Back to This Week's Parsha

Peninim on the Torah

subscribe.gif (2332 bytes)

Previous issues

Rabbi A. Leib Scheinbaum
Hebrew Academy of Cleveland


"If you will say, what will we eat in the seventh year?"…I will ordain My blessing for you in the sixth year.(25:20.21)

Shemittah is a mitzvah which infuses emunah and bitachon, faith and trust, in a Jew. Each Shemittah, a Jew turns his back on what seems to be the source of his sustenance, and he does not work his field for an entire year. Living through a Shemittah provides one with an incredible test of his faith in Hashem. One who emerges triumphant from this test has strengthened his faith in the Almighty. Imagine an individual walking off the job that has been his source of support for the past six years, saying, "I am not working this year. It Is Shemittah. Everything will be good." It takes a special person to do that. That is what shomrei Shemittah, those who observe the Shemittah year, are. Their conviction must be strong at the beginning of the year, but it is nothing compared to what they must feel at its conclusion. They have passed the test, emerging as better people and more committed Jews.

How did they do it? Apparently, it was not easy, nor was everyone filled with confidence. Indeed, the Torah approaches this issue head-on when it writes: "If you will say, 'What will we eat in the seventh year?'" Obviously, some people were nervous about the upcoming 'adventure' in austerity. The Torah reassures them, "I will ordain My blessing for you in the sixth year." The commentators wonder why the Torah asked the question in the first place. It could simply have stated that the sixth year would be blessed. We would have understood why such a blessing was necessary, to allay any fears that the Shemittah participants might have.

The Noam Elimelech quotes his brother, Horav Zushia, zl, who posits that, indeed, the one who is a master of emunah neither needs a blessing, nor does he have any questions. Faith in Hashem courses through his veins. It is concerning the other fellow, the one whose trust in Hashem is not so equivocal, that the blessing is needed. He believes - but he is still quite nervous. The Torah tells him to "walk off the job" at the beginning of the seventh year. He does it, but not with an abundance of confidence.

It is to him that Hashem says, "I will ordain My blessing for you in the sixth year." That blessing is an accommodation of sorts, so that the not-so-believing believer will persist in his faith. Veritably, this is true of our everyday quest for parnassah, livelihood. Especially during the present period of economic crisis, we see on a regular basis how the guiding hand of the Divine provides for each one of us in His special way.

There is an inspirational mashal, parable, from the Rizhiner Rebbe, zl, which illustrates clearly to the individual who is willing to open his "eyes" and look, how, after all is said and done, it is Hashem Who sustains and provides for our livelihood. A poor man, who earned his meager living via the time-honored vocation of soliciting charity from whoever would help him, heard of a very wealthy philanthropist who was very generous with his contributions. Indeed, anyone who came to his door left a very happy man. He traveled to the town where this philanthropist lived, but, by mistake, knocked on the door of the town's miser. The poor man requested food. The miser did not identify himself as such and instead said, "I will give you food for work. I need somebody around my house, and I will be happy to reimburse your time." Nu, what could the poor man do? He labored all day. At the end of the day, he asked the man for a meal. The miser had no shame (they never do), and he proceeded to send the poor man next door to the philanthropist. His generous neighbor would provide him with a meal!

This, explains the Rebbe, is the story of earning a livelihood. In the end, we are all sustained by the Almighty. Some of us, regrettably, knock on the wrong door. We turn to various venues which we think will provide for us, but, at the end of the day, it is Hashem Who is supporting us. This is the lesson of Shemittah. It is not about the land. It is about realizing that the land is merely Hashem's vehicle. The support always comes from Above.

The Be'er Mayim Chaim approaches the question from a different perspective. He views the questioner not as one who doubts, but rather, as one who truly believes that Hashem will provide. He is filled with emunah and bitachon. So, why is he questioning? He wonders not if Hashem will provide, but rather, how will He do it? What miracle will Hashem bring forth to sustain him? After all, if there is no agricultural effort, there can be no harvest, and, thus, no food. Hashem replies that He has no need for miracles, and we should not depend on them. The Almighty has sufficient latitude within His control of nature to provide sustenance without going to the next level and sending a miracle. He will bless the sixth year, and it will provide more and better in order to sustain His believers.

