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Peninim on the Torah

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Rabbi A. Leib Scheinbaum
Hebrew Academy of Cleveland


Every man shall give Hashem atonement for his soul. (30:12)

The Gaon zl, m'Vilna writes that the word, v'nasnu, "(they) shall give," retains the same spelling, both backward and forward. He suggests that the Torah is teaching us a powerful lesson: What goes around comes around. While I may be the individual who is giving today, the situation is likely to change tomorrow or in the distant future, at which time either I - or one of my descendants -- will be on the receiving end. Thus, in order to ensure a positive response in the future, one should act appropriately in the present. Our attitude towards others becomes reciprocal. A similar idea applies to our children's education. As we raise our children during their youth, we are always giving. Our children do not take care of themselves. We protect them and provide for them. As we age and approach our twilight years, we turn to our children for assistance and care. The way we treat our children when they are young; the countenance we display in our relationship with them, will affect their reciprocity when it is our turn to be on the receiving end. In addition, the way we treat our parents serves as a learning experience for our children. They are watching us. What they do not learn from us is our fault. They will act towards us in a manner that parallels the way we have acted towards our parents. It is all part of the reciprocity.

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

Shabbos is a staple of Yiddishkeit, one that, regrettably, the Jewish people have neglected and even scorned. At first, it was supposedly difficult to earn a living unless one worked on Shabbos. Then, it just fell into place together with so many other "archaic" mitzvos that do not seem to conform to the demands of contemporary society. I recently saw an inspiring thought about Shabbos that I would like to share on these pages. While my reading audience is composed primarily of shomrei Shabbos, it is also read by many who are not that "affiliated." In addition, it would benefit all of us to work to strengthen our shemiras Shabbos, especially in the area of kedushas Shabbos, observing its sanctity and according it the proper reverence.

When one is praying for a choleh, an individual who is sick, on Shabbos, it is customary to add the phrase, Shabbos hi me'lizok, u'refuah kerovah lavo, "Even though (the institution of) Shabbos prohibits us from crying out, may a recovery come speedily." One of the great Admorim, Horav Hillel zl, m'Paritsch, once visited a town in which a number of Jews kept their stores open on Shabbos. Rav Hillel convened a meeting and was able to impress upon the residents the overriding significance of Shabbos, inspiring them to agree to close their stores. There was one condition, however, that the residents stipulated. The richest man in town would also have to agree to close his store on Shabbos, as well. Otherwise, they had no chance of competing with him. Rav Hillel immediately sent for the man, who ignored the Rebbe's request. The Rebbe sent a second request, and the man responded to this summons in a similar manner.

One does not insult a tzaddik, righteous person, and get away with it. Shabbos morning, as this wealthy man was preparing to go to work, he suddenly experienced severe stomach cramps. His abdominal pain grew worse with each hour. His wife, who was no fool, realized that her husband's ailment was the result of playing with fire by insulting the great tzaddik. She proceeded to the place where Rav Hillel was staying and begged the tzaddik to forgive her husband and intercede on his behalf. Rav Hillel listened, but he did not respond. He did not utter a word. The chassidim who were there asked, "Rebbe, can you not at least say, 'Shabbos hi mi'lizok u'refuah kerovah lavo'?" The Rebbe continued his silence.

The remainder of Shabbos was uneventful. The man, however, was becoming increasingly sicker. As soon as Shabbos was over, the woman came again to Rav Hillel and pleaded tearfully to the Rebbe, "Please pray for my husband!" Finally, Rav Hillel responded, "The phrase, 'Shabbos hi me'lizok u'refuah kerovah lavo,' can be alternatively interpreted as, 'If Shabbos will refrain from crying out, then a speedy recovery will come.' This person has been denigrating Shabbos for years, causing it to cry out in pain against him for desecrating it. If he gives his solemn promise that he will close his store on Shabbos and begin observing the holy day, then he will recover."

The chassidim ran to the man's house and relayed the Rebbe's message. The man promptly agreed to close his store on Shabbos, and he soon recovered.

