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Peninim on the Torah

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Rabbi A. Leib Scheinbaum
Hebrew Academy of Cleveland


Then you shall call out… "An Aramean would have destroyed my father…" The Egyptians mistreated us and afflicted us… Then we cried out to Hashem, the G-d of our forefathers…And He saw our affliction, our turmoil, and our oppression…You shall rejoice with all the good. (26:5-11)

The Jewish farmer who brings the Bikkurim has reached a lofty moment of intense joy. The planting comes first, followed by prayer and hope that the seed will survive and that there will be sufficient rain to produce a good crop. Finally, the farmer has harvested his crops and comes down to Yerushalayim with his first fruits. This is the moment for which he has been waiting, the moment of heightened joy, his moment of triumph. Interestingly, it is specifically at this moment, surrounded by blessing, that the Torah admonishes him not to forget the past - the sadness, the pain and misery that has preceded this moment. V'anissa v'amarta, "Then you shall call out." It is specifically at this moment of great joy that you shall acknowledge, remember and declare the past.

The v'anissa, declaration, should be b'kol ram, loud voice. Do not be afraid. Do not be ashamed. Never forget your "past." Horav Chaim Zaitchik, zl, notes that, V'samachta b'chol ha'tov, "You shall rejoice with all the good," follows immediately after remembering the past. One who remembers his own humble beginnings, the hard times, when he was not quite as successful -- when he has experienced pain and misery - will see to it that other unfortunate people will also share in his good fortune.

Rav Zaitchik comments that the Torah manifests a deep understanding of human nature. It understands the psyche of the poor man who finally "made it." He will do anything within his power not to be reminded of his humble beginnings. He wants to forget his humiliation and pain completely. The early years were rough. Now that they are relegated to being a nightmare of the past, he has forgotten about them.

Rav Zaitchik recalls a family who had, years earlier, been victims of abject poverty. Theirs had been a life of misery and shame. Once they struck gold, they wanted to separate themselves from the past. When the Rosh Yeshiva suggested that they needed to acknowledge Hashem's beneficence, they demurred emphatically. Heaven forbid should they recall their earlier difficulties. The earlier trauma was gone. They wanted to live in the present. This frequently occurred after the Holocaust, whereby survivors who had endured unspeakable pain and brutality refused to rehash the past. These individuals became successful businessmen who did not want to be identified with their earlier shame. What was - was. This is now! The Torah does not seem to agree. In fact, it indicates that only by recalling his past does one fully appreciate his present. Only then can he offer his gratitude in the appropriate manner.

Horav Eliyahu Chaim Meisel, zl, was the Rav of Lodz, Poland, a city that distinguished itself in its broad Jewish character and large observant community. The Rav was very much involved in acts of chesed, lovingkindness, often personally going around collecting money for various charities. He approached a certain wealthy man who had been quite charitable in the past. The man responded negatively, bemoaning the fact that he was bankrupt, having lost his fortune to various failed business ventures. He was lucky to sustain his family. Charity was out of the question.

After some time, the wheel of fortune turned in this man's favor and he was once again blessed by Hashem. His fortune grew considerably, until he was once again counted among the eminently wealthy members of the Lodz community. When Rav Eliyahu Chaim met him on the street, he inquired concerning his material status. The response was simply: "So, so." The fact that this person had risen from bankruptcy to serious wealth was ignored; he summed up his situation: "So, so."

Unsurprisingly, the Rav was taken aback by this response. Here was a man that had truly been blessed by Hashem. How could he be shrugging it off with a mere, "So, so"? Rav Eliyahu Chaim said, "Now I understand the Midrash's comment concerning the pasuk relating to the bringing of Bikkurim. "And now, behold! I have brought the first fruit of the ground that You have given me" (ibid. 26:10). Chazal say, "A man expresses his praise in a low voice and his shame in a loud voice. The Vidduy Maaser, confession accompanying the Maaser, in which he details his troubled past is recited in a low voice, while the pasukim addressing his actual Bikkurim offering are articulated in a high voice." What are Chazal saying? Why is Viduy considered praise, and what about bringing Bikkurim is considered degrading about the person?

