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Peninim on the Torah

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Rabbi A. Leib Scheinbaum
Hebrew Academy of Cleveland


When the Ark would journey, Moshe said, "Arise Hashem, and let Your foes be scattered, let those who hate You flee from before You. (10:35)

The pasuk above, and the one following, it are separated from the rest of the Torah by means of inverted letter nuns before and after them, which separate them from the rest of the narrative. The reason for this is that these pesukim really belong in Parashas Bamidbar, which relates the tribal formations and the Degalim, Banners, of each tribe. The passage was placed here, so that the Torah would not record these sins successively.

The second sin occurred when the Jews began complaining soon after they left Har Sinai. Defining the first sin seems to be an area of dispute between Rashi and Tosfos in their interpretation of a statement of Chazal in the Talmud Shabbos 116a. According to Rashi, the first sin occurred when they asked for meat. Tosfos disagrees, contending that the first sin happened when they left Har Sinai seemingly in a rush, "like a child running from school." Tosfos feels that the quest for meat was part of the sin of the misonenim, complainers. It was not an independent sin in its own right. Why does Rashi stipulate that the sin of asking for meat was exclusive of the sin of the complainer? It seems to have been one more aspect of their complaining.

Horav Chaim Mordechai Katz, zl, explains that when Klal Yisrael left Har Sinai, their attitude changed. They left from a spiritually elevating atmosphere in which they had experienced Revelation only to enter into the great desolate wilderness. The sudden deterioration led to their quest for meat. This was a clear indication of their rapid downswing into the world of materialism. They no longer had an aspiration for the spiritual; their quest was not for the elevated and hallow, but for the material and shallow. Their sheifah, striving, had changed. They no longer yearned for spiritual excellence; rather, they pursued the mundane. This descent was in itself a sin. Digression is a sin, because it demonstrates a change in direction, a deviation from a forward, upward movement, to a backward, downward spiral.

A Jew should have a sheifah, ambition, an aspiration and a striving for a lofty goal, not a focus on when he will have his next portion of meat. A weakening of a Jew's sheifah is an indiscretion that is in itself sinful. This decrease in their level of ambition led them to find complaints. The word misonenim is defined by Rashi to be synonymous with the word alilah, libel. In other words, they needed nothing. They conjured a reason to complain. It was the result of a deviation from their original goals. When one loses sight of his goal; when his ambition begins to waiver, when his aspirations start faltering, he seeks an excuse to justify his behavior. He creates a libel, a scurrilous attempt to validate his indiscretion, to cover up his deviation. Rather than be on the defensive, he begins to complain, to project blame for his behavior. The best defense is a strong offensive. This is why they complained.

The Rosh Yeshivah explains that there are two stages in a person's decline: first, he interrupts his upward climb, his sheifah, aspiration, for spiritual growth; second, he begins to complain, to find fault, to lay blame, to create a libel in order to justify his desires.

Rashi feels that Klal Yisrael's level of learning at Har Sinai was exemplary. Their problem is attributed to a sudden interruption in their striving for excellence, their ambition to achieve gadlus, greatness. The two accompany one another. With Torah study, one needs to have a desire and an aspiration to know more, delve deeper, analyze further, to ascend the ladder of eminence in Torah. Tosfos, however, offers the opinion that their actual learning was deficient. Something was missing in the depth of their recognition of Hashem. Had they really been "into it," had their hakarah, recognition, of Hashem been on a more profound level, they could not have journeyed away from Har Sinai, like "a child running from school." Such behavior reflects a flawed attitude toward Torah study. It shows that they considered it a heavy yoke - not something that they valued and held dear to their hearts. When one cares about something, he savors it. He does not try to avoid it.