Take yourself spices - stacte, onycha and galbanum. (30:34)

Chazal teach us that eleven ingredients comprised the ketores, incense. The fragrance of the incense represents the Jewish People's obligation and desire to serve Hashem in a pleasing manner. Interestingly, one of the spices, the chelbonah, galbanum, had a foul aroma. Chazal derive from here that when the community is in an eis tzarah, time of trouble, and they gather to pray, the sinners must be included in their communal prayer. Just as the chelbonah was included together with the other spices, so, too, should those, whose spiritual aroma is lacking, be included in the greater community. Everyone -- the righteous as well as those who are not yet righteous - all have a share in serving the Almighty.

We wonder why Hashem instructed us to include the galbanum if, in fact, it has a foul aroma. The purpose of the ketores is to offer up a sweet-smelling aroma to Hashem. Will not the chelbonah ruin the aroma with its foul scent? Was there no other way to teach us the overriding importance of unity? Should we ruin the aroma of the ketores just to teach a lesson?

Horav Tuvia Lisitzin, zl, gives a meaningful explanation. True, the chelbonah has a foul odor, but when it is mixed together with the other ten sweet-smelling spices, it actually has a positive effect on the final aroma. It enhances and embellishes their aroma, creating a superior sweet scent, one that would not have been as sweet had the foul-smelling chelbonah not been included.

Actually, this idea does not come as a surprise. We see it all of the time. Salt is inedible on its own, but it enhances the flavor of those foods into which it is mixed. This applies to many other spices that are not tasty or palatable on their own. They serve as condiments, enhancing and bringing out the hidden flavor of many foods. Likewise, the chelbonah has an acrid odor on its own, but when it is mixed with the other spices, it seems to bring out their best fragrance.

If Chazal have made a statement demanding the inclusion of a sinner in a public prayer service, it indicates that his presence, while deplorable on its own, is beneficial in the assembly of others. A unified Klal Yisrael, especially when it includes those who are not among its greatest supporters and performers, is a group that has tremendous power. We always talk about the power of "two." In this case, however, the power of "one," of a unified community standing together as one, has a greater effect.

You shall make it into a spice-compound, the handiwork of a perfumer, thoroughly mixed, pure and holy. (30:35)

The offering of the ketores, incense, was one of the most important avodos, services in the Mishkan. Twice daily, the Ketores -- comprised of eleven spices -- was offered on the Mizbayach HaZahav, golden altar. Preparing the Ketores was no simple task. In fact, it was one family of Kohanim, the Avtinas family, who was proficient in the proper preparation of the mixture. They refused, however, to share their expertise with anyone else. It remained in their family. For this, Chazal harshly criticized them, to the extent that following their name, they added the pasuk in Mishlei 10:7, Shem mishaim yirkav, "The name of the wicked shall rot."

How did the Avtinas family retain its monopoly? It seems that the formula for the composition of the Ketores was a secret, which the family refused to divulge. Chazal, refusing to give in to their monopoly, hired expert craftsmen from Alexandria, Egypt, to prepare the Ketores. For the most part, they did well. They were able to pulverize the correct ingredients and mix them together perfectly. They were unable, however, to make the smoke of the Ketores rise up in a straight column like a pillar. Their smoke would waft from side to side and eventually dissipate. Apparently, one ingredient was missing, the maaleh ashan, an herb which catalyzed the Ketores to rise up perfectly.

When Chazal saw that they were in a bind, so that nothing they did could match the skill and expertise of the Avitnas family perfumers, they declared, "All that the Holy One, Blessed Be He created, He created for His honor. Therefore, the House of Avitnas should return to their position." When the Avitnas family understood how indispensable they were, they refused to return to their original position unless they were given a one hundred percent raise.

Chazal were upset and demanded an explanation for their insolent and selfish behavior. The Avitnas family replied, "We have a tradition in our family that the Bais Hamikdash will one day be destroyed. We fear that given the eventuality of that day, it is possible that an unsuitable person might use the secret ingredient of maaleh ashan for the service of idols." In his commentary to the Talmud Yuma 38A, the Maharsha writes that Chazal did not believe the Avitnas Family. They felt that their true motivation was mercenary, solely for financial gain and personal aggrandizement. Thus, Chazal criticized them.

