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Peninim on the Torah

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Rabbi A. Leib Scheinbaum
Hebrew Academy of Cleveland


You shall come to whoever will be the Kohen in those days, and you shall say to him, "I declare today to Hashem, your G-d, that I have come to the land." (26:3)

Once Eretz Yisrael was conquered and allocated among the tribes, the farmers were able to take their first ripened fruit to the Sanctuary and present them to the Kohen in a ritual which included a moving declaration of gratitude to Hashem. Hakoras hatov, gratitude, is one of the most basic middos tovos, positive character traits, without which one is not a mentch, decent human being. Only a person who is a makir tov, one who recognizes and appreciates the good which he receives from others, has a chance of achieving shleimus, perfection, in his relationship with Hashem. One who does not acknowledge the plethora of gifts of which he has been the beneficiary cannot properly serve Hashem. Likewise, such a person will also reject the favors he receives from people. Thus, an ingrate has no place in society.

In his commentary to the above pasuk, Rashi comments, "And you shall say: 'That you are not an ingrate.'" Why does Rashi focus on the negative, underscoring that the individual is not ungrateful? Why not simply say that he is showing his positive gratitude to Hashem? Horav Eliyahu Baruch Finkel, zl, derives a profound insight from Rashi's choice of words. It is impossible to really tally up what we owe Hashem. Does anybody have any idea how much we are in His debt just for our daily existence? Thus, to make the statement that we are performing a ritual through which we recognize our debt to Hashem would be ludicrous. We can only say that we are making a feeble attempt to not be an ingrate. This idea is consistent with the verse in Tefillas Nishmas which we recite on Shabbos: V'ilu finu malei shirah kayam... "Were our mouth as full of song as the sea, and our tongue full of joyous song as the multitudes of waves, and our lips as full of praise as the breadth of the heavens… We still could not thank You sufficiently… and to bless Your Name… for even one of the thousand thousand, thousands of thousands and myriad myriads of favors, miracles and wonders that You performed for our ancestors and for us." When one concentrates on the depth of meaning implied by this pasuk, we see how the concept of achieving hakoras hatov status vis-?-vis Hashem is totally distant from us.

Sadly, the nature of the human being is always to focus on what he still lacks, rather than on what he has already received. Therefore, he is too busy complaining about what he still does not have, rather than offering gratitude for the many benefits of which he has already been the beneficiary. The idea of the cup being half full, rather than half empty, is for most of us a nice clich?, but not a way to view life. The story is told of a chasid who came to his Rebbe with a list of complaints. "Rebbe," he began, "While it is true that I am blessed with a large family of fifteen children, on the other hand I live in a tiny apartment, unable to properly house my children. I have a decent job, but I simply do not make enough to support my family. What am I to do?"

The Rebbe looked at the chasid and replied, "Yankel! Mazel tov on the large family with which you have been blessed! Also, I am so happy for you that you are among the lucky ones who have been able to obtain an apartment. There are so many who are not blessed with children, and an apartment is such a luxury today. Additionally, you intimate that you have a job. How fortunate you are! How many people do not even have a roof over their heads, and a job to boot! How fortunate you are!

"My dear Yankel," the Rebbe continued, "I suggest that, from today on, rather than complain about what you feel to be your deficiencies, why not begin to thank Hashem for all your blessings? In due time, you will see that those areas in which you are lacking will suddenly be satisfied."

Every night, prior to retiring, the Chafetz Chaim, zl, would recount the good fortune of which he had been the beneficiary. He had been orphaned at a young age, when it could have been very easy for him to fall victim to despair. He was able to devote his life to the study and dissemination of Torah. His children, sons and sons-in-law were all accomplished Torah scholars. He was so thankful for all of this goodness that he felt the need to share his good fortune with his Benefactor.

