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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)

The "words" which Moshe Rabbeinu spoke to Klal Yisrael were not ordinary words. They were words of rebuke. Like a loving father taking leave of his children, Moshe cautioned Klal Yisrael concerning the future. Perhaps they thought that they had "made it", they had nothing to fear; sinful behavior was not on their agenda; they were beyond that. Moshe subtly reminded them of their past indiscretions, activities which they had committed after they had accepted the Torah. Apparently, they were not as spiritually refined as they thought.

Tochachah, rebuke, is important and necessary. In order for it to be effective, however, it must be administered with love, feeling and sincerity. In the Talmud Shabbos 119b, Chazal posit that Yerushalayim was destroyed because people did not rebuke one another. They were either apathetic or afraid, but, in any event, they did not call attention to the negative behavior of the other. As mentioned, tochachah must be properly administered. If it is, then the individual who is being rebuked will listen, will accept, and - not only bear no grudge against his rebuker - but will probably appreciate what he has done for him. At times, however, when rebuke can generate a negative reaction, it can produce an enmity which ultimately destroys the relationship. How do we prevent this? What is the prescription for effective rebuke?

Horav Chizkiyah Kohn, zl, of Gateshead, distinguishes between a rebuke which touches upon a material error, and one that addresses a spiritual deficiency. When a person purchases a piece of glass under the assumption that it is a diamond, he has just spent a small fortune for a worthless piece of glass. After the exchange, someone approaches him and tells him the truth. He has just spent a king's ransom on a piece of worthless glass. He has no business purchasing diamonds if he has no idea how to determine their integrity. Basically, the person gives the buyer a severe tongue-lashing with the intention that he will return to demand his money back. There is no question that, under such circumstances, the buyer will accept his dressing down, and will, in turn, profusely thank the individual who had rebuked him.

That is material rebuke. Regrettably, when it comes to spiritual failings, the response does not tend to be as positive. When someone subtly intimates to his friend that he might be acting inappropriately, his reaction invariably is something like this: "Who made you my spiritual superior? What makes you think that you are so perfect? Who are you to determine my failings?" Needless to say, the rebuker's words fall on deaf ears. Why? Why does one readily accept a failing that has material ramifications, yet vehemently ignore any reference to spiritual deficiency?

The difference is that people have a greater awareness of materialism, because they sense that it defines their life. Thus, when someone assists them in making adjustments in their lives which positively influences their material portfolio, they are grateful. After all, it is my life; whoever helps me live has me in their debt. Sadly, many of us have not reached that point whereby spirituality defines our lives. We do what we have to because we are commanded to act in a specific manner and to maintain a singular demeanor. We are only acting out our role in the play called life. It is not real. Therefore, when someone criticizes or counsels us concerning our spiritual demeanor, we respond, "It is none of your business." Gashmius, materialism, has a greater impact, therefore we give it greater focus than spiritual ascendancy. If is for "special people, not for us." It is not our life.

One who is prepared to turn it around, to accept spiritual critique - so that he lives a life replete with spiritual integrity - will ultimately become a receptacle for Heavenly blessing. The alternative does not need to be written. It should be self-evident to anyone with a modicum of common sense.

Shlomo Ha'Melech says in Mishlei 9:8, "Do not rebuke a leitz (joker/scoffer) lest he hate you." What is the definition of leitz? Horav Meir Chodosh, zl, explains that a leitz is a person who hates you for rebuking him. Indeed, as long as he maintains the position that rebuke is likely to cause him to hate you, he is a leitz. It is forbidden to rebuke such a person. This is a powerful statement. We must be certain that the rebuke we administer will not create a rift between us and the person we rebuke. At times, the problem is with the individual who is giving rebuke. He simply cannot do it with love. Rav Meir Chodosh was the master Mashgiach, ethical supervisor, who would go out of his way to seek different ways of getting his message across to a student without taking on the appearance of a scolding. Sometimes, he would let his thoughts emerge in a talk with a group of students, without singling out any individual student. The one who needed to hear the message heard it - if he was listening. The Mashgiach had the uncanny ability to say things that entered into his students' hearts, hinting at ideas that were directed toward a specific individual.

One of the senior Torah educators in Eretz Yisrael described his entrance exam to the yeshivah gedolah/post high school. After being tested by the Rosh Yeshivah, he had an interview with the Mashgiach. "Do you know the difference between a yeshivah ketanah/elementary/high school and a yeshivah gedolah?" the Mashgiach asked. The young man presented a number of answers which the Mashgiach demonstrated were incorrect.

"I will explain the difference to you. It will help you succeed in the yeshivah. Tell me," the Mashgiach asked, "in your yeshivah ketanah, how did you know if you were doing well?"

The young man replied, "If they came to me with complaints, I knew I was having a problem. If they left me alone, I knew I was doing well."

