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Peninim on the Torah

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Rabbi A. Leib Scheinbaum
Hebrew Academy of Cleveland


You shall take of every first fruit of the ground… then you shall call out and say before Hashem, your G-d. (26:2.5)

The underlying motif for the mitzvah of Bikurim is hakoras hatov, gratitude. Rashi cites the Sifri that explains that the declaration which accompanies the Bikurim is an indication that we are not ingrates, a sign that we understand that Hashem has given us the land as a gift. David Hamelech says in Sefer Tehillim 14:11, "The naval, degraded man, says in his heart, there is no G-d; they have corrupted and made abominable their actions, there is no doer of good." Horav Chaim Vital, zl, explains that naval is a reference to he who is a kafui tov, ingrate. The Sefer HaChinuch also refers to the ingrate as a naval, abominable person. Horav Avraham Schorr, Shlita, suggests that the source of this name originates with Avigayil, who said about Naval, her husband, "For he is as his name implies - naval is his name and revulsion is his trait." (Shmuel 25:25) The Sefer Chassidim explains that Naval was an ingrate to David Hamelech who watched his sheep, because ultimately Naval refused to pay him. Thus, the term naval characterizes the individual who does not appreciate the benefits he receives from others. Hashem despises such a person, and He does not delay in remitting swift punishment to him.

In his commentary to Sefer Tehillim, the R'am Almoshino explains that the naval/ingrate denies the gifts that he receives from Hashem. He says, ein Elokim, "there is no G-d." In other words, he is saying that the various occurrences which have spared us throughout time were not from Hashem. Each was a mikreh, a chance event, that had no connection to G-d. Therefore, these events do not obligate us to be grateful to Him. The naval substantiates his apostasy, asking why -- if everything comes from Hashem -- do some things have a bad ending? If there was a good and benevolent G-d, everything would culminate on a positive note. The ingrate cites the tragedies of life as proof that Hashem does not guide the world, in order to prove that he does not owe Him anything in return.

Rav Schorr cites the Mechilta in Parashas Beshalach that includes Amalek, the archenemy of the Jewish People, among those who personify kafuyei tovah, ingratitude. Amalek seeks to dismiss everything G-d does as a mere mikreh, chance event. He maintains that things do not happen by design, and there is no Divine Hashgachah, Providence; things "just happen." This is the meaning of the words asher karcha baderech, "that he chanced upon you on the road." Amalek wanted to diminish the Jew's belief in Hashem by asserting that everything happens by chance.

The yetzer hora, evil inclination, seeks to create a sense of shikchah, forgetfulness, within the Jew, in order to make him forget Hashem and what He constantly does for us. If it would not be for this shikchah, our passion to serve Hashem would retain its fire and verve. The Baal Shem Tov explains that Amalek's function is to generate shikchas ha'Boreh, forgetting the Creator. By v'ram levavecha, increasing the haughtiness in our hearts, we forget Hashem. Interestingly, the gematria, numerical equivalent, of ram, is 240, which coincides with the gematria of Amalek.

Rav Schorr concludes by explaining the juxtaposition of the mitzvah of Bikurim upon the mitzvah of erasing Amalek's name, which concluded Parashas Ki Seitzei. Bikurim teach us the significance of hakoras hatov, recognizing and repaying the good we receive from Hashem. This is the antithesis and,concomitantly, the antidote for the evil that is represented by Amalek. Amalek seeks to infuse us with a lack of gratitude by causing us to forget about Hashem and view His Divine guidance as a chance occurrence. When one sees Hashem's guiding hand in every-day events, he fights the evil generated by Amalek and his modern-day counterparts.