The Chasam Sofer was once informed by a group of "do gooders" that when his son, the brilliant (soon to be) K'sav Sofer, recited the Bircas HaShachar, Morning Blessings, he apparently did not recite the blessing of Shelo asani goy, "That He did not create me as a gentile." It was difficult for the Chasam Sofer to accept such slander against his son. The next morning, he made it a point to stand next to his son when he recited the Berachos, and, lo and behold, he did not recite the blessing of not being created as a gentile. His father immediately asked his son, "Why are you not saying the brachah, shelo asani goy?"

"Father," the K'sav Sofer replied, "of course I recite the blessing, but, when I arise in the morning, I am so overwhelmed with the joy that Hashem created me as a Jew that I cannot wait to recite the blessing in shul. I immediately recite the blessing at home! To be a Jew is the greatest gift from Hashem. How could I wait to reach the shul to make my declaration of gratitude?"

We have so many vignettes, stories and Torah thoughts which address the middah, attribute, of hakoras hatov. I am certain that the reading audience has been inundated with them. This Shabbos I heard a wonderful analogy, which I had never heard before. It is inspiring and well-worth repeating. A young woman replete with middos tovos, refined character traits, was severely challenged in her quest to achieve matrimony. Sadly, despite her many wonderful attributes, she suffered from a physical challenge that had thus far precluded her ability to find a mate: she was blind. It would require a very special young man who would be willing to overlook her sightlessness in order to focus on the character and personality of this special young woman.

One day, she met "Mr. Right," a ben Torah who looked beyond the superficial and concentrated on the intrinsic, essential person. He knew that she was blind, but, once he spoke to her, he no longer viewed it as an impediment. She was the type of person he was looking for, with whom he was prepared to spend the rest of his life. They soon became engaged, followed by an emotional wedding. A short while after they married, the husband informed his wife of an incredible discovery. It seemed that a doctor in Cleveland had perfected a surgical procedure during which he was able to transplant healthy eyes successfully into the sockets of a person who had previously been unable to see. The excitement in their home was palpable. The husband immediately purchased a ticket to Cleveland, so that he could speak with the doctor to investigate whether his wife was a candidate for the surgery. Two days later, he returned with the wonderful news: she was a candidate for the surgery. There was, however, one problem: there was a ten-year wait.

The wife had become used to various letdowns in life. Chalk it up to a bad experience, insensitive person, whatever explanation one employed to ameliorate a sad situation. This, however, was too much. So close, yet so far. She finally had hope of experiencing sight for the very first time, to be like everyone else, to enjoy Hashem's world to the fullest. Ten years was a long time to wait, even for hope. She broke down and cried like she never had before. Having the hope that one has waited for so patiently smashed before your eyes is worse than not having any hope to begin with. This woman's hopes had been raised, only to discover that it could be a lifetime before it would be realized.

The husband could not tolerate seeing his wife in such pain. She meant the world to him. He decided to pull out all stops to move his wife to the top of the list. A few days went by, and the husband conveyed to his wife the good news: she had been moved up the list. Surgery was scheduled for that week! The joy was indescribable. Now, for once, there was a chance. True, it would be a dangerous surgery, and nobody was making any promises, but it was the only chance they had.

The day of surgery arrived, and Hashem guided the surgeon's deft hands. The procedure was a remarkable success. At first, she saw blurred images, which increased in clarity, until, for the very first time in her life, she was able to see! (For anyone who has taken the gift of vision for granted, the first-time encounter with the experience of sight is staggering, almost indescribable.) In just a few days, this woman's life changed. She could now look forward to going places, seeing things, enjoying her life as never before. She was so involved with enjoying her good fortune that she did not notice a change in her husband. It was on the day that she was finally leaving the hospital, after having completed weeks of therapy, that she discovered the note on her bed. It was a simple, poignant note from her husband which, upon reading it, sent her whole life into a tailspin, "My dear wife, during our courtship and ensuing marriage, the issue that loomed over our heads had always been your physical impediment. Now that it is behind us, you will see that it was not only you who had been sightless, but that I, too, am blind. I hope that this discovery will not change our relationship, because there is nothing in the world more important to me than you."

