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Rabbi A. Leib Scheinbaum
Hebrew Academy of Cleveland


Bnei Yisrael shall observe the Shabbos. (31:16)

The concept of shemirah, observing/guarding, is mentioned earlier in 12:17. Regarding the mitzvah of Matzoh: U'shemartem es ha'matzos, "You shall safeguard the Matzos," Chazal say, "Do not read it as Matzos, but as mitzvos (similar spelling)." Just as one may not allow Matzoh to become chametz, leaven, so, too, one may not permit mitzvos to become leaven. In other words, when the opportunity to perform a mitzvah arises, one should not delay, but rather should immediately take advantage of the opportunity. This is the simple p'shat, meaning. Horav Sholom Schwadron, zl, suggests that a deeper meaning lies in the concept of shemirah. It is not only an enjoinment with regard to not tarrying in mitzvah performance, it is even an admonition regarding our attitude towards the quality of our performance.

We certainly have a problem with our attitude concerning mitzvos. For example, let us consider the mitzvah of Shabbos. Shemirah means to guard it, think about it, prepare for it: something we all do. We purchase appropriate clothing l'kavod Shabbos, to honor the sanctity of the day. We look for special foods to honor Shabbos. We make all kinds of preparations for Shabbos, but what do we actually do on Shabbos? How do we spend the day? We daven quickly, taking time to socialize. We eat a festive meal and retire for the day. Is that what Shabbos is all about? Is that what we prepared for all week? Is that the definition of shemirah?

The Torah tells us to "safeguard the mitzvos." This applies not only to preparation for the mitzvah, but equally to the quality of our performance. All too often, we make a number of hachanos, preparations, for the mitzvah, but when it comes to our actual performance, our attitude is, at most, unenthusiastic.

Let us look at our daily routine to see if this holds true. We enter the shul and recite a L'shem yichud, preparatory prayer, before donning our Tallis and Tefillin. We place great emphasis on the meaning of the words of this prayer, but when it comes to the Tallis and Tefillin, we put them on quickly, and we soon forget that we are wearing them. We begin our davening with kavanah, but by the time we arrive at Shemoneh Esrai, we are half-asleep.

Rav Sholom cites a few instances from our yearly cycle that support this claim. On Rosh Hashanah, we prepare for Tekias Shofar by reciting Lamnatze'ach (Psalm 47) seven times. Our fervor escalates as we recite the pesukim of Kra Satan, which precede the Tekios. When it comes to the actual Tekios, however, how many of us are ready to be yotzei, fulfill our obligation, in accordance with all the shitos, various opinions, concerning the length and sound of the Tekios? We sing the Piyutim, hymns and prayers, associated with the High Holiday davening, but do we apply ourselves equally to the Viddui, confessional service?

This is all the work of the yetzer hora, evil inclination, who convinces us that we have fulfilled our obligation by the preparation for the mitzvah. Indeed, the yetzer hora sees to it that we expend our entire religious fervor and enthusiasm on the preparations, as long as we do not get "carried away" and fulfill the mitzvah properly. There are situations when the yetzer hora convinces us to become involved in an endeavor that is totally foreign to the mitzvah, in an effort to impede our mitzvah performance. An example is the chazzan of Yamim No'raim who stays up all night in preparation for the next day's davening - and is half asleep when he should be davening with passion and fervor. Another example is the rebbe who decides to go to the mikveh before giving a shiur, when, instead, he should review his remarks again, so that his delivery of the shiur will be more proficient. This is the work of the yetzer hora.

Rav Sholom cites an incident in which an individual who had Yahrtzeit for his father went to the rav and asked him to gather five Torah scholars who would fast on the day of the Yahrtzeit. He offered to pay them handsomely. The rav replied that if he wanted them to fast, it would be more acceptable for him to ask them himself. Since he was prepared to dole out a considerable sum of money in memory of his father, it would be more appropriate for him to give the money to a Torah scholar who might not be able to purchase a decent meal.

