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Peninim on the Torah

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Rabbi A. Leib Scheinbaum
Hebrew Academy of Cleveland


These are the words that Moshe spoke to all Yisrael. (1:1)

As Moshe Rabbeinu was about to take leave of his earthly abode, he bid farewell to the nation he had shepherded for forty years. His farewell consisted of a rebuke which guided the nation through their forty-year sojourn and alluded to the various places where they had angered Hashem. A true leader is one who cares about his flock. One who cares about his nation will reproach them at the appropriate time. Certainly, the most propitious time for admonishment is before the sin has occurred. The rebuke will endeavor to imbue the "potential" sinner with values that will prevent him from sinning. Rebuke, reproach, admonishment, warning and criticism are all terms describing the manner in which one can administer a critique of his friend's behavior. For the most part, it is rendered by a sensitive individual who has only the best interests of the other person on his mind. He feels compelled to speak out to prevent his friend from falling further into the abyss of sin.

The primary function of a mashgiach in a yeshivah is to be a spiritual guide and mentor to the students. He is an ethicist who admonishes with love, rebukes with sensitivity, and instructs the students in the spiritual and ethical standard of a ben Torah. Rebuking is a very difficult responsibility - one that -- if it is not performed correctly --can do more damage than good. Horav Moshe Aharon Stern, zl, was a contemporary mashgiach in the Kamenitz Yeshivah in Eretz Yisrael, who was well-known for his unique sensitivity towards each student. When he criticized, he was as concerned with the presentation as he was with the actual content of his critique. Everything was weighed according to one criterion: What could he do or say that would make his criticism more palatable to the student?

He would never ask a student to act in a manner which he would not do himself. His integrity and sincerity prevailed on his students, opening their hearts to his words. He had a maxim for rebuke: "If reprovement is necessary, present it in such a manner that indicates that you truly do not want to do what you are doing."

Rebuke should be soft-spoken -never harsh. Horav Dov Ber, zl, m'Lubavitch was a sensitive young boy. Upon hearing the Torah portion of the Tochechah, Rebuke, read one year, he became so disconcerted that a doctor was called to attend to him. The doctor questioned the young boy, "What happened all of a sudden this year that you became so agitated? The Tochechah has never seemed to bother you before." Rav Dov Ber replied, " Every other year, it was my father who read the Torah portion, and he would recite the Rebuke. When he recited it, it did not sound like a curse. This year, someone else read the Tochechah, and it sounded absolutely terrifying."

The manner in which the rebuke is given should inspire the listener, not agitate him. This is especially true when dealing with students. Rav Stern would focus on a student's sense of hakoras hatov, appreciation/ gratitude, when he was asked to discipline a student. "Do you have any idea what your rebbe does for you, to what great lengths he goes in order to prepare a lucid, well-thought out lecture? It is important that you appreciate your rebbe's devotion to you, so that you will accord him the proper respect." Gratitude is a fundamental of life. One who does not possess this character-trait is missing a vital component in his Jewish persona.

Indeed, a person is measured by the degree of hakoras hatov that he manifests. The greater the individual, the more appreciative he is of those from whom he has benefited. Rav Stern was once invited to a Bar Mitzvah celebration. It was a miserable, cold and rainy day. Yet, he felt obligated to attend the simchah. As he neared the hall, he noticed a taxi pull up and an elderly man struggle to get out. As he hurried to assist the man, Rav Stern noticed that it was none other than Horav Chaim Shmuelevitz, zl, the venerable Rosh HaYeshivah of Mir. He had that day delivered a hesped, eulogy, for Horav Mendel Saks, zl, and was now coming from the Mirrer Yeshivah where he had given his weekly shiur, lecture. "Why would the Rosh HaYeshivah trouble himself to come out in this weather after such an exhausting day to attend a Bar Mitzvah?" Rav Stern asked. Rav Chaim explained, "I feel indebted to the boy's father because he regularly attends my shiur."

Rav Stern was taken aback. "But, thousands come to hear the Rosh HaYeshivah's shiurim each week. Does the Rosh HaYeshivah feel indebted to each and every one of them?" Rav Chaim answered, "If this one did not come and that one did not come, I would soon be talking to the walls. Each and every one is significant." As I said before, it is the great people who recognize the obligation to appreciate and repay the benefit they receive from others.

