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Peninim on the Torah

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Rabbi A. Leib Scheinbaum
Hebrew Academy of Cleveland


If a man will have a wayward and rebellious son, who does not listen to the voice of his father and the voice of his mother. (21:18)

In the Talmud Sanhedrin 71a, Chazal teach, "There never was, nor will there ever be, such a thing as a ben sorer u'moreh, 'wayward and rebellious son'. Why, then, do we have this law? So that you may inquire into it and receive reward (by your inquiry)." Our sages give us the comforting assurance that the ben sorer u'moreh is not a reality in our history. Never have we had- nor will we ever have- to deal with a child whose rebellious behavior meets all of the criteria of the law which classifies him utterly beyond redemption. Execution is the only solution to this evil seed. The law was given to us primarily as an academic challenge designed to promote study, so that we will thereby gain the knowledge necessary to be better parents and educators.

A detailed study of the law and its required criteria teach us that one primary premise must be in effect for the laws of ben sorer to be carried out. In order for the wayward son to incur the death penalty, not only must his actions reflect total brutality and lustfulness, but there also can be no reason to think for even a moment that his parents have in some way reneged their responsibility as parents. Only if, as far as human judgment can determine, the parents have completed their obligation to the fullest extent, and no other set of parents could have succeeded, can the judges rule that this boy's continued inclusion in human society cannot possibly succeed. If they see that continued life only means deterioration of life and soul, death may be viewed as actually saving his soul.

The boy's education began by following his parents' example. They demonstrated to him by their personal conduct that a Jew can joyfully subordinate himself to the will of Hashem. They have shown him how a life of conviction and observance banishes all that is sordid and ignoble in life. The genuine Jew who practices what he learns and preaches, to whom observance is not a rote execution of something he must do but a passionate commitment willfully carried out, sets a fine example of early educational guidance for his child. This is how and where it begins: at home.

The early childhood home education established the foundation for a follow-up education in an institution which reflected Torah ideals, and in which the parents respected and bolstered the work carried out by wholly devoted rebbeim - devoted to the Torah, the school and the child. This boy's entire upbringing was focused on preparing him for a lifetime of service to the Almighty. A home in which parents have fulfilled their duty vis-?-vis their son, supported his teachers in an institution whose faculty represent and reflect the paragon of morals and ethics, cannot produce a son whose character is so gross and brutal that there can be no redemption for him other than cutting his mortal life short. Such a home, such an education, will not produce such depravity.

Let us focus on the parental complaint upon presenting their son before bais din, the judicial court, which will decide his future. They say, "Our son is wayward and rebellious; he does not listen to our voices; he is a glutton and a drunkard." Translated in modern-day terminology: "Our son is disobedient; he ignores our directive; he is lustful and out of control." Horav S. R. Hirsch, zl, views these grievances as the Torah's definition of symptomatic incorrigibility. The boy who fits this description is intractable and, sadly, unredeemable.

Rav Hirsch explains that sorer implies a persistent straying from the Torah path which he was raised to follow. Moreh is related to morah/horaah, teaching, implying a self-willed personality, whereby he not only does not follow what he is supposed to do, but he, in fact, does precisely the opposite - what he should not do. Rav Hirsch cites the Sifri that says: Moreh - she'moreh l'atzmo derech acheres, in open opposition, virtually as a matter of principle. The Sifri continues: Sorer al divrei aviv, u'morah al divrei imo; sorer al divrei Torah, u'moreh al divrei dayanim. "The boy responds to his father with sorer - passive disobedience, ignoring what his father asks him to do, or in modern-day parlance, 'He couldn't care less what his father tells him to do.' Concerning his mother's wishes, he reacts with open defiance. Similarly, he quietly ignores the Torah's commands, disregarding its laws, being heedless of its statutes. Torah observance means nothing to him. He could not care less. With regard to the Torah's spokesmen, the spiritual leaders who disseminate and guide the nation, he confronts them with contempt, impugning the integrity of their leadership, perverting their every word."

Interestingly, we see the discrepant roles of father and mother. The father is compared to the Torah, setting the general guidelines of commitment; the mother, however, is equated with the dayanim, who carry out and see to it that the people adhere to the Torah. Likewise, the mother is the one who performs the most significant function on which everything depends: namely, the practical training of the child.

The ben sorer u'moreh is perverse, obstinate and intransigent. Under normal circumstances, this form of disobedience might be considered maturation, developing into a man, acting out his age. However, zolel v'sovei, stubborn, defiant conduct, as evidenced by gluttony and drunkenness, occurring at a time when the boy is bar-mitzvah and going through a period of moral awakening, makes it clear that any attempt at character training will only end in failure. His greed and desire for food transcend any moral considerations. This is the worst type of moral degradation. Nothing - absolutely nothing - matters when he wants to satisfy himself. This is the zolel. The sovei is one to whom drink takes precedence over all else. This boy has no honor, no dignity, no remorse. It is all about "him."