"Apparently, the word shevach, which is usually translated as praise, must refer to one's fortunate circumstances, and genuss, which is translated as shame, refers to unfortunate conditions. When a person offers Bikkurim, it is difficult to ascertain his present financial status. After all, he brings only a small basket of fruit, appearing for all intents and purposes as a poor man. At this point, he has no reason to fear that anyone would be envious of whatever wealth he might have, since no one can really discern his financial status. Thus, he has no problem declaring his "shame" in a loud voice, which resonates throughout the Bais HaMikdash. When he gives Maaser, however, he must be more careful. Giving one tenth of one's material net harvest, or tithing his animals, reveals the real truth about his finances. He is not interested in publicizing his wealth, lest he be inundated with charity solicitors. Therefore, at this point, when he is expressing his good fortune, he pronounces it in a low voice, lest the Rav of Lodz approach him to solicit a charitable contribution!"

Hashem shall place you as a head and not as a tail; you shall be only above and you shall not be below - if you listen to the commandments of Hashem. (28:13)

The Tochechah, Admonition, found in Parashas Ki Savo is the second set of admonitions in the Torah; the first is in Parashas Bechukosai. Herein , Moshe Rabbeinu spells out in stark reality the dire consequences which our nation will face if we deviate from our allegiance to Hashem and His Torah. Nonetheless, he precedes the fifty-four pesukim of curse with fourteen pesuskim of brachah, blessing. These blessings describe the incredible bounty which we will receive if our commitment to His Torah does not wane. Included in these verses of blessing are insights into the ideals and qualities of a successful ben Torah. Commitment to Hashem and observance of His mitzvos are best facilitated when the individual's lifestyle and world outlook are also in sync with the Torah. Regrettably, some people want to have their cake and eat it too, attempting to integrate commitment into a life of abandon. The two just do not mesh together.

In his latest anthology of divrei Torah from Rav Avrohom Pam, zl, Rabbi Shalom Smith cites the Rosh Yeshiva who uses the above pasuk as an example of the lifestyle demanded of a ben Torah. A committed Jew must have lofty aspirations, his head shall be "above" - not below. Being absorbed in the base, physical drives to which we are all tempted, keeps us "below," our minds falling prey to the passion connected with our earthly existence.

This seems to be easier said than done. Contemporary society - accompanied by its trends and fashions, reflecting a hedonistic culture that venerates immorality in every shape and form-- has an amazingly strong gravitational pull on us. How does one protect himself from the onslaught of the media, the street, the workplace? The Rosh Yeshivah explains that it is essential that a ben Torah inculcate within himself the notion that he is a rosh, head, and not a zanav, tail. The tail follows the body. The head leads the body. One who is a "tail" follows trends, fashions, the hype that contemporary society plugs into our lives - whether we like it or not. Is it necessary for members of the Torah community to prostrate themselves to every bit of foolishness - whether it be style of clothes, manner of dress, speech and activity - that emanate from the oracles of hedonism that influence contemporary secular culture? These fads are for those who surround us - but not for us.

We have only to open up our eyes and look at the products of the prevailing culture of the western world. Any human being who possesses a modicum of intelligence understands that what he sees is not right. This was not Hashem's purpose in creating the world. For those whose lives are not guided by Torah, however, life changes constantly, leaving a person bereft of joy and satisfaction, constantly yearning for more, for something else to satisfy his base, physical demands. There is a void in the life of a secular person to whom Torah is foreign. To satisfy that emptiness, he must constantly accumulate, purchase, do things to replace the boredom and the gnawing feeling of being unsuccessful. The Jew who is attached to the Torah lives on a different plane. His life is filled with the eternal teachings of the Torah. His values are of an eternal nature. Good and bad, success and failure, satisfaction and happiness in contrast to sadness: are all determined by a totally different barometer. His life is focused on above - not below.

