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Peninim on the Torah

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Rabbi A. Leib Scheinbaum
Hebrew Academy of Cleveland


My Torah shall drop as the rain, my speech shall flow gently like the dew. (32:2)

Moshe Rabbeinu uses the simile of rain and dew to describe the Torah. The commentators, each in his own unique manner, expound on the comparison of Torah to these natural gifts of Hashem. Sforno emphasizes the relationship of the mekabeil, receiver/student of Torah, to the Torah. Both rain and dew have a beneficial effect on the earth, providing the water it needs so that the seeds may grow. Rain may come down to earth in torrents. Dew, in contrast, lands gently on the earth in a thin layer.

Sforno posits that both the average person and the erudite, brilliant scholar are capable of comprehending the Torah. The difference between the two is in their level of understanding and ability to grasp its lessons and profundities. The average Jew will absorb Torah on a superficial level. His grasp does not exceed his reach. He understands and appreciates Torah within the constraints of his intellectual acumen. This concept of Torah is compared to tal, dew, which benefits and enhances the earth on a gentle and limited level. The intelligent, advanced student of Torah, who plumbs its profundities and resolves its mysteries, is compared to the rain. Strong rain is driven to the earth with force, which, at times, overwhelms the land. The Torah overwhelms the mind of the scholar, just as it captivates and penetrates the soul of the wise man, who is capable of appreciating its depth and the wonders of Hashem's teachings.

How is it possible for the same item to have two distinct incongruous effects on people? How could Torah be compared to gentle dew and also to strong rain? Horav Moshe Reis, Shlita, cites Ibn Ezra in his preface to his commentary to Sefer Koheles, who compares Hashem's influence, His spiritual flow, to the rays of the sun. We see with our own eyes that some objects become brighter in the sun, while people turn darker in its rays. The sun is the same; the objects are different. Likewise, among people: There are those to whom Torah is overwhelming and compelling, due to its depth and wisdom. To others, Torah is simple and gentle. It all depends on with what capabilities and attitude one approaches it.

Attitude plays a critical role in success in Torah. One must have a great desire to achieve success in Torah and be willing to work hard to achieve his goal. The individual who takes it easy -- sitting back and waiting for the Torah to enter his mind -- will only develop a peripheral knowledge of Torah. I recently read a powerful story about a young boy's resolve to study Torah, related in Rabbi Yechiel Spero's, Touched By A Story 2.

The story is about a thirteen-year-old survivor of the Holocaust. As a child, he did not have the opportunity to study Torah beyond the primary courses taught in the local cheder. His desire had always been to go to yeshivah gedolah to study Torah in depth, but his hopes were not realized as a result of the war. He spent his youth differently than others. As a young boy, he was witness to his parents' execution. He then became a victim of Nazi cruelty himself. Forced to run away and hide, he survived on grass and hay.

With the liberation, he was thrown into a new turmoil. With no home and no family, he finally made it to the American shore, alone and lonely. Lucky to be befriended by a family, who, albeit kind, could not understand his plight, the next two years were at best bittersweet, filled with sadness and pain.

His dream to become a talmid chacham, Torah scholar, continued to burn fiercely in his mind. He visited a number of schools, hoping to be accepted as a student. Alas, no one was interested in teaching Aleph Bais to a thirteen-year-old boy. He was frustrated. All he wanted was to learn Torah, and no one was willing to give him a chance. He was about to give up, but decided one more attempt could not hurt. He would try one more yeshivah.

He walked into the principal's office and presented his case. Giving it all he had, he mixed emotion with logic and a little begging. The principal seemed genuinely concerned, and the young boy felt he might finally have made a dent. He would be accepted as a student in this yeshivah.

Just as his hopes soared, however, the rug was pulled from under him, as the principal said, "We would love to have you attend our school, but there is nowhere that I could place a thirteen-year-old boy whose proficiency level does not extend beyond the Aleph -Bais."

Crushed, the young boy looked back at the principal and, with dejection written all over his face and with tears streaming from his eyes, he said, "I accept the rejection. It is something I have become accustomed to hearing. I ask you only for one favor. Could you please write me a note stating that I came to you and asked to be accepted in your yeshivah, so that I could learn Torah, and you told me that it is ridiculous for a thirteen- year-old boy to be studying in the same class with kindergarten children. Please see to it that when I die the Chevrah Kadisha, Jewish burial society, buries me with that note in my hand. This way I can come before Hashem and tell Him that I at least tried to the best of my ability to learn Torah!"

When the principal heard this heartrending plea from the boy's mouth, he jumped up from his chair, embraced the boy and together they cried. The very next day, the thirteen-year-old boy was learning Torah with boys who were nine years his junior. He did not care. He finally was doing what he always strived to do - learn Torah. Today, he is a talmid chacham who, for almost a half of a century, has been teaching Torah to earnest young men in Yerushalayim who, like himself, want to achieve Torah scholarship.

