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Peninim on the Torah

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Rabbi A. Leib Scheinbaum
Hebrew Academy of Cleveland


The rabble that was among them cultivated a craving. And Bnei Yisrael also turned and they wept. (11:4)

Klal Yisrael achieved exalted status in the wilderness, as evidenced by the Pillar of Cloud that rested above the Mishkan. At night they were protected by a Pillar of Fire. The Degalim, Flags/Banners, which represented each tribe's unique characteristics, were also a Divine indication of their unusually lofty plateau. It is specifically for this reason that their reaction to a meat shortage seems so bizarre. "And they cried and said, 'Who will feed us meat? We remember the fish which we ate in Egypt, free of charge, the cucumbers, and the melons and the leeks, etc.'" (Bamidbar 11:4,5).

How did a nation which had achieved such lofty spiritual status descend so quickly to having such overriding concern for their physical needs? This is especially notable considering that this took place within the year following the Giving of the Torah. Certainly, their original reaction to the Giving of the Torah and the preceding miracles and wonders had been real.

Horav Chaim Kamil, zl, suggests that the answer to this anomaly lies in the pasuk which details Hashem's response to the people's complaining. "Until a month of days, until it will come out of your nose and will become nauseating to you, because you have rejected Hashem Who is in your midst (ibid 11:20)." Rashi explains: "Had I not planted My Shechinah among you, your heart would not have been so high as to entertain all of these matters." Mizrachi explains that it was the fact that Hashem was manifest in their midst which caused them to sin. Implied by this statement is the idea that the Presence of Hashem catalyzed an incredible spiritual leap, but, as with all achievement, responsibility accompanies it. They had achieved greatness; now, they had to guard and maintain this precious gift. They did not, and, as a result, they plummeted to a nadir of physicality and materialism in which food and the self-gratification it represents became the sources of their downfall. Spiritual advantage is a wonderful achievement, but it must be maintained. If it is not guarded like a precious jewel, it can be the cause of one's downfall. It is like playing with fire. This is a very important principle in avodas Hashem, one's service to the Almighty. The more one grows, the more one needs to watch, to guard, to be ever vigilant that he does not squander the spiritual treasures which he has acquired. It is not unlike any other treasure: it must be protected.

Rav Kamil posits that the greatest agent for protection is an unquenchable desire to achieve greater and loftier heights. In other words, more is better. One who "settles" for what he has achieved indicates a lackluster attitude towards his spiritual advantage. He can be certain that this spiritual gift will, regrettably, be short-lived. In the world of commerce there is the old, much maligned clich?, "the rich get richer." This is because their wealth means something to them; thus, they work at acquiring more. If something is important, if it is valuable, we want more of it. Should spirituality be any different?

The rabble that was among them cultivated a craving; and Bnei Yisrael also wept once more, and said, "who will feed us meat?" Assemble for Me seventy men from the elders of Yisrael. (11:4,16)

Yetzias Mitzrayim, the exodus from Egypt; Krias Yam Suf, the Splitting of the Red Sea; Mattan Torah, the Giving of the Torah: despite having experienced all of these seminal events, Klal Yisrael still found reason to complain. After all, they were hungry. This teaches us a powerful - almost frightening - lesson: There are such forces imbedded within the human psyche that repel common decency. These same forces defy one's ability to maintain his spiritual ascendency. Thus, regardless of the spiritual experience to which one has been privy, he should not pat himself on the back and say, "I am fine. I can now handle anything." In addition, those who attribute their spiritual deficiencies to a lack of spiritual leadership of the calibre that existed in previous generations will have a rude awakening, with the consideration that this criticism took place while Klal Yisrael was under the stewardship of our quintessential leader, Moshe Rabbeinu. Achieving a spiritual plateau does not guarantee that one will maintain his status quo. He can as quickly descend to a nadir far below that at which he stood earlier.

