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Peninim on the Torah

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Rabbi A. Leib Scheinbaum
Hebrew Academy of Cleveland


It will be when you will enter the land…that you shall take of the first of every fruit of the ground…and go to the place that Hashem, your G-d, will choose, to make His Name rest there. (26:1,2)

As a rule, the juxtaposition of pesukim and parshios usually conveys an underlying message. At times, the commentators, most notably Rashi, underscore this lesson and emphasize its impact. Thus, when the parsha of Bikurim is juxtaposed on the previous parsha, which relates how Amalek, our archenemy, attacked us - and presents the enjoinment to blot out any vestige of remembrance concerning this evil nation, we wonder at the relationship. Horav Yosef Sholom Eliyashiv, Shlita, takes a pragmatic approach in explaining this.

The Torah records that Amalek "happened" upon us. The word "karcha," happened upon, may also be translated as, "he cooled you off," relating to the word kar, cold. Amalek destroyed our enthusiasm, our passion, our excitement concerning our relationship with Hashem and the Torah. At a moment when our commitment was at an all time high, he came along with the intention of destroying the mood. We must avenge this attack. We must seek to recapture what he destroyed. How are we to do this? What is the Torah's approach to revenge? How do we exact vengeance for Amalek's incursion?

Through the vehicle of the mitzvah of Bikurim, with its accompanying ceremony, we take revenge against Amalek. When we bring Bikurim to the Bais HaMikdash, we precede the contribution with a ritual recalling our bitter history and miraculous survival. Lavan -- who sought to destroy us, and Egypt -- who enslaved us for hundreds of years -- are gone. We have Hashem to thank for our continued existence. When we remember our past and how we reached our present, and we glorify in Hashem, His many miracles and His constant protection of us, we are taking revenge on Amalek. The greatest revenge on Amalek is to demonstrate to ourselves and to the world community that we still exist and that we are thriving as a nation and as a religion.

This idea applies equally to every ritual, to every celebration, to every Jewish experience. It is important that we make the most of these endeavors, as they serve not only to strengthen our bond with Hashem in performing His mitzvos, but they also convey a message to all of the enemies of our tradition: We are here, and we are thriving!

Accursed is the man who will make a graven or molten image. (27:15)

The Torah records twelve curses and twelve corresponding blessings. The blessings are for those who observe specific mitzvos and practices, while the curses befall those who spurn them. The catalysts for these blessings and curses are types of activities that one does in private. Thus, these stealthily committed transgressions are of a nature that indicate a low point in the sinner's behavior. Perhaps it is the unique nature of these sins, and the opportunity for covering up their commission, that causes them to carry the label of arrur, accursed, more than other sins do. We do not find other sins carrying this attachment to the prohibition. The Torah says, "do not," and that is it. Concerning these sins, the Torah emphasizes that he who transgresses them should be cursed.

On the other hand, these sins were first preceded with the blessing in which the Leviim would declare: "Blessed be the man who does not make a graven or molten image." This was followed with, "Accursed is the man who will make a graven or molten image." Where do we find an instance where reward is granted merely because he does not perform a sin?

Horav Tuvia Lisitzin, zl, explains that the yetzer hora, evil inclination, has a much stronger voice concerning a sin that is easily committed in private without anybody ever discovering the perpetrator. Such a circumstance places the individual under much greater tension and pressure to commit the sin. After all, who will ever know? He can still maintain an outward stance of piety and righteousness in the community. This intense pressure may be compared to a situation in which the opportunity presents itself and one dominates over his inclination and does not sin. One who emerges triumphant under such duress merits blessing.

Alternatively, we find Chazal distinguishing between a ganav, thief, and a gazlan, robber. Both of these individuals are reprehensible. Yet, the gazlan, who robs overtly, only pays back the actual principle and nothing more. The ganav, who conceals his thievery, pays the principle plus an added fine of another principle. If he cannot pay this double payment, he is sold as a slave. Why is there such a disparity in their judgment?

