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Peninim on the Torah

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Rabbi A. Leib Scheinbaum
Hebrew Academy of Cleveland


So G-d turned the People toward the way of the wilderness…Moshe took the bones of Yosef with him. (13:18, 19)

It seems strange that the Torah interrupts its narrative which describes Klal Yisrael's journey toward Eretz Yisrael via the wilderness, to reveal that Moshe had taken Yosef's bones with him. Is this fact sufficiently important to place it right in the middle of their trip? It actually belongs in the previous parsha, which relates the exodus from Egypt and the series of events surrounding this seminal experience. At the moment of their departure, the people left carrying bags on their shoulders with whatever garments they had. At that point, it would be appropriate to mention that Moshe Rabbeinu was carrying something of greater importance: Yosef HaTzaddik's mortal remains.

Horav Yosef Shalom Elyashiv, Shlita, cites the Yalkut that explains why Hashem did not lead the Jewish People to Eretz Yisrael through the shortest possible route. Hashem said, "If I bring them to the land in a straight- forward way, they will immediately take to the fields, each one setting up his orchard and vineyard, planting his grain - doing everything but studying Torah." The neglect of Torah study will be a result of the people's sudden exposure to a way of life which until now had been quite foreign and unrealistic. Slaves do not have fields. By taking the people on a circuitous course in the wilderness that was to last forty years, they would learn the meaning of bitachon, trust, in Hashem. For forty years, a diet of Torah and Heavenly manna sustained them. They learned that life is a constant sequence of miracles - blessings from the Almighty Who guards and sustains us. He sees to it that we receive whatever we need to live. Forty years of this learning experience inculcated this belief and trust into our psyche. Now, we were prepared to enter the land.

As the Torah relates how the Jewish People took a labyrinthine path to Eretz Yisrael, it adds that the moreh derech, guide, who served as their beacon of inspiration on this extended journey, consisted of the atzmos Yosef, bones of Yosef. They raised their eyes and saw Yosef's remains; and they were looking at what represented the banner of the Jewish People, the symbol of commitment-- despite adversity, pain and constant challenge. Yosef survived it all. From his early youth, he was reviled by his brothers, sold to the Yishmaelim, later sold as a slave to the Egyptians, condemned by his master's wife, and, despite all of this, he maintained his unequivocal faith in Hashem. He is the exemplar to follow into Eretz Yisrael. He will show us the way to survive. He will demonstrate that Torah study comes first, as spiritual endeavor is the primary vocation of a Jew. Then they will be able to enter the land with their priorities in place and their commitment in order.

Torah is much more than a vehicle for defining priorities. Torah is the reason that a Jew wants to be a Jew. In an inspirational discourse, Horav Simcha Wasserman, zl, delves into the Jew's motivation for developing a positive attitude about his Jewishness. If we peruse Jewish history, we find few encouraging moments. Between the blood libels, pogroms, racial incitements and holocausts, we have had little opportunity for positive reflection. Yet, we have remained unswervingly committed and totally dedicated to our heritage. Why? Furthermore, does anybody feel less significant because the world is against us? If anything, we are proud of our status as heirs to Avraham HaIvri, the Patriarch who stood on one side, while the rest of the world stood on the other side. While there have been Jews throughout the millennia who have been consumed with self-loathing, theirs was a self-inflicted attitude. They should have realized that being Jewish is a consequence of birth. Since they have been compelled to pay the price, they might as well enjoy taking pride in who they are.

We return to the original question: What makes a Jew want to be a Jew? The answer is Torah. This feeling is not necessarily the result of the conscious knowledge that we amass. It is primarily the result of the subconscious influence which Torah has on one who studies it properly. In other words, imbibing Torah into our system has a positive, mind-altering effect on us. It is not the actual taste of Torah or the understanding of Torah; it is the inspiration that one receives by ingesting it into his system. When one studies Torah correctly, it enters his system and penetrates his subconscious. It makes a Jew into a Jew. Indeed, that is the reason Hashem gave it to us: to make a Jew into a Jew.

When there is Torah learning, there is continuity, inspiration and spiritual illumination. The study of Torah is the road marker which guides the Jew's return to his Maker. It is what connects us to the Almighty.

