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Peninim on the Torah

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Rabbi A. Leib Scheinbaum
Hebrew Academy of Cleveland


Like an eagle arousing his nest hovering over his young, he spreads his wings, he takes it, he carries on his pinions. (32:11)

The Torah describes the incredible mercy which Hashem manifests when He is leading His children - the Jewish People. Rashi explains the pasuk's comparison of Hashem's relationship to Klal Yisrael to that of an eagle hovering over its young. The eagle is very compassionate toward his children, never entering the nest suddenly. First, he shakes and flaps above his children with his wings, flying back and forth from tree to tree and from branch to branch, so that the children wake up and have the strength to receive him. In addition, he does not rest his weight upon them; rather, he covers them in such a manner that he barely touches them. When the eagle carries his young from place to place, he does not carry them with his legs as other birds do, but rather, places them on his wings and carries them aloft. The eagle fears no other bird, since it flies the highest. Its greatest fear is that of the hunter's arrow. Therefore, he protects his children with his own body. Such is Hashem's incredible compassion for us.

Mah Hu rachum af atah rachum, "As He is compassionate, so should you show compassion." The following episode, cited by Horav Yitzchak Zilberstein, Shlita, demonstrates the compassion of a Jew for a young orphan. Forty years ago, one of the young members of a newly-founded kiryah suddenly passed away, leaving his widow and his twelve-year-old son. One of the baalei batim, members of the community, was acutely aware of what was destined to be this boy's sad spiritual doom if he were not enrolled soon in a good yeshivah. Being a kind-hearted, compassionate soul, this man waited until the end of the shivah, seven-day mourning period. After receiving the mother's permission, he took the young boy by the hand, and they were off to Yeshivas Ponevez.

After arriving at the yeshivah campus, the man asked for directions to the Rosh Yeshivah's office. He came to the office and was told that the Rosh Yeshivah was presently occupied, and it was impossible to fit another person into the Rosh Yeshivah's full schedule. The man politely thanked the secretary for the information, and he proceeded to knock on the door of the Rosh Yeshivah. He entered, faced the Ponevezer Rav, and immediately began to relate the story behind the boy. He concluded by saying that if they would not accept the boy into Ponevez he would, in no time, deteriorate spiritually.

The Rav was just getting over the shock of the man entering unannounced. He replied that, prior to any discussion concerning the feasibility of accepting the boy as a student, it was necessary to test his proficiency in Torah studies. After all, he might not be ready for Ponevez. The man quickly interjected, "Rebbe, the issue is not if he is suited for the yeshivah. He must go to yeshivah - or he will go off the derech! If we lose this boy to the secular elements, it will be our collective fault. We will have to answer for his downfall."

The Ponevezer Rav was not a stranger to outreach. His entire life was founded upon the principles of reaching out to young Jewish boys and providing them with a Torah chinuch, education. While he helped many, clearly, he could not save the world. Not every boy fit into Ponevez. In addition, the executive director, who happened to be meeting with the Rav, interrupted, "Do not forget that the yeshivah is not tuition-free. One must pay to attend."

The man had heard enough. He broke out in bitter weeping. "You ask for tuition?" he exclaimed. "One can demand money from he who has. This is an orphan. His father died last week. His mother does not have a penny to her name. She does not know where her next meal is coming from. I also have no money to pay, but I do know one thing: this boy must go to yeshivah. Are you going to refuse him because of money?"

When the Ponevezer Rav saw this demonstration of compassion for a Jewish child, he declared, "My friend, you have triumphed! At this moment, I have decided to accept the boy into the yeshivah. I cannot stand by idly and ignore the mesiras nefesh, self-sacrifice, of a Jew."

The next year, at the boy's Bar-Mitzvah celebration, the boy was flanked by the Ponevezer Rav and the man who had gone out of his way to help him. The crowd asked the Rav to speak in honor of the occasion. He replied, "I am not the one who should speak. Our friend here, who brought him to the yeshivah and was emphatic that he be accepted, is the one who should speak. It is in his merit that this young boy has achieved what he has."

