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Peninim on the Torah

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Rabbi A. Leib Scheinbaum
Hebrew Academy of Cleveland


When you take a census of the Children of Israel according to their numbers, every man shall give Hashem an atonement for his soul … there will not be a plague

Rashi explains that when Jews are counted, it is important that they not be counted individually by person; rather, they should each give a coin towards the Mishkan, and the coins will be counted. We open ourselves up to the effects of ayin hora, an evil eye. We must endeavor to understand the reasoning for this. What is the difference whether we count people or coins? Are the goals not the same?

Horav Eliyahu Lopian, zl, explains that, actually, the focus of their census varies. One who counts people does so to assess his strength and ability to succeed in war or to address other issues of security. As the numbers increase, so does his self-confidence in his ability to succeed. He becomes much more sure of himself and, thus, falls prey to the misguided belief of kochi v'otzem yadi, "my power and the strength of my hand" has accomplished all of these great achievements. It was me, me and only me.

It is not so for one who counts the coins that have been donated to the Mishkan. The focus turns to evaluating how many are dedicated and connected to Hashem. The focus is spiritual in nature and, therefore, not subject to the effects of the evil eye.

This idea presents a powerful lesson for us. Involvement in numbers is fine as long as the goal of this number is to note how many more are connected to the Almighty. If, however, the objective is to showcase one's strength and laud one's own achievements, the census taker is treading on risky ground.

Every man shall give Hashem an atonement for his soul…This shall they give - everyone who passes through the census…as a portion to Hashem. Everyone who passes through the census…shall give a portion of Hashem. The wealthy shall not increase and the destitute shall not decrease…to give the portion of Hashem. (30:12,13,14,15)

Upon perusing the text, we note the Torah's emphasis on Hashem: "A portion to Hashem;" "a portion of Hashem;" "to give the portion of Hashem." What is the significance of this? Obviously, this is being given for/to Hashem.

In the Talmud Megillah 13b, Chazal say that Hashem knew that one day the wicked Haman would deposit shekalim to destroy the Jews. Therefore, He preceeded Haman's coins with His coins (half-shekel). This is enigmatic. If the purpose of the half-shekel was to preempt Haman's shekalim, why is there a prohibition against increasing or decreasing from the half-shekel amount? Haman gave ten thousand shekalim. We should not be restricted from superceding the half-shekel. Furthermore, what was so destructive about Haman's shekalim? Since when does Heaven concern itself with ten thousand shekalim?

Horav Sholom Schwadron, zl, addresses these questions as he teaches us the rationale behind the half-shekel contribution and the significance of performing a mitzvah totally l'shem shomayim, for the sake of Heaven. He cites the incident in Melachim (2:3:27) in which Mesha, king of Moav, offered his firstborn son as a sacrifice. This event precipitated a great wrath to take effect against the Jewish People. Why should we suffer because some pagan decided to act in an utterly foolish manner, sacrificing his son to his pagan god?

This teaches us, explains Rav Sholom, that when a gentile is determined and resolute, demonstrating total commitment to his spurious ideals, by acting on behalf of his "cause," it serves as a prosecutorial grievance against us: Thus, when the wicked Haman takes out ten thousand silver shekalim from his treasury, it serves as a critique against us: "Look what the wicked Haman is willing to do in pursuit of his evil. See how far he will go. Behold his unmitigated commitment." If the gentile will do so much for something which is not even meaningful to him, how much more so should the Jewish People do for the Torah, which is their lifeblood.

The difference between a mitzvah performed lishmah, for its own sake, and one performed by rote, without aforethought, is great. Likewise, explains Rav Sholom, there is no comparison between an aveirah, sin, committed lishmah, for its own sake, with malice and intent to destroy and defame with passion and fervor, and one that is committed half-heartedly, for no apparent reason. Haman exemplified dedication to evil. He sinned with enthusiasm, zest and passion. His hatred for the Jewish People was so intense that he was prepared to relieve his coffers of a huge sum of money - if that is what it took to destroy the Jews. This is an aveirah lishmah at its nadir!

