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Peninim on the Torah

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Rabbi A. Leib Scheinbaum
Hebrew Academy of Cleveland


And G-d said, "Let there be light," and there was light. (1:3)

In Sefer Tehillim (119:130) David Hamelech says, "The introduction of Your words illuminates." The Midrash in Sefer Shemos explains that this pasuk refers to the opening words of the Torah, "In the beginning G-d created." Light preceded all of the rest of Creation. Similarly, the Aron Hakodesh, which housed the Torah, also called ohr, light, preceded the other vessels of the Mishkan. Light must precede every other creation; in fact, it must precede everything. The ability to see clearly, to understand the basic foundation of knowledge, is a prerequisite for an undistorted view of life. Clarity of vision is the framework upon which all understanding is based.

How many people grope through life due to their inability to see clearly - either because they cannot see, or because they refuse to open their eyes? There are also others who do see, but with colored glasses. Thus, their perspective is distorted. When Hashem created the world, He first looked at the Torah, which preceded Creation. This is a lesson for us; in order to understand the story of Creation, to maintain an accurate perspective on life and the workings of this world; one must look through the lens of the Torah. It illuminates the path toward understanding.

Even in the construction of the Mishkan, the Torah came first. Without the Torah's guidance, many aspects of this most hallowed edifice, its function and service, might interfere with our ability to understand cogently. The Torah illuminates its intricacies, giving meaning to its challenges. Suddenly, everything makes sense. It is all a matter of perspective - a perspective which we should develop through the lens of the Torah.

Seeing is believing. One looks at the Tzitzis and is inspired to mitzvah observance. How? He does not only look with his eyes. He looks with his mind and with his heart. Above all, he looks through the eyes of the Torah which grants him a unique insight into what otherwise might appear to be mere strings. Throughout the Torah, the individual finds an illuminated version of this vision: the Tzitzis with the techeilis, light blue thread, reminding him of the sea, which-- in turn-- reminds him of Heaven, catalyzing a vision of Hashem and His mitzvos. All of this is the result of seeing properly through the illuminated vision which the Torah provides. If the lens is not perfected by the Torah, the vision remains defective.

At the end of Sefer Devarim (30:15), the people are told, "See - I have placed before you today the life and the good, and the death and the evil. And you should choose life." (30:19) What fool would not choose life? Why would anyone eschew blessing? Why choose evil over a life of goodness? It is because he is missing the key element in this exhortation: see! If one does not see the good and the life, how well can he possibly choose? Even worse are those who refuse to look. They are afraid of what they might "see."

Yet, a problem has surfaced. Amidst the light that Hashem created there were patches of darkness, to the point that light and darkness functioned "in a mixture." Hashem felt it necessary to distinguish between the light and the darkness, and He separated one from another. The Midrash goes a bit further in an explanation of these creations and their separation. "And the earth was astonishingly empty, with darkness upon the surface of the waters" (Bereishis 1:2). This darkness is a reference to the actions of the righteous. "Hashem separated between the light and the darkness (ibid.1:4). The Almighty distinguished between the actions of the righteous and the actions of the wicked. Apparently, this separation could only come about through acts of Hashem. Only He in His infinite wisdom could delineate between the light of the righteous and the darkness of the wicked. Why? Anybody who can see should be able to perceive this separation.

Horav Yosef Sholom Elyashiv, Shlita, explains that Vayehi erev, "And there was evening," (1:5) refers to the maasei reshaim, actions of the wicked. The word erev, evening, has a different connotation than we might imagine. In order for it to be considered erev, it does not have to be pitch-black outside. In fact, the Torah instructs us to slaughter the Korban Pesach ba'erev, "Slaughter the Pesach-offering in the afternoon." (Devarim 16:6) As soon as the sun begins to turn towards the west, even though it is in the middle of the sky shining brightly, it already has the halachic status of erev.

Likewise, the term boker, morning, occurs one moment after alos ha'shachar, the morning star has risen in the sky. It is still dark outside. It is a time when it is almost impossible to distinguish between the colors of blue and white-- and certainly impossible to delineate between various hues of blue. Yet, it is boker; it is light!