Provide for yourselves distinguished men, who are wise, understanding and well-known to your tribes…So I took the heads of your tribes, distinguished men who were wise and well-known. (1:13.15)

Yisro mentioned seven attributes that Moshe should seek in a leader/judge. Moshe found only three. The Torah here mentions that he was to look for "distinguished men who were wise and well-known." As Rashi notes, he did not find nevonim, men with understanding. This seems strange. We can well appreciate that finding men of integrity who hate bribes might be somewhat difficult, because everybody has his own individual vested interests that can cloud over his perception of the truth. Quite often, one will even be able to justify taking a slight bribe if it is for a "good purpose." How is it possible, however, not to find men who are nevonim, understanding, in a nation that is called navon v'chacham, understanding and wise?

Horav Shmuel David Walkin, zl, cited by Harav Zalmen Sorotzkin, zl, explains that veritably, there was a shortage of nevonim in Klal Yisrael. The Mishnah in Avos 4:1, defines a chacham, wise man, as one who is lomeid m'kol adam, learns from all men. He has an insatiable desire to study, to know, to develop greater proficiency in Torah. So too, a nation should be one that is lomeid mikol davar, learns from every episode, incident, experience. Nothing occurs just by chance. There is always a reason, and there is always something that can be derived from the experience.

Regarding the word/place Chatzeiros, Rashi explains that Klal Yisrael were being criticized for not learning a lesson from what happened to Miriam in Chatzeiros, for speaking against Moshe. They ignored the episode and the ensuing tragedy concerning the meraglim, spies, who spoke against Eretz Yisrael. This clearly indicated a lack of kavanah, understanding, on their part. To be witness to the effects of lashon hora, evil speech, and ignore the repercussions, demonstrates an unforgivable shortcoming, a deficiency in the ability to understand and act upon one's perceptions.

You shall not provoke them, for I shall not give you of their land…for as an inheritance to the children of Eisav have I given Har Seir. (2:5)

Rashi explains that Seir was Eisav's inheritance from Avraham Avinu. Lot, also, was compensated for standing by Avrahom during his time of need. This is a reference to the incident of Sarah and Pharaoh. Lot was fully aware that Sarah Imeinu was Avraham's wife - not his sister. Lot kept the secret to himself, not exposing the truth, thereby saving Sarah. Hashem appreciated Lot's act of decency and granted him the lush, fertile lands that he sought. We wonder if this is the first time Lot was paid back for his kindness. Was he not spared the fate of his copatriots in Sodom? It would seem that being granted life is a very fair reward for keeping Avraham's secret safe. Why was he rewarded again?

It seems implied from here that hakoras hatov, gratitude/appreciation, is a far-reaching responsibility, because the favor that one receives has a far-reaching effect. The gratitude must be commensurate with the effect of the favor. Do we have any idea what would have happened had Lot divulged Sarah's true relationship to Avraham? That is what we owe him. Indeed, the land that he received hardly reimburses him for the far-reaching effect of his favor.

Let us look back for a moment at whom we - our generation of Torah-observant Jews - owe for our opportunity to live a Torah life, with yeshivos, day schools, and Bais Yaakov schools. For our children. It was not always like this. Indeed, seventy years ago, the scene was quite different. The spiritual landscape of America was hardly developed. The spiritual bounty that we have today is the result of the hard work, blood, sweat and tears of a small group of determined individuals who risked everything to build Torah on these shores. Interestingly, their approaches to Yiddishkeit were varied: Some were yeshivishe; others were chassidishe; and yet others were modern orthodox. Yet, they all worked together with great mesiras nefesh, self-sacrifice, to prepare the soil of America so that the spiritual landscape would be fertile and produce crops. We are their beneficiaries and, consequently, we are in their debt. Regrettably, it is so easy to take what we have for granted and ignore the sacrifice of our spiritual progenitors.

Perhaps it is because we might not want to recognize all of those in whose debt we are. After all, we have outgrown our forebears. We think that we are more observant, have more yiraas Shomayim, fear of Heaven, are definitely more yeshivishe, and certainly are greater scholars. I wonder, however, do we have more mesiras nefesh for Torah? It certainly is easier to be smug when others have prepared everything for you.

