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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 sonů they shall say to the elders of the city, "This son of ours is wayward and rebellious; he does not listen to our voice; he is a glutton and a drunkard." (21:18,20)

The ben sorer u'moreh, wayward and rebellious son, has to be one of Jewish society's greatest tragedies. A child so evil that his parents bring him to bais din, rabbinical court, where, upon confirmation of his nefarious acts of gluttony and derogation of his parents, he will be executed, is unusual and tragic. His actions indicate a complete lack of restraint necessary to lead an observant and holy life. While this concept is quite difficult for anyone not steeped in Torah to understand, let alone accept, it is primarily due to their not being steeped in Torah that grasping the true egregiousness of this evil and - yes - the positive aspect of the punishment is so difficult. Yamus zakai v'al yamus chayav, "Let him die while he is still innocent, and let him not die when he is guilty (of capital crimes)." The world that concerns us as believing Jews is that of the spirit, Olam Habba. This way, as a result of his teshuvah, repentance, and accompanying punishment, he is still able to enter into the eternal world. Furthermore, based upon the halachic criteria required to establish one as a ben sorer u'moreh, it is virtually impossible for such a case to ever occur. Thus, Chazal posit that the Torah wrote the case for the purpose of serving as an educational guide for parents, a sort of parenting primer, on how to imbue their children with Torah values.

Is there anything worse than a ben sorer u'moreh? Could there be a worse situation than a child who demonstrates such disrespect that his parents are no longer sure that society is safe from him? Can one even begin to imagine the torment and agony of parents who must take their son to a bais din, knowing fully well the consequences of a guilty verdict issued against their son?

I think that the answer is: yes. There is a worse scenario than the one that the Torah presents. When the parents present their child before bais din, they declare: B'neinu zeh, "This son of ours is wayward and rebellious." The word b'neinu, our son, makes a powerful point. They still identify with the child as b'neinu, "our son." There is no question that what they are going through is beyond tragic, and no parent should ever have to suffer so, but, at least they still consider him to be their son. Yes, there is worse than ben sorer u'moreh: when the parents refuse to say b'neinu zeh, "our son"; when they no longer identify with their child; when he is an aberration who just happens to share their last name. "He is not ours. We wrote him off a long time ago": that tragedy is worse.

I know that I am treading on sacred ground, and perhaps, years ago, I would have shied away from writing on this subject, butů

Sadly, some people may not feel the sense of instinctual unconditional love that a parent should have for a child. They simply do not have the nurturing instinct that is part and parcel of the parenting institution. Parenting is not a part-time vocation. It is a lifelong responsibility which some people simply cannot handle. Others may be great parents when they have a perfect child. When they are challenged by: a discipline problem; feelings of envy for everything they did not have and their child has; an inability to cope; negated personal tenets; their own lack of success in life underscored by spoiled children - some parents sadly lose their ability to love.

For the most part, the parent that neglects a child is a person who was never taught to love. A child who was not loved does not know how to love. This is a reality that we must accept. People who have suffered abuse, lack of love, resentment, denigration as a child are unable to show love as an adult. Rather than focus on the negatives, which I will leave to the professionals who, lamentably, are very busy, I will cite instances of positive parenting.

A child remembers his parents' love. A child never forgets his parents' lack of love. Yes, we have excuses: "I am busy"; "I have to work two jobs to make ends meet"; "I am exhausted"; "I go to shul to daven - not to be a policeman". "My father was no different with me." The list goes on, but children remember everything. Even the ben sorer u'moreh is acutely aware that his parents said, "Bneinu zeh." Some children remember on their own; others require a subtle reminder. No one wants to have their parents' sacrifices and love thrown in to their faces on a constant basis. When sincere love is instinctually administered, it is remembered. When it is thrown in one's face, it is resented.