One must take hold of himself and use his mind to think cogently, to take a penetrating look at what is going on around him. By applying the brakes to life, one allows himself to reflect, to try to think rationally, thus realizing that there is a Creator Who guides every aspect of his existence. If one is not thinking, then the most seminal events leave no positive impact. If one is not awake, life passes him by while he continues to remain clueless.

One can listen, understand, and still remain distant from the truth. Horav Shmuel Nariyah, zl, explains that it all depends on how one views the material he is studying or perceives the event which is to shake him up. When one views Torah as nothing more than a gut vort, nice thought, without it having any pertinence to him personally, then it remains nothing more than a gut vort. One can stand at the foot of Har Sinai and experience the greatest Revelation known to mankind and gain nothing at all. It is another gut vort.

An experience such as the Revelation must transform a person. It must alter his perspective, obligate him to do more, act better, change his life. The erev rav, mixed multitude, stood at Har Sinai, experiencing the same Revelation as everyone else; yet, they remained impassive, unmoved, unchanged. It was a gut vort. It did not apply to them. The gentile world has many wise men who compose, expound, elucidate many wonderful, valuable and meaningful ideas. Yet, these ideas remain nothing more than hypothetical concepts which rarely see fruition. Indeed, explains Rav Nariah, herein lies the difference between the chochmah, wisdom, of the secular, gentile world, and Torah. Wisdom does not make any demands on the individual. One listens, is impressed, even discusses it with others, but at no time does he feel compelled to obligate himself to execute the implied demands of the ideas personally. The individual hears the ideas, sees the revelations, understands the implications, but does not connect to the concept. The value of an idea is commensurate with its ability to achieve fruition. Chochmah does not find fulfillment. Torah, by its very nature, if studied properly, compels one to listen, see, think - and change.

Interestingly, immediately following Klal Yisrael's debacle concerning the physical desire to satiate their hunger for meat, the Torah relates that Hashem instructed Moshe to select seventy elders to serve as the nation's Torah scholars, their Sanhedrin, the adjudicators and teachers of Jewish law and ritual. This command seems out of place. After all, how is Torah going to fill their stomachs? The people had a craving for beef. Seventy elders will not satiate their physical cravings.

Rav Nariah views this as spiritual pragmatism. If, during such an auspicious time, while Klal Yisrael was preparing for their entry into the Promised Land, their primary concern revolved around the questions: "What will we eat? Where is our beef?", then they had a serious problem. They were clearly experiencing a serious spiritual deficiency. The nation was ascending the ladder of spirituality, preparing for the culmination of hundreds of years of affliction, after receiving the Torah amid the most revelatory miracles and wonders; yet, their concern was for their stomachs. They needed to undergo a transformation, mind-opening education that would enlighten them as it illuminated their path to return. A temporary filling would not suffice. They were approaching "crunch time." A complete, enduring metamorphosis was in order.

Enter the zekeinim, elders of Klal Yisrael, the scholars who would teach, guide, disseminate Torah and imbue the nation with the proper character traits. They would refine their coarse behavior and teach them how to control their physical cravings until they no longer meant anything to them. The zekeinim were the trauma team that would prepare the nation for their entry into the Promised Land.

Zekeinim, elders, are more than teachers; they are a Jewish institution, without which our nation cannot survive. Our elders are indispensible. In the Midrash, Rabbi Akiva expresses this idea with the following comment: "Yisrael is compared to a bird. Just as a bird cannot fly without its wings; likewise, Klal Yisrael is helpless without its elders."

Horav Chaim Shmuelevitz, zl, explains the definitive nature of this statement. A bird without its wings is in worse shape than an animal who never had wings to begin with. A wingless bird is helpless, has no way of getting around; indeed, it is a very pitiful creature. Other nations survive without elders. The tradition which they transmit to the next generation will not "make or break" them. For Klal Yisrael, elders are requisite to our survival. To usurp the power of our elders is equivalent to striking a blow at the very core of the lifeblood of our nation. Judaism is a religious continuum, a chain that stretches from Sinai until this very day. We pray the same way our ancestors prayed; we serve Hashem in the very same manner. We have a tradition, a code of Jewish law and custom, that have been meticulously and lovingly transmitted from generation to generation. To undermine the Mesorah, tradition, by "clipping the wings" of the zekeinim of previous generations is dealing a death blow to our religious observance.