Rav Hirsch recapitulates the criteria: Willful, perverse disobedience in general, pilfering at home to satisfy his needs; keeping bad company, having no compunctions about destroying the lives of his parents and depriving them of happiness. Perhaps in the contemporary society that surrounds us, we might discover such an evil seed, but he will probably be the product of a dysfunctional family situation. It is always "something." This is why the ben sorer u'moreh never was and never will be. The lessons it imparts, however, are too valuable to ignore.

If a man will have a wayward and rebellious son… and is father and mother shall take hold of him…and they shall say… "This son is wayward and rebellious." (21:18, 20)

We all know the story. A rebellious child is brought to the court. His parents are at their wits' end. They have tried everything - from discipline, to love, to coercion and reward. They have gone to professionals, tried every technique - all to no avail. Their son refuses to change. He displays an attitude for which apparently there is no cure. He is brought to bais din, court, where the ultimate punishment is carried out: Yamus zakai v'al yamus chayov, "Let him die while he is still innocent, rather than having to execute him once he has committed an act of murder." In other words, why should someone else also die because this boy is incorrigible? He is obviously an evil seed that cannot be controlled. Chazal teach us that, while this scenario neither has ever happened, nor will it ever occur, a host of parenting and educational lessons can be derived from this concept.

The ben sorer u'moreh seems to have this label attached to himself. It describes a type of behavior that is out of control. Two names for one failing - that is what it seems, a wayward and rebellious son. If so, when we recite viduy, confession, why do we say sararnu, we have strayed - without adding u'marinu, "and we have rebelled?" Are they not one and the same, or do they represent two aspects or types of sinful behavior?

Horav Yaakov Galinsky, zl, explains that a sorer, wayward son, can still repent. The moreh, rebellious one, represents he who has no way of repairing himself. Teshuvah is no longer an option for him. He explains this idea further. The sorer knows that he has sinned, and he is troubled by this awareness. If he can only extricate himself from his present situation and maintain the strength of character and resoluteness to confess his sins and return to Hashem - he will be fine. There is still hope for him.

The moreh, however, has taught himself to justify every sin that he commits. He finds nothing wrong with his miscreant behavior. He always has some excuse through which he convinces himself that nothing is wrong. Indeed, he is probably doing a mitzvah. For him, we have no hope.

Rav Galinsky offers an excellent analogy to underscore the folly of the moreh. Apparently, sobriety was a serious problem in Poland. The Polish gentile drank alcoholic beverages like a fish. A good part of the population was often in some state of inebriation. The police were plagued with a multitude of car accidents resulting from the impaired driving habits of the inebriated population. 'To curb the rising accident rate, the police would put up road blocks in order to pull over drivers and make them drive on a short stretch of highway, used for the specific purpose of determining who was inebriated and who was simply a poor driver. One day, the police pulled over the driver of a car who was weaving terribly from lane to lane. They had the driver come out of the car. His breath reeked of alcohol. This was a no brainer. Nonetheless, he had to take the driving test. He went back into his car and was about to take the test drive, when he said, "First, you must straighten out the road!"

A similar idea applies to the moreh. The only person who repents is one who sees a deficiency in his own behavior. The moreh blames his inability to drive straight on the crooked road. It is never about him. It is always the school, the rebbe, the parents, the community - everyone else - but it is never his fault. Why should he do teshuvah? He has done nothing wrong!

Chazal tell us about two infamous sinners - one who eventually repented, and one whose ignominious behavior and heretical beliefs accompanied him to infamy. Rabbi Elazar ben Durdia realized that his entire life of sin had been a total waste. He became so remorseful that he placed his head between his knees and began to cry incessantly. His pain and weeping were too much for his body to handle. He basically cried himself into Olam Habba, the World to Come. His entire life he knew that he had been acting inappropriately. He was not giving excuses. He simply wanted to have what he considered a good time. At one point, he realized that it was all a sham. It was not worth living a life of complete abandon. He repented and was accepted into the ranks of the righteous.

Elisha ben Avuyah had been, at one point, a great sage. Then something went wrong. He attributed it to his father, who was insincere in raising him for Torah; his mother, who had eaten a prohibited food during her pregnancy with him; a Heavenly voice, that declared that the gates of repentance had been closed to him. Regardless of the reason, Elisha ben Avuyah always had an excuse to justify himself, to validate his errant behavior. He was also guilty of marinu. His rebellion precluded his repentance.

Rav Galinsky applies this idea to distinguish between Yishmael and Eisav. Avraham Avinu had a wayward son, Yishmael. He turned to idol worship, immorality and murder. Our Patriarch banished him from his home. Yishmael found his rightful place in the wilderness, robbing, plundering and murdering travelers. Yet, in the end, he repented and even accompanied his father to the Akeidas, Binding of, Yitzchak.

