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Peninim on the Torah

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Rabbi A. Leib Scheinbaum
Hebrew Academy of Cleveland


Give ear, O heavens, and I will speak; And may the earth hear the words of my mouth. May my teaching drop like the rain, may my utterance flow like the dew; like storm winds upon vegetation and like raindrops upon blades of grass. (32:1,2)

Horav Yaakov Moshe Charlop, zl, observes the reality of two students of the same ability and similar qualities entering a yeshivah program; they remain in the yeshivah the same length of time, both studying diligently. Yet, one emerges as a gadol b'Yisrael, Torah giant, while the other one leaves as a learned Jew, fully proficient in Torah erudition, but does not achieve gadlus, greatness, in Torah. What is the difference between them? The rav explains that it is all dependent upon one's ability to attend. The more attention one pays to a subject, the more he throws himself into a project, the greater is the likelihood that he will succeed at what he does and the greater his ultimate personal success quotient will be. The fellow who punches in punctually at 8:00 a.m. and punches out punctually at 5:00 p.m. is a conscientious worker, but, chances are, that is all he will be. The individual who is likely to grow in the business world is the one who does not wait till 8:00 a.m. to punch in, and who does not stand by the clock waiting for the time at which he can punch out. Two people may be endowed with similar gifts, but the individual who applies himself more will be the one who actually makes it to the top.

Parashas Ha'azinu begins with this idea: the importance of listening, taking note, applying what one hears to practical use. The first two pesukim teach us the various forms of application. The Ohr HaChaim HaKadosh explains the contrasts which are noted in these pesukim. We find haazanah opposite shemia, both of which are forms of paying attention. We find dibur opposite amirah, both of which are forms of communication: dibur is a form of communication which contrasts with amirah, flowing speech, in which a lesson is taught by itself, by example, by derivation.

The Ohr HaChaim focuses upon three distinctions. Shomayim and aretz, heaven and earth, represent two entities that are geographically distant from one another. When one communicates with the earth it is much simpler, since the earth is in the speaker's close proximity. The earth can easily hear words which heaven must strain to listen to. One does not have to exert himself, expend much effort, in reaching out to someone who is close. With regard to someone who is distant, a greater demand is placed on his communication skills, on his ability to reach out to someone who is not close by. I must add that distance is not necessarily measured only in physical terms, but in spiritual terms as well. We could be sitting right next to someone but, spiritually, we may be light years away from him.

When one must reach someone who is far, it is necessary to seek every effective method of communicating over distance. Furthermore, distance does not only apply to two people. An individual may even be distant from himself! For example, if there is something which I am not willing to do, then I am distant from this project. If I am to convince someone who has no relationship to the importance of a certain mitzvah, he could be well-versed, quite observant, and deeply committed, but if he is clueless concerning the critical importance of, for example, kollel, or the crucial significance of shemittah - he is distant. With him, we do not communicate on the same level as we would with someone who is close to us - with whom we have an intimate relationship.

Second, the Ohr HaChaim observes that heaven and earth are two disparate entities: one is physical, the other is spiritual. Concerning heaven, the mode of communication is dibur, which is stronger and more compelling than amirah. The soul is able to tolerate a stronger form of Heavenly communication than the body can endure. Thus, when speaking with a person, it is important that the message be conveyed in a pleasant, soft-spoken manner. Otherwise, the desired effect will probably not be attained. When one speaks regarding ruchniyus, spirituality, to men of elevated spiritual ascendency, one may make demands; one may give ultimatums, because the spiritual world and those whose lives are regulated by it are made of different mettle. They can handle it.

When one embarks on the journey toward achievement in Torah, at first it is difficult. Yaaruf kamatar likchi; Hashem's words descend with the force of a pelting rain. The student feels overwhelmed. It is just too hard. When one feels deluged by the weight of such compelling lessons, he gravitates to the more simple lessons, the stories which are easy to listen to and do not challenge his mind. When one strives to make it in ruchniyus, he must first be aware that the climb will be difficult - but, if he perseveres, he will reach the zenith and experience a source of satisfaction unlike anything else he has previously experienced. At this point, Hashem's words flow with ease like the dew. It is no longer difficult. He has risen to the challenge. It is not coming "down." He has gone "up."