Shemittah is more than a lesson in earning a livelihood. It is a primer for life. It is an attitude that a Jew should manifest throughout his life's endeavor.

If your brother becomes impoverished with you and is sold to you; you shall not work him with slave labor…you shall not subjugate him through hard labor. (25:39,43)

The Torah includes topics which members of contemporary society might feel are no longer pertinent. They are wrong. Every word of the Torah has relevance and application today, as it did then. In his volume of divrei Torah from the Rosh Yeshivah, Horav Avraham Pam, zl, Rabbi Sholom Smith illustrates how Rav Pam took the laws concerning eved Ivri, the Jewish bondsman, and applied them to contemporary issues.

There are two circumstances in which a Jew would sell himself as a slave to another Jew. In Parashas Mishpatim (Shemos 22:2), the Torah addresses the eved who is nimkar b'geneivaso, sells himself as a result of his theft. A Jew who was down and out, and had to feed his family, had limited opportunities for work. So, he stole to support his family's needs. Part of the teshuvah, penance process, is reimbursing the victim. Since the thief had no money, he was sold as a slave. Not geshmak, pleasant, but, it was steady work that would allow him to repay his debt. The other fellow who sells himself as a slave is the one who is extremely poor and does not want to descend to the level of thievery. He seeks job security; becoming a slave means six years of security, in which he is treated more like a master than a slave.

The laws governing the treatment of the Jewish bondsman are very clear: he must be treated with utmost sensitivity and respect. He may neither be asked to perform demeaning work, nor may he be subjugated to hard labor. B'farech, through hard labor, does not necessarily mean compelling the slave to trudge three miles to the stone quarry and lug back a one hundred pound stone block on his shoulders. Chazal define hard labor as purposeless labor, such as; making him boil water when it is not needed; do things that just occupy his time; create senseless tasks that benefit neither the owner nor the slave.

One may wonder why the Torah would demand such consideration for an individual who quite possibly brought his present predicament upon himself. This is an individual who was either a thief or did commerce with peiros Sheviis, fruits of the Shemittah year. Clearly, this slave was not paradigmatic of Jewish nobility. If anything, his unsavory past has come back to haunt him. The Sefer Hachinuch says that we treat the slave with respect as sort of a message to his master: The wheels of fortune can easily turn. Today, you are a master and he is a slave. Tomorrow, the converse is possible. Therefore, deal kindly with the eved. One never knows what tomorrow will bring.

This is a powerful lesson. One does not have to own a slave to recognize the profundity of this message. Regardless of one's position - financial, health, success - it can all change overnight. It takes one slip, one mistake, one disgruntled employee or irate parent, and a lifetime of success can become a memory. Treat everyone appropriately, the same way you would want to be treated if you were in his position.

The Rosh Yeshivah extends the idea of dealing kindly and considerately with those who are "down on their luck" to the way we should treat anyone in our employ - be it in the workplace or at home. We love to take advantage, especially when we are paying for it. We think that if we are paying someone to cook, act as a maid, babysit, and help out with household chores, they belong to us. We all want to get our money's worth, which, at times, means subjugating the help to perform unnecessary chores just to occupy their time. We own a business or provide a service which requires the hiring of employees. Consideration of their needs, sensitivity to their emotions, regard for their esteem and mindfulness of their personal lives, their family ups and downs, are not only the correct and proper thing to do, it will also increase their effectiveness and productivity. When people are treated properly, they respond in kind.

Last, the Rosh Yeshivah cites Rabbeinu Yonah (Shaarei Teshuvah 3:60) who says that the prohibition, Lo sirdeh bo b'farech, "You shall not subjugate him to hard labor," has another-- often overlooked and frightening-- aspect. One may not make a demand of a person if he knows that this other person cannot refuse his request. This is "hard labor." It happens all of the time. We need something, a favor or even a necessity. We know that if we ask a certain individual he will respond in the affirmative, despite the fact that he neither wants to do this, nor is it something that coincides with his character, position, or status. He will do it only because he owes us; he needs us; he has no bereirah, other choice in the matter. This is wrong on our part. Regrettably, we do this all of the time - at times unintentionally - without thinking.