Eisav, on the other hand, was not only sorer; he was also rebellious. Born to Yitzchak Avinu, he felt that the birthright was his. He sought every way to justify his behavior. He tried to fool his father by asking halachic questions and marrying pagan girls at the age of forty, emulating his father who had married Rivkah Imeinu at the age of forty. When he heard that his father did not approve of Canaanite women, he married Yishmael's daughter. Eisav always performed evil with a positive tinge to it. His descendants and successors, Edom/Rome, built "holy" crusades, pogroms, and holocausts as part of their spiritual beliefs. They are loath to come out and openly declare their animus toward us. Instead, they always validated their actions as part of their religious beliefs. This is why, like their forebear, Eisav, they never repented. The sorer u'moreh does not have to repent. After all, what has he done wrong?

And it shall remain with you until your brother inquires after it… so shall you do for his garment. (22:2,3)

The Talmud Bava Metzia 27a, derives from the singling out of simlah, garment, that just as a garment is distinguished in the sense that it has identifying marks and it has claimants, likewise, anything else that has simanim, identifying marks, and has claimants must be announced. This is the source of the derivation that yiush- an object which either has no siman or is lost in a city which has a majority of non-Jewish residents- may be kept by its finder. In both cases, the owner, realizing that his chances of retrieving his possession are slim to nil, will be me'ya'eish, give up hope. Therefore, whoever discovers the object may keep it.

Horav Yaakov Galinsky, zl, relates that he had a good friend with whom he had suffered through the travails of World War II. His friend had lost his entire family to the fires of Auschwitz. He then spent the remainder of the war as a prisoner in the frozen tundra of Siberia. This was too much suffering for him to handle. He broke completely, giving up hope on life. He walked around, a shattered soul with nothing to look forward to in life. His good friend encouraged him to visit with the Chazon Ish, to seek his sage counsel.

His friend demurred, "What can he tell me that will change my life? Will he bring back my wife - my children? Will my family arise from the dead because of my conversation with him? I do not dispute his greatness, his piety and brilliance, but how can he comfort me?" Rav Galinsky was relentless, and finally, his friend gave in and agreed to visit the Chazon Ish.

The two men entered the Chazon Ish's office and were invited to sit down: "You are a yeshivah man - are you not?" The man replied that he was. "Let me share with you a din Torah, halachic dispute, between two litigants which was presented to the preeminent Halachic decisor of the previous generation, Horav Yitzchak Elchanan Spektor, zl."

A young man, diligent in his Torah study and deeply committed to a life of Torah, was supported by his wife. An astute businesswoman, she ran a successful business, buying goods at a low price and making a reasonable profit when she sold them at retail prices. On one of her business trips to the market, she was traveling with a pouch filled with a considerable amount of money. Sadly, in the tumult of her travels, she somehow lost the pouch. She hung up posters and made announcements in all of the shuls that whoever finds her pouch should bring it to the rav.

The very next day, a poor man presented himself at the home of the rav, claiming that he had found the pouch. The woman immediately gave the simanim, unique distinguished markings of the pouch, and expected to retrieve her money. The poor man said, 'Nothing doing. I, too, went to cheder, school, and I was taught that if someone finds a lost object in a city whose majority population is gentile, he may keep the object, since the owner is me'ya'eish. I have a daughter that needs to get married. I had no money. Now, I do!"

The rav was in a quandary. On the one hand, the money in the pouch clearly belonged to the woman. On the other hand, the poor man had found the money and was legally entitled to the money. The Chazon Ish looked at the man sitting before him and, with a smile, asked, "How would you rule in such a case? We have two litigants with bona fide claims for the money. Which one should prevail?"

The rav of the community was not up to taking responsibility for such a halachic dispute. He thus sent the shailah, question, to Rav Yitzchak Elchanan requesting his sage advice. Rav Yitzchak Elchanan replied, "The money was in the possession of the woman. According to Jewish law, however, a woman's possessions belong to her husband. Therefore, since the husband was unaware that his money had been lost, he was not me'ya'eish. If anything, it is a case of yiush shelo midaas, in which a person is unaware that something was lost, but, if he would know that it was lost, he would surely give up hope of ever retrieving it. This halachah is debated in the Talmud. We rule lo havi yiush. It is not considered yiush. Therefore, the money should be returned to the woman."

The Chazon Ish continued with his penetrating stare at the man sitting before him. "Who gave you a right to give up hope?" he asked. "Are you then the proprietor on your situation in life? Do you own your life? It all belongs to Hashem. He does not give up! We are all here on a mission for Hashem. He determines the road that we travel, its obstacles and the travails that we will encounter on our journey. He is in charge - not you and not I. A Jew may never give up hope!" Needless to say, the man left the home of the Chazon Ish a different person.

