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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 Torah emphasizes Klal Yisrael's presence in the midbar, wilderness, when Hashem gave us the Torah. The commentators focus on various characteristics of a wilderness which allude to the manner of our acceptance of Torah, its study and observance. I think the wilderness exemplifies faith and trust on our part, total abrogation of oneself to Hashem's leadership and guidance. The wilderness is empty and desolate. We "emptied" ourselves of selfhood to make room for Hashem. When Hashem called out to our Patriarch, Avraham, he responded, Hineni, "I am here" - ready and willing to do whatever You ask of me.

Two contrasting attitudes: Hashem was about to give the Torah. He first turned to the leaders of the various gentile nations and asked if they were "interested." They replied, "What is in it?" One cannot expect a nation of murderers to accept the Torah which has written in it, Lo Sirtzach, "Do not murder," as one of its basic tenets. A nation addicted to thievery is surely not going to give up its means of earning a livelihood just to accept the Torah. A nation to which fidelity and moral rectitude are extinct is not going to accept a Torah that highlights, LoTinaaf, "Do not commit adultery." The nations of the world begged off, gave excuses, none of which were justifiable; they were merely excuses. In short, they rationalized that the Torah and G-d, for that matter, were simply not for them.

The Jewish People, on the other hand, asked no questions. They adhered to the legacy of: Hineni! I am here! The words they used, their clarion response was, Naase v'nishma, "We will do and we will listen!" First, they accepted the Torah unequivocally. Then they would see how to adjust their lifestyle to accommodate Hashem's mitzvos. They were midbar, wilderness, people. Their trust in Hashem was all encompassing. Horav Yerachmiel Krohn, Shlita, notes the contrast between the number of mitzvos given to Klal Yisrael and the number given to the nations of the world. We have 613 mitzvos; they have seven. We have three mitzvos in common with them: idol worship, adultery and murder. That, however, is where the commonality ends. A Jew is enjoined to relinquish his life, so that he does not transgress these prohibitions. The gentile is not commanded to give up his life. The reason is that Hashem expects more from us. We declared Naase v'nishma. Living by such a credo, we can be expected to stand up for our mitzvos. It is our symbol of commitment. The non-Jews are enjoined, admonished, but not held in contempt if their life carries greater value to them than Hashem's mitzvos. After all, they were not inducted in the midbar.

Klal Yisrael's total abnegation to Hashem achieves expression in Parashas Beha'alosecha (Bamidbar 9:15-23) concerning their travels and procedures pertaining to them. The Mishkan, which was a structure that had to be broken up every time Klal Yisrael changed encampments, is likewise assembled once the nation reached its Divinely-selected destination. The Torah relates that the Mishkan was covered with a Cloud. When the Cloud lifted off the Mishkan, the people waited for it to move over to Shevet Yehudah. The trumpets were then sounded and Moshe Rabbeinu would announce, "Arise, Hashem." Only then would the nation begin its next journey. When the journey reached its place of encampment, the Cloud would arrange itself over Shevet Yehudah. Then Moshe would announce, "Return, Hashem…" The Torah emphasizes that there were times when the journey was of considerable length, and there were periods when it was a quick trip of only a few days length. It seems superfluous to mention various examples of long and short encampments and journeys. The Torah is not short on space, but it is usually short on "words."

Ramban explains the Torah's focus on the journeys and encampments. Even if the Cloud remained for a long time at a place which was not to the nations' taste, they did not complain; they submitted to the will of Hashem. There were times when the people could have used a bit of a rest, hoping that their present encampment would have a longer duration. It was not up to them, and when the Cloud moved - so did they. At times, they remained in a place for barely a night. On other occasions, they would march through the night, and, in the morning, seeing that the cloud was stationary, they would begin to unpack. Unexpectedly, the cloud would light up and they were ready to move on - again. Sometimes, they would rest for two days and receive the signal to march on at night. Regardless of the situation, whether the command was to march at night or during the day, the people acquiesced to the command, in spite of the difficulty it presented.

