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Peninim on the Torah

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Rabbi A. Leib Scheinbaum
Hebrew Academy of Cleveland


Each of you shall not aggrieve his fellow, and you shall fear your G-d. (27:15)

Hurting another Jew is an egregious sin. What makes it most serious is the fact that one does not always observe the damage that he has wrought. Embarrassing someone, reminding him of an inappropriate episode in his life, can cause grave emotional trauma, which is concealed beneath the surface of the man's demeanor. It hurts no less; since it is covert, the pain may be even greater. Talking about something that bothers a person is in itself a form of therapy. Onaah, aggrieving, applies to cheating in commerce, while onaas devarim, refers to aggrieving with words, such as reminding people of: their questionable and embarrassing past; their far-from-distinguished lineage; or anything that makes a person self-conscious. Indeed, Chazal (Bava Metzia 58b) teach that it is worse to hurt someone personally than financially. A monetary loss can be made up, while humiliation lingers on. Shame often follows a person from place to place, haunting him, destroying his relationships, and preventing him from developing new ones.

Nonetheless, we often ignore the hurt we cause others, because we do not "see" the damage. Hashem does see, and this is why He says V'yareisa mei-Elokecha, "And you shall fear your G-d." Hashem will not be as forgiving. He knows the pain that the subject of your ridicule has sustained, and He will exact punishment. At times, the punishment will take years to materialize, but one should never despair of punishment. If an individual hurt someone, he will pay.

The following story took place over a period of time. Perhaps if we think about this story, we will realize that, if we offend someone, we will pay - regardless of how long it might take.

The uncle of a chassan, young man about to be married, arrived from out of town to share in his nephew's festivities. He drove to the home of the kallah, bride, where the reception was to be held. He rang the bell, which was promptly answered by the bride's father. The two sat down and talked about their individual backgrounds, yeshivah life, going back as far as elementary school. Apparently, the uncle and the kallah's father had been students in the same yeshivah during the same tekufah, era. They began to share experiences, reminiscing about their time together in the yeshivah.

During the course of the conversation, the uncle reminded himself of an incident that had occurred during this period in the yeshivah. "I remember one night," the uncle began, "you were in your dormitory room, and the other students wanted to have some 'fun' at your expense. They locked you in from the outside, essentially trapping you in your room. You banged on the door and pleaded to be released, but no one seemed to hear your pleas. Do you remember that incident?"

Being reminded of the incident cast a pall over the bride's father's face: "Of course, I remember that night. I have harbored the pain and humiliation within me throughout the years. Indeed, I said then - and I reiterate now - that I would never forgive the person who was responsible for that debacle!"

When the uncle who had related the story heard the father's reaction, he almost passed out. He was traumatized by this statement of contempt for the one who had locked the door, since it was he who had been the culprit who had committed the dastardly act against the kallah's father. Now what?

The next morning, the uncle presented himself at the office of one of the distinguished poskim, Halachic arbiters, to seek some form of resolution to this issue. The Rav suggested that he approach the bride's father, tell him the truth and beg his forgiveness. Otherwise, it would put a strain on the relationship between the two families. Apparently, this posek neither knew the uncle, nor was aware of the misery that had been his companion for years.

The uncle listened to the Rav and proceeded to the kallah's house to reveal to her father that it had been he who had traumatized him years ago in the yeshivah. He now was asking his forgiveness. It was merely meant to be a prank. He had not intended to hurt, and certainly not to cause him distress for the rest of his life. Thirty years had elapsed since that fateful day, and much suffering had been generated by that act of teenage foolishness.

At first, the kallah's father hesitated. On the other hand, he could not look at the pleading man's face and turn him down. He acquiesced, absolving him on the condition that he would never hurt another person again. The uncle immediately accepted the resolution and promised to go out of his way to be sensitive to the feelings of others.

Postscript: One year following the incident, the uncle came knocking on the door of the bride's home for a third time. This time, he appeared with a shining countenance and an ear to ear smile. "I have come to inform you that my wife just gave birth to our first child - after twenty-six years!" One teenager's trauma and lack of forgiveness for his pain had resulted in the culprit's childlessness for twenty-six years. I write this story as a public service.

