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Peninim on the Torah

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Rabbi A. Leib Scheinbaum
Hebrew Academy of Cleveland


Arise, descend quickly from here, for the people… has become corrupt; they have strayed quickly from the way… they have made themselves a molten image. (9:12)

The Torah here records Klal Yisrael's sin in the phrase, "they made themselves a molten image." In Parashas Ki Sissa, the Torah elaborates and "adds" three more sins to their original iniquity. After creating the idol, they bowed down to it; they sacrificed to it; and they declared "These are your gods, Yisrael!" Creating the Golden Calf was a terrible sin, but venerating it through service and sacrifice magnified their sin. Why does Moshe Rabbeinu seem to gloss over the additional sins, focusing only on the actual creation of the idol?

At first glance, we suggest a simple explanation. The making of the idol involved a major segment of the nation. What followed, however, worshipping it and the other invidious activities, were sins perpetrated by only a small fraction of the people. Moshe was addressing the sin that involved the entire nation - or - at least, its majority.

Horav Shmuel Truvitz, zl, offers an insightful explanation that focuses on the root of sin. In the Midrash Tanchuma, Parashas Vayikra, Chazal explain the concept of Aveirah gorreres aveirah, "Sin leads to another sin." An individual sins inadvertently and hardly notices it. He does not, however, realize that now the entranceway to sinning has advertently been opened. Thus, the primary criticism against the individual who stands ready to embark on a dangerous and evil path away from Torah and mitzvah observance, concerns his initial sin. He is to be blamed only for his earliest misdeed. Everything else "follows" naturally, because Aveirah gorreres aveirah. A natural consequence of falling into the abyss of sin is that the sinner will continue to fall.

He also cites Horav Yisrael Salanter, zl, who, in one of his letters, explains the statement made by Chazal in the Talmud Succah 52a. The Talmud relates that in the End of the Days, Hashem will slaughter the yetzer hora, evil inclination, in front of the people. To the righteous, the evil inclination will appear as a large, insurmountable mountain. They will wonder, "How were we able to conquer this mountain?" In contrast, the wicked will view it as a hairbreadth, which will cause them to wonder, "How is it that we could not vanquish it?" In other words, the righteous and the wicked will have totally opposing perspectives on the yetzer hora. How are we to explain this?

Rav Yisrael explains that every sin is weighed and measured according to the challenge it presents to the sinner. The easier and less challenging it is for a person to withstand the temptation of sin, the greater is the demand against him for committing the sin. In contrast, one who must surmount a powerful challenge does not receive as extreme a punishment.

We now understand the words of Chazal. A rasha, wicked person, has not always been wicked. At one point, he was a simple Jew. The yetzer hora did not seem to be so overpowering. Only after his first act of sin did the process begin, and Aveirah gorreres aveirah. Now, the sin appears to him to be as tall as a mountain. The more one sins, the more difficult it is for him to refrain from sin. The rasha, evil man, is acutely aware that there are serious consequences to his actions. Yet, he continues in his iniquity. Why? He thinks that since, with each sinful act, it becomes increasingly difficult for him to desist from his sinful behavior, Hashem will take this into consideration and limit his punishment. The more sin, the greater the difficulty and, therefore, the punishment should be commensurate. When the time of the advent of Moshiach comes, however, the sinner will have a rude awakening. Suddenly, he will see that the sin was actually like a hairbreadth. It was no accident. He could have halted his sinful behavior at any time he so pleased. What challenges he encountered were the result of his original sin - which was an act of unmitigated defiance. The rest was simply a continuation of aveirah gorreres aveirah. It was entirely his fault.

In contrast, the righteous person works at his spiritual development, constantly seeking ways to overcome the challenges that confront him on the road to his spiritual destiny. Because he works at it, the road to success has seemed easy. The yetzer hora has not been a factor, because he labored with great intensity to succeed. True, mitzvah gorreres mitzvah, so it should have been easy, but Hashem looks at the first mitzvah, the genesis of the tzaddik's spiritual ascension. It was not easy then, and Hashem will take that moment into consideration as He rewards the tzaddik for his extreme dedication.

We now understand why the primary focus is placed on the creation of the Golden Calf, despite its apparent insignificance in comparison to the ensuing sins. That is the specific difference: the other sins followed. They were not the primary sin that catalyzed the proverbial ball rolling. This sin changed everything. When Klal Yisrael stood at Har Sinai to receive the Torah, they had reached an unprecedented level of spiritual ascendancy. The Golden Calf changed all that, as it caused them to fall deep into the nadir of sin and eventual moral depravity.

We find this often in the world of chinuch, Torah education. A slight change, a minor deviation, is noticed in a student's demeanor. His davening is just not the same. He changes his mode of dress - slightly. His hairstyle seems a bit different than in the past. All of these actions may be nothing, or, they might signal the beginning of a lifestyle change that must be halted - now.