Perhaps the difference lies in their method of committing their treachery. The thief is ashamed in the face of other people. He would like to have his cake and eat it, openly acting like an upstanding member of the community, while secretly plundering, cheating and resorting to thievery. The robber does not care what people think. He is unashamed, so he acts as he pleases. He wants money, and public opinion is not something he considers to be a deterrent.

The Torah is more stringent with sins that one commits clandestinely. They represent greater evil and a greater failing in one's character. It is especially noteworthy to take this into concern and to heed the Torah's admonishment. We live in a society in which many opportunities via the media and modern technology present an awesome and, at times, overwhelming enticement to fall into the abyss of immorality and worse. All this is presented under the guise of concealment. One can sin and, until it affects his total character, his sin is kept covert. It remains between himself and Hashem. That should be a sufficient deterrent. If one realizes that his sin falls under the realm of arrur, accursed, he might act differently. Well, at least he should.

And you shall only be above, and you shall not be below. (28:13)

Simply, this means that we will be on "top," revered, looked up to, sought after. Horav Ezriel Hildeseimer, zl, explains that this blessing emphasizes the Jew's gravitational pull toward spirituality and holiness. We note that, in the world of nature, a rock that is falling down does so quickly. That is the law of gravity. Conversely, when one throws a rock up into the air, it ascends at a much slower pace than if it were to be falling earthward. We see the opposite concerning fire: It rises quickly, but travels slowly when it is going downward. Why does the rock rise slowly, in contrast to fire which makes a rapid ascent? He explains that, by nature, a stone is drawn to the earth, which is its source. Fire, however, is an energy which gravitates heavenward. The rule is: Everything travels quickly to its source and slowly when it is moving away from its origins.

This idea applies to the Jewish neshamah, soul, which strives to absorb more from its Heavenly Source. Yeridah, descent, is a movement that is incongruous with the "nature" of the neshamah. The nefesh, man's corporeal essence, however, gravitates downward, as aliyah, spiritual ascendancy, is antagonistic to its nature. Thus, the Torah blesses us that our aliyah, ascension, will be rapid, since our predominant force is our neshamah, which strives Heavenward. We will not be l'matah, below, rising as something whose gravitational pull is heavily downward - like a rock.

The Kotzker Rebbe, zl, elucidates a similar idea with a different approach. He explains that Hashem has a ladder available for the soul to descend to this world. As soon as the soul reaches its destination, Hashem removes the ladder, but continues to call to the neshamah to return to its Source. The soul seeks a way to return, but, alas, the ladder is gone. There are three types of neshamos in this world. The first group does not even begin to try to ascend. The neshamos feel it is a useless endeavor, since they will not succeed. The second group makes the attempt. These individuals try, fall down, then try again. After awhile, they, too, give up. The members of the third group continue, even though they are acutely aware that it is an insurmountable feat. They fall down, brush themselves off, and -- with renewed vigor -- attempt the climb again. They continue to hear that penetrating voice, and, with mesiras nefesh, unbounding dedication to the point of self-sacrifice, they move on. Hashem sees their extreme devotion and assists them in their battle. Beyond these dedicated neshamos are those of the righteous, and above even them are the neshamos of the Avos Ha'kedoshim, holy Patriarchs.

After all is said and done, something seems to pull us to a holy source, to spirituality and a deeper meaning of life. I recently had occasion to speak to a non-observant Jew who said, "I do not know why but, whenever I drive through the observant community, I sense a gravitational pull." Indeed, what is that force that pulls at us?

The Torah tells us in Devarim 30:4, "Even if you have been driven to the ends of the heavens, Hashem will gather you in." Hashem is always present, waiting to assist in our return to Him. The use of the phrase, "end of the heavens," is somewhat out of place. The Torah should really say, "at the ends of the earth." Why is there an emphasis on the heavens? The Baal Shem Tov,zl explains that if there is a little bit of "heaven" left, a little spark of Shomayim, Heavenliness, spirituality, holiness, then Hashem will gather us in. We are created as human beings, but concealed within us is a chelek Elokai miMaal, component of G-dliness from Above, a pure neshamah, soul, that -- regardless of our actions -- remains untainted and holy. It does not change. We do. We cover it up with the dross of physicality and materialism. If even a small vestige of the pure neshamah penetrates this covering, however, Hashem will be there to accept us.