I have not transgressed any of your commandments, and I have not forgotten. (26:13)

Rashi interprets v'lo shochachti, "I have not forgotten," as a reference to thanking Hashem using a blessing for the opportunity to perform the mitzvah of Hafroshas Maasros, separating tithes. Although the act of reciting a brachah is Rabbinic in origin, this pasuk is an asmachata, a scriptural allusion, to a law destined to be enacted by Chazal. Indeed, the privileges that are afforded us to perform a mitzvah, to serve Hashem, should inspire within us a propensity to bless Hashem. It should be a natural response to a unique opportunity. The Seforim suggest that this attitude prevailed within the Jewish psyche until the period of Chazal, when they felt that the people were diminishing their sense of gratitude for mitzvos. Hence, the Rabbinic obligation to recite a blessing prior to performing a mitzvah developed.

How should one recite a blessing? What should be his focus of concentration? The Yesod v'Shoresh HoAvodah writes that when one begins the brachah, when he says, Baruch Atah, "Blessed are You," he should imagine in his mind that he is standing before the Almighty and speaking. He should say the words, Elokeinu Melech haOlam, "Our G-d, the King of the world," slowly, reflecting on its meaning, rejoicing in the fact that Hashem is our G-d and that His monarchy encompasses the entire universe. A brachah recited in this manner certainly has greater meaning.

I recently read a profound comment made by Horav Avraham Yaakov, zl, m'Sadigur to one of his chasidim. He said, "It is possible that a person travels to the city of Lemberg for a business purpose -- or so he thinks. He does not realize that the Almighty, the Mesabeiv Ribos, Cause of all causes, wanted him in Lemberg for a different purpose: to recite a Shehakol niheyeh bidevaro on a glass of water in Lemberg!

We can derive two lessons from this statement: First, we have to remember that Hashem guides our life and everything happens in it for an underlying purpose. Second, brachos have great significance - to the point that they have a profound effect on the place in which they are recited. Perhaps the next time we take a drink of water, we might stop to think before we make the brachah. It might just make a difference.

Then all the peoples of the earth will see that the name of Hashem is proclaimed over you. (28:10)

When Klal Yisrael raises the banner of its value and beliefs, the nations around them will understand that Hashem's blessing is upon them. Horav Mordechai Sharabi, zl, was a Sephardic gadol, Torah leader, who truly exemplified this concept. His total demeanor reflected Hashem's Divinity hovering over him. He was a saint who attempted to recluse himself. He had no interest in pursuing idle conversation with the members of the Muslim clergy. This, of course, did not please them. Furthermore, Rav Mordechai never touched a Muslim, and no one -- not even a Jew -- was permitted to touch the utensils used for his food.

When the Muslim sheiks noticed how Rav Mordechai rebuffed them, they decided to trump up a libel against him. They informed the Emir of their community, a noted anti-semite, who was a close confidante of the Imam of Yemen. The Imam was also no great friend of the Jews, and he sent the gendarme to Rav Mordechai's home to arrest him.

As soon as the rabbanim of Yemen heard that the gendarme was dispatched to arrest their beloved leader, they declared a public fast and Yom Tefillah, day of prayer. When Rav Mordechai heard about this, he dissuaded them from fasting, saying that he would triumph with Hashem's assistance. He would not allow anyone to accompany him as he was taken to the Emir's palace. His bitachon, trust in Hashem, was echoed in everything he said.

There was an unwritten rule in the Emir's home that anyone who entered had to genuflect and say, "Peace to my master," and to remain bowed until the Emir instructed him to rise. He then was to stand until the Emir offered him a seat. Rav Mordechai did exactly as Mordechai HaYehudi in Shushan did, and he refused to bow down to the Emir. He also refused to greet him as master. With great faith and trust in the Almighty, Rav Mordechai entered the room, sat down next to the Emir, and asked, "Yes, what is it that you want?"

The Emir, slightly taken aback, turned to him and asked, "Are you Mordechai?"

"Yes, I am," replied Rav Mordechai.

"We have a number of serious allegations against you," said the Emir. The Emir began to read the list of complaints, among which was the fact that he would not shake hands with the Muslim clergy.

