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Peninim on the Torah

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Rabbi A. Leib Scheinbaum
Hebrew Academy of Cleveland


Then you shall speak up and say before Hashem, your G-d, "An Aramean attempted to destroy my father; then he descended to Egypt." (26:5)

There is a recurring theme throughout the mitzvah of Bikurim: gratitude. While the first pesukim which instruct us in the mitzvah of Bikurim seem to emphasize the significance of this most essential character trait, the actual declaration of gratitude which the Torah cites seems to run off on a tangent. The farmer begins with a recitation of Jewish history and the trial and travail to which our ancestors were subjected. While it is true that one must never forget his past, even if it is not that glorious, why is it included in the Bikurim presentation?

We glean from here an important lesson concerning the nature of the obligation to pay gratitude: it is all-encompassing. We do not merely give thanks for our immediate delivery from travail, while ignoring the suffering that we have undergone to bring us to this day. It is incumbent that we recognize that every experience plays a role in our salvation - even the vicissitudes that distress and afflict us. They are here for a purpose. When we pay a debt of gratitude, we should not ignore the bad. To bear resentment for suffering undermines the incredible purging and ennobling experience that suffering engenders.

Perhaps this is the underlying meaning of the pasuk, V'somachta b'chol hatov, "And you shall rejoice in all the good" (Devarim 26:11). There is "good," and there is "all the good." We must realize that what we had originally perceived as not being in our interest is inherently good, and we must be makir tov, acknowledge that good.

Accursed is one who strikes his fellow stealthily. (27:24)

Rashi explains that b'seiser, stealthily, is a reference to lashon hora, evil speech. While this is certainly one of the most destructive forces at one's disposal, it is a transgression that is often misunderstood. There are situations in which what seems like lashon hora really is not -- and vice versa. Perhaps the following vignettes will give us a clearer perspective of the definition of this baneful sin. Horav Shlomo Lorincz, Shlita, a member of the Israeli Knesset and a close talmid, disciple, of the Brisker Rav, zl, relates that one Erev Yom Kippur he had occasion to be together with the Brisker Rav at the funeral of a distinguished Torah scholar. As they were walking behind the funeral procession, the Rav remarked, "He was a great Torah scholar, but some of his hashkafos, perspectives, were questionable." He then elaborated his concerns regarding specific hashkafos.

Rav Shlomo was surprised that of all times to speak about someone, the Rav chose Erev Yom Kippur, during the man's funeral, as they walked in the procession! Furthermore, what about lashon hora? He gathered up his courage and voiced his feelings to his rebbe.

The Brisker Rav turned to his student and explained his behavior, "First of all, you should know that the laws concerning lashon hora are very specific. If one were to question an individual's veracity regarding a business proposition, a possible partnership, or an investment opportunity, it is incumbent that the truth not be withheld due to lashon hora concerns. One must tell the truth: if the person in question is dishonest, then this must be articulated. If this halachah applies to a minor financial loss, how much more so does it apply to a spiritual perspective which can affect many more, in a much more compelling manner. Since you are a communal leader, it is essential that I apprise you of the deceased's philosophic shortcomings.

"With regard to your other question as to why I chose Erev Yom Kippur, while I am walking in the man's funeral procession, to voice my opinion about his hashkafah? The laws of lashon hora are very complicated, and when a halachic dispensation permits one to speak the truth, regardless of its disparaging implications, one must do so with only one intention: to spare someone a loss, either material or -- as in this case -- spiritual. When a person has completed an all inclusive self-analysis and, through introspection and soul-searching, has determined that he is acting only l'shem Shomayim, for the sake of Heaven, or to save someone from a financial loss, then he must come forward and speak. Otherwise, it is lashon hora.

"As I walked in the funeral procession on the day preceding the holiest day of the year, I weighed the matter in my mind. I came to a firm and clear decision. As the Brisker Rav, on this special day, I am certain that I have no vested interests whatsoever in speaking disparagingly of the deceased. Whatever I say is for one purpose: to see to it that no one is spiritually harmed by his hashkafos. Hence, I felt that I could - and should - voice my opinion."

Another episode which supports this concept occurred concerning Horav Chaim Soloveitchik, zl, at the first meeting to organize the Agudath Israel organization. One of the speakers at that meeting ascended to the podium and spoke disparagingly of a noted communal leader. Rav Chaim immediately arose from his seat, saying, "It is forbidden to sit here, since they are speaking lashon hora." He left the meeting and never attended another meeting.

Remarking about this incident, the Chazon Ish, zl, explained, "What was the lashon hora? After all, the meeting was for a purpose. Klal Yisrael was at a crossroads. Many Jews were falling under the influence of spiritual leftists and cripples. The speaker was attempting to make a point and get everyone's attention. What was wrong?"