In summing up the whole story, Chazal derive an important lesson from their inability to break the monopoly this family had created for themselves. Ben Azzai says, "By your name shall they call you, and in your place shall they seat you. From your own portion they shall provide you. A person cannot encroach upon what is set aside for his fellow man." In explaining these words, Horav Avraham Pam, zl, cited by Rabbi Shalom Smith in his latest analogy of the Rosh Yeshivah's shmuessen, ethical discourses, says that a person should not worry that others might take away his livelihood. Parnassah is not a gift whose source is human. It is from Hashem, earmarked specifically for the individual. Thus, no one can take it away from him. If he is entitled to it; if Hashem has decided that it is for him, then he will receive it - without question. It is like the proverbial "money in the bank." Hashem had decreed that the Avitnas family would retain its monopoly of the Ketores production. Nothing could stand in the way of this decree - not even the machinations of Chazal.

Can we even begin to imagine how much anger, envy, bitterness and hatred we would avoid if we would integrate this reality into our psyche? It does not mean that one should lie down and allow people to step all over him, infringing on his business and property. There is a halachic code that addresses these issues. If an individual's actions are within the parameters of halachah, albeit inappropriate from a mentchlichkeit, human and ethical standpoint, then one has nothing to worry about. He will receive his, and the other individual will also receive his. This could circumvent heartache, misery and enmity. Hashem promises, and He keeps His promises. He will provide. We must be patient.

The people saw that Moshe had delayed in descending from the mountain…Go descend - for your people have become corrupt …They have strayed quickly from the way that I have commanded them. They have made themselves a molten calf. (32:1, 7-8)

Klal Yisrael's sudden descent from the spiritual high that they had achieved at the Giving of the Torah to the nadir of depravity they exhibited during the sin of the Golden Calf is perplexing, as well as tragic. Their rapid descent into the abyss of idolatry leaves us shocked. This is especially true when we consider the fact that idolatry is not a sin which one commits spontaneously. The yetzer hora, evil inclination, has to work long and hard to convince someone to worship idols. Yet, this pasuk describes an almost sudden and radical transformation from the peak of spirituality to the depth of idolatry almost in a flash.

Horav Chaim Shmuelevitz, zl, explains that people who make extreme changes in their spiritual standing on an abrupt basis are impacted by the adversity in their lives, which cause them to be more susceptible to impulsivity. The Midrash tells us that when Moshe Rabbeinu did not return at the precise moment that they had expected him to return, the people began to worry. After all, he had no food or water. How could he have survived so long? Acutely aware of the people's ambivalence, the Satan deluded them by conjuring up a vision of angels carrying Moshe's body on its way to its burial. Certain that they were being deprived of their quintessential rebbe's leadership, the people became bewildered, insecure and depressed. It was in their degenerative state of despair that the Jews became vulnerable to impulsive and mutinous degradation.

While the gradual digression to decadence is something that can happen to emotionally stable people as well, it becomes a screaming, speeding roller coaster on its downward spiral when an individual is in a state of confusion and despair. The rules are suspended, the criteria changes, as depression and ambiguity take hold of the person until he no longer has a rational control over himself. This does not mean that his predicament is insurmountable; it is only more challenging. A strong person, who is able to cope with adversity, will retain his sense of self and maintain his perspective, despite the ambiguities that rise up to obscure the truth.

Depression is not a sin, but as the Karliner Rebbe, zl, asserts, there is nothing as conducive to sinful behavior as depression. When an individual loses his ability to think rationally, anything can happen. A person's outlook becomes distorted, and that which is evil and wrong may suddenly seem to be good and acceptable behavior. This breakdown explains the sinful behavior associated with the Golden Calf. Confronted with the loss of their mentor and guide, Klal Yisrael became frightened and dejected, falling into a degenerative state of confusion. They began to fall spiritually at a rapid pace, and nothing could help them break their fall. As soon as the idea of idolatry presented itself, they became willing participants, with irrational desperation, no different from a drowning man who grasps at a straw.