If your brother becomes impoverished and his hand falters in your proximity. (25:35)

Concerning this pasuk, which enjoins us to reach out to our fellow man who has sadly fallen on hard times, David Hamelech says in Tehillim 41:2, Ashrei maskil el dal, b'yom raah yimalteihu Hashem, "Praiseworthy is he who contemplates the needy; on the day of evil, Hashem will liberate him." Why is this pasuk specifically selected by Chazal as the paradigm for giving tzedakah, charity? Can something special, a unique lesson/message regarding charitable giving, be derived herein? Simply, we are being enjoined to add some seichal, common sense, to our emotion upon giving the poor man a check. We should "think," take into consideration that this is a human being whose dignity we must preserve. The pasuk is teaching us that, not only must we give, but there is a method, a manner in which the giving should be carried out. We must be considerate of the poor man's feelings; since he has to stand with his hand out, pleading for alms; we must reach out with seichal, coupled with compassion. Thus, on the day on which we are judged, when others who were not so caring might suffer as part of the collective punishment, we will be spared. Hashem will take into consideration the seichal we applied when we assisted others.

In an alternative exposition, Horav Yoshiahu Yosef Pinto, Shlita, Rosh Yeshivah, Shuvah Yisrael, explains that this pasuk contains an allusion to another proper manner of charitable giving. Some individuals are kind-hearted, and they assist by addressing the economic needs of their less fortunate brethren. They do this, however, only at a time when the sun, so to speak, is shining in their lives: they are healthy; their children are well physically, emotionally and spiritually; their business is financially on the up and up. In short, their lives are filled with good fortune. When things are going "their" way, they do not hesitate to worry about others. After all, if one must worry, it is so much more "convenient" to worry about others than to be anxious about oneself.

When these same people, however, fall on hard times, when issues arise in their personal lives which occupy their minds, at such stressful times - they have no time or patience to listen to the needs of others. It is all about them - not about others. When these individuals are experiencing their own personal yom raah, day of evil, they are likewise unable to come to the assistance of others. They sadly have a good excuse, "I, too, am having a bad day. I cannot deal with other people's problems."

While one may justify his indifference to others as the result of his own problems, the tzaddik, righteous person, does not use personal adversity as a reason to turn others away. Thus, the Psalmist writes in support of the maskil el dal, (Praiseworthy is the) one who contemplates the needy. Such a person, who reaches out to others, despite himself being the subject of financial and personal adversity, will be liberated by Hashem.

Horav Meir Abuchatzeira, zl, suffered greatly during the twilight of his years of life. He experienced excruciating pain that debilitated him. Yet, his countenance never attested to his pain. A smile was always on his lips, as he encouraged others to have hope. He was a maskil el dal.

And if you will consider My decrees revolting, and if your being rejects My ordinances, so as not to perform all of My commandments, to annul My covenant. (26:3)

Chazal teach that the final straw, which is denying belief in Hashem, is part of a descending seven-step process. In other words, one does not just wake up one morning and decide to become a kofer, heretic. He has been slowly slipping over a period of time, and now this trait has finally begun to manifest itself in his denial of the Creator. What makes this process most astonishing is that it takes very little to gain entry into it. All one needs in order to mount the first step is, not really a lack of study, but rather, a lack of ameilus, toil, in study. So, one might be studying diligently, but not toiling assiduously, and he is already guilty of not "studying" Torah. Indeed, Chazal (Meseches Shabbos 88b) add that, not only does a lack of Torah study lead to heresy, but even Torah studied superficially will lead to a similar end. La'maiminim bah sama d'chaya, l'masmilim bah sama d'mosa, "To those who go to the 'right' with the Torah, it is an elixir of life; to those who go to the 'left' with the Torah, it is a potion of death."