It is imperative that we recognize all of those from whom we have benefited. There would be no yeshivos or kollelim if it were not for those "American" Jews working hand-in-hand with the Roshei Yeshivah, embers spared from the fires of the Holocaust, to build Torah in America. Yes, those old American Jews sitting in the back of the shul, who might appear to be simple people, are the giants who sixty years ago built our Day Schools, who went from door to door collecting pennies and searching for Jewish children to educate in the Torah way. No! Those Jews are far from simple; they are the pioneers and vanguards of Torah life in America. We owe them so much!

You shall not distress Moav. (2:9)

Chazal teach us in the Talmud Bava Kama 38a that Moshe was certain that Hashem would send him to vanquish the nation of Moav. After all, they were behind Midyan in the plan to destroy the Jewish nation. Their daughters were dispatched to seduce the Jewish men and lead them to immorality and idolatry. If Moshe was instructed to avenge Klal Yisrael of the Midyanites, surely at least the same was to apply to the Moavites. Hashem told him no. They were to be spared because of Rus, the Moaviah, who would later descend from this nation. She would be the Matriarch of the Jewish nation's Davidic monarchy. They would be spared because of her. How are we to understand this?

In his classic sefer, Michtav M'Eliyahu, Horav Eliyahu Eliezer Dessler, zl, submits the following explanation. A person who has a pocket-watch invariably attaches it to himself via a chain. Similarly, we use key chains for the same purpose - to attach the key to us. Although there is no actual use from the chain itself, it becomes a necessity if one wants to make sure that he does not lose the watch or the key. The actual chain's only significance is its fu1nction as an attachment. This concept, likewise, holds true for each individual link in the chain. It is there for one purpose: to secure the watch or the key. If but one link in the chain were to break, the entire chain loses its viability -- and the key or watch will be lost.

This idea may serve as an analogy to explain the concept of zchus avos, the merit of ancestors. Hashem ensured the Patriarchs that the purpose of the entire Creation would be fulfilled through their descendants. The greatest merit, the climax of the trial and travail that has been an integral part of this world, will be reached when Moshiach Tzidkeinu is revealed and Hashem's truth will be recognized and disseminated throughout the world. From Avraham Avinu until Moshiach is a journey of thousands of generations and millions of people - all links in the chain from Avraham to Moshiach. They are all attached together for a reason: to connect the past to the future. Without the generations in between, there would be an insurmountable void between Avraham Avinu and Moshiach.

It is, therefore, quite possible that there have been individuals, families and even generations that have not been worthy to be sustained of their own accord. Yet, they serve as a necessary link in the chain of generations. Without them, there would be a gap -- a gap that would break the chain and cause the previous spiritual zenith to be lost. This is what Hashem told Moshe. You might think that Moav has no value and should be obliterated, especially after leading Klal Yisrael to such grave sin. What about the chain? From where will Rus descend? If there will be no Moav, there will be no Rus! Moav will be allowed to live, so that Rus will descend from them, and she will be the matriarch of monarchs. Horav Dessler suggests that this idea can in some way shed light on the age old query of "rasha v'tov lo": Why do the wicked prosper? With the above understanding, we perceive that in some situations they are part of a chain that can only continue through their existence. The wicked would not survive if they will not be sustained favorably. So the next time we see the wicked prosper, let us give some thought. Perhaps down the road, they will have a descendant that will help us in some way. This is where trust in Hashem plays a pivotal role in our lives.

Questions & Answers

1) What is another name for Sefer Devarim?

2) Which two cities are a reference to the manna?

3) Why did Moshe explain the Torah in seventy languages?

4) Moshe compares Klal Yisrael to the stars of the Heaven. Was the Jewish population that sizable?

5) What consolation was there in comparing the Emori to bees?

6) If Klal Yisrael acknowledged their sin in regard to the meraglim, and they subsequently repented, why were they not forgiven?


1) Mishneh Torah.

2) Tophel, Lavan (Rashi).

3) This is to symbolize that wherever the Jews would find themselves in the future, and whatever is the language of their country of exile, they could always study Torah in a language which they understood (Sefas Emes).

4) No. His comparison was to the permanence of the Heavenly bodies (Rashi). Ibn Ezra contends that this term is only a figure of speech.

5) Just as a bee that buries its stinger into its victim and then dies, so, too, the victorious Emori dies after defeating the Jews (Rashi).

6) Even though they repented, they could not be forgiven because the decree to punish them was accompanied by an oath which could not be annulled (Ramban).


Peninim on the Torah is in its 11th year of publication. The first seven years have been published in book form.

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