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Peninim on the Torah

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Rabbi A. Leib Scheinbaum
Hebrew Academy of Cleveland


And now, behold! I have brought the first fruit of the ground that You have given me. (26:10)

The Midrash emphasizes the significance of the mitzvah of Bikurim when it posits, "In the merit of three things the world was created: Challah, Maaser, and Bikurim." Three mitzvos played a pivotal role in Creation, and one of them is Bikurim. Clearly, it is an important mitzvah which infuses us with a sense of hakoras hatov, gratitude, to the Almighty for all that He does for us. What renders it important enough to be one of the three mitzvos which were the precursors of creation of the world?

Horav Yaakov Neiman, zl, gives us a practical understanding of this mitzvah, how we should approach its performance, and what impact it should have on us. Obviously, anyone who possesses a modicum of intelligence understands that Hashem created the world. This is a given for every thinking individual. What seems to create a problem-- even for the rational man-- is the fact that even those activities that seem to be consequences of his own creation are not. They are the work of the Almighty. In fact, everything and everybody are the results of Hashem's creation and His continuing will that it/they continue to exist. To believe in anything less than that is heretical.

Thus, when an individual who has toiled, plowed, planted and harvested the first fruits of his labor comes to the Sanctuary and declares: "I have brought the first fruits…that You have given me," he affirms the purpose of Creation. He acknowledges that everything in this world-- even what he has seemingly created with his own hands-all emanates from Hashem.

You shall erect these stones which I command you today, on Har Eival…There you shall build an Altar for Hashem. (27:4,5)

As the people are about to enter the Holy Land, they are commanded to renew their commitment to the Torah, by inscribing it on twelve huge stones. This commitment was to be accompanied by offering sacrifices on an altar which they were to erect. This entire experience was to be one of festivity and joy. It is, therefore, surprising that the site for this festive occurrence was on Har Eival, the site designated for the reading of the curses. Was not Har Gerizim, the mountain upon which the blessings were pronounced, a more appropriate place for festivity, commitment, altar and sacrifices? Horav Moshe Feinstein. zl, explains that the punishments of the curses were meant to encourage the people to be Torah observant. If they were confronted only with the wonderful rewards in store for the observant, it would allow the yetzer hora, evil inclination, to entice them into disobedience - by claiming that the fleeting pleasures it promises have even greater benefit and are more practical than the distant, abstract rewards which the Torah promises are prepared in the World to Come. If, however, they were to be aware of the drastic punishments which are the consequences of a life of sin, they would wake up from their slumber and react. Thus, the curses avail them a greater opportunity for survival. This is the reason for the festivity.

Perhaps we might suggest a slightly different approach. In Parashas Masei, the Torah summarizes the entire route taken by the Jewish people during their exodus from Egypt until they stood poised to enter Eretz Yisrael. The Torah emphasizes that "Moshe wrote their goings forth according to their journeys at the bidding of Hashem" (Bamidbar 33:2). We wonder why the Torah singles out this particular point, the people's journey through the wilderness, emphasizing that it was written by Moshe Rabbeinu at Hashem's bidding. Was not the entire Torah written at Hashem's instructions?

Horav Moshe Ephraim, zl, of Sedlikow, author of the Degel Machanei Ephraim, discusses an idea taught by his grandfather, the Baal Shem Tov. The route which Klal Yisrael followed from Egypt into the Holy Land, which included forty-two encampments, represents the journey taken by every human being throughout his life. He begins in Egypt, which is symbolized by the narrow passageway of the mother's womb: Mitzrayim, the Hebrew term for Egypt, means "narrow constraints," represented by the narrow channel through which an infant emerges. Life travels through the wilderness of the world with forty-two encampments, leading to our own inner "Holy Land," a life of transcendent holiness.

Our personal journeys through our individual wildernesses are filled with forty-two singular experiences, each composed of unique psychological, physical and emotional components which can be used as opportunities for emotional and spiritual growth and productivity. Alternatively, they can be viewed as a source of demoralization, debasement and despair. These encounters can either bring us to our inner spiritual zenith or drive us away from our spiritual destination.

In short, we see from here that Hashem writes the script of our lives. By our own actions, we determine if the "play" will be depressing or uplifting. Will the journey be one of blessing, or will it generate curse? It is all up to us. We make the choices that define our journey. We encounter the challenges that are there to elevate us or take us down. Our reactions influence the sequel.

What often seems to be a curse may actually be an opportunity to bring one closer to his or her personal "Holy Land." It is not the position in which one stands that decides his fate. It is how he perceives his position and what he does about it that determine his destiny.

