Back to This Week's Parsha

Peninim on the Torah

subscribe.gif (2332 bytes)

Previous issues

Rabbi A. Leib Scheinbaum
Hebrew Academy of Cleveland


Parashas Behar

On Yom Kippur you shall sound the shofar throughout your land. You shall sanctify the fiftieth year and proclaim freedom throughout your land. (25:9,10)

Is the Torah suggesting a connection between the Yovel, proclaiming freedom throughout the land at the onset of the fiftieth /Jubilee year, and Yom Kippur? The Day of Atonement is a day reserved for teshuvah, repentance, contrition and eventual atonement. Exactly where does freedom enter into the equation? Horav Betzalel Zolti, zl, sees a strong link between the two themes: teshuvah and freedom. The sinner is a slave to his base desires. His entire life is nothing more than a pawn manipulated by the desires, habits and tendencies of the body. The spirit must contend long and hard to vanquish the effects of man's physical dimension. For those who have successfully triumphed, who have been able to extricate themselves from the muck created by their servitude to the yetzer hora, evil inclination, it is a moment of pure freedom. They have liberated themselves from the maelstrom of ritual impurity that had been sucking them down. The baal teshuvah knows the true meaning of freedom. He has achieved it. He is "free at last." V'karasem d'ror b'chol ha'aretz l'chol yoshvehah, "You shall proclaim freedom throughout the land." The essence of teshuvah is proclaiming, "Enough is enough."

This is a powerful insight. What makes it so compelling is that it is so simple. The baal teshuvah is a person who has broken the shackles that have impeded his forward and upward growth. As a result of his new status, he is recreated as a new person. Until now, he has been a slave. Now he is a king, master over himself. This explains how the most malevolent person can, through the power of teshuvah, be accepted by Hashem. King Yechanyah was an evil man, a rasha, wicked person, who was despised by Hashem. The Almighty swore that he would die childless without leaving an heir to sit on the throne. As the last descendant of malchus Bais David, he reigned over Yehudah. His passing from the world would bring an end to the Davidic dynasty. Yet, this evil man repented, his teshuvah was accepted, and the Rambam considers him to be the standard-bearer of the power of teshuvah.

How did this transformation in Yechanyah occur? The Midrash teaches that when Nevuchadnezer conquered Yerushalayim, he took Yechanyah captive and locked him into a dungeon to die. Since Yechanyah had no children, the Sanhedrin was concerned lest this signal the end of the Davidic dynasty. After much dialogue, they were able to convince Nevuchadnezer to permit Yechanyah's wife to be lowered into the dungeon with the hope that her liaison with the king would produce a child. This was done, but there was a problem: Yechanyah's wife was ritually contaminated, thereby restricting relations between husband and wife.

One would expect Yechanyah to laugh this restriction off as he had so many others, but he did not. Something in his mind snapped, and he acted atypically - by refraining from laying a finger on his wife. This was his teshuvah. Hashem was so impressed that He Himself annulled his vow, and when Yechanyah's wife was once again lowered into the dungeon, she conceived. What happened? I can accept the power of teshuvah, but can it actually transform a person?

I think the answer lies in the matter that was mentioned earlier. Until this point, Yechanyah was nothing more than a slave. Perhaps he wore a crown on his head and people called him "King," but he was nothing more than a slave to his yetzer hora. He was addicted to evil. Then he repented. A spark of teshuvah germinated within him until he had the strength of character to say, "No! I will not transgress Hashem's laws, and he did not touch his wife. With that, he was coronated. He became a king - a free man. No longer was he Yechanyah, the "slave;" he had become Yechanyah, the "free" man.

In order to achieve true freedom, one must become a servant to Hashem. When we subjugate our lives to Him, we become liberated from the fetters imposed upon us by the yetzer hora. A person can be locked up in prison, incarcerated in an impenetrable dungeon, but still considered to be free; and a person can be free to go anywhere he pleases, but ultimately remain a slave. It all depends on to whom one ascribes his allegiance.

Horav Yitzchak Zilberstein, Shlita, relates a poignant episode about one such Jewish prisoner who, although incarcerated in a maximum security prison in Eretz Yisrael, was actually a "free" man. The individual was found guilty of a crime and sentenced to twelve years in a tiny, restricted cell. The physical conditions of the prison were horrendous, the building dating back to pre-British mandate times. He was allowed out to stretch his bones for thirty minutes each day. Otherwise, the 8X4 cell was his home. In this miserable place, he began to contemplate the lifestyle that had led to his incarceration. His free-wheeling way of life was not very free. He was a slave to his various addictions. Slowly, he began to see the error of his ways and, with the spiritual guidance which he received from Rav Zilberstein, he became a chozeir b'teshuvah, a bona fide returnee to a Torah way of life.

