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Peninim on the Torah

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Rabbi A. Leib Scheinbaum
Hebrew Academy of Cleveland


You shall be holy. (19:2)

What is the meaning of these words? In the Talmud Avodah Zarah 20b, Chazal define kedushah, holiness, as the apex of the spiritual plateau one can attain. Rabbi Pinchas ben Yair said, "Torah leads to carefulness; carefulness leads to alacrity; alacrity leads to cleanliness; cleanliness leads to separation; separation leads to purity; purity leads to saintliness; saintliness leads to humbleness; humbleness leads to fear of sin; fear of sin leads to holiness; holiness leads to Divine Spirit." The Rambam explains that Divine Spirit is simply a higher level of kedushah. Now that we have an idea of what it takes to achieve kedushah, we understand that this plateau is not readily accessible. Furthermore, the previous parshah ends with an admonition forbidding the abominations practiced by the pagans. While one who refrains from carrying out the pagan atrocities does not necessarily become qualified as an ethical person, the Torah immediately juxtaposes the pasuk of Kedoshim tiheyu, as if the two are closely related. Ostensibly, a great gulf exists between restraint from pagan atrocities and achieving holiness. We have just heard that Rabbi Pinchas ben Yair starts the spiritual ascent to holiness with carefulness, which means that we must be vigilant and meticulous in observing all of Hashem's mitzvos. One would think that between the admonition not to perform atrocities and the enjoinment to attain holiness, there should have been many other mitzvos! How are we to understand this?

Horav Aharon Soloveitchik, zl, explains that the meaning of Kedoshim tiheyu is more than an enjoinment for the Jew to be holy. It postulates that a Jew can never fully attain kedushah. He can only aspire to achieve holiness. If one does not want to fall prey to the moral abyss of depravity, however, he must infuse himself with a constant striving to reach the unattainable summit called kedushah. Regardless of how high one has climbed on the ladder of holiness, he has not achieved his full potential.

In the Talmud Niddah 30b, Chazal relate that before a child is born, his neshamah, soul, takes two oaths. It first accepts upon itself to perform all the mitzvos, and then it pledges to consider itself b'bechinas rasha, as being evil, even if others consider it a tzaddik, righteous person. The Baal HaTanya questions this second pledge, since it seems to contradict a statement made in the Mishnah in Pirkei Avos 2:18 that one should never view himself as evil. He explains that there are two conceptualizations of rasha and tzaddik. The Talmud does not mean that one should view himself as actually being a rasha. Rather, the intention is that one should see himself as not yet having fulfilled his potential. He should always aspire to achieve yet greater distinction.

Kedoshim tiheyu means just that: Always aspire to greater heights in kedushah. Do not settle for what you have become, but, rather, strive higher, want more, achieve greater kedushah. The word "always" means to be consistent, constant and relentless in continuing to achieve this goal. Just as laws governing nature assert that nature cannot tolerate a vacuum, so it is also with regard to the spiritual dimension: one cannot live in a vacuum. Yosef Hatzaddik was thrown into a pit, which the Torah describes as being empty, devoid of water. Chazal add that while there may not have been any water in the pit, there were snakes and scorpions in it. How did Chazal know this? Rav Aharon explains that nature abhors a vacuum. The human spirit must be filled with something. If it is not filled with water, the water of Torah, then it is filled with spiritual snakes and scorpions. The environment in which we live plays an enormous role in influencing our lives. Thus, only one who is constantly seeking kedushah, continually aspiring to reach a more elevated plateau of holiness, can rise above his environmental influence.

The Torah does not justify the means by which one reaches the end goal, because the goal of a Jew is to realize that there is no end, no upper limit, no summit. Being a Jew requires endless climbing. The means is the end! Therefore, all of our actions must contain some degree of kedushah, or they fall prey to spiritual defilement. One who does not aspire to Kedoshim tehiyu can fall to the nadir or moral depravity as evidenced by the juxtaposition of these two parshios.

You shall reprove your fellow and do not bear a sin because of him. (19:17)

In the Talmud Sanhedrin 101a, Rabbi Yochanan says, "Why did Yoravam merit to become king? It is because he reproved Shlomo Hamelech. Why then did he eventually lose the monarchy? It is because he reproved him publicly." It is incredible that the mitzvah of tochachah, reproach, is so great that Shlomo Hamelech lost his kingship to Yoravam, who was evil. Yet, because this rebuke was carried out publicly in a manner that the only one who was really embarrassed was the sinner, he lost the kingdom. The same measure that secured the Davidic dynasty for him caused him to lose it, because he did not perform the mitzvah of tochachah properly.

In his commentary to our parshah, Rashi writes that "one should not bear a sin because of him," since by rebuking the sinner publicly he causes his face to discolor as a result of the embarrassment. The Toras Kohanim says that this applies only in the event that the sin in question is one that involves bein adam l'chaveiro, the relationship between man and his fellow man. If the sin is one between man and Hashem, the sinner is brought to task in spite of the crowd.

