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Peninim on the Torah

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Rabbi A. Leib Scheinbaum
Hebrew Academy of Cleveland


Moshe and Aharon took these men who had been designated by (their) names. They gathered together the entire assembly. (1:17,18)

As a rule, Parashas Bamidbar is usually read on the Shabbos preceding the Festival of Shavuos. Chazal state a number of reasons for this. The Alshich HaKadosh, zl, suggests that this parsha is uniquely geared towards Kabbolas HaTorah, the Giving of the Torah, and its acceptance by Klal Yisrael. Moshe Rabbeinu was commanded to count the nation. Assisting him in this endeavor were to be the Nesiim, Princes, whom Moshe was to appoint based upon Hashem's designation. These Nesiim did not become the heads of their respective tribes overnight. They had already assumed positions of importance, having distinguished themselves in areas of leadership prior to this appointment. Their wisdom and piety had gained them access to positions of status. Despite all of this, Moshe was not prepared to select the individual leaders until Hashem had first designated them by name. Moshe did not want the responsibility of selecting one Jew over another. By selecting Reuven, he would inadvertently cause Shimon to feel bad. Furthermore, even after the Nesiim had been designated by Hashem, Moshe did not use the public gathering of the nation as a venue for announcing their appointment. This declaration was done in private, in order to avoid calling attention to one person over another.

Thus, this parsha is read prior to Shavuos to emphasize that derech eretz kadmah laTorah, maintaining human decency, respect and obedience for one's fellow man precedes the study of Torah. Derech eretz plays a pivotal role in the life of a Torah Jew. Indeed, if he studies Torah, he should epitomize derech eretz. If he does not manifest this character trait, something is wrong with the manner in which he is studying the Torah.

We find that when Nevuchadnetzar cast Chananyah, Mishael and Azaryah into a roaring, fiery furnace for not acceding to his demand that they worship idols, they remained unscathed, even strolling about with the angel who had protected them. Why did they not leave the inferno? Does it say anywhere in halachah that once someone is thrown into the fire, he must remain there? The Midrash Tanchuma on Parashas Noach enlightens us and gives a rationale for their actions. They said, "We will not leave the flames without the king's permission, so that people will not accuse us of running away. By his dictum, we entered the flames; by his permission, we will leave."

Likewise, we find that Noach did not leave the Ark until Hashem told him to leave. He said, "Since I entered only with Divine permission, I will leave only with Divine permission." Chananyah, Mishael and Azaryah were in a purgatory of flame. Yet, they would not leave without permission. Noach had spent an exhausting year during which he ceaselessly tended to the animals. He did not even allow himself the luxury of rest or sleep. He refused to leave, however, until he was granted permission by Hashem. What prompted these people to act in this manner?

Horav Chaim Shmuelevitz, zl, explains that the root of this behavior is derech eretz. No amount of hardship or suffering can justify a breach in derech eretz. Moreover, Chananyah, Mishael and Azaryah remained amid the flames, defying death, because they believed that, just as one who enters the furnace to sanctify Hashem's Name will not be harmed, likewise, he who remains in the flames due to derech eretz will also not be harmed. No cause, worthy as it may be, can justify disregarding the imperative of derech eretz. Derech eretz does not and cannot contradict Hashem's dictate. Rather, the principles of derech eretz explain and elucidate the manner in which one should carry out Hashem's command.

Thus, when Moshe was instructed to count all of the Leviim from the age of one month and older, we find that he questioned the Almighty: "How can I enter their tents and intrude upon their privacy?" In order to verify the number of children, someone would need to visit the homes of the Leviim. Hashem told Moshe, "Do your share, and I will do mine." Therefore, Moshe stood in front of each tent. The Shechinah preceded him, calling out the number of Leviim in the tent. If the norms of derech eretz did not allow Moshe to enter the tent, then the Divine command could not mean that he should personally enter. Moshe carried out the command with assistance from the Divine in a manner which did not preclude his adherence to the rules of derech eretz.

Rav Chaim notes that the obligation to act with derech eretz applies in all relationships - even with wicked and evil people. Thus, after being accosted by Potifar's wife, Yosef fled her home and even left her clinging to his jacket. Why? Did she not immediately use that jacket to accuse him of making advances towards her? The Ramban explains that it would have been an affront to her honor and dignity to tear the jacket away from her. It was better to risk his reputation, even his life, rather than to violate the obligation of derech eretz.