One day, he made a request of the prison authorities. Since he had not been observant until this point, he never had the privilege of officially celebrating his bar mitzvah. Could they, please, arrange for him to have his bar mitzvah? This was not all. Because he had earned the respect of the guards, he wondered if he could celebrate his bar mitzvah at the Kosel. While such a request would be ludicrous in any other country, this was Eretz Yisrael, where, after all is said and done, compassion is part of our DNA. The prison officials acquiesced and, on the given day, transported the bar mitzvah "bochur" and a small number of other prisoners to the Kosel. There, amid tears of remorse mingled with extreme joy, the convicted criminal became a "free" Jew. Arrangements were made by a local caterer to serve a simple meal in honor of the occasion, as they all shared in this unique moment.

I personally have had occasion to witness similar events, during which Jewish prisoners who had been raised in a manner totally alien to anything Jewish were given a chance to: don a pair of Tefillin; share in a Pesach Seder; light Chanukah candles; daven; discuss a section in the Talmud; learn a pasuk in the Chumash. The freedom which they experience is palpable, characterized by the glistening in their eyes and the bright smiles on their faces. Freedom is a state of mind which no one - other than ourselves - can take away from us.

And let your brother live with you. (25:36)

During the spring of 1943, when the first survivors of the Nazi brutality trickled into Eretz Yisrael, the administration of Batei Avos, the orphan home established by the Ponevezer Rav, Horav Yosef Kahaneman, was confronted with a compelling dilemma: How to provide for the most basic needs of these poor children. Orphaned by the war, they were coming to seek safe havens, and hopefully to begin a new life. Pillows and blankets upon which the children could rest their heads were nowhere to be found. Had they not suffered enough? To have indignity added to a life short on years, but long on injury and insult, was asking too much. As usual, it ended up on the Rav's "desk." Two days before the children were to arrive in Bnei Brak, word went out that the Ponovezer Rav would speak publicly on Shabbos afternoon in the largest shul of the city. Everyone was urged to attend.

The Ponovezer Rav was an incredible person. Space does not allow for presenting a felicitous appreciation of this exceptional and unique Torah giant. When he spoke - people listened. The shul was filled to capacity. He began his speech by citing the Talmud Kiddushin 20a, where Chazal state: "Whoever purchases a Jewish bondsman, (essentially) purchases a master for himself." They attribute this statement to the fact that the master must see to it that the servant is provided with a lifestyle equivalent to that of himself. The master may not sleep upon a posturepedic mattress while the servant sleeps on straw. Tosfos cites the Yerushalmi that posits if the master owns only one pillow, he is obligated to give it to his servant, because of the Torah's injunction, ki tov lo imach, "For it is good for him with you." (Devarim 15:16).

After quoting the above, the Rav looked up from his Talmud and asked, "If the master has only one pillow, how can we demand that he give it to his servant? Does the Torah not say, V'chai achicha imach, 'And your brother shall live with you'? This means that my life comes first. If so, even if we were to consider the eved Ivri, Hebrew bondsman, a full-fledged brother, which he is, the master's life and welfare take priority. So, why must he give away his only pillow?"

The Rav replied that veritably, giving away one's only pillow to his eved, servant, is part of chayecha kodmim, "your life takes priority." Penetrating the Jewish psyche, the Torah understands that if a Jew knows that a fellow Jew has no pillow upon which to place his head, then he himself cannot sleep - even if he only has one pillow! He will be miserable knowing that out there lies a Jew without a pillow! How can "I" sleep knowing that my fellow cannot sleep? Thus, the Torah tells the master, "Because your life takes priority; so that you can have a restful sleep, go to your friend's home and give him your pillow. This way, both of you will sleep."

"In one more day," the Rav declared, his voice rising in pitch and emotion, "there will arrive in our city many Yiddishe kepelach, little Jewish heads, children orphaned by the war, who have nothing and have nowhere to even rest their heads. Who among us can possibly sleep peacefully knowing that Jewish children are unable to put their heads down for lack of a pillow?"

Let it suffice to say that immediately following the conclusion of Shabbos, the people began arriving with their contributions. The Ponovezer Rav had successfully driven home a point.

