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Peninim on the Torah

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Rabbi A. Leib Scheinbaum
Hebrew Academy of Cleveland


All these blessings will come upon you and overtake you, if you hearken to the voice of Hashem, your G-d. (28:2)

The word v'hisigucha, "will come upon you," is enigmatic. Are we running from blessing, that it must overtake us? If that is the case, let us stop running! The answer is simple. At times, a person thinks he is chasing blessing, when, in truth, what he is pursuing is far from a blessing. What he thinks is beneficial and fortuitous could actually catalyze his downfall. Thus, the Torah tells us that the blessing, the real blessing, the one which we mistakenly thought was not a blessing, will overtake us, even though we have done everything to prevent it from reaching us.

Horav Zev Weinberger, Shlita, suggests a practical explanation. The blessings will overtake/reach the person as he is now. The blessings will not transform him into a different person - one who is far-removed from the present decent person he is today. Success can often have a harmful effect on a person who is not prepared to deal with the changes that occur. Financial success, prestige, catapult a person into an arena for which he is often ill-prepared. V'achalta, v'savata… hishamru lachem pen yifteh levavchem, "And you will eat, and you will be satisfied… Beware for yourselves, lest your heart be seduced" (Devarim 11:15,16). Success and satisfaction can go to a person's head and have an ignominious effect on his personality and lifestyle.

Hashem is telling us that the blessing will reach us - as we are. Blessing will not change us. That alone is a blessing. Likewise, when the Torah issues the curse, "And all these curses will come upon you and overtake you" (ibid 28:15), Hashem is saying that, even when we are cursed, we should not despair. Hashem will not abandon us. The curses will change neither us nor our relationship with Hashem. He will always be there for us.

The v'hisigucha has taken place in our generation - especially with regard to the curses over the centuries, particularly during the recent European Holocaust; it has undergone most of the ninety-eight curses detailed in the Tochechah, Rebuke, of Parashas Ki Savo. We have seen good, observant Jews who were destroyed physically, emotionally and spiritually as a result of the recent k'lalos, curses. They suffered so much; they lost everything. They cannot be blamed in any way. Yet, there are those in whom the v'hisigucha has been active in full force. They suffered beyond belief, but emerged with even greater faith in the Almighty. He never abandoned them, and they knew it.

A prime example of this type of spiritual super-hero was the Klausenberger Rebbe, zl. During the war he was imprisoned in the concentration camps and subjected to cruel and bitter punishment. Yet, despite the misery and pain which he endured, he emerged from the Holocaust a much stronger person, his relationship with Hashem forged in uncanny devotion that almost goes beyond description. His adherence to every mitzvah of the Torah under the most difficult and life-threatening circumstances has become legend. He did not, however, stop with his own personal spiritual development. He was a man on a mission - one that he accomplished to the best of his ability.

To comprehend the significance of the Rebbe's actions fully, during - and especially following - the war, one must understand the emotional state of the survivor. These men, women and children were shattered, body and soul. Hashem's Rebuke was executed on them. These were emotional wounds that would never heal. This was especially true after the war, since during the war, they suppressed all of their emotions and did not allow themselves to think. Following liberation, they were able to sit down and give thought concerning the members of their families who had fallen victim to Hitler's diabolical persecution. When they began to look at what they had once had and the shards to which they were now relegated, they became overcome with helplessness. Hope for a Jew is like air. It defines his Jewishness, because a Jew does not give up hope. What made it worse was the notion that while they lay bleeding and dying on the blood-soaked soil of Europe, an indifferent world chose not to care. Every survivor was affected by this spiritual crisis. They blamed G-d and eschewed His service.

The Klausenberger was like the phoenix, a powerful bird who - according to legend - supposedly rises from the ashes. The Rebbe was everything to his survivors: he was the Rebbe, father, mother and sibling. His life following the war was wholly dedicated to reaching out to all Jews. He was a primary example of one who had suffered greatly - yet continued on with his faith in Hashem unabated. A surrogate father to many young orphans who survived the war, bereft of their families, the Rebbe was the address for both the many young people who needed a shoulder to cry on, and to those who had become emotionally numb and could no longer cry.

Countless stories abound about his heroic efforts to provide spiritual sustenance to the survivors, but that really is what we expect of a Torah giant. What impressed me was the special care, the extreme sensitivity, he expressed to the young orphans from a physical perspective, acting as father and mother to so many emotionally scarred children. Indeed, he worried over "his" orphans as if they were, indeed, his biological children.