Imagine trying to live like this today. One cannot set out on a trip without an idea of where and when he is going to stop. Where will he get food? When we stop along the road, the first question that is asked is: how long are we remaining here? Order is a part of life. One cannot live out of a semi-packed suitcase today, but this is exactly how our ancestors lived in the midbar. They never questioned; they never complained. When the trumpet announced the next move, they moved. This mindset might have worked for the adults, but what about the children? How did they acclimate to the midbar? They did, because their parents did. They were Jews who trusted in Hashem. It is no wonder that Yirmiyahu HaNavi (2:2) lauds Klal Yisrael, Zocharti lach chesed ne'urayich lechteich acharai ba'midbar, b'eretz lo zaruah, "I have remembered the devotion of your youth, the love of your betrothal, when you did go after Me in a wilderness in a land that was not sown." The wilderness was Klal Yisrael's "school," their educational venue, where they learned the concept of emunah, faith, in Hashem. Horav Eliyahu Eliezer Dessler, zl, explains that our ancestors' sojourn in the wilderness was not a period of abuse and mortification by which they were forcibly inculcated with faith. It was an opportunity to study the harsh reality of life.

Serving Hashem is not an easy or a casual accomplishment. It is a constant upward, progressive grind as one toils through thick and thin to refine his relationship with Hashem, to develop a greater sense of faith and trust in Him. No, it does not come easily. One should not convince himself that he will first attend to his personal issues. They were always "on call" to Hashem. When he beckoned, when He moved the Cloud, they knew they had to pull up stakes and leave. There is no peace in this world for the righteous.

Klal Yisrael's tenure in the wilderness, their unequivocal trust in Hashem, is noted by Yirmiyahu HaNavi. Horav Chaim Shmuelevitz, zl, explains that the Navi is not merely relating to us the readiness of Klal Yisrael to suffer, to follow, to sacrifice themselves for Hashem. He is taking their trust and devotion a step further. He is declaring that Klal Yisrael's love for - and devotion to - Hashem were so strong that they were oblivious to the dangers that the wilderness presented. It did not matter what or who surrounded them. They were cradled in Hashem's "arms," such that they felt nothing but Hashem's Presence surrounding them. A child being held by his mother feels nothing but his mother's comforting presence. Where he is means nothing to him as long as he is ensconced in his mother's embrace. Klal Yisrael's disregard for the dangers inherent in the wilderness was not their hallmark. It was their awareness of Hashem's all-encompassing Presence, His eminence that engendered within them a sense of calm, a feeling of trust. They had nothing to fear - because Hashem would deal with it.

Rav Chaim applies this understanding of Klal Yisrael's relationship to Hashem in the midbar to explain a halachic difficulty. In the Talmud Shabbos 31b, Chazal raise an issue concerning the melachah, prohibited labor, of soseir, demolition. According to halachah, demolition is prohibited only if it is sosier al menas livnos bimekomo, demolition with intent of construction on the same site. If this is the case, how could the dismantling of the Mishkan be considered soseir? The reconstruction of the Mishkan took place elsewhere. That is why it was taken apart in the first place. Klal Yisrael was on the move! Chazal explain that since the Jews traveled and stopped according to Hashem's directive, "it was to be considered as if they were building on the same site."

What do Chazal mean? Rav Chaim explains that Klal Yisrael's physical locus was inconsequential. It was totally irrelevant, since they were completely bound up with Hashem and His directives. A child in his mother's arms is always in the same place, regardless of the mother's movements. Likewise, Klal Yisrael was always in one place, embraced by Hashem. Rav Chaim's thesis teaches us a new concept of Kiddush Hashem, sanctifying Hashem's Name. One does not have to die for Hashem in order to sanctify His Name. Rather, by living oblivious to one's external circumstances, ignoring the vicissitudes of life that plague us all, is to live a sanctified life. This is what Hashem asks of us.

