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Peninim on the Torah

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Rabbi A. Leib Scheinbaum
Hebrew Academy of Cleveland


When you will go out to war against your enemies, and Hashem, your G-d, will deliver them into your hands, and you will capture its captivity. (21:10)

The Baal Shem Tov HaKadosh says that the war to which the Torah alludes is none other than the war of our lives, the daily battle which we wage against the blandishments of the yetzer hora, evil-inclination. The Torah is teaching us v'shavisa shivyo, "(And you will) capture its captivity," essentially to grab the yetzer hora, take it captive, and learn from its strategy. Let one study the yetzer hora's guile, how it ensnares us to sin, disregarding the type or severity of the sin. Who cares? As long as one sins, he is ensnared in the trap of the evil one. We should derive from the yetzer hora's strategies that it does not make a difference which mitzvos we observe; they are all the same. A mitzvah is a mitzvah. It is Hashem's decree. We do not determine value or significance. Every mitzvah that we perform serves as a stepping-stone and catalyst for the performance of other mitzvos.

In the Midrash, Chazal teach that the Torah enumerates forty-seven mitzvos - none of which has a revealed reward. The reason for this is so that we should observe them equally. It is not the reward that counts. It is all part of carrying out the will of Hashem. Each mitzvah as part of the total collective is invaluable. This Midrash does distinguish between kala she'b'kalos, least demanding/easy, simple mitzvah and chamur sh'b'chamuros, most difficult, mitzvos which involve hardship. The mitzvah that requires the least effort is Shiluach ha'kein, sending off the mother bird which is roosting on its young. The most demanding mitzvah is Kibbud av v'eim, Honoring one's parents. Each of these mitzvos carries the incredible reward of arichas yamim, longevity. It is almost impossible to truly reimburse one's parents fully for all that they have done, from bringing a child into the world and caring for him until adulthood and beyond. Sending away the mother bird provides instant gratification - in a sense. It is a "feel good" mitzvah. The knowledge that one is alleviating the mother's pain when her young are being taken from her is in itself rewarding.

Interestingly, the Baal HaTurim observes that, concerning each mitzvah, the Torah writes that one will be granted the reward of longevity in conjunction with L'maan yitav lach, "So that He will be good to you." There is, however, one disparity between the two mitzvos. Concerning honoring one's parents, the reward of L'maan yitav follows longevity, while concerning Shiluach ha'kein, arichas yamim, longevity, precedes L'man yitav lach. Why?

Horav Zev Weinberger, Shlita, explains that as soon as one sends off the mother bird, he immediately senses the "goodness" derived from performing this mitzvah. Acting compassionately generates a good feeling all over. Thus, it is only right that this act of goodness should be followed with a promise of longevity. The script changes radically with regard to honoring one's parents. It is not always easy. In fact, in some situations, it is increasingly difficult to execute properly. One hardly sees the benefit of his toil. The appreciation is not always there. The demand is constantly on the rise. However, one who is blessed with longevity sees the fruits of his labor when his own children carry out the mitzvah with him as the parent! Then, he sees the important and valuable lessons that all those years of his fulfilling the mitzvah of Kibud av v'eim imparted to his children. Therefore, the Torah precedes l'man yitav lach with longevity, because one does not always immediately see the good.

If a man will have a wayward and rebellious son. (21:18)

In the Talmud Rosh Hashanah 16b, Chazal teach, "A person is judged only in accordance with his actions/behavior at that moment, as it is written (concerning Yishmael), 'For G-d has heeded the cry of the youth - ba'asher hu sham - in his present state'" (Bereishis 21:17). The Midrash Bereishis adds: Afilu hu asid l'harshia l'achar z'man, "Even if he will act wicked after time." Chazal refer to the dialogue between the ministering angels and the Almighty as Yishmael lay sick with thirst. "Ribono Shel Olam!" the angels declared. "To one whose descendants will kill Your children with thirst, You give a well?" He (Hashem) said to them (the angels), "Right now - is he a tzaddik, righteous person, or a rasha, evil person?" They replied, "Now, he is a tzaddik." He said, "Ba'asher hu sham, I judge a person only according to what he is at the present."