Everyone has his personal challenge, his own journey. Much like k'se'irim alei eisav, the rain drops upon the blades of grass. No blade of grass is the same; none touches the other; each has its own individual drop of rain to nurture it.

When we chastise a person concerning spiritual matters, we may be demanding and forceful. Spirituality is on a different plane. Thus, we speak differently. In contrast, when we address a person's personal issues, it requires warmth, compassion and love. We are talking to a person about his personal life. We must go easy on him - or we will lose him completely.

Third, the heavens represent the leadership, the great ones, who stood at the forefront of our people. The aretz, earth, is a metaphor for the amcha, ordinary Jews, the multitudes of our nation who are the soldiers. Moshe Rabbeinu speaks strongly to the leadership, "As the Shomayim aspect of Klal Yisrael, your behavior must be pristine; your ethics, exemplary, your moral demeanor, immaculate. This way, the aretz, the hamon am, Jews all over, will look up to you and follow your example."

Our third lesson is consequential and quite possibly the most portentious. It is not always about what we say, or how we express ourselves. It is not necessarily about the depth of our message, or the compelling nature with which we express it. The most profound manner of communicating the importance of our message is by exemplifying it. We can talk ourselves blue in the face - if we do not have the respect of our student, child, friend, we are wasting our time. We must set an example, a standard by which we live, so that it will be transmitted into the hearts and minds of our students/children. The rest is determined by method. If there is, however, no teacher to speak of, method is of limited value.

The Rock! His works are flawless, for all His ways are just. (32:4)

People go through life living a dream - a dream that allows them to believe that they can get away with what they wish. They are granted free will, so that they may choose whatever lifestyle suits their fancy. They even begin to think that Hashem does not frown upon what they do. Proof positive is that nothing happens to them. No bolt of lightning strikes them when they bite into a succulent portion of non-kosher food. They blatantly desecrate the holy Shabbos - seemingly with impunity. If Hashem really cares, why does He not do something about it? Apparently, the days of shemiras ha'mitzvos, mitzvah observance, are bygone and the Torah's commandments are archaic. They have convinced themselves of this foolishness, because it eases their conscience.

If we would know the pain that Hashem experiences when His children sin, we would think and act differently. Imagine an earthly father who has given his child everything, asking very little in return. When the child rebels and does everything that displeases the father, is there any doubt that the father is in pain, that he suffers greatly as a result of this child's insolence? Why do we not take this into account when we act out our fantasies, when we allow our bechirah chafshis, free-will, to run roughshod over everything that Hashem has commanded us not to do? The answer is that the yetzer hora, evil inclination, has convinced us that we can get away with it. Reward and punishment are fairy tales. One need not worry. We have no accountability. This is what the yetzer hora would have us think.

The Torah teaches otherwise. Hashem is just. His ways are wholesome. We will be rewarded for our good deeds and positive actions, and we will pay for our sins. Horav Lazer Brody, Shlita, offers an inspirational analogy which is profound in its simplicity. A man enters a fancy restaurant. This is no simple food establishment. It caters only to the effete rich. The valets who are parking the cars are quite comfortable behind the wheel of a Bentley, because this is what they are accustomed to parking. After being seated at a table in the most exclusive section of the restaurant, the man begins to order. Duck liver roasted in wine. This is only the appetizer. The entr?e is a two-inch Kobe steak saut?ed in exotic vegetables. He orders a thirty-year-old chateau wine. For dessert, he enjoys a healthy serving of a decadent chocolate mousse cake. This is accompanied by a glass of the finest French cognac. He then lights up a Cuban cigar, and his evening is complete.

After resting for a while and checking his emails, he asks the waiter for his bill. The waiter complies and returns with his bill, ensconced in a hand-stitched leather holder. The man opens the holder, removes the bill, and gasps. He almost passes out when he sees that his little foray into the restaurant has cost him seven hundred dollars - and this does not even include the tip for the waiter! He begins to scream, "How dare you charge me so much money for dinner?" The waiter stands there calmly and replies, "Sir, it was you who ate. The prices for each course are clearly marked on the menu. You will either pay, or I will be compelled to refer you to the authorities."

The analogy is quite clear and simple to understand. The restaurant is this wonderful world which Hashem created just for us to enjoy. All of the entrees and courses on the menu are the earthly pleasures which are available for us to enjoy. There is, however, a price to pay for each bit of enjoyment. Nothing is free. We eat - we pay. It is as simple as that. There are no free rides. Those of us who choose to live a life of physical pleasure and materialism can do so. We must remember that, of course, we will have to pay a heavy price. If we are going to have an expensive meal, then the price on the bill will be equally high.