We remember the fish that we ate in Egypt free of charge, and the cucumbers, melons, leeks, onions and garlic. (11:5)

Klal Yisrael had been liberated after hundreds of years of bitter enslavement to their Egyptian oppressors. It was not simply back-breaking work. The Egyptians played mind games with the Jews, attempting to break them both physically and mentally. Chazal explain that after each Jew had put in a full day's work in the field, he would go home and then the Egyptian taskmaster would have him serve him by making him carry out simple, menial chores around the house. The Jew was not allowed a moment's rest. Women were forced to perform labor that was traditionally considered "men's work," and men were forced to do "women's work." The labor was only one aspect of their misery. They had to contend with the Egyptian decrees against their families. First, their midwives were instructed to kill their sons. Then, all male babies were to be cast in the river. This, coupled with other decrees, certainly made Jewish life in Egypt disheartening.

The Jews called out to Hashem, and He listened. He heard their pain and misery and liberated them from the Egyptian bondage. They came to the wilderness amidst a multitude of spectacular miracles. They were protected by the Pillars of Cloud, which protected them from any danger that they might confront. Finally, they had it made - or so one might think. Everything seemed perfect - or so it seemed. Yet, the Jewish People found reason to complain. First it was the eirev rav, mixed multitude, who instigated the complaint about a lack of meat. If this were not bad enough, they had the insolence to declare, "We remember the fish that we ate in Egypt free of charge." The Ramban notes that Jewish People, not just the mixed multitude, articulated the complaint about the "free fish" that they had in Egypt. They wanted what they had in Egypt. This is absolutely ludicrous! We know what they had in Egypt. It was misery, pain and slave labor. Why would they want to return to that type of life? This is in addition to the fact that they had the manna through which they experienced every form of food. Their complaints made absolutely no sense.

Horav Chaim Vital, zl, expresses this question in stronger terms. How can a nation which is called the dor deiah, generation of knowledge, for their profound perception and understanding of the workings of Hashem ask for the "fish in Egypt"? This is a request that one would expect of fools. Why would a nation that already has access to everything degrade themselves for some "fish"?

In the Talmud Yoma 75b, Chazal say that the people sought to revoke the prohibition of forbidden relationships. They felt it was too much for them. The Sifri explains that it was not merely the Egyptian food that they missed. Their idea of "free of charge" was an allusion to freedom from mitzvos, freedom from obligations, freedom from responsibility. It was not the free fish that they sought. Food was aplenty in the desert, but it had a catch: mitzvos. That, they could do without. As the Maharal m'Prague writes, "We remember the fish that we had free of charge. This means free of mitzvos. We want fish without any strings attached. They sought chinam m'mitzvos. Why? It is not as if the Jews who had left Egypt had no idea what obligation and servitude meant. Compared to the travail and bondage that they suffered in Egypt, the yoke of mitzvos with its Divine obligations was light. After years of misery, why would a few mitzvos disturb them?

Man's nature is to be free, to seek freedom at every opportunity. Constriction and restraint of any kind stifle a human being and often cause him to rebel against his constraints. Acquiescing to another's domination over him is a challenging and often antagonistic experience. Horav Chananyah Malkah, Shlita, explains this further. A person's character, his essence, is comprised of two components. One is intrinsic, while the other is external. His physical being is his extrinsic component, while his nefesh, spirit, represents his inner being. The spirit is also subdivided into various components: the thought process; emotions; inner struggles, etc. One can subjugate another person's body, make him a slave, and dominate over him. He cannot, however, enslave his mind. The most powerful dictator can prevail over another's body, but he cannot control his mind. No one has the power to suppress another person's thoughts and feelings - unless the individual willingly grants that power to his subjugation.

Thus, when the Jewish People were slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt, only their bodies belonged to Pharaoh. He controlled their physical movements, but he could not get into their minds, unless they allowed him to enter. The mind of the Jew, his ability to think what he wanted to think, to feel how he wanted to feel, to love, to hate, to experience any form of emotion, was all his. The Egyptians could not take that freedom away from him. Indeed, we see it all of the time. People who are incarcerated for years only become prisoners when they relinquish their inner ability to think as free men. As long as they retain their pride and self-esteem, they are not prisoners. Their bodies are incarcerated, but their spirit is free.