Neither an Amoni or Moavi may enter the congregation of Hashem… because they did not greet you with bread and water… and because he hired Bilaam… to curse you. (23:4,5)

The Amonite and Moavite nations are forever barred from marrying a Jewish woman - regardless of the sincerity and irreproachable nature of his conversion. Why? The Torah gives two reasons for this discrimination: they did not greet our ancestors with bread and water during their difficult journey through the wilderness; they hired Bilaam to curse the Jews. These reasons beg elucidation. If it is due to their lack of chesed, kindness, what qualifies other nations for acceptance as converts? Have we not suffered at their hands throughout the millennia? Furthermore, what connection is there between their lack of kindness and their hiring of Bilaam to curse us?

Horav Nissan Alpert, zl, explains that these nations did not only act inappropriately as neighboring nations, but they also failed to act in their own best interests! After the Jewish nation left Egypt amidst great miracles and wonders, every nation of the world trembled with fear, each one scared of what the Jews might do to them. No one was foolish enough to start up with the Jews. This did not seem to bother Amon and Moav. Why were they so obtuse? Indeed, they could have even capitalized on the fact that as descendants of Lot, Avraham Avinu's nephew, they were "family" with the Jews. Why would they start up with us?

There can be only one answer, one reason which prevented them from acting- or even thinking rationally- as human beings. It was their implacable hatred for the Jews that did not allow them to think cogently, to act with common sense and to show kindness to a nation traveling in the hot wilderness, and, especially, to a nation which the whole world feared. When one hates, he cannot think. The bread and water indicated how intense their hatred really was. The Torah is not troubled by their lack of character refinement, but rather, by their inhuman hatred towards the Jewish People.

On the other hand, perhaps they were a principled nation. They were not going to act like hypocrites. If they hated someone, then they were incapable of putting on a show and being nice to them. They were not going to be fakers and bring out bread and water to a nation whom they despised. If so, rather than revile them, perhaps we should show them respect. After all, how often does one come across a principled pagan?

The answer to this question is that they were not so principled after all. We have proof positive from the fact that they hired Bilaam to curse us. Chazal teach us that Moav was not the first nation to hire Bilaam. Sichon hired Bilaam to curse Moav. Yet, it did not bother them to go to Bilaam who had cursed them and ask him to curse the Jews.

Despite their deep hatred for Bilaam, the Moavites were willing to swallow their pride, to pay homage to Bilaam - all so that he would curse the Jews. They despised Bilaam - but they hated the Jews even more. They made a major cover-up when they hired Bilaam. No longer did they hate him. He was now their friend and partner. They were quite willing to be the hypocrites if it meant crushing the Jewish People. This is why their converts may not marry a Jewish woman. We may not permit a scion of a nation filled with such animus towards us to join with us in serving Hashem. We would not want them to be greater hypocrites than they already are.

Va'ani Tefillah

V'asu lahem Tzitzis. And make for them Tzitzis.

The Talmud Chullin 88b makes the following statement: "In the merit of Avraham Avinu's reply to the king of Sodom when he asked that all his subjects be returned to him following the culmination of the war, he was willing to reward Avraham. Instead, our Patriarch replied that he could have the people, but he would take nothing in return." "I decline all personal gains, so that you will not boast, 'I made Avraham wealthy.' Whatever I have comes from Hashem." Chazal say that because Avraham spurned personal gain, his descendants were blessed with the mitzvos of Tefillin and Tzitzis. This is the meaning of "If so much as a thread to a shoe strap": the "thread" earned him the threads of Tzitzis; the "strap" earned him the straps of Tefillin. The question that confronts the commentators is: How are Tefillin and Tzitzis connected? The answer is Avraham's refusal to be neheneh min ha'gezel, benefit from the booty which was stolen.

In his commentary to Meseches Chullin, the Lev Aryeh explains that the mitzvos of Tzitzis and Tefillin are unique in the sense that one can swindle/cheat people, claiming that they are kosher when, in fact, they are not. The swindler can dye the single thread of his Tzitzis blue, rather than use the authentic color of the chalazon, dye which is derived from a now-extinct creature. No one will know whether the blue color is genuine or not. Likewise, no one knows what really is inside the Tefillin boxes. Thus, one can wear Tefillin, giving the impression that he is an observant Jew, when, in fact, he is a cheat.

The Mishnah Makkos 3:15 states, "One who does not transgress is considered as if he performed a mitzvah." Therefore, when one wears Tzitzis and Tefillin, which are mitzvos that he could have used to fool people, he actually receives a double reward: one, for doing the mitzvah; two, for not doing the aveirah, sin, which was quite simple to execute- and no one would know the difference. Thus, it is specifically these two mitzvos with which Avraham was rewarded for not benefitting from stolen property. Since he did not benefit, his descendants received a dual reward.

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

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