As I wrote these words, I took a break to perform some Erev Shabbos errands. I went outside, and I was struck by what I consider (in contrast to today's culture) to be an incredible sight. My neighbor's five children, ages toddler to ten years old, were all ensconced on their lawn, sucking on popsicles, staring in earnest at a group of workers replacing the roof of my other neighbor's house. In today's day and age, to see children getting a thrill out of watching something mundane like men working is incredible!

I remarked to the father, who is a ben Torah and whose home is based on the principles and values of a Torah-oriented lifestyle, "Only children not raised on a steady diet of TV and videos could be captivated by something so mundane as workers applying a new roof to a house." He replied, "You should write that in the Peninim."

I decided that I would. Perhaps, if we realize that our task in life is to be focused on "Above," on the eternal, the sacred, the spiritual; and not on "below" with its base, physical demands, we will be worthy of a healthy, spiritually-inspired year in which we will experience satisfaction in our lives.

Your life will hang in the balance, and you will be frightened night and day, and you will not be sure of your livelihood. (28:66)

The Jew will neither know if he is coming or going nor what the next moment will bring. He will be unsafe, never knowing when violence will erupt and ensnare him in its grip. As to his livelihood, it will be day to day; he will never be sure what the markets will have or whether they will be shut down. In the Talmud Menachos 103B, Chazal explain that the distress results from having to rely on others for sustenance - never being sure of what will be.

Horav Chaim Shmuelevitz, zl, is quoted as having asked why such circumstances represent the concept of a curse. Does having to rely on outside sustenance mean that one is afflicted? If so, the entire Jewish nation's forty-year survival in the wilderness was one of misfortune. Did they know from where their next "meal" would originate? They waited patiently every day for Hashem to deliver their portion of manna. This is how the Jewish nation lived for forty years. Apparently, it was not so bad. Why is it considered to be a curse?

Rav Chaim explains that the key phrase is v'lo saamin b'chayecha, "You will not be sure / you will not believe, in your livelihood." You will manifest a lack of emunah, faith. This is what transforms an opportunity for spiritual elevation into misfortune and curse. In contrast, the one believer will grow from this experience. The recognition that one rests in the cradle of Hashem's embrace - that his livelihood is governed and provided directly by the Almighty at a time and place which is most suitable to the beneficiary - is an incredible gift. This is an unparalleled opportunity which enables increased closeness to Hashem, as well as a deeper insight into His Providential guidance of our lives.

Emunah plays its most pivotal role when the intelligent mind attempts to grasp Hashem's ways. What seems incomprehensible to the mortal mind is quite rational in the sphere of the spiritual dimension. Yet, we still question Hashem. Our inability to arrive at a "suitable" answer or to accept our physical limitations fuels a negative reaction on our part. The Kotzker Rebbe, zl, had a perfect response to these naysayers, "I would definitely not want to serve a G-d whose ways are comprehensible to the minds of human beings." Such a profound statement! Indeed, if we could understand Hashem, something would clearly be amiss.

Hashem's judgment is not always to our liking. A believing Jew is matzdik es ha'din, vindicates Hashem's judgment. Some of us have been called upon by Hashem to live a life that is far from a bed of roses. We have been asked to manifest our fidelity even at the most difficult times. Those who are able to do so are possessed of superhuman strength with a heavy dose of emunah. In his approbation to a sefer dealing with a young widow's incredible faith during her late husband's illness, Horav Mordechai Neugraschel, Shlita, cites Chazal, who mention three parables which address the suffering experienced by righteous Jews. Each parable refers to a different form of suffering. The lessons and his explanations are inspiring.

One parable involves a potter who sells clay pots. To publicize the quality of his pots, he bangs on them. Clearly, he will only bang on those sturdy pots which can tolerate the "punishment."

Another parable concerns a flax seller who combs out his flax. Obviously, he only combs out his best quality flax. The third parable appertains to a man who possesses two cows. Which cow will he use to pull his plow? Clearly, it will be the stronger cow.