That is all acceptable in the secular world. In the world of Judaism, Hashem demands complete dominance over every aspect of the Jewish psyche: physical, spiritual, and emotional. The Jew is obligated to serve Hashem with all of his faculties- his body, as well as his mind. The Torah's mitzvos penetrate to the inner essence of a Jew, instructing him to love his fellow man and not to hate, not to covet, to think proper thoughts. In other words, our thoughts and emotions also belong to Hashem. That is what being Jewish is all about. One cannot just be a part time Jew, observing what he chooses and thinking what he wants. If one's thoughts are inappropriate, then his actions will eventually follow in iniquity.

We note in Parashas Mishpatim the case of an eved Ivri who expresses his desire to continue serving his master past the original six years of servitude. Why would one want to remain a slave? Chazal explain that the lifestyle of slaves is one of great abandon and dissoluteness. They are prone to licentious behavior because they are exposed to greater freedom. Physically he is a slave, but in matters of the spirit, his mind is free to wander.

Not so in the area of religion. The Torah addresses every area of man's physical and spiritual endeavor. We now understand why the Jews would rather have returned to the Egyptian slavery than live with the "freedom" of the wilderness. In Egypt, every day was free - free of mitzvos. True, their bodies belonged to the Egyptians, but their spirit belonged to them. Now, if they wanted to eat, they had to begin the process of first confirming its kashrus, then reciting a blessing. There were restrictions on how to eat, what to eat, when to eat, and where to eat. Too many restrictions! They wanted freedom - even if it meant being a slave!

Being observant is more than an obligation - it is a mindset. Regrettably, people often focus on the "do nots," the prohibitive commandments, without taking the time to realize that all of these prohibited mitzvos add up to a very positive and meaningful lifestyle. We must accentuate the positive. When we emphasize the positive way of life that Torah observance engenders, we will see that there are really no prohibitive mitzvos. Indeed, the "do nots" help us to "do." A mind that is "clean" and pure can think lofty thoughts. Yes, the Torah controls what we are to think about, but why put a clean beverage into a dirty cup? It is all part of positive reinforcement. Obedience to the Almighty is the harmony and integration of body and spirit towards one common positive objective: performing the will of Hashem. This is what it means to be a Jew.

Moshe heard the people crying in their family groups, each one at the entrance of his tent. (11:10)

A person should train himself to tolerate what Hashem sends him, regardless of its nature. Acceptance, justification and tolerance are all part of being Jewish. As the Chasam Sofer notes, however, this is only concerning the individual's personal life, his own problems and issues. When it comes to someone else's problems, one may not be tolerant. He must pray, help, and do everything within his power to assist another Jew in need. This is what troubled Moshe Rabbeinu when the Jews complained about their lack of meat. Had they complained about the "other" Jew's problems, his lack of meat, it might have been acceptable, even laudable, but these were people who were concerned with their own petty stomachs. It was their own hunger which they were trying to satisfy, not their friends'. This way is not the Jewish way. "Moshe heard the people crying." What were they crying about? Why were they crying? "In their family groups." They were crying about themselves, their families, not for others. "Each one at the entrance of his tent." They cared only about their individual tent, their individual family. Such selfish weeping was not to be tolerated. It is not the Jewish way.

In the Talmud Kesubos 17a, Chazal teach that a person must do his utmost to understand the needs of others. Yet, for himself, a person should have as few needs as possible. He should shy away from honor, but see to it that others are honored. One should forego personal pleasure, trust that Hashem will provide for his material needs and not worry. One should try not to borrow, but should lend money freely. One should try never to accept charity, but should generously give as much charity as possible. In short, one should seek ways to improve the lot of others and not worry about himself.

We might think that the great acts of charity are performed by those who have an abundant supply of money, or that in order to "do something" one needs a large organization. We have only to study the background of every major chesed organization to note that they all began with an idea: someone noticed a need; someone had a plan; someone wanted to "do something." In other situations, it was a person who felt a personal sensitivity to a particular need and either in the course of helping himself, he helped countless others, or, he simply felt the responsibility to go beyond "weeping in front of their own tents" and decided to "do" something about it.