The above statement teaches us that the Torah itself acts as a potion of death to those who go 'left' with it. Rashi explains that going to the 'right' with Torah means, "That they engage in it with all their strength and are preoccupied with knowing its secret, similar to the one who uses his right hand, which is his primary organ." Horav Mordechai Gifter, zl, derives two important points from Rashi's commentary: "Engaged in Torah" is defined as "with all of one's strength and preoccupied with it." Also, the essence of Torah study is: "To know the secret," to understand its mystery.

The Rosh Yeshivah explains that the concept of "Torah's secret" does not suggest that in Torah there exists a revealed portion and a hidden portion. The secret and mystery of Torah denote everything that a person is privileged to attain and understand. The very essence of Torah study is the revelation of secrets, to delve deeper and deeper into the Torah's profundities. Therefore, one's knowledge of Torah assumes a new meaning each time he delves deeper to plumb its depths for even greater knowledge. He reveals new unknowns and uncovers that which heretofore had been incomprehensible. This is why studying Torah is the process of uncovering its secrets.

No dichotomy exists between the Written Law and the Oral Law concerning the revelation of Torah's secrets. Studying the Talmud, developing a deeper understanding of its subject matter, increases one's understanding of the Written Law - as well. The more one learns, the deeper one plumbs in either of the Laws, the greater his access to the Torah's secrets. With each layer of secret that one reveals, he gains new insight. Thus, the more that he reveals, the broader one's definition of the "simple meaning" becomes.

A student hears a sevara, logical explanation, from his rebbe. At the student's stage of maturity, the sevara is merely a fact, the revelation of something he had already known before. He does not yet have an intellectual understanding of the sevara. As time goes on and the student matures, the sevara takes on a new image. He senses the revelation of a new world within Torah, the world of Torah analysis. The sevara is now the key to a mystery, which, due to his new maturity level, he is able to understand. In appreciating the sevara, his entire being becomes enveloped by the intellectual adventure of understanding. This is what is meant by the statement: The essence of Torah study is to deepen secrets and reveal its mysteries.

We now understand why Torah study is different from other disciplines. In his Kuntres Emunah u'Bitachon, Ramban writes that no portion of the mystical Torah is divorced from the revealed Torah; rather, the mystical Torah is but the profundity, the secret beneath the revealed Torah. The entire Torah is a single entity, with learning being the process of discovery, as one engrosses himself ever so deeply in the Torah. Thus, one uncovers what is obscure and concealed.

An individual who studies Torah as if it were just another discipline transforms it into an ordinary subject. When it is so treated, it becomes a potion of death, the poison of the human spirit. On the other hand, the individual who studies Torah by going to the "right," who is constantly united and bound with its unknown, with what he has yet to understand, he is the wise man who actuates the Torah. The one who goes to the "left" is bound and united with the transitory, drawing the existence of the Torah towards his personal preferences.

In summation: One should study Torah as a never-ending plumbing of its depths and revelation of its secrets. The Torah is not his - it is G-d's wisdom which we attempt to understand in accordance with our limited abilities. The person who thinks the Torah is a subject which he studies and controls is clueless, and he will ultimately be poisoned by its secrets. He will find questions that are beyond his ken. His human logic cannot grasp the depth of its wisdom. So, he will reject it.

Torah learning is a process through which one delves deeper and deeper, but never actually masters the text, since one cannot grasp G-d's wisdom. Every step of understanding, of uncovering the secrets, is a privilege and viewed as a great merit. To paraphrase the Rosh Yeshivah, "When man's entire will, desire, and ambition are inextricably bound up with Hashem's Torah (this refers to the Torah that is still Hashem's, because it has not yet been revealed to human understanding), only then is he capable of sensing the infinite pleasure of his 'own' Torah (which he has already revealed), which he has already succeeded in attaining. Every second, every minute, during which one is free of the struggle to master Torah - in these moments he is severed from the secrets and mysteries of Torah, and, in such moments, he has lost the pleasure of Torah."