"The answer is," said the Chazon Ish, "the speaker spoke with an attitude. He spoke triumphantly as if we had bested them: 'You see what they did and what resulted from their actions.' He was overjoyed at their failure. That is not the way we speak. He should have said, 'My friends, a tragedy has occurred, a spiritual calamity is taking place. Have compassion! Let us do something!' Had he spoken like that, it would have reflected purpose. Otherwise, it was pure, unmitigated lashon hora!"

I believe this story needs no explanation, since we all have something to learn from it.

And it shall be that if you hearken to the voice of Hashem, your G-d, to observe, to perform all of His commandments. (28:1)

The pasuk enjoins us to listen to Hashem's voice, to observe and fulfill his mitzvos. The concept of "listening to Hashem's voice" appears a number of times in the Torah. What is the meaning of shmia b'kol Hashem, "listening to the voice of Hashem"? Is there some special voice that we hear? Horav Mordechai Gifter, zl, gives a definitive explanation of this voice and its appeal to us.

Man is comprised of two elements: a physical dimension, represented by his guf, body, and a spiritual dimension, signified by his neshamah, soul. Man's neshamah does not desire any of the world's physical/mundane pleasures, nor can these pleasures satisfy the soul's yearning for spiritual pleasure. The soul has a single desire: to grow, to develop spiritually in order to come closer to the Almighty. We often confuse our soul's yearning with our body's physical desire. Thus, we attempt to satisfy the spiritual quest for growth with mundane satisfaction. It does not work. Regardless of how much man defers to his physical desires, he cannot satiate his neshamah.

Shlomo Hamelech says in Koheles 6:7, "All man's toil is for his mouth, yet his wants are never satisfied." Chazal analogize this pasuk to a commoner who marries a princess. He supplies her with every luxury. Yet, she remains unhappy. He would give her anything, but the one thing for which she yearns, the one thing that she desires so badly, he cannot provide. She lacks royalty. She remains a princess married to a commoner. That will never change. Likewise, man seeks to satisfy his desires with worldly pleasures. The more he has, the more he seeks. He is insatiable, because he does not feed it what it truly seeks - spiritual growth. Hence, his desires remain ungratified.

Man is constantly besieged by his desires. They always want something. We understand this to be the neshamah's discontent with its status quo. Man's neshamah is constantly calling out to him to rise up, to elevate himself, to grow spiritually. This voice, this inner calling, is what the Torah refers to as the voice of Hashem. The neshamah is a spiritual entity that is a cheilak Elokai Mimaal, minuscule part of Hashem Above. That voice calls out to us. We hear its calling, but we do not necessarily listen to its message. In order to merit Hashem's reward, we must listen to His voice as He continually calls out to us.

Hashem shall open up for you His storehouse of goodness. (28:12)

The story is told that prior to his passing from this world, the Mezritcher Maggid, zl, told his chassidim that when he dies and ascends to Heaven, he will approach the Heavenly Tribunal to petition for an end to Klal Yisrael's suffering. The Mezritcher passed from this world and -- lo and behold -- the suffering continued unabated. The chassidim were concerned. After all, their Rebbe had promised to intervene. One day, one of the Mezritcher's primary disciples went to his grave and prayed. He made a point to "remind" the Rebbe of his promise to intercede on their behalf. The next day, the Mezritcher appeared to his student in a dream and said, "True, when I was alive, I felt the pain and was sensitive to the affliction that we sustained, but now, here in Heaven, things appear much different. I see occurrences from a different vantage point. The troubles and persecutions that loom so large on the earthly horizon are really not troubles at all. I view them to be a source of comfort and salvation. Therefore, I cannot pray for you, because there really is no reason to pray."

Simply, this means that the Rebbe was now afforded a different perspective in life. He now saw life's challenges, its vicissitudes and travail from a more "global" position. What made no sense in this world suddenly became rational and even necessary in the Eternal World of truth.

There is another approach towards dealing with issues that are overwhelming to the intellect and which certainly play havoc with our emotions. In a thesis about how we should relate to the challenges in life, Horav Yissachar Frand, Shlita, cites Sefer Iyov, which is the "handbook" on relating to suffering. We all know that Iyov was a righteous, G-d-fearing individual who was subjected to incredible inflictions. He not only lost his wealth, but he also lost his children and personally became victim to a painful condition that ravaged his body. Iyov was visited by his three friends who attempted to console him, to no avail. Afterwards, Eliyahu HaNavi visited him and attempted to explain his affliction on an esoteric level, also to no avail. Last, Hashem spoke to Iyov and demonstrated to him the paucity of man's understanding of the workings of the world. In the end, Iyov replied to Hashem, "Until now, I knew of You through the hearing of the ear, but now my eye sees You" (Iyov 42:5). The relationship that he now had with the Almighty was different. The prophetic experience that he had just undergone gave him the ability to transcend the concerns of this world. That is the pashut pshat, simple explanation.