The Mashgiach smiled warmly at the bachur and said, "If you continue to use this as your barometer of success in a yeshivah gedolah, you will be living erroneously. Here, the rules are in total contrast. If I do not come to you, and, as a result, you think that you are doing well, you will be making a serious mistake. In this yeshivah, we do not bother to complain to - or make demands of - someone to whom there is no point in talking. There is no purpose in wasting his time - or ours. When I come to you with demands it is an indication that I believe that you are someone from whom I can demand!" The Mashgiach was wont to say, "The mechanech, educator, must be like a cup of wine. He must fill himself until he brims over with wisdom and knowledge, filling the adjacent vessels - his students - with the overflow that he himself cannot contain. He pours for himself, but everything that overflows is for his students and for anyone else who wishes to learn." His entire life he worked on himself. The vast sea of knowledge which he acquired was for himself, developing his own personality, which, in turn, was the perfect expression of his thoughts. He, thus, served as a role model for his students and so many others. It was real. It was not superficial. His personal example was his greatest lesson. He was a walking mussar sefer, volume of ethical discourses.

Horav Aharon Kotler, zl, explains that just as Hashem created the world out of a sense of altruism, so are we obliged to emulate Him. The greatest kindness that we can do for others is to give them Torah and mitzvos and to keep them away from falling into the clutches of the yetzer hora, evil inclination. This is but one aspect of the mitzvah of tochachah, reproof.

Rav Aharon teaches us that there is a way that one can achieve this mitzvah without lifting a finger, without saying a word to his friend. He does this by serving as a good example, living and exemplifying Torah life, acting ethically, morally and maintaining an elevated level of spirituality. In other words, he is living as a Jew should live. The flip-side, of course, is that one who serves as a bad example is a meisis, inciter, who encourages others by his example, to act inappropriately.

In a way, giving reproof through example has a definite advantage over direct reproof. It is our obligation to reprove respectfully, maintaining the individual's dignity and self-respect. We must go out of our way not to cause any unnecessary embarrassment. This, regrettably, is often a tall order. Rebuke by personal example, however, is totally free of any tinge of embarrassment. Indeed, it is the most respectful method of administering and carrying out the mitzvah of tochachah.

These are the words that Moshe spoke…in the wilderness, in the Plain, opposite (the Sea of) Reeds, between Paran and Tofel and Lavan, and Chatzeiros and Di-Zahav. (1:1)

Rashi explains that Moshe Rabbeinu's words of rebuke to Klal Yisrael were couched in allusion, rather than directly mentioning any specific sins. He mentioned names of places, which referred to the sins they had committed. Horav Shimshon Pincus, zl, takes an alternative approach to Moshe's use of purported names of places. He quotes the Talmud Yevamos 78b which cites the pasuk in Tzefaniah 2:3, Bakshu es Hashem kol anvei eretz, asher mishpato paalu, "Seek Hashem all you humble of the land, who have fulfilled His law." Chazal interpret this to mean: b'asher mishpato sham paalo, "That in the place of a person's judgment, there they mention his righteous deeds." The Talmud expounds that asher mishpato refers to a person being judged and paalo as his deeds. Thus, the pasuk is teaching us that his good deeds are where his judgment is occurring. In the specific place where they judge him to be guilty, they mention the good deeds which he had performed. Thus, while Hashem was judging Shaul HaMelech for his crimes against the Givonim, He also took note of Shaul's righteous deeds, noting that Shaul had not been eulogized properly, as befitting a man of righteous deeds.

Chazal are teaching us a powerful lesson. When we find fault in a person - when we blame him for his sinful deeds - we should simultaneously make mention of his merits which illuminate the sinner, shedding light on the source of nature of his sin. Perhaps we will find a mitigating circumstance, or we will see that he really was not an evil person; rather, he acted in an evil manner. In other words, the nature of one's actions are determined by the whole person, including how he has acted at other times: Is he evil, or did he make a serious error in judgment? Did he have a justifiable reason for acting out of order?

Klal Yisrael's sins were the products of adverse circumstances, which can have a mitigating effect on their consequences. Rav Pincus notes that Moshe's allusions were for the purpose of presenting Klal Yisrael's failing in the context of the greater picture, taking into consideration some of the extenuating circumstances that should have a tempering effect on their sin.

The Jews complained "in the wilderness," saying, "Are there no graves in Egypt?" Yes, they were wrong in expressing a longing for Egypt, but we must take into consideration the fact that they went readily into the stark wilderness, unprepared for the dangers and discomforts it presented.

"In the plain" is a reference to the worship of the Peor idol in the plains of Moav. Mention is made of the place where they sinned, in order to cast aspersion on the Moavites who incited their sin. Yes, they sinned, but those sins were catalyzed by the wicked nation that lived in the plains of Moav.