There is a well-known story concerning the life of Horav Yaakov David Willowsky, zl, who lived in Tzfas, after first being Rav in Slutzk, Poland. One year, on his father's yahrtzeit, Rav Willowsky came to shul early, walked over to his shtender, lectern, stood there for a few moments and began to weep. While a parent's yahrtzeit is an emotional time, his father had passed away over a half a century earlier at the age of eighty (which at that time was considered quite old). A close friend pointed this out to him, somewhat surprised by this public display of emotion.

The Ridbaz (as he was popularly known) explained with the following story. "When I was young, my father arranged for me to be availed the services of the finest private tutor. A solid Torah education was the most important thing to my parents. It was not cheap; in fact, at the rate of one ruble per month, it was quite expensive, especially given the fact that my parents were poor.

"My father earned a living by making brick furnaces. One winter, there was a shortage of bricks, thereby impeding my father's ability to pay the tutor. After three months passed without payment, the tutor sent home a note: 'Unless payment is received on Sunday, Yaakov David should not bother coming.' My parents were, of course, devastated. My learning meant the world to them. When my father heard that a wealthy man sought a brick furnace for his soon-to-be-married son, and money was no object, my father jumped at the opportunity. Since he had no bricks, he sat down with my mother to discuss the options and, after some discussion, they decided to take apart our furnace and deliver it brick by brick to the wealthy man. My father received six rubles for his troubles - and I returned to the tutor, my learning uninterrupted!

"That winter was bitterly cold, and we all froze and shivered. This was their way of teaching me the importance of Torah learning and how much one must be willing to sacrifice for it.

"I can never forget that cold frigid winter. I can also never forget my parents' boundless love for me and for Torah. They did everything, so that their precious child could grow up to be a talmid chacham, Torah scholar. Today, on my father's yahrtzeit, I stopped for a moment to pause and reflect on their love. How can I not weep?"

Children remember. So does a talmid, student.

Horav Yaakov Yitzchak Ruderman, zl, Rosh Yeshivah of Ner Israel, was a close talmid of the Alter of Slabodka, Horav Nosson Tzvi Finkel, zl. The rosh yeshivah took special interest in the young illui, who was tender in years, but brilliant in mind. He saw in him the future Torah leader that he would become. Rav Ruderman would often recall the extreme fatherly love exhibited to him as a young student by the venerable mussar and Torah personality, who was responsible for molding the lives of many of the of the twentieth century Torah giants. The following incident played over in Rav Ruderman's mind as a testament to his revered rebbe's love.

"I was explaining a chiddush, novel, innovative Talmudic interpretation, to the rosh yeshivah. He was peppering me with questions in an attempt to establish the integrity of my chiddush. I defended my position. (It was an elevated moment of rischa d'Oraisa, passion/heat of studying Torah.) In the midst of our exchange, Rav Leizer Yudel (Horav Eliezer Yehudah Finkel, zl, son of the Alter and future Mirrer Rosh Yeshivah) entered the bais medrash doorway. The Alter had not seen his son in seven years, yet he hardly looked at him, as we continued our spirited conversation. Once we concluded, the Alter greeted his son warmly and lovingly.

"I followed them out the door, as the Rebbetzin approached the Alter and asked, 'Why did you ignore our Yudel?'

"'I was in the midst of speaking in learning with Yaakov Yitzchak,' he replied.

"'But Leizer Yudel is your son!' she protested.

"'So, too, is Yaakov Yitzchak my son,' he replied.

"He said this to the Rebbetzin, not far from my ears. I knew that he meant what he said. He was such a teacher, such a rebbe. With such a rebbe, could there have been any question with regard to accepting his authority?"

All the men of his city shall pelt him with stones and he shall die. (21:21)

The ben sorer u'moreh receives the ultimate punishment: execution by stoning. He is put to death while he is still innocent, having not yet committed a sin which carries the penalty of capital punishment. It is better that he should die now as a rebellious glutton, rather than allowing him to be driven by his base desires to plunder and even murder in pursuit of filling his obsessive appetite. The punishment of stoning seems excessive, since, even if our fears for his future evil would be realized - and he would murder - the punishment would still be hereg/sayif, beheading by sword. He would not be stoned. Why then is the ben sorer u'moreh executed by stoning?