When all is said and done, the meaning of shemirah is to apply one's heart, simas lev: to think; to be cognitive of the various facets of the mitzvah; not to make what is secondary into the primary aspect of the mitzvah; and not to disregard other mitzvos while carrying out a specific mitzvah. We must determine our priorities and focus on them.

And the people saw that Moshe was late to come down from the mountain. (32:1)

How quickly they lost their faith. How quickly they were able to forget everything that Hashem had done for them. Chazal tell us that the Satan showed the people a vision of Moshe Rabbeinu being carried in Heaven. Their leader was gone. He must immediately be replaced. How are we to understand Klal Yisrael's lack of patience and faith? Why would they not wait a little bit longer? Perhaps Moshe would yet return. How did they change from a nation that had received the Torah to a people who were prepared to revert to idol worship?!

I think the answer lies in understanding Klal Yisrael's mindset. At the time, they were scared. They were desperate. Fear leads to despair. Despair leads to the nadir of sin. Indeed, as Horav Aharon Karkner, zl, says, despair is in itself a grave sin. It is the most destructive of all sins, because it represents a lack of hope. When one loses hope, he is susceptible to descending to the nadir of depravity. Hope for the Jew is his elixir of life. We have survived the vicissitudes of the millennia, precisely because we have maintained our hope in a future, our hope for redemption.

The Izbitzer Rebbe, zl, explains that we are called Yehudim, because our ancestor Yehudah demonstrated remarkable resilience and inexhaustible hope. When through Yosef's manipulation, the silver goblet was planted and found in Binyamin's sack, the brothers thought all was lost. They lost hope. They had come to an impasse which they could not surmount. Not so Yehudah. He did not fall apart when faced with adversity. Vayigash eilav Yehudah, he drew near to Yosef. He came forward and argued. Yehudah never gave up hope and neither do we, his descendants. We are a people whose roots are entrenched in hope and tempered with resilience.

Klal Yisrael was afraid. Their leader was gone, and it appeared that he would not return. They were paralyzed with fear. What should they do? Where could they go? Let me tell you what fear does to a person. In truth, much of human endeavor is motivated by the negative emotions which have been catalyzed by fear. We are afraid of failing, so we act. We are afraid of being called losers, so we undertake various projects to prove that we have something to contribute. We are now getting to the primary source of all fears: the fear that we are insignificant; the fear that what we do is inconsequential; the fear that we do not matter.

Why was Klal Yisrael so afraid that Moshe was gone? I think that in their mindset, they needed him for support. They had just completed a long tenure as slaves in Egypt. During their liberation from the Egyptian bondage, they had begun to connect with Moshe in a relationship that generated a feeling of self-worth and self-esteem. They no longer felt lost and insignificant. They were somebodies! Then Moshe disappeared. He promised to return at a specific time, but he did not. They once again reverted to their fear of being nothing. They had to act immediately to counteract that fear: They created a golden-calf.

For many, human existence is a lifelong quest to prove that they have value. People need to feel important and needed. Jews are different - or, at least, they are supposed to be. We are Yehudim. We have hope. We are resilient. We have endured so much and still survived. We have overcome challenge after challenge, obstacle after obstacle, and have become stronger. Our lives are filled with purpose. This gives us hope. We have a mission: To serve Hashem and sanctify His Name throughout the world. We do not need a pat on the back from anyone, for we are members of Hashem's legion. We have overcome, and we will continue to do so.

The frum, observant, community can hold its head up high. Long ago, the world wrote us off as extinct. We have survived and thrived. In the sixty-odd years since the Holocaust, Orthodox Jewry throughout America and Eretz Yisrael has proven that fear is not one of our hindrances. We have demonstrated that courage, resilience and hope conquer apathy and fear. We have built Torah throughout this country, in a land where the pessimists said it would never succeed. We have continued building the world that the Holocaust destroyed. A nation that lives with hope cannot be vanquished.