The secularists associated with the German Haskalah, Enlightenment movement, attempted this. By portraying the rabbanim and zekeinim in the most negative terms, they succeeded in eroding centuries-old traditions and belief. It was only through the superhuman efforts and mesiras nefesh, self-sacrifice, of a group of dedicated German rabbanim and laymen that these defilers of the Jewish religion did not totally succeed in their nefarious goal.

When the dew descended upon the camp at night, the manna would descend upon it. (11:9)

The daily manna was a lesson in bitachon, trust, in Hashem. The Jewish People learned to trust that Hashem would provide their necessities at the appropriate time. They would be allotted the amount that they needed, as determined by Hashem. Things have not changed. Hashem still provides for us. It may not look or feel like manna, but it is a modern-day version. Our livelihood comes to us compliments of Hashem. Fortunate is he who realizes, acknowledges and appreciates this. As in the wilderness, Hashem provides each individual with enough to address his needs. Those who have more should realize that Hashem wants them to share it with others. Those who have less should be patient; Hashem will provide.

Concerning bitachon, a distinction exists between gashmius, materialism, and ruchniyos, spirituality. Chazal teach us that Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai and his son lived for thirteen years in a cave. How did they sustain themselves? We are taught that a carob tree and a spring were in the cave. Thus, their daily fare consisted of carob and water. Not a very diverse diet, but nutritional none-the-less. They were pleased, considering that they were able to study Torah all day and night, unencumbered by anyone or anything. Their material needs were cared for. Life was "great"!

There was, however, one problem: their clothes. Since they had no idea how long they would be compelled to live in the cave, they were concerned lest their clothes wear out. One must wear a garment in order to daven. If they were to wear their clothes all day, they would soon wear-out, leaving them with nothing to wear for davening. In order to alleviate this problem, they dug a hole in the sand floor of the cave, entered and covered themselves with sand. This is how they learned Torah. When it came time to daven, they would exit the sand, get dressed and daven.

Hashem's role in our sustenance is an intrinsic one. In a way, it was much easier in the wilderness to see that role played out. One form of sustenance came via Heaven. That was all! Today, we think that the sustenance comes via our job, our investments, etc. Accordingly, we are thrown for a loop. We think that it is our hishtadlus, endeavoring, that catalyzes results. For instance, we work for someone. He provides our paycheck and, hence, our sustenance. It does not work that way, as evidenced by the following incident.

Prior to his being revealed to the world as founder of chassidus, the holy Baal Shem Tov was extremely poor. He lived off what he was able to beg. Regrettably, a few hundred years ago, this was not an uncommon sight in Europe. Most Jews struggled and were compelled to live off the charitable donations of others. Thursday was the day that they were forced to "hit the street," begging for alms, so that they could acquire the simplest necessities for Shabbos.

On one particular Thursday, the Baal Shem Tov closed his Gemorah and went out on a fundraising trip. Approaching the home of a well-to-do philanthropist, he walked up to the door, gave a few knocks, and immediately walked away. The philanthropist came to the door and was quite upset to see no one standing there. "What chutzpah!" he declared. Not giving up quickly, he looked around his vast estate only to discover the Baal Shem Tov sitting in a corner across the street. The man donned his coat and went out to the holy man.

"Rebbe! Sholom Aleichem! Possibly you were the one who knocked on my door?" the man asked. "Yes, it was I," the Baal Shem Tov replied.

"What were you seeking?" the man asked.

"Shabbos is approaching and I have no funds with which to purchase the basic necessities," the Baal Shem Tov answered. "So, why did you run away? You did not even allow me to make it to the door with a donation," the man queried.