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

Chazal teach that the Torah was given through the venue of three media: fire, water and wilderness. Why were these three chosen? Chazal explain that just as these three are "free" to anyone who wants to acquire them, so, too, are the words of Torah available to anyone who seeks them. Alternatively, the wilderness is hefker, a place which belongs to no one in particular. Everyone has access to the midbar, wilderness. One who seeks mastery in Torah study must make himself like a wilderness, renouncing himself of materialism. The physical/material dimension plays no active role in the life of the ben Torah. It is all about Torah study as a lifeline, a source of sustenance, a tower of support. With Torah, everything is possible. Without Torah, we have nothing. This should be the prevalent attitude in one's approach to Torah study.

In the Talmud Yoma 35b, Chazal present us with a hypothetical situation in which each of three individuals comes before the Heavenly Tribunal to attempt to state his case for not studying Torah. Each one's excuse is refuted by demonstrating others who were in a similar predicament, yet emerged with complete devotion to Torah study. The poor person is queried: "Why did you not engage in Torah study? If he replies, "I was poor and preoccupied with my sustenance," he is challenged, "Were you any poorer than Hillel?" Chazal go on to describe how the great sage, who was just about penniless, would scourge and use his meager earnings to study Torah.

When the wealthy man excuses himself for not engaging in Torah study, presenting the notion that he was preoccupied with managing his great material holdings, he receives a rebuttal, "Were you wealthier than Rabbi Elazar ben Charsom?" The great sage overcame all obstacles to study Torah. Last, is the rasha, one who is considered wicked as a result of the hold the yetzer hora, evil inclination, has on him. If he responds: "I was handsome and entangled with my evil inclination; thus, I could not learn," he is challenged, "Were you any more handsome than Yosef, who overcame the blandishments of Potifar's wife?"

The Shlah HaKadosh wonders why we question the rasha concerning his lack of Torah study. Certainly, there is much more that he could be asked. He should be asked first and foremost, "Why were you a rasha?" Simply, the answer to this would be that the rasha's negativity towards Torah study stands at the root of the sinful life. Had he learned, he would not have been a rasha. The Shlah explains that the rasha is not on "active duty." He is potentially wicked, possessing character traits that define him as a potential problem. He has not yet begun to act egregiously. Thus, when he is asked concerning his disengagement from Torah study, he replies, "I was very involved in my personal battle with the yetzer hora." He is shown that his excuse does not hold water, since Yosef Hatzadik prevailed over what might be considered a much stronger yetzer hora.

The Shlah begs to understand the basis of the wealthy man's excuse. "I was preoccupied with my holdings." He is challenged with Rabbi Elazar ben Charsom who had much more, yet devoted himself to Torah study. Why do we even respond to such a lame excuse for not studying Torah? "I was too rich to study. I was too busy counting my money" is essentially what he was saying. Does such an "exemption" warrant a rebuttal?

Therefore, the Shlah takes a novel approach towards understanding Chazal. He explains that this wealthy man is neither illiterate, nor is he deficient in his mitzvah observance. He is a fine, upstanding, committed Jew, who happens to be wealthy. He has a daily seder, learning period, to which he adheres diligently. So, what is the problem? When he is asked why he did not apportion more time to Torah study, he responds, "I was preoccupied with my assets. I was making more and more money so that I could give more tzedakah, charity, to the poor, to support yeshivos and organizations that were in need. I did not just make money frivolously. I was amassing greater opportunity for helping others. Learning is important, but so is chesed. I devoted myself to acts of loving-kindness. Making money enabled me to do this."

Seems like an excellent excuse. The Heavenly Tribunal does not accept it. Rabbi Elazar ben Charsom was wealthier; yet, he made Torah study the primary focus of his life. The poor man attempts a similar ploy. He was busy trying to sustain himself. He sought very little, but a man must eat. How could he learn on an empty stomach? The Heavenly Tribunal rebuts with Hillel HaZakein who shared the coin he earned with the gatekeeper to the yeshivah. Half a slice of old bread and a day's learning made some sandwich!