Horav Moshe Eisemann, Shlita, suggests a somewhat novel approach that gives us something to think about concerning our affinity to Hashem. Prior to Iyov's prophetic vision, his association with Hashem had been on a purely, cognitive plane. After Hashem moved closer to Iyov and took him on a guided tour of the cosmos, granting him an unprecedented perspective, Iyov experienced an emotional closeness with Hashem to supplement his intellectual appreciation of Him. Faith and trust are emotional functions, not rational ones. When we view a situation from an intellectual perspective, everything must fit into place. There has to be a logical explanation for everything. Not so, from an emotional standpoint. Just because an idea does not fit logically does not mean that I cannot trust it. Indeed, my trust and faith help me to overcome any intellectual oddity that I might encounter. When you love someone, this love surmounts any actions that may seem irrational. Love means believing in someone even when you do not necessarily understand the basis of their actions.

Rav Frand cites Ibn Ezra's commentary to Devarim 14:1, "You are children of Hashem, your G-d, you shall not cut yourself" (as a display of mourning). He explains that now that we know that we are Hashem's children, and that He loves each of us more than a father loves a son, we are not permitted to mutilate ourselves over the death of a loved one. Even if the loss is incomprehensible, we must rely on our belief that Hashem is doing what is correct and necessary - even if it hurts. This is no different than the father who slaps the hand of his son who is about to place that hand in the fire.

Iyov still had no idea why he had been afflicted. Since he knew from Whom it originated, however, his newly-concretized relationship gave him the ability to trust and accept the situation with love. May Hashem grant us that the forthcoming New Year bring us only joy, so that this thesis remains in the abstract.

Your life will hang in the balance, and you will be frightened night and day. (28:61)

Rashi explains that as long as the Jews are in exile, they will never be certain of their safety. One minute they are secure; the next minute could be their last. This general, tenuous situation applies to earning a livelihood. They will never be sure of what will happen: Will the markets be shut down in general - or just to the Jew? This is how we have lived throughout centuries of exile, never knowing what tomorrow will bring - or if there will even be a tomorrow. Yet, we Jews have always maintained the conviction that even when the sharp blade of a sword is on our necks, we never give up hope of salvation. The following episode concerning the saintly Klausenberger Rebbe, zl, demonstrates this verity.

While interred in the concentration camp, he was subject to constant harassment by the cruel guards. In order to "clean up" the ranks and rid the camp of the weak and ill prisoners, every few weeks the commandant would declare a selektsia, selection, in which all of those who were infirm were immediately sent to their deaths. Everyone was lined up in a single file, surrounded by the Nazi beasts brandishing machine guns. Those who appeared weak were "weeded" out from the group.

In one of the rows, the Rebbe, against all rules of the selektsia, was standing bent over in prayer. This was categorically prohibited; it was suicidal. Yet, the Rebbe, who was shortly joined by a small group of followers, was praying. What was he saying at this time, which might have been his last moments on earth? He was reciting over and over, Avinu, Malkeinu, kra roa g'zar dineinu. "Our father, Our King, tear up the evil decree of our verdict." Those surrounding him repeated the words. The Rebbe then continued with, Avinu, Malkeinu, nekom nikmas dam avodecha ha'shafuch, "Our Father, Our King, avenge the blood of Your servants that is being spilled." Avinu, Malkeinu, aseih l'maan rachamecha ha'rabim, "Our Father, Our King, act for the sake of Your abundant compassion."

Anyone who witnessed this mind-boggling spectacle could not believe his eyes. They did not seem to be in a concentration camp surrounded by death and awaiting execution. They acted as if they were in shul on Yom Kippur and were praying to Hashem! In the midst of the terror and persecution, the Rebbe was declaring that the Nazis were not in charge. They would not determine their future. Only Hashem could make that decision. This is emunah, faith, at its apex. The Rebbe and all those who sequestered themselves to recite the Avinu Malkeinu prayer were spared from death. The Nazis had their plan; Hashem had another one.

Va'ani Tefillah

Korbanos, Sacrifices

The ritual process of the sprinkling of the bloods from both the Kohen Gadol's par, bullock, and Klal Yisrael's communal seir, he-goat, is thought-provoking. The applications, forty-three in total, are brought on the Aron, Badim, Paroches, and Mizbayach HaZahav. Mixing the blood symbolizes the unity of the Kohen Gadol and the nation in their understanding of the Torah and its requisites. Not a single one of the applications is indispensable, similar to the Torah, which cannot be amended. In order for the sacrifice to be valid, no element of the ritual may be lacking. The shiyarei ha'dam, remaining blood, is then poured on the western base of the Mizbayach, an act which - according to Horav S.R. Hirsch, zl, -- symbolizes the notion that all of our own conduct and relationships are rooted in the Sanctuary. If, for some reason, the Kohen Gadol has failed to execute this final ritual of pouring the remaining blood on the base of the Mizbayach, the Korban is not rendered invalid.

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