Rav Mordechai patiently explained to the Emir that gentiles eat non-kosher food. When they travel, the sweat that is on their hands is the product of unclean, unkosher animals. He asked, "How can I, a servant of the Almighty G-d, touch these hands? I will defile my body! Also, I never leave my home except to pray in the synagogue. I study Hashem's Torah all day. How do you expect me to waste my time discussing religious philosophy with people that are not members of the Covenant of Hashem?"

This went on and on. Every time the Emir posed a question to Rav Mordechai, he received a quick and lucid response. The Emir saw that Rav Mordechai was pious, committed and sincere in his belief in Hashem. When people see that we are upright and sincere, they respect us. The Emir's attitude quickly changed, as he was enlightened about the level of conviction that was maintained by Rav Mordechai, the representative of the Jewish community. He sent him home with pomp and regalia, as befitting a man of distinction and a friend of the king. Respect from others is the result of the self-respect one has for himself. When we maintain pride in our heritage and commitment to our religion, we will achieve the respect of the outside world.

Because you did not serve Hashem, your G-d, amid gladness and goodness of heart. (28:47)

After a lengthy litany of frightening curses, the Torah states a reason for these terrible punishments: a lack of joy on our part in serving Hashem. The Torah seems to be emphasizing that joy is a primary obligation. Let us take a moment and reflect on this statement. Is it really possible to remain happy with so much suffering all around? To ignore the pain of others is callous and insensitive. Apparently, there is a deeper understanding of the meaning of joy and its relationship to the Jew in this world.

First and foremost, we must understand that the greatest gift granted to us by the Almighty is the gift of life. Being alive is an intrinsic reason for expressing joy - regardless of the negative experiences one may encounter. Life is an opportunity for growth and that in itself has the ultimate value. Life is everything: without life, one has nothing. We are placed on this world for a purpose: to serve Hashem and earn ultimate happiness in the World To Come. The awareness that everything positive we do on this world earns for us a portion in the World To Come should be a constant source of joy. The mitzvah to be happy is the knowledge that our sojourn on this world is a means of achieving ultimate pleasure and joy. The error of many is that they think that this world is an end in itself. No, it is only an opportunity, a means toward achieving the true goal.

Regrettably, many of us realize too late the value of the gift of life. It is only when our lives hang in the balance, when one almost loses life and then miraculously gains it back, that he discovers the wonderful opportunity that he has had. We become complacent with what we are accustomed to having. Familiarity breeds neglect and a lack of appreciation. When that complacency is shaken, one quickly awakens from his slumber.

Let us go a step further in understanding the Torah's demand for joy. Upon carefully perusing the text, one gains a powerful insight into this mitzvah. The Torah does not say that we must constantly be happy, that we must always walk around with a smile on our faces, regardless of our mood or the circumstances with which we are confronted. The Torah does not say that we must live in happiness; the Torah says that we must serve Hashem amid joy. Serving Hashem has to be performed with happiness. It should be our reason for ecstasy. The source of joy is the ability and opportunity to carry out Hashem's command to be His servant. The pain does not hurt; the work is not difficult -- because it is for Hashem. This is the true meaning of joy.

We worry when we lose sight of where we are and Who guides us. If we would take into account that everything in our lives is directed by the Almighty, we would not worry. A secular author once told the story of a ship at sea during a fierce storm. The passengers were in great distress. After awhile, one of them, against captain's orders, ascended to the deck and made his way to the pilot. The seaman was at this post, calmly carrying out his function at the wheel. When he saw that the passenger was agitated, he gave him a big, reassuring smile. The man then returned to the other passengers with the following words of comfort, "I have seen the face of the pilot, and he smiled. All is well."

It is all in the attitude. If one realizes that the challenges he encounters in life are directed by Hashem and that Hashem will be with him throughout the ordeal, he will view the situation through a different prism. I recently came across the following story cited in, Touched By A Story 2, by Rabbi Yechiel Spero. I believe it goes to the core of what we are saying.

