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Peninim on the Torah

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Rabbi A. Leib Scheinbaum
Hebrew Academy of Cleveland


Aharon did so. (8:3)

Rashi quotes the Sifri that interprets Aharon HaKohen's meticulous conformity to the letter of the law as referring particularly to the manner in which he lit the Menorah. L'hagid shevacho shel Aharon she'lo shinah, "To relate Aharon's praise, that he did not change." He did not want to deviate from the instructions that were conveyed to him. Aharon maintained a spiritual integrity that was unparalleled - a level to which we should all aspire. Seeking out loopholes and living on heteirim, halachic dispensations, leads one to ultimately disregard and blatantly abrogate Jewish law. A heter exists for a reason, to be implemented upon extreme necessity. Prevaricating for convenience or l'shem Shomayim, self-interpreted Heavenly intention, is no different than outright lying. Chosamo shel HaKadosh Baruch Hu emes, "Hashem's seal is truth": Why should we be any different?

People respect the truth - even if it hurts. Being brutally honest might catalyze pain, but, in the long run, it circumvents even greater and more long-lasting pain. I had occasion this past Yom Tov (Pesach, when I wrote this) to speak with the son of one of my dear friends, whose untimely passing twenty-one years ago left a tremendous void in his circle of friends. Reb Yosef Feigenbaum represented spiritual integrity at its zenith. He was raised with specific guidelines concerning religious observance: guidelines that were underscored by his rebbeim; guidelines to which he adhered without compromise. He absolutely refused to deviate from the truth - regardless of the consequences.

His son related that, following years in yeshivah, Reb Yosef went to business school. One of the courses was not a pre-requisite for a degree, but, in order to skip it, special permission had to be granted by the registrar. Not one to waste time, Yosef sought out the registrar, who was a woman, and asked her how to go about omitting this class.

The woman looked at his grades and course requirements and acquiesced to his request. As he was leaving, she asked, "Can I ask you a question which has been bothering me?" Yosef replied, "Sure, whatever you like."

"I am engaged to a fine young man, who happens to be Jewish. I am not. Our wedding date is scheduled for next week. My question is: How does Judaism view interfaith marriage? While my fianc? is clearly not observant, I would like to know what I am getting myself into."

Yosef was not one to sugarcoat the truth. A Biblical prohibition of such epic proportion was undeniably something he could not camouflage. This is a transgression that undermines the very underpinnings of our faith and has been destroying the integrity of the Jewish bloodline. Furthermore, Yosef was incapable of shinui, deviating from the truth. He told it like it was, and he let the proverbial chips fall where they may. He replied, "When a member of the Jewish faith intermarries, his or her parents traditionally tear their garments and sit shivah, observe seven days of mourning, which is customary when a death occurs within a family. A child who has intermarried has taken the path of spiritual demise. Your fianc?'s parents may not follow this tradition, but you asked how we view intermarriage. Well, now you know."

The registrar thanked Yosef and bid him good luck with his future. Six months later, Yosef returned to the registrar to have a form signed by her. In the course of their conversation, she related that she had not gone through with the marriage. Although it was merely a week before the wedding, she could not bring herself to be the catalyst of such an anathema - even if her fianc? did not care. She once again thanked Reb Yosef for his honesty. She understood how simple it would have been to avoid the truth. Because Reb Yosef refused to mask the truth, he prevented a Jewish young man from living the life of a lie.

And this is how the Menorah was made… according to the image that Hashem had shown Moshe, so did he make the Menorah. (8:4)

Rashi explains the meaning behind the word, V'zeh, and this, which seems to imply that Hashem in some way demonstrated to Moshe Rabbeinu how the Menorah should appear. Apparently, this is exactly what happened. Moshe had difficulty grasping the image of the Menorah. Hashem presented a visual rendition of the Menorah, pointing to it, as if to say V'zeh, "And this" (is how I want the Menorah to look). Horav Nissan Alpert, zl, compares this to two amateurs who were given the tools and materials to build a house. One neophyte had the common sense to realize that trial and error is not the way to build a structure - especially when time and materials are at a premium. The other one was not as rational.