I recently read about a comment made by the Chafetz Chaim, zl which I feel encapsulates the concept of Torah and gives us an idea why those who do not study it remain uninspired and unmoved. In his book, "Warmed By His Fire," Rabbi Yisrael Besser, relates that when the Chafetz Chaim's granddaughter emigrated to Eretz Yisrael from Russia, the most distinguished Rosh Yeshivah greeted her with the hope of picking up a few morsels of eternal truths from her saintly grandfather. She was, lamentably, the victim of having been raised in a country which had long ago outlawed religion as being the opiate of the masses.

She recalled that as a young, idealistic student, beguiled by the allure of modernity, entranced by the vague promises of science and technology, she was in the process of shedding the shackles of "archaic beliefs" from her life. She had asked her saintly grandfather the following question, "Zeide, you know there is a new world out there, a world far-removed and advanced from your little shtetl. This world is filled with scientific discovery, modern technology, a world which is constantly changing. Why do you not come out of the darkness and limitations associated with your antiquated world?"

The sage looked into his granddaughter's eyes and firmly replied, "With their technology and sophistication, they will develop a bomb that will ultimately kill many people. It will bring death and destruction to the world." Then, in his weak voice, he whispered, "Ubber mir machen mentchen. But we are developing people! Do you hear? Mir machen mentchen."

Pharaoh will say of Bnei Yisrael, "They are locked in the land." (14:3)

Many of us go through life locked into a position, which we have either chosen for ourselves or others have chosen for us. We have fallen prey to the disease of complacency, and we refuse to change. Horav Yitzchak Zilberstein, Shlita, cites Rabbi Akiva Eigar, zl, who questions the sequence of one of the tefillos which we recite on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur: Adam, yesodo mei' afar, v'sofo le'afar, b'nafsho yavi lachmo. "Man, his foundation is from dust, and his end is dust, with his soul he brings his bread." The correct sequence should have been: first, man's origins; second, his livelihood; third, his passing and burial in the ground. Why is the "bread" he earns the last of the three defining moments in his life? It really should be the second one.

Rabbi Akiva Eigar explains that the middle passage is not related to physical bread or any form of material sustenance. Rather, it is a reference to the "bread" that is to sustain a person in Olam Haba, the World to Come. After one has passed from this world, he brings to the Eternal World of Truth the mitzvos and good deeds that he has been privileged to perform in this world. We now read this passage in the following manner: Man is created from dust, and he ends up as dust. Afterwards, he brings the bread that he has gathered in this world to the Olam Haba to sustain his soul in its repose. We pray that we do not have to be sustained from nahama d'kisufa, bread of shame, bread that is granted to us, even though we are not worthy of it. This is embarrassing. We pray that we should not feel as shnorrers, beggars, in the World to Come, that we should be worthy of carrying out His word and His command in this world, and, thus, warrant bread of spiritual sustenance. We do not want to be "locked" into a position from which we cannot escape. We want to grow spiritually and benefit from the rewards of this growth.

Rav Zilberstein takes the idea of nevuchim heim, "they are locked in," a bit further. Each individual has his unique purpose in life for which Hashem created him. Some of us rise to that purpose, while others, regrettably, go through life doing well, succeeding at our chosen endeavor, but never fulfilling the purpose for which we have been created or achieving the status that the Almighty has destined for us. He gives us the choice, and it is up to us to make the correct decisions in life. Some of us make the right decision, while others have either fallen into the rut of complacency or have had the choice made for them when they were young, such that they just followed along, reading the script and acting the part that others have selected for them.

Perhaps the following narrative will give us insight into the choices that present themselves and what we can-- and should-- do about them. Horav Aharon Kotler, zl, Rosh Hayeshivah of Beth Medrash Govohah and architect of Torah in America, came to Yeshivas Slobodka at the young age of fourteen. Orphaned at a young age, his extended family were his guardians. "Concerned" that such a brilliant boy would spend his life in a yeshivah with no "hope" of "succeeding" in the "real" world, they attempted to remove him from the yeshivah and, instead, send him to dental school. As a successful dentist, he could achieve prominence and support his family. While they had no problem with his observance and even his diligence in Torah study, they were concerned lest it become a lifelong endeavor.

The members of the family came to Slobodka and spoke to the Alter, Horav Nosson Tzvi Finkel, zl. He listened and replied, "I understand your concerns. Give me three weeks and then as far as I am concerned, you may do as you please."

When they left, the Rosh Yeshiva asked a number of his most distinguished students to take the young boy under their wing and give him a geshmak, good taste, in learning, so that he could sense first hand the effect that Torah study has on a person. Those three weeks in such an exceptional environment, under the tutelage of some of the most brilliant young Torah scholars in Europe, established the foundation of the man who would one day change the spiritual panorama of America.

