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Peninim on the Torah

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Rabbi A. Leib Scheinbaum
Hebrew Academy of Cleveland


When I call out the Name of Hashem, ascribe greatness to our G-d. (32:3)

The Talmud in Berachos 21a interprets this pasuk as a direct indication that one must make Bircas HaTorah, a blessing prior to studying Torah. The corresponding obligation also to recite a blessing after studying the Torah is deduced from the fact that there is an obligation to bench, say grace, after meals. If a person is expected to express gratitude for being the beneficiary of a transitory benefit like food, certainly he should bless the One Who gave him an eternal gift - the Torah. In contrast to the derived obligation to recite a blessing after Torah study, the blessing after meals is stated explicitly in the Torah, "You will eat and you will be satisfied, and bless" (Devarim 8:10). Moreover, while the obligation to say Bircas HaTorah prior to Torah study is explicitly stated, the obligation to recite a blessing prior to eating is derived logically. If one is obliged to bless Hashem after he has eaten, how much more so should he do so when he is hungry.

The Chafetz Chaim, zl, explains the distinction between the treatment of blessings for food and Torah, study. The Torah focuses upon one's expected natural behavior when food is involved. One blesses Hashem when he is satisfied. When one studies Torah however, he experiences a natural intellectual thirst for knowledge which inspires him to plead with Hashem to help him quench his thirst. Thus, the blessing before Torah study is stated explicitly. Both regarding Torah study and food, Chazal employ logical reasoning to derive the alternative obligation. Consequently, one must bless Hashem both before and after studying Torah or once partaking of food.

In addition to the idea that Bircas HaTorah is a Torah-mandated obligation, Chazal attribute the destruction of the Land to the fact that although Klal Yisrael studied Torah, they failed to recite a blessing prior to studying. Rabbeinu Yonah explains that they did not value the Torah enough to recite a blessing before studying it. When Yirmiyah Ha'Navi laments Klal Yisrael's forsaking the Torah, he refers to their neglect and lack of appreciation of its worth. This is the catalyst of forsaking the Torah. The Mishnah Berurah adds that they viewed Torah as just another form of knowledge, an intellectual pursuit. They did not attribute Divine significance to it.

Horav Chanoch, zl, m'Alexander supplements this based upon the fact that Torah is compared to water. Everyone needs water; without it, we cannot live. Nothing quenches one's thirst like water. This is true, however, only when one is thirsty. One who is not thirsty derives no benefit from water. Thus, concerning the laws of Bircas Hanehenin, blessings for pleasure (ie: drink, fragrance) the halachah states that one makes a blessing over water only if he drinks to quench his thirst. Otherwise, he derives no pleasure and no blessing is indicated. This concept applies equally to Torah. If an individual "thirsts" for Torah and it is for him like water for a parched throat, surely he should make a blessing before studying it. If he does not quench his thirst, there is no reason to bless Hashem. He is not participating in Torah learning.

Remember the days of yore, understand the years of generation after generation. (32:7)

Jewish history is much more than a subject - it is the narrative of our life's struggle and our commitment to Hashem throughout the millennia.

Our history differs from all other histories. It extends back into the mists of the past, to the genesis of the world and continues on to contemporary times. It covers the entire period of human history as it is known to man. It was only for a few centuries that we had our own homeland with control of our national affairs. During the majority of our existence, we have been scattered throughout the world, struggling frantically against the forces of evil and destruction, fighting against overwhelming odds to resist annihilation, driven from land to land by pitiless persecution, plundered and massacred by fiendish mobs.

The annals of Jewish history tell no story of imperial pomp and pageantry. The rich scenery that forms the backdrop of so many of the world's nations and empires is, for the most part, non-existent in our history. Yet, they are all very much alike - they are gone, having been built on shaky foundations. They all collapsed one after another, leaving only a memory of their glorious past.

Our people have survived and thrived despite the vicissitudes that have challenged them. They fell and picked themselves up and went forward. We went through periods of crisis and lived, whereas others perished. Why? Wherein lay the difference? What is our secret?

The fate of Klal Yisrael was different from that of other peoples of antiquity, because its fundamental constitution is different. We did not depend upon possession of land or political freedom but, rather, upon our greatest treasure, our heritage - the Torah. We came into existence through the Torah and the Torah continues to sustain and nourish us. This is the uniqueness of Jewish history. This is our secret of survival.

Nations require a charter to govern their existence. Klal Yisrael received its charter when we stood at the foot of Har Sinai and accepted the Torah. This is really the underlying theme of Sefer Devarim. As he is about to take leave of his flock, Moshe Rabbeinu impressed upon Klal Yisrael that fidelity to the Torah was the essential qualification for their continued existence. A lack of faithfulness would result in destruction. A Covenant was drawn up and ratified with the words, "This day you have become a people unto Hashem." (Devarim 27:9) The basis of Jewish life was founded not upon a political constitution, but upon a religious character.