This aveirah, which was committed with such ardor, stood as a glaring denunciation of our own commitment for positive action in service of the Almighty. Therefore, in anticipation of Haman's actions, Hashem commanded us to contribute a half shekel solely l'shem shomayim, as a way of undermining the effect of Haman's shekalim. The machatzis ha'shekel had one purpose: mitzvah lishmah. Thus, each Jew had to contribute a prescribed amount - no more, no less - because the striking aspect of a mitzvah carried out lishmah is the attention to following every detail. Often for an aveirah lishmah, one will spend everything, do whatever he can do, go all out, to commit a sin. Not so, when it comes to a mitzvah. A commandment is to be followed according to the command. The greater the adherence to every minute detail of the command, without any form of deviation, the more it elevates the "lishmah" of one's actions. Following the command to the letter is the true litmus test of commitment.

This lesson applies to us today as well. When we look at the fervor, unremitting and relentless dedication to evil, that personifies our enemies, it makes us wonder. Do we express a similar devotion to our positive ideals? Is our mitzvah observance expressed with such enthusiasm? Is there a similar passion to our Jewishness? If we circumvent the effect of "Haman's" shekalim, we must raise and qualify our own level of commitment.

You must observe My Shabbosos
You shall observe the Shabbos

The Bnei Yisrael shall observe the Shabbos. (31:13,14,16)

Shemiras Shabbos, observing Shabbos, is a term which is used constantly regarding the mitzvah of Shabbos. Chazal derive lessons from each time the word shemirah, observe, is used. From the word tishmoru, you must observe, they glean that one is enjoined in shvus, those acts of labor that are not prohibited in their own right, but rather because they enable one to transgress an actual melachah, act of labor.

The pasuk of u'shemartem, you shall observe, followed by v'shamru, and (Bnei Yisrael) shall observe, teaches us that pikuach nefesh, saving a life, docheh es ha'Shabbos, literally pushes away, overrides, the Shabbos. The Torah is telling us, "Desecrate one Shabbos, so that you will live to observe many others." All of these pesukim are written with the word shemirah, which-- according to the author of the Torah Temimah-- means safeguard: make a fence around the Shabbos; do what you must to see to it that Shabbos is observed.

Horav Eliyahu Schlessinger, Shlita, feels that Shemiras Shabbos is no different than the halachos that apply to shomrim, watchmen. According to the Torah, the responsibility of the shomer, watchman, is commensurate with the degree of shemirah he accepts upon himself. If he does not treat the animal or object properly, he is liable for damages to the animal or those incurred by the animal. For a shomer to be completely patur, free of liability, there has to have been an accident that was beyond his control. Otherwise, we consider his shemirah, watching, as being deficient.

Shemiras Shabbos must be carried out in a manner in which there is no lapse whatsoever in the attention we pay to Shabbos. When one approaches Shabbos with such an attitude, then his shemirah, observance, of the holy day is complete, and he will not be negligent in its observance. Furthermore, since Shemiras Shabbos mandates one to be meticulous in thinking about Shabbos, ensuring that nothing occurs that would undermine his sense of Shabbos, one can never say lo yodati, "I did not know the halacha." This is not an excuse. If one is truly observant, he makes it his business to know the law.

Rav Schlessinger relates the following incident that occurred concerning the Brisker Rav, zl, which gives us insight into the meaning of "observing Shabbos." It was the beginning of World War II. The Brisker Rav and a number of other distinguished Jews had an opportunity to obtain passage on a ship leaving Odessa for Eretz Yisrael. The Rav was in Moscow; the ship was leaving on Motzei Shabbos from Odessa; the train from Moscow to Odessa was a two day trip, which left on Wednesday afternoon.

