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Peninim on the Torah

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Rabbi A. Leib Scheinbaum
Hebrew Academy of Cleveland


Hashem spoke to Moshe in the wilderness of Sinai. (1:1)

The Midrash wonders why Hashem chose the wilderness as the place for the Giving of the Torah. Chazal explain that the Torah was given through three media: fire; water; and wilderness. In other words, these three natural phenomena each played a prominent role in the transmission of the Torah to the Jewish People. Obviously, we are to learn something crucial to our achievement in Torah study from these three models. Why does Hashem note these three phenomena? They are free and available to everyone. So, too, are the words of Torah costless and accessible to anyone who seeks them. The Midrash cites pesukim to support its thesis that Torah was presented via these three media. Only one of these, however, is supported by a pasuk in our parshah: midbar, wilderness. The Midrash implies that "from here" we derive that Torah was given through three media. Where is the "from here"? Furthermore, why is it necessary to have three models to impress that Torah is free to everyone? Why is one not sufficient?

In his Nachalas Eliezer, Horav Eliezer Kohn, zl, explains that the Midrash is teaching us something altogether different. Since the Torah is comprised of two forms of mitzvos - prohibitive and positive - man is subject to the need to garner two forces of support in order to observe the Torah's commandments. He needs kochos, forces, of kum v'asei, positive, active forces to motivate him to go forward, to act, to elevate himself. He also needs the forces of lo saasei, do not do, forces that will help him to curb his desire to act inappropriately in order to prevent him from destroying his spiritual future. The active forces rely on the power of aish: fire, passion, religious fervor, ardor and enthusiasm. They burn fiercely within him until a fire is ignited, a fire that burns passionately for Hashem. On the other hand, in order to refrain from acting inappropriately, one must employ the negative traits of laziness, slow movingness and heavy-handedness to counteract the desire to do evil.

These, however, are still insufficient protection, both for good and from bad. The yetzer hora, evil inclination, is very crafty. It is filled with guile and knows exactly how to present the good, coloring it as bad, and the evil under a fa?ade of appropriate and positive behavior. Thus, the only way that one can succeed in overcoming the impediments that the wily yetzer hora casts in his way is by maintaining a clear and straight course, focused on one goal: service to Hashem, engendering a nachas ruach, sense of satisfaction, for his Creator.

When vested interests and personal prejudice guide an individual, he sees only what he wants to see. He is blind to the truth. Therefore, he gains nothing from the use of the power of aish. Conversely, the power of water, with its cold nature, abates the desire for spiritual growth. Conceivably, he can redirect these forces. Therefore, instead of cooling his desire, he will ignite it, so that he acts enthusiastically and passionately. When he sins, he has been bribed by the yetzer hora who encourages him to see only himself, to act only on his own behalf. He has been blinded.

This is why Chazal insisted on prioritizing the role of midbar, wilderness, in one's life. Once a person negates "himself," he begins to see beyond his personal needs and begins to recognize the truth. His subconscious proclivities suddenly disappear, as the picture in front of him becomes crystal clear.

We now understand the statement in the Midrash that all three concepts are derived from the words Midbar Sinai. The other two, aish and mayim, fire and water, passion and cold, are inanimate, and dependent upon midbar. Unless a person practices self- abnegation, whereby "he" comes first and everything revolves around him, he will not know when to use "hot" and when to be "cold," when to be enthusiastic and filled with alacrity and when to be laid-back and indolent. The Torah was given in the wilderness to indicate our state of mind upon accepting the responsibility to carry out its dictates.

One area in which vested interests are difficult to overcome is tzedakah, charity. While we are blessed with many individuals who open their hearts and wallets to those in need, many others, unfortunately, have personal agendas. The benefactor who writes a sizeable check without making demands or intimating favors is not that common. Selfless devotion in the area of chesed, acts of loving-kindness, is a commodity that reaches to the highest spiritual heights. Thus, it must be as free of any vestige of personal interest as Torah study itself. Horav Aharon Kotler would reiterate to his students the need to live as a ben Olam Haba, one who is worthy of a place in the World to Come. In order to achieve this coveted place, one must live such a unique lifestyle in olam hazeh, this world.

In lauding the support for Torah exemplified by a certain layman, Rav Aharon said, "His love for Torah knew no bounds. He was strong like a lion in his work on behalf of Torah and chesed. No effort was too much for him. He did what had to be done, regardless of whether it fit into the parameters of convention and normalcy.