Accursed is one who will not uphold the words of the Torah. (27:21)

This is a very powerful curse. According to Ramban, this curse applies to anyone who does not accept the validity of the entire Torah - each and every one of its commandments. This curse does not apply to the one who sins, but to the one who repudiates, who discards a mitzvah, claiming that it lacks relevance in our day. This applies equally to one who denies the Divinity of any part of the Torah. The Yerushalmi Sotah 7:4 goes further when it posits that this curse applies to anyone who can influence another Jew to be loyal to the Torah, but does not. This is especially true of people in authority and those who possess the talent and the power to leave a positive imprimatur on a fellow Jew.

I wonder if, by extension, this would include those who are in the position of helping a Jewish child, by including him or her in their learning groups or accepting the child into their schools. What about those who refuse to accept a child because his family pedigree is not on the same scale as that of the other children, or because his parents have just not been "Torah-oriented" as long as the parents of "other" children? Are they to be included in "not upholding the words of this Torah"? Of course, everybody has a "justifiable" excuse, or so they rationalize, but at the end of the day, can he really say that he did not turn away another Jewish child just because he or she did not fit in to his preconceived notion of what constitutes a ben Torah. One who turns his back on another Jew who is seeking to learn, or to have his child learn, Torah thinks more highly of himself than he does of the Torah.

Finally, this pasuk enjoins us to support Torah study. There are those who are extremely selective concerning their tzedakah, charity, viewing educational institutions as the responsibility of the parents. This is a rational observation for someone who does not appreciate the significance of Torah. Without Torah, there is no tzedakah! Torah defines the totality of Jewish life, teaching us how to live under every condition. Torah is our lifeline, our blood supply, the energy that keeps us alive as Jews. Without Torah, we are no different than all of the other inhabitants of this planet. It is the responsibility of those who have, each according to his own ability, to sustain Torah study.

The Midrash in Koheles makes an intriguing statement: "One who studies Torah, reviews his studies, teaches others, observes the Torah, but has the ability to support others who study- and does not - is included in the curse." Here we have an individual who acknowledges the significance of Torah. He learns - and, clearly, if Chazal say that he learns, they mean properly, not merely a cursory reading of the text. This person "horeved," toiled, in Torah study. He taught others and was himself meticulous in its observance. He just refused to support Torah financially. Is that a reason to be cursed? He is missing just one aspect of the total Torah picture. Is that so bad?

Horav Dovid Povarsky, zl, explains that one must understand the meaning of kabbolas haTorah, receiving the Torah, from Hashem. By its essence, the Torah is a Divine creation. It is Divinely authored and, therefore, is not adaptable to this world, to mankind with his physical limitations. This is why, after learning the Torah from Hashem on Har Sinai, Moshe Rabbeinu was to forget everything that he had learned. Torah is Divine; Moshe is human. The Torah was an external entity which did not coalesce with Moshe as an individual. When Hashem gave him the Torah b'matanah, as a gift, there was a fusion, a symbiotic transfer of the Torah into the essence of Klal Yisrael. This was the Giving of the Torah. It was taken from its Heavenly perch and united with man. The Torah was no longer an external presence. It was now an integral part of the Jew. Klal Yisrael and the Torah are one!

When something is a part of an individual, he cannot exist without it. He does not tolerate life without this component. Avraham Avinu was the amud ha'chesed, pillar of kindness. The Rosh Yeshivah of Ponevez explains that this means that chesed was a part of Avraham's essence. He could not live without chesed. Therefore, even when he was ill and in extreme pain, he looked for wayfarers. He needed his chesed. When he saw the wayfarers who were sent by Hashem, he ran to them. He was energized, because he had now participated in his chesed. It was not merely an act of kindness. It was his life! It was Avraham Avinu!

This is what Torah should be to us. If one has the ability to support Torah, then he is consumed with a desire to do so. If he sees someone studying Torah, and he is able to sustain his learning, he is driven to do so with alacrity and enthusiasm because it is his life. One who studies and observes, but does not feel compelled to support Torah, indicates that the Torah still remains outside of him. It is not amalgamated into his being, as it should be for every Jew. This is not a simple, minute deficiency. This is a serious matter and worthy of a curse.

Because you did not serve Hashem, Your G-d, amid gladness and goodness of heart, when everything was abundant. (28:47)

Imagine, the entire Tochachah, Rebuke, is the consequence of our serving Hashem without joy. We served Him; we performed the mitzvos, but it was without a sense of happiness. That is why we suffer the many tragic curses. It seems a bit demanding. We are addressing G-d fearing, observant Jews who go to shul and daven. They perform mitzvos and do basically everything that is enjoined of them. Is the fact that they do not exhibit enthusiasm and joy a reason to punish them so harshly? I have written many responses to this question over the years, and they all point to the importance of simchah, joy, in mitzvah performance. It just is not the same mitzvah.