I write this at the beginning of the year, a time when we are all searching for those elusive zechusim, merits, so that we succeed in prevailing over the prosecuting angel and warrant a new year filled with blessing. We try our hand at maasim tovim, good deeds, acts of chesed, loving-kindness, increase the intensity of our mitzvah observance, pray with greater passion, etc. We are always looking for "new" things to do. I have a humble suggestion: Why not attempt to correct some of the "old" incongruities in our lives? I am not addressing overt sins, but activities which either we personally do, or do nothing to stop others from continuing with their biases. First, it used to be the area of shidduchim, which, although not solved, is being addressed in a positive manner by qualified, sensitive individuals. Kids at risk, families at risk, all have their champions. What about the underlying issue in the above story? Are we opening our schools to all students, or is the game of playing with people's lives continuing in full force?

In some Jewish communities, a child is accepted based upon pedigree. Being the offspring of a baal teshuvah, penitent, disqualifies the child. The director will never say this; it will all be sugarcoated with another lame excuse. Where a person lives is important. If, for financial or social reasons the choice was made to live in the community's "outer" perimeter, the child will have to settle for a less than mainstream school. If, after ten years of learning in Kollel, the father has entered the workforce, and has to cut his learning down to study sessions prior to Shacharis and at night, this will probably disqualify his child from acceptance in a number of schools. His family's hashkafa, philosophy of Judaism and level of observance, has probably been altered due to his new vocation. How the parents dress plays a pivotal role. After all, tznius is the backbone of our people. All the above might be true, but where is our sense of rachmanus, compassion, for the children? Should not all Jewish children be afforded a superior Jewish education? When will ego and vested interests stop playing a role in our children's education? As I prefaced these words, it is the beginning of the New Year. These are pressing issues which we need to address.

You ignored the Rock Who gave birth to you, and forgot G-d Who brought you forth. (32:18)

The pasuk decries that we blatantly forget Hashem and everything that He has done for us. There is a well-known mashal, analogy, from the Maggid zl, of Dubno that explains this pasuk. Reuven was in debt to Levi to the tune of ten thousand dollars - money which he did not have. The problem was that the loan was due in a week. What was he to do? He shared his problem with Shimon, a trusted friend who was also wise to the ways of the world. Shimon gave Reuven some practical advice. "When Levi comes to collect his debt, jump onto your dining table, dance and then begin to crow like a rooster. I assure you that when Levi sees this, he will say, 'Reuven has gone mad. He is out of his mind. I will never be able to collect my debt from him.'"

The idea worked with Levi, who, upon seeing Reuven's condition, promptly walked away, giving up hope of retrieving his money from someone who had become insane. A few months later, Reuven was once again in need of a financial injection. This time, he turned to Shimon, who was glad to lend his friend money. When the note was due, Shimon came to Reuven and asked for his money. Suddenly, Reuven began to dance, climb the table, and crow like a rooster. His plan must have been: If it had worked once, why should it not work again? This time, however, Shimon told Reuven, "Did you forget who gave you the idea to act insane? It was I! Therefore, save your shtick for someone else. I know the real you!"

This is what the pasuk is teaching us, Tzur yeladcha teshi. Hashem created within us the natural proclivity toward forgetfulness. Otherwise, one could not function. It is important to be able to forget those incidents in our lives which have a negative impact on us. But - va'tishkach Keil mecholelecha - instead, we used that natural tendency in order to forget about Hashem. We forget all of the good things that He has done for us, and therefore, we felt that we owed Him very little.

In his commentary Yalkut Lekach Tov to Parashas Vayechi, Horav Yaakov Beifus, Shlita, tells the story of a Jewish man who entered the world of commerce. His first step was to go to the market to buy and sell. While he was there, his mind was totally absorbed with business, his goal being to earn as much profit as possible. After all, he had a family to support. One day, while he was running from one "deal" to another, he heard someone knocking on the window of a house that he had passed. Turning around to see who was knocking, he was shocked to see that it was his rebbe who was beckoning him to come into the house. As soon as he entered the room, his rebbe began to berate him, "How does an observant Jew, who has an understanding of Torah and mitzvos and his responsibility to uphold them, go and waste his time in business, as the gentiles?" This went on for a short while, during which the rebbe's rebuke became stronger and more direct. Every time the rebbe began a new line of criticism, the man took another business document out of his pocket - folded it and threw it to the ground.