There are righteous individuals whom Hashem afflicts in order to sanctify His Name in the world and to demonstrate that their suffering only serves to strengthen their conviction. With every affliction, their resolve becomes more determined. Trials of this kind can only be issued upon individuals of great spiritual persuasion. They dig in tenaciously and with great fortitude, they endure whatever comes their way. This is very much like the potter who bangs on the sturdy pots to prove their durability. He would not bang on a weak pot, lest it break.

Hashem afflicts certain righteous individuals in order to purify them, so that they will reach the World of Truth in a perfect state - free of sin. Only the righteous are allowed this form of purification. Lesser individuals are not. Likewise, the flax seller will not invest his time combing inferior flax which might split and, in any event, is probably not worth his effort.

Then there are those unique individuals whose level of sanctity is so lofty that Hashem afflicts them to atone for the sins of the generation. They know how to accept suffering, how to vindicate the Almighty's judgment. Thus, their relatively small amount of suffering can atone for a disproportionate amount of evil. Were the wicked to suffer commensurate to their evil, a sea of suffering would descend upon the world. At times, we merit seeing how suffering can raise the individual who is afflicted - and those who surround him - to a supreme spiritual height.

This explains neither the exact reason nor the fine detail concerning any one individual's specific suffering. It only serves as a general understanding, a pattern concerning the thought process for coping with affliction. As mentioned earlier, it all reflects back to one's emunah, his faith in - and reliance on - the Almighty. There are certainly no dearth of stories that offer us a glimpse into the power of emunah and those individuals who exemplify conviction in Hashem. I selected the following episode from A Touch of Warmth, by Rabbi Yechiel Spero, because of its inspiring lesson.

A young man in Eretz Yisrael, a loving husband and father, yet in the prime of his life, began feeling weak. At first, he thought he was rundown from too much work and too little rest. He was a successful rebbe whose love for his students was reciprocated. Lately, however, this gregarious, amicable rebbe was neither. He just was not the same. He finally consulted his doctor, who, after a battery of tests, returned with a dread verdict. Basically, he was on borrowed time. He had been stricken with a terrible disease that rarely left survivors. His symptoms indicated that the disease had advanced beyond the scope of therapy. In all reality, according to the laws of nature and the medical procedures available, the young rebbe had a few short months left to live.

The rebbe and his wife were understandably devastated with the diagnosis. There had to be some form of hope. The wife quickly got on the phone and reached out to anyone who knew someone who might be able to help. Regrettably, the responses were not positive. They met with Rabbi Firer of Ezra L'Marpei, the individual and organization that have served as the last bastion of hope to countless Jews. All he could do was accompany them to specialists, to the top doctors, who, lamentably, could not give them a more positive diagnosis. At best, they could administer strong therapy that would not cure the disease, but simply arrest it, delaying the inevitable for only a short time. In fact, the treatment seemed to cause more harm than good. He was in constant excruciating pain, unable to move. Was it really worth it? Perhaps they should allow the disease to take its course.

The young wife refused to give up, caring for her husband's every need. This was all performed while continuing to see to the welfare and education of their young children. It was not easy, but she executed her duties with grace and dignity. Hashem was testing her, and she was prepared to rise to the challenge.

At one point, she decided that enough was enough. The doctors were doomsayers, foreshadowing her beloved husband's early demise in the very near future. She could not accept their diagnosis. Once again, she turned to Rabbi Firer to ask him to arrange a meeting for them with the venerable sage, Horav Yosef Shalom Elyashiv, Shlita.

The three - husband, wife and Rabbi Firer - met with the gadol ha'dor, pre-eminent leader of our generation. Rav Elyashiv was gracious, listening to Rabbi Firer's detailed description of the illness, the therapy and the doctors' diagnosis. He then closed his eyes and was silent. The three waited with bated breath for the gadol's response. Regrettably, it was not what they wanted to hear. He stated that the doctors had issued their verdict. They felt that nothing more could be done. What more could he possibly do?

The wife had maintained her silence throughout the meeting. After hearing Rav Elyashiv's statement, however, she gathered the courage to open her mouth and issue forth her personal plea. "Kevod HaRav, in a few weeks I am destined to be a young widow. My children will ask me, 'Ima, did you do everything within your ability to save Abba's life?' What am I going to tell them - that I stood by silently, while his life was snuffed out by the disease? Have I really done all that there is to do?"