The Talmud Sanhedrin 11a relates that once, while Rabbi Yehudah HaNasi was delivering a lecture, he noticed a smell of garlic. He said, "Let he who has eaten garlic go out." Rabbi Chiya arose and left. Immediately, all of the disciples arose and left. The next day, Rabbi Shimon, Rabbi's son, asked Rabbi Chiya, "Was it you who caused the annoyance to my father yesterday?" "Heaven forbid that such a thing should happen," replied Rabbi Chiya. This means that he arose in an effort to encourage everyone to leave, thereby sparing the real offender humiliation.

This is very commendable. Rabbi Chiya did not want to see the individual who had annoyed Rabbi embarrassed publicly. What about the lecture? He caused a walkout, which halted the Torah lecture for the day. Derech eretz takes precedence. Sensitivity to one's fellow is one of the kinyanei Torah, acts of acquisition by which one acquires Torah. Without derech eretz, the lesson would have accomplished very little. In his commentary to the Talmud Berachos 19b, the Meiri writes that the quality of human dignity is the most endearing and beloved quality in all of Judaism. Maintaining this dignity is not just commendable; it is an obligation. Indeed, in the Talmud Moed Katan 9b, we find one Tanna blessing another with the following blessing: "May you never cause anyone else embarrassment, and may you never be caused any embarrassment yourself." What a wonderful course for all of us to follow.

What is the rationale behind the dictum of derech eretz kadmah laTorah? The concept of derech eretz as a prerequisite for Torah is discussed by Horav Mendel, zl, m'Rimanov. He points out that the Manna was given to Klal Yisrael prior to their receiving the Torah. The people were instructed to gather a measure of Manna daily as a test of whether or not they would observe the Torah (Shemos 16:4). What relationship is there between the Manna and the Torah?

Rav Mendel explains that the basic concepts of decent human behavior, respect for the rights of others and the avoidance of greed and envy, are based upon the premise that Hashem provides each individual with his total needs. Greed, envy and theft are the result of an individual's unjustifiable belief that he can benefit by such miscreant behavior. If he would realize that Hashem provides what is necessary for his optimum welfare, he would not resort to such base behavior. Thus, decent behavior, derech eretz, is synonymous with trust in Hashem. The Manna taught Klal Yisrael this lesson: Every day you will receive whatever you need. Therefore, do not take more, because it will spoil. Even if for some reason you have received less, do not be concerned. Hashem will provide. That was the message of the Manna: Hashem will give you exactly what you need.

When Klal Yisrael became aware that their needs were being met by Hashem, they had no reason to develop any undesirable character traits. They were able to devote themselves completely to accepting Hashem's Torah. The precondition for receiving the Torah was no longer an issue. The principles of the Manna apply today, as well. We must learn to realize that we will receive what we individually need - no more, no less. One who has received an abundance of material benefits should realize that Hashem has selected him to be a conduit to convey these benefits to the others in the way of tzedakah, charity.

In summation, derech eretz kadmah la'Torah means that in order to receive the Torah, one must place his trust in the Giver of the Torah. This trust is indicated by his character development.

Bnei Yisrael did everything that Hashem commanded Moshe, so did they do. (1:54)

Chazal teach us in Pirkei Avos 4:28 that jealousy, desire and the pursuit of honor cause a person to be removed from this world. These obsessions can drive a person to do things that will ultimately catalyze his downfall. In order to have a clearer perception of the evils of kinah, jealousy, and how it transforms a happy person into a miserable, depressed and obsessive individual, we cite a penetrating analogy from the Orchos Tzaddikim. A kind and benevolent king, who sought every possibility to satisfy the needs and desires of his subjects, once met two men and asked them, "How can I help you? Each one of you should state his request, which I promise to fulfill. There is one condition, however. Whatever I grant the first petitioner, I will give doubly to the second."