The angels were referring to the tragic period in history when Klal Yisrael was exiled to Babylon. The Jews asked their Babylonian captors to take them by way of their "cousins" the Yishmaelim. Perhaps they would give them food and drink. The Babylonians acceded to their request. The evil Yishmaelim, following a long "hallowed" tradition which has become a way of life for them, gave the Jews salty food to make them thirsty. When their throats were considerably parched, such that they were hysterical for water, the Yishmaelim refused to help them, accelerating their premature demise.

In his supercommentary to Rashi, the Mizrachi asks why the rule, ba'asher hu sham, does not apply to the ben sorer u'moreh, wayward and rebellious son. This incorrigible boy receives a harsh punishment for what seems to be the actions of a spoiled, unruly, narcissistic child. Chazal explain that the Torah looks deep and hard at the boy's present actions and how his rebellious nature will play itself out over time, deducing that this boy is on a path to murder - if his lusts are not satisfied. He either gets his way - or he kills. Thus the Torah said: Yamus zakai v'al yamus chayiv, "Let him die while yet innocent, rather than having to execute him for an action that warrants his death." Why should the rule which spared Yishmael not apply to the ben sorer u'moreh?

The Mizrachi explains that Yishmael had done nothing wrong, and, for all intents and purposes, he was not culpable for any wrongdoing - neither presently or in the future. His descendants were evil, an attribute that might be attributed to his DNA, but, after all is said and done, Yishmael himself was innocent. The rebellious son is much different. He has demonstrated an insatiable lust for meat and wine. When the money runs out, he will be "forced" to kill to gratify himself. Rather than let him continue on the road to total infamy, his life is placed on "hold."

In his Gur Aryeh commentary, the Maharal observes that the Talmud Rosh Hashanah does not seem to distinguish between one who takes his first steps on a nefarious journey of sin and one who is yet innocent. The question is simple: Is one judged in accordance with the future - or not? We see conflicting rulings concerning Yishmael and the ben sorer u'moreh.

Horav Arye Leib Heyman, zl, offers an alternative explanation to resolve the disparity between these two matters. When one analyzes Chazal's statement concerning Yishmael, we note that the angels' "protest" was not about why Hashem was saving Yishmael. They did not say that, since his descendants would one day cause Klal Yisrael to perish from thirst, so Yishmael should fare no differently; he should also die of thirst. They understood that at that point in their exile, the Jews were quite blameworthy. Otherwise, Nevuchadnezer would not have been able to exile them. The Yishmaelim were Hashem's agents to continue the Jewish People's punishment. The angels' grievance was concerning the manner in which Hashem was saving Yishmael: a well of fresh water to quench his thirst. True, Yishmael did not deserve to die, but to be saved by the means that his descendants would one day use to kill the Jews, that was, they felt, too much. It was stretching it. Hashem judges man middah k'neged middah, measure for measure. It is inappropriate that he would be saved specifically through that medium in which Yishmael's descendants would kill Jews. In other words, the angels' question was in regard to using the well as the vehicle for saving Yishmael.

Rav Heyman draws support for his exegesis from an incident recorded in the Talmud Yevamos 121b. The daughter of Rabbi Nechuniah ben Dosa fell into a pit filled with water. They feared for her life, as they tried to save her. After a few hours, Rabbi Nechuniah declared that she had risen from the pit. They asked him, "Are you a Navi, prophet, that you are aware of this (without actually being there to witness it)?" Rabbi Nechuniah replied, "I am neither a prophet nor the son of a prophet. I do know that specifically that area wherein a righteous man toils could not be used as a stumbling block for his children." By way of explanation, Rabbi Nechuniah would dig wells, so that the olei Regel, Jewish pilgrims, who ascended on Yerushalayim for the Three Festivals would have water. This was a great mitzvah and noble act of chesed, kindness. The great sage felt that Hashem would protect him in this area, never permitting his child to suffer as a result of a "well" accident. Likewise, Yishmael should not have been saved by a well, when, in fact, his descendants killed Jews through the medium of water.

Hashem replied to the angels. "You are correct, but with regard to saving someone, the rule of ba'asher hu sham prevails. One deserves to be spared as a result of his present innocence. While it is true that Yishmael's descendants had sinned against the Jews in a most heinous manner, the action does not presently impact upon Yishmael, since he had done nothing wrong.