The one who was impatient began building immediately. When he cut a beam too long, he shortened it, often too much, necessitating using another beam. Regrettably, he did not take into consideration that he had a limited amount of wood. This same process was executed with the masonry, electric and plumbing. The trial and error process worked out for him, in the sense that he now knew what was involved in erecting a house. The problem was that now he was out of material and time. Since he had performed every procedure a number of times until he got it right, he had expended valuable time, with little result. Even if he would have had the time, he had, unfortunately, depleted his cache of materials.

The astute fellow understood that to undertake building a house with no experience was foolhardy. He, therefore, sought out artisans and craftsmen and apprenticed himself to them, so that he could learn how to do it right the first time. Do we live our lives much differently than the first fellow who believed in the motto, "learn as you go"? Some check out various lifestyles, approaches to religious observance, one value system after another, until they realize that there is only one way to live, one appropriate manner of observance (allowing for modification according to one's mesorah, but all in strict adherence to Halachah). Others look for a standard of living that is consistent with their comfort zone, not realizing that we must acquiesce to what Hashem asks of us - not what makes us comfortable. The problem is that, just like the fellow who thought he knew it all ran out of time and material, we, too, also run out, but, for us, it is life itself which is sadly too short. When we will be called to task for our lack of achievement, our excuses will be dismally insufficient.

We are blessed with a gift from Hashem that enables us to forgo the tragedy that engulfs the "trial and error" process. He gave us the Torah, in which it is all spelled out. We have no need to experiment; thus, we need no excuses. Hashem has infused the Torah with His wisdom. By studying it and following its illuminating way of life, we ultimately achieve a comfort zone on this world and great reward in the next world. Those who go through life searching for the truth would not know what it is - even if they walk right into it. There is only one truth, and it can be found in only one place: the Torah.

In Sefer Mishlei 6:3, Shlomo Hamelech compares a mitzvah to a lamp, and Torah to light, Ki ner mitzvah v'Torah ohr, "For a mitzvah is a lamp, and the Torah is light." David Hamelech preceded him, when he wrote in Sefer Tehillim, 119:105, Ner l'Ragli devarecha v'or l'nesivasi, "Your word is a lamp unto my feet, a light for my path." The Metzudas David comments: "Just as the candle saves one during the darkness of night from obstacles and from stumbling with one's feet, so do Your words save me from stumbling and transgression."

We now understand why Moshe and the Jewish people wanted to see a clear image of the Menorah, for it represents the integrated totality of our system for life: the Torah. When one meticulously follows a blueprint, he is ensured success. The Torah is our blueprint for life, the architectural drawings that the builder is required to follow, in order to ensure that his structure will endure.

Those who truly seek the truth need not experiment.

They journeyed from the Mountain of Hashem a three-day distance. (10:33)

In his commentary to pasuk 35, Va'yehi binsoa haAron "When the Ark would journey," Ramban cites a Midrash which takes a dim view of Klal Yisrael's first journey away from Har Sinai. The Midrash states that the nation left the mountain, K'tinok ha'boreiach mi'bais ha'sefer, "Like a child running away from school," happy to leave that holy place - in case Hashem had plans for giving them more mitzvos to perform. While they followed Hashem's instructions concerning their journey, their attitude in leaving apparently left something to be desired.

Horav Aizik Sher, zl, wonders what part of Chazal's statement underscores their actual failing: that they acted like children; or that they ran away from school? He posits that, in Slabodka (where he was Rosh Yeshivah), they claimed it was their childish behavior which was the reason for their later punishment. At Har Sinai, Klal Yisrael achieved unprecedented spiritual elevation. The Heavens opened up, and the nation was privy to an unparalleled Divine Revelation. The loftiness of the experience, the sublimity of the event, was without peer. They reached the level of Adam HaRishon, Primordial Man, prior to the sin of eating from the Eitz HaDaas, Tree of Knowledge. Yet, soon after, they were able to act as children; to complain about food; to be indignant concerning the morals imposed upon them. How does an adult fall to the level of a child? How does one scale the mountain, reach its apex - then fall into the dirt - and debase himself?