Everything which we do on this world is recorded in Heaven. At the end of our mortal journey, when we finish enjoying our worldly pleasure, we will be called to pay up. It is then that we will realize that all of His ways are just. We are not being punished - absolutely not! We are just being given the bill for our stay on this world.

A G-d of faithfulness without injustices; He is righteous and upright. (32:4)

Our inability to see beyond the parameters of our eyesight is the reason that people have questions concerning the manner in which Hashem guides the world. As human beings we have limited eyesight, and, our ability to understand His ways is, likewise, stunted. We understand neither why bad things happen to good people, nor who really is good and who is not. For that matter, can we really define good things? The following story regarding the birth of Rav Aharon Karliner, zl, founder of the Karlin-Stolin dynasty, should engender a good feeling within us, especially on this, the first Shabbos of the year, when our fate for the coming year is before the Heavenly Tribunal.

Rav Yaakov and his wife, Perel, of Pinsk, Poland, had not yet been blessed with children. Hearing of the great Baal Shem Tov, and his ability to be the catalyst for miracles, motivated Perel to travel to the holy man and entreat his blessing. She poured out her heart to him, and she received his blessing. The next year, she was holding her own son in her arms. Words cannot describe the joy that permeated their home. Sadly, it was cut short when, two years later, shortly after taking their son for his first visit to the Baal Shem Tov, the child died. After the mourning period was complete, they returned broken-hearted to the Baal Shem Tov in search of an explanation.

When they entered his room, he was engrossed in deep thought. He looked up at them and said, "Let me tell you a story. A powerful king had everything a person could want, but one thing: he had no children. After visiting the greatest doctor of his time, with all the same results- no luck- he decided to turn to the nation that understands that everything in life is actually a miracle from G-d: the Jewish People. He called in the leaders of the Jewish community and put it to them very bluntly: They would either pray for him to have a child, or they would all be expelled from the country.

"The Jews were used to impossible demands. This was, however, an ultimatum they could not negotiate. They turned to Hashem and did what they did best: daven. The prayers had their desired effect. Hashem now needed a "volunteer" from the world of the neshamos to be willing to descend to this world and allow his soul to live within the body of a gentile. One holy soul came forward. "If it means saving an entire Jewish community - I will do it!" the neshamah declared.

"The joy throughout the king's palace extended throughout the country. The Jews enjoyed tremendous respect and favor. The young prince was a brilliant child, soon there was no one who could teach him. The king brought his son to the pope and asked him to see to his son's education personally. One does not argue with the king. The Pope now had a new student. The boy absorbed whatever he was taught - on both secular and religious bases. He was allowed full reign over the papal palace. There was one restriction, however: one room was sealed every day for two hours; no one was allowed entrance. This piqued the prince's curiosity. One day, he figured out how to enter the room - which he did.

"How shocked he was to discover the Pope wearing tallis and tefillin! At first, he lost his breath and could find no words to express himself. The prince then expressed his inner joy, explaining to the Pope that, although he did not know why, he had a serious gravitational pull towards Judaism. He wanted to convert, so that he could live and die as a Jew. When the Pope realized that there stood before him no simple soul, he facilitated his escape. The boy found a community whose rav studied with him, and he converted to Judaism."

The Baal Shem Tov continued: "Years went by, and the child, now a man, went the way of the world. Upon passing, his soul came before Hashem and asked for entrance into Gan Eden. He had successfully completed his mission. As Hashem was about to grant his request, the prosecuting angel came forward and accused, 'What about those years he lived as a pagan, as a prince in the king's palace?' It was a strong indictment which could not be placated. Hashem responded with a decree that this pure, holy soul descend to this world and live a pure life for two years. That neshamah was the neshamah of your baby. It was not decreed for you to have children. Through your prayers you were granted this special gift." The parents were assuaged, but questioned if they had done enough to raise their child. The Baal Shem Tov instructed them to recite amein with children in shul and hand out sweets to the children. Shortly thereafter, they were blessed with a special child whom they named Aharon. He was the holy founder of the Karlin/Stolin dynasty. Once again, we see that things are not always as they appear.