Some people can handle such life-altering news better than others. Sadly, this woman, who had throughout her life endured so much physical and emotional challenge, was unable to navigate the turbulent emotions that were crashing down on her from all sides. To have come so far, and then have total triumph evade you can be - and was - devastating. This was too much for this frail woman who had absorbed so much. She tried to accentuate the positive, but it was not working. She so much wanted to enjoy the new world that had been revealed to her. She wanted out. One morning, a few weeks later, the husband discovered an envelope on his bed. He had someone read it to him and it was not good. Essentially, it was a farewell letter from his wife. She thanked him for being there for her all of these years, but now it was time to move on. She was moving out.

That night, when his wife came home, there was an envelope on her bed. Inside, was the following note. "My dear wife, I thank the Almighty for the time that I shared with you. I do not want to put you out, because you have suffered so much in your life. I am moving out, and I am taking along the wonderful memories of the time that we spent together. I ask only one favor. Please, please take great care of your new eyes. You see, they were mine originally, but, when I saw how devastated you were at being at the bottom of the transplant list, I decided to donate my eyes to you."

A very sad story, but one that plays itself out daily in our lives. Perhaps our stories are not so dramatic, but do we ever bother to ask ourselves: What are we doing for Hashem? How are we repaying Him for everything that He gives us? Are we any different from the wife who, after receiving her husband's eyes, left him, because she wanted to enjoy life - unimpeded , unrestricted and unsuppressed? Whatever we have is from Hashem, Who has given it to us out of His great love. Is fidelity so much to ask for? If we are outraged by the woman's reaction to what her husband did, we might want to take a close look in the mirror.

Then you shall call out and say… "An Aramean tried to destroy my forefather… the Egyptians mistreated us and afflicted us…" You shall rejoice with all the goodness. (26:5,6,11)

I met someone the other day who a number of years ago had been at the brink of bankruptcy. His financial profile was in such serious straits that, at one point, he could not afford food on the table. Hashem blessed him, and he flowered exponentially; today, he is a very successful, wealthy man. We began talking about "old times," and the topic of his not so recent past came up. When I alluded to how far he had come, he practically became indignant and said, "We do not talk about those times. What was - was, and it is nothing more than a bad memory, a nightmare from which we have woken up. The pain and shame that enveloped us then is gone, and I refuse to bring it back."

While I understand how this man feels, the Torah does not seem to agree. In the Bikurim declaration, the farmer reiterates his ancestor's past-- from the wily attempts of Lavan to destroy Yaakov Avinu, to the misery, persecution and death which were a daily part of our lives while we were slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt. Why bring up the past? Today, Baruch Hashem, the farmer has his own plot of land in the homeland of his dreams, surrounded by family in the spiritual center of the Holy Land. Why should we rehash what once was? Perhaps this is when it is especially valuable to remember the past, or else we might become so complacent in the present that we might endanger our future. We must always look to the future, but keep an eye on the past. Who we are and what we have become are born of the fabric of the past, present, future continuum. We should never ignore this reality.

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

Rashi interprets this prohibition as reference to speaking lashon hora, slanderous speech. We do not realize the serious consequences which result from lashon hora. While it is true that refraining from speaking what comes to mind can be difficult, when we realize that the Torah considers it a hakaah, tantamount to striking someone - which most of us would never do - it might serve as a deterrent. We might say or even allude to something ethically or morally negative about someone. This statement might be overheard by someone who conveys the comment to others who embellish it. By the time the statement has been copiously enhanced, the person's reputation has been impugned, possibly destroyed, resulting in financial loss or having his child meet with increased difficulty in finding a shidduch, matrimonial match.

This Torah thought is not directed toward the individual who thrives on speaking lashon hora. Very little will prevent him from carrying out his nefarious goals. There are people, however, who, as a rule, do not seek to put down their fellow, but do respond with negativity when they are hurt. During such moments, which surface more often than we care to acknowledge, one can easily lose himself. It is to such a moment of challenge that the following inspirational story applies. The Chafetz Chaim writes that he heard the story from Horav Yehoshua Heller, zl, who heard it from his Rebbe, the Nachalas David, who heard it from Horav Chaim Volozhiner, zl, primary disciple of the Gaon, zl, m'Vilna - with whom the episode occurred.

