation for her wedding.

"During our stay in the hotel, no one spoke to us, no one asked about us, no one inquired about our welfare. No one - except for you. Not only did you speak to us, you opened up your heart to us. You shared your food and your time with us. This literally blew our daughter's mind. Suddenly, she perceived a frum, observant, Jew in a different light. As we flew back to Eretz Yisrael, our daughter opened up and said, 'I am willing to try again. That man made a difference.' My daughter returned with us and came back to Torah and mitzvos. She met a ben Torah, and they are about to get married. Do you understand now why you play such a prominent role in this wedding?"

An incredible story with a simple lesson: It is the little things that can make the biggest difference.

Pinchas saw…and he arose from amid the assembly and took a spear in his hand… and he pierced them both… and the plague was halted from Bnei Yisrael. (25:7,8)

In his hesped, eulogy, for Horav Yosef Chaim Sonnenfeld, zl, the Telshe Rosh Hayeshivah, Horav Eliyah Meir Bloch, zl, cited the following Midrash. "Zimri showed respect neither for G-d nor for man. The Midyanite woman said to him, 'I will listen only to Moshe.' Zimri replied, 'I am just as great as he!'"

To prove this, he took her to Moshe Rabbeinu and said, "Son of Amram, is this Midyanite woman permitted to me or forbidden to me?" When Moshe told him that the woman was prohibited, Zimri countered, "And is your wife not a Midyanite?" At that point, Moshe's hands became weak as he was shocked into paralysis by these words, and the halachah suddenly became ne'elam, escaped him.

Did Pinchas see anything different than what was apparent to everyone else? No. Everyone saw Zimri's infamous act. Rather, Pinchas saw and immediately took action. He saw what was happening and remembered the halachah that demands that sinners such as Zimri be stricken down by those who are truly zealous for kavod Shomayim, the honor of Heaven.

"We are puzzled by the Midrash," the Rosh Hayeshivah asked. "We still do not know what caused Pinchas to 'see' what Moshe and the entire assembly did not. Why did the halachah elude Moshe and the rest of the assembly, but remain clear and entrenched in Pinchas' mind?

"I once heard an explanation of this matter from my rebbe (his father, Horav Yosef Yehudah Leib Bloch, zl). He noted that the Midrash does not say that Moshe 'forgot' the halachah, but, rather, nisalmah, "it escaped him." There are periods in one's life when his usual lucid knowledge of the halachah becomes clouded by the enormous burdens created as a result of distress or calamity. He remains aware of the halachic position concerning a certain situation, but it becomes befuddled by all the surrounding factors. This obfuscation detracts from the imperative to render halachic judgment with clarity and incisiveness. The nature of a human being is to view each individual action through the prism of the general situation at hand. Thus, he does not necessarily evaluate the matter as an isolated incident, but, rather, as part of whatever he is involved with at the moment. Hence, if he is involved in great upheaval, a time when everything seems to be falling apart, he will weigh in all the outside factors. All rules and ordinary priorities are cast aside as he is confronted by the total issue at hand.

Such was the situation when Zimri challenged Moshe. Suddenly, there was no Torah, no derech eretz, decent conduct, no Moshe and Aharon, and no sense of embarrassment or modesty. A Nasi, who until that day had been a distinguished leader in Klal Yisrael, proceeded to march himself in and perform a lewd act of defilement in broad daylight! Moshe and Aharon observed this outrage and began to ponder its ramifications, the scandal and dreadful destruction that would ensue. They did not view a simple, isolated act to which a clear and defined halachah applied. They saw a treasonous act of rebellion against the Almighty. They saw the greater context, both sides of the story. It did not occur to them that immediate closure could be established by exercising the general and straightforward halachah of Kanaim pogim bo, "zealots are to strike him" (he who has relations with a non-Jewish woman).

Pinchas, on the other hand, looked at the incident from a different perspective. He saw an infraction, and he responded with the designated halachah. He isolated the incident from its shocking background. He understood that halachah represents Hashem's will and is immutable, applying in all situations and under all conditions. This is the meaning of "Pinchas saw" - he saw the act that was associated with the halachah that demands a zealot strike down one who has relations with a non-Jewess. He saw nothing else. He saw only the actual act and its halachic response. Therefore, he acted accordingly.

This character trait aptly defined Rav Yosef Chaim Sonnenfeld. The battle for Orthodoxy in the Holy Land engulfed him from all sides. He was always in the midst of the fury. Every step that he took, every decision that he made, was constantly criticized by one group or another. He could never win. Yet, this intense pressure did not hold him back from carrying out the halachah incisively. Despite all of the daunting challenges, he neither flinched, nor compromised on anything. He saw each particular issue for what it was - isolated from the side effects and circumstances surrounding it. Halachah was his beacon; it was his guide.

Va'ani Tefillah

Ketores - Incense

Now that we no longer have the Bais Hamikdash where the Ketores can be offered, it is highly advisable for one to recite the parshah of the Ketores daily. Furthermore, since this offering was divided between the morning and afternoon service, there are those who recite the Parshah twice daily. A few of the sources that emphasize its significance are: The Midrash Tanchuma which states that the word Ketores in Hebrew forms an acrostic of four words: Kuf - kedushah, holiness; Tof - taharah, purity; Raish - rachamim, mercy; Tes - tikvah, hope. The Zohar Hakadosh says, "He who recites the Parshah of Ketores with devotion each day will be spared from any form of sorrow or pain on that day." Additionally, he writes, "If mortal man would realize how much Hashem cherishes the Ketores, he would take each and every letter of it and place it upon his head as a golden crown." Also, Ketores is associated with the sense of smell, the most spiritual of human senses. It, therefore, represents the highest and purest communion with Hashem.

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