One poignant story says it all. Fifty years after the war, following the Rebbe's passing from this world, his family was visited during the shivah, seven-day period of mourning, by a woman who had been in the Feldafing DP Camp. She related to the family how, as a young girl, she had been so poor that she walked around the DP camp with no socks. Upon seeing her one day, the Rebbe took off his own socks in the middle of the street and gave them to her saying, "It is unbecoming/Es past nischt, for a Jewish girl to have to walk around this way."

He was a Torah giant whose concern for the Jewish People emanated from love - fatherly love. He exemplified the Jew who was dealt a curse, but did not allow it to affect him personally. Even when we are cursed, Hashem does not abandon us. We will continue in our commitment, despite the necessary "slap" that we have received - because it is the slap of our Heavenly Father - a slap of love.

Hashem will strike you with madness…You will go mad from the sight of your eyes. (28:28, 34)

Twice we are cursed with the dreadful affliction of meshugah, insanity. Is once not enough? If we peruse the Tochechah, Rebuke, we note that with each successive curse of the ninety-eight curses, the misfortune that has to befall us gets greater and greater. Since each curse is associated with a harsher punishment, it is strange that the Torah repeats the curse of insanity. Insane is insane! Does making a person "more" insane add to the curse?

The Ketzos HaChoshen explains that there are truly variant levels of insanity. When a person loses his mind, when he no longer thinks rationally, when he is not in control of his faculties, it is extremely tragic. In some scenarios, however, the individual is unaware of his actions, and does not regret his behavior. He knows not what he is doing. In fact, he thinks that he is normal. It is the rest of the world which is insane.

There is a worse conceivable situation. This is when a perfectly normal person is subjugated by one who has lost his mind. In this situation, the crazy person compels the normal person to act in a crazy manner, because, sadly, this is all he knows. His bizarre perspective on life has become the new "normal." He, therefore, expects the normal person under his control to act as bizarrely as he does. There is nothing worse than a normal person being relegated to act as if he were meshugah.

The Torah writes, V'hayisa meshuga mimareh einecha asher tireh; "You will go mad from the sight of your eyes that you will see." This means that we will become distraught from the way we are forced to act before others, knowing fully well that we are not crazy - they are! We are perfectly sane and normal, but we are being driven out of our minds by having to witness our insane behavior just to satisfy others.

You will grope at noontime as a blind man gropes in darkness. (28:29)

The Talmud Megillah 24b quotes Rabbi Yosi who asks: What difference does it make to the blind man whether he is groping around in the afternoon or in the evening? Regardless of the external light, the blind man's world remains dark. Rabbi Yosi says that he was troubled by this question for some time, until once he was walking through the streets on a very dark night. As he walked, he noticed a blind man groping his way down the street. What was unusual about the blind man was that he was carrying a torch in his hands. "Why carry a torch?" Rabbi Yosi asked. "After all, what is a blind man to do with a torch? How does it help him see?" The blind man was far from a fool. He replied, "As long as I walk with a torch, people notice me and lead me away from the various obstacles that might cause me injury." Chazal teach us an important lesson: the benefit we derive from something is not always determined by what we see, but rather, by what we do not see. Preventative maintenance is as critical as ministering and offering assistance following the fact.

Horav Shmuel Dovid Walkin, zl, applied this Chazal in his hesped, eulogy, for the Chafetz Chaim: "Every generation is blessed with great, distinguished Torah luminaries. Do we appreciate them? When the Chafetz Chaim was alive, did we value his presence among us? Did we expend every effort to benefit from him, to absorb the kedushah, sanctity, which emanated from him? Since the answer to these questions are probably 'no,' we must ask ourselves: What loss did we sustain with the passing of the Chafetz Chaim? If, for all intents and purposes, we did not really appreciate him, how can we assess his loss to us? We were like blind men who did not see the incredible spiritual light which emanated from him. A blind man really perceives no difference between night and day. If so, what did we lose?"

Rav Walkin continued with his reply, "The incident related in the Talmud concerning the blind man carrying the torch is enlightening. The blind man carries the torch not for him to see, but rather, to be seen by others! Thus, he will be protected from whatever obstacles present themselves in his path. We will apply a parallel to a generation that has Torah luminaries but does not 'see' them, thus precluding the unique opportunity of absorbing their inspiring light.

"While we do not make proper use of the unique opportunity, we still have something left, something to hold onto, something to protect us from the vicissitudes and challenges which confront us every step of our journey through life in exile. The gedolei ha'dor, Torah giants of each generation, are not appreciated. While we may not necessarily be infused by their greatness, we can still hold onto them for dear life, so that their presence protects us.

"Thus, rabbosai, my friends, the Chafetz Chaim was an individual whose spiritual light illuminated a generation. He is gone. His light has been extinguished, and for this we mourn. Indeed, the 'entire House of Yisrael should bewail the conflagration which Hashem has ignited'" (Vayikra 10:6).