If they were able to act so, it is an indication that there had never been an "adult" relationship, their experience at Sinai had been impugned. We derive from here that one may be privy to the most earth-shattering experience, to a Revelation that stuns and boggles the mind, but if it does not transform him - it is a waste. One goes to shul - but leaves as soon as possible - not because he has to, but because he wants to. He simply has no interest in remaining in shul too long. One attends a lecture, but has one foot out the door before the lecturer concludes his last words, demonstrating that the lecture had done nothing for him. Attendance at a function is determined by the manner in which one leaves. Does he want more - or does he just want to escape?

Rav Moshe Toledano quotes a story he heard from the Mashgiach in the yeshivah in Modiin Illit. The custom in yeshivos in Eretz Yisrael is that, following the Festival of Shavuos, during which there is increased diligence in Torah study and prayer services which begin at sunrise, and includes thousands of Jews together supplicating Hashem as one, a weekend to return home for some rest and relaxation is granted. That year, Shavuos ended on Wednesday, so the students would normally leave on Thursday for a long weekend. This yeshivah asked the students not to leave before Friday. The extra day should be spent in yeshivah. Most students complied with the Mashgiach's request - except for one - who said that he was remaining for Shabbos.

The Mashgiach was understandably surprised - especially since the student had relatives from America who had come to visit. I think the young man's rationale for staying in the yeshivah is what gives this story greater meaning. He said, "Today, when one attends a wedding, it is difficult to distinguish between the chassan, groom, and the guests (who are his age). Everybody wears a nice suit, a fancy shirt and tie, an impressive hat (some go more to be seen than to participate), and shiny new shoes. How does one distinguish who is the chassan and who are the guests? The answer is simple: The one who is around at the end of the wedding, the "last man standing": he is the chassan. The guests leave when they can. The chassan remains, because it is his simchah, celebration. I just experienced a Shavuos in which I celebrated and rejoiced with the Torah as a chassan with his kallah, bride. If I am the chassan, I want to remain in the yeshivah and continue the celebration."

Perhaps the next time we are about to leave shul in a rush, without waiting for the last Kaddish, this story will provide a deterrent.

And the rabble in their midst longed desire, and the Bnei Yisrael wept as well, and said, "Who will feed us meat?" (11:4)

Shortly after Klal Yisrael commenced their journey from Har Sinai, where they received the Torah, to Eretz Yisrael, the people began to complain. One who is not knowledgeable might err and view Klal Yisrael's foibles and shortcomings in the wrong light. Their failings have a negative connotation only in relationship with their incredibly high spiritual level. Having witnessed the greatest Revelation of all time, the slightest complaint becomes greatly magnified. Following the Giving of the Torah, Klal Yisrael earned the title of Dor Deah, the Generation of Knowledge, so acute was their conception of the Divine. Thus, a sin caused by such a base desire as the lust for meat becomes something indecorous for them, totally unbecoming a people of such an elevated spiritual stature.

Indeed, the Sfas Emes views the sin of the asafsuf, with their lust for meat, to be in the category of an aveirah lishmah, a sin committed intentionally, but with a positive spiritual goal in mind. It is still an aveirah, but to a lesser degree, and one which may be misconstrued by some as a mitzvah. Hisaavu taavah is literally translated as "desired (a) desire." The people mistakenly thought that they could only remain connected to Hashem if He would restore their inner yearning for physicality - something they lost when they stood at Har Sinai and received the Torah. This must be explained, since what place is there for a physical desire in the service of Hashem? One would think that attaching oneself to Hashem demands increased spirituality - not greater physical craving.

Chazal teach us (Pirkei Avos 2:4), Asei retzono kiRitzonecha, k'dei she'Yaaseh retzonecha kiRitzono, "Do His will like your own will in order that He should do your will like His own." A person who is observant, who attaches himself to mitzvos, connects himself to kedushah, holiness. The more one becomes sanctified, the more he begins to feel that fulfilling Hashem's will is his true identity. His connection to kedushah serves as a safeguard from sin, protecting him by preventing his base nature from undermining the level which he has achieved. As this process continues, man becomes more and more dedicated to the Almighty.