"An incredible example of his selfless dedication occurred at a time when the rebbeim of a well-known yeshiva had not been paid for a number of months. He was a leading askan, public figure, who was involved heavily with this distinguished yeshiva. At the wedding of his only daughter, he stood up in the middle of the meal and made an appeal! This was despite the natural difficulty for such a considerate, refined person to do something that would render his many guests who had come to share in his simchah ill at ease. He rose above the constraints of conventional and respectable behavior, with enormous strength, to carry out Hashem's will. Such a deed was possible only for one who possessed a pure heart and whose commitment to the Almighty was selfless and unequivocal. Indeed, the guests understood his actions, because they knew that he had acted solely l'shem Shomayim, "for the sake of Heaven."

Take a census of the entire assembly of Bnei Yisrael, according to their families, according to their father's households. (1:2)

Rashi cites the reason for the census of Klal Yisrael: Hashem's love for them. Because of His abiding love for the Jewish People, Hashem counts them often. The Navi Hoshea says: "The number of Bnei Yisrael will be like the sand of the sea, which can neither be measured nor counted" (Hoshea 2:1). In Yoma 22, the Talmud notes the inconsistency in the text of the pasuk. It begins by saying, "The number of Bnei Yisrael will be like the sand of the sea," which implies a great-- but countable-- number. It ends, "which cannot be measured nor counted," clearly stating that it is impossible to count the Jewish People. How are we to reconcile these two phrases? Chazal explain that when Klal Yisrael is worthy, when they perform the will of the Almighty, their number is incalculable. When they do not carry out the will of Hashem, they have a specific number which is countable. Chazal's explanation is somewhat difficult to understand. How is being worthy related to being counted? The numbers are either present, or they are not. Being "good" should not play a role in the matter. The criterion should be the actual statistics.

In his Duda'ei Reuven, Horav Reuven Katz, zl, explains this pragmatically. The concept of Yisrael is a reference to our people at a time in which we reflect our mission and we are in good standing. Essentially, we are a nation in whom Hashem takes great pleasure and satisfaction. As a rule, when one visits a community and asks how many tzadikim, righteous persons, reside within, the reply will be commensurate with the proportion of tzadikim in the city. In other words, if the proportion of righteous persons is minimal in comparison to the rest of the community, they will state the actual number. If however, righteous persons comprise the majority of the community, the reply will be to state the number of individuals who are not counted among the righteous. The number always reflects the lesser proportion. If the righteous are in the minority, their number will be the focus of the reply. If they are the majority, then the number of non-tzadikim will be mentioned.

Thus, Chazal are teaching us that when the proportion of the righteous in Klal Yisrael is the majority, the nation as a whole is counted, since the only individuals mentioned are those who do not fit into the tzadik category. If, however, they are not worthy, and the righteous are but few, then the number of righteous is a number to be acknowledged and emphasized.

Rav Reuven adds that, in reality, if we delve deeper into this idea, we will discover a lesson that serves as the foundation stone for defining the essence of Klal Yisrael and their mission in the world.

In Sefer Bereishis 15:5, the Torah quotes Hashem in dialogue with Avraham Avinu: "And He took him outside and said, 'Gaze, now, toward the Heavens, and count the stars if you are able to count them!' And he said to him, 'So shall your offspring be!'" This pasuk begs elucidation. If the entire purpose of Hashem's statement was to impress upon Avraham that he was unable to count the stars, it would hardly have been necessary to have him go outside and look up at the stars. Clearly, Avraham could have remained within the confines of his home and still have been aware of his inability to count the stars. What was the point?

When we view Klal Yisrael perceptively, we note that their success and power as a nation is achieved when they are unified and living in harmony. Under such circumstances, they have the ability to withstand adversity and weather the most difficult challenges. This is when the individual views himself not as a separate entity, but rather, as a component in the collective group called "Klal" Yisrael. He does not maintain his own singularity, but he is a constituent integral to the general community - a part of the whole.

In the Talmud Chullin 92A, Chazal compare Klal Yisrael to a gefen, grapevine. A gefen is comprised of branches, clusters of grapes and tendrils. These various components are each intrinsically connected and vital to the identity of the "whole" gefen. Likewise, the Jewish People is comprised of various groups, all necessary and focused on contributing to the entity known as Klal Yisrael. When the nation as a whole achieves unity and stands on an elevated spiritual pedestal, the individual is a part of the group, the prat, individual, part of the klal, general group. At such a time, it is impossible to discern the individual, because he is melded into the group, similar to the grapevine whose individual components are not counted separately. It is all one grapevine. Thus, we view Klal Yisrael as one entity - not as a group of laymen, a group of roshei yeshivah, a group of rabbonim, etc.

A person's body is comprised of various organs, each one providing its vital contribution to the body's continued existence. Nonetheless, we do not count the individual organs of a body since they are all part and parcel of the body as a whole. Chazal are teaching us that when Klal Yisrael performs Hashem's will, and the people maintain themselves on a madreigah, plateau, of shleimus, perfection, whereby each individual Jew feels he is part of the large collective group of the Jewish People, then they are not countable. Indeed, if anything, their census is one unit. When Hashem was teaching Avraham the correct way to train his descendants, He instructed him to leave his home, go outside, and gaze up at the stars. The stars are numerous, but they all serve one purpose: serving Hashem's Creation. This is the mission which Hashem gave them during Creation. The moment that each individual views himself as a distinct entity, separated from the rest, he loses his right to exist.