I recently saw a simple, but compelling, explanation from Horav Yitzchak Zilberstein, Shlita, that really addresses the crux of the problem. In order to transmit mitzvah observance to the next generation, there must be simchah in mitzvah performance. Let us face it, you cannot fool children. They are very perceptive and always see through the fa?ade that we project to cover up the truth. When a child sees his father performing a mitzvah amid joy, the child understands that this activity is important. It is valued by his father. If, on the other hand, the child notices complacency, indifference, even coldness in his father's mitzvah performance, then he will recognize exactly what the mitzvah is worth to his father -nothing! If a child grows up in a home in which the father does not arise bright and early for davening - if he goes altogether - the child will surely not place a premium on the value of prayer with a minyan. The list goes on, and it is needless to elaborate. Simchah is that component of mitzvah observance that guarantees the survival of the mitzvah. Without joy, the mitzvah will not have an enduring relationship with the next generation.

Having said this, we should address the meaning of simchah, a term with which the commentators grapple. Clearly, our idea of simchah contrasts the popular definition employed by contemporary society. Their joy is frivolous, without meaning, loose, uncontrolled and unabashed. Simchah has dignity, integrity and emanates from within. Does simchah mean having a good time? Does one have to shout from the rooftops to demonstrate that he is happy? Furthermore, we have mitzvos that are to be celebrated amid sadness, such as mourning for the Bais Hamikdash. How does one mourn for the Bais Hamikdash and yet still feel a sense of simchah? How does one eat maror, bitter herbs, on Pesach and experience simchah? It seems a bit incongruous.

I think we may explain this in the following manner. Horav S.R. Hirsch, zl, posits that when two Hebrew words are similar, they are related in meaning. Thus, the word sameach, happy, and tzameach, grow, are related one to another. With this in mind, a whole new vista of understanding unfolds before us. Happiness means that one senses or experiences growth. When one performs a mitzvah properly, he should feel elevated, transformed, a better person, a holier Jew. He has grown! This feeling generates satisfaction, serenity, even joy. Any activity which engenders a feeling of growth is an experience of simchah. If one does not feel he has grown, then there is no simchah, because the two realities are intertwined with one another.

Hence, one can cry bitter tears on Tisha B'Av, but still experience simchah, because he has grown. He has mourned for the Bais Hamikdash. That is a growth experience! Growth generates inner satisfaction - even if the growth has been generated by a painful experience. Growth alters the definition of pain.

When we recite the Vidduy, confessional prayer on Yom Kippur, we do so with a melody. It might be a haunting melody, but it is a melody no less. Why? This question is asked by the K'sav Sofer, who explains that when we recite Vidduy, we are carrying out a Biblical command. Therefore, we are happy and thankful to Hashem that He has availed us of this opportunity to cleanse and purify ourselves before Him. This is why we sing. Also, when we confess, we grow. We cleanse ourselves of sin and become better Jews who are now closer to the Almighty. We have grown. We are, therefore, b'simchah.

The Baal Shem Tov once visited a town in which the people came to him complaining that their chazzan, cantor, had been behaving very strangely. It seems that on Yom Kippur, when he would chant the Al Cheit, confession of sin, he would do so with a merry melody, rather than the usual solemn tune. They presented a legitimate complaint, so the Baal Shem Tov asked to speak to the chazzan.

"Rebbe," the chazzan replied, "if I were a janitor in the palace of the king, would I not be happy that I have the privilege to beautify the king's palace? I feel the same way during my recital of the al cheit. The neshamah, soul, within me is Divine. It is a part of G-d. When I confess my sins, I am actually cleansing myself, so that I can be a more pleasant place for the neshamah which resides within me. Is this not enough reason to sing with joy?" The Baal Shem Tov told the townspeople that they were very fortunate to have a chazzan of such spiritual integrity leading their service.