We should not ignore the evil desires within man, for they can be harnessed to bring him closer to G-d. When one analyzes the drive which motivates his advancement in the physical world - both good/practical and bad - one may derive what could be his spiritual potential. This may be accessed through a kal v'chomer, a priori logic. In other words, if in a lenient situation a certain stringency is true, how much more so is this true in a stringent case. Or, if "I" have so much energy, resourcefulness, acumen, drive and ingenuity for achieving my transient physical/mundane goals, how much more so is expected of me (because I am capable of it) in devoting myself to the service of Hashem.

Therefore, when one directs his physical drives toward the spiritual, by taking all of his kochos ha'nefesh, abilities and talents-- which he would otherwise expend on physical pleasures and values-- and focuses them all towards his spiritual ascendency, he reaches a level in which all of his desires are targeted toward Hashem. The Sfas Emes now explains the above Mishnah in Pirkei Avos in a novel manner. "Perform His will as your own (with the same enthusiasm, excitement and elan that you would expend for your own desires) in order that He make your desires like His. (Then, Hashem will actually mold your desires to be spiritual, like His.)

Let us now review some history. Prior to eating of the Eitz HaDaas, Tree of Knowledge, Adam HaRishon was yashar, straight, upright. He was created to yearn instinctively to live according to Hashem's dictates. He immediately gravitated towards good, since he had no yetzer hora, evil-inclination, to cloud his judgment. This all came to an abrupt end once he ate of the Eitz HaDaas, which now created within him a mixture of good and evil, transforming his avodas Hashem, service of the Almighty, into a process of sorting through the good and evil. First, he had to recognize and eschew the evil - then, he was able to execute his actions in a manner appropriate for living a Torah life.

When Hashem gave us the Torah, we regained Adam HaRishon's yashrus, uprightness. No longer were the people hampered by the evil inclination pushing them towards the world's physical pleasures. They just were not interested. This spiritual utopia lasted but a short while, until the sin of the Golden Calf, after which the people's innate drive to do good disappeared. Yet, they still had no craving for the physical. The people were in limbo: no drive toward the spiritual; and no drive toward the physical. They felt that they must return to the pre-Mattan Torah state, during which they would have normal desires to overcome. In order to achieve this, they had to begin discerning between good and bad, pure and impure.

With this background in mind, the Sfas Emes explains the people's grievances concerning the manna. The people complained, V'nafsheinu ye'veishah, "And now our souls are dry. We have nothing to eat but the Manna" (ibid 11:6)

Nu - so what is so bad with manna? The manna was a spiritual food which sustained spiritually. How could a flesh and blood human be nourished by Heavenly food? We eat "real" food which nourishes our bodies, thus allowing our spirit to be sustained via its connection with the body. Manna, however, worked in the opposite manner, by sustaining the soul and allowing the body, which is connected to the soul, to receive nourishment. The process was turned around. Man receiving his proper nourishment depends upon his spiritual level.

What is man's primary state? If it is spiritual - then he will thrive on spiritual food, such as manna, which will, in turn, sustain his body. If he is primarily corporeal, manna is not for him. He requires "beef," real food, to sustain his physical dimension. The Jews complained to Moshe Rabbeinu that their souls were dry. Nafsheinu/nefesh denotes the lowest level of man's soul (nefesh, ruach, neshamah). The manna descended to the earth in the z'chus, merit, of Moshe, who existed on the spiritual plane of ruach. Thus, it was for someone of his spiritual level - not that of the people. They complained that the nefesh received no sustenance from a food designed for someone on the level of "ruach."

With this understanding in mind, the request of the asafsuf for meat takes on greater practicality. They were neither simply hungry, nor were they obsessed with a lust for food. The asafsuf were conveying a compelling message: We are no longer on the level of eating manna. We desire "desire," to once again feel physical pleasures, so that we could use them as a vehicle for attaining a higher level of worship. Apparently, every coin has two sides. What on the surface appears to be gross base desire is actually a plea for an opportunity to achieve spiritual ascendancy.