Horav Sholom Schwadron, zl, extends this idea. It all depends on one's goals and objectives. Two wealthy men outwardly appear the same. Each one gives tzedakah, learns, observes mitzvos meticulously. One is a tzaddik; one is not. Wherein lies the difference? It is all in the "why." Rav Sholom relates an episode that occurred with a prominent chasid of Horav Aharon, zl, m'Karlin. As the chasid sat at the Rebbe's table, he noticed that a plate of apples was brought out. The Rebbe made a loud blessing and proceeded to eat the apple. The chasid mused to himself, "I am no different than the Rebbe: He eats apples, and I eat apples. He first recites a blessing, and so do I first recite a blessing."

The Rebbe, "perceiving" what was going on in the chasid's mind, commented, "Perhaps, you might have a point there. What really is the difference between you and me? We both eat apples and recite a blessing before we partake. There is an essential difference. 'It is the why.' An individual may rise in the morning, gaze outside and see a lush apple tree. He immediately is amazed by Hashem's wondrous powers to create such a verdant tree capable of sustaining mankind. Out of tremendous love for, and awe of, Hashem, the Jew seeks to praise the Almighty with a blessing: Borei pri ha'eitz, but he may not utter Hashem's Name in vain. So, he takes a bite of the apple. His goal is to laud Hashem. Eating the apple enables him to do so.

"My friend, you, however, have a desire for an apple. Being a devout, G-d-fearing Jew, you know that it is forbidden to partake without first blessing Hashem. So, you recite the blessing. Your goal, my friend, is to eat an apple. Blessing Hashem enables you to do so."

The analogy is quite clear; the lesson, penetrating and meaningful. There are those whose goal it is to earn money, to amass great wealth. They pay their Maaser, tithing, when applicable. There are others whose goal is to give tzedakah. To do so, one must have what to give. It is all in the "why."

Take a census of the entire assembly of Bnei Yisrael, according to their families, according to their father's household, by number of the names, every male according to their head count. (1:2)

The Torah details the results of the census of the Jewish People taken shortly after the construction of the Mishkan. Sforno notes a disparity in the text between the census taken here in the beginning of Sefer Bamidbar and the one taken some thirty-nine years later, as the new generation is about to enter Eretz Yisrael. Here the Torah adds that the census was, "according to the number of names," while later, in Parashas Pinchas (ibid 26:2), they are counted only according to their father's house. It seems that there is a marked difference between the two census, or, perhaps, the people being counted were of a different nature.

Sforno suggests that accentuating individual names emphasizes a person's importance. This is consistent with, V'eidoacha b'shem, "And I know you by name" (Shemos 33:17). Indeed, at that time, every member of that generation was designated by his name, which seemed as an indication of his character. Sforno is of the opinion, which he reiterates a number of times in Sefer Bamidbar, that it was ultimately the sin of the meraglim, spies, and Klal Yisrael's reaction that took down the nation. Had they not sinned, they would have gone into Eretz Yisrael much earlier, without having to wage war against its seven pagan nations. They would have abandoned the land of their own volition, circumventing an impending war in which they knew they were doomed. Since Klal Yisrael sinned, the inhabitants of Eretz Yisrael intensified their egregious behavior during the extra years that the Jews wandered the wilderness. As a result, Yehoshua was destined to wage a long war against them. The purpose of the original census was to lead the nation into the land in an orderly and dignified fashion. Then they sinned, and history was changed.

The generation that entered Eretz Yisrael were not counted by the number of their names. Only the heads of families and the number of men were mentioned. This generation paled in comparison to the dor de'ah, generation of knowledge, that had experienced the slavery and redemption from Egypt. While they certainly possessed great qualities, evidenced by the fact that they are counted by their "families" and "father's houses," individual greatness was not the norm.

Sforno's exegesis does not seem to coincide with the Torah's presentation of the foibles and shortcomings of that "superior" generation that left Egypt. Indeed, the Torah often goes into stark detail in relating their often negative attitude toward their leadership. On the other hand, there is no recorded rebuke of the latter generation. How are we to understand this apparent inconsistency?

