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Peninim on the Torah

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Rabbi A. Leib Scheinbaum
Hebrew Academy of Cleveland


When you come into the land… the land shall observe a Shabbos rest to Hashem. (25:2)

The pasuk seems to imply that Shemittah is to commence immediately upon the arrival of Klal Yisrael in Eretz Yisrael. The Torah, however, continues, "Six years you may sow your field," indicating that Shemittah does not begin right away. Why is the Torah so ambiguous in conveying to us when the laws of Shemittah are to take effect?

The Meshech Chochmah explains that while Hashem gave us Eretz Yisrael as a gift, certain criteria that are critical to the land's maintenance must be met in order for the gift to endure. Mizekeinim Esbonan gives the following analogy to elucidate this idea. Reuven looks over a prospective parcel of land. He is satisfied with the product and the price, and he is about to close the deal. Shimon, the seller, is pleased, but first asks Reuven to sit down. He must discuss with him certain aspects of the agreement for the sale of the land.

"First of all," Shimon states, "you are limited in the hours that you may work the land. After 8:00PM, no work is permitted. You cannot drive across the field with heavy vehicles, and pesticides are forbidden. You also must use the finest seed and fertilizer. If you agree to these conditions, the sale can become final."

"I do not think you understand," Reuven interjected. "I am purchasing the field. When it becomes mine, I can and will do whatever I please. There are no conditions to a sale."

Shimon quickly responds, "My intention is not to limit your ownership of the field. It should and will be yours unconditionally. The conditions that I have detailed are for your good. If you want the land to produce its maximum, then you must adhere to the aforementioned conditions. Everything that I included was for your good."

The same idea applies to Shemittah. Immediately, when we enter Eretz Yisrael, we must realize that in order for the land to attain its potential, its sanctity must be maintained. If we decide to do otherwise - it will just not be Eretz Yisrael. You will eat your fill; you will dwell securely upon it. If you will say: what will we eat in the seventh year? …I will ordain My blessing for you in the sixth year. (25:19-21)

Klal Yisrael is assured that, in return for observing the Shemittah laws and allowing the land to rest during the seventh year, they would not be exiled. Furthermore, to those of little faith, who question how only one crop can sustain them for more than one year, Hashem promises that the prosperity will be to such an extent that their questions will be without basis. Yet, the Torah felt that the question of Mah nochal, "What will we eat?" was of such significance, that it was eternalized in the Torah. This question, however, should have been asked only once. After their very first Shemittah, they would have seen that there was nothing to worry about. Why, then, does the Torah include this question for posterity? Moreover, when is this question asked? Prior to the sixth year, it is too early to ask. After the sixth year, Hashem's blessing of increased abundance has already been realized.

The Alter, zl, m'Novardok, explains that this is human nature. Already during the first year, Klal Yisrael are asking, "What will we eat?" We worry about what will be tomorrow before we even know what is occurring today! Additionally, worrying during the first six years about the seventh year directly contradicts the concept of Shemittah, which is supposed to imbue us with bitachon, faith and trust, in only the Almighty.

This is underscored by the pasuk, "You will eat your fill - you will dwell securely upon it." This is not a mere promise. This is a demand! We are to live securely, faithfully, trusting in Hashem's "ability" to provide for us. If we worry and question, then we are defeating the very foundation of Shemittah. The question, "What will we eat?" is asked constantly by people. Shemittah negates this question by engendering a firm sense of trust in the Almighty for he who has faith; there is no cause for questioning.

If a man will have no redeemer. (25:26)

What a terrible feeling - not to have anyone. It is our obligation to see to it that no Jew is alone or feels alone. Some individuals make it their business to see to the physical and emotional needs of their brethren, realizing how important this is. One individual who was a towering example of chesed at its zenith was the Skverer Rebbe, Horav Yaakov Yosef Twersky, zl. After World War II, he took a small apartment in Bucharest, Romania. During the three years that he spent there, this tiny apartment served the physical, emotional and spiritual needs of thousands of Jews from all walks of life. The Rebbe did not wait for someone in need to come knocking on his door. He sent agents daily to the train station in search of Jews who were arriving from the various concentration camps. Broken, dejected and oppressed, these shards of humanity came seeking hope, encouragement and a reason to continue living. More than once, a survivor would arrive to be greeted by a hearty, "Shalom Aleichen, welcome! The Skverer Rebbe has sent me to invite you to his home. This is his address. He awaits your arrival!"