We do it as employers, as teachers, as friends and as relatives. Taking advantage of another individual's debt to us or our elevated status over him is considered "hard labor." If the Torah admonishes us not to act this way to a bondsman whose past is at best murky, how much more so should we not act this way to a friend, neighbor, employee, student - or anyone for that matter.

If your brother becomes impoverished. (25:39)

Everyone wants to be charitable, to share with those who are less fortunate than he is. It is one of those mitzvos that make us feel good. After all, what could be wrong with helping another Jew? Perhaps that is the first mistake: "helping another Jew." Tzedakah, popularly known as charity, is not just about helping someone else, but rather, about feeling that person's pain. When one "helps," he is still separated from the beneficiary. He is fine. It is the "other guy" that is in need. True tzedakah does not distinguish between "me" and "him"; "us" and "them." Tzedakah binds the two together. It creates a fusion of "selves" as the benefactor feels the needs of the beneficiary.

Sensitivity for another Jew's pain, as well as joy for another Jew's happiness, is the hallmark of a baal chesed, person who exemplifies the Torah ideal of lovingkindness. In his book, "A Touch of Warmth," Rabbi Yechiel Spero relates a moving story which carries with it a profound, underlying message that goes to the core of what it means to understand another Jew's emotions. Rav Shmuel and Rav Meir had been chavrusos, study partners, for over fifty years. Their chavrusashaft generated a friendship that was consummate.

One morning, R' Shmuel appeared unwell. R' Meir urged him to see the doctor immediately. R' Shmuel agreed and, after undergoing a thorough examination, was told by the doctor that he should prepare himself for some very grim news. He was suffering from an incurable disease which would end his life within six months. R' Shmuel informed his chavrusa that the doctor had told him that he had only six months to live. With his usual stoicism, he went back to the Gemorah.

R' Shmuel was a tzadik, righteous person, who lived a life of total commitment to Hashem. He accepted his fate without complaint, without emotion, and without self-pity.

A few weeks went by. One day after they finished learning, R' Shmuel asked R' Meir to stay for a few moments. He had a request to make of him. "I know that when I die many people will want to eulogize me. I ask that no one be allowed. I am undeserving of accolades. There is, however, one thing which I will allow to be said of me - that I strived to feel another Jew's pain as if it were my own, and that I rejoiced at another person's simchah, joyous occasion, as if it were my own." R' Meir was stunned by this statement. They had learned together for so many years, and he was just beginning to appreciate his friend's exalted spiritual nature. He, of course, acceded to honor his friend's request.

The six month diagnosis was sadly proving true. The months went by and R' Shmuel was literally wasting away. Wracked with severe pain, his body was a shadow of its former self. Yet, he never cried out; he never complained. He accepted Hashem's decree with resolve and made every day, every moment, count. One day, R' Meir came to visit his friend and discovered him weeping uncontrollably. The bitter weeping was something that R' Meir had never expected to see emanating from R' Shmuel. Manifesting emotion was atypical of the man who had been his closest friend for over half of a century.

R' Meir looked at R' Shmuel and asked him what had catalyzed such a severe outpouring of emotion. R' Shmuel replied, "Throughout my life, I have always felt someone else's pain as if it were my own. I have come to realize that I have been wrong all of this time. I feel my own pain more than someone else's. I have never felt such pain for someone else!" A few weeks later, R' Shmuel passed on to his eternal reward. R' Meir shared this story with those who assembled at R' Shmuel's funeral to pay him his kavod acharon, final respects.

The story is moving; the lesson is compelling. Do we ever think about this when we are in pain, when our hearts are filled with personal joy? This tzadik realized how difficult it really is to be a true nosei b'ol im chaveiro, "carry the yoke together with his friend."