Remember the world history, study the generational epochsBecause (of) Hashem's His People, Yaakov the cable of his heritage. (32:7,9)

One would conjecture that the notion that the Jewish People have a unique relationship with Hashem, that Yaakov and his descendants represent chevel nachalaso, the cable of His heritage, is a matter of emunah, faith. As Jews, we believe from our very entrance into cogency that Hashem has chosen us and that we are different as a result of this Divine selection. Horav Yeruchem Levovitz, zl, posits that the pasuk is teaching us otherwise. Our extraordinary relationship with Hashem is not a matter of faith; rather it is a matter of history. If we peruse the annals of history, we note that the mere fact that the Jewish People are in existence is a tribute to the fact that we are Hashem's designated people.

B'hafrido bnei adam, "When He separated the children of man" (ibid. 32:8). Now, more than ever, we realize the different characteristics which define people from different nations, various cultures and geometric backgrounds. As in all things physical, with the slightest change in its physical makeup there will also be a variation in its definition. Two pieces of wood may both be called wood, but one is birch while the other is elm. The wood is derived from disparate trees, thus determining that the two pieces of wood are not the same.

Likewise, the entire world may be filled with humans who happen to be a creation unlike animals. Even among humans, however, there are defining characteristics which classify them differently. Klal Yisrael is simply just not like everyone else in the world. Hashem has separated us from the rest of creation. Our spiritual calling defines us. We have mitzvos which are not simply activities for us to perform, but comprise the secret of our distinctiveness. We are made from a different mold!

Rav Yeruchem quotes Sforno's commentary to Vayikra 13:47, in which he writes, "For in truth, the human species represents the ultimate purpose intended (by the Creator) in all existence, particularly among mortal beings. For he alone among all (creatures) is predisposed to be like the Creator in intellect and deed And (when) He chose Klal Yisrael, as it says, 'Hashem, Your G-d, has chosen you to be His own treasure' (Devarim 7:6). This is because the hopeful intent of G-d was more likely to be realized among men of this nation, more so than any other men, for the existence of G-d and His unity were known partially and accepted among all of Yisrael from their ancestors." He writes that man is the crown of Creation, chosen for his ability to emulate the Creator. However, only Klal Yisrael realized this awesome responsibility and, even among them, a relatively small number accepted the challenge of attaining the level of excellence that Hashem has ordained for them.

We are made from a different mold! Their goals and objectives, their purpose in life, is so different from ours that there is absolutely no way to make a logical comparison. This is why we are different. This is why Hashem separated us from the rest of the world.

For it is not an empty thing for you; for it is your life. (32:47)

When the Torah writes that the Torah is the life source of the Jew, it is not meant to be a clich?. It means exactly what it says. A parent may often tell a child, "You are my life," but, despite the enormous amount of affection the parent seeks to convey with this statement, the parent's life and existence is not contingent upon the child. Not so the Torah, which is perfectly exacting in everything it says. If the pasuk says that Torah is our life - then it is the entire source of our existence. Without Torah, we are dead. It is a fact. Torah means life. No Torah means death. It is as simple as that.

Horav Mordechai Gifter, zl, was the living embodiment of this concept. Anyone who had the privilege of seeing the Rosh Yeshivah learn saw pure life. One saw a person "alive" in the strongest and truest sense of the word. One saw the joie de vivre in all its glory. The Rosh Yeshivah explains this phenomenon. He quotes the Rambam in his Shemoneh Perakim, who explains that all physical matter is divided into five categories. They are: domeim, inorganic objects, such as stones and rocks; tzomeiach, growing things, such as plant life; chai, living creatures; medaber, humans who have the ability to think and speak; ben Yisrael, the Jew.

Each of these creations is different from one another in essence, as well as in degree. Plant life is not merely a stone with added features. Plant life is a totally different creation, with nothing in common with the inanimate, non-growing stone. This idea applies equally to the others. Thus, the ben Yisrael is different from other humans. We may look the same, communicate in the same manner, but, from the perspective of their essential character, the two are miles apart. As each category is different in its level of life, so, too, is it different in its source of life.