The rebbetzin and her daughters would stand for hours on end happily preparing meals for whomever appeared. They were hearty, filling meals that sustained and nourished, as well as made the individual feel wanted. The Rebbe was their father, and the rebbetzin was their mother. One can only conjecture how many neshamos, Jewish souls, returned to observance, how much Jewish faith was catalyzed as a result of the Rebbe's love and chesed.

What motivated the Rebbe and his family to give so much of themselves? They simply wanted to serve as sheluchei d'Rachamana, Hashem's agents, to assist in rebuilding the nation that the Nazis had so cruelly decimated. Their love for each Jew was overwhelming. The apartment was a restaurant, bais ha'medrash and dormitory. No one complained. They were carrying out Hashem's will.

Friday night, the Rebbe's Kiddush and Zemiros brought tears of ambivalence to everyone's eyes. They wept in sadness over what they had lost, but cried with renewed hope for what they would rebuild.

One chasid remembers his first welcome to Skver. He walked into the apartment. He knew no one, having recently arrived from a displaced persons camp where it had been confirmed that he had lost his entire family. As soon as he entered, the rebbetzin noticed him and said, "Bachurel, young man, go wash your hands and eat!" One can only imagine the meaning of these words to a broken-hearted survivor. No one asked him who he was, from where he had come, whether he had the ability to pay. He was Jewish and in need - and they were there for him.

As soon as he had completed eating his meal to his heart's content, he broke down and cried uncontrollably. The years of pain and persecution, the terrible loss he had sustained, all surfaced with the unprecedented love and kindness that was manifest by the Skverer Rebbe.

The Rebbe looked at the young man with a father's compassion and said, "Do not worry, my child. From here on, this will be your home. My bread is your bread; my beverage is your beverage. You are my son." These powerful words were reiterated many times, as the Rebbe gave encouragement and hope to those in need. He was their goel, redeemer. He saw to it that they did not feel alone.

If your brother becomes impoverished and his means falter in your proximity, you shall strengthen him. (25:35)

The responsibility to help a Jew in financial need is a serious one. We live in a time when financial struggling has, regrettably, become a way of life for many. Throughout Jewish history, there have always been those who give and those who take. Due to circumstances beyond our control, today's times are creating more who are relegated to take and fewer who are able to give. Yet, the Jewish people have always risen to their appellation of being rachamanim bnei rachamanim, compassionate sons of compassionate ones. We help, many doing so beyond their means. Let us peruse some of the Rabbinic literature that addresses this critical subject, so that we can better sensitize ourselves to the need to give.

V'chi yamuch achicha, "If your brother becomes impoverished." Do not wait until he becomes poor. Rashi cites the Sifra which gives the following analogy. When a donkey's load begins to slip down from its back, even one person can right it and prevent the donkey from falling. Once the animal has fallen, however, even five people cannot get it back on its feet. Once our brother has fallen into the pit of bankruptcy, it is so much more difficult to raise him up. Help him when he is faltering. The Alshich Hakadosh notes that the preceding pesukim speak in the plural, while this pasuk employs lashon yachid, the singular: achicha, your brother. Why?

The Alshich explains that the Torah takes a pragmatic approach towards financial assistance. How often do we direct the fellow in need to see someone else? We always know the address of our well-to-do neighbors, and we are only too happy to give it out. We do anything but offer our own help. It is easy to give the poor man the shirt off someone else's back. What about our own responsibility to offer assistance? The Torah turns to every yachid, individual: You must help. You have an obligation. Do not shirk your responsibility and place it upon your wealthy friend. He will do his, but you must do yours!

Horav Shlomo, zl, m'Karlin goes further in his interpretation of the Torah's demand that we help our impoverished brother. V'hechezakta bo, "You shall strengthen him." In order to help another Jew, at times we have to get into the mud with him. If you want to help a Jew who has fallen into the mud, get down on the ground. It is necessary to get down on the ground with him, get into the mud and raise him up. We do not pull him up; we lift him up. In other words, it is easy to write a check, but what about getting our hands dirty and personally doing something about our friend or our neighbor in need?

The Midrash says that when a poor man comes to our door asking for assistance, Hashem stands to his right side, as it is written, "That He stands at the right of the destitute" (Tehillim 109:31). If you give the poor man what he needs, Hashem will repay you. If you do not, then remember what is written in Tehillim 41:2, "Praiseworthy is he who contemplates the needy, on the day of disaster Hashem will deliver him." What does it mean to be maskil el dal, "contemplate the needy"? How should one consider the plight of the poor man?