"Opposite (the sea of) Reeds," when the Jews confronted the imposing waters of the Yam Suf, they introduced their claim, "Are their no graves in Egypt?" Once again, this was a frightening place. Fear brought out the worst in them, catalyzing their ingratitude.

"Between Paran" is a reference to the sin of the meraglim, spies. Chazal teach us that it was called Paran as an allusion to peru u'revu, "be fruitful and multiply." They were blessed with large families. The responsibility that one has to his children can have a powerful effect on the manner in which he acts. They were worried about their children's future. What would happen to them when they arrived in the Land? Their worry led to insolent demands to send spies, which, in turn, led to their negative reaction to the spies' false report.

"And Tofel and Lavan" is a reference to the manna. Their anxiety concerning the Heavenly bread was, in a sense, justifiable. To merit being sustained by such unusual food was compelling. They were under extreme pressure, knowing that if they relaxed their spiritual commitment, they would fall and be punished. This generated deep fear within them. They would much rather be "regular people," sustained by natural means, without the demanding commitments.

"And Di Zahav" the last of the sins, refers to the Golden Calf, which was a reaction to an excess of gold. The Jewish People simply had too much material wealth. When one has too much, he acts in very strange ways. Quite possibly, this last of the sins that Moshe detailed is an excuse for all the rest: they had too much. They were spoiled, and they were just acting out their part.

When judging people in the context of rebuke, we must always take into consideration that there is a "rest of the story," mitigating reasons for their actions. It is easy to pass judgment. No one wants to get involved in complicated situations. Perhaps the best thing is not to judge, but if this is impossible, for whatever reason, one should judge within the context of the "big" picture.

Any matter that is too difficult for you, you shall bring to me and I shall hear it. (1:7)

Shlomo HaMelech says in Sefer Mishlei 12:25, Daagah b'lev ish yashchenah. "(When there is) dread in a man's heart, let him quash it." There is a dispute in the Talmud Yuma 75a concerning the implied meaning of yashchenah. When the shin of yashchenah is interchanged with a sin, the word is read yaschenah. When the sin is further exchanged with a samech, it sounds the same, but has a different meaning. Yashchenah with a samach means uproot. In his commentary to Mishlei, Rashi suggests uprooting worry by studying Torah with a sin, changing the meaning to conversation. Hence, the pasuk is telling us that one who is filled with dread, the individual who is engulfed with worry, should talk to others. Talking, relating one's problem to a listening audience, invariably eases the burden. The Gerrer Rebbe, zl, notes that this halachah has its origin in Moshe Rabbeinu's words: "If you have something that is too difficult for you to handle, bring it to me and I will listen." He did not say, "I will solve your problem." He only said he would listen. By allowing the person to "open up" and relate his problem, he is helping the person find a solution.

The most effective counselor is a good listener. A good counselor creates a safe environment for those who seek help. This is achieved when one engages the troubled individual respectfully and non-judgmentally. This can often be challenging to someone who is confronted with an issue that conflicts with his own personal beliefs, be they religious, moral or ethical. A rabbi, for instance, is generally trained to be highly analytical and acutely critical. He has a definite interpretation concerning what is right and what is wrong. The requirement to suspend his proclivity to judge, so that he needs to sit back, listen objectively, and attempt to connect to the pain, conflict, shame or distress of the one who is opening up to him creates a strong challenge for him. He must, however, do just that: listen - not challenge; listen - not judge; listen - not pontificate.

There is another form of listening: to oneself. Horav Shlomo Freifeld, zl, observes that the stellar dialogue between man and Hashem, indeed, the last verse one says as he is about to take leave of his mortal self is: Shema Yisrael! "Hear O, Yisrael!" The very first word, the initial utterance of Krias Shema is "Hear." The initial word that sets the tone for the entire relationship is "hear." This is how a relationship begins. One wants to listen. He wants to learn.

It is one thing to listen to others, but it is more important to first listen to oneself. One must be honest with himself. One must have the courage - yes, courage - to face up to who he is and, ultimately, to where he is going. How can one get anywhere, how can he develop into anything of significance, if he is content to live in a world of illusion? Perhaps this is what Hashem asked Adam HaRishon after he sinned: "Ayeca?" "Where are you?" "Do you know where you are, who you are, where you are going?" One must know himself. To do that, he must listen to himself.

One must confront himself with honesty, humility and courage. One who comes before Hashem with a life based on self-deception, cannot possibly establish a relationship with Him. He must be honest with himself, so that he can be honest with Hashem.

Regrettably, many of us would rather live a life of blissful ignorance. We fear the truth, so we refuse to hear. Hearing might cause us pain; listening might create burdens we either refuse or are unable to carry. We would rather be ignorant. The truth, however, will not go away. It will return one day to haunt us.