But with your brethren, Bnei Yisrael - a man with his brother - you shall not subjugate him through hard labor. (25:46) A Jew who sells himself as a slave has already suffered an indignity. There is no reason to add to his pain. The Jew who does not sense the indignity has a greater problem than he realizes. Regardless if he "minds" or not, taking advantage of another Jew is wrong and totally inappropriate behavior for a Jew. This is, regrettably, done in a number of ways and for various reasons. Imagine, a Jewish employee who every so often has some free time on his hands. The thought of paying someone to sit around is unnerving to some. Therefore, the employer will have the worker do anything, whether it is necessary or not, just to keep him busy. This is "subjugating" a person to hard labor.

Horav Yosef Grossman, Shlita relates a telling incident that occurred concerning Horav Yisrael Salanter, zl, when he visited a Matzah bakery shortly before Pesach. In those days, the workers who prepared the Matzah were usually widows and orphans with no other means of support. They would work long, hard hours under extreme conditions, so that they could eke out a bare minimum. Rav Yisrael observed the owner of the bakery coming down hard on his workers. He screamed at them to work faster and harder. Because these were helpless people who had been subjected to physical deprivation and verbal abuse, the father of the mussar, ethical development, movement, felt that he had to speak up. "Years ago," Rav Yisrael began his admonishment of the bakery's owner, "the Jewish people were accused of the notorious blood libel, claiming that we had taken the blood of Christian children whom we had killed, and mixed it with the Matzah. While those accusations were patently false, one thing is quite possibly true: we do not seem to be adverse to taking the blood of Jewish widows and orphans and mixing it with the Matzah!"

Rav Grossman cites Rabbeinu Yonah who discusses the individual who is aware that, if he makes a request of someone, the other person will do him a favor, but it will not be wholehearted. He will do it only because he has no way to say no. Then he should not make the request. If he does, he transgresses the prohibition, "You shall not subjugate him through hard labor."

Parashas Bechukosai

If you will go in My statutes and observe My commandments.

Rashi observes that one might have interpreted, "If you will go in My statutes," as a reference to mitzvah observance; thus, when the pasuk concludes with, "and observe My commandments," we have mitzvah observance - again. What then, are we to maintain is meant by, "If you go in My statutes"? It refers to ameilus ba'Torah, toiling in Torah. The Torah underscores ameilus as being the lynchpin of Torah study. One must toil, labor, put all of himself into his Torah study. As Horav Mordechai Gifter, zl, would remark, "Ameilus ba'Torah means more than the act of toiling over one's studies. Ameilus denotes making Torah study the focus of attention in life. Even when one is engaged in other matters - regardless of how Torah-oriented they may be - his true focus, his raison d'etre, is Torah study."

This observation requires elucidation. After all, Torah study is a mitzvah just like other mitzvos. Surely, it falls under the category of "observing My commandments." Why is it singled out? Moreover, what indicates that Im bechukosei teileichu is a reference to Torah study? Last, if ameilus, toil, is to be the standard, the opposite of toil would then have to be, v'im bechukosei timasu, "And if you will consider My statutes revolting" (ibid, 26:15). Is this not a bit extreme - to slip from a lack of toil to viewing the mitzvos as revolting? Some "gray" area must exist between "toil" and "revolting" - or is this really the way it is: one who does not consider Torah the focus of his life, will ultimately end up despising it?

We will address the last question first. Horav Elazar M. Shach, zl, asserts that this is essentially the digression that comes with a lack of toil. If Torah is not the essence of one's life it will soon become the antithesis of his existence, causing him eventually to despise and revile it. One who studies Torah through toil will understand - or at least accept - what life throws at him. He will not have questions concerning emunah, faith, because he will see life through the clarity of the Torah's spectacles. When one "tastes" Torah, he truly sees the goodness of Hashem.

One who, regrettably, does not apply himself properly to Torah study will hate Torah, as well as those who study and disseminate it. The wisdom that one acquires through Torah study is internalized within the person only if it is accompanied with yiraas Shomayim, fear of Hashem. One cannot be a maamin, believer in Hashem, unless he studies Torah. The two go together; separately, the person possesses neither.

Rav Gifter addresses the issue of why Torah study is not included in mitzvah performance. Is it not a mitzvah like the rest? The Rosh Yeshivah cites the well-known Ramban at the beginning of Parashas Kedoshim, who explains kedushah, holiness, from a unique perspective. He introduces us to the concept of naval b'reshus ha'Torah, "an abominable person with the Torah's permission." This is an individual who, although he fulfills the Torah to the letter of the law, still does things which, although not categorically prohibited, are nonetheless antithetical to the spirit of Torah. He relates an incident which took place in 1965, a time of social upheaval, when the college campuses spewed forth rebellion against the moral and ethical codes which had previously been the staples of society. They undermined and eventually destroyed, these precepts. Anti war demonstrations were fueled by drugs, as the nonsensical suddenly became sane and even acceptable.