If you will not be careful to perform all the words of this Torah… to fear this honored and awesome Name: Hashem your G-d. (28:58)

The Torah is admonishing us to guard the Torah by observing its tenets, the mitzvos which Hashem has given us. A lack of observance is indicative of a lack of fear concerning the awesome Name of Hashem. The Torah intimates that Torah observance is intrinsically connected to a Jew's reverence and fear of Hashem. One who understands and reflects on the awe-inspiring, exalted nature of Hashem simply must respond with total observance and complete devotion to His Torah. There just cannot be any other way. To acknowledge the awesome nature of Hashem is to fear Him. To fear Hashem is to carry out His commandments. This is what it is all about. Anything else is simply a lame excuse for non-observance.

In his Sefer Nitzotzos, Horav Yitzchak Hershkowitz, Shlita, relates the story of Reb Yudel, a chasid, talmid, disciple, of the Baal HaTanya, which serves as an excellent analogy to explain the relationship between fearing Hashem and upholding His mitzvos.

Reb Yudel was the consummate chasid, attached to his Rebbe with a fiery passion and unfailing devotion. His Rebbe was the vehicle through which he derived inspiration for the ultimate service to the Almighty. Reb Yudel was really a chasid of Hashem. The Baal HaTanya, as all Rebbes, guided and inspired him and thousands more about how to best serve the Almighty. He was counted among the true bnei aliyah, rising stars, in the Chabad Chassidic court. In fact, Reb Yudel was the most shining star. The area in which he best exemplified his avodas Hashem, service to the Almighty, was in the area of tefillah, prayer. When Reb Yudel prayed, one could sense the angels halting their service to observe how a human being of flesh and blood could pour out his heart in profound supplication to the Almighty. To watch Reb Yudel daven was a sight to behold, savor and cherish. Indeed, if ever a mashgiach, ethical supervisor, felt that a student required special prodding concerning his tefillah, he would have the young man stand next to Reb Yudel, as the chasid stood in supplication before Hashem. That scene usually left a lasting impression on the student.

In Chassidic literature, there is a well-known maxim that status quo is actually the beginning of spiritual descent. One either rises or he falls. Standing still is tantamount to falling. One day, Reb Yudel felt he was not ascending in his spiritual demeanor. His passion was lacking; his fervor wanting. While this was relative to the extreme spiritual level of the tzadik, righteous man, falling from a high precipice can cause greater injury - physical or spiritual. He presented himself before the Baal HaTanya. "Rebbe," he said, "I feel a coldness during my davening. What can I do?"

"Yudel," asked the Rebbe, "What maintained your fervor until now?"

Reb Yudel closed his eyes and said, "During my youth, I heard an intriguing story which has inspired me throughout my life. Regardless of the situation, the spiritual challenges, the physical vicissitudes that confronted me, I remind myself of the story and it keeps me going."

Obviously, the Rebbe wanted Reb Yudel to share the story with him. John was a Cossack in the army of Czar Nikolai. Together with thousands of other soldiers, John was sent to the frigid Siberian frontier. They had one purpose: to guard the large weapons storehouses. John would stand outside in the bitter cold for long hours, guarding the building from attack. Despite the fact that no sane person would attack in the Siberian winter, these hapless soldiers were required to follow the Czar's orders. They all knew that the punishment for failure was final and swift. As much as the men hated the cold, the alternative of a bullet in the head was non-negotiable. They would suffer the cold.

That fateful day was an unusually bitter cold day. The thermometer read fifty degrees below zero; the howling of the wind added to the savage cold. John did everything to stay warm, to no avail, until he finally collapsed. It took a short while for the other guards to notice that one of their own was missing. Finally, they discovered John's frozen body covered with a sprinkling of snow.

John was half-dead when his compatriots carried him into the warm barracks to thaw out. It was touch and go for a while until John finally opened his eyes, and slowly began to recuperate. Two days after the incident, John was back at his post. The story, however, does not end here. One month after the incident, John received a summons to appear before the army magistrate. The charge: leaving his post. Hearing the trumped-up charge, John almost passed out. How could a soldier who almost froze to death be held in contempt? He had done no wrong! In fact, he had almost died serving the Czar! Is this the way a devoted soldier is treated?

As John stood before the judge, he could no longer contain himself. He began to lose it. "Is this how a dedicated soldier is treated? I nearly died out there. I felt I was breathing my last breath as everything went dark and I passed out from the cold. How could you do this to me?" he screamed hysterically.