The Jew, despite possessing a physical body like other human beings, is primarily comprised of a spiritual essence, and the source of this level of life lies in spirituality - not in physical substance. He certainly requires physical sustenance to sustain him in this world. In addition, the Jew lives on when his physical container is removed from this world. His essence is spiritual; thus, his essence lives on. Torah fulfillment is the source of life for the Jew. When he adheres to this way of life, he is connected with the bond of life, with his source of life. If, however, he severs this connection, he will remain physically alive, but his true essence and being - his spiritual dimension - will be non-existent.

Our Sages (Avodah Zarah 3b) compare a Jew to a fish. Just as the fish dies the moment it is removed from the water - its source of life - so, too, does the Jew die spiritually the moment he severs his connection with the Torah. The Rosh Yeshivah adds that while the fish may thrash around, flipping itself on the shore, it is in its death throes. Despite its movement, it is still considered dead. Likewise, the Jew, when he is separated from his life source may appear alive, since there still is some movement. This is only temporary, from his physical standpoint, but spiritually, he is already disconnected - dead.

The Rishon L'Tzion, Horav Mordechai Eliyahu, zl, offers an inspiring analogy to emphasize the importance of incessant Torah learning. He notes that whenever Sephardim read from three different Torah scrolls, Half-Kaddish is recited at the conclusion of each Torah reading. Ashkenazim do so only once. Some Sephardim recite two Kaddeishim on Shemini Atzeres /Simchas Torah when three Sifrei Torah are used: Devarim to conclude the Torah; Bereishis to commence the Torah; the regular Yom Tov reading Sephardic custom changes, and only two Kaddeishim are recited. This is because they want to connect the end of V'zos Ha'Brachah with the beginning of Bereishis. They do not want to interrupt with a Kaddish in between. Indeed, they connect the last letter of the Torah - lamed with the first letter - bais, which together spell the word lev, heart. The Torah is the heart of the Jewish People.

Rav Eliyahu explains that the human body is comprised of many organs, most of which "rest" when the body sleeps. The ears do not hear; the mouth does not speak, the legs do not walk, etc. There is one major organ which never sleeps. Indeed, if this organ were to stop its function for but a moment, the person would go into cardiac arrest and die. The heart must constantly function. There is no sleep for the heart, because, when it sleeps, the person dies. The same idea applies to Torah study. A person asks, "If I learn when will I earn a living? When will I sleep? When will I eat?" The answer is that one should focus on Torah as his goal and primary objective in life. When one focuses on Torah, his entire day is considered as being totally replete with Torah. Indeed, the Ben Ish Chai encourages one to study Torah in the evening bein ha'shemashos, between sunset and nighttime, and also in the early hours of the morning prior to sunrise, thus connecting the two days. Likewise, since the world is round, in one place where it is already nightfall, the next day is beginning in another part of the globe. Torah study never stops. After all, one's heart must keep beating at a steady pace - or else.

Va'ani Tefillah

U'reisem oso u'zechartem is kol mitzvos Hashem va'asisem osam.
That you may see it and remember all of the mitzvos of Hashem and perform them.

Concerning looking at the Tzitzis and remembering, the Torah tells us to remember all of the mitzvos. When it addresses asiyas ha'mitzvos, mitzvah performance, however, the Torah says perform them - which implies that performance does not apply to all the mitzvos. Horav Shimon Schwab, zl, explains that we are obligated to remember all of the Torah, even those portions which do not apply to us individually, that we could never fulfill. Kodshim, sacrifices, do not apply, nor are we all Kohanim or Leviim, for example. Nonetheless, it is all Torah, and one must be proficient in the entire Torah.

Mitzvah performance applies only to those mitzvos which have practical application. The Torah is vast, and it addresses all aspects of Klal Yisrael. The laws concerning the melech, king, apply only to the king - no one else.

Rav Schwab cites the Chovas HaLevavos, who divides the Torah's mitzvos into two categories: mitzvos eivarim, those commandments which we carry out with our physical faculties; mitzvos ha'levavos, commandments which are performed with our hearts and minds. The delineation between learning the entire Torah and its practical application to specific mitzvos applies only to those mitzvos which we perform with our bodies. Those mitzvos which are mind-heart related have universal application to all individuals under all circumstances. Maintaining the proper thoughts and staying away, expunging thoughts that might bring one to heresy, idol worship or immorality, apply across the board to everyone - all of the time.

Rochel Leah bas R' Noach a"h
Frayda bas R' Noach a"h
Sara Eshter bas R' Noach a"h

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

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