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Peninim on the Torah

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Rabbi A. Leib Scheinbaum
Hebrew Academy of Cleveland


Judges and officers shall you appoint for yourself in all your gates. (16:18)

The word lecha, for yourself, seems to be superfluous. Obviously, the judges are "for yourself." For whom else shall they be? Horav Tzvi Hirsch Ferber, zl, views this issue pragmatically. I say this because he was the rav of London's West End during the early part of the twentieth century. Let us picture the scenario in many schools, shuls, religious organizations, who have selected a rav, principal, religious leader. The members of the selection committee/board feel that they are "calling the shots." The spiritual leader whom they have selected is there for the hamon am, common folk. Heaven forbid he should admonish them concerning any deficiencies on their part. "They" are above reproach. After all, "they" are in charge. The Torah responds to this common error with the pasuk, Shoftim v'shotrim titein lecha, "Judges and officers shall you appoint for yourself." You are no different than everyone else in the community. Just because you have selected the spiritual leader, you sign his check and determine its amount, you are not exempt from being under his jurisdiction. The Torah continues, V'shaftu ha'am mishpat tzedek. "And they shall judge the people with righteous judgment." When the judge does not act impartially towards his leadership; when all the members of the community must abide by the same code of law; when regulations apply equally to everyone, then we can be assured that the judges' decision will be just.

Similarly, Hashem alluded this concept to Moshe Rabbeinu when He told him to elevate Yehoshua to become his eventual successor. The Torah in Bamidbar 27:19, writes: Kach lecha Yehoshua…v'tzivisa os l'eineihem, "Take to yourself Yehoshua…and command him before their eyes."

Eineihem is usually translated as "their eyes." Rav Ferber interprets it homiletically as being related to einei ha'eidah, "the 'eyes' of the congregation," which is a reference to its leadership. Hashem is informing Moshe that Yehoshua's jurisdiction must also extend to the einei ha'eidah. His leadership should encompass the entire spectrum of the Jewish congregation.

When Yaakov Avinu fled his home ahead of his brother, Eisav, who was bent on killing him, he stopped to rest. There were no "rest areas" in those days, so the Patriarch laid down on the side of the road. His pillow consisted of one large stone. Chazal teach that originally there had been a number of stones-- twelve in total - who "argued" among themselves, each demanding: alai yaniach tzadik es rosho, "Upon me the righteous person shall rest his head." Yaakov put them all together, hoping that they would all meld into one stone. He realized that this would be a sign from Heaven that his twelve sons/tribes would eventually live in harmony and unite as one group. Rav Ferber interprets this Chazal anecdotally. Each stone demanding that the tzadik place his head upon him is an allusion to: "I want the tzadik to acquiesce to my demands. I want his head to lie on my shoulders. He will 'nod his head' in agreement with any concerns and demands."

The Patriarch understood that this deficiency in human character will destroy the underpinnings of the nation. Harmony must reign: Klal Yisrael must unify under one head of state whose authority is unquestionable and whose power is unimpeachable. Only then will we survive the long galus, exile.

You shall not deviate from the word that they will tell you, right or left. (17:11)

Chazal teach us that even if the chachamim, Torah leaders, inform us that our right is our left, and vice versa - in other words, even if what they tell us seems to contradict reality as we know it - we must, nevertheless, believe them. Belief in our sages, emunas chachamim, demands that we accept that the truth lies in the hands of the chachamim - not in our own understanding. This is the basis of Torah, without which our entire mesorah, tradition, is meaningless. The word of the chacham is the word of the Torah. One who defies the rulings of the chachamim rebels against the foundations of our Torah. Hence, the zekein mamre, rebellious elder, is put to death for his refusal to submit to the rulings of the Torah's leadership. This is what is meant by Chazal's statement, "Whoever transgresses the words of the sages is subject to death." (Bereishis 4b).