Struggle after struggle, challenge after challenge, through pogroms and persecution, we have survived. Our enemies have made every attempt to exterminate us or to compel us to forsake our Torah. This alone is the greatest proof of the truth of the Torah. If it were not the symbol of compelling truth, why would the nations be concerned with our continued existence as a nation separate from the rest of the world simply because of our commitment to the Torah? Indeed, in the chronicles of world history nothing is as remarkable in the human experience as the survival of the Jewish People. Exiled and dispersed, reviled and persecuted, oppressed and suffering, often denied the most simple human rights and victimized by ruthless fanatics and despots, we are here for one purpose - to serve Hashem.

How did the Jew confront his challenge? How did he muster the courage to overcome the misery that was his lot? The Torah was his source of courage and inspiration, lending solace when he was down. He would plumb its depths, mine its treasures, unfold its precious message and apply it to his vicissitudes. He would draw life-giving encouragement from the inspired visions of the Neviim. The spiritual treasures of Chazal would delight him as they gave him reprieve from his misery. In the filthy ghetto; in the dark, dingy building that served as shul and yeshivah, he would pass hours of spiritual joy in communion with the Almighty. His poverty-stricken home would radiate with the spirit of Shabbos, as he transformed his broken-down hovel into a mini-sanctuary. His table became an altar. He did not envy the material excess or the palatial lifestyle of his gentile neighbor. He felt himself to be superior to his persecutors. He maintained values; they reacted to whims.

"Experientia docet," there is no more reliable teacher than past experience. Theories give way to the facts, which are unambiguous in the study of Jewish history. The Jewish People is unique, because our religion is the cement that binds us. Religion is so interwoven with the race that they are inseparable. If we were to eliminate the religion, the race would crumble. To quote Rabbeinu Saadya Gaon, "Our nation is a nation only by reason of the Torah."

In closing, we take the liberty of citing a penetrating analogy from the Yalkut. A very old woman came to a certain rabbi and said to him, "I am already too old, and my life has become burdensome. I want to die. How can I find death?" The rabbi listened, then asked her, "What merit did you have that you were able to live to such an advanced age?" She replied, "I am well-versed in the Torah. Furthermore, regardless of what I am doing, I leave it as I go quickly every day to the synagogue." Upon hearing this, the rabbi turned to the woman and said, "Stay away from the synagogue for three consecutive days." She followed his suggestion, and on the third day she died.

This is a parable. The old woman is Knesses Yisrael, the congregation of Yisrael, privileged to grow old, to continue its existence by virtue of its attachment to Torah and avodah, prayer in the synagogue. Should we chas v'shalom, Heaven forbid, decide to rid ourselves of the "burden" of old age, there is a simple solution: neglect of our national heritage, abandonment of our lifeblood, the Torah. This is probably the greatest and most compelling lesson of history.

Remember the days of yore, understand the years of generation after generation. (32:7)

The Torah enjoins us to study and take note of our past. As he prepared to take leave of his People, Moshe Rabbeinu said, "For I know that after my death you will surely act corruptly, and you will stray from the path that I have commanded you, and evil will befall you in the end of the days." (Devarim 31:29) He knew what would ensue over time: We understand the consequences of a harsh, alien society. He says, Z'chor yemos olam, binu shenos dor v'dor." Remember the days of yore, understand the years of generation after generation." This zechirah, remembrance, coupled with binah, a thorough understanding of the events that occurred and how they fit into a Divine pattern, will protect you from straying off the path.

Why, specifically, should remembering the days of yore and studying our national history serve as a protective shield against the effects of society? First, it keeps Judaism alive. In the beginning of Sefer Devarim the Torah tells us, "When you beget children and grandchildren, and will have been long in the land... and you will do evil in the eyes of Hashem." What is the meaning of "v'noshontem baaretz," "And (you) will have been living long in the land?" In his preface to his Toldos Am Olam, Horav Shlomo Rottenberg focuses on the significance of studying Jewish history. He explains that when Klal Yisrael left Egypt and came to Har Sinai to receive the Torah, they were on a spiritual "high." The ensuing forty-year journey in the wilderness was not much different. Every move, every encampment, they were surrounded by a fiery Pillar of Fire and Pillar of Cloud. When they entered Eretz Yisrael, it was also amid miracles. In short, everyone perceived Hashem's Presence. After awhile, however, Klal Yisrael became complacent; the events of the past became "old" and distant, something to which they could not relate. They no longer viewed themselves as different from the other nations. If they were not different, they might as well act like members of the other nations.

By remembering their glorious past, by searching and delving into the annals of their history, Klal Yisrael could spiritually resuscitate themselves. Consequently, they would appreciate that yes, they are different. This understanding would inspire them to act differently.

