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Peninim on the Torah

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Rabbi A. Leib Scheinbaum
Hebrew Academy of Cleveland


This is the teaching regarding a man who will die in a tent. (19:14)

Chazal interpret this pasuk as setting the standard for how a person should learn Torah: Ein divrei Torah miskaymin ela b'mi she'meimis atzmo alehah; "Torah is preserved/will endure only by he who kills himself over it". In other words, one must expend utter dedication to Torah study. He must literally give himself totally to the Torah. His physical dimension should take a back seat to his devotion to Torah. His very life should be meaningless without the Torah. Without Torah, he is as if deceased. These are strong words to anyone who does not understand the meaning of Torah to a Jew. The individual who acknowledges, appreciates and values Torah - to him it is his life.

This is the simple explanation. Throughout the ages, the various commentators have supplemented this with their own individul p'shatim, expositions. The Chafetz Chaim explains that, when one learns Torah, he is dead to the world. Nothing else matters. Our illustrious gedolim, Torah giants, have demonstrated such devotion towards the Torah. The Tiferes Shlomo (Radomsk) cites the Pirkei D'Rabbi Eliezer that relates that, on the day that Reish Lakish (Rabbi Shimon ben Lakish -distinguished Amora, leader of Torah Jewry, brother-in-law of Rabbi Yochanan, repented highwayman who turned his life around and became one of the most illustrious Torah sages of all time) died, his friend (from the past) also died. When he observed the extraordinary honor that was accorded to Reish Lakish in Olam Habba, while he and others like him were being pushed around from one place to the other on their way to Gehinnom, Purgatory, they cried out bitterly. They, too, wanted to join their old friend as he received accolades and honor for his devotion to Torah. They cried out, "Why should we be deprived of such honor? He (Reish Lakish) was one of us".The response they received was terse and sadly to the point, "Yes, he was once one of you. He left to study Torah"."We, too, will study Torah!" they countered. "We will sit down now to study Torah and perform good deeds. Please! Give us a chance". The answer was obvious: You are too late. You had your chance when you were alive - now, the opportunity is no longer available.

This idea, explains the Radomsker, is alluded to by the pasuk, Zos chukas haTorah. "Study Torah diligently, with devotion". Settle your spiritual accounts by repenting when you are able. If you use your imagination, you can picture Adam ki yamus b'ohel, a man who dies and has left this world. Imagine if he were to be given a reprieve to return for one full day. How would he spend that day? Ostensibly, it would be with non-stop Torah learning, davening, carrying out acts of kindness. He certainly would not waste a minute. Treat "today" as if it were the special day that Hashem allowed you to return to this world. Do not wait, hoping that such a day might occur. Do not wait until you die-to change the past. It will not happen. Live "today" as if it was the "day" that would change your life.

How often does someone delay what he should do today, only to lose the opportunity to realize his plans? We never know when the opportunity for proactivity will be rescinded, or we will be "recalled". In the Talmud Shabbos 53B, Chazal state that one should never refrain from studying Torah or visiting the bais ha'medrash - even when he is close to death. This is derived from the pasuk, "This is the teaching/Torah regarding a man who will die in a tent: Even when a person is in the throes of death, he should apply/think of Torah".

The sefer Yagdil Torah relates hearing from a descendant of the saintly Chasam Sofer that his grandfather sent a letter to his close student, Horav Menachem Katz, asking him to come immediately. He needed to speak with him. When his revered rebbe summoned, he came. He arrived in Pressburg and heard the sad news that his rebbe was quite ill, very little time remained. Despite being a Kohen who should not be in the room of someone who was near death, Rav Katz went in. His rebbe had called. As soon as he entered the room, the Chasam Sofer's eyes lit up. His face which had been contorted in pain emitted a smile. "Good that you came," his rebbe declared.

"Do you remember a chiddush, innovative explanation, which I taught you years ago concerning a passage at the end of Meseches Sotah?" the Chasam Sofer asked "Yes, I do," he replied and proceeded to relate to him the entire shiur, lecture, that his rebbe had taught many years earlier.

The Chasam Sofer then explained the reason for the summons: "I am preparing for my final journey. Our Sages teach, Ashrei mi she'ba v'talmudo b'yado, 'Praised is one who comes/arrives with his talmud/lessons in his hand. This refers to one's arrival in the next world prepared with his Torah erudition clear and lucid in his mind. I have been reviewing my learning, but I seem to have forgotten that one chiddush. I knew that you would remember it. Now you must go, since you are a Kohen. I feel the end is very near". And so the holy Chasam Sofer left this world - v'talmudo b'yado.