If you will follow My decrees and observe My commandments and perform them. (26:3)

Rashi's observation is well-known. Clearly the pasuk is not addressing mitzvah observance, since it immediately follows with, v'es mitzvosai tishmeru, "and observe My commandments." Apprarently, Im bechukosai teileichu, "If you will follow My decrees," teaches that one must be amal, exert himself, toiling in Torah. In other words, Torah study, simple "learning," is insufficient to protect a person. In order to fulfill Hashem's mandate concerning Torah study, he must study with toil, with fervor, with passion and enthusiasm. This is a nice pshat, explanation, that has become a staple in Torah interpretation, but how do we derive from the word teileichu that ameilus ba'Torah, toil, is what it is all about? Torah study alone is insufficient.

Horav Yechiel Yaakov Weinberg, zl, observes two primary principles which serve as the basis for Orthodox Judaism: Torah study and mitzvah performance. These two principles are very much like the synthesis of the guf, body, and the neshamah, soul. They are inseparable; their bond may not be broken. One without the other has little value and even less endurance. One who studies Torah diligently will amass much knowledge and increase his level of wisdom. Will this guarantee that he will be a frumer Yid, observant, practicing Jew? Absolutely not! As the Montreaux Rosh Yeshiva notes, one who is simply erudite, whose acumen and ability to plumb the depths of Torah's profundities is exceptional, is perhaps able to purify a sheretz, ritually unclean creature, one hundred and fifty ways. His brilliance permits him to analyze the halachah from all angles and develop an understanding unlike any other rendered before him, but, at the end of the day, this will neither increase nor improve his religious observance. He is a Torah intellectual, but far from being considered an observant, committed Jew. On the other hand, pure mitzvah observance, without the support of Torah study, is soulless, a body without a soul, living in a vacuum without "life."

Wisdom allows one to find the loopholes for purifying a sheretz. This is, however, not yet the level achieved through ameilus ba'Torah, toil in Torah study. Such a person may be considered erudite, brilliant, analytical, even a Torah giant, but he has still not reached the level through ameilus. With ameilus, one achieves a level of harmony in which his body and soul are all focused on Torah. Such an individual does not seek to refute the laws of tumah, spiritual defilement, but rather, to understand why the Torah prohibits a sheretz, how to refute the one hundred and fifty reasons that undermine the halacha. To present it in simple language: One who studies Torah without ameilus will/can find ways in his logical mind to undermine the Torah, discover loopholes for getting around its ordinances. One who studies with ameilus looks for ways to affirm and ratify everything that he has learned. Torah is not merely a subject. It is his life! Ameilus is the fusion of the human intellect with the human will/desire and the Heavenly source of wisdom. One realizes that he studies Torah authored by the Divine. He is attempting to "understand" the word of G-d with his limited mind. When one approaches Torah in this manner, he cannot just "study" it. He must toil in it; he must live it. It is the dvar Hashem, the word of G-d.

This may be derived from the word teileichu, follow, which is a derivative of holoch, to go. The Torah does not say, Im bechukosai tilmedu, "you will study", or taskilu, "you will cogitate." The Torah addresses a form of study that is akin to walking. It is a study that is focused on the question: "What does Hashem want of me?" This is Torah study which is focused on "walking in Hashem's ways," not just "studying" to gain more wisdom and greater erudition.

This does not in any way suggest that one should perform mitzvos without understanding what he is doing. We do not just "do." We ask Hashem daily to "place in our hearts the understanding that will enable us to understand His Torah thoroughly, to listen/observe to study and teach His Torah." All of this is in order that we be able to carry out His word with love. Torah study and mitzvah observance go hand in hand. One without the other does not make one an observant Jew. Rav Weinberg goes one step further as he compares the synthesis of Torah study and mitzvah observance with lomdus, analytical Torah study and Mussar, ethical character refinement. As Torah addresses the halachah and mitzvah focuses on the practical implementation of halachah, Mussar provides the means for executing what one learns in Torah. Mussar is mitzvah fulfillment of duties of the heart. It provides the passion and enthusiasm, the love and excitement, the awe and trembling, which should accompany all mitzvah observance. Lomdus provides the parameters, the boundaries, rules and regulations, while Mussar sees to it that life is infused into mitzvah execution. To paraphrase Rav Weinberg, "Mussar provides lomdus with a sense of integrity, to seek, recognize and concede to the truth. Lomdus is the teacher, the mentor, the guide; Mussar is the policeman, the guardian, the control over the lomdus."