The story is about a bus driver for a group of boys in the Bucharim neighborhood. The boys were tough, and driving them every day was difficult. The respect they demonstrated for him left something to be desired. It was just not an appropriate job for him anymore. At the end of the month, he approached the principal to inform him of his decision to seek employment elsewhere. The principal, being an understanding man, listened intently and commiserated with the driver. He assured him that he would speak to the boys, and he even offered him a raise for his troubles.

The driver, although appreciative of the raise, said that he had had enough. It was not because of the money. The boys were not really bad. They were just acting in the manner that boys of that age act. He wanted a change, something different, something more relaxing. As they were walking towards the door, the principal made one last attempt, "Would you mind visiting with Horav Ben Zion Abba Shaul?" The driver agreed, thinking to himself that the great Sephardic rav could not say anything to him that would change his mind.

They walked together to the rav's apartment and sat down to talk. The principal explained the predicament: how the bus driver had served the school faithfully for a number of years, and now he had decided that it was time to move on. While it would be a great loss to have to replace him, the bus driver insisted that he could go on no longer. He was emotionally spent, and he badly needed a change of scenery.

It was time for the rav to respond. Rav Bentzion's eyes sparkled with warmth and sensitivity as he looked at the bus driver. In reality, he was focusing on his heart. He said, "My dear friend, you think that you are driving a simple van, but actually you are driving a mobile Aron Kodesh! The children are not just passengers; they are living Sifrei Torah! When you open the door to your mobile Aron Kodesh, you are being honored with Pesichah, opening the Aron Kodesh! Each and every child on that van is precious. He is our future!"

When the bus driver heard his vocation being interpreted in this way by the great rav, he felt ashamed for having been so petty. He assured the rav that he would continue performing his function with distinction and esteem. The next morning, the attitude he displayed to his young charges was visibly altered. "Good morning boys," he greeted them. "Thank you for granting me the privilege to drive you to yeshivah today, so that you can learn Torah."

As the last boy exited the van, he looked up at the driver and said, "Thank you." The driver smiled and countered, "No, thank you!"

It is all in one's attitude. The opportunity to live and serve Hashem should be our ultimate source of joy.

Va'ani Tefillah

Hamaavir sheinah me'einai u'tenumah me'afapai - Who removes sleep from my eyes and slumber from my eyelids.

This brachah, which extends gratitude to Hashem for sustaining us in our wakeful moments, presents a few difficulties. First, it really belongs at the beginning of the morning, when the individual is arising. Second, there does not seem to be any relationship between this brachah and the ones preceding it. Last, it begins in the first person and ends with a Hagomel chasadim tovim l'amo Yisrael, "Who bestows beneficent kindness upon His Nation, Yisrael." Should the ending not have some connection with the beginning? Horav Shimon Schwab, zl, resolves these questions with a deeper insight into the meaning of this blessing.

In a sense, this brachah thanks Hashem for awakening us as members of Klal Yisrael. We know that prior to creating Chavah, Hashem put Adam to sleep. His profound awareness of Hashem was also put to sleep. We do not find anywhere that Adam awoke from his G-d-induced slumber. Hence, it might be suggested that the extreme awareness of Hashem that Adam had prior to Chavah's creation never returned to him. He and all of the descendants who followed after him remain in this Heaven-induced slumber.

As members of Klal Yisrael, we are privy to remarkable wonders during which we received a clear picture of Hashem's Presence. The exodus from Egypt, together with all its miracles, the forty- year sojourn in the wilderness with its accompanying wonders, the Giving of the Torah: all were Providential experiences in deepening our perception of Hashem. During those august moments, we emerged from the slumber that plagues the human race. The brachah recognizes those rare moments in which Hashem has awakened us from the slumber, so that, as Jews, we are able to see what no one else can perceive. These experiences remain with us, embedded in the Jewish psyche.

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