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Peninim on the Torah

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Rabbi A. Leib Scheinbaum
Hebrew Academy of Cleveland


You shall not cause pain to any widow or orphan. (22:21)

The Torah focuses its prohibition against taking advantage of the weak and helpless,s specifically with reference to the widow, orphan and convert, because they are the most susceptible to such treatment. But, clearly this admonition applies to anyone who is weak. Now, let us ask ourselves a question: do we know who is really weak, and who puts on a show that he is strong and filled with self-confidence? Do we have a clue as to "who" stands before us? How often do we attempt to excuse our behavior towards another Jew by saying, "I did not know that he had a problem. I did not know that there are issues at home." Everybody who stands before us is a potential orphan or widow. This means that the loneliness and helplessness that is so much a part of the lives of the widow and orphan might very well also be their companion. They, too, suffer but do not necessarily show it. There is only one option: we must view everybody who stands before us as having a potential problem and deal with them accordingly.

We have no idea how the way we act might affect another person in need. Horav Baruch Mordechai Ezrachi, Shlita, cites the following episode from the Mechilta. Rabbi Yishmael and Rabbi Shimon, two of the greatest Tannaim, were being led to their execution. Rabbi Shimon turned to Rabbi Yishmael and said, "My heart troubles me, for I know not for what sin I am being killed." Rabbi Yishmael replied, "Did it ever occur that a person came to you to have a judgment rendered concerning a halachic question and you asked him to wait until you finished your drink, or tie your shoe? The Torah says that you are not to cause another person anguish - regardless of the intensity of the pain." When Rabbi Shimon heard this, he said, "You have comforted me."

What Chazal are telling us is that we never know how what we might consider a simple delay, could be a major infringement on someone else's emotions. We must think before we act - and then think again, because it is so easy to hurt someone whose emotions are already frayed.

You shall not cause pain to any widow or orphan. (22:21)

People think that capital punishment is meted out only to one who sins with any of the three cardinal sins of murder, adultery, or idol worship. Horav Yitzchak Zilberstein, Shlita, cites a compelling incident from the Sefer Chasidim that teaches us otherwise. Indeed, if the person in question were alive today, we would probably speak of him in exalted terms and crown him with distinction. Nonetheless, he suffered a terrible and tragic punishment for his lack of empathy for a widow. The Sefer Chasidim relates a story about a man who tragically buried a number of his sons and those who survived did not have children to carry on their father's name. This individual was not a sinner; in fact, he was a Rosh Yeshivah who had over the years inspired many talmidim, students. Yet, prior to his death, the man confirmed that he had one sin that catalyzed all of these tragic occurrences. It seems that he had a younger sister who had been widowed and wanted to remarry. She was ashamed to articulate her feelings to her brother, who could have arranged a suitable match for her. The brother, who was presently speaking, said, "I could have helped her, but did not, because I wanted her property to revert to me."

One sin - a sin of omission - because he wanted to benefit from her possessions, was the cause of all this man's anguish. Certainly, one could find a rationale for justifying his non-action. She never asked for a husband! Should he be blamed for taking advantage of an awkward situation? Indeed, this was a man of distinction, a Torah scholar of reknown, who, quite possibly, wanted to use the money he would gain to sustain the students of his yeshivah. For this sin, his sons should die and he should never see grandchildren?

Apparently, Hashem views this incident from a different perspective. The Chida explains that this man was punished because his inaction caused this widow great pain. She could have had children but because of him, she was left childless. He caused a widow to suffer and that is something which Hashem does not overlook. How careful should we be in our inter-relationship with others - especially those who are helpless.

Distance yourself from a false word. (23:7)

There is no other transgression in the Torah whereby the Torah itself demands that we distance ourselves from it. Hashem is the essence of truth and He absolutely abhors falsehood. The Bais Halevi was well-known for his incredible integrity. Every word that left his mouth was the height of veracity. When he was rav in the city of Slutzk prior to accepting the rabbanus in Brisk, the beginnings of the Haskalah, Enlightenment, were taking root in the community. One day, a group of communal leaders came to him lamenting the fact that apostasy was beginning to seize the community. Heresy was rearing its ugly head and its tentacles were reaching into all areas of Jewish spectrum.

Rav Yoshe Ber looked at them with serious eyes and said, "What do you expect? Truth always wins out."

"What is the rav saying?" they asked incredulously. "How can the rav give credibility to kefirah, heresy?"

The rav looked them straight in the eyes and said, "I never said that they were correct. No! They are absolutely wrong in their beliefs, but they are sincere and truly believe in what they expound. Their heresy is founded in truth. They are true apostates! Therefore, they are successful. Regrettably, many of those among us are not really true yirei Shomayim, G-d-fearing. They are only acting outwardly as devout and pious Jews, but internally they do not really believe."