We now understand why Hashem had to distinguish between ohr and choshech. Light and darkness are not necessarily perceptible to the untrained eye. It takes a special "lens," the lens of Torah, to see the true colors and even the true shades of each color before a decision can be made regarding the integrity of one's spiritual leanings. We think, we see, but-- without the corrective lenses-- our vision remains impaired.

And G-d saw all that He had made, and behold, it was very good. (1:31)

After Hashem created the world in its entirety, the Torah declares that it was not only good, but it was very good. On an individual basis, each creation in isolation may be viewed as inherently good. When everything is combined into the larger context, it becomes very good. Even those creations that appear to be evil-- such as misery, pain and even death-- have their place in the larger scheme of things. Thus, in the total context of existence, we can view them as being very good. Indeed, the Midrash says: Tov, good: this is the angel of life. Me'od, very (good): this is the angel of death. Incredible! The angel of death and what he represents is not only good, it is very good. With an inimitable analogy, the Maggid, zl, m'Dubno gives us a homiletical insight into Chazal. A craftsman who was famous for his intricate works of art, his beautifully fashioned furniture, and his supreme workmanship once left his home without putting away his expensive tools. His son, Yankel, was an astute, resourceful bundle of energy, always looking for something to do. Noticing his father's tools, he had an idea. Why not demonstrate his talent to his father? Certainly, he could create works of art just like his father. He proceeded to the tool box and began to create. Wood was putty in his hands, as his father's saw cut various pieces of furniture down to size. The hammer and nails were also helpful, as were the drill and screw driver. Yankel was having a blast, until his father came running home after remembering that he had neglected to put his tools away.

"Yankel, what have you done?" his father screamed.

"I was only helping you. I decided to fix up some of our furniture," Yankel replied innocently.

Yankel's father could hardly constrain his smile as he told his precocious son, "Even responsible adults who have mastered carpentry should not attempt to use these tools. Certainly, a young child who has no experience will do much more harm than improvement. These are powerful tools which, when used by someone who is untrained, can be very destructive."

Likewise, Hashem tells us in Sefer Devarim (30:15), "See! I have placed before you today the life and the good." The "good" as determined by Hashem is before us. Take it! So what does the "brilliant" man do? He decides that there is a better way. There is better than good. There is "very" good. He will arise early in the morning to daven k'vasikin, at sunrise. Meanwhile, he will wake up his entire family and everybody else in his apartment building. Someone trying to be more "creative" will add some mitzvos. If they do not approve of another person, they decide it is a mitzvah to "bury" him. In other words, there are those individuals who will not leave well enough alone; Hashem's 613 mitzvos are not sufficient. They must focus on new programs, new charities, new ideas, new forms of service to the Almighty - everything - except for focusing on the original that has been tried and proven.

Tov, good: this is the angel of life. Hashem has told us how to live. Tov me'od, very good: this is when people seek to improve on Hashem's good. The Midrash is not addressing the positive aspect of death. Rather, it is focusing on the negative aspect of "very good."

Accursed is the ground because of you…For you are dust, and to dust shall you return. (3:17,19)

It is difficult to understand the way in which Adam HaRishon, the crown of Creation, Hashem's handiwork, transgressed His explicit command, a command that was punishable by death. If this is so, as the Rambam states in his Moreh Nevuchim (1,2), why was he punished so severely? Anybody can err. Furthermore, why did Chavah believe the serpent's assurances over Hashem's explicit warning? Indeed, something was wrong with her reply to the snake, "Lest we die" (Bereishis 3:3). Did Hashem not say that death would clearly be the punishment?

In his Madreigos Ha'Adam, the Alter, zl, m'Novaradok, Horav Yosef Yozel Horowitz, zl, explains that there are two ways of relating to evil. The first is a recognition that does not arouse a craving for that which is evil. The second does. An example of the former is the way we think about drugs. While we are aware that certain drugs are mind-altering and pleasure inducing, this knowledge does not increase our desire to join the ranks of its users. The pleasure does not override the awareness of the inherent danger in using drugs. This acknowledgement is tangible. Drugs do not appeal to us because of the explicit danger involved in using them. This is an example of an evil for which there is no craving.