This same idea applies to chinuch ha'banim, educating our children, and the existence of Klal Yisrael. If we want to have a nation that is successful, that serves as an inspiration to others, as a model of excellence, then we must take the lesson imparted by the stars. We are all cogs in the great wheel, all components in the collective totality of the Jewish People. Hashem was not showing Avraham the stars for the purpose of indicating their inability to be counted, but rather, He was highlighting their common character and the nature of their success as a cumulative entity.

Every man shall encamp by his own banner with the sign of their father's house. (2:2)

Chazal teach us that the arrangement of the Jews' encampment in the wilderness paralleled the arrangement of the Heavenly entourage which accompanied the Shechinah as it descended upon Har Sinai when Hashem gave us the Torah. Myriads of Heavenly angels descended with Hashem, all grouped under Degalim, banners. When Klal Yisrael saw this pattern, they craved a similar grouping for their encampment. Hashem fulfilled their wish. The Tiferes Tzion explains that this craving was the result of the unprecedented level of prophecy which Klal Yisrael had achieved prior to the Revelation. Thus, they were able to perceive the spiritual significance which the arrangement of the angels represented. The Degalim indicated the unique sanctity and attachment to the Almighty accorded the Heavenly entourage, something for which Klal Yisrael yearned. The Jewish People wanted more - greater sanctity, a closer relationship. Despite all they had achieved, they sought even greater and more sublime levels of kedushah, sanctity.

This seems inconsistent with another Midrash which relates Moshe Rabbeinu's concern regarding the Jews' arrangement by banners. He felt that assigning each individual tribe its own special place would create a climate for strife and discord, with each tribe insisting that it wanted a different position. Hashem allayed Moshe's fears, explaining that they already knew their places of encampment. Indeed, in their possession was a document from their Patriarch, Yaakov Avinu, instructing them how to arrange the Degalim.

Prior to Yaakov's passing, he instructed his sons that only they-- and not their sons-- were to carry his coffin to Eretz Yisrael. In addition, he clearly defined each tribe's position, even indicating that Levi should not carry his coffin, since his descendants were destined to carry the Aron HaKodesh, Ark. Yosef should not carry it, since he was a ruler. These two vacated positions should be filled by Menashe and Ephraim.

Having said this, we wonder about the basis of Moshe's fears. Would a nation of prophets, individuals who had collectively achieved a level of kedushah and deveikus, clinging to the Almighty, that had heretofore been unattainable, who perceived the Shechinah and its entourage and yearned for a similar lineup, lower themselves to bicker over position, to protest where to set up camp? Would a nation whose hearts and souls were directed Heavenward engage in such a petty squabble?

Horav Yehudah Zev Segal, zl, the Manchester Rosh Yeshivah, says yes, even prophets who constantly aspire to achieve greater elevations of sanctity are capable of falling into the nadir of strife. No, Moshe's fears were not unfounded; they had basis. The lesson is clear and, unfortunately, timely and practical: A person can be soaring in the Heavens, he can be involved in the most sublime endeavors-- and even yearning for greater spiritual ascendancy-- and concomitantly become the victim of destructive middos ra'os, unseemly character traits, that have been laying dormant in his soul, waiting for an opportunity to rear their ugly heads. Regardless of how great a person is, his spiritual achievements notwithstanding, he must never ignore the inherent danger that is waiting to ambush him.

Yet, we wonder why Yaakov did not seem to be overly concerned about the possibility of discord among his sons. He assigned their positions in a sequence which he felt was appropriate. Why was he not as concerned as Moshe was? Horav Shlomo Margolis, Shlita, explains that we must take into account the circumstances that prevailed at the time that Yaakov issued his pattern of pallbearers. The Patriarch was laying on his deathbed, surrounded by his family. This is typically a time in which character traits of a baneful nature seem to disappear. Common sense reigns, and all the petty emotions that take us down just dissipate. During such times, there is no envy and no begrudging that leads to discord.

This was Hashem's reply to Moshe. He had nothing about which to be concerned, because the wilderness is a place of impermanence. There is constant movement, and no one really knows his destination or when his next move will take place. Under such conditions, people have more important things on their minds than petty differences. Therefore, harmony prevails.