Once the Brisker Rav, zl, publicly rebuked a shochet, ritual slaughterer, for acting inappropriately with regard to the laws of shechitah. The man insolently ignored the rav's rebuke and continued in his indiscretion. On Erev Yom Kippur, the Brisker Rav sent for the shochet and proceeded to ask mechilah, forgiveness, from him. The shochet was incredulous, "Why is the rav appeasing me? I am the one who was wrong and I should be the one to ask for mechilah. I did not listen to the rav's tochachah," he said.

"That is exactly why I am apologizing and requesting your forgiveness. Had you heeded me, then the public rebuke would have been justified. Since you ignored me, my rebuke was not successful and, instead, I publicly shamed a Jew for no credible reason."

Since giving proper rebuke can have a compelling effect on an individual, especially children whose self-esteem can be destroyed through improper critique, I would like to relate an episode that occurred concerning Horav Sholom Schwadron, zl, as cited by Rabbi Pesach Krohn, which should serve as a paradigm for us.

In the early 1950's, Haifa was the only city in Eretz Yisrael where public buses operated on Shabbos. Ostensibly, this public display of chillul Shabbos, desecration of Shabbos, had a ripple effect on the Shabbos observance of the general public. It was because of this that the frum, observant, community would convene annually for an evening of lectures and words of inspiration about the significance and holiness of Shabbos. That year the seminar took place immediately after Israeli Independence Day. As part of the Yom HaAtzmaut celebration, there had been a parade in which members of the air force, navy, paratroopers and infantry were represented. Leading the parade was the mayor of Haifa, sitting in an open car, surrounded by a number of female army personnel, who waved and smiled to the crowd.

One can understand that this blatant disregard for the laws of tznius, modesty, was a breach in the moral traditions as transmitted through the generations. The principal speaker for shemiras Shabbos seminar was to be Rav Sholom Schwadron. When the famed Maggid of Yerushalayim heard about this public chillul Hashem, he became incensed. He considered this to be distasteful and an open affront to authentic Torah-oriented Judaism. Thus, when Rav Sholom ascended to the lectern to speak about Shabbos, he instead spoke sharply against the citizens of Haifa for allowing this indecency, and he chastised the Israeli army for what he felt was impropriety. It was only after he concluded his diatribe that he reverted to his original topic of shemiras Shabbos.

Regrettably, his listeners were not as sensitive to moral decency and tznius as he was. They were disturbed and angry. They had come to hear about Shabbos and instead had become the "victims" of a scourge against morality, the army, and their mayor. They felt that Rav Sholom had no right to change topics. They had come with good intentions to receive chizuk, strengthen their resolve and be inspired towards the sanctity of Shabbos, and instead they had been victimized. In the end, the topic of Shabbos had been diminished.

This retinue continued all Shabbos as Rav Sholom spoke in other shuls. His primary message was tznius, with Shabbos taking a distant second place. At every place he spoke, the response paralleled the first: anger.

The city council's reaction was much more intense. They decided to ban Rav Sholom from speaking publicly in Haifa for an entire year. Hearing this, Rav Sholom, an unusually sensitive person, was very disturbed. He felt that he had done no wrong. How could he have ignored such blatant disregard for the Torah? On the other hand, he did offend and alienate specifically those people that he had come to inspire. He sought the counsel of the primary Torah leader of the time, the Brisker Rav.

After presenting the facts to the Rav, he waited eagerly for a reply. Did he act appropriately - or not? The Brisker Rav listened attentively and replied the following, "Did you ever wonder why the Bircas HaTorah, which we say daily, ends with the words laasok b'divrei Torah, 'to engage ourselves in the words of Torah'? Why does it not simply say lilmod Torah, 'to study Torah'? Is this not the essence of the mitzvah?

"The answer," the Rav said, "is that eisak also means business. For one to succeed in Torah, he must relate to it as a business - with a sense of purpose, with definite goals and objectives. He must work diligently to achieve these goals.

"You went to Haifa for a specific purpose - shemiras Shabbos. However, you became sidetracked from your original goal and instead spoke about something entirely different. Had you gone to Haifa to raise money for your business, you certainly would not have spoken out against the parade. You would have had other objectives. Because you diverted your attention, you neither succeeded in your objective of inspiring the people about Shabbos observance, nor did you accomplish anything in the area of tznius."

Afterwards, Rav Sholom added, "The Brisker Rav made me realize that it was the yetzer hora, evil-inclination, that motivated my speech about tznius. It was its way of preventing me from speaking about shemiras Shabbos. How careful and introspective we must be with regard to our motives."

You shall reprove your fellow and do not bear a sin because of him. (19:17)

Simply put, one who rebukes his fellow in an inappropriate manner is guilty of a sin. Just because the individual is guilty of an indiscretion, it does not permit him to be embarrassed by some do-gooder. There is a correct method and manner on how to offer words of reproach. In an alternative reading of the pasuk, Horav Moshe Feinstein, zl, gleans a different message. He reads the pasuk: "You shall reprove your fellow, and you will not burden him with sin." This means that one should not wait until his friend has sunk to the nadir of sin before he decides to reprove him. He should reprove him while he is still righteous and performs all of the mitzvos, so that his friend's commitment to mitzvos will be strengthened. Do not wait until your friend sins! Speak to him from a positive perspective: encourage his good deeds; urge on his devotion; rally his faith in the Almighty. In this way, you will prevent him from having to carry the burden of sin. Furthermore, if we see our fellow beginning to slip, we should immediately step in, lest he fall. It is much easier to catch someone before he falls than to lift him up from the ground.

