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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)

In the end of the fortieth year of their sojourn in the wilderness, Moshe Rabbeinu is about to take leave of the flock that he had nurtured. He commenced his rebuke on Rosh Chodesh Shevat and culminated his words on the day that he died - the seventh of Adar. The Sifri comments that Moshe purposely decided to admonish the people close to the time when he was leaving this world. He learned this practice from Yaakov Avinu, who also chided his sons prior to his death. Chazal suggest four reasons that one might leave the rebuke until the end - close to his death: first, so that one rebukes only once and not many times; second, so that the one who is reproved will not continue to be embarrassed in the presence of he who rebuked him; third, so that he not have the opportunity to deliver any complaints or display hatred toward the individual who had rebuked him; last, when one lectures someone close to his departure from this world, the chances are good that the object of his rebuke will remain to listen to what he is being told. People manifest respect and affinity towards those who are on their deathbeds. It seems implied that people are more likely to listen and accept criticism from someone who is about to die. Why? What prevents the individual from turning his back on the person who is rebuking him? What is restraining him?

Horav Mordechai Miller, zl, explains that human nature dictates that one does not concede or recognize that he is the beneficiary of many blessings until that moment in which they are almost taken away from him. One appreciates what he has when he almost loses it. We take our lives for granted, paying lip-service to Hashem for this special gift, but only really showing our true appreciation when we are about to lose it. The Bnei Yissachar explains that people demonstrate material/physical love particularly when a separation is about to occur. Two friends can go through years of friendship without exhibiting any external signs of love for one another. Only when they are about to separate for an extended period of time do they display that dormant love.

To rebuke is to care; to reproach is to love. One who does not care about his friend does not bother to criticize his deficiencies, - simply because he does not care. One who is a true friend seeks every opportunity to raise the level of his friend's spiritual, moral and ethical standing. The capstone of a relationship comes to the fore at the moment when a separation is about to take place. This is especially true if the separation is to be permanent. What better and more appropriate time for Moshe, the quintessential leader, teacher, surrogate father and friend of the Jewish People, to bring their shortcomings to the attention of Klal Yisrael.

While it is essential for he who reprimands to do so lovingly, it is equally important that the individual he is reproaching be mature and realize that everything is being said for his own good. Regrettably, while we may have wonderful intentions when we offer rebuke, those constructive intentions must be conveyed to the one being rebuked or the rebuke will fall on deaf ears.

Horav Eliezer M. Shach, zl, derives a compelling lesson from Rashi. In his commentary, Rashi explains that Moshe's decision to rebuke Klal Yisrael shortly before his death is supported by the practice of Yaakov Avinu, who did the same. Rav Shach says that from here we learn that one must have a strong reason to delay rebuke, for he will need to explain why he waited. The Chafetz Chaim, zl, would demand of rabbinic leadership that they not tarry in critiquing their congregants. If something was amiss, it should be pointed out immediately. He would explain that when these congregants would one day stand in judgment before the Heavenly Tribunal, they would be asked, "Did you study Torah? Did you deal ethically with your neighbors?" No excuse would be accepted. Hashem does not tolerate empty reasons for one's failure to keep his end of the bargain. The congregants will then say, "We thought that we were acting appropriately, since the rav in our community never complained about our religious activities or lack thereof. We then figured that all was well." This excuse is a powerful one - one that will regrettably bring the onus of guilt upon the rav for his failure to carry out his responsibility as a Torah leader.

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

Rebuke is far from simple. It is difficult for the one who renders the admonishment and difficult for he who is being reproached. In his commentary to Sefer Mishlei 9:8, the Gaon M'Vilna writes that tochachah, rebuke, is like a mirror that presents before an individual a clear picture of his real self. He can either look at the image and accept what it shows, or he can ignore the image and go about his business as usual. The Sefas Emes says that the word tochachah has its root in the word toch, which means inside. The purpose of rebuke is for the words to enter into the person's psyche and be internalized, so that it can have the greatest effect on him.

There is much to be derived from Moshe Rabbeinu's method of reprimand. He spoke only in allusion, so that he would not embarrass the people - in order to maintain their self-esteem. He spoke shortly before his death for many reasons. He sought no dialogue. He said what had to be said and hoped it would be accepted in the manner that it was rendered - with love and sensitivity.

In deference to Klal Yisrael, we must add that while not everyone can dole out criticism correctly, it is equally hard to accept. Yet, Klal Yisrael listened and accepted the critique, because they knew it was sincere.

Shlomo Hamelech says in Mishlei 9:8, "Do not rebuke a scoffer. The Shelah Hakadosh explains this to mean that one should not merely focus on the person's shortcomings and indiscretions, for if we emphasize the fact that he is a "letz," then he will only hate you. We should focus instead on his wisdom, build him up, praise him, and then offer our critique. When criticism is couched with praise, the reproval will be accepted, catalyzing the desired effect.