During a certain period in the Gaon's life, he accepted upon himself to go into galus, exile. He traveled by wagon, hiring a Jewish driver to take him from place to place. One day, the driver was more tired than usual, and he started dozing behind "the wheel." As a result, the wagon went off the road and damaged a few rows of crops owned by a gentile farmer. The gentile saw this take place, and he immediately ran over to the wagon to confront the individual responsible for his loss. He came to the wagon and noticed two men in it: one was out cold, while the other was reading from some book. Assuming that the Gaon, who was learning, was the culprit who had damaged his crops, he began to pummel him repeatedly all over his body. The Gaon could have easily said that he had not been the driver, but the passenger, but that would mean that the other Jew (who was the responsible party) would get hurt.

Later on the Gaon was queried as to why he did not speak up. His response was, "Had I laid the blame on the wagon driver, I would have transgressed the prohibition of Makeh reieihu baseiser, he who strikes his fellow stealthily. Although the wagon driver is guilty, he must pay only for the damages. He is not subject to being pummeled by the gentile." Then the Gaon added a frightening statement: If he had not held himself back from revealing who was the guilty party - none of the Torah and mitzvos which he had studied and achieved throughout his life would have spared him from terrible punishment. This is a statement from one of the greatest Jews of the last millennia, whose Torah commentary has illuminated the minds and hearts of Torah devotees for almost two centuries. So, what should we say?

You will be left few in number. (28: 62)

What a terrible curse. Our numbers will diminish as a result of the troubles of the exile to which we will be subjected. What makes it worse is the loneliness that results from depleted numbers. When one is the member of a large group, he will always find a partner, someone to whom he can gravitate and develop a friendship. When the numbers are greatly diminished, however, allowing for one person in one place and another distant from him, the feeling of loneliness begins to set in. The curse of b'm'sei me'at, being left few in number, has a dual connotation. First of all, our numbers will be greatly diminished. The once proud nation, whose numbers rivaled those of its enemies, was now cut down to one here and one there, an insignificant number. Second, we will no longer be together. Once the numbers are cut down, all that will remain will be small pockets of individuals with little in common with one another.

Following the greatest tragedy of the twentieth century -- and perhaps in the history of our long exile -- the European Holocaust, only a small number of survivors remained, one or two from a village, a few more from a city, a completely disjointed group of people shell-shocked and having to go at it alone. In one of his travels throughout the United States, the Klausenberger Rebbe, zl, hero of the Holocaust, a scholar of epic proportion -- who had very few peers in his vast erudition which was overshadowed only by his outstanding love of the Jewish People and our G-d - Hashem-- was once sitting on a train traveling to a city in the Midwest. He sat in his seat all by himself, reciting from Sefer Tehillim. At one of the stops, a middle-aged Jew entered his car. As the man walked through the car, he noticed the Rebbe fervently engrossed in his Tehillim recital. This man was extremely bothered by this sight, since he had sadly rejected the religion of his ancestors following the many tragedies that he had personally experienced. There is nothing that fosters bitter animus more than seeing someone doing what, deep in your heart, you know you should also be doing.

Seeing the Rebbe engrossed in his Tehillim, the Jew had the nerve to go over to the Rebbe and ask, "You (people) are still saying Tehillim after what we went through. You should know, it does not make a difference. I was on the lowest level of the yeshivah students of our town, yet I lived; I survived. All my friends -- who were so much more learned and G-d-fearing than I was -- died. Indeed, from all those who were G-d-fearing, I, who was the least, am the only survivor. How do you explain this?"

The Rebbe listened intensely to the man's denouncement, and he began to cry bitterly. The Rebbe looked at him and said, "I, too, was the weakest, and least spiritually inclined of my town. I have no idea why I was saved when so many others, who were clearly more spiritually adept than I was, died in Hitler's Holocaust. This is why I cry!"