Three weeks went by very quickly, and the family returned to pick up their young charge. They called him, and, in the presence of the Rosh Yeshivah, asked, "Would you like to leave here and go to school to become a dentist?"

(Rav) Aharon looked at them incredulously and exclaimed, "What? You have nothing to do with yourselves? I should leave the yeshivah? I have never had it so good. Why would I dream of leaving?" The case was closed, and we are the fortunate beneficiaries.

There are choices in life that we must make. We pray that they are the correct ones. We could live out our greatest dreams, or they could one day be the source of our most frightening nightmares.

Egypt was journeying after them, and they were frightened; Bnei Yisrael cried out to Hashem. They said to Moshe, "Were there no graves in Egypt that you took us to die in the wilderness?" (14:10, 11)

The Yalkut Shimoni comments that Klal Yisrael cried out to Hashem, and Moshe Rabbeinu stood in prayer on their behalf. Hashem told him, "Now is not the time to entreat a lengthy prayer. The Jewish People are in a moment of distress." Sforno contends that Moshe was included in the phrase, "Bnei Yisrael cried out to Hashem." The cry of Moshe, however, was not motivated by fear of Pharaoh and his army, for he had already told Klal Yisrael that the Egyptians would perish. His cry was a complaint against the arrogance of the Jewish leaders who had asked, "Were there no graves in Egypt that you took us out to die in the wilderness?" Moshe thought that because of their defiance of him, the people would not listen to what he told them and would not enter the sea. Thus, Hashem told him, "Why do you cry out to Me? You err in not trusting the people. They will listen to you."

Horav Baruch Sorotzkin, zl, derives an important lesson from here. There are moments in a leader's career that, despite his total dedication to his flock to the point of mesiras nefesh, self-sacrifice, he feels at a loss. He senses that his influence on the people is waning. He hears them screaming, blaming him for their misery and problems. Therefore, he refrains from issuing a command or reproving their behavior. He certainly does not command them to risk their lives by jumping into a stormy sea. He senses such negativity that he feels uncomfortable in his position, and he refuses to take an aggressive stand. Hashem knows the truth: the Jewish people might complain; they might mumble, but they respect their spiritual leadership. Thus, if they are told to go forward, to jump into the sea - they will jump. The leader should command, and the people will listen. That is the nature of the Jewish People.

There is, however, another aspect to this relationship that we should address. If the people do not believe in their leader, then he will be ineffective in leading them. Choni Ha'maagal woke up after a seventy year sleep and returned to discover, to his chagrin, that nobody recognized him; nobody knew who he was. He prayed for death, and his wish was granted. This is enigmatic. All he needed to do was deliver a Torah discourse, give a lecture, and the people would recognize who he was. They would recognize the nuances, the novella, and the style of his lecture. They would know that it was truly Choni.

We see from here, notes Horav Michoel Perets, Shlita, that if one's family and friends do not believe in him, he will simply not have the power to reveal his true self. Choni is Choni as a result of the people's belief in him. This motivates him to deliver a lecture of the caliber that only the original Choni could give. If the people no longer believe in him, then he has lost that hidden ability, the self-confidence necessary to teach as he had before.

People must believe. The sin of the meraglim, spies, was a result of a negative belief on the part of the Jewish People about their ability to conquer the land. Thus, they were punished with losing their rights to enter the land. If they did not think that they could make it, then they would not be able to make it.

This is what Moshe was saying to Hashem. The people did not have the self-confidence to enter the Red Sea. They did not believe that they would make it out of the water. With such a negative attitude, they would not be able to succeed. Hashem allayed Moshe's fears, telling him that the people did believe.

Yisrael saw the great hand that Hashem inflicted upon Egypt. (14:31)

The people complained against Moshe saying, "What shall we drink?" (15:24)

We are confronted with a striking paradox. The Revelation at the Red Sea was unprecedented and unparalleled in human experience. In fact, Chazal teach us that the simple maidservant at the Red Sea was privy to greater revelation than the great prophet Yechezkel. If so, how does the nation so quickly revert to complaining about a lack of water? After what they had experienced, they should have at least exhibited a bit of patience.