Stories abound about individuals in the Jewish -- as well as secular -- world who took the initiative and went beyond the "weeping" to the "doing." One that is very near to my heart is about a man who, because of his outstanding humility, will permit me to mention neither his name nor the city in which he lives, but those in the "know" are certainly aware of his wonderful acts of chesed, which I take the liberty of sharing with the reading audience. I do confess that I have an ulterior motive: I envy what he does. I feel that perhaps by inspiring others, I might share in this wonderful mitzvah.

Almost sixteen years ago, a New Yorker with an eye for chesed and a heart of gold was prompted to single-handedly establish a chesed organization which today goes by the name of Sheeris Ha'plate or Edible Leftovers, Inc. Attending a wedding, he noticed the caterers packing up the food after the chupah. Being inquisitive by nature, he asked, "What are you doing with all of that food?" The caterer replied, "Why? Do you want it?" Five words, that was all. It was those five words, however, that motivated our friend to establish a unique food g'mach, sometimes known as a free-loan association. He took the food home, where he repackaged it and discreetly dropped it off at the homes of people whom he knew were in dire need.

Soon he had set up an entire network of volunteers. They accumulated the food from simchah halls throughout the New York area, distinctively, often elegantly, repackaging the food to give to those whose families could use it. Alternatively, they delivered it to those who were making a simchah, but could not afford all of the food. Indeed, the leftovers from a simchah could supply about thirty families with a perfectly nourishing meal - a phenomenon that with today's poverty levels is unfortunately not an anomaly.

Our friend recently shared a letter that the organization received from a chassan, an orphan, who was the beneficiary of a sumptuous, lavish kiddush, benefit of this wonderful g'mach: "I did not have to feel like an orphan at my own aufruf (Shabbos before a young man marries). I was able to have a kiddush, reception, fit for a prince, just like my friends' parents make for them."

A few months ago, a distraught mother called the g'mach. She had a large family, consisting of seventy-five members, and the upcoming Shabbos was to be her son's Bar- Mitzvah. Her problem? She had no way to provide the food for the Bar mitzvah, because she simply had no money. Should her child be deprived? Could the g'mach help? The g'mach provided the woman with delicious meals, as well as flower arrangements collected from a wedding hall the previous night.

Edible Leftovers Inc. collects food and flowers from approximately three hundred simchos each year. In addition, they collect the food after Pesach from New York area hotels and five hotels in Florida. The inspiration of one man, coupled with the dedication of many volunteers, ensures that some unfortunate parents will not have to tell their children, "Sorry, tonight this is all we have to eat," or, "I am sorry, but I cannot make a Bar-Mitzvah celebration for you." All of this occurs as a result of a few people going beyond "weeping by the door of their tents."

This message has been written as a public service for those people all over who just do not have. Perhaps we can help.

Va'ani Tefillah

Rommemu Hashem Elokeinu…Elevate Hashem our G-d.

There are two "rommemus" here, each with a different focus. In the sefer Avodas Hakodesh by Maharam Ben Gabbai, the author explains this redundancy in a manner that should elevate our daily prayers. When the time to sing praises to Hashem arrives, the malachim, angels in Heaven, wait for a "signal" to commence their song. The ministering angel who is "in charge" listens intently for the sounds of the Jews praying in this world to begin and ascend Heavenward. Why does he do this? Because the malachim are not permitted to begin their shirah, song of praise, until after the people in this world have begun their shirah . This is the meaning of the double rommemu. The first verse is a reference to Klal Yisrael who begin their shirah, and the second rommemu refers to the ministering angels who now begin to sing their shirah. Perhaps we should keep this in mind in the morning when we are laying in bed, contemplating if and when we should go to davening and how we should daven. After all, the melachim are waiting for us!

In memory of
Our dear Aunt

Annette Cohen

Dr. Jacob and Helen Massuda

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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