Now, O Yisrael, what does Hashem, your G-d, ask of you? Only to fear Hashem, your G-d. (10:12)

Hashem asks very "little" of us: fear of Heaven. This very little thing is the most important aspect in being a faithful, observant Jew. Two questions come to mind: First, what exactly does the term yiraas Shomayim, Fear of Heaven, mean? Second, does not the idea of fear go against everything we believe in and preach in today's day and age? Love should be the optimum goal for a Jew. Fear can be overwhelming. Can a person live in fear and still function properly? Apparently, fear of Heaven has a different meaning than the "fear" to which we are accustomed.

Horav Shlomo Freifeld, zl, explains that fear of Heaven is not the same fear as being afraid of harm. It does not mean actually being afraid of something. Fear of Heaven is something one experiences out of a profound sense of reverence, awe, a deep-rooted feeling of admiration, appreciation and recognition that accompany the knowledge that one always stands in the presence of the Almighty G-d. It is the type of fear one feels when he walks into the Capitol and gazes at the Declaration of Independence or enters the Metropolitan Museum of Art and comes face to face with a Rembrandt. One would never reach out and touch the canvas, even if it were permitted, for fear that he would do something wrong to the canvas. He stands within touching distance of one of the most significant pieces of art or history, and he is afraid to touch it. Why? Because there is a clear boundary that he may not trespass. The canvas is off limits; it is untouchable. One is afraid.

The world in which we live is perfect. Our bodies are perfect. Hashem's creations reflect a perfect symmetry, a masterpiece of perfection. We have no right to defile it. We must realize that if we taint this perfect creation, we will damage the perfect symmetry and harmony of the cosmos to some degree. Hashem sets the equilibrium of His world. If we really appreciate its beauty and grandeur, the sense of fear envelops us to the point that we would not dare do anything that would disturb either the physical or the spiritual balance of this world.

How does one achieve this sense of appreciation, this fear of Heaven? It is only through the study of Torah. It is not through the study of morals, ethics and the sciences. History proves this point. Wars, pogroms, greed, chauvinism, a total breakdown of society, have not been prevented through the study of ethics and morals, science and the humanities. One either has Torah, or he has absolutely nothing! The breakdown of contemporary society is a reflection of a lack of yiraas Shomayim. Otherwise, how could people act the way they do?

Yiraas Shomayim is the result of an appreciation of the harmonious integration, the symbiotic assimilation of the material and spiritual dimensions of this world, an appreciation that can be accomplished only through Torah study. Rav Freifeld adds that, just as there is a material ecology, there is also a spiritual ecology and an ensuing integrated ecology of both systems. One must be aware of the Almighty's will, the modes of behavior that He designed for the unified cosmos that He created, lessons that can only be derived through Torah study. The Torah is Hashem's blueprint for Creation and His book of directions for His creations to follow. We must immerse ourselves in its profundities and delve into its lessons. Every breach of the Torah causes a transgression of the Shulchan Aruch, Code of Jewish Law, which introduces a sour note in the incredible symphony of Creation. If we follow the guidelines and learn the lessons, we will develop the appreciation and be instilled with true yiraas Shomayim. Fear of Heaven is something one develops after he understands and appreciates the greatness of Hashem and His creations.

Rather, it is your own eyes that see all the great work of Hashem, which He did. (11:7)

The Torah says that we should be able to "see" Hashem's greatness by looking at His handiwork. While this is certainly true, regrettably, there are many who do not see. Why is it that some see clearly and others seem to have impaired vision? Horav Mordechai Pogremonski, zl, compares this to a visitor to Paris. His host wants to show his guest around the city and showcase its magnificence. First, he takes him to the world-famous Louvr'e Museum. As he points out the world-famous paintings, he is taken aback that the visitor is unimpressed. They walk over to a Rembrandt. "Is this not something incredible to behold?" the host asks. "I do not know what you see about this painting that impresses you so. I see nothing more than smudges and scratches," the visitor replies.

This went on all day. Every time the host showed his guest another aspect of the city, the visitor replied that he saw nothing but scratches and smudges. Finally, the host asked his guest if he could see his glasses. "Certainly," he responded. Lo and behold, when he looked at the glasses, he saw that they were badly smudged and scratched. He could see, but not through his glasses.

The same idea applies to life in this world. Many of us are wearing smudged and scratched glasses through which it is impossible to see the greatness of Hashem. Our eyes need to be attuned to what they are to perceive, or else we will see nothing more than scratches and smudges. The glasses that will improve and enhance our vision are the spectacles of the Torah which provides us with a clarity of vision, unimpaired and untainted by any external particles or blemishes.

This is what David Hamelech means when he asks Hashem (Tehillim 119:18), "Uncover my eyes, so that I may see the wonders from Your Torah." The text is enigmatic. It should have read, "So that I may see the wonder in Your Torah." Apparently, David Hamelech is intimating that it is through the spectacles provided by the Torah that we are able to see Hashem's greatness. Without the Torah, our vision remains critically impaired.