Not so, in regard to kavod, honor, or the desire to increase one's wealth. It is an all-consuming desire that envelops us and controls our lives, despite the fact that we are aware that these desires can drive us out of the world. Nonetheless, the potency of this knowledge does not impact upon our inner selves to protect us from succumbing to these desires. The information about the danger of these deficient character traits remains theoretical and does not prevent us from acting in a negative manner.

Adam's intellect prior to his sin was comprised of pure logic, unaffected by previous experiences. He understood evil by perceiving it. He was only able to do good - because that was the logical thing to do. What he desired neither influenced his reasoning, nor mediated his comprehension of good and evil. If he understood something to be wrong - his own desire did not play a role in his actions, which were predicated upon reason. He was like an angel, although he was dressed in the physical garb of his eternal body. He was naked and unashamed, because rationally he had nothing about which to be ashamed.

He differed from an angel in one area: free will. An angel cannot choose. It must do good. It cannot choose to do evil. Adam, however, was given the ability to choose, to cease being like an angel. Although his mind was pure and unbiased, he had the opportunity to think outside the box in order to do what he wanted. If he desired to live a life without spiritual danger, then he would have to be careful not to eat of the Tree of Knowledge. If he stayed away from the tree, he would live a life of awareness of the clear distinction between good and evil, never descending into evil. If, however, he sought a life of conflict, a life in which he could wage war against his lusts and desires, then he could eat from the tree. Thus, his passions would be aroused, and the war between reason and emotion would begin within him.

As in every question, there are two sides. If Adam were to remain in the realm of status quo and not eat of the tree, he would remain forever in this spiritual state. His spiritual status would not rise. If he were to eat of the tree, he would be compelled to struggle between his longings and prejudices, against his intellect and its forces. Thus, the warning not to eat of the Tree of Knowledge was good advice rather than prohibition. Eating of the tree could result in death. This is why Chavah said, "Lest you die." It was not a "done deal." It was entirely possible that they would not die, but that they would emerge victorious. The snake encouraged her to eat, arguing that in this way she might ascend spiritually as never before. He assured her of success; he guaranteed victory. She listened. That was her mistake.

Moreover, the snake convinced her that even after eating from the tree, the newly integrated lusts and desires would not take immediate effect. They would remain an abstract awareness which would not impose on her thought process. Considering this, the risk remained small. She realized she was wrong when, as soon as they ate from the fruit, she and Adam realized that they were naked. Before the sin, the body was the garment over man's pure soul. Now, he and his body became one entity, and he was naked. Immediately, this reality awakened uncontrollable lusts. Man sought to cover his body in order to quell his desires.

Adam had gone too far. He was now in a situation in which constant testing was a way of life. The battle against the senses became a bequest handed down to future generations. For us, instincts and desires are in control, and it has become a struggle to be victorious over them. The intellect that had been so powerful has become a tool of the emotion. This is the curse that has befallen mankind.

Sin rests at the door. (4:7)

The yetzer hora, evil inclination, does not give up. It waits vigilantly for the opportunity to entice the individual to sin. The Midrash draws a comparison between the evil inclination and the dogs in Rome. Apparently, the dogs in Rome were extremely astute in providing sustenance for themselves. They would park themselves at the back of the baker's door, where he stacked his freshly baked breads. As the baker stacked the breads, the dog feigned sleep in order to arouse the baker's vigilance. As soon as many breads were arranged on the trays, the dog jumped at the trays as if he were about to steal many breads. The baker, although he had been caught off guard, succeeded in driving away the dog. His loss was only one loaf of bread, a paltry sum, considering what the dog could have taken. The baker felt that he saved the day, and he "showed" the dog who really was in charge. His mistake was that the dog had only wanted to steal one loaf of bread. He made a ruse of wanting to steal the whole lot, but that was only to distract the baker from focusing on each individual bread.