Let me conclude with a short story that puts the above ideas in perspective. It is about a father and his young son, both of whom had been sent to Auschwitz. In spite of the unspeakable horrors, hardships and persecution, the Jewish inmates were able to cling to whatever scraps of religious observance they could. Shabbos, the Festivals and basic mitzvos were observed to the extent possible - under the miserable conditions to which they were subjected. One midwinter evening, the inmates remembered that it was Chanukah. How were they going to "celebrate" the Festival of Lights? The father had been a craftsman, so he fashioned a small makeshift Menorah from scrap metal. A few pieces of thread plucked from his prison garb served as a wick. For oil, he used some butter that he had been able to procure from a guard.

They were used to taking risks, and this was no different. It was the butter that the young boy could not understand. How could they waste precious food? Would it not have been more appropriate to share the butter on a crust of bread than to burn it?

The father looked at his son, and with a tone the young boy would always remember, said, "My son, you know that a person can live a long time without food. I assure you, however, that a person cannot live one moment without hope. These flames are the flames of hope. This is a fire that we cannot be without - ever! Remember this always!"

They fashioned it into a molten calf. They said, "This is your G-d, O' Yisrael, which brought you up from the land of Egypt. (32:4)

When we peruse the tragic incident of the eigal ha'zahav, Golden-Calf, we note that only three-thousand Jews actually sinned. In fact, these sinners were members of the eirav rav, mixed multitude, who came along with Klal Yisrael when they left Egypt. Yet, the entire nation carried the onus of guilt. Why? Interestingly, Shevet Levi, who was not involved in the sin at all, was included in this collective guilt. Why? This occurred again later on when the meraglim, spies, returned from reconnoitering Eretz Yisrael, and ten of them disparaged the country. Hashem wanted to destroy the nation and rebuild it through Moshe Rabbeinu. Once again, the proportion of guilt seems disproportionate. There is yet a more glaring episode in Tanach when Achan, one man, took from the spoils of Yericho, and all of Klal Yisrael was held responsible. Why? Is this not taking collective punishment a bit far?

In his commentary to Sefer Yehoshua, The Malbim writes that all of Klal Yisrael is considered as one body. Thus, just as if there is an infection in one organ it affects the entire body, so, too, if one Jew sins, it is viewed collectively and the guilt is shared by everyone. No one sins in a vacuum. His transgression leaves a lasting blemish on the nation. This is the dynamics of a community. Each individual affects the entire unit.

In truth, the idea goes deeper. When an individual sins, it indicates that the community has not condemned this particular sin. If everybody in Klal Yisrael would have accepted the prohibition against taking spoils from Yericho - seriously - then Achan could not have sinned. The feelings would have been too strong. If everybody in Klal Yisrael would have been against creating a golden-calf, then it would not have happened. If everybody in Klal Yisrael was secure in the commitment to enter Eretz Yisrael, then the spies would not have slandered the country. Veritably, in one way or another, everybody was responsible for the community not being as negative towards the sin as they should have been. Collective guilt is the result of collective sin. It is just that Hashem is able to distinguish the overt sinners from the covert sinners. Yes, when another Jew desecrates Shabbos, disdains kashrus, disparages morality and the laws of marriage, it is a taaneh, a criticism, of our behavior. We have become too accepting, too agreeable, too complacent, too secure with our own observance to really be concerned about that of others. Regrettably, the sin is collective, just as the obligation is.

Yehoshua heard the sound of the people in its shouting. (32:17)

In the Nimukei Ridvaz it is stated, "It is written b're'oh with a hay, meaning, 'In its degradation,' but it is read b're'o, 'in its shouting.' This teaches us that when Yehoshua heard all of the shouting connected with their celebration, he thought that it was actually sounds of the war, in which those who still followed Moshe Rabbeinu were waging battle with the idol-worshippers. This news was, at best, ambivalent, since it indicated that the Jewish People was being destroyed by machlok'es, internal strife. This was good news and bad. On the one hand, Jews were fighting for kavod Shomayim, the honor of Heaven. On the other hand, Jews were fighting. This is the double meaning of b're'oh, which in its written expression implies negativity, while in its oral reading intimates a positive feeling.