A G-d of faith without iniquity, righteous and fair is He. (32:4)

In the Talmud Taanis 11A, Chazal explain the meaning of tzadik v'yashaar hu, "righteous and fair is He"; Hashem metes out exacting justice to the righteous for their misdeeds, while He rewards the wicked for their merits, so that He does not deprive the tzadikim of eternal life in the next world. They add that at the time of a person's departure to his eternal home, all of his earthly deeds also take leave of him. The Heavenly Tribunal then says to him, "Did you do thus and thus at such and such place on such and such day?" He responds, "Yes." He is then told to sign his name to attest to the veracity of the record of his deeds. Moreover, the individual is matzdik es ha'din, ratifies the judgment he will receive, telling them; "You have judged me correctly." This is the idea behind fairness and righteousness: everybody gets his due - and he accepts it.

Let us try to understand Chazal. This occurs in the Olam ha'Emes, World of Truth. There are no games there, no shtick, no lies. Why is a person asked anything? Is there a possibility that one might not recognize his own actions? Is it necessary to respond in the affirmative and to sign in testimony and agreement? What are Chazal teaching us with this idea?

Horav Baruch Mordechai Ezrachi, Shlita, explains that in this world our perspective is limited to time, place and sensory perception. Everything we do has an enormous effect on our surroundings, on the people with whom we deal and on those we influence. We do not realize this, however, because we cannot perceive anything beyond the boundaries that being made of flesh and blood establish for us.

Horav Yisrael Salanter, zl, explains that only Hashem Yisborach can mete out justice in a righteous and just manner. When He gives retribution, He takes every variable into consideration. Every smile, every tear, every bit of joy, and every drop of sadness: all factor into Hashem's accounting of a situation and His retribution.

This process is beyond man, given his physical limitations. In the World of Truth, our perception becomes eminently clear, the past and future are no longer incongruent tenses. They can now be viewed as parallel with the present. Suddenly, the actions that appeared "reasonable" from the earthly perspective have now taken on a completely new image. More people are involved: ramifications are magnified and extended. The individual no longer recognizes his actions for what they were before. Could these be his actions? Is it possible that what he sees now is the consequence of his actions? Against his will, he must accept the new reality, the picture perfect of his earthly activities. "Yes," he acknowledges, "these are my activities."

Likewise, when a person acts in a positive manner, whether it be carrying out a mitzvah, performing an act of lovingkindness, or any good deed, the picture in the Olam ha'Emes also changes. He will see the incredible long- term effect of his positive actions, whom they inspired, how their influence spread out in many ways.

He is then asked to affix a signature affirming his actions. That signature is the moment of truth. He now confronts the overwhelming reality of his actions. He sees the incredible good, and that is reassuring, but he also sees the extent of his misdeeds. The realization that all of the terrible consequences of his actions are before him -- and they are his sins -- is in itself the greatest punishment. When we are confronted with the truth - the extent - the effect - the overwhelming negativity resulting from our misdeeds, we realize the depth of our sins and recognize their severity. What we thought was a simple infraction has now become a sin of epic proportions.

As we begin a new year filled with aspirations, hope and renewed vigor to serve Hashem in the prescribed and correct manner, we should keep all this in mind. The good deeds that we perform are magnified beyond anything we can fathom. Regrettably, our negative activities have a similar effect. Our decision concerning which path we choose - that of reward or that of punishment - is a decision we must make here and now.

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

Moshe Rabbeinu's theme is very clear: Klal Yisrael is an am naval, a vile nation, whose shortsightedness and ingratitude play a role in its malevolent attitude towards Hashem. The cure is equally simple: reflect upon the past; study the glorious history of a nation under G-d's direction and beneficence; and realize that what has occurred in the course of world history was all regulated by Hashem for His People. We wonder why the Torah focuses on yemos olam, the days of yore. Should it not have said me'oraos olam, the happenings of the world? What about the timeline during which these occurrences took place needs to be emphasized?

I think the Torah is teaching us a compelling lesson in history and gratitude. We must judge history corresponding to the backdrop of yemos olam, time period during which the historical endeavors and occurrences took place. Upon judging the people of history, we must do so through the prism of the time frame of that period.

Having said this, I feel it is necessary to focus on a topic that has long been ignored. If Moshe Rabbeinu tells us that studying the past will cure our ingratitude and that lessons gleaned from a previous generation will be therapeutic for our shortsightedness, perhaps we should also follow this advice.

American Jews of the post-Holocaust period are the beneficiaries of a rich legacy of Torah that was transplanted on these shores by the udim mutzalim me'eish, "firebrands saved from the flames," survivors of the European conflagration known as the Holocaust. America today is replete with Torah from coast to coast: Yeshivos of every genre; Torah chinuch for girls; kollelim; Jewish outreach centers; Day Schools in most communities, even in some of those communities where years before a Torah school was nothing more than a dream -- or a nightmare. It has not always been like this.