The yetzer hora works the same way. At times, a person sins and is remorseful, filled with regret. Under other circumstances, he sins at the behest of the yetzer hora and, instead of repenting, he arrogantly declares that he has managed to triumph over the yetzer hora, when, in fact, the yetzer hora has bested him. Horav Nissan Bobruisker, zl, cites the following examples to support this idea. Case number one: A person may be running late for work. The yetzer hora "suggests" that he not bother with Tefillin for that day since he is running late. The man "vanquishes" his inclination and hurriedly wraps his Tefillin, mumbling a few words of prayer - the absolute minimum - and goes to work feeling good about himself. After all, he has emerged victorious over the yetzer hora. What he does not realize is that this is all the yetzer hora had wanted. It wanted to steal one bread, to get him to put on his Tefillin hurriedly and daven without kavanah, intention and devotion. The yetzer hora has succeeded.

Case number two: A wealthy man is tempted to keep his business open on Shabbos. He resists, because he would never give in to his evil inclination. Instead, he remains open on Friday as late as possible, running home at the last second, jumping into the shower, and most often, not even making it to shul on time. Shabbos night, he opens his store at the earliest z'man, time, that Shabbos is over. He even "walks" to his store on Shabbos, to be there at the very moment Shabbos is over, to open up. He thinks he has won; he claims victory. The fool does not realize that all the yetzer hora had wanted was to disrupt and disturb the sanctity of his Shabbos. The yetzer hora has succeeded - again.

In the third case scenario, a man argues with his friend. Rather than getting carried away with fists flying and expletives being flung at each other, they "control" themselves and do not go beyond sharp words and a few insults. It could have been worse, so they both feel that they have emerged victorious from a situation that had been rapidly deteriorating. What they do not realize is that this is what the yetzer hora sought to accomplish: create discord, fling a few insults and make sure that these two do not speak to each other for awhile. So, they did not punch each other out. Discord still prevails, and hurt exists. The yetzer hora has won again.

Last are those who refuse to stand up to the wicked for fear of creating "controversy" in the community. Instead, they bend over backward to compromise at every conceivable juncture. They pat themselves on the back for preventing the scoffers from making inroads into the observant community. They do not realize that compromise is an inroad and that their tolerance is a sign of weakness. The yetzer hora has won.

The evil inclination is a brilliant tactician and master warrior. It allows itself room to withdraw, so that it can pursue its grand design at a later date. Meanwhile, it has weakened its adversary. As a seasoned negotiator, it demands much more than it really wants, just like the dog who pretends to want all of the breads when it only wants one. Above all, it wants its victims not to feel remorseful, to always feel smug and secure, proud that they did not capitulate. If they feel regret, they will be on guard the next time when the yetzer hora comes in for the kill.

The yetzer hora only seeks an opening. This opening is called compromise. To compromise is to open the door. To compromise is to begin the process which leads to total failure.

Va'ani Tefillah

Va'ani b'chasdecha batachti yageil libi b'yeshuasecha
Ashira l'Hashem, ki gamal alai
And I trusted in Your kindness, My heart shall rejoice in Your salvation, Let me sing to Hashem, for He has bestowed upon me.

True bitachon, trust in the Almighty, is measured during three intervals in a person's life. First, during a period of adversity, when his emotions are frayed -- and when troubles envelop him-- he places his trust and hope in the Almighty. Second, during the moment of salvation, he does not associate his deliverance with external factors. It is only to Hashem that he attributes his restoration. The third juncture occurs after Hashem has saved him: he acknowledges and offers prayers of gratitude, never forgetting his salvation and the One Who catalyzed it. This, explains the Gaon, zl, m'Vilna, is complete trust in Hashem. Therefore, we say, "and I trusted in Your kindness," only in You, Hashem, did I trust - no other. "My heart shall rejoice in Your Salvation." At the moment of reprieve, I rejoiced that it is only You, Hashem, that came to my aid - no other. Afterwards, "Let me sing to Hashem, for He has bestowed upon me." I will never forget that it was You, Hashem, and no other that has saved me. Accordingly, I will always sing Your praises.

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