Chazal teach that the reverence/awe one has for his rebbe, Torah teacher, should be similar to the fear he has of Heaven (Pirkei Avos 4:15). At first glance, Chazal seem to be telling us how great our rebbeim are; how significant they must be in our eyes. There is, however, a deeper message to be gleaned from Chazal. Horav Mordechai Gifter, zl, explains that Chazal are suggesting to us that the manner in which we fear our Torah teachers should coincide with the manner in which we fear Heaven. Just as one cannot fear Heaven without first possessing emunah, faith, in Heaven, likewise, he cannot fear his rebbe unless he first places his trust in him. Reverence and fear are the natural consequences of faith and trust. Awe is the result of respect.

The Rosh Yeshivah points out that few people in life do not rely heavily on having trust and faith in others. Be it a student in the classroom, a patient in the doctor's office, a passenger on board a jetliner; everyone, somehow, at some time, places his trust in others. Imagine a passenger who is onboard a flight which suddenly encounters severe turbulence. The last thing that the passenger considers is running down the aisle, forcing open the cockpit door, wresting the controls from the pilot and personally attempting to fly the airplane. Only a slightly disturbed individual would entertain such an idea, since he knows that he has no idea how to fly the plane. He will sit back, grip his seat, say Tehillim, and acquiesce to the notion that the experts know what they are doing. Since we are able to accept this notion concerning mundane, physical matters, why are we so insistent on being in control concerning spiritual matters? We seem to have a strong, almost insubordinate, desire to govern our own affairs to the point that if we fail to agree with a Torah leader, we immediately go into attack mode. Is our Torah leadership any less capable than the pilot in whose hands we supposedly place our lives?

Rav Gifter explains that man's ability to submit himself to another individual's expertise is a G-d given chesed, kindness. Indeed, without this chesed, the world would be in a constant state of chaos. Hashem provided this chesed only in the area of the mundane, physical, material component of our lives. He did not create man with a natural proclivity to submit himself to spiritual matters, because man has to labor long and hard on his own in order to achieve this spiritual plateau. Chazal teach us (Berachos 33b) Ha'kol b'yedei Shomayim chutz m'yiraas Shomayim. "Everything is in the hands of Heaven except for the fear of Heaven." Hashem does not make us into G-d-fearing individuals. It is up to each and every one of us to achieve this goal on his own. Thus, we must channel our natural sense of submissiveness to all things physical, to the spiritual dimension. By putting it to use for spirituality, we will each ultimately achieve our goal.

You shall be wholehearted with Hashem, your G-d. (18:13)

Following on the heels of the prohibitions against seeking the advice of the soothsayer, astrologer, enchanter, sorcerer, charmer, or any other similar type of aberrant practitioner, the Torah admonishes the Jew to be wholesome in his belief in Hashem. A Jew has no need to inquire into the future because he believes in Hashem with perfect faith. He trusts in the Almighty to do for him what He sees fit. Temimus, wholeheartedness, is total commitment, total faith. Anything less than total is not considered whole. To trust in Hashem out of convenience, most of the time; to believe in Him for most everything - but when it concerns earning a living, he acts somewhat hypocritically - is not wholesome faith. We are never separated from Hashem and, therefore, every issue in life is to be decided by Him.

After all is said and done, we pay lip service to emunah, faith in Hashem. We trust in Him most of the time, but it is far from temimus. Horav Pinchas Kornitzer, zl, note that there are two areas of observance that are to be observed im Hashem Elokecha, "with Hashem, your G-d." They are the temimus and tzinius, modesty, as the Navi Michah (6:8) says, V'hatznea leches im Hashem Elokecha, "And walk modestly with Hashem, your G-d." Why is this? He explains that concerning these two ethical qualities, temimus and tznius, genuine wholehearted faith and modesty, we can deceive people. There are those who present themselves as paragons of fidelity to Hashem, but really present nothing more than a fa?ade, a charade they play with people. They are masters of deception. Acting with great humility, presenting themselves as exemplars of modesty, Heaven help the one who does not grant them proper recognition or does not pay them the gratitude they expect. Yes, they insist that it is all l'shem Shomayim, for the sake of Heaven, but it is all a sham.