They would arrive in Odessa on Erev Shabbos, in the afternoon, if the train arrived on time. The Brisker Rav was not inclined to take a chance at arriving on Shabbos in case the train was late, an almost certain possibility, given the manner in which the Russian railroad was operated. When the Rav articulated his serious misgivings, the president of the shul in Moscow, who just happened to be a communist sympathizer, spoke up and said, "Rebbe, this is a question of life and death. One does not know what tomorrow might bring. It is best that the Rav take advantage of the earliest opportunity to escape." The Rav listened and, with a heavy heart, acquiesced to leave on the train.

The train left on time. Three hours into the trip, it was already running late. The Brisker Rav was extremely agitated. The thought of arriving on Shabbos and having to disembark the train on the holy day was just too much for him to handle. If the train kept up its "timely" schedule, they would arrive one day later than planned. Things certainly did not look very promising. Suddenly, the train began picking up speed. As it traveled faster, it began to make up for lost time until it arrived in Odessa on Friday afternoon, on time.

No one could understand how this abrupt change in schedule had transpired. It was as if a miracle had occurred. Rabbi Eliezer Yehudah Finkel, zl, the Mirrer Rosh Yeshivah, who was also part of the entourage, supported this idea. It was clearly a miracle performed for the sake of the Brisker Rav, because shemiras Shabbos meant so much to him.

Hashem smote the people with a plague because they had made the calf… "Go ascend from here, you and the people whom You brought up from the land of Egypt. And I will send an angel before you…for I will not ascend in your midst, for you are a stiff-necked people…" The people heard this bad tiding and they grieved…He said, "My face shall go and I shall provide you rest." (32:35) (33:1,2,3,4,14)

After Klal Yisrael perpetrated the sin of the Golden Calf, and the offenders were punished, Hashem said that He would not ascend with them to Eretz Yisrael. The quality of the Jewish People's stiff-neckedness rendered them unworthy to have Hashem's Presence in their midst. Rashi explains that their stiff-neckedness did not directly render them unworthy, but rather it is a trait that might cause Hashem to become enraged with them in the course of their journey, which might lead to their annihilation. Therefore, it was best for their own sake for Hashem to send an angel to accompany them.

Immediately upon hearing this disheartening news, the people reacted as expected: vayisablu, "they grieved." Rashi adds that the people were now divested of the spiritual crowns that they had received when they declared, "We will do before we will listen." At that point, sixty myriad ministering angels descended and wove the crowns for each Jew: one for "we will do," and one for "we will listen." When they sinned, however, one hundred twenty myriad destructive angels descended and removed the crowns. This was all part of the Heavenly response to their sin.

When we note the text a few pesukim later, we see a startling revelation. Hashem rescinded His decree, and said that He would no longer send an angel, but rather, He would go and accompany the nation. We wonder what occurred to change Hashem's decree. There seems to be no indication of Klal Yisrael repenting. We also do not find Moshe Rabbeinu interceding on their behalf. We only find a decree for punishment which is shortly abrogated. What caused this annulment?

Horav Yosef Dov Soloveitchik, zl, of Brisk, explains that the key to this puzzle can be found in pasuk seven which states: "Moshe would take the tent and pitch it outside the camp, far from the camp, and he called it Ohel Moed, Tent of Meeting; and it would be that whoever would seek Hashem, would go out to the Tent of Meeting." Herein lies the resolution to our query. Targum Onkeles defines Tent of Meeting here as bais ulpanah, house of study, while in other places, he defines it as Mishkan Zimnah, temporary sanctuary. The Tent of Meeting was, as Rashi describes it, a place where those who were mevakeish Hashem, who wished to receive instruction in the Torah, would go and study. There were people who thirsted for-- and demanded-- the word of Hashem. They wanted to study Hashem's Torah from Moshe.

This atoned for Klal Yisrael's insurrection with the Golden Calf. When Moshe moved his tent out of the camp, an insatiable thirst for Torah developed among the people, and they followed Moshe outside the perimeter. This thirst was an indication that intrinsically the Jews seek and thirst for Hashem. Their sin was an extrinsic deficit, catalyzed by the mixed multitude and their own apathy. In reality, Klal Yisrael were not sinners; they were not evil; they could once again be accepted favorably. When a person is a mevakeish, someone who seeks Hashem with all his heart, he demonstrates his true essence, and Hashem supports and enables him to achieve greater, more exalted, levels of knowledge and spirituality.