The first man began to contemplate the offer in his mind: "If I ask the king for a large amount of money, then my friend will amass twice as much. Thus, regardless of how wealthy I will be, he will be twice as wealthy." This idea began to obsess him. The thought that he and his friend would no longer be equals bothered him no end. It obsessed him to the point that he made a ludicrous request to the king: to take out one of his eyes. This way his friend would lose his sight completely! This is the extreme to which petty jealousy can lead.

While this may be an analogy, it reflects a reality that occurs all of the time. We have become intolerant of our friend's success, of our neighbor's good fortune, of our peer's nachas, satisfaction. This intolerance leads to jealousy, which is usually the precursor for animosity and discord. It all originates with one's obsession that his friend not have more than him. We find Chazal in the Talmud Sanhedrin 102a relate that Hashem spoke to Yaravam ben Nevat, urging him to repent and return to the fold. Hashem said, "If you repent, then I, you and Ben Yishai (David Hamelech) will stroll in Gan Eden." Yaravam asked, "Who will be at the head?" Hashem replied, "Ben Yishai will be at the head." "If so," Yeravam said, "I do not desire it."

Yaravam had the chance to turn his life around. Hashem had granted him the opportunity to return and achieve an unparalleled relationship with Him. Yaravam had it all, but he refused because it would mean that David would supersede him. No longer was it worth it. He was willing to have his name recorded for all time as the man who led Klal Yisrael to sin, to be reviled for his evil, as long as David Hamelech not be elevated above him. This is the effect of kinah.

In our parsha, we note how Klal Yisrael were able to expunge the trait of jealousy from their hearts, as they continued to relate well to, and respect the members of, Shevet Levi, even after the Leviim had been elevated to perform the service in the Sanctuary, to the point of placing their tents in closer proximity to the Mishkan. Despite the newly-acquired exalted status of Shevet Levi, the rest of the Jewish nation continued to maintain a harmonious relationship with them. Chazal teach us in the Midrash that when the instructions were given for Shevet Levi to move closer to the Mishkan, Klal Yisrael moved away, in order to allow space for the new "tenants" to camp around the Mishkan. This is the meaning of, "Bnei Yisrael did everything that Hashem commanded Moshe."

The Shem MiShmuel explains that this was an enormous test for the people. It is not as if the rest of Klal Yisrael were simple people. They were also on an elevated spiritual plane. Their involvement in the construction of the Mishkan and its Keilim, vessels, purified and ennobled their spirituality, so that they, too, wanted to camp next to the Mishkan. When the Leviim's appointment was made known to them, however, they acquiesced and moved - without fanfare, without grumbling, without jealousy. This was their distinction. This was the indication of their true spiritual status. It was because of their submission that they merited the Degalim, individual Tribal Banners, which delineated and underscored the character virtue and essence of each tribe, granting them the unparalleled opportunity to cling to Hashem personally and individually.

I conclude with the powerful words of the Ramchal in the Mesillas Yesharim II, "Envy, too, is the result of ignorance and foolish thinking. The envious person gains nothing, and the only loser is the person who envies… Envy eats away at a person to the point that he cannot enjoy what he has. Some feign happiness for others, while internally they seethe with envy." Envy is irrational and frequently lethal. Furthermore, it accomplishes nothing - other than destroying the one who is envious. It may go so far as to destroy whatever good feeling he has about himself, his achievements, or his possessions.

A contemporary writer notes the irrational nature of envy when, at a recent visit to a critically ill patient, someone remarked, "Look at all the attention he is getting!" This is absurdity at its nadir. Imagine being envious of one who is seriously ill. That is the essence of envy: no reason - no rationale - only insecurity.

On the day I struck down every firstborn in the land of Egypt, I sanctified every firstborn in Yisrael for Myself. (3:13)

The Jewish firstborn were sanctified to Hashem at the time that the Egyptian firstborn perished during the tenth plague that struck Egypt. This is enigmatic. Just because the Egyptian firstborn died does not seem to be sufficient reason for the Jewish firstborn to be sanctified. What does one have to do with the other? The Alter, zl, m'Slabodka gives us a penetrating insight. The night of the exodus from Egypt, which was also the night of the slaying of the Egyptian firstborn, was a night of terror for the Jewish firstborn. Everywhere they saw their Egyptian counterparts in the throes of death. They were struck promptly at midnight and lay writhing in pain during the entire night, as they waited to die at first light. The images, the screams, the wailing, were overwhelming. The Jewish firstborn felt this terror, as it struck a chord of fear in their own hearts.