"Why should I wait by the door?" the Baal Shem asked. "An obligation rests upon me to be mishtadel, endeavor. I executed that hishtadlus by knocking on the door. Now, it is up to Hashem to help me. What difference is there if He assists me through you or through another avenue? The main thing is that I did my part."

This incident teaches us that the hishtadlus does not necessarily coincide with the results. The blessing comes from Hashem after we are mishtadel. In other words, we might be working for one person - and receive our sustenance from another. Working is the hishtadlus; the consequences come from Hashem as He sees fit.

What is bitachon? The usual response is: "I trust in Hashem that He will do such and such for me." This is not bitachon. In the sefer Chovas Halevavos, it is explained that bitachon is a status quo, a state of being, whereby the individual remains calm and secure, trusting that the Almighty will provide him with whatever is appropriate. It is a sense of trust, a feeling of solitude.

The Chafetz Chaim compares this to medicine that must be ingested by a sick person. It is bitter medicine and, hence, difficult to swallow. The pharmacist wraps the medicine in a plastic capsule, so that the person will not taste the medicine. Indeed, we do this all of the time: wrap the bitter pills in life in some form of "plastic coating." This idea applies equally to bitachon. The individual who trusts in Hashem is not unaware of the troubles that beset him. He is acutely aware that they come from a Source: Hashem, Who "provides" them out of a sense of kindness. This awareness is the plastic capsule that engenders courage, fortitude and resolution to continue with the knowledge and trust that Hashem is purifying him. No, the pain does not go away. The perspective concerning this pain changes. It has been ameliorated through chesed.

When "push comes to shove," people trust in Hashem. On the one hand, it should not come to that. We should not trust in Hashem only when we have exhausted all other options. Hashem is the only option. Perhaps, if we would understand this concept, and turn to Hashem first - because He is the only option, then our prayers might achieve greater efficacy. I am writing this before Pesach, and I have before me a wonderful commentary on the Haggadah by Rabbi Yechiel Spero. He relates the following story which underscores and elucidates this idea.

A young couple - who had not yet been blessed with a child - had exhausted all avenues of hope. They had tried everything, to no avail. As a final attempt, they asked for a meeting with Horav Shimshon Pincus, zl. Rav Shimshon said that he would pick up the young man that evening at 11:00 p.m. Despite the young man's protests, Rav Shimshon was adamant; he was driving. At the appointed time, Rav Shimshon pulled up in his car, and they were off.

They drove for quite some time until they were driving in a completely uninhabited area. This continued on for a while. Suddenly, Rav Shimshon pulled off the road and continued driving on a dirt road. Another ten minutes elapsed until Rav Shimshon finally pulled over, stopped the car and asked the young man to step out of the car. One can imagine what thoughts were coursing through the young man's mind, but one does not question Rav Shimshon.

"Spend the next half hour davening to Hashem, and then I will return to pick you up," Rav Shimshon told him. Having issued his instructions, Rav Shimshon returned to the car and pulled out, leaving the young man alone "somewhere" in the southern part of Eretz Yisrael.

Rav Shimshon returned thirty minutes later to find the young man sitting on a rock waiting for him. "Why did you leave me alone?" the young man asked. Rav Shimshon looked the young man in the eye and said, "This is it. I instructed you to daven because you are all alone right now in the middle of nowhere. You have no one else to turn to other than the Ribono Shel Olam. So, turn to your Father in Heaven and beg Him with all your strength to bless you with a child. I cannot help you. The doctors cannot help you. Nothing and no one can help - only Hashem. Daven as if you realize this."

Rav Shimshon drove off again, returning in a half hour. This time, however, the young man was not there. Rav Shimshon waited another half hour and began to worry. Suddenly, the young man emerged from a nearby field. Eyes swollen, his face tear- streaked, he looked at Rav Shimshon and said, "I think that we can go now."