Horav Mordechai Pogremonsky, zl, gives an insightful explanation. Executing the ben sorer u'moreh is an act of chesed, kindness! How can killing an innocent man be viewed as an act of kindness? It is in such circumstances that we are accorded a glimpse into the Torah perspective, and how it diametrically contrasts the simple, cogent perspective of he who looks through the spectrum of humanity - not Torah.

We believe in Olam Habba, the World to Come. It is the real world, the eternal world. To gain entrance into Olam Habba, one must be worthy. One must be pure, cleansed by the vicissitudes of life. Yissurim, troubles, pain, are the primary "tickets" which catalyze one's entrance into Olam Habba. They have an abrasive effect on the spiritual dross that clings to us as a result of our spiritual deficiencies. Yissurim are Hashem's favor, His kindness, so that, after living a life of spiritual imperfection, we can still hope for Olam Habba.

Thus, the ben sorer u'moreh who is the recipient of Hashem's kindness, which spares him from eternal infamy by decreasing his lifespan, must still endure yissurim. Otherwise, he will not warrant Olam Habba. The increased pain and anxiety associated with stoning are his extra yissurim which accord him a place in the World to Come.

Remember what Hashem, your G-d, did to Miriam on the way, when you were leaving Egypt. (24:9)

Rashi comments: Remember what was done to Miriam who spoke against her brother, Moshe (Rabbeinu) and (as a result) was stricken with tzaraas (spiritual leprosy). Targum Yonasan ben Uziel comments: Take care not to be suspicious of your friend (not to suspect him of wrongdoing). Remember what Hashem, your G-d, did to Miriam because she suspected Moshe of something which was unfounded: she was stricken with tzaraas. Rashi attributes Miriam HaNeviyah's illness/punishment to speaking ill of Moshe Rabbeinu. Targum Yonasan seems to feel that her shortcoming was in incorrectly suspecting Moshe of a wrongdoing. Horav Kalmen Pinsky, zl, observes (from the commentary of Targum Yonasan) that the primary sin of (speaking) lashon hora, slanderous speech, lies not in the speaking, but rather, in the negative outlook that the speaker has, which serves as the precursor of his slanderous comments.

Negative outlook, a jaundiced view of others, catalyzes negative speech. When one views the actions (or inactions) of his fellow through the tainted perspective of a malignant viewpoint, he will inevitably see evil, which will ultimately lead him to speaking evil. The Chafetz Chaim, zl, (Shaar HaTenuvah) writes: "One should accustom himself not to speak about people regardless of the nature of his comments - whether they be negative or even positive. Horav Rephael Hamburg, zl, relinquished his position as Rav four years prior to his passing in order not to be compelled to speak with - or about - people. He asked anyone who visited not to speak about another person. He feared that one thing would lead to another. He very much feared the "another," which meant (inadvertently) speaking lashon hora.

A distinguished member of the Yerushalayim community; an individual who zealously upheld the Torah and mitzvos - and made a "point" to see to it that others did so also - once came to Horav Chaim Shmuelevitz, zl, with a complaint concerning two yeshivah students. Apparently, this man's apartment was opposite Yeshivas Mir, allowing him to have an unobstructed view of what was going on in the area. He claimed that he saw two students perusing a secular newspaper in a store that was in the proximity of the yeshivah. He felt that a yeshivah bachur had no business reading such a paper, and one who did should be excoriated. "How," he declared, "could someone commit such a dastardly act within the immediate locality of the yeshivah? The holy yeshivah is a place of refuge for elevating one's yiraas Shomayim, Fear of Heaven. How can such bachurim be accepted in the yeshivah? What are they being taught here?"

The man continued ranting and raving as if these two boys had committed the most reprehensible act of moral turpitude (truthfully, to some, reading a secular newspaper is a moral failing).