And to serve Him with all your heart. (11:13)

Le'vavchem is written in the plural. Certainly, man has only one heart. Chazal explain that this is a reference to the two inclinations that work simultaneously within man. The yetzer tov, good inclination, and the yetzer hora, evil inclination, are to be found only within the human being. Angels do not have a yetzer hora. They are "programmed" to carry out Hashem's bidding. Man, on the other hand, has two contradictory forces working within him. Horav Eliyahu Meir Bloch, zl, notes this uniqueness of man. His ability to make one dominant over the other - while maintaining divergent emotions within one personality - distinguishes him from the angels. Furthermore, man has both of these forces playing active roles in his life - simultaneously.

We see this idea in action in the dialogue that ensued between the Angels and Hashem as Klal Yisrael stood at the shores of the Red Sea. As the water split and the Egyptians drowned, the Heavenly Angels sought to say Shirah, sing a song of praise, to the Almighty. Hashem's response was, "My creations are drowning in the sea, and you want to say Shirah?" Nonetheless, Klal Yisrael did sing Shirah, to which Hashem responded, "For them, I Have waited." He wanted to hear our Shirah, yet He eschewed the Shirah of the Angels. Why?

Rav Eliyahu Meir explains that when an Angel is filled with joy, he cannot sense any other emotion. He cannot feel pain when he feels joy. A person, however, has the ability to sense pain to the point that he is anguished and brought to tears - and still transcend his grief in order to serve the Almighty with complete joy. Avraham Avinu did this when he was instructed to prepare his beloved son, Yitzchak Avinu, as a sacrifice. He stood there willingly, with complete equanimity, ready to carry out Hashem's Will. Yet, Chazal tell us that he stood knee-deep in tears for his son! He did not ignore his emotions of fatherly love. He was not stone cold as he looked into the eyes of his dear son as he raised the knife about to serve Hashem. No, he ignored nothing; he transcended his emotions!

Hashem does not want us to put our human emotions to rest. Instead, He wants us to acknowledge and experience these emotions, but, when necessary, to override them for Him. Avraham stood there in control of his full complement of emotions. He sublimated his fatherly love to Hashem, because he was asked to do so. He was not a heartless, unfeeling robot. He was a loving father who carried his love to the highest level - serving his Father in Heaven.

During Klal Yisrael's darkest periods, this dual emotion was manifest by those who were able to transcend the pain and sorrow to continue to serve the Almighty with a sense of joy and pride. The Gerrer Rebbe would not allow the pain and grief inflicted by the terrors of the Holocaust to diminish his Oneg Shabbos. He experienced the sweet joy of Shabbos amidst deprivation and misery.

It was Friday night, and the chazzan began to chant the Lecha Dodi prayer with the traditional Gerrer niggun, tune. The Rebbe sang along, enunciating the words and emphasizing the melody. His son was standing by, staring incredulously at his great father. "Tateh, tateh," he cried out forlornly, "Maasei yadai tov'eim bayam ve'atem omrim shirah?" "(My, Hashem's) creations are drowning in the sea, and you want to sing Shirah?" This is a reference to the Angels who wanted to sing praise to the Almighty when the Egyptians drowned in the Red Sea. The son was asking his father how could he sing with joy amidst all of the suffering and death? The Rebbe looked at his son with piercing eyes, replying with a calm, strong voice, "My dear son, we must always sing Shirah. It is up to the Almighty if He chooses to listen, but we must sing regardless." B'chol levavechem!

Va'ani Tefillah

Eizehu Me'koman shel zevachim Upon careful examination of the various Klei HaMikdash, we note that the western position of the Sanctuary, with the Mizbayach and the Aron Hakodesh, has a close association with Torah. The northern side, where the Shulchan stood, is affiliated with the physical/material aspects of life. The Menorah is placed in the southern side, thus relating that side with the spirit. The eastern side, which is the location of the entrance, represents the nation as a whole. Horav S.R. Hirsch, zl, explains that each of the avodos, services, which are connected with the offering of a korban, also has a symbolic meaning. Shechitah, slaughtering, signifies the renunciation of man's personal will and independence represented by the animal on the Altar. Kabbolas ha'dam, accepting the blood, signifies the acceptance of man's personality. The Matanos, applications of the blood, through: Zerikah, a dashing from afar; Hazayah, the sprinkling of only a few drops of blood; Nesinah, the act of "direct" giving; or Shefichah, pouring the blood on the ground, are symbolic expressions of one's constant striving to achieve (Hazayah, Zerikah); the endeavor to maintain a high spiritual standard (Nesinah al ha'keren, giving it on the upper corner of the Altar); and the solid implantation of the spirit in the soil of the Sanctuary (Shefichah al ha'Yesod, pouring on the foundation).

Arthur & Sora Pollak and Family
in loving memory of our mother & grandmother
Mrs. Goldie Jundef

Peninim on the Torah is in its 14th year of publication. The first nine years have been published in book form.

The Ninth volume is available at your local book seller or directly from Rabbi Scheinbaum.

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