Yes, there is a gravitational pull. It is the neshamah, that pintele Yid, Jewish spark, within all of us that searches and gravitates to its Source. Similar to a compass that always pulls to the north, the neshamah wants to return. Therefore, when given the opportunity, it springs forward and achieves far beyond our expectations. You see, it had never really left. It had only been hidden beneath the surface.

Because you did not serve Hashem, your G-d with gladness. (28:47)

Simchah, joy, happiness, is a wonderful emotion, but does it really affect mitzvah performance? Does the lack of joy in carrying out a mitzvah constitute an adequate reason to sustain the punishment of this litany of curses? The Sfas Emes says that the Torah here is attributing all of the persecutions and troubles that have accompanied us during our galus, exile, to a lack of joy in mitzvah performance. We do it because we have to - not because we want to. We do not enjoy performing mitzvos. Mitzvos do not captivate and excite us. We are observant Jews and, as such, we do by rote what we have been raised and told to do. Such an attitude to mitzvah performance only leads to a lack of observance.

This idea has regrettably proven itself time and again in contemporary society. In the past, when a child from an observant home would go "off the derech," leave the path of Torah, it was attributed to a negative attitude towards observance in general, and its expositors in particular, that he had sensed. There was always someone to blame: a parent, a teacher, a friend, a neighbor. This did not explain, however, why children who had not suffered emotionally, who had experienced a happy childhood in a wonderful, caring and loving home would just leave the Torah way of life - for no apparent reason.

I recently read an article in which the author cited a number of interviews with this type of young person. Among the comments they made were: "Religion did not really add anything to my life." "I never really felt positive about it…" "I just decided one day to quit - for no reason. "When I first desecrated Shabbos, I had no feeling; it had never really meant that much to me."

These were young people who had never really suffered, but neither had they ever felt anything positive. They did not have the geshmak, good feeling, the passion, the enthusiasm. Yiddishkeit had never touched their hearts. Since they had never really connected with Yiddishkeit, it did not hurt to break away. After all, they had never really identified with it. Apparently, their observance had been neutral, tepid, lukewarm - at best. They had not perceived simchah, joy, in serving the Creator. Their Shabbos table was missing the lively zemiros, singing, the challenging divrei Torah, the beauty and serenity that should accompany Shabbos observance. They probably did not "dress up" l'kavod Shabbos, in honor of Shabbos. Everything they experienced was presented in neutral colors.

Keeping mitzvos is not enough to protect us from alienation. It is how we observe these mitzvos that makes a difference. Unless we exhibit love and joy, these mitzvos will not become a part of our psyche, and we will not establish a bond with the Almighty. Mitzvos should be viewed as something positive - not as a burden. All too often people relate to the Lo saasei, prohibitive commandments of the Torah. Thus, they view the Torah as a manual which emphasizes negativity. This belief could not be further from the truth. Indeed, as the Meshech Chochmah in his commentary to Sefer Bereishis explains, the first mitzvah that Hashem gave Adam ha'Rishon, the very first command in the Torah, is essentially to eat and enjoy of all of the trees of Gan Eden. Had Adam conveyed to Chavah that Hashem had commanded them to eat from the trees, then fulfilling Hashem's command would have protected them from the prohibition of eating from the Eitz Ha'Daas, Tree of Knowledge. Had the prohibitive mitzvah been couched in a positive context, it would not have become a vehicle with which the nachash, serpent, could entice them. Furthermore, we see the significance of embellishing religious life with a positive experience. Accentuate the positive, so that the prohibitive and restrictive demands of religion will not loom so heavily upon a person. One should not only enjoy serving Hashem, he should also consider it to be a privilege to have been selected for this mission.