These are the offspring of Aharon and Moshe. (3:1)

The pasuk begins by introducing the progeny of Aharon Hakohen and Moshe Rabbeinu, but ultimately only mentions Aharon's sons. This question is raised in the Talmud Sanhedrin 19b. Chazal infer from here that one who teaches Torah to someone else's children is regarded k'ilu yoldo, "as if he had begotten them." Through the teaching of Torah, he becomes their spiritual father, similar to their biological father. In an alternate version of this Chazal, the Talmud Sanhedrin 99b says it is regarded k'ilu asahu, "as if he made them." Is there a difference between these two definitions, or does one complement the other?

Horav Eliyahu Schlessinger, Shlita, reconciles the two approaches. When we think about it, a father has a quality that is not found in a rebbe, and a rebbe has a quality which a father does not usually possess. A father is naturally compassionate. Hashem has ingrained in the parental psyche a unique sense of compassion toward his offspring. It is part of the parental DNA. On the other hand, because of a father's unusual compassion for his child, he finds it difficult to be overly demanding. This can impair his ability to make demands in the area of Torah study and mitzvah observance. He is afraid to push too hard, to ask too much of his son.

The educator has the ability to be more objective in his demands of the student, but, as an outsider, he lacks the fatherly compassion that is endemic to the father/son relationship. This is underscored with the words, k'ilu asahu, as if he made him. Chazal cite the pasuk in Bereishis 12:5, "and the souls they made in Charan," which Rashi interprets as a reference to those whom Avraham Avinu and Sarah Imeinu converted to the monotheistic faith. They were meshabed, obligated, to serve Hashem. Bringing a person into the fold is understood as "making" him.

We now are able to reconcile the k'ilu yoldo and the k'ilu asahu. In order to be a mechanech, Torah educator par excellence, one must possess the qualities inherent in a father, the compassion, the love and devotion, the sensitivity and caring that a father manifests towards his son. The rebbe must also maintain his objectivity, prodding his student on, assisting him to achieve greater heights in Torah erudition, with a deeper understanding of the Torah's message. He should be able to "make" him, obligating him in the Torah imperative, creating a bond between his student and the Torah. A mechanech who simultaneously maintains these two qualities in his approach to teaching truly becomes the student's spiritual father.

Moshe counted them according to the word of Hashem, as he had been commanded. (3:16)

Rashi cites the dialogue that ensued between Moshe Rabbeinu and Hashem concerning the counting of the infants. Moshe asked, "How can I enter into their tents to ascertain the number of nursing infants?" Clearly, it would be a breach of modesty. Hashem replied, "You do that which is yours to do, and I will do that which is Mine." Thus, Moshe would go and stand at the entrance to the tent, and the Divine Presence would precede him there. A Heavenly Voice would emanate from the tent and say, "There is such and such a number of babies in the tent." This is the underlying meaning of al pi Hashem, "according to the word of Hashem."

It seems like a wonderful process. Moshe walks over to the tent, and Hashem calls out the number of babies. Why only the babies? Why did they not employ this process for everyone? Indeed, why did Moshe have to go to the camp altogether? He could have remained in his "office" and recorded all of the numbers, "according to the word of Hashem."

Horav Baruch Mordechai Ezrachi, Shlita, explains that this is the principle that prevails throughout all avenues of life's endeavor. The person acts, and, when his actions have reached the limit of his ability, when he can achieve no more, Heaven responds and "takes over," completing the initiative. He must make the effort; he must put forth his endeavor, before Divine assistance is merited. Therefore, concerning the other individuals to be counted, Hashem had no reason to intervene. Moshe could do the census on his own. Since concerning the infants, he was prevented from completing the count due to reasons of immodesty, Heaven intervened.

Va'ani Tefillah

Teitzei rucho yashuv l'admaso, bayom ha'hu avdu eshtonosav.
When his spirit departs, he returns to the earth, on that day his plans all perish.

Horav Zalman Sorotzkin, zl, relates the story of two men that came before the rav of their town with a dispute. Each one claimed that a certain parcel of land belonged to him. They asked the rav to render judgment. The rav asked them to walk with him to the land in question. Apparently, he wanted to see it. When they arrived, the rav put his ear to the ground and listened. After a few minutes, the rav stood up, faced the litigants, and said, "The ground says that both of you belong to it!" Veritably, this is the story of life. Neither one of the men would keep the land. Instead, it would be their final resting place.

This is the meaning of, "When his spirit departs, he returns to the earth." The pasuk says, l'admaso, which means "his earth." His whole life he thought that the earth belonged to him. On the day of his death, he finally discovered the truth: the earth does not really belong to him; he belongs to the earth!

We go through life wasting time, energy and money, fighting: for what objective? The earth which we think is ours? The earlier we wake up and realize that we belong to the earth-- and not vice versa-- the better off we will be.

R' Alter Chaim Dovid ben R' Menachem Shmuel z"l
niftar 28 Iyar 5767
Menachem Shmuel and Roiza Devora Salomon

In memory of Mr. David Salamon z"l

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