Being a mevakeish stems from an individual's perception that Hashem and His Torah are all that exist. Nothing else counts; nothing else has significance. Horav Yeshaya Berdaki, zl, was the son-in-law of Horav Yisrael,zl, m'Shklov, a primary disciple of the Gaon, zl, m'Vilna. Rav Yisrael went with a group of the Gaon's students to Eretz Yisrael. When Rav Yeshaya followed his father-in-law to the Holy Land, he experienced a trip that was fraught with peril and tribulation.

Rav Yeshaya was traveling with his young son and daughter when the ship was battered by a storm of hurricane proportion. Their boat was battered by gale-force winds and waves that came crashing down on the fragile boat. Suddenly, a powerful wave slammed against the boat, shattering it, and catapulting its hapless passengers into the stormy sea. There were no lifeboats or life jackets. All Rav Yeshaya could do was instruct his two children to climb up on his back and hold on for dear life as he swam in the direction of land.

After two hours of grueling paddling in the water, the human life raft was about to give up. Rav Yeshaya could go on no longer. His body was spent; his arms were practically numb; and it was suicidal to continue bearing the weight of both children. He had to make a terrible decision. If he continued, they would all drown. If he left one child, he might save the other and himself. Under such circumstances, the male, who has more mitzvos, takes precedence. He was now faced with the lamentable decision of telling his young daughter that he must leave her.

With a heavy heart and weeping profusely, he told his daughter that only one of his children could go on - and that one was to be her brother. The little girl did not understand. "Abba, Abba, why are you letting me go? Why are you doing this?" she wailed. "I have no choice," cried the grief stricken father. "Please, Abba, do not let me go! I have no father other than you. Why are you doing this to me?" she begged.

When Rav Yeshaya heard the words, "I have no father other than you," his heart would not let go of his daughter. He had to try to swim with both of his children. He swam and swam with superhuman strength until he finally reached the shore. Then he passed out.

When he came to, Rav Yeshaya, obviously shaken, looked at his daughter and said, "My child, remember your entire life what has transpired today. You certainly know that my decision to leave you was the most difficult decision of my life. You wept, and I wept, but there was no other choice. When you expressed yourself with the words, 'I have no father other than you,' however, it left such a powerful impression on me that I was motivated to try beyond hope and swim for it.

"Remember this lesson throughout your life. Whenever you are in a situation that seems hopeless, remember: Do not give up hope. Turn to Hashem and cry. Entreat Him with all of your heart and tell Him the exact same words that you said to me: 'I have no father other than You.' You must help me, because there is no one else but You, Hashem." A father can not turn away from his child - if the child is sincere. Some of us turn to Hashem as out Father only after we have exhausted all of our other 'fathers.' He alone is our source of salvation. He is our only Father.

Va'ani Tefillah

Yehi kovod Hashem l'olam yismach Hashem b'maasav
May the glory of Hashem endure forever.

This mizmor consists of eighteen pesukim, with Hashem's Name being mentioned nineteen times. This alludes to the tefillah of Shemoneh Esrai which originally had eighteen brachos, blessings, and a nineteenth was later added. The entire Psalm reflects the state of the world in the time of Moshiach. The creations of the world give honor to the Almighty when they observe His command. One day, in the near future, this will occur, as the entire world will recognize Hashem.

This prayer is both a prayer and an affirmation of our duty. We pray and hope that one day all men will recognize the glory of Hashem. We also affirm that regardless of the circumstances, we will persist in our own commitment to recognize and elevate the glory of Hashem, so that others who have not yet achieved this sense of understanding will do so. Horav Avigdor Miller, zl, adds that this affirmation also focuses upon the individual's obligation to ensure that his children acknowledge and glorify Hashem.

l'zchus u'l'refuah sheleima
Baruch ben Sara Chasia
b'soch she'ar cholei yisrael

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