And you will offer yourselves for sale to your enemies as slaves and maidservants - but there will be no buyer! (28:68)

In this tragic curse, we will beg to be purchased as slaves, but slavery is a state that our captors will eschew. They will seek something more permanent and final. Nothing short of our execution will satisfy our enemies. In this terrible vision, the irrational will occur. One would expect that our conquerors would rejoice at the opportunity to enslave and degrade us. What greater sense of victory is there than crushing one's opponent and transforming the once powerful and haughty nobleman into a common, pithy slave. In addition to the economic benefits, slavery should be the perfect solution. Yet, our enemies will demure and reject this opportunity. They will demand our death, not enslavement. Why is this?

The K'sav Sofer cites the Midrash that makes an addendum to the pasuk: v'ein koneh, but there will be no buyer - for Torah. What does the Midrash mean? Are we attempting to sell Torah to the gentiles? He explains that it is first necessary to analyze the source of anti-Semitism. Why do the other nations hate us so? What is the reason that we have been scorned and vilified throughout the millennia? Are we that bad?

In his Iggeres Teiman, the Rambam reveals the roots of the gentile's enmity towards the Jews. "Because Hashem has singled out the Jewish nation with His mitzvos and special laws, the gentiles have developed an implacable jealousy against our religion. They have, consequently, encouraged their kings to persecute us. There has never been a period from the time in which the Torah was given at Har Sinai that there has not been a king or ruler who did not seek to destroy us. This was originally a reaction to our religion, but it has developed into an all - out, irrational hatred."

In other words, we think that the gentiles hate the Jews. What is there about us that inspires such loathing? The truth is that they do not hate us personally. This is only a fa?ade to cover up their real hatred, the vile aversion that they have for the Torah. As long as Jews exist, there will continue to be a Torah in this world. This reality does not allow the gentile to rest until he has abrogated the Torah from this world. When the gentile makes an evil decree against the Jew, his intention is really to undermine and ultimately destroy the Torah. Their culture is to "live by the sword," something that is antithetical to the lifestyle championed by the Torah. Our Torah is a living condemnation of their lifestyle, indeed of everything they represent. Is it any wonder that the Torah is their public enemy number one?

This is why, even after they have triumphed against us, that they have no interest in our enslavement. It is not us that they hate. It is a jealousy of what we stand for and represent. They want nothing less than our complete annihilation. For as long as we exist as the standard bearers of the Torah, we live in direct confrontation to their meaningless culture. If they were to buy us as slaves, they would be compelled to sanction the continuity of the Torah. They could never reconcile themselves to that. Thus, they refuse to buy the Torah. To purchase us is to sustain the Torah.

Va'ani Tefillah

Baruch podeh u'matzil - Blessed be He Who redeems and saves.

As a nation, we have been privileged to have experienced Hashem, both as a podeh, redeemer, and as a matzil, savior. We have only to peruse history to note the divergent situations in which Hashem manifests Himself in either of these roles. Horav Shimon Schwab, zl, defines podeh as relating to Hashem as our personal redeemer. Hashem's introduction to us at Har Sinai was in the first of the Aseres HaDibros, Ten Commandments. "I am Hashem your G-d Who took you out of Egypt." He reveals Himself as our redeemer. We experienced a personal redemption, as Hashem personally intervened to take us out of Egypt.

Horav Avigdor Miller, zl, explains that podeh denotes a change in one's legal status. Hence, a slave who is redeemed is no longer a slave. Merely extricating the slave does not suffice. He is a slave until his legal status has been altered through redemption. A sinner is redeemed from guilt once he is pardoned of his sin. On the other hand, a slave who has been redeemed, but is still to be found in his former master's house, needs to be extricated from his present home. Thus, matzil, is the experience of being taken out and saved from the place in which he is to be found.

Hashem redeems the sinner by pardoning his sin and then by removing him from his suffering in Gehinnom, Purgatory. Eventually He grants him the opportunity to enjoy eternal bliss in Gan Eden.

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