Nesivos Shalom attributes this disparity to the inherent greatness of the first generation. The more distinguished one is, the greater the expectation for continued greatness. Because those who endured the Egyptian experience with the ensuing liberation and its concomitant miracles and wonders were on a more elevated spiritual plateau, their yetzer hora, evil inclination, worked overtime and harder to get them to sin. The challenges which that generation confronted were fraught with greater danger. They had more to lose, because they possessed greater spiritual advantage.

This is a case in which being on a lower rung of the spiritual totem pole serves to one's advantage. The second generation, the children whom the members of the first generation thought lacked the spiritual fortitude to survive the pressures of the wilderness not only sojourned, but they entered the land their parents had shunned.

We are still left with a difficulty concerning the generation that entered Eretz Yisrael. Were they really spiritually deficient in comparison to the previous generation? Nesivos Shalom explains that the difference does not lie in the spiritual status of the respective generations but, rather, in their individual and ensuing avodah, service, to Hashem. The first generation, survivors of Egypt's crucible, having been mired in the moral and spiritual filth that personified Egyptian culture, needed to purify themselves of the spiritual contaminants to which they had been exposed. Their avodah was one of sur mei'ra, turn away from evil. One who has been exposed countless times to infection must build up his immunity. This is done by resisting any venue that brings him in contact with the pathogen. The next generation was born into a different environment, a spiritual climate that was a far cry from the one which their parents called home. This generation had a different task before them. Their focus was to be on the proactive, asei tov, do good, performing good deeds whenever and wherever the opportunity arose. They were the ones charged with entering the land, "cleaning" it of its defilement and, after making it their own, they were to build the Bais Hamikdash there.

Sur mei'ra and asei tov are two very distinct paths to serve Hashem. Thus, they require two different mindsets. Bais Avraham writes that one who is focused on eradicating evil must possess extreme self-confidence. Yosef HaTzaddik exemplified this character trait. He believed in himself, knowing fully well the deficiencies in his life, understanding the hurdles over which he would have to triumph, in order to vanquish the yetzer hora. His response to Potifar's wife, "There is no one greater in this house than I" (Bereishis 39:9), was his way of declaring, "I can handle it." The yetzer hora uses an interesting ploy in its battle to impugn our spiritual success. It degrades us, calling to mind our previous deficiencies and sins, thereby painting us as "losers" who are worthless. "Why bother if you will not succeed?" is how the yetzer hora begins its litany. We can resist such a yetzer hora by asserting our value and rewarding our work. By convincing ourselves of our inherent greatness, we raise ourselves far above the yetzer hora and its blandishments.

Thus, the members of the generation that left Egypt had to gird themselves with pride, and animate themselves with every bit of success that they had enjoyed. It would be their weapon to ward off the yetzer hora's attack. Appreciating one's feeling of self-importance is how that generation fought back. This is underscored by the Torah's counting them by "number of the names." They were not arrogant; they had to act with pride, or they would fall.

The next generation focused on doing good. Positive avodah works best when one senses himself as lowly and humble. Humility mutes one's sense of self-importance, thus allowing him to submit himself to the needs of others. One who is full of himself has no room for others. Two generations - two approaches to serving Hashem.

Va'ani Tefillah

V'hayah Hashem l'melech al kol ha'aretz, bayom ha'hu yiheyeh Hashem echad u'shemo echad.
Then Hashem will be King over all the world, on that day Hashem will be One and His Name will be One.

Almost all nations of the world, with their multiplicity of religions, seem to accept the concept of a Supreme Being. They each have a different way of perceiving Hashem. His "Name" is different to different people. Except for the few idol-worshipping religions left in the world, all recognize Hashem but via different names. Each name attributes various powers and strengths, character and disposition, based upon the religious dogma of that specific religion. There are people and nations who believe in One G-d, but the meaning of one G-d varies in accordance with each religious perspective. This pasuk, says Horav Shimon Schwab, zl, addresses the time when the entire world will understand and perceive Hashem as we do. Then it will be Shemo Echad, His Name will be One. This means that there will come a time when the whole world will share our understanding of the One and Only universal G-d - Hashem Yisborach. May that day soon arrive.

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