When Rav Elyashiv heard these heartfelt words, his expression changed. He turned to Rabbi Firer and asked him how soon they would be able to travel to America. Although it was Erev Shabbos and getting late, Rav Elyahshiv insisted that they pay no attention to chillul Shabbos, desecration of Shabbos, and immediately take a flight to America. It was a matter of life and death, and such matters take precedence over Shabbos.

Immediately, Rabbi Firer set himself to what he does best: arranging an appointment in a New York hospital which specializes in the treatment of a particular disease. The young couple was off to America with hope for a miracle. During the next few weeks, the rebbe underwent extensive, painful treatments. For a few days, it was touch and go, but he survived! The doctors gave him a hopeful bill of health. According to their understanding, he was cured. Boruch Hashem, they are a healthy, thriving family today.

What happened? Why did Rav Elyashiv originally say that nothing could be done, and then, after the wife's plea, seem to recant his words? Horav Chaim Kanievsky, Shlita, explained that, at first, Rav Elyashiv sensed that the couple was making their request of him based on the determinations of the doctors. In a world in which doctors "decide" who lives and who dies - in a world of nature and medicine - there truly was no hope. The doctors had issued their diagnosis based upon what they saw and what was available to them in the form of treatment. There was no hope. When the wife asked if somehow, some way, something could be done, so that she could convey to her children that she had done everything - her very best - such that nothing was left to do, she was entering into a different world. She had just accessed Hashem's world. In the realm of the Almighty, nothing is impossible.

All too often, we revert to Hashem as our last ditch effort, when, in reality, He should be our first address for salvation. One more story which sums it up: A king was once pacing back and forth, concerned about a problem confronting his kingdom. There were certain conditions in his land that had engendered a great sense of anxiety within him. One of his senior servants, with whom the king was quite close, approached his master and requested permission to speak.

"Master, may I ask you a question?"

"Surely," replied the king.

"Did G-d govern the world well before you came into it?"

"Undoubtedly," was the King's emphatic response.

"And, Master, will He continue to rule the world well after you have gone to your final resting place?"

"I am certain that He will," said the king.

"Then, sir," continued the servant, "do you not think that He is capable of ruling the world while you are in it?"

To believe in Hashem means to have implicit faith in Hashem at all times, under all conditions, in all circumstances. In the depths of the most bitter sorrow, we must acknowledge that His way is just and good. This is possible if one lives as he professes to believe. To accept life's "good" and life's "bad" with equal grace is the mark of a religious man. With true emunah, everything is possible.

Va'ani Tefillah

The Talmud Shabbos 119b quotes Reish Lakish who says: "Anyone who answers Amen with all of his strength -the gates of Paradise are opened for him… What is Amen? (It forms the acronym of ) G-d the faithful King (Keil Melech Ne'eman)." The Rishonim explain the uniqueness of the Amen response. Amen is derived from the same root as emunah, faith. By responding Amen to another Jew's blessing, he is affirming the Jew's statement, thus giving a greater degree of force to the original blessing. Until now it had been one person making a statement. Now, it is two people issuing a testimony. Two witnesses are binding. In addition, the one who answers Amen is, in effect, greater than the one who prompted him with his blessing, because the second one reinforced the first one's statement.

Maharal adds a deeper insight. While a blessing should be recited with kavanah, intention, concentration and understanding, nonetheless, every prayer composed by Chazal has powerful meaning, regardless of the intention and inner feeling behind them. Amen, however, as a personal affirmation, must be recited with intention and concentration to be effective. A perfunctory Amen is far from an affirmation and, thus, meaningless. With this in mind, we can see how a proper Amen, voiced with depth and understanding, with all one's strength, will have great efficacy. It can open the gates of Paradise for the petitioner.

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

Peninim on the Torah is in its 20th year of publication. The first fifteen years have been published in book form.

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