The only One Who knows the truth is Hashem. He sees into a person's heart; He delves into his essence. He knows how credible is his temimus, how veritable is his modesty. In order to be a true maamin, believer, and a tzanua, modest person, it must be im Hashem Elokecha, with the Almighty attesting to his mastery over these virtues.

The Kohen shall step forward and speak to the people. He shall say to them, "Listen, Yisrael! Today you are drawing near to battle against your enemies. Do not be fainthearted, do not be afraid, do not panic, and do not be demoralized because of them. (20:2,3)

The Kohen Mashuach Milchamah, anointed to lead them in battle, addressed the soldiers with a "pep" talk to raise their morale as they prepared for battle. In his commentary, Rashi focuses on the opening statement, Shema Yisrael! "Hear O Yisrael! Even if you have no merit in your favor other than the recitation of the Shema, you are worthy of being saved." There is no question that Shema Yisrael is a compelling prayer which indicates our commitment to the Almighty, but is it all that powerful? Why does it have the ability to save a person from his enemy?

The Chafetz Chaim, zl, explains that the Shema Yisrael is a declaration of kabalas ol Malchus Shomayim, accepting the yoke of the Heavenly Kingdom upon oneself. The merit of this acceptance has the power to save a person from being killed in battle. Furthermore, even if death was decreed on a person, Shema Yisrael will ensure that he is on an elevated spiritual plane when he leaves this world.

The Maharal underscores the words Hashem Echad, G-d is One, which expresses the unity of G-d, as the pivotal phrase of this declaration. Articulating these words recapitulates man's conviction in the unity and exclusivity of Hashem: "The oneness in which they believed would triumph over the strength of their enemies, for the Jewish People were bound up with the power of Hashem's Oneness. Since there is nothing apart from Him, therefore, He triumphs over everything, there being no other power except for Him." Klal Yisrael's connection to this oneness grants them an aspect of this power - the power of One.

Maharal continues with an understanding of the connection between belief and victory. In proportion to the nation's internalization of belief in Hashem, dominion and strength, to that extent, they will be saved from their enemies. When the Kohen spoke to the soldiers, his purpose was to concretize their faith in Hashem so that they would emerge victorious.

This is a compelling statement. Does faith have the power to influence events on the battlefield? Why should the believer have greater chances of winning the war? Simply speaking, one places his trust in some power. It might be his own, or he might attribute his power to nature, weapons, his support system. He had better be correct, or he will wallow in defeat. One who places his faith in Hashem knows that when he truly believes in Hashem's Omnipotence - that only He can do anything, that in light of this belief - other powers are rendered futile and powerless. The Jew who goes into battle is firm in his belief. He feels that he is going to be victorious, because Hashem was on his side. With the power of our convictions, we can vanquish all of our enemies - physical and spiritual. The yetzer hora, evil inclination, cannot dominate those whose trust in Hashem is unequivocal.

Horav Mordechai Miller, zl, supports this idea with a number of proofs, of which I will cite a few. Yaakov Avinu worked seven long, hard years before Lavan would allow him to marry Rachel. These years could have been a most difficult span of time for him. Yet, the Torah writes: "Yaakov worked for Rachel seven years, and, in his love for her, they seemed like a few days." (Bereishis 29:20) Yaakov does not come across as looking for either a way out or a way to hasten his seven year "sentence." The years passed, and Yaakov worked. It was all a labor of love. He was preparing for the union that would create Klal Yisrael. His attitude made the difference.

Earlier, when Yaakov was fleeing from his brother, Eisav, we find that he experienced kefitzas ha'derech, Hashem shortened the geographical distance of his trip. He had passed by Bais El, missing the opportunity to pray there. Upset that he did not pray in the place where his father and grandfather before him had once prayed, he was prepared to return, despite the difficulty of the journey. His desire was so strong that Hashem literally shortened the distance.