"Why are you doing that?" the rebbe asked. "Why are you throwing out your hard-earned money?" Now the man was totally clueless. What did his rebbe want from him? First, he admonished him for getting involved in business. Now, he was berating him for getting out of business. It seemed that he could just not win. The rebbe took note of his student's incredulous gaze and said, "You do not seem to understand the purpose of my rebuke. Let me share a story with you that will perhaps clarify my actions.

"In a far-away village two simple farmers lived. Decent men, they earned their meager living from the soil. They worked hard in the field from dawn until dusk. At the end of the day, they would meet in the local bar for a couple of drinks and conversation. One evening, one of the farmers said to his friend, 'I noticed that the last few evenings you have appeared troubled. It is written all over your face. Tell me what is wrong. I am your friend.'

"'I will tell you the truth. I have been troubled by a nightmare which seems to be returning every night. It troubles me greatly, causing me to be depressed.'" When his friend heard this, he replied, 'I must be honest with you. I also have been having this strange, troubling dream every night. It has been bothering me too.'

"Two friends having troubling dreams every night seemed to be a bad omen: "'Let us share the dreams with each other. Perhaps we might arrive at a satisfying conclusion.'" Each one began to relate his individual dream to the other, and, lo and behold, they were both having the same dream. They dreamed that the grain which would be harvested the following year would be deficient, in the sense that anyone who ate from it would become insane. The question was: What should they do? Eating from the grain meant going crazy; not eating from the grain meant that they would remain normal, but, if everyone else was mentally deficient, what benefit would there be to their continuing normalcy?

"They went to a wise old man to seek his sage advice. After listening to their story, he said, 'Truthfully, I also had the same dream, but I really do not know if I will live long enough to be affected by it. As far as the two of you are concerned, I would suggest that you plant and harvest the grain, but prior to eating the grain, each of you tie a black belt around your waist and hold the belt while you eat. It will not prevent you from eating and going crazy, but, at least, you will know you are insane. The other people, however, will be unaware of their condition.'

The rebbe now continued his explanation to his student: "There is no question that it is incumbent upon you to earn a living. It is your attitude which concerns me. You must realize that earning a livelihood is only a medium for Torah study. Without 'flour,' there can be no Torah. You, however, have transformed a 'necessary evil' into a way of life. The rest of the world goes insane in their pursuit of a livelihood. We, however, do know and understand that it is all insanity - but necessary insanity. It is something we must do. The problem arises when we lose perspective and accept that this is normal and proper."

The man was being taught a lesson in evaluating his priorities. As long as one does not lose sight of what is to be his first concern, he is safe. When one's priorities become confused due to the individual's disorientation concerning what is truly important, problems arise. Insanity comes in many shapes and forms. A person whose mind is not functioning properly can be quite healthy in every other part of his body. It is just that as a result of a malfunctioning, he sees things differently than everyone else. I say this because one can be completely "normal" and still manifest a proclivity for acting foolishly. Why? How? He is preoccupied with himself. Thus, every decision that he makes is all about himself. Regardless of how this decision will affect his spouse, his children, his friends - it is all about himself.

There are people who are in pain: physical pain; emotional pain; even spiritual pain. When they are in pain, they are totally preoccupied with their discomfort. They are impatient, intolerant, and irritable, making decisions based less on rational thinking and more on what eases their malaise. Some are fortunate enough to be aware of their condition, thus rendering them disqualified to make a serious decision. Those are the lucky ones. It is the other ones whose perception of life is so skewed that the world out there does not count; their immediate families are unimportant; it is all about them. Their decisions are distorted. Heaven help the individual who attempts to set them straight, who endeavors to guide them along a rational path. They will not listen. Their sense of objectivity is gone. These individuals are like the people in the above story: He is insane, but he is unaware of his affliction. Such a person harms not only himself, but also all of those around him.