While most of us would never blatantly tell an untruth, at times we stretch the truth because we do not want to hurt someone. For instance, someone approaches us for a loan, which we suspect he is incapable of paying back. What do I do; tell him the truth? That will make him feel bad. Lend him the money; I will lose it. So, the natural response is to lie and say, "I do not have any extra money right now." The Sefer Chasidim categorically forbids such behavior, claiming that a lie is a lie and the heter, dispensation, of darkei shalom, maintaining peaceful co-existence with a non-Jew does not apply even here, before the fact. It is only after an incident has occurred and nothing can be rectified, that Chazal have allowed one to be meshaneh b'diburo, change his words a bit, in order not to make a gentile upset and thereby instigate strife.

Now we come to the one place that most people have a difficult time maintaining their integrity: Shidduchim, information with regard to a potential matrimonial match. No one wants to utter a word of lashon hora, slanderous speech, and to say the truth might awaken some skeletons that have been buried deep in the proverbial closet. Some will say nothing, which, in effect, conveys a negative connotation. Others will openly prevaricate, an action which will only cause grief later on. The truth is probably the best route one should take, since this way the individual has the opportunity to explain whatever extenuating circumstances prevailed in causing whatever problem may exist within the family, or the prospective mate.

In the event one cannot tell the truth, either because it is too slanderous, or he fears repercussions, he should say nothing, by avoiding the issue or getting onto another subject. The option of lying should not exist. Horav Yisrael Salanter, zl, was wont to say, "One should not articulate with his mouth something that his heart cannot attest to its veracity. Horav Pinchas Koritzer, zl, said it differently, "When the sin of speaking an untruth will be as serious as the three cardinal sins of murder, adultery and idol-worship, Moshiach will come."

You shall worship Hashem, your G-d, and He shall bless your bread and your water, and I shall remove illness from your midst. 23:25)

Hashem is a personal G-d, Who can be reached directly, without having to go through intermediaries. In prayer, we speak directly to Hashem, a worship which results in our receipt of His blessings. The effect of Tefillah is even more compelling when prayed b'tzibbur, in a public forum of ten or more men. The Ma'or Va'shemesh derives the significance of Tefillah b'tzibbur from the above pasuk. He notes that the pasuk begins in the plural, va'avaditem, "and you shall worship", and ends with a blessing to the individual in the singular, lachmecha, meimecha, mikirbecha, "your bread, your water, your midst." Why the change? He explains that if one prays in a communal forum, the effect will be so powerful that the individual will be blessed with parnassah, a livelihood that is easy to come by, and good health. Alternatively, "your bread and your water" are a reference to spiritual achievements which will be gained only by he who prays to Hashem b'tzibbur.

The Ma'or Va'shemesh adds that one who prays b'tzibbur will have access to spiritual opportunities that are beyond the purview of the average person. Indeed, he interprets this into the meaning of the pasuk in Mishlei 14:28, B'rov am hadras melech, "A multitude of people is a kings glory." The word hadras, which is translated as glory/beauty can also be translated as being derived from hadar, as in hadarna bi, "I changed my mind," remorse, or a reversal of one's earlier decision or opinion. We thus praise Hashem, that He reverses His decision, so to speak, in favor of those who pray to Him, b'rov am, in a large communal forum.

The early commentators distinguish between Tefillah b'kavanah, prayer amid concentration and devotion, and Tefillah without kavanah. They compare the Tefillah without kavanah to a guf b'li neshamah, a body without a soul, which obviously has no sustaining life force. Likewise, without concentration, the prayer has no life to it. Individual prayer can easily fall into the category of Tefillah without kavanah, because one who prays alone is usually in a hurry, swallowing his words and certainly giving very little thought to them. The feeling of exaltation that one has upon praying with a large group, the enthusiasm, the excitement and fervor is overwhelming and inspiring. The words take on new meaning as one concentrates on their inner meaning, bringing one closer to Hashem.

The Ramban in his commentary to Shir HaShirim writes that one who prays b'tzibbur will have his prayer accepted by Hashem, even if he did not concentrate on every word. So great is the power of the tzibbur.

The significance of Tefillah b'tzibbur was recognized by the gedolei Yisrael throughout the millennia. Many stories are told of their overriding mesiras nefesh, devotion to the point of self-sacrifice, to be able to pray with a minyan. Rabbi Paysach Krohn in Reflections of the Maggid cites the Talmud in Berachos 47b that teaches us: "A person should always rise early (to go) to the synagogue, so that he should merit to be counted among the first ten." Chazal explain that the first ten to arrive receive a reward equivalent to all those who came afterwards. The Maharasha explains, that the Shechinah, Divine Presence, graces a place where people pray only after there is a minyan in attendance. Therefore, it is only the first ten who receive credit for "bringing" the Shechinah to their place of prayer. Those who come later certainly receive reward for praying in a place where the Shechinah's Presence is manifest, but it is the first ten who get the credit for availing them the opportunity. Chazal are telling us that the initial reward for those first ten is equal to what everyone else receives for praying in the presence of the Shechinah.