It is all in the attitude. A positive attitude generates positive results, while a negative outlook brings about results that are not necessarily encouraging. Rav Miller feels that conviction can work inwards, as well. Every person should cultivate a deep sense of faith in himself - in his own talents, in his own ability, and in his own personality. For only by believing in oneself can we transform our talents from potential to reality. He cites the Mishnah in Pirkei Avos 3:18: Chaviv adam she'nivra b'tzelem… "Beloved is man, for he was created in the image of G-d. It was a special love that was made known to him that he was created in the image of G-d." Man is not only endowed with unlimited potential, but Hashem, whose love is boundless, informs man of his latent strengths. The awareness that man has of his incredible potential should constantly be reiterated and reflected upon. Thus, that which is still potential and abstract can be concretized and achieved, so that man can then infuse the world with light.

For some reason, however, many of us do not make it. We simply do not maximize our G-d-given potential. Why? The journey to self-discovery is very difficult. Horav Yisrael Salanter, zl, was wont to say, "As unfortunate as it is for a person not to acknowledge his deficiencies, it is far worse for him to be unaware of his strong points, for it is through their implementation that he can achieve fulfillment and realize Hashem's Master Plan." Exactly why many of us fail to take note of our strengths, focusing rather on our weaknesses, is a point for discussion. I think we fear the added responsibilities, the extra work. We also fear failure. It is so much easier not to enter the race, than to enter, work hard and lose. We forget that unless we enter the race, we have no chance of winning. Last, if Hashem has provided us with great potential, He has done so for a reason. He believes in us. He trusts us. Yet, we are willing to "let Him down," because it serves us better.

Let me conclude with a well-known - but often ignored - vignette. The famous Rebbe, R' Zushe, zl, m'Annipole, was once weeping. Concerned with seeing their revered Rebbe in such a state of depressive emotion, they approached him and asked. "Rebbe, what is wrong?" "My students, I am worried about meeting my Maker. If on the Yom HaDin, Day of Judgment, I will be asked why I was not like Avraham Avinu, I have no fear. I will simply respond, 'Almighty G-d, You did not endow me with the spiritual qualities that comprised our Patriarch's spiritual persona. I could never possibly be like him.'"

He then went on to enumerate a number of other Torah giants from past generations, employing the same rationale: "I was not endowed with their qualities, so I could never have achieved their distinction!" "But," Rav Zushe cried out, "if Hashem asks me, 'Zushe, why were you not like Zushe?' What will I say? What excuse can I give? I have nothing to answer to Him."

Hashem has endowed each and every one of us with great potential. Our role is first to uncover and then to maximize this potential. If Hashem has given it to us, apparently He knows something that we refuse to recognize. How can we deny Hashem His nachas? How can we refuse to make use of the gifts that He, in His all-encompassing wisdom, has determined we could bring to fruition? One day we will stand before the Heavenly Tribunal. Then there will be no excuses. Why should we make them now?

"Who is the man who is fearful and fainthearted? Let him return to his house." (20:8)

The Kohen was to announce to the Jewish soldiers who are about to go into battle that certain individuals were exempt from fighting. Their fear would overcome their ability to fight. Rashi explains what those soldiers feared. He cites Rabbi Yossi HaGellili who says that this declaration is addressed to someone who fears aveiros she'b'yado, "sins he has (in has hands)." This refers to one who has been very meticulous in his observance, such that the slightest infraction on his part brought him great anxiety, therefore distracting him from focusing on the battle. Chazal explain that these sins were of the same caliber as one who speaks between the recitation of brachos of Tefillin. In other words, even a rudimentary deficiency in his meticulous observance will cause him great concern. When we consider what kind of "sinner" this man must be, we are quite taken aback. There are those whose mitzvos pale in comparison to this person's aveiros. Clearly, he must be a righteous person, if he is anxious about even the smallest lapse in observance. One would think that fearing aveiros she'be'yado is an enviable quality, in fact, a virtue, rather than a reason to return from battle. Why is this soldier considered less than meritorious?