He recognized that he was growing and, therefore ,was filled with simchah. Growth often is the product of toil. One has to exert himself in order to catalyze growth. In Yaakov Avinu's blessing to his son Yissachar, he says, "He saw tranquility that it was good…Yet, he bent his shoulder to bear and he became an indentured laborer." (Bereishis 49:15) The Kotzker Rebbe, zl, gleans from this pasuk that true simchah in life is derived through toil and shouldering responsibility. The one who "cops out," who looks for excuses to avoid taking responsibility, is not a happy person. Imagine, Yaakov says, "He saw tranquility that it was good." He presented to his son the opportunity for menuchah, tranquility and bliss. One would expect Yissachar to lay back, soak up the sun, plug himself into every electronic device, and just do nothing. Not Yissachar. He responds to the offer of tranquility by "bending his shoulder" and "becoming an indentured slave." He understood the value of serenity and peace, but he was also acutely aware that the only way to achieve this sense of calm is through ameilus, toil. Material excess and physical pleasures do not bring about tranquility. In fact, they increase one's dependency on them. Toil and responsibility effectuate growth, which is the primary component of simchah.

As we stand close to the end of the year, may we merit to cleanse ourselves of the impurities that suppress our ability to grow, so that we will enjoy true simchas ha'chaim in the coming years.

Even any illness or any blow that is not written in this Book of the Torah, Hashem will bring upon you, until you are destroyed. (28:61)

A number of distinguished commentators cite a Midrash whose source seems to be elusive; yet, its message is compelling. The Torah details many terrible punishments, concluding that even those that are not mentioned for whatever reason will also be employed as a means of punishing us. The Midrash asks what illness or painful experience is not included among the many that are enumerated here. The response is misas tzadikim, death of the righteous. This collective punishment is truly devastating. What is the Midrash teaching us with this statement? Furthermore, what does the Midrash mean when it posits the death of the righteous is not mentioned in the Torah?

The Noda B'Yehudah explains that each of the previous Sefarim mention a tzadik who passes away. Sefer Bereishis tells us of the passing of Noach, the Patriarchs and the Matriarchs. Sefer Shemos begins with the passing of Yosef and his brothers. In Sefer Vayikra, we are told about the untimely deaths of Nadav and Avihu. Bamidbar is the Sefer in which the deaths of Aharon and Miriam are recorded. There is no death of a tzadik mentioned in Sefer Devarim. This is what is meant by the "illness or blow that is not written in this Book of the Torah."

The question that glares at us is what about Moshe Rabbeinu? He is certainly righteous enough to be listed among the tzadikim, and his death is recorded at the end of Sefer Devarim. The Noda B'Yehudah gives two reasons why Moshe's passing is not recorded. First, it occurred after the Tochachah, Rebuke. While Moshe was voicing the ninety-eight curses, he was obviously still alive. Second, as the consummate anav, paragon of humility, Moshe did not view himself as a tzadik. The others were tzadikim. He was not! This is an incredible statement coming from one of the greatest Torah leaders in the last two hundred years. Moshe did not consider himself to be on the spiritual plateau of his brother and sister, who were his contemporaries. He was the quintessential leader of the Jewish People, the individual who gave them Hashem's Torah after being on Har Sinai and learning the Torah directly from Hashem. Yet, he did not view himself as a tzadik. That is the definition of humility. How distant are we from this character trait?

Va'ani Tefillah

Kavod malchuscha yomeiru u'gvurasecha yedabeiru.
Of the glory of Your Kingdom they shall speak, and of Your power they will tell.

The pasuk begins with malchus, kingdom, and concludes with gevurah, power/strength. Also, it begins with amirah, speaking, which is a "lighter" form of expression than dibur, with which it concludes. Why is there a change in the pasuk's vernacular? The Alter, zl, m'Kelm, explains this with an analogy. One who is invited to the home of a wealthy man will surely be impressed with his cursory view of his palatial home. This impression will grow in proportion once the host has shown him some of his unique, extremely expensive jewelry. When he is permitted to visit the host's vault in the basement of the house and come face to face with gold, diamonds, securities and an overwhelming amount of cash, it will literally stupefy him. It is only after he has seen everything that his host owns, and digests all of this knowledge into one all-inclusive frame, however, that he is able to really laud the host's fortune.

This is the meaning of meluchah, kingdom - everything that is under the power of the king: people, wealth, institutions, everything. Malchus Shomayim, the Heavenly Kingdom, coincides with the concept of kingdom on earth: everything is under Hashem's domain. When one praises Hashem, the glory of His Kingdom, he lauds every individual aspect of His reign. Since it is not the total picture, the all-encompassing, all inclusive portrait of everything together as one whole; however, it can only be expressed through amirah, speaking. When one praises Hashem's gevurah, the entire amalgam of everything in the universe under One guiding Hand, it is utilizing dibur, the stronger expression.

l'zechar nishmas
R' Yehuda Leib ben Chaim Mordechai z"l
niftar 24 Elul 5762
Dr. & Mrs. Daniel Norowitz

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