The above thesis presents us with an important principle. The idea that a person is judged only according to his present actions applies only in a situation in which one's life is in danger, and the Satan seeks to condemn him based upon negative future behavior; we do not listen to the Satan. We are concerned with the present, and, if his present does not warrant death, he will live. The ben sorer u'moreh, however, has crossed the line. It is not about saving him. It is about prosecuting him for future sinful behavior. The ben sorer u'moreh gets what he deserves. To recap: Concerning Yishmael, it is about saving him. Concerning the ben sorer u'moreh, it is about killing him. Future evil does not play a role in diminishing the present merits that one has. On the other hand, the individual whose future actions will be heinous, with his present not much better, will be punished in consonance with the future.

The angels who prosecuted Yishmael agreed with this. Their only complaint was about saving him through the medium of a well. The ben sorer u'moreh, regrettably, has distanced himself from the moral life, having charted for himself a life of lust, theft and eventually murder. He has no mitigating reason to be saved. In contrast, Yishmael did.

And so shall you do for any lost article of your brother that may become lost from him and you find it; you shall not hide yourself. (22:3)

Horav Yechiel Yaakov Weinberg, zl, writes that he once received a brief from a law professor at the University of Buenos Aires lauding the halachic jurisprudence of the Torah. Indeed, the man wrote that he had studied the entire Torah and was able to understand and qualify the rationale for every law in the Torah - except for one. As impressed as he was by the Torah, he was extremely troubled with the one law that does not seem to make sense - at all. This is the law concerning yiush, whereby one who despairs of recovering his lost object gives up hope of ever seeing it again; thus, the finder is allowed to keep it. How can a natural, emotional response to a depressing situation like losing something very dear to a person permit this object to whomever discovers it? Are we a nation of wolves waiting to pounce upon anything that our fellow man loses?

The Montreaux Rosh Yeshivah replied to the professor that, if there is any halachah in Biblical jurisprudence which exemplifies the difference between machsheves Yisrael, Jewish thought, and its gentile counterpart, it is the law of yiush, abandonment of hope. He explains that Roman law, which has served as the foundation for much of western civilization's approach to jurisprudence, "sanctifies" individual ownership; the source of acquisition is man's ability to grasp the item and maintain it in his personal possession. In other words, the object belongs to "me"; it is "mine"; "I" am its owner. It is, therefore, natural that, in order for the ownership to come to an end, it takes an action to end ownership. A proactive act of acquisition is obviated by another proactive act of relinquishing ownership.

Jewish law believes L'Hashem ha'aretz u'meloah, "To Hashem belongs the land and everything within it." There is no such thing as individual ownership, since everything belongs to Hashem. The Almighty has granted each individual owner who acquires an object special zechuyos, rights, to use the item. After all is said and done, however, everything continues to belong to Hashem. He allows us to use it by virtue of our act of acquisition. The rights of ownership are not an absolute, limitless, unrestricted dominion; rather, the Torah restricts the propriety of the "owner" to the laws outlined by the Torah. The Torah has "determined" that when one abandons hope of retrieving his object, it becomes ownerless, and whoever takes it for himself may do so without any concern.

Rav Weinberg explains this further. Baalus mamonis, material ownership, is real - but not absolute. In his commentary to the beginning of the Torah, the quintessential Rebbe and annotator, Rashi, writes: "The entire land/world belongs to Hashem. When He willed it, He gave it to them. At His will, He took it from them." In other words, the definition of ownership is z'chus histamshus, the right of use, which is wide-ranging and transferable through inheritance. It is a kinyan gamur, faultless acquisition, but not unconditional. Man was given the command of Peru u'Revu u'milu es ha'aretz v'kivshuah, "Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it" (Bereishis 1:28). As man habitats the land through his conquering and acquisition, he becomes the rightful owner, meaning he has rights to its ownership. When he abandons hope of it, he relinquishes his rights and it becomes hefker, ownerless, without any specific act of transference. The land/item reverts back to its original owner, the Borei Kol ha'Olamim, Creator of the worlds until He designates it to its next "owner."