Furthermore, history provides us with the opportunity through which man can begin to fathom the Divine Plan for the Creation and sustenance of the world. History is a chain of events, each interconnecting with each other, spanning the length of time from "Bereishis barah," "In the beginning Hashem created," to "acharis hayamim," "the end of the days." The gentile nations do not understand this, since their history begins somewhere in the "middle." We view "toldos yemos olam," the history of the world from its creation, as an integral part of our history. Their history begins with their god, who entered the scene a few thousand years later.

Moreover, through an appreciation of our nation's history we learn to develop a reverence for the previous generations, as we note the spiritual digression that occurs from generation to generation. Indeed, the mesorah, transmission of Torah throughout the generations, is founded on this premise: the generations diminish in their spiritual stature. The closer one is to the Revelation at Har Sinai, the clearer and more pristine is his understanding of the profundities of the Torah. With this concept in mind, how can we ever begin to dispute their words? There are those who would counter that idea, saying that from a technical/scientific perspective we are far ahead of our predecessors. In response, we assert that this applies only from a technical standpoint; it is irrelevant to the greatness of man. Second, whatever we know or have accomplished is the result of the work begun by our predecessors. We cannot fail to recognize that we stand upon their shoulders!

The study of history is unique in that it is dependent neither upon one's acumen, nor upon his skills in understanding, or developing an issue. History is knowledge. Regardless of the brilliance of one's mind or his ability to introduce novellae, history remains the same. Whatever happened, happened. Our function is only to transcribe that which has occurred and to transmit it in its complete form to the next generation. There are many sources for Jewish history. Most of these so-called sources lack integrity. They are the work of disenchanted, bitter people who wrote history in accordance with their perverted perspective - in an attempt to make it appear that their brand of Jewish culture has found support throughout the ages. They have ignored Chazal and instead have chosen to cite pagan sources. It is, therefore, important that the Jewish history which we study be Jewish history written by Jewish writers whose affiliation to Judaism goes beyond a Jewish surname.

The Mighty One created you with forgetfulness, but you forgot the G-d Who formed you. (32:18)

It is incumbent upon us to decide how to use our G-d-given faculties - positively or negatively. We can either be constructive or destructive. Indeed, even those character traits such as envy, anger and hatred can be employed for a positive objective. The choice is ours. Imagine how wrong it is when Hashem grants us an attribute, an ability, a unique trait, and we use it against Him. This is what the pasuk in conveying to us. Forgetfulness can be most helpful. One can forget his past troubles which engender his continued depression. He can forget the evil others have wrought against him. On the other hand, he could also forget the acts of kindness from which he has benefited. It is important that one introspects his capacities and examines them to see if he is using them for the correct purpose or for the wrong one.

The Dubno Maggid relates a parable that gives us a practical insight into this idea. A man was deeply in debt to many creditors. It ran into thousands and thousands of dollars. One of his creditors, knowing fully well that this man certainly did not have enough money to pay all of his creditors, devised a plan which would help at least one of the creditors, namely himself. He said, "When others come to collect their money, act as though you are insane. Giggle hysterically, behave in a silly manner and do things that will cause them to think that there is no one to whom to talk. They will then conclude that you have lost your mind and forget about the money you owe them. You will then have sufficient funds to pay me back what you owe." The man did as he was told, and the scheme proved effective. People assumed that he had gone mad and just wrote off their debts. When the creditor who had concocted this ruse came to collect his money, the man responded nonsensically. "Do not attempt to pull that stunt on me," the creditor said, "You forget that it was I who gave you the idea to act this way. I know the truth."

Hashem says to us, "You go about your day, taking care of your personal needs and forgetting about the obligations you have towards Me. You have conveniently ignored the fact that it was I Who gave you the ability to forget, so that you could rid yourself of memories that might preclude your potential. Do not make the mistake of using this capacity to forget against Me!"

Vignettes on the Parsha

Corruption is not His - the blemish is His children's. (32:5)

Ibn Ezra explains that, "lo banav mumam," their blemish/sin was that they said that they were not His sons. They abrogated their relationship with the Almighty. Even those that might have publicly claimed allegiance to Hashem, did not believe what they publicly pronounced.

O'People who are vile and unwise. (32:6)

The Chafetz Chaim, zl, was wont to say, "People say that every fool is a wise man when it involves himself. I say that every wise man should view himself as a fool, lest he become haughty.


You became fat, you became thick, you became corpulent. (32:15)

Horav Nachum, zl, m'Tzernobel would say, I fear more the effect of those mitzvos from which I have derived enjoyment than from those averios, sins, that I committed which caused me no pleasure.


I shall use up My arrows against them. (32:23)

Chazal add, "Chitzai kalim v'heim einam kalim," My arrows will come to an end, but they will not." Klal Yisrael will ultimately survive. The Chasam Sofer coments that the cruel nations who murder our People are Hashem's arrows. They are here to serve a purpose which, when completed, will signal the time for their own judgment. Hashem will now bring about their end.

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