This is the teaching regarding a man who will die in a tent. (19:14)

There is a well-known statement made by Chazal (Shabbos 83b) that the Torah endures only at the hands of one who is prepared to give up his life for it. This concept is derived from the above pasuk, with the ohel/tent serving as a reference to the ohaloh shel Torah, the tent of Torah, the bais ha'medrash. Chazal (Berachos 61B) relate that the wicked Roman government decreed that people should not engage in Torah study. This did not stop Rabbi Akiva, who continued his regular schedule of learning and teaching Torah. When questioned by Pappus ben Yehudah, "Are you not afraid of the regime?" Rabbi Akiva responded with a parable. He compared the Jews' relationship to Torah to a fox walking alongside the river who chanced upon fish swimming to and fro to escape the fisherman's nets. The fox suggested that they come out of the water and live alongside him. Obviously, this was no option. They replied, "If in the climate that sustains our life, we are afraid, should we not all the more so be afraid in the climate that will induce our death?" A fish cannot live out of water, so it had two strikes against it on land. Likewise, with Torah, which is the "water" of our lives, we are still in danger of the evil regimes; certainly, our lives are imperiled without the Torah's protection.

An excellent analogy, but is it really necessary? Could Rabbi Akiva not simply have said that a Jew cannot live without Torah? It is his lifeline, without which he cannot exist. Why relate a story about fish, nets and a fox? Horav Mordechai Gifter, zl, feels that Rabbi Akiva's mashal, parable, imparts a penetrating concept, a powerful lesson which teaches us the Torah's hashkafah, perspective, concerning this world and its material pleasures. For example, when a fish is taken from the water, does it immediately die? No! During its first land-based moments, it jumps all over, seemingly alive, satisfied, overjoyed with life on dry land. When it is in the water, it is calm, relaxed, swimming with other fish, following a pattern. Once it is out of the water, it seems to "live".

This is how it appears to the innocent spectator who is clueless concerning the metabolism of a fish. He does not realize that what appears as "dancing" is actually the fish's death throes. He is not filled with joy. He is choking - dying!

Is it any different when a person abandons the Torah life? Once he severs his relationship with the bais ha'medrash, it might appear that he has more time, is happy; he goes places; he is alive. He is the one who is enjoying life, while his counterpart in the yeshivah, in the world that he left, is wallowing away lifeless, without joy, without pleasure, without satisfaction. All we have to do is wait as the dancing slows down, and the materialism takes its toll, and the one who thought that he was living it up was sadly living it "down".

It is not necessary to elaborate about the vacuity of a life removed from Torah. Anyone who reads this knows the truth. Some might attempt to fudge it, to paint it over, but when life is stripped down to its bare truth, we see that what others project as life is really its converse.

When the entire assembly saw that Aharon had perished, they wept for Aharon thirty days, the entire House of Yisrael. (20:29)

Chazal teach that following Aharon HaKohen's passing, all male children were given the name "Aharon" after the holy man whose life was devoted to promoting peace among Jews and marital harmony among husband and wife. Many a family was acutely aware of the role that Aharon played in sustaining their marriage. Out of respect and appreciation -- and probably as a sort of remembrance of the fragility of relationships and how this man saved theirs -- they named their sons Aharon. Horav Yitzchak Zilberstein, Shlita, relates that he was once approached by a young couple who had undergone marital issues which were resolved through the help of a certain Rav. They had been blessed with a son. Their question was, do they name the child after the Rav or after the baby's father (the prevalent Sephardic custom in their community)? Rav Zilberstein cited the above Chazal in support of his reasoning that the child be named for the Rav that had saved their marriage.

The following story is probably one of many which occurred. This is the only one, which I have found recorded with names, attesting to its veracity. It is moving, especially as I write it today, after meeting with someone who attended yeshivah with me some fifty years ago. I was attending a conference on how to reach out to Jews who, as a result of addiction or other issues of abuse, were incarcerated for felonies which they committed. One of the speakers was a man about my age, who sadly did not make it in the yeshivah world. Nonetheless, after bottoming out on life, he found help through the intervention of a distinguished rav. He still has a ways to go towards achieving religious observance, but he is alive and cognizant of this fact. Listening to him speak, recalling the events of his youth, which led to his dismissal from the yeshivah, looking at his features and facial expression, it all came back to me. Hopefully, this reunion after fifty years will reinforce a continued return on his part.

Now for the story. The Egyptian exodus took place at a time when our people were physically and spiritually enslaved in the darkness of misery and evil that personified Egypt. Our people have suffered through the darkness of exile for over two thousand years; yet, our faith has sustained us; our spirit is alive as a result of our hope that one day, very soon, we will be blessed with the advent of Moshiach Tzidkeinu. Some people, however, as a result of their isolation from the Torah community, have never been imbued with that sense of hope. Nonetheless, we may never ignore the spiritual gravitational pull of the Pintele Yid, Jewish soul, which rests within each and every one of us. Despite all of the spiritual dross that is heaped upon it, it continues to serve as our GPS for returning to Hashem's embrace. The story of Yocheved Sheinberger (I think that is her real name) is one such story, which sends a chill up the spine while warming our Jewish hearts.