This is such a practical - yet powerful - way of looking at our material possessions. We live in a society in which everything revolves around "me" and "mine," where possession plays such a critical role, and one is characterized and classified in accordance with how much he possesses. We have lost sight of the true Owner of all that exists: Hashem. We fight for possession, scheme for ownership, connive for control, when, in fact, it all belongs to Hashem - Who will grant it to whom He determines should be its owner. One who is obsessed with "having," "owning," "controlling" lacks a primary element of faith in Hashem. The feeling should be: If I am supposed to have it - I will. If Hashem grants it to me, I will have. Otherwise, I will not. Life would be so much easier if we would maintain this attitude.

You shall not have in your house diverse measures, great and small. A whole and just weight you should have. (25:14,15)

Simply put, one may not keep faulty, dishonest weights in his possession, because it might result in cheating others in a business transaction. What about cheating oneself? Where does the "double standard" fit in? The Torah writes in Vayikra 25:17, "Do not deceive another person." The Kotzker Rebbe, zl, distinguishes between the actual law, prohibiting one from deceiving others, and the law's severe implication: Self-deception. Having two sets of measures - one for myself and one for others, - can lead to a serious "double standard."

We are quick to condemn, to decry, to repudiate and rebuke - when it involves someone else. Do we maintain the same standard of weights and measures when it involves us, our spouses, our children, our shul, etc? How many distinguished people and wonderful organizations have been destroyed from "within" as a result of double standard and self-deception? Being quick to find fault in the actions of others, but having a blind eye concerning one's personal activities, fosters a state of hypocrisy which only leads to self-destruction.

People often tend to hold favorable views of their abilities in a variety of social and intellectual domains. Regrettably, these views are the result of serious over-estimation on the part of the person. This is called self-deception. It is the process of misleading ourselves to accept claims concerning ourselves to be true or valid, despite this not being the case. In short, we believe things about ourselves that are untrue.

One of life's greatest self-deceptions is in the area of time. We have convinced ourselves that we have no time. When it comes to learning - we have no time. Our children need us - we have no time. Our spouses need us - we have no time. Everyone claims to be busy earning a living. Thus, Torah study, which is the staple of Judaism, is left wanting. This does not mean that people do not have valid excuses - in their own minds. Are these excuses, however, self-deceiving?

There is a famous episode that took place with the Chozeh, zl, m'Lublin. He once accosted one of his chassidim running in the street to the marketplace. "Come with me to the bais ha'medrash to study Torah," the Chozeh appealed to the man. "No, Rebbe," he answered, "I cannot afford the time." "Are you that busy that you have no time to learn?" the Rebbe asked. "I have to earn a living and every minute is valuable," the man replied - in a hurry. "What for?" asked the Rebbe. "What do you need the money for?" The man offered the natural and logical response: "I have to make a living for my children." When the Rebbe heard this, he no longer belabored the issue, appearing satisfied with the response.

Twenty years later, the Chozeh was "again" walking on the street when he chanced upon a man rushing by him. The Rebbe was persistent and a dialogue similar to that which had occurred twenty years earlier ensued with this man. Same questions - same responses - all for the children. Suddenly, the Rebbe looked deeply into the man's eyes and said, "Wait, I know you! I had a similar encounter with your father twenty years ago. At that time, he, too, told me he was too busy to learn because he was earning a living to support his children. And now you tell me that you must earn a living for your children. When, Almighty G-d, will I meet that one unique human being for whom all the generations have been laboring so incessantly?"

We deceive ourselves by thinking that our material ventures take precedence over our spiritual pursuits. Yes, we must earn a living - but since when does our commitment to Torah learning take a backseat to our material activity? We have deluded ourselves into believing that we need "this" and "that"; our children must go "here" and "there." Everyone has heavy schedules which demand physical expenditure, but, at a certain point, we must declare emphatically, "Enough is enough!" We think that we cannot do it. That is the self-deception talking.

An anecdote related by the Chafetz Chaim has certainly gone the rounds, but this charming story conveys a powerful message that is well worth repeating. Chazal teach that the Torah flourishes only for one who is willing to die for it, literally meimis atzmo aleha, "kill himself over it." The Chafetz Chaim commented on this through the application of a story concerning a poor Jewish couple who lived in Lithuania. They opened a small grocery store in a village which was entirely non-Jewish. They worked hard and long hours to eke out a meager living. Since there was no shul in town, the husband would make his way to the shul in a nearby village.