Horav Avraham Schorr, Shlita, quotes the Baal HaTurim who cites the Mesorah, tradition, that there are two instances in the Torah where the word ha'yarei is used: The above pasuk, and Ha'yarei es d'var Hashem mei'avdei Pharaoh, "He, from among the servants of Pharaoh who feared G-d" (Shemos 9:20). Beyond defining yiraas Shomayim, fear of Heaven, as a trait which reflects cognizance, awareness of Hashem, what connection is there between the two pesukim? One refers to the Jewish soldier who fears the negative effect his few sins would have on his emerging alive and well from battle, and the other one addresses the fear of G-d manifest by the G-d-fearing Egyptian.

Rav Schorr relates an incident which took place concerning the Bais Aharon, Horav Aharon Karliner, zl, who, one Succos, did not have a proper Succah ready in preparation for the Festival. It was Erev Succos, and it appeared that it would not happen. At the last minute, a chasid came forward and said that he had prepared a succah in accordance with the Rebbe's stringencies, and it was in "move-in" condition. The Rebbe was overjoyed, and he expressed his profound pleasure to the chasid. "In return for what you have done for me in availing me the opportunity to celebrate the holy festival of Succos properly, I will bless you with one of two rewards: outstanding wealth; or your place in Gan Eden will be next to mine - we will be together in Olam Habba."

One can imagine that any individual who has achieved a level of spiritual devotion such that he merits a place in Olam Habba next to the Bais Aharon was not a simple person. He is clearly an individual of spiritual repute. Thus, his response might cause us to wonder: "Rebbe, I request wealth!" Those in the Rebbe's immediate circle wondered at this reply. How could a person turn down the opportunity to bask in the proximity of the Rebbe's Olam Habba? When asked, the chasid explained, "To be in the Rebbe's proximity is 'ich' and more 'ich.' It is all about 'me.'" I would rather receive a blessing that will avail me the wherewithal to help others. My purpose in life is to do good for other Jews - not to just take care of 'me/ myself!'"

This is a Jew's raison d'etre. In his preface to Nefesh HaChaim, Horav Chaim Volozhiner writes that man's purpose in this world is l'ho'il l'acharinei, "to help others." If the blessing was not going to further his role in the world, he was not interested. A similar incident is recorded with Horav Bunim, zl, m'Peshischa, who commented, "If Hashem would give me the opportunity to trade places with Avraham Avinu, I would not accept, because Hashem does not benefit from such an exchange. The world would continue to have the same two people. What advantage is there to that? My purpose is to do more for Hashem."

Horav Elimelech, zl, m'Grodzisk explains aveiros she'b'yado as referring to a person who is concerned only with those sins that are b'yado, his hand - his sins. He is not anxious about the sins of others - only those which he has personally committed. The G-d-fearing Egyptian acted in a similar manner. He was concerned with the safety of his animals. His fear was based on himself.

This idea is especially important as we are about to conclude another year. As we approach Elul/Tishrei and the Yamim Noraim, High Holy Days, we must remember why Hashem placed us on this world. Our greatest defense for continued good health and welfare is the fulfillment of our raison d'etre of l'ho'il l'acharinei. This should be our life-long goal. It is certainly never too late to start doing our part.

Va'ani Tefillah

And you made his name Avraham You found his heart faithful before You.

Racheim means compassion. Rogez means anger. The gimatria, numerical equivalent, of racheim: reish, ches, mem - is 248. The numerical value of rogez: reish, vov,gimel - is 216. The difference between the two "attitudes" is 32 or the numerical equivalent of lev, heart. The Ben Yehoyadah explains that the prayer rendered by a tzadik, righteous person, which emanates from his "lev," heart, has the power to transform rogez, anger, to racheim, compassion. It adds the "32" and changes not only the numerical value, but also the very essence of the attitude. This is the interpretation of the pasuk as rendered by the Ben Yehoyadah: V'samta shemo Avraham, "And You made his name Avraham," The Patriarch was called this name, because it has the numerical equivalent of racheim, 248. Hashem did this because, "You found his heart, levavo, faithful before You." Avraham imbued his entreaty with levavo, heart, thereby transforming anger to compassion. Hence, the name Avraham reflects this quality.

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