Love your fellow as (you love) yourself. (19:18)

The enjoinment to love our fellow Jew as we love ourselves entails many facets of our interrelationships with others. Sensitivity toward another Jew's feelings demands that we go out of our way to see to it that we do not offend or slight another Jew, even inadvertently. Certainly, this applies with regard to blatant disregard of another person's feelings. Our Torah leaders went to great lengths to ensure that their actions were always in tune with the feelings of other people. Horav Yitzchak Zilberstein, Shlita, in his inimitable manner, cites a number of instances where this idea is manifest.

It happened that a couple who had spent a number of harmonious years together were struck with tragedy when the wife developed a chemical imbalance in her mind. Overnight, life with her became impossible. On the other hand, because of her emotional state, she was not halachically capable of accepting a get, bill of divorce. The husband presented his problem to his rav and asked for advice about how to proceed. He could not go on this way. The batei din in both Yerushalayim and Tel Aviv had agreed to a heter meah rabbanim, in which one hundred qualified rabbis would annul his marriage, circumventing the need for a get. The rav said that he must first consult with the gadol hador, preeminent Torah leader of the generation, the Chazon Ish, zl, before he would render a final judgment. The Chazon Ish's reply demonstrated his character. According to the medical information presented to him concerning the woman's condition, it was indicated that there was a possibility for her to be cured of her condition. "Imagine," said the Chazon Ish, "that this woman would be walking down the street when she would suddenly meet her husband strolling with another woman. The shock of this confrontation could drive her permanently insane. This is a life and death situation to which I reply in the negative. I suggest that rather then seek a get, you should pray for the woman to be cured of her illness!"

In a similar circumstance, Horav David Bliacher, zl, heard that, on the encouragement of their rav, a couple who had been married for over ten years and had yet to be blessed with children, was getting divorced. Rav David went out of his way to contact the husband and convince him not to go forward with the divorce. Instead, he suggested that he entreat Hashem with great intensity to be blessed with a child. In addition, Rav David gave his personal blessing that the couple be blessed with a child.

One year later, when the couple had the zchus, merit, to celebrate the Bris of their son, the father proffered the honor of sandek, holding the baby, to Rav David. The venerable Rosh Hayeshivah refused, instead advocating giving this privilege to the father's rav, because he did not want the man to lose faith in his rav.

When Horav Yechezkel Sarne, zl, the Rosh Hayeshivah of Chevron, reached an advanced age, it became increasingly difficult for him to attend the tefillos in the yeshivah. Nonetheless, on Motzoei Shabbos, he would gather all his kochos, strength, and make every attempt to daven Maariv with the yeshivah. When he was asked about this practice, he replied, "True, Tefillas Maariv is the most lenient of all the tefillos, but how could I pass up the opportunity to say, 'A gutte voch!' to wish my students a good week? This is the mitzvas aseih, positive commandment, of 'Love your fellow as (you love) yourself.'"

Va'ani Tefillah

How fortunate are we that we lovingly begin and end each and every day by twice proclaiming: Shema Yisrael.

The focal point of Krias Shema is the mitzvah of Kiddush Hashem, sanctifying Hashem's Name. We affirm our daily preparedness to sacrifice ourselves for His Name. We, thus, declare our good fortune and joy at being both Yisrael and Yeshurun, a people whose conviction leads us to such an elevated spiritual level that we stand ready at any moment to fulfill the mitzvah of Kiddush Shem Shomayim. While the mitzvah of Kiddush Hashem applies primarily in relation to the three cardinal sins of idolatry, immorality and murder - performed during gezeiras ha'shmad, when the nations coerce us upon threat of death to publicly violate any mitzvah - we are enjoined to sacrifice our life Al Kiddush Hashem. This phenomenon occurred tens of thousands of times during the millennia as our brethren went to their death with the words of Shema Yisrael on their lips.

Horav Shimon Schwab, zl, makes a noteworthy observation. In the decades following each period when Jews were killed Al Kiddush Hashem, there was always a phenomenal growth of Torah and kedushah, holiness, in the world. The decrees of the Greeks were followed by the Chashmonean dynasty. The martyrdom of Rabbi Akiva and Asarah Harugei Malchus, ten martyrs, was followed by the era of the Tannaim and the Amoraim. The Crusades were followed by hundreds of years of explosive Torah growth via the rishonim and the Baalei Tosfos. Indeed, Rav Schwab suggests that the current extraordinary resurgence of Torah learning in the world, coupled with the incredible baal teshuvah movement, is the result of the unprecedented Kiddush Hashem manifest during the Holocaust.

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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