The husband made every effort to return home as soon as possible, since coming late meant that his wife would be left in the store all alone. You know how things are; soon the elan of the store had worn off and the geshmak, satisfaction, in learning increased to the point that he did not want to rush back to the store. He came at the very beginning of the services and would hang around for a few moments after davening to learn a little. As time went on, he began arriving earlier in shul and learning later. A few months later, he began coming to the shul even earlier to recite Tehillim, as others his age were doing. He remained in shul a little longer, since he now also studied Mishnah and Talmud. The spiritual satisfaction that he garnered was incredible. As the Yamin Noraim loomed closer, he attended services even earlier, so that he could recite the Selichos supplication with the proper kavanah, intentions. The synagogue was slowly becoming his home, since was spending Succos in the shul! It seemed like a utopian situation. The husband spent a good part of his day in shul, while his wife fended for their material sustenance in the grocery store. This made the wife distraught, because she was spending the greater part of the day by herself in the store. She let her husband know that she was upset.

The next evening after the husband had once again returned to the store sometime in the late afternoon, he said to his wife, "I have something important to discuss with you." Anyone who has ever heard this preface to a conversation usually becomes anxious. It usually does not precede good news. The wife was visibly upset and she showed it when she asked, "What is wrong?" The husband said, "Nothing is wrong. I do want to talk to you about something important. You know, sooner or later, we are both going to our eternal rest. Since I am several years older than you, the odds are that I will precede you in death. Now tell me, what will you do when I am no longer here? How will you support yourself?"

The mere thought of her husband's death brought the poor woman to tears. She regained her composure and replied to the question, "I guess I will continue with the store and do whatever I can."

"In other words," her husband continued, "you will be able to continue to make do without me."

"Yes," she replied, "If I have no choice, I will have to go it alone."

"In that case, I must ask you for a favor. I hope to G-d that we both continue to live for a very long time, but, as long as I live I want you to consider me "dead" every morning for a few hours. Just assume that for a few hours each day you are all alone in the world. This way I will be able to spend time in the bais ha'medrash learning Torah."

When a man is prepared to "die" for Torah, it will "live" and thrive within him. We have to have "down" time daily when we are "dead" to the world, when our only pursuit is Torah. By "dying" a little every day, we are actually going to catalyze greater life, deeper, more thoughtful, inspirational life. We will, thus, realize that all of those areas in our life's endeavor in which we think we are indispensable, actually we are not. Life goes on. If we do not act now, we will close the deal later. If Hashem wants it to happen, it will happen. We should stop deluding ourselves into thinking that it all revolves around us. One day we will not be here - and it will still continue to revolve.

Va'ani Tefillah

Avinu Malkeinu, baavur avoseinu she'batchu becha, va'telamdeim chukai chaim. Our Father, Our King, for the sake of our forefathers who had faith in You, and You taught them the laws of life.

The Torah is referred to here as chukai chaim, the laws of life, or the ground rules for existence. We understand that the Torah is the basis for our lives. Without the Torah, life is meaningless. Indeed, there is no life. Chukim are those mitzvos whose reason defies human rationale. In other words, we have no idea concerning the "whys" of these mitzvos. At times, life is quite difficult to understand. Without the Torah, navigating the sea of life would be impossible. Thus, the Torah is our Book of chukai chaim. It does not explain life, but it intimates that if we hold on to it, if we embrace it and follow it, we will be able to steer the proper course through the unchartered waters of life.

We ask Hashem to endow us spiritually for the sake of our forefathers who had bitachon, faith in Him. What is the connection between bitachon in Hashem and limud ha'Torah? Horav Shimon Schwab, zl, explains that while Torah learning requires yegiah, toil/effort, after all is said and done, true success in learning and the acquisition of knowledge is based upon bitachon, trust, that Hashem will crown one's efforts with success. We must understand that Torah is unlike any other body of knowledge. The Torah is Divinely authored and, thus, spiritual in nature. How does the human mind with its physical limitations grasp the profundity of the spiritual Torah? Hashem grants one this ability commensurate with his effort. It is not acuity that catalyzes success. It might be easier at first blush for the brilliant student, but retention and cognition are gifts from the Almighty which one must earn.

l'zchus u'lilui nishmas
R' Baruch ben Zev Yehuda z"l
niftar 24 Ellul 5771
In memory of
Baruch Berger z"l
Whose contribution to Peninim was immeasurable.

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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