. Rav Chaim points to Shlomo HaMelech as the paradigm of strength and self-control. Once, he reigned over a vast empire, but he lost his throne, becoming so destitute that Chazal say, "He reigned only over his walking stick." Yet, he came back and returned to his original position of monarchy. How did he do it? Should his downfall not have precipitated an emotional decline within him? The answer is that although he ruled only over his cane, at least he ruled over it. He retained his regal bearing. His monarchy had diminished substantially, but he was still a monarch! He used his incredible wisdom to cushion his descent, so that he would not become completely lost. He never stopped ruling, because he never lost control.

In his latest volume of "Touched by A Story," Rabbi Yechiel Spero relates the story of a wealthy individual in Yerushalayim whose financial empire suddenly took a tailspin, and he lost everything. From being one of Yerushalayim's wealthiest philanthropists, who helped support many families, he became one of its neediest. The fancy, princely garb that was once his hallmark was quickly replaced by shoddy clothing. His wife, however, continued to dress in her usual elegance, ignoring the stares and bitter responses that pursued her. It was a paradox to observe husband and wife. The husband was now a roofer, which was a position that did not require fancy clothing. His wife continued in her usual upscale, state-of-the-art clothing, as if nothing had happened to alter their financial status.

One day, Rebbetzin Chanah Levine, wife of the venerable Horav Aryeh Levine, zl, came home and told her husband, "I am so envious of that woman." She went on to explain that upon meeting her on the street, she had inquired whether everything was all right. The response came forth in a torrent of tears, as the woman began to describe her pain and misery. What hurt her most was the humiliation that her husband sustained on an almost daily basis. She saw the constant look of dejection and disgrace in his eyes. He had once been on top of the world, while now he was a poor laborer. She explained that despite the dirty looks she received and the disparaging remarks she heard behind her back, she continued to dress in her previous regal fashion. She wanted her husband to feel good that his wife dressed well, and that he was still very special. When the rebbetzin concluded her story, she looked at her husband and asked, "Do you now understand why I am envious of his wife?"

Va'ani Tefillah

Al tigu b'meshichai, u'bineviai al tareiu.
Do not touch My anointed ones, and to My prophets do no harm.

As cited in the Talmud Shabbos 119b, "My anointed ones" is a reference to tinokos shel bais rabban, young children who study Torah. Neviai, usually translated as My prophets, is defined as a reference to talmidei chachamim, Torah scholars who apparently have the potential for prophecy. Horav Zalmen Sorotzkin, zl, notes the awesome power of young children studying Torah. The verse uses the words al tigu, "do not touch," concerning children, and al tareiu, "do not harm," with regard to Torah scholars. This demonstrates the overwhelming significance that pure, innocent children have, as well as the force of the Torah. Indeed, as Horav Yeshaya Chesin, zl, grandson of one of the disciples of the Gaon zl, m'Vilna who had emigrated to Eretz Yisrael writes, the reverence attributed to their Torah study is unparalleled.

During the devastating plagues that decimated the Jewish community in Yerushalayim in the late eighteenth century, it was decided that parents and older family members leave the city to pitch tents in the vicinity of the grave of Shmuel Ha'Navi. Their children, however, were not permitted to leave, so as not to fulfill the terrible prophecy in Eichah 1:6, "Gone from the daughter of Tzion is all her splendor." Chazal say "splendor" is a reference to the children who study Torah. The parents were concerned, however, since their children were exposed to the plague, which was rampant in the Arab community whose care for physical hygiene was sorely lacking. The Gra's disciples went to the Kosel Ha'Maaravi and prayed, beseeching their revered rebbe to give them an answer through the medium of a dream. His answer came to them that night: "Do not permit the children to leave. The plague will end on Erev Shabbos during candle lighting." The Gra's reply was fulfilled.

l'zechar nishmas
our husband, father, grandfather
HaRav Daniel ben HaRav Avraham Aryeh Leib Schur
Horav Doniel Schur Z"L
niftar 21 Adar 5766
sponsored by his wife, sons, daughters
and all his family

Peninim on the Torah is in its 14th year of publication. The first nine years have been published in book form.

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