For their day of catastrophe is near, and future events are rushing at them. (32:35)

The time will come that the nations who have afflicted us will no longer have any merit to protect them. Their "foot will falter," and retribution for all of the evil which they have perpetrated will be at hand. With this pasuk, Moshe Rabbeinu concluded the dreadful prophecies which comprise most of Shiras Haazinu. He now begins the comfort and consolation, assuring Klal Yisrael that once they have received their punishment, followed by a lasting repentance, Hashem will embrace them and welcome them home with the speedy Redemption.

Living at the period of the End of Days can be traumatic. On the one hand, the tzaaros, afflictions, foreshadowed for this epoch in Jewish history were filled with gloom. Their dire message for this period is hardly heartening, but there is a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow: it is the end. Moshiach will come; with his advent, a new world of indescribable goodness will be ushered in. We wait eagerly for that day. It is that hope that keeps us going during the bad times. There is an inspiring story that fits in beautifully at this point, which provides us with insight into how we should perceive these days.

The chassidic master, Horav Dov Ber, zl, m'Radushitz, was once traveling, and he stayed overnight at a wayside inn owned by a Jew. In the morning, he made a point to seek out the innkeeper. "Reb Yid," he began, "the clock in the room where I slept, where is it from?" The Rebbe seemed quite excited, leaving the innkeeper stymied. What could the Rebbe want with a simple clock?

"Why?" the innkeeper asked, a bit surprised. "It is quite an ordinary clock. There are hundreds just like it hanging in homes throughout the country."

"No, no," the Rebbe insisted. "This is not an ordinary clock. It is special. Please find out for me where this clock comes from."

The innkeeper had better things to do than to research the history of the clock. One does not, however, ignore the request of such a venerable sage. He went around searching for the clock's original owner. "I have discovered the clock's original owner," the innkeeper blurted out. He was breathless as he went on; "The clock once belonged to the Chozeh, zl, m'Lublin, Horav Yaakov Yitzchak Horowitz." Apparently, one of the Chozeh's heirs fell on hard times and was forced to sell the family clock. It passed from hand to hand until the innkeeper picked it up at a local flea market.

"But, of course, now it all makes sense. Only the Chozeh's clock could mark time the way this clock does!" The Rebbe explained, "Your standard clock strikes a mournful tone every hour, since another hour gone by indicates that one more hour of life has elapsed, and you are now one hour closer to the grave. This clock, however, is different. It signals another hour of galus, exile, that has passed. You are now one hour closer to the advent of Moshiach and the Redemption.

"All through the night," the Rebbe concluded, "every hour that was sounded by the clock, caused me to leap out of bed and dance for joy!"

A powerful story with an even more compelling message. Every moment of life can be viewed from either of two perspectives: negative and positive. This does not advocate looking forward to death. It just teaches us how to view the ultimate end of our lives - which we all reach - some sooner, some later. I just read a wonderful article by a popular writer who grapples with his own mortality. Having confronted his own physical impermanence via a physician's diagnosis, rather than his awareness of human destiny, was a powerful wakeup call. Being a rational person and Torah scholar, he applied his "newly-acquired" recognition of mortality to add many positive dimensions to his life. Indeed, he views this past year, in many ways, as the most fulfilling and contented time of his life. Why? Because he now treasures every G-d-given moment. Living life with the awareness of its eventual end can actually be a great source of blessing.

It is all in the attitude one maintains. The Chozeh viewed every moment of life that passed as one moment closer to the Geulah, Redemption. We see now that even confronting one's mortality, if done on the proper note through the eyes of conviction, can be a source of blessing, since one now appreciates every moment for what it is really worth. The Kotzker Rebbe, zl, taught students not to fear death. He told them, "Death is just a matter of going from one room to another - and the latter is much more beautiful."