Two friends were conversing, and one had mentioned that his greatest source of enjoyment was attending a halachah shiur, lecture in Jewish law, in which only the end result of the halachah was mentioned. The entire dialectic which preceded the outcome was ignored. His friend was shocked by this comment: "How can you enjoy a shiur without the accompanying 'spice' of lomdus, the reasoning and logical deduction, from which the halachah is developed?"

His counterpart replied that it did not concern him. He only wanted to hear the final halachah.

A bystander listening to this claim would, indeed, be impressed. It is not often that a person states his preference to study Torah without the added stimulation of knowing the underlying, guiding principles and reasoning that led up to the halachic conclusion. Here was someone who needed no reasoning. The Torah's decree sufficed for him.

As the conversation continued, it became clear that the individual who was so much into halachah was a student at Columbia University, who admitted to having experimented a number of times with mind-altering drugs. When asked how he could have done such an outrageous thing, he countered, "What is wrong? There is no halachah prohibiting it. It is for my personal pleasure and enjoyment. Halachah does not forbid pleasure."

Yes, Torah does not actually forbid such reprehensible behavior, but it certainly is not within the spirit of Torah. True-to-life Torah calls for both mitzvah observance and living a Torah way of life, following in Hashem's ways by emulating His attributes. There are some practices that are not prohibited by law but do not fall under the purview of emulating Hashem's ways.

Having said this, we wonder how we are to know whether we are living in accordance with the spirit of the law. The Rosh Yeshivah explains that this is where ameilus ba' Torah, toiling in Torah study, is introduced. A mere superficial understanding of the Torah cannot lead man to recognition of the Torah's ways - which type of behavior is commendable and which is reprehensible. In fact, a cursory approach to Torah study can, at times, cause more bad than good. Only Torah that is studied laboriously, plumbing through its depths amid toil, will lead one to an awareness of what is an acceptable Torah-way of life.

As we quoted earlier from the Rosh Yeshivah, however, ameilus is much more than toil; it is focus. Torah becomes the focus of one's attention in life. Thus, he toils to understand it, and it always maintains preeminence in his life. Im bechukosei teileichu, "If you will go in My statutes," "Going" in Hashem's statutes is a reference to going along the ways of Torah - not simply following the letter of the law, but also living the spirit of the law. The GPS for defining the correct road to follow can be accessed only through ameilus baTorah. Rashi teaches us that "going" in the ways of the Torah can only occur when one is ameil, makes Torah as his focus in life.

Horav Yechiel Michel Epstein, zl, author of the Aruch HaShulchan, asserts that Im bechukosei teileichu must be referring to Torah study, because the word teileichu, "go," applies only to Torah study. Throughout the Torah, chukim, statutes, are equated with shemirah, guarding, never halichah, going. He suggests a practical rationale for this. The fulfillment of all mitzvos are established in one set place. The Shofar which we use is exactly like the one Moshe Rabbeinu used thousands of years ago. The Tefillin, Lulav, and Sukkah are all the same. Thus, we are commanded to guard, to safe keep the mitzvos, so that they remain the same - without modification from the original.

We are not instructed to "go" in them, since halichah, going, bespeaks hischadshus, newness, renovation, metamorphosis, which is not the case concerning these mitzvos. They have not changed in thousands of years.

Only concerning the study of Torah do the concepts of novelty, originality and innovation apply, since every day, every time one opens a sefer, volume of Torah literature, he discovers something new. Thus, we must say that concerning the nomenclature that applies to Torah, teileichu is most appropriate.

If you will go in My statutes. (26:3)

Rashi interprets, "If you will go in My statutes," to be a reference to ameilus ba'Torah, exerting oneself in the study of Torah. This study of Torah should be equivalent to life itself. When one's life is on the line, toil is not an impediment. No obstacle, no challenge will prevent one from saving his life. That is how it should be with Torah. It is our life. Chazal teach us (Meseches Chagigah 15a) that Torah is as difficult to acquire as golden vessels and as easy to lose as glass ones. One does not acquire Torah on his own. Anything of Divine Authorship requires assistance from the Divine Author Himself in order to achieve true proficiency in it. This prized acquisition is attained through toil, heart, drive and passion. When Hashem sees how much we want Torah, He then grants it to us. Horav Elchanan Wasserman, zl, would often quote his revered rebbe, the Chafetz Chaim, zl, who said, "The yetzer hora, evil inclination, allows one to perform all of the mitzvos in the world as long as it can prevent him from studying Torah." This is something to think about the next time the opportunity to perform a mitzvah avails itself specifically during the time we allot for Torah study.