Rav Freifeld cites the Midrash in Bereishis 39:1 which describes Avraham Avinu's process of discovery, how he used his brilliant mind to surmise didactically that the world was created and continues to be maintained by a Supreme Being - Hashem. As a point of reference, the Midrash quotes the pasuk in Tehillim 45:11, Shimi bas u'rei, v'hati azneich, "Listen daughter, and see, and incline your ear." Interestingly, David HaMelech says, "listen" and "see." One hears when he listens. He sees with his eyes - not his ears. Apparently, the one who does not see - or does not want to see - does not listen. If he had the courage to hear and derive the lesson, then he would be inclined to listen. Avraham heard, because he listened. Things were just not making sense in the pagan world in which he lived. After listening and examining all of the details, he arrived at the obvious conclusion: Our world was created by Hashem. We have purpose; we have G-d. He heard all of this because he was not afraid to listen. He had the courage to seek the truth and live with the results. Do we?

I sent messages from the Wilderness of Kedeimos to Sichon, King of Cheshbon, words of peace. (2:26)

Moshe Rabbeinu sent Sichon a message of peace, implying that if Sichon had consented, there would not have been a war; therefore, Sichon's land would have remained independent and untouched. This is despite the fact that under Sichon's monarchy the Emori land was part of the "package" promised to Avraham Avinu. Moshe was emulating Hashem when he made this peaceful gesture to Sichon. When Hashem gave the Torah to the Jewish people, He first offered it to the descendants of Eisav and Yishmael, even though He knew that they would not accept it. Likewise, Moshe made the gesture, but Sichon was obstinate - as usual. The commentators wonder why Moshe did not make the same overture to Og, King of Bashan. The Baalei Tosfos explain that most of Sichon's land was an inheritance from Amon and Moav, descendants of Lot, Avraham's nephew. Og's land was from the Rephaim, one of the seven nations to which we do not declare peace.

Horav Chaim Zaitchik, zl, addresses this question, explaining that the dichotomy between Og and Sichon can be traced to the nature of Og's religious character. He was what we refer to as a shanah u'pireish, he had studied and, later, rejected what he had learned. Og was not a young man. Chazal teach us that he was saved from the Flood by hanging on to the Teivah, Ark. As a result, he was acutely aware of Hashem's mighty hand: His reward to the righteous, and His punishment to the wicked. He perceived that Avraham had been a guest at the seudah, feast, the Patriarch made in honor of Yitzchak Avinu. Og was the palit, survivor, who came to Avraham as he was baking matzos to notify him of Lot's capture. Imagine gazing upon Avraham's countenance as he baked matzos. Indeed, Moshe feared Og's zechusim, merits, that he accrued by serving Avraham.

In other words, Og had achieved great spiritual heights. He had imbibed from the most elevated level of spirituality. He had seen first-hand the chesed, kindness, performed by the amud ha'chesed, pillar of kindness, Avraham. Yet, despite this, he turned his back on it all and continued on his morally bankrupt, wicked ways. His contempt for the spirit overwhelmed anything that he had learned. He had no qualms about taking his sword and leading his army in battle against the Jewish nation.

Og knew his Creator, yet he rebelled against Him. No conversation can occur with such a miscreant. It is a total waste of time. He is a man who thrives on darkness, impurity, contamination and immorality. He has only contempt for the pristine, the good, the sacred. Yes, he was much worse than Sichon. He did not deserve a declaration of peace. It would have been a waste.

Va'ani Tefillah

Atah asisa es ha'Shomayim… asher bocharta b'Avram… ne'eman lefanecha You made the Heaven… (the G-d) Who selected Avram… (You found his heart) faithful before You.

What does the creation of Heaven have to do with the selection of Avraham? Siach Yitzchak gives the following analogy: An individual who was well-known for his penetrating wisdom was invited by the king to visit his treasury, and choose from among his many jewels and precious stones, one special stone which would be the king's gift to him. The king had a truly impressive collection valued in the millions of dollars. The man moved around slowly through the treasury touching, looking, checking each and every stone, until he chose what appeared to be the most simple, plain stone in the lot. The average spectator would have thought that this man had lost it. To ignore stones valued in the millions of dollars for a simple, nondescript stone seemed nonsensical. Those in the know, who were quite aware of this person's level of acuity, were certain that the stone he had selected must be something very special. If he had chosen it, then it must have qualities unbeknownst to the average person.

The pasuk attests to this idea. "You made the Heaven, its hosts, the earth, the seas - everything! But, at the 'end of the day,' You chose Avraham. It was upon him that You placed Your blessing." This indicates the significance and extra-special nature of our Patriarch. This is supported by the pasuk in Yeshayah 66:1,2: "The Heaven is My throne, and the earth is My festival… My hand created all these… but it is to this that I look: to the poor and broken-spirited person who is zealous regarding My word."

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