. Did I conceive this entire people, or did I give birth to it, that You say to me, "Carry them in your bosom?"… I alone cannot carry this entire nation, for it is too heavy for me!" (11:12,14)

Parents have an enormous responsibility - regardless of the difficulty - whether it be economical, personal, or a child with an unusual problem with which the parent is unable to cope. By virtue of the fact that one carries the title parent, he becomes obligated to support his/her child under all circumstances. The problems of many adolescents often result from a family dynamic in which the parents are inept or dysfunctional. Parents often shirk their responsibility by laying it at the door of others, such as the school. A proper education, in a stable environment under the tutelage of loving, caring, and knowledgeable mentors, can buffer the damage caused by the home somewhat, but can never replace the role of a solid home in the life of a child.

There is a well-known story which took place when a young chassan, recently married man, came before the holy Sfas Emes with a complaint. Apparently, his father-in-law had promised him a considerable dowry, which he presently had reneged. What should the young man do? He was counting on the support. The Sfas Emes asked the father-in-law if this was true. The father-in-law was an honest man and replied that, while it was true, he could do nothing about it, since he was broke. He had made certain investments for which, not only had he not realized the profit, he had actually lost his principal. He was very apologetic, but he still had no money.

The Sfas Emes listened to the man's tale of woe and rendered the following decision: Moshe Rabbeinu stated that he neither conceived Klal Yisrael, nor gave birth to them; therefore, he should not be compelled to "carry" them. Why did Moshe say this? He could have simply said, "Sorry. I have no meat to give you!" What was changed by the fact that he did not give birth to the nation? Obviously, if one is a parent, then insufficient income, lack of funds, no meat, is an unacceptable excuse. A parent must somehow, someway, think of an avenue to sustain his child. This is what parenting is all about. If you are the girl's father, then you must pay up. Somehow, you must find the money to carry out your promise."

Va'ani Tefillah

Va'ani Tefillah

Ashrei ish sh'yishma l'mitzvosecha. Happy is the man who will listen to Your mitzvos.

Interestingly, the prayer uses the term she'yishma, "who will listen," focusing on the person who will one day, in the future, abide by mitzvos, rather than she'shomeia, "who listens," who is already obedient and observant. There is a clear message conveyed by this textual alteration. Horav Shimon Schwab, zl, suggests that this verse alludes to the pasuk in Tehillim, Ashrei ish yarei es Hashem, "Happy is the man who fears Hashem" (Tehillim 112:1), concerning which Chazal (Avodah Zarah 19a) comment, "Happy is the person who does teshuvah, repents, while he is still a man (in his full virility and strength)."

Many people make a conscious decision to repent and adopt an observant way of life. Some do so as a last resort, once they are aged, their physical strength already ebbing out of them. Indeed, they do not have the strength to do anything wrong. They might as well repent and leave this world on a good note. While there is no doubt that Hashem accepts their sincere teshuvah, it is a far cry from what is expected of them. Fortunate is he who recognizes the error of his ways when he is still young and able to continue along a path of disobedience - but, instead, harnesses his strength to stand up to his yetzer hora, evil-inclination, and overcome his temptations.

We say it every Rosh Hashanah in one of Tefillas Mussaf's most poignant and inspirational prayers U'nesaneh Tokef: - V'ad yom moso techakeh lo - im yashuv mi'yad Tekablo - "And until the day of his death, You wait for him, and, if he repents, You will immediately accept him."

Is it not more appropriate, however, and far better if one repents when he is in his full vigor, when he still has the ability and energy to sin?

In memory
Robert and Barbara Pinkis
R' Baruch Gimpel ben Chaim Yehuda z"l
and his wife Esther Chana bas R' Avigdor a"h

Michele and Marcelo Weiss and Family
Lisa and Eric Pinkis and Family

Peninim on the Torah is in its 20th year of publication. The first fifteen years have been published in book form.

The Fifteenth volume is available at your local book seller or directly from Rabbi Scheinbaum.

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