The Rosh Yeshivah replied, "You are definitely correct. We must address the situation and see to it that it does not occur again. However, let me ask you a question. You have been living in this area for quite some time. Have you ever taken the time to issue a compliment concerning the extraordinary hasmadah, diligence, of our students, who can be found learning until very late at night? Do you ever laud the study of mussar, ethical character refinement, that exemplifies our yeshivah? What about the dignity and yiraas Shomayim displayed by our students? Are you quick to recognize that? No! It is only when you something negative that you come running, quick to condemn and assail. Perhaps, if you will accustom yourself to seeing the good and positive and accentuating it - your criticism will be viewed as constructive - not disparaging."

Remember what Amalek did to you. (25:17)

It is a positive command to blot out the memory of Amalek mitachas ha'Shomayim, from beneath the Heavens. On a purely cursory level, one would be hard-pressed to explain what it was about the war with Amalek that earned him and his descendants the ignominious title of archenemy of the Jews. It is not as if Amalek drowned Jewish babies (as did the Egyptians), bathed in their blood, and subjected our entire nation to captivity and persecution for over two centuries. He attacked us as we commenced our journey to Eretz Yisrael. Definitely not a good thing, but does it warrant that his name be eternally blotted out? Furthermore, as the Netziv, zl, asks, we are enjoined to "remember" to blot out his name. By "remembering" to blot out his name, we are actually defeating the purpose. Would it not be better to simply "forget" Amalek - period? Ostensibly, it is not enough to blot him out; it is necessary that we maintain a serious hatred towards him and what he represents.

Horav Baruch Sorotzkin, zl, explains that apparently the battle against Amalek is not merely a battle of nations; rather, it is a battle of values, of light against darkness, of purity against defilement, of good against evil. Amalek is the standard bearer for the forces of impurity and evil in the world. His archenemy is Klal Yisrael who represent the power of kedushah, sanctity. The Rosh Yeshivah observes that Amalek is more than a nation. Amalek symbolizes every false ideology and philosophy whose goal is to undermine the power of kedushah, to profane our sacred identity, to breach the separation between light and darkness, sacred and profound, pure and defiled. Thus, we are enjoined to remember what Amalek symbolizes and what he sought to do to us. This act of remembrance will generate within us an animus to everything that Amalek represents. This is how we blot out his name.

The war between Amalek and the Jewish People is historic, heralding back to Rivkah Imeinu's womb, where her twins Yaakov and Eisav fought over the future. Yalkut Shemoni relates that, prior to his death, Eisav harasha, the evil Eisav, told his heir apparent, his grandson Amalek, "I did not succeed in vanquishing Yaakov. It is now up to you." The baton was passed from grandfather to grandson, and so it has been passed throughout the generations from one evil despot to the next.

It was not always Amalek in the guise of Eisav. At times, Amalek spewed his venom against Torah and Orthodoxy through other channels, represented by the various "isms" and schools of progressive, secular thought, bent upon reforming Judaism, stripping it of its traditions and divorcing its people from its Torah and, ultimately, from Hashem. We are still battling them, as they change guises, at times even presenting themselves as friends who want to help "modernize" our lives. Deios kozvos, false ideologies, are the product of Amalakean guile, fueled by Eisuvian animus toward the descendants of Yaakov Avinu. If we keep this in mind and remember the source of these ideologies, then it will be much easier to blot them out.

The chasm between our value system and that of Amalek is extreme. The Rosh Yeshivah quotes the Maharal's commentary to Megillas Esther (Or Chadash), who explains that Haman's war against Klal Yisrael was purely an act of virulent hatred. He had no material or physical gain whatsoever. Maharal proves this from Mordechai's response to Hasach (when he questioned him at Esther's request concerning his wearing sackcloth).