Hashem spoke to Moshe in the middle of that day. (32:48)

Rashi quotes the Yalkut which notes the usage of the term etzem ha'yom ha'zeh, "In the middle of that day," three times in the Torah. First, when Noach entered the Ark. Hashem did this, so that the members of his generation could not say, "Had we known, we would have prevented Noach and his family from entering." Hashem was intimating, "You cannot stop Me from saving Noach." When the Jews left Egypt it was also b'etzem hayom ha'zeh. This was because the Egyptians were saying, "We will prevent the Jews from leaving. We will not allow them out of Egypt." Well, they were mistaken. Last, concerning Moshe Rabbeinu's imminent death, Hashem took him in the middle of the day. The Jewish People were saying, "We will not allow the man who did so much for us to die. He led us out of Egypt and guided us through the wilderness, with all its accompanying miracles. This cannot be. Moshe is entering Eretz Yisrael together with us." They were wrong. Hashem had other plans. He demonstrated this by calling Moshe "home" b'etzem hayom hazeh.

The question glares at us. Perhaps the people of Noach's generation thought that they could prevent Noach's entrance into the Ark. Likewise, the foolish Egyptians might have conjectured that they could muster up some power and arrest the Jews' exodus from Egypt,but what could the Jewish People do about averting Moshe's death? Hashem had decreed that Moshe was not going into Eretz Yisrael. The time had come. Moshe would have to part company with his beloved nation. How does one impede Hashem's decree?

We are compelled to defer to the obvious explanation. The Jews had one medium which was tried and proven: Tefillah, prayer. They thought that by intense prayer, coupled with fasting, weeping and serious entreaty, they would catalyze the annulment of Hashem's decree. Sadly, they were wrong.

Moshe's tefillah was not successful. Why would the people's prayer fare any better than that of their revered rebbe? Herein, explains Horav Chaim Zaitzhick, zl, lay their error. They believed too much in the efficacy of their prayer. They thought more of themselves than warranted. Indeed, quite possibly, Moshe's death was untimely, so that Hashem could teach the people an important lesson: do not overestimate your spiritual achievement. It may not be as lofty as you think. Believe in yourself - to a point - but do not lose sight of the reality that Hashem has a different barometer for measuring spiritual accomplishment.

Another lesson to be derived from here is how much a person does not really know about his true nature. Throughout the forty-year trek in the wilderness, the people complained against Moshe, argued, slandered and demonstrated disrespect. Yet, when they heard the news that Moshe was going to die, they were inconsolable. They were prepared to do anything to prevent it.

This attitude is not uncommon among families. Teenagers argue with their parents, complain and condemn - constantly. But, after all is said and done, beneath that veneer of insubordination is love, respect and admiration. Regrettably, it might take a crisis to bring these feelings to the fore.

Va'ani Tefillah

Yotzeir ohr u'borei choshech. He forms light and creates darkness.

At their point of creation, darkness preceded light in formation. Since this brachah is recited in the morning, however, we mention light prior to darkness. In Tefillas Arvis, evening service, we say goleil ohr mipnei choshech, "He rolls away the light in the face of the oncoming darkness." This tefillah, as we recite it after sunset, denotes their actual sequence of creation, with our gratitude being expressed to Hashem for the gift of darkness.

There is a discussion among philosophers concerning the entity of darkness: Whether it is, in fact, a creation, or, rather, simply, the absence of light. Horav Yaakov Moshe Charlop, zl, uses the pasuk in Yeshayahu 45:7, Yotzeir ohr u'borei choshech, which is the source of the above blessing, as proof to the notion that darkness is a creation. He explains that, essentially the awareness of the absence of light is in itself a form of creation. Knowing that something is missing raises one's consciousness concerning the present state of the subject he is viewing. In other words, once light was created, darkness took on a new form. The very notion that we need light to survive - and that without it we are lost - gives efficacy and greater meaning to its absence in the wake of darkness, rendering darkness all that more palpable.

לזכר נשמת
רחל לאה בת ר' נח ע"ה
פריידא בת ר' נח ע"ה
שרה אסתר בת ר' נח ע"ה

By their family

Peninim on the Torah is in its 20th year of publication. The first fifteen years have been published in book form.

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

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