The Rosh Yeshivah spoke from experience. A premier talmid, student, of Slabodka, a close disciple of the Mussar giants, student of its founder Horav Yisrael Salanter, zl, he was also a brilliant Torah scholar, a philosopher schooled in both Torah and general knowledge. As rector of the Hildesheimer Rabbiner Seminar in Berlin, he was the pre-eminent Rosh Yeshivah and posek, halachic decisor, in Western Europe. He had the respect of the gedolim of Western and Eastern Europe - pre- World War II and after. He synthesized Torah and Mussar, representing the finest example of Im bechukosai teileichu.

Then they will confess their sin and the sin of their forefathers for the treachery with which they betrayed me. (26:40)

We can understand saying viduy, confessing one's own sins'; but why must we repent for the sins of our parents? We have a hard enough time dealing with our own issues - let alone those of our forebears. Horav Chaim Zaitschik, zl, explains that this reasoning would be justified in the event that we were not to be responsible for the sins of our parents. When we, however, by our actions, cause our parents to sin, it is an entirely different story.

Children, young and old, make excessive demands on their parents which can lead to parents doing things which are inappropriate, just to satisfy their childrens' desires. We live in what is being called the "I want it now" generation, in which selfish children, often made so by their parents' constant acquiescing to their demands, are forcing their parents into racking up huge debts, so that they not fall out of grace. We say "yes," because we think that it will make life easier for us, when, in fact, we are only creating greater problems for the future.

By deferring to children's demands, we are guilty of creating a generation of young people who are oblivious to the needs of others, whose narcissistic tendencies increase every time they get what they want. This sense of entitlement does not bode well for their future as adults.

When children demand and demand, they ultimately wear down their parents to the point that they give in to things which they know are wrong and goes against everything in which they believe. The pressure is simply too much to bear.

The consequences are unfortunate, with children becoming increasingly spoiled, parents going out of their way to make them happy - even to the point of resorting to "arrangements" that lack integrity and ethicality. When children manifest this attitude, they become responsible for their parents' sins. There will be a day of reckoning when these children, who will become adults, will be called on the carpet for the misdeeds of their parents. The children did not care about the imposition they were placing on their parents, as they caused their parents to cater to their wants and whims as well.

So why are the parents blamed? Their children pushed them to the limit. We must remember that the children were not born selfish. The parents were seeking an easier life, one in which they maintained a friendly relationship with their children. They created the monster, a generation of children who are blind to another person's needs and who view hard work as an anathema, something for their parents to do in order to keep them in expensive clothes, etc. It is neither entirely the children's fault, nor should the parents take the entire blame. It is best that both share in the confession - as well as the blame.

Va'ani Tefillah

Nora sehillos Awesome of praise.

Why would praise be awesome? We praise Hashem because He is great. His goodness surrounds us, as it suffuses our lives with His benefaction. Why would we be in a state of fear and trepidation as we praise Hashem? Horav Shimon Schwab, zl, explains that it is quite easy to praise Hashem when things are good. When the sun is shining in one's face, life is a totally different experience. If one were to pay gratitude to Hashem only when he experiences what appears to be good and neglects to thank Him when his experience is not so good, it would be an indication that his sense of gratitude is warped. It is almost as if he was intimating that when there is suffering in the world, it is not Hashem's doing. This is, of course, total heresy. When Hashem's will is done -- be it perceptibly good or bad-we are to praise Him. We may not understand what goes on in the world, but if it is Hashem's will- it is good. We praise Him because we believe that His reason is good. When praise is predicated upon such faith, it is expressed with fear and trepidation.

Sponsored in memory
of my mother
Mrs. Rachel Massuda
Rochel bas Baruch Yitzchak a"h

Dr. Jacob Massuda

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.

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