Yocheved was four months old when the accursed Nazis invaded Holland and rounded up the members of its Jewish population. Among the victims who were immediately sent to the death camps were Yocheved's parents and older brother. They were never heard from again. Yocheved was miraculously saved by her babysitter, who grabbed the infant and took her to a small fishing village in northern Holland. For the next seven years of her life, Yocheved was raised as a Christian, with no knowledge whatsoever of her birth parents or Jewish heritage. Only at the age of seven did she discover the truth. After the war, relatives of her parents came to bring her "home". Understandably, with no previous knowledge of Judaism or her relationship with it, she had no desire to leave her adoptive parents whom she had accepted as her own. "These are my parents; I have no other parents," she said.

Her neshamah was working overtime and, when a few years later, her uncle and aunt asked her to spend Shabbos with them, she accepted. Over the years this relationship blossomed, until, shortly before her bas mitzvah, she declared that she was ready to move to Amsterdam to discover her Jewish roots. This move precipitated her registration in an Orthodox school and, within a short while, Yocheved became observant. She was still very troubled by one pressing question, which kept gnawing at her continually: Why did her parents name her Yocheved? She was troubled by the name since, after questioning her surviving relatives, no one remembered anyone by the name of Yocheved in the family's bloodlines. A Jewish name plays a critical role in a person's life. Thus, at one time or another, everyone wants to know for whom they are named and what kind of person he/she was.

One day, Yocheved was given an assignment for school: Holland's Jewish community on the eve of World War II. She went to the local library to do research in its archive section. Perusing newspapers and other periodicals, she was able to sense from the writings that the Jewish community had surrendered all hope. They sensed their tragic end coming in the near future, and they expressed their feelings in the various letters and articles, which they wrote. Looking through a collection of letters, she suddenly came across a letter penned by her late parents. At first she thought it was a mistake, but when she saw the signatures, Ita and Hans Sheinberger, her heart began to thump wildly. The date on the letter was two months after the outbreak of World War II. With sadness and trepidation, Yocheved began to read the last written words by her parents. Indeed, she felt they were speaking to her from the grave. (I use the word "grave" as a metaphor, since most of the kedoshim, martyrs, did not receive a proper burial.)

The following are excerpts from her parents' last communication. "In recent months, we have been privy to sounds of yiush, hopelessness, emanating from the Dutch Jewish community. People have lost their zest for life, to the point that some have totally given up on living. Despair and depression have taken hold of our minds, as people have given up all hope for the future. From the moment that we were blessed with the conception of our future child, friends and strangers have approached us with the question, 'How could you? How dare you bring a child into the darkness that envelopes Jewry? Why would you want a child when you will soon die?'"

"To these people, we have no complaints; indeed, we understand how they feel. We, however, rely on the Midrash that teaches us concerning the courage of Miriam, who, when her parents, Amram and Yocheved, divorced, said, 'Your decree is worse than that of Pharaoh! He only wants to kill the male population, while you are preventing any child - male or female - from entering the world.' Hearing these accusatory words, Amram and Yocheved remarried, and from this union came forth our quintessential leader and Rebbe, Moshe Rabbeinu.

"In closing, we have decided that if Hashem blesses us with a son, we will name him Amram after the illustrious leader of the Jews in exile who encouraged them to continue populating. If the child will be a girl, we will rightfully name her Yocheved, the mother of Moshe, who was the leader of the nashim tzidkanios, righteous women, of Egypt, who engendered their families with faith in Hashem, despite being enveloped in the darkness of the Egyptian exile".

Yocheved just sat there for a while absorbing the contents of the letter. She now knew the story behind her name and what it represented for her. The tears flowed freely - only this time, they were tears of hope, not sadness.

And it will be that anyone who had been bitten will look at it and live. (21:8)

The ungrateful slanderers who defamed the manna were treated to a unique form of punishment. They were bitten by serpents whose venom caused their victims to feel that they were burning. The nachash ha'kadmoni, primeval serpent, had slandered Hashem to Chavah and received a fitting curse that it would no longer experience the enjoyment of tasting food. The punishment was fitting, because the manna which these ingrates had slandered was multi-flavored; a person could, indeed, experience any flavor that his heart desired.