When the Jew saw the Rebbe's reaction to his comment, he was struck with awe of the Rebbe. He sat down next to the Rebbe and also began to cry. He practically fell on the Rebbe. Two men crying - each one had sustained a terrible loss: one left Judaism; one stayed. Now they were both together, connected by a common bond. They were both the remnants, the survivors. They represented the future.

Hashem will return you to Egypt in ships, on the way of which I said to you, "You shall never again see it." (28:68)

With this curse, Moshe Rabbeinu concludes the dread Tochachah, Admonition. Ramban explains why the tragic Egyptian experience serves as the climax of the Admonition. A slave dreads the idea of being forced to return to the very land where he had originally been subjugated and humiliated, and from which he was overjoyed to be liberated. Accordingly, we derive from here that returning to one's past, descending a notch in his spiritual journey, is devastating. Horav Chaim Zaitchik, zl, expounds on the tragedy of one who had achieved spiritual eminence and then fell backwards, descending to a point which he had already surpassed.

The Rav quotes the Rambam Hilchos Melachim 10:3, who rules concerning a gentile who had undergone complete conversion and had been accepted as a ger tzedek, righteous convert - then decided to instead become a ger toshav, which is a gentile who rejects idolatry, but is not yet ready to convert to Judaism. The ger toshav lives among the Jewish People, but he is not considered to be a Jew. We do not listen to the request of the ger. Once he has become a Jew, he cannot go back. If he falters and refuses to maintain his new status, he is to be executed.

The Rambam's ruling is enigmatic. He did not commit a sin which would warrant capital punishment. Why, then, is he executed? It is because he descended from his spiritual perch, so serious is this breach in spiritual ascension. Once one has climbed the mountain and reached its summit, he is no longer permitted to slip. Going backwards is a sin. While the Rambam is addressing the law concerning a ger tzedek, the idea is applicable to anyone who merited spiritual distraction. Yeridah, descension, is unpardonable. Once one has merited to climb to a high position, he is now charged with maintaining his position with all of its ensuing responsibilities.

The Ran writes that a healthy person who becomes deaf is still considered a bar daas, knowledgeable person, and is thus viewed as being in his original state of good health. This halachah likewise applies to all pikchim, cognitively healthy people who "lose it," such that they no longer possess the degree of wisdom which they had before. They are nonetheless viewed from the perspective of the past.

Perhaps we might take this idea to the next level. Judaism demands growth. Status quo with regard to avodas Hashem, service to the Almighty, is tantamount to death. One who does not go up - goes down. There must be continued growth in one's relationship with the Almighty. A relationship which does not constantly get stronger - inevitably becomes weaker. One of the greatest impediments to continued growth is satisfaction with one's achievements, to the point that his reputation is safely ensconced on past laurels. Why push further when I am so far ahead of the pack? While satisfaction with one's lot is all-important, when it applies to spiritual growth, it is to his detriment.

Va'ani Tefillah

Echad meihem lo nosar. Not one of them remained.

How do we say that none of the Egyptians remained alive, when, in fact, Pharaoh survived to tell the world about the glory of Hashem? The Torah (Shemos 14:28) states, "There remained not a one of them," ad echad - not a one - but (as Chazal explain) "one" did survive. This refers to Pharaoh. Horav Reuven Melamed, zl, explains that actually Pharaoh was personally not bent on persecuting the Jews. He remembered all of the wonderful things that Yosef did for him and his people. Pharaoh, however, surrounded himself with Jew-hating Egyptians who did everything to instigate trouble for the Jews. These rabid anti-Semites fomented a national hatred toward the Jews, causing Pharaoh, as their leader, to cave in to their demands. Thus, deep in his heart, Pharaoh did not want to persecute the Jews. He deferred to his evil inclination out of fear of his advisors and subjects. The tefillah is now thus understood: Va'yichasu mayim tzareihem, echad meihem lo nosar; "The water covered tzareihem, those who willingly persecuted them. One of them, however(who actually was not among their willing oppressors - Pharaoh) remained."

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