True, Hashem had promised them that nary a hair on their heads would be touched. They were only human, however, and to say that they were comfortable that night when every other firstborn was dying a miserable death would not be reasonable. As a result of this discomfort, Hashem consecrated the Bechorim, firstborn, assigning to them the lofty role of performing the service in the Sanctuary.

What a powerful lesson there is to be derived from here. Nothing - absolutely nothing - goes unrequited. Every bit of pain and irritation, every unpleasantry that a Jew sustains, is measured by Hashem - so that this person can be repaid.

There is another aspect to this reward. Since Hashem takes note of every action that we take, then every positive endeavor that we do will be a source of blessing for us. Regardless of its unsophistication and lack of adornment, any positive act will be recognized. Horav Elazar M. Shach, zl, related that he once heard from the Brisker Rav, zl, a story that has been a tradition in their family throughout the generations all the way back to Horav Chaim Volozhiner, zl. The story is told about the Gaon, zl, m'Vilna's wife, who, together with another woman in the city of Vilna, made it her business to go from door to door in their community to raise money for poor families. During one of their conversations, they agreed that whichever of the two would pass away first, she would appear to her surviving friend and relate to her the proceedings in Heaven. A number of years went by, and the Vilna's Rebbetzin's friend was called to Heaven. Rebbetzin Chana, the Gaon's wife, waited anxiously for her friend to appear, but nothing happened. After awhile, the friend appeared in a dream and said, "I have not been granted permission from Heaven to reveal to you what is going on over here. However, since we have an agreement, I have been given permission to relate one thing to you.

"Do you remember once when we went to the home of a woman to ask for money, but she was not home? As we were walking down the main street, you noticed her walking on the other side of the street. You immediately raised your hand and pointed her out to me. We then crossed the street and received a donation from her. Now, let me open for you a window into the Heavenly approach towards reward. We were both rewarded equally for raising charity from this woman. We were both rewarded for the time and effort we put in going to her house and then meeting her on the street. For noticing her walking down the street, however, and pointing her out - only you were rewarded."

That small effort, which was probably nothing more than an afterthought, was recorded in Heaven on behalf of the Vilna Rebbetzin as a merit. Every action that we discharge, every bit of effort that we expend, is recorded in Heaven and later reimbursed to us. Nothing is ignored. Nothing goes to waste.

Va'ani Tefillah

L'maan yizamercha kavod v'lo yidom.
So that my soul might sing to You and not be stilled.

Kavod is usually translated as honor or glory. In this pasuk, the word kavod, according to Radak, is a reference to the most glorious aspect of a human being: the soul. Thus, David Hamelech says, "My soul will sing to You." Alternatively, kavod refers to the soul because the soul emanates from Hashem's Kisei HaKavod, Throne of Glory. Last, Horav Yeruchem Levovitz, zl, explains that the soul is called kavod, because its only function is to give kavod, honor and glory, to Hashem, its Creator. This is similar to an earthly king, who appoints courtiers whose sole objective is to praise the king. Hashem has created the neshamah, soul, with a Divine purpose: to sanctify Hashem's Name. We may add that the body, the corporeal human, has a function to facilitate this sanctification of the Divine, since the neshamah cannot do it alone.

Horav Yisrael, zl, m'Rizhin, distinguishes between the manner in which different individuals respond to pain and tragedy. Although some outwardly complain when Hashem afflicts them, others put on a show of acceptance, while beneath that veneer of acquiescence, they seethe with resentment. Aharon HaKohen achieved a much loftier level of submissiveness in his reaction to the tragic death of his two sons: he remained silent. Va'yidom Aharon, "And Aharon was completely still" (Vayikra 10:3). He remained still both externally and internally, accepting Hashem's decree with a state of complete calm. David Hamelech, perceiving with accurate clarity the spiritual benefits of Hashem's action, went a step further: he sang praise to Hashem. This is the meaning of the pasuk, L'maan yezamercha kavod, "So that my soul might sing to You," v'lo yidom, "And not (like Aharon) be stilled." Under all circumstances, l'olam odecha, "Forever will I thank you."

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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