The sinners repented and sought penance for their deed. Moshe Rabbeinu fashioned a copper serpent, which healed a sinner who had been bitten, when he gazed upon it, while he was simultaneously lifting up his eyes Heavenward and subjecting his heart to Heaven. Rashi adds that the healing process applied not only to those who had been bitten by the fiery serpents, but even those bitten by a dog or donkey would be cured. There was, however, a difference between the two "bites". One who was bitten by a dog or donkey would suffer harm and gradually deteriorate to the point of death. In contrast, one who was bitten by a serpent died quickly. Likewise, when one who was bitten by a dog or donkey gazed upon the copper serpent, he was immediately healed. One who was bitten by the serpent did not have it so easy. He had to gaze on the copper serpent with extreme devotion, concentrating on his sin and repenting with sincerity. We wonder why there was such disparity between the two punishments and their cures. They both caused death. Why should the cure not work at the same pace for both?

Horav Shlomo Teichtal, zl, distinguishes between the two forms of sin which precipitated these diverse punishments. One person falls prey to sin as a result of the many challenges he must deal with in this world. The pursuit of financial stability drives a person to lose sight of his true purpose in this world. He forgets that life is all about achieving spiritual perfection. Instead, in his mind, it is about amassing more money, greater luxury and even greater power. Rather than settling for less, so that he can devote more to serving Hashem, it becomes all about superlatives: more, bigger and greater physical / material excess. Nonetheless, despite his drive for material abundance, he has not shirked his responsibility to Hashem. He maintains his faith, perhaps on a more abbreviated level, but he still has it. He believes in reward and punishment and pays respect to Torah and its disseminators. He even learns! It is just that with regard to the pursuit of his livelihood, he tends to become a little lax in his spiritual obligations. Somehow, he has forgotten that it all comes from Hashem and that, on Rosh Hashanah, Hashem decides what he will earn that year. His sin is that he places spirituality in a far second place, not realizing that, indeed, life is first and foremost about spirituality.

The second sinner has taken the pursuit of the material to a new low. He long ago reneged his belief in Hashem. It is all about excess, luxury and materialism. Spirituality, Torah, and its disseminators have no meaning or value to him. This man is truly smitten with a spiritual illness from which it is difficult to emerge. The cure is as difficult to tolerate as the sin. The greater and more life threatening the disease, the more serious and painful is the protocol of therapy.

Both illnesses/sins will, over time, bring about one's spiritual (and physical) demise. The difference is in how much time. The first sinner believes that he still has a crutch upon which to rely. He can still turn it around with the proper therapy and return to a life not relegated by spiritual indifference. He believes in tzaddikim, righteous Jews, to whom he will listen (upon occasion); he will seek their guidance (when necessary) and will (usually) stick to their prescription for spiritual health.

The second fellow has severed all ties with the Torah community. He denies the Torah, Divine Providence, Hashem's power over him - even Hashem! This man lives in utter darkness. He will have to look hard and long to perceive Hashem within his life. A tzaddik's blessing will have little effect on him, because, firstly, he will not go or listen to what he is told. Perhaps after he is punched between the eyes, he might wake up and see how far he has descended into the nadir of depravity.

These are the two people represented by the two "bites". The bite of the dog is not as intense. It will, at first, maim and, over time, if it is not addressed, kill. This person has to only "look" at the copper serpent, acknowledge his sin, recognize his distance, and return. The second person, who was bitten by the serpent, is in mortal danger. He is just about gone. Thus, his repentance requires deep thinking, a long, hard look - which is continually supported and maintained. Only then can he be nursed back to spiritual health. The cure is concomitant with the disease. Likewise is the duration of the therapy. The further one has strayed, the greater the distance that he must travel to return.

Va'ani Tefillah

Mechayeh meisim atah rav l'hoshia
The Resuscitation of the dead are You; abundantly able to save.

The notion that Hashem is able to revive the dead is not a chiddush, novel idea. After all, as their Creator, the One Who gave them life in the first place, surely He is able to resuscitate them once He has taken away that life. Horav Sholom Schwadron, zl, suggests that the novelty is with regard to spiritual revival, when circumstances resulting from a person's negative actions cause him to become classified as a rasha, wicked. Chazal teach that Reshaim b'chayeihem kruyim meisim; "The wicked (even) when alive, are considered dead". Their lives have no value. Not only are they not achieving their positive goals for which they are created, but they are, in fact, spiritually destroying the world in which they were granted life. The great chesed, kindness, which Hashem shows them is acceptance of their teshuvah, sincere repentance, thus enabling them to be resuscitated to live a life of ruchniyos, spirituality. With this in mind, "born again" concerning the baal teshuvah is quite appropo. Veritably, the majority of those who embrace observance later in life are tinokos she' nishbu, children who were taken captive; never having had the opportunity to live observant life, they are granted the opportunity to live - truly to be born again.

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