Sixty-five years ago, America was a spiritual wasteland, barren of Torah, bereft of schools, with a critical shortage of leadership that was capable and willing to lead. When the survivors of the Holocaust came to these shores, they did not concede to apathy and depression. They were acutely aware that they were spared for a reason: to build Torah in America. Together, with a handful of devoted rabbinic and lay leadership, they transplanted European Torah to American youth. They planted the seeds that have sprouted and flourished with unprecedented Torah study and mitzvah observance.

Do we know who they were? Do we care? Have we ever taken the time or interest to study their lives, to delve into the challenges, trials and tribulations they overcame to build Torah for us? Or, in contrast, have we attempted to distance ourselves from them, because they would probably not fit in our present day Torah milieu? Zechor yemos olam! Remember the backdrop of that time period. Reflect on with what our predecessors had to contend: Who were their adversaries? What was public opinion? What was the effect of the economy? Of what did the spiritual landscape consist? Now, after we have factored in all of the above, we shall have a more profound appreciation of the vicissitudes they faced, the challenges they overcame, and the circumstances over which they triumphed. Whatever we have achieved in the area of Torah is in no small part attributed to their mesiras nefesh, self sacrifice - blood, sweat and tears. Indeed, we stand on their shoulders.

For it (the Torah) is not an empty thing from you. (32:47)

Rashi interprets this to mean that we toil in Torah for a good reason. Much reward depends on it, for Torah is our life. In an alternative explanation, Rashi says that there is nothing empty in Torah. Every word in Torah can be expounded upon. To substantiate this idea, he cites the pasuk in Bereishis 36:22, "And the sister of Lotan, Timnaand Timna was a concubine of Eliphaz, son of Eisav." Chazal ask, why would a noblewoman such as Timna, who was Lotan's sister, settle to become a concubine? They explain that she said, "I am not worthy to become a wife to him. If only I could become his concubine!" Why did the Torah go to such lengths to inform us of this? It is to teach us the praise of Avraham, that rulers and kings would desire to cleave to his seed. This demonstrates how a few innocuous words in the Torah teach us a significant lesson.

It would seem that Rashi is implying that in order to become aware of Avraham's eminence, we need Timna's affirmation. Consider the facts that Hashem refers to Avraham as G-d - fearing and that the Torah records many episodes concerning Avraham Avinu that depict his exemplary character and virtue. What concern is it to us what Timna thinks?

Horav Eliyahu Meir Bloch, zl, cites his father the Telzer Rav, Horav Yosef Yehudah Leib Bloch, zl, who explains that while Timna's praise does not add anything to Avraham's stature, the Torah nonetheless takes human nature into consideration. Any respect given to a person, regardless of the source, means something to people. An individual's esteem is elevated in our eyes when we see the respect accorded to him by others. If Avraham's esteem was elevated in the eyes of people as a result of Timna's respect for him, then it is worthy of being recorded in the Torah.

Rav Eliyahu Meir adds his own thoughts to the matter. The Torah is not simply conveying to us Avraham Avinu's virtue, it is also teaching us the importance of relating the greatness of a tzadik. While we are certainly aware of Avraham's righteousness, every incident adds to his distinction, and that is important to convey. When we see how far the Torah goes to relate the piety and character of a tzadik, we will be inspired to give a tzadik his proper esteem.

We see from here that the way we treat our gedolei Yisrael, Torah leaders, is the way others will emulate. Thus, before we point an accusing finger at the average Jew and demand a greater degree of derech eretz for our Torah leadership, we should set the standard.

Va'ani Tefillah

Sheh targileinu b'Torasecha - That You accustom us to (study) Your Torah.

The Gerrer Rebbe, Rav Avraham Mordechai, zl, was once asked to interpret the concept of becoming "accustomed to study Torah." Does Hashem want us to study Torah out of habit? Is there not a fear that one will become complacent with studying Torah? He will lose his Joie d'vivre, joy and enthusiasm in studying Torah, if it becomes nothing more than a "habit." Are we not commanded to view Torah as if it is something new that had just been given to us?

The Gerrer Rebbe replied that it should become a habit like eating. Even though a person eats three meals a day every day, he is still hungry every day and ready to eat another meal. So, too, a person should become accustomed to studying Torah, such that as much as he learns, he still has a hunger to learn more.

- V'al teveinu liyedei cheit, v'lo l'yedei aveirah v'avon - Let us come neither into the power of error nor into the power of transgression and sin.

Horav Shimon Schwab, zl, emphasizes the above translation as opposed to the common interpretation, "Do not lead us into sin." Hashem does not lead a person into sin. A person leads himself into sin. If a person decides to sin; the door is open. It is his choice. Thus, we ask Hashem to help us overcome the temptation, not to allow us to fall back into sin. He should help us stick to our resolve, to study Torah and become attached to mitzvos.

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

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