The Chafetz Chaim paints the following scenario. A person lives his life on this world, and one day he is summoned to his eternal rest. He now has to give an accounting for is deeds. He stands before the Heavenly Tribunal holding a Sefer Torah, as he is questioned in regard to each mitzvah in the Torah that he is holding - "Did you fulfill this mitzvah?" Certainly, he will also be queried regarding the mitzvah of V'hechezakta bo, "You shall strengthen him." The Tribunal will refresh his memory. "Remember that night when the poor man came to your asking for help. You told him, Tonight is not good. I cannot help you. He turned away dejected, depressed, broken-hearted. You were his last resort.

"The decision to see you did not occur overnight. He spoke it over with his wife, and they felt that - while it was not easy to go to a man of means and beg - they had no other alternative. He gathered up his courage and came to your house and begged - and you said; No! Do you know how he cried that night, the tears of depression that flowed in his house? Do you have any idea how his children must have felt when he came home empty-handed? They lost hope, and it was all because of you.

"Stand here and accept responsibility for your actions: the pain you caused the poor man, his family, and Hashem, Who listened to their inconsolable weeping. As you had no compassion on them, the Heavenly Tribunal will have no compassion on you!"

This, explains the Chafetz Chaim, is the meaning of "Praiseworthy is he who contemplates the needy." He understands their pain, their sorrow, and he does something about it.

Last, I close with a compelling thought from the Kopyczinitzer Rebbe, zl. The Rebbe once came unannounced to the home of one of his worshippers. The layman said, "I would have come to the Rebbe." The Rebbe smiled, "I need you, so I came to you." "Please, Rebbe, what can I do to help?" the layman asked. "There is a family that is in serious financial straits. The father has no job. The mother must remain home to care for the young children. Two of the children are ill and must have medical intervention which is very expensive. I have taken it upon myself to provide for this family," the Rebbe told him. "If that is the whole problem, the Rebbe could have called me, and I would have sent a check," the layman said. "No," the Rebbe explained. "I feel that this situation warrants a personal visit to explain the seriousness of the problem."

"Rebbe, I will give whatever is needed," the layman practically pleaded.

"It is not up to me to tell you how much to spend," the Rebbe explained. "Tzedakah is up to the contributor. You must decide for yourself how much to give."

"Rebbe, can I write out a check for the amount?" The layman asked.

"Certainly," answered the Rebbe.

"To whom shall I address the check?" the benefactor asked.

The Rebbe looked at the ground, thought for a moment and said haltingly, "Write out the check to achicha ha'ani, 'your impoverished brother.'"

The message was clear: It is not important to know to whom the money is going. A Jew is in need. He is our brother. What more do we need to know? A poor Jew needs neither pedigree nor references.


Each one of you shall not aggrieve his fellow. (25:17)

The Sefer Yereim contends that just as there is an admonition against onoas devarim, hurting a person with words, saying something to him that disconcerts and makes him feel bad, there is also an enjoinment against looking at someone with a bad/evil look. The way we look at someone - be it with disdain, scorn, or hatred - can and does hurt.

Onoas mamon is the prohibition against cheating someone financially. It is a surreptitious form of stealing. In truth, one only fools himself. Horav Menachem Mendel, zl, m'Varko, said, "According to halachah, one should not cheat another Jew. Lifnim meshuras hadin, going beyond the letter of the law, one should not cheat/fool himself. Horav Yisrael, zl, m'Koznitz would say it is better not to fast and fool people than to fast and fool oneself. A person must have integrity in everything he does. The Chidushei HaRim would say that a thief steals only what he needs, what he himself is lacking. One who is gonev daas, fools someone, indicates that he lacks daas, common sense, intelligence.

Last, the Kotzker Rebbe would say that whoever emits a sound that lacks integrity, that is not from his heart, is a gonev daas: The kvetch that is not real; the moan that is a put on; the shuckling - moving to and fro - during davening insincerely, performed only to call attention to oneself, is geneivas daas.


If your brother becomes impoverished… you shall strengthen him. (25:35)

A wealthy man once came to Horav Arye Levine, zl, with a large contribution for his yeshivah. Rav Arye refused to accept the donation. "Why will you not take my money?" the benefactor queried. "There are members of your family that are in dire financial straits. First, help them." Rav Arye responded. The words struck a chord in the man's heart, and he realized that there were people close to him that he was ignoring.

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