Not a word passed between the two on the return trip home. Rav Shimshon dropped the young man off and continued on home. Within that year, the couple was blessed with a child, the fruit of a broken father's prayers. He knew that no one but Hashem could help him, and he davened like he believed it. He had discovered true bitachon.

Now the man Moshe was exceedingly humble. (12:3)

The word, v'ha'ish, "and the man (Moshe)," is seemingly superfluous. Obviously, he was a man. Horav Eliyahu Meir Bloch, zl, notes that even in the consummate middah, character trait, of anavah, humility, one can go overboard, became carried away by taking humility to an extreme. Shmuel Ha'Navi criticized Shaul Ha'Melech for his immoderate humility, an error that was a primary factor in his downfall. Shmuel said, "Though you may be small in your own eyes, you are the head of the tribes of Yisrael; and Hashem has anointed you to be head of Yisrael" (Shmuel 1, 15:17). "Because you rejected the word of G-d, He has rejected you as King" (Ibid 15:23).

Humility is a wonderful character trait, but it must go hand-in-hand with dignity. One, who out of a sense of humility, allows people to step all over him is not humble; he is foolish. He is not a baal ha'bayis, owner, over his G-d-given component. He is created b'tzelem Elokim, in the image of G-d, and, as such, deserves to be treated with dignity and respect. Shaul Ha'melech permitted his humility to control his life; thus, he erred. As the king, he should make decisions based upon what he feels is correct - not public opinion. Shaul feared offending the people, so that he did not heed the words of Shmuel Ha'Navi.

Middos, character traits, have to be implemented properly, correctly, and under the right conditions. There is a time for humility and a time when one should show a little class. Regrettably, we find the converse. Moshe Rabbeinu was the anav mi'kol adam, most humble man on earth; yet, he knew when to make demands as a leader. Everything has a time and place. Moshe was an anav, but he was also an ish, "man," strong in his ability to lead, guide and direct the destiny of the nation. When one conjures up the name of Horav Moshe Feinstein, zl, not only does unparalleled distinction in Torah knowledge come to mind, but so does this revered gadol's humility. Rav Moshe was, as his namesake, the essence of humility. Likewise, his humility was not the product of weakness. When necessary, he could be firm and unyielding, if such was the dictated course of action.

Once, when adjudicating a halachic dispute between two litigants, he caught someone offering testimony that was clearly prevaricated. The Rosh Yeshivah reprimanded the man and asked him to leave the room. In another episode, Rav Moshe stated a halachah to which one of the litigants did not agree. The man had the insolence to accuse Rav Moshe of falsifying the law in order to expedite the case. Rav Moshe rose up to his full height and exclaimed, "My name is Moshe Feinstein. True, I do not know how to learn, but go in the streets and inquire if I am a liar!"

Va'ani Tefillah

Yishtabach shimcha lo'ad malkeinu Ha'Keil. Your name should be praised forever, our King.

We arrive now at the conclusion of Pesukei D'zimrah. Beginning with Baruch She'Amar and concluding with Yishtabach, the "Verses of Song," are filled with praise to Hashem. This is how we begin our day. Now, at the conclusion of these verses of praise, we declare that we regret concluding. Horav Avigdor Miller, zl, presents it so beautifully. We simply do not want to end our praise of Hashem, for He ought to be praised forever, without cessation. Why? Because Hashem is "our King." This appellation denotes two factors which necessitate our endless praise. First, as our King, He created us and conducts all of our affairs, continues to sustain us and supply all of our needs. Second, if He is our King, then we are His subjects. As such, we serve Him with all of our ability and power. Praising Hashem is one of the primary forms of serving Him.

The roshei teivos, first letter of each word, shimcha, lo'ad, malkeinu, ha'Keil, spell out the acronym Shlomo, referring to Shlomo Ha'Melech to whom this prayer is attributed. It contains, Yud Kay, fifteen descriptions of praise, coinciding with the fifteen Shir Ha'Maalos, the Yud Kay. They should be recited together as one, without interruption.

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