The Chafetz Chaim, zl, would travel from village to village selling his seforim. He was once in Vilna where he noticed a man enter a restaurant and in a gruff, insolent voice demand a piece of roast duck and a glass of whiskey. When the waitress served him, he quickly grabbed the portion.Without reciting a berachah, he gulped down his food and washed it down with his glass of whiskey. No thank you, no berachah, no menshlichkeit - whatsoever. The Chafetz Chaim was shocked at this display of uncouth, beastly behavior.

The innkeeper, seeing the Chafetz Chaim's shock, dissuaded him from saying anything to the man, claiming that he was a veteran of Czar Nikolai's Army. He had been taken from his home as a child and conscripted to Siberia and other miserable outposts for forty years. It was no wonder that he acted like such an untamed animal. He had not been in a civilized environment for most of his life. He never saw a Jew, let alone a tzaddik, such as the Chafetz Chaim. "Please Rebbe," the innkeeper begged, "ignore him. It is not befitting the Rebbe's dignity to speak to him. He will only act with disrespect and impudence towards the Rebbe."

"Do not worry about me," the Chafetz Chaim smiled. "I know how to speak to such a Jew. Trust me, good will yet emerge from our encounter."

The Chafetz Chaim approached the soldier, stuck out his hand and - in a friendly voice - said, "Shalom Aleichem, Is it true what I just heard about you: that as a young boy you were forcibly taken from your home and sent together with other youngsters to Siberia? You were raised among the gentiles, who many times had sought to estrange you from your religion. You never had the opportunity to study one word of Torah. You underwent many painful trials and tribulations. You were forced to eat non-kosher food. Indeed, you suffered the vicissitudes of Gehinom, Purgatory, on this world. Yet, you did not renege your religion. Despite all of your sufferings, you still remained a Jew. You are indeed fortunate. If I could only be worthy of your portion in Olam Habah, the World to Come. Your mesiras nefesh, self-sacrifice, for Judaism is unparalleled. To have suffered for almost forty years and to still identify with the religion of your ancestors is nothing short of incredible."

The Chafetz Chaim finished speaking. He looked into the eyes of the soldier who was shedding bitter tears - tears that emanated from a pure heart. When he was notified who it was that was speaking to him, he grabbed hold of the saintly Chafetz Chaim and kissed him, as he wailed bitterly for forgiveness for a life that was empty of religion, ethics and morals.

The Chafetz Chaim turned to him and said, "Someone such as you, who has sustained so much and remained a Jew - if you would only accept upon yourself from here on to observe the Torah and mitzvos, your eternal reward would be boundless." Needless to say, the Chafetz Chaim's unique approach to rebuke proved effective and the soldier became an observant Jew, fully committed to the Torah way of life.

How can I alone carry your contentiousness, your burdens, and your quarrels? (1:12)

Parashas Devarim is always read on the Shabbos which precedes Tisha B'Av. This is due to the word eichah, how, the opening word of Megillas Eichah, which is read on Tisha B'Av. Indeed, the word eichah has become synonymous with Tisha B'Av and mourning. In the Midrash Eichah, Chazal say three prophesized using the word eichah: Moshe Rabbeinu, Yeshayah HaNavi, and Yirmiyahu HaNavi. Moshe said, "How can I alone carry your burdens?" Yeshayah said, "How did (Klal Yisrael) become like a harlot?" Yirmiyahu said, "How does she (Klal Yisrael) sit alone?" What is the Midrash alluding to? Is the association between the "eichahs" applicable to the word alone, or is there an underlying message to be derived herein? Perhaps the two eichahs echoed by the Neviim have a relationship with one another in that Yeshayah decries the sin and Yirmiyahu laments the punishment. What does Moshe Rabbeinu's eichah have to do with the others? Furthermore, Moshe's complaint regarding the need for judges to assist him does not seem to be in the correct place. Until this point Moshe has been criticizing Klal Yisrael for their past iniquities. He begins with the sin of the Meraglim, spies, and goes off on what seems to be a tangent, bemoaning the fact that he alone must shoulder the responsibility of judging the people.

I once heard it explained that in the words, "provide for yourselves distinguished men, who are wise, understanding, and well-known to your tribes," (1:13) Moshe was alluding to a serious problem that threatened the very existence of Klal Yisrael. He was acutely aware that it was necessary to get judges for each tribe who were members of that tribe, because no tribe would accept a judge that hailed from another tribe. Perhaps he was testing them: Would they accede to accepting a judge who was from another tribe? They responded in the affirmative. Yes, we think it is a great idea to appoint judges. Of course, we want one from our own tribe.