The Rosh Yeshivah of Telshe was totally immersed in Torah. His ameilus, toil in Torah, was his greatest source of joy and pleasure. One would think that toil and pleasure are far from synonymous. Yet, as Rav Gifter explains: "The concept of amal haTorah is inherent in the study of Torah… Amal haTorah does not mean a life impoverished by complete removal from human joys and pleasures, but rather, the sublime contentment of the most intimate contact with the source of all joy and pleasure."

Rav Gifter loved learning. He appreciated ameilus in others, especially in his talmidim, students. One Shavuos in the late 1950's, a group of older students visited the Rosh Yeshivah for an oneg Yom Tov, celebration of the Festival. As the oneg began, Rav Gifter appeared to be unwell. The students asked if something was wrong. He replied that he was well, but tired, having not been unable to sleep since the night of Shavuos. He explained that, after having been awake all night on Shavuos, he had attempted to go to sleep in the morning. The windows to his room were open, however, and he had been privy to gorgeous sounds emanating from the bais hamedrash situated just behind his apartment. A young boy was learning with a magnificent niggun, song, of Torah. "Imagine," the Rosh Yeshivah declared, "a bachur studying Torah on Shavuos morning when no one is in the bais hamedrash (since everyone is asleep after having studied the entire night). Do not think that I am upset that I was unable to sleep. (On the contrary) there is no sound more beautiful for a rebbe than the sound of his talmid learning."

Related to the concept of pure pleasure that is associated with Torah study, I cite two correspondent repartees expressed by Horav Aharon Kotler, zl, which demonstrates how our Torah leaders viewed the "enjoyment" of Torah study. Rav Aharon was - together with Reb Yitzchak (Irving) Bunim, zl, a prominent Torah askan, lay-leader, and shtadlan, intercessor, on behalf of Orthodoxy in particular, and Judaism in general - at a conference, when a distinguished Jewish leader rose to speak. The speaker related in the name of the saintly Chafetz Chaim, zl, which in Olam Habba, the World to Come, Zevullun, the brother/Jew who supports Yissochor, the Torah student who devotes all of his time to study, will be equal. Not only will Zevullun reap similar reward, but (because he sustained and enabled Yissachar's Torah study) his yedios haTorah, knowledge of Torah, will correspond to that of Yissochor. Despite the fact that he had not studied Torah in this world, because he was engaged in commerce, his supporting Yissochor will earn him equivalency in Torah erudition.

Reb Yitzchak Bunim turned to Rav Aharon and said, "According to what we have just heard, if in Olam Habba my reward for Torah study and my Torah knowledge will be on par with that of the Rosh Yeshivah, how are we different from one another?" Rav Aharon replied, "Veritably, according to the Chafetz Chaim, in Olam Habba - you are correct - we will be equal, but I have one advantage over you; I (also) have Olam Hazeh!" Rav Aharon had no greater satisfaction than Torah study.

In a similar incident, a distinguished student of the yeshivah, who was very bright and capable, came to the Rosh Yeshivah with a "practical" request. Since he was accomplished and talented, he had the ability to enter the world of business and achieve great success. He would thus earn a considerable amount of money, of which he would apportion to support the Torah world. Was there a problem with this?

Rav Aharon replied, "Indeed, if you do this, you will surely earn great reward for which you will be reimbursed in Olam Habba. It would mean abrogating your Olam Hazeh. If, however, you remain in the yeshivah and study full-time, you will benefit both in Olam Habba and in Olam Hazeh!"

How far are we from such an appreciation of Torah study?

Then I will provide your rains in their time, and the land will give its produce and the tree of the field will give its fruit. (26:4)

Interestingly, all of the physical blessings mentioned by the Torah as a reward for mitzvah observance and toiling in Torah are agricultural in nature. Why does the Torah not ensure a person with great wealth, agriculture property or real estate? It seems as if every blessing is: If you observe mitzvos and work hard at studying Torah, you will be blessed with success for all of your hard work in the field. It is almost like saying, if you work hard in the bais hamedrash, then your work in the field will reap great success.