The judge had been about to render a judgment of innocent, but that was prior to John's hysterical outburst. The prosecutor saw a moment of hesitation on the judge's face, and he immediately pounced. "Judge, let me ask your honor: Is this not a dereliction of duty? How is it possible for a soldier to freeze? The mortal fear of the Czar should be sufficient for one's entire body to 'warm up' considerably, to break out in an enormous sweat. How is it possible for a soldier in the Czar's army to freeze from cold?"

This is what Reb Yudel related to the Rebbe. The fact that one knows that he is in active service of Hashem should provide sufficient fervor to one's prayer. How could one stand apathetically before Hashem? How can one's tefillah be emotionless, indifferent, dispassionate? If one acknowledges his presence before G-d, he must feel the "heat." If he does not, then apparently he has no understanding about before Whom he stands. He is no different than "John"!

David Hamelech says in Tehillim 19:2, "The Heavens recount the glory of Hashem, and the expanse declares the word of His hands. Day to day expresses speech and night to night communicates knowledge. (Yet) There is no speech; there are no words; their voice is not heard." The question is glaring and obvious: If the Heavens recount and the expanse declares, if the days speak and the nights communicate, how is it possible for there to be people in the world who do not hear the message and do not know what is taking place? Horav Eliyahu Eliezer Dessler, zl, explains that David HaMelech gives us the answer: There is no speech, there are no words - for one who does not want to hear. The wicked are acutely aware of the message, the sound, the communication. They are not interested in listening.

This is why, explains Rav Dessler, there has never been a real apikoras, heretic. Whoever denies G-d knows deep in his heart that he is hiding from the truth. The rasha, wicked man, is afraid to look, afraid to listen and understand, because he realizes that if he were only to look at the truth, he would be compelled to return - and this he is determined to avoid at all costs. It is not much different than our Cossack soldier, John. Denial is a deliberate pretense.

In his heart, every individual knows the truth. He is acutely aware of the beauty and value of a Torah life, but realizes that to embrace the truth means altering a lifestyle that is disingenuous as well as destructive. He likes his own version of the truth, however, and he is stuck in its mire. The only way to resolve the sham of a life that he leads, and the inner compulsion which tells him he is a fool, is to deny Hashem. This is why Rav Dessler posits that all heresy is rooted in falsehood. The only thing more tragic than one who cannot see is one who refuses to see.

"Also every sickness and every plague, which is not written in this Torah, Hashem will bring upon you." (28:61)

One would think that ninety-seven curses should be sufficient warning to impact the nation. One has only to read the curses specifically, and his hair would stand on end from fright. Yet, it appears that Hashem seems to "throw in" one more curse for "good measure." In case there might be something that was missed, any sickness or plague that was not specifically covered will be included.

Horav Shimshon Pincus, zl, explains that the Tochechah is more than an admonition. It is referred to as Divrei HaBris, Words of the Covenant. Indeed, the tragedies which are misfortunes that are destined as a result of our egregious behavior are in themselves part of our covenant with Hashem. Without the threat of punishment, our bond with Hashem would be severed. Without the fear of serious retribution, without realizing this fear, we might disconnect from the Torah way of life and eventually leave Hashem altogether. It is only as a result of this painful rod that we keep on returning. We know what happens when we leave; therefore, we keep on returning.

What happens after we have, Heaven forbid, exhausted all ninety-seven curses? What will become of us? How will we be able to maintain the Divrei HaBris? This is why the Torah adds one last curse, throwing every imaginable punishment at us. We do not have to worry. Even after Hashem has delivered all of the previous punishments, there is still more. He will never let us go. Regardless of how much we have suffered, Hashem will keep the sword over our collective heads to ensure our eventual return. These are dreadful curses, but they are the admonishment of a loving Father, who will do whatever it takes to see to it that His children never leave.

Va'ani Tefillah

Baavur avoseinu she'batchu becha, va'tilamdeim chukei chaim.

For the sake of our forefathers who had faith in You, and You taught them the laws of life.

What is the relationship between bitachon, trust in Hashem, and Torah learning? One learns; one knows. It is as simple as that. One who does not concern himself with learning cannot begin to fathom Torah, nor should he expect to - regardless of how much bitachon he possesses. Horav Moshe Feinstein, zl, offers a practical explanation. In order to learn, one must live. To live, one must eat, have nourishment, have shelter. If he is learning, however, how can he provide for himself and his family? Additionally, one who is always in a state of anxiety concerning his livelihood, can hardly concentrate properly. Thus, one who has bitachon understands that he does his part; he learns and devotes himself to Torah study and dissemination. Hashem will provide for him. We pray that He grant us the ability to profess such faith and trust, so that our learning will be substantial.

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