Vayageid lo Mordechai es kol asher karahu, "And Mordechai told him of all that had happened to him" (Esther 4:7). The word karahu is related to the word mikreh, happening, implying an event that occurred by chance, an incident without purpose or reason. Mordechai was intimating that his refusal to bow to Haman was not meant to humiliate Haman. He just did not genuflect to pagans. Haman took umbrage simply because of hatred. The Midrash adds that Mordechai said, "The grandson of Karahu (referring to Amalek who was karcha ba'derech) chanced upon the Jewish nation as they travelled along their way, not bothering anyone. Everything that Amalek does is not for personal benefit, but out of hatred.

Maharal distinguishes between mikreh, incidental, whereby there is no gain from an endeavor, and etzem, essential, where there is purpose and meaning to one's actions. When one acts for personal benefit, to carry out a goal, a mission, from which he will gain, it is not an act of mikreh - even if his intentions are far from noble. It is not an extraneous act. It is part of his intrinsic nature. Even if one were to steal for profit, it is etzem - not mikreh.

When one acts only to spite, to hurt, out of deep-rooted hatred, it is mikreh, an incidental act which is purposeless, a mission without a reasonable goal, an act of spite which does nothing but destroy. Amalek symbolizes the belief that everything in life is chance, incidental, mikreh. Etenna/eternity is an anathema to him. Techiyas Ha'Meisim, the resurrection of the dead, is to him the very antithesis of his belief. Nothing is eternal; nothing has value; everything is temporary. This was the perspective on life of his grandfather, Eisav. He rejected the bechorah, birthright of the firstborn, because "I am not going to die, there is no tomorrow; thus, there is no value to today. Everything and everyone dies. Life is all a waste. Live for the moment! Enjoy the 'now.' Forget about the future."

This is why Eisav despised Yaakov. Our Patriarch understood the meaning of nitzchiyus, eternity. To him nothing was mikreh. Everything in life has purpose and value. Nothing is incidental or coincidence. We now understand why Amalek, his descendants - both natural and ideological - hate us more so than any other nation. We are the antithesis of their belief. Our very being is proof positive of Amalek's delusional beliefs. We have been hounded and persecuted, even before we became a nation. Amalek is gone, albeit his ideology is alive, well and thriving in the minds of his descendants.

The Rosh Yeshivah adds that Klal Yisrael is etzem. We are eternal, thus we each have a portion in Olam Habba, the World to Come. Under specific circumstances, when a Jew acts in an extremely nefarious manner, he will lose his portion. The gentile who has a portion in Olam Habba must act in such a manner which earns him the appellation chasidei umos ha'olam, righteous among gentiles. Amalek, however, is eternally excluded from ever joining this august group. His name is to be blotted out. He is a mikreh and, thus, the antithesis of what Olam Habba represents. He is our greatest enemy because his very essence stands in contradistinction to us.

Va'ani Tefillah

U'matzmiach yeshuah. And (He) makes salvation sprout.

What is the meaning of salvation sprouting? When something sprouts, it grows from the ground, such as a seed, which, when planted in the ground, will one day produce a plant, vegetation, a flower. The seed germinates and is transformed into a different entity which rose from the ground - the product of that seed. How does this apply to salvation? Perhaps we may suggest that salvation is the outgrowth of the trouble/pain/adversity of which it is a consequence in order to save the person. How often does it happen that we are plagued by a serious problem, which ultimately is/becomes the source of our success? We are human beings, thus given to shortsightedness, able to see only what is right in front of our eyes. Furthermore, when we are embroiled/experiencing an adverse situation, our minds are so involved in our pain that we are unable to see beyond the tears. Ultimately, later when the situation takes a turn around, the converse occurs; we are so inebriated with joy that it precludes our ability to see and think rationally, to have a cogent, realistic appreciation of what has taken place - both the pain and success - and how they are connected. Matzmiach yeshuah; Hashem sprouts the salvation from within the adversity.

Sponsored in honor of our father, Avi Herskowitz, who has distributed Peninim for over twenty years, on the occasion of his sixtieth birthday and forty-seventh bar mitzvah parsha.
May he be blessed with many more years of gezunt and Yiddishe nachas.

By his children:
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Suchy and Roise Halpern
and grandchildren

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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