Horav Mendel Kaplan, zl, the legendary Rosh Yeshivah in Skokie and Philadelphia was a model of ameilus ba'Torah. He quotes Chazal in the Talmud Berachos 63b, who teach that Torah remains with a person only when he "kills himself" over it. Horav Yisrael Salanter, zl, explains that "killing yourself" means breaking down one's selfishness, extirpating all thoughts of one's own needs and desires. Rav Mendel would add that learning when one feels tired and lazy is "killing yourself." One who studies Torah under such circumstances will sense immediate reward in terms of his ability to better understand what he learns. "The more you accept the Torah as your ol, yoke, the better you will learn… I have the greatest successes when I am stubborn or push myself… If you learn only because it is a nice way to spend the day, then it is nothing more than a hobby, and you will not succeed.

"The Ketzos Ha'Choshen was so poor that he could not heat his home. Thus, he had to spend all day wrapped in heavy blankets to keep from freezing. While he was writing his magnum opus, the ink would freeze in his inkwell, and he was compelled to write under the blankets in order to keep his ink warm. It is because he sacrificed himself so much for Torah that his Torah is so sweet and has merited to be studied for generations."

One day Rav Mandel taught his class another meaning concerning toil in Torah. They were having difficulty understanding a concept in the Talmud. "So what if you do not understand it," he said. "When you learn diligently for the sake of finding the truth without applying your own preconceived notions into the Talmud, even if you still do not understand it, you have learned it. Every drop, every crumb, every little piece you manage to learn plants a seed that keeps on growing even when you move away from it. Then, when you return to it again, what you learned the first time will help you come to the true understanding. If you toil now, even without understanding, then later on you will find it. It will be given to you from Heaven.

"I want you to know that you will receive greater reward for believing in a Gemorah that you do not understand. You might not agree with me, because you are interested in becoming a great scholar, but I am interested in the reward."

Va'ani Tefillah

Baruch Hashem l'olam amen v'amen.
Blessed is Hashem forever, amen and amen.

Horav Avigdor Miller, zl, observes that blessing is the result of gratitude. One understands that he is the recipient of a favor. He responds with gratitude, which is expressed as a blessing. Considering Hashem as our Benefactor, His benefactions are constant and regular. Thus, our obligation to pay gratitude to Him in the form of blessing is incessant, continuing forever. In addition, each kindness is in itself a gift of permanent benefit, as David HaMelech says in Tehillim 136, Ki l'olam chasdo, "For His kindness endures forever." We must, therefore, forever thank Hashem for each and every kindness. Thus, we respond with amen and amen for two reasons: We declare that this is true, for we acknowledge the constant shower of gifts and the eternal nature of each of these gifts. All of this obligates us to "thank/bless" Hashem forever. The second amen is a prayer that this process of blessing Hashem not cease, but continue on forever. We pray that all men will recognize the true sense of all that they possess, including their very beings, so that the Name of Hashem will be on the lips of all mankind forever.

Horav Yosef Ometz, zl, suggests that the two amens allude to what Chazal state in the Talmud Berachos 54a, "One should bless for good, one blesses for bad. There is nothing bad that comes from Hashem. It is bad in our perception. David HaMelech expresses himself with a dual amen, underscoring the concept that both bad and good are inherently good.

Sponsored in memory of
Mrs. Seliga Ahuva (Schur) Mandelbaum

Seliga Ahuva bas HaRav Daniel a"h
26 Iyar 5751
"t'nu la miprei yadeha vehalelluha bashe'arim maaseha"
by her family
HoRav Doniel z"l & Shoshana Schur

Peninim on the Torah is in its 18th year of publication. The first fourteen years have been published in book form.

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

He can be contacted at 216-321-5838 ext. 165 or by fax at 216-321-0588

Discounts are available for bulk orders or Chinuch/Kiruv organizations.


This article is provided as part of Shema Yisrael Torah Network
Permission is granted to redistribute electronically or on paper,
provided that this notice is included intact.
For information on subscriptions, archives, and
other Shema Yisrael Classes,
send mail to
Jerusalem, Israel