Rabbi Krohn tells an intriguing story that should inspire us. There was a young man who owned a furniture store in a small community. One morning he noticed smoke rising up between the slats of his parquet floor. He quickly ran to the basement to see what was wrong, and soon had his worst fears realized. A fierce fire was raging in the basement. He was unsuccessful in his attempt to extinguish the fire with a portable extinguisher. By the time he ran upstairs, the fire had already spread to the first floor. The furniture was all aflame. He ran to the phone to call the fire department and then returned to his store, to watch helplessly as it burned to the ground.

The fire department finally arrived, but, alas, all they could do was water down the adjacent store to make sure the fire did not spread. His business was gutted. It would be months before he could even dream of opening up again. A few days after the fire, this young man came to shul and remarked to a friend, "You know, a few days prior to the fire, a fellow came over to me and commented about my late arrival to Minyan. 'You come to shul everyday,'he said, 'but why do you always come so late? You are never there at the beginning of davening."

I replied to him, "What difference does it make when I come? The main thing is that in the end I am there!" 'Now I realize that the fire department also came - in the end - when my store had already been turned to rubble. It was too late. Hashem showed me that coming in the end is not good enough. It is no different than the fire department. It was too late.'"

While this may address those who are not there at the beginning of davening, there is another group that is equally disdainful - those who leave early. There are Kaddeishim which are recited at the end of davening for a reason. Apparently, they must be important since it is a point when the yasom, orphan, or one who is reciting Kaddish for the deceased, says Kaddish. There are those of us who feel that this portion of davening is not pertinent to us. We leave at will, or we justify our absence with some form of contrived need. Regrettably, those who must stay for that part of davening are those who say Kaddish. Let us not act in a manner that Heaven has reason for criticizing our behavior. The alternative to leaving at will is being compelled to staying for reasons beyond our control.

Everything that Hashem has said, we will do and we will obey. (24:7)

Chazal teach us that when Hashem heard Klal Yisrael proclaim, "We will do and we will obey," He exclaimed, "Who revealed this secret to My children, the secret that the ministering angels use for themselves?" This is a reference to the fact that only angels have the same order of priorities; they obey Hashem's word without waiting for any explanation. Klal Yisrael's willingness to accept Hashem's command at face value, to be willing to act before they comprehended the command, elevated their status before the Almighty. What is the actual meaning of Naase v'nishmah, we will do and we will obey? Were they prepared to follow blindly and act without any clue as to what they were doing and why they were doing it?

The commentators, each in his own inimitable manner, explain this. Horav Aharon Kotler, zl, explains that Klal Yisrael were saying, "We will do - and we will understand after we carry out the mitzvah what is the rationale behind the command. Indeed, we realize that unless one performs the mitzvah, he is missing a sensitivity to it. We can attempt to explain the beauty of Shabbos to someone, but until he experiences it, he will not truly comprehend its unique character. This applies to all mitzvos. One must live it in order to feel an appreciation and understanding of it.

Va'ani Tefillah

Lo al tzidkaseinu anachnu mapilim tachanuneinu lefanecha, ki al rachamecha harabim.

Not because of our righteousnessDo we throw our pleas before You, but rather because of Your great compassion.

This prayer began with an emphasis on one being honest with Hashem and with himself. Bearing this in mind, we understand that we are, at best, insignificant and not worthy of our own accord, of any reward. It is only due to Hashem's boundless compassion that we stand here and request His Divine Assistance. The above phrase is taken from Sefer Daniel which stresses the notion that we do not come before G-d with demands based upon our worthiness, but rather, that appear before Him in all humility, conscious of our shortcomings. We realize our futility and nothingness and reflect upon the only aspect of ourselves that is of consequence: our soul. Mapilim tachanuneinu lefanecha, we literally "throw down" our pleas. Horav Shimon Schwab, zl, explains this beautifully. A common citizen comes before the king with a simple request. Trembling with fear, he does not have the audacity to actually hand the petition to the king. Rather, he falls to his knees, bowing in homage, and places it on the floor in front of the king. He knows that his only hope of a positive response is if the king is compassionate to him. This is what Daniel had in mind when he pleaded with Hashem for mercy to rebuild Yerushalayim. This idea should serve as a springboard for everything for which we entreat Hashem. We must realize that whatever we succeed in receiving is only because of Hashem's Divine mercy - not because of our worthiness.

Dedicated to allB
Rebbeim and teachers
of our son,
Yosef Moshe n"y
on his becoming
Bar Mitzvah.

Shmuel and Joanie Feuer and family

Peninim on the Torah is in its 14th year of publication. The first nine years have been published in book form.

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