Horav Shimshon Pincus, zl, offers a practical explanation for this. A person who is blessed with great wealth feels secure. Cash, bonds, stocks, investments and real estate: all of these settle the mind, allowing it peace. They do not, however, encourage one to raise his eyes up Heavenward in prayer for continued siyata diShmaya. After all, he is already blessed. For what else should he daven? Gold and silver do not rust; diamonds retain their value. Real estate may depreciate, but, with enough money, one can always replenish his portfolio. If there is a drought in his country, he has the money to leave and settle elsewhere.

Therefore, Hashem provides him with agricultural blessings which are potential wealth if: the rains are frequent and timely; the sun shines when needed; the insects do not infest his crops, etc. Now, his heart is connected with Hashem; his eyes are constantly turned Heavenward in prayer and supplication.

Under normal circumstances, when a person gives a gift to someone, the greater the value of the gift, the greater is the chance of a distance developing between the benefactor and the recipient. For instance, if one gives a large sum of money to a poor man, the recipient is no longer poor, and he now becomes self-sufficient. The less he receives, the greater his level of dependency on the benefactor.

If Hashem were to bless an individual with a large sum of money, it would, in effect, not be a blessing - but a curse. Now that he is self-sufficient, the recipient no longer feels compelled to turn to Hashem for sustenance. This is a curse, because the person is now distanced from the Source of all blessing - Hashem. As long as we are in Hashem's proximity in the sense that He is a part of our lives, we will remain committed to Him. Once we move away, there is no telling where the distance will end.

Hashem's blessings are, thus, twofold in nature. There is incredible good fortune in the actual blessing, and the added blessing that we will always have to rely on Hashem accompanies it. This need will preserve our closeness to Him through prayer and supplication. This is a practical lesson for our daily endeavor. Regardless of how successful we might be, without Hashem, it is nothing. We must always be cognizant of His "input" into our lives. This is certainly better than having to receive a wake-up call from Him.

And you will become lost among the nations. (26:38)

Horav Mordechai Ilan, zl, observes that, when Klal Yisrael is in exile, they are compared to a lost article. As long as a lost item has a siman, recognizable sign, which the owner can use to identify it, then a din ha'shavah applies, an obligation for the finder to return it. He may not keep something for which the owner has not yet given up hope. If an item does not have a recognizable feature by which the owner can identify it, he will be me'yaeish, despair of getting it back.

We derive an important lesson from here. The Jew must preserve and retain any identifying features which mark him as a Jew. These signs indicate that we belong to Hashem. His imprint is on us. As long as we show signs of belonging to an Owner, we may aspire that one day - soon - we will be returned to Him, and our long exile will finally come to its conclusion.

Va'ani Tefillah

Ezras Avoseinu Atah Hu meiOlam. You are the same One who has been the helm of our Forefathers since time immemorial.

We say in the Haggadah, "Had He not taken us out of Egypt, we and our children and all ensuing generations would have remained slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt." As we are about to recite Shemoneh Esrai which is the essential tefillah, prayer, we once again reiterate the significance which geulas Mitzrayim, the Egyptian exodus, plays in our lives. One last time, before we speak to Hashem in prayer, we remind ourselves of the good fortune of being redeemed, and that this very moment is the result of the Exodus. Thus, we have the halachah of semichas geulah l'Tefillah, remembering the Exodus must be in close proximity to the prayer. We begin with Ezras Avoseinu, which is a prayer that recounts the kindness of the redemption, for which we express our profound gratitude. Then we immediately enter into the formal tefillah of Shemoneh Esrai.

Avoseinu, our Forefathers, refers to the Avos, Patriarchs, whom we did not know, but whose activities on our behalf is recorded in the holy Torah. I think that this "little" piece of history is significant, especially as we commence our "dialogue" with Hashem. (I say "dialogue," because Hashem does respond, only not orally.) Unless one recognizes that he is part of history, and that our beliefs are historical, not something concocted by a person, his belief is not anchored and can be blown away - at any time.

In honor of
Dr. Dennis and Marriane Glazer

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