This question repeats itself following the Revelation at Har Sinai and the giving of the Torah. Surely, such an event should have inspired the Jewish People to the loftiest heights of spirituality. Yet, we see how quickly they fell from their high perch to the nadir of depravity when they made the Golden Calf. What happened to the inspiration? How did they fall so quickly from the zenith of spirituality to the rock bottom of idolatry?

The essence is the source of one's inspiration: Is it intrinsic, or extrinsic? Let us analyze these two discrepant approaches. Artificial stimulation, such as a seminar conference, Shabbaton, dancing, singing, are all inspirational, leaving the participant with a positive drive toward greater spiritual growth. He is excited, enthusiastic, ready to do anything, given the opportunity. Regrettably, this extrinsic infusion of spiritual proclivity does not last very long. Very soon, he returns to a life of complacency, a life of insipid observance, emotionless and even filled with negativity. The excitement has dissipated; the enthusiasm has waned. The reason for this quick reversion to his earlier self is that the inspiration was not from within. He did not toil at changing. It just happened; easy come, easy go. Once the music ends and the dancing stops, the feeling is gone, and he is back where he started: nowhere.

In contrast is the individual that responds to an internal stimulus to change. He begins with a simple turn to the right, a slight movement upward, accepting to daven better, longer, with greater devotion and sincerity. He makes a slight change in his Shabbos observance; his dedication to Torah study increases. In any of these situations, the motivation is authentic; it is from within. He works on himself; he makes the decision; he accepts the responsibility - nothing artificial - nothing external - only he, himself. A few weeks later, he takes another step forward and upward. After a few months, he is no longer the same person he once was. This time, his spiritual demeanor is real; it will endure.

Veritably, both approaches are important, playing a crucial role in one's spiritual ascendancy. The quick, artificial inspiration, the kumsitz, the inspiring story, the powerful speaker, the emotional singing, the lively dancing: it all works and inspires. It must, however, be followed up with practical commitment. Artificial stimuli spur growth and encourage reform, but it must immediately be concretized if it is to endure. One's personal impetus determines the longevity of his commitment.

Klal Yisrael reached incredible heights of spirituality, both during the Exodus and at the Revelation at Har Sinai. These experiences, however, were extrinsic occurrences, albeit spectacular, but, nonetheless, peripheral. Thus, the moment that they were in doubt about Moshe Rabbeinu's return, they reverted to sin. A maidservant remains a maidservant, despite the miracles of the Red Sea, unless she internally substantiates her experience. The maidservant saw, but she continued to be a maidservant; her spirituality remained unchanged. Seeing is not enough - unless one sees from the heart.

There is also the flip side: the individual who sees a miraculous occurrence, experiences a mind-blowing event that can only be interpreted as a miracle from G-d, yet chooses to ignore what he has experienced. The Torah tells us (ibid 14:31), "Yisrael saw the great hand that Hashem inflicted upon Egypt; and the people revered Hashem, and they had faith in Hashem." What novel idea is the Torah teaching us? Certainly, if they saw Hashem's miracles, they would believe in Him. Seeing is believing. Is it not?

Horav Shlomo Twersky, zl, explains that it is not axiomatic. One who sees believes - only when he wants to see and wants to believe. There are those who see clearly, without any question, yet they impose blinders on their eyes to color what they see, to distort what they envision, to destroy the message which they perceive. The result is that they do not believe. One can look and not see, and, subsequently, not believe. Klal Yisrael saw and believed, because this is what they wanted. They wanted to believe in Hashem. What they perceived brought them closer to Him.

Va'ani Tefillah

Hu asanu. He made us

Of course, Hashem made us. What is this statement attempting to emphasize? Horav Avigdor Miller, zl, explains that Hashem made us: 1) He made each one of us out of earth which He created from nothing; 2) He made us into a people, a nation. Contrary to what some of us might think, it neither just happened nor did we do it; 3) He made us His nation. The word asanu, made us, does not simply refer to our creation. It is a reference, says Rav Miller, to creation with a purpose. In other words, Hashem made us for a purpose. We have not been brought into this world simply to enjoy. We are here because Hashem brought us here to serve Him, to fear Him, to remember and always acknowledge His many kindnesses to us. Likewise, we are to impart this awareness to others, so that it does not appear that we are living just for ourselves. This is all part of our purpose, for, without purpose, there really is no meaning to life; and life without meaning really is no life.

l'ilui nishmas
Raidel bas R' Yaakov Shimon a"h
niftar 13 Shevat 5367
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