The lesson we derive from the Ridvaz is simple. Even during those circumstances in which one has no other recourse but to actively dispute those who seek to undermine the Torah, as occurred during the sin of the Golden-Calf, we must nonetheless face the fact that we are involved in a machlok'es - albeit l'shem Shomayim, for the sake of Heaven - but a machlok'es nonetheless. Controversy is never a good thing, even if it is undertaken for the purpose of expunging the evil that infests us. Regrettably, at times it is the only avenue that we can employ, but it hurts - or, at least, it should.

And he (Moshe) saw the calf and the dances… And he threw down the Tablets from his hands and shattered them. (32:19)

It is incredible that Moshe Rabbeinu felt obligated to shatter the Luchos. Indeed, if he felt that Klal Yisrael was not worthy of receiving them, then he should have put them away for a later date when they would be worthy. Was it really necessary to act with such finality? The Amar Naka explains that had the Luchos not been broken, no nation would ever have been able to dominate Klal Yisrael. What is so bad about that? He explains that shibud malchios, the slavery to which the gentile nations subject us, is a form of penance for us. It cleanses our sins and purifies us, thereby permitting us to enter Olam Habah, the World To Come. Moshe Rabbeinu knew that if Klal Yisrael received the Luchos then, they would have forever forfeited their chance to enter Olam Habah, which is the aspiration of every Jew. It is worth all the suffering which we endure, because true life is that which is lived in the spiritual realm.

Horav Chaim Elazary, zl, offers an alternative approach. He explains that when Moshe finally descended from the mountain with the Luchos in his hands, the people came face to face with the reality that their beloved leader was still alive, and his mission had been accomplished. What should they have immediately done? They should have themselves shattered the Golden Calf. The fact that they did not act decisively bothered Moshe. Apparently, they thought they were not sinners. They had hoped to have their cake and eat it, too. They could have a Golden Calf and the Luchos - together! No! This could never be. Moshe decided to shatter the Luchos in order to teach Klal Yisrael a powerful lesson. The eigal and the Luchos do not coincide. One who has an eigal eschews the Luchos. By breaking the Luchos, Moshe was demonstrating to the people that they were sinners and must immediately repent. Teshuvah, repentance, can only occur after one recognizes and acknowledges his iniquity.

Va'ani Tefillah

u'mosar ha'adam min ha'beheimah ayin. Man's superiority over animals is nothing.

As the Ramban writes in his commentary to Sefer Koheles, this statement is a reference to the guf, body, physical dimension, of man. There is very little that distinguishes us from the animals. We eat, sleep, function and then pass from the world. We do, however, have one major advantage over the animal world: the neshamah, soul. Through our spiritual dimension, we can elevate ourselves by performing the will of Hashem and drawing ourselves closer to Him. In fact, the Maggid Tzedek views the word ayin: aleph, yud, nun, as an acronym for the words, aval yeish neshamah, "but, there is a soul," which, of course, is a reference to man's superiority over the animals. Alternatively, he writes that the average animal lives nine years. David Hamelech says in Sefer Tehillim, "The days of our lives are seventy years." This amounts to a sixty-one year difference between an average animal's lifespan and that of a human. The gematria, numerical equivalent, of ayin is sixty-one. Finally, the Chida says that the acronym of ayin is: amirah, man's ability to speak; yediah, knowledge, his ability to think; and neshamah, his soul, spiritual dimension. These constitute the three areas which elevate man over the animals.

l'zechar nishmas
R' Tzvi Elimelech ben Alter Elazar Yehuda HaLevi z"l
Sidney Greenberger z"l
The Greenberger Family

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