The lack of trust between the tribes was at the foundation of the spies' sin. The people wanted spies - one from each tribe, because filial trust was something they did not possess. When you have twelve spies from different tribes, with disparate perspectives, each with his own personal agenda and focus, is it any wonder that the mission resulted in disaster? They were not working together - they were working against each other. Each one had to demonstrate his own personal dedication to the nation. Thus, they could not accept what the other Nasi/spy said, because he was from a different tribe. Yet, if one Nasi claimed that it was dangerous to enter Eretz Yisrael, they could not triumph in battle against its inhabitants - the other Nesiim were compelled to agree. After all, if they disagreed, it would appear as if they did not care about the nation. In this manner, one Nasi could force the hand of the others. The eichah which decried the need to have different spies from each tribe led to the eichah which lamented the destruction of Yerushalayim.

Any matter that is too difficult for you, you shall bring to me and I shall hear it. (1:17)

Many people want to lead - most are incapable - but that does not seem to stop them. A rav should not be remote, inflexible and uncaring. He should have a profound influence on the daily lives of his flock. Yet, this does not stop many from seeking positions of leadership. A rav should certainly be a scholar, but not every scholar should be a rav. A rav should be people-oriented, a communicator, friendly, compassionate and sensitive to the needs of all his members. Yet, these criteria do not stop them from assuming positions of leadership.

Horav Eliezer M. Shach, zl, adds another perspective to the short list of criteria for successful rabbinic leadership: the rav has to be able to say, "I do not know." Rav Shach relates that when Horav Shmuel Salant, zl, rav of Yerushalayim, passed away, they were in a quandary as to whom to ask to fill this august position. The rabbinic leadership of Yerushalayim sent a request to Horav Chaim Soloveitchik, zl, Brisker Rav, to elicit his guidance in regard to a certain Torah scholar. Because he was a G-d-fearing individual who possessed a brilliant mind and an encyclopedic knowledge of the Torah, they felt they had found the right person to fill the vacancy left by Rav Shmuel Salant.

Rav Chaim responded with the following, "While it is certainly true that the rav in question is a great gaon, Talmudic scholar, I, however, wonder if someone were to refute his lecture, would he have the fortitude to concede error. Since I am unsure in regard to his ability to say, I erred, I cannot recommend him for the position."

Indeed, when Rav Shach lauded the attributes of a certain rav in Bnei Brak, he would say that his greatest virtue was the fact that regarding an area in which he lacked proficiency, he would say, "I do not know." Regrettably, even this criterion does not stop many people from assuming a position of leadership.


These are the words… in the eleventh month, on the first of the month, Moshe spoke to Bnei Yisrael. (1:1,3)

Moshe Rabbeinu passed away on the seventh of Adar, thirty-six days after he began Mishneh Torah. The Ohr HaChaim Hakadosh says that this is alluded to by the word eilah, these, which has a gematria, numerical equivalent, of thirty-six.

Moshe rebuked Klal Yisrael shortly before his death because of the desired effect his words would have at such an emotional time. When Horav Yisrael Salanter, zl, felt his time on this world was coming to an end, he distanced himself from his close friends, spending much of his time in seclusion and meditation. There was, however, one individual in town with whom he would converse much more than usual - a noted apostate who had turned his back on his religion. His friends asked him why he made a point to spend time with him as opposed to them. Rav Yisrael responded, "I know I will meet you in Gan Eden. On the other hand, I am doubtful if I will ever see him again."


You shall not tremble before any man. (1:17)

Horav Shmuel Salant, zl, rav of Yerushalayim, once rendered judgment against a litigant who was very powerful and insolent. When the litigant heard Rav Shmuel's judgment, he screamed, "Rebbe, I will not remain silent about your judgment. I will break all of the windows in your home!"

Rav Shmuel was not fazed by this display of chutzpah. He countered, "Do you think I will remain quiet if you do this?" The man was so taken aback with Rav Shmuel's response, thinking that the rav would go to the government, he immediately cowered and left.

Rav Shmuel's students, who witnessed their rebbe's display of anger, were well aware that his reaction was atypical of his gentle temperament. "What would the rebbe have done to him?" they asked. "Nothing," he said. "If he would have broken my windows, I would have immediately called the glazier to fix them."


By his wife, their children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren
Mrs. Jeanne Fogel, Rabbi Yudie & Chaya Sarah Fogel,Nussie & Esther Fogel, Shalom & Ettie Fogel, Yosie & Bryndie Fogel,
Rabbi Dovid & Liz Jenkins, Rabbi Yitzie & Bryndie Fogel, Rabbi Avi & Suri Pearl and their families


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