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Peninim on the Torah

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Rabbi A. Leib Scheinbaum
Hebrew Academy of Cleveland


They have strayed quickly from the way that I have commanded them; they have made themselves a molten calf. (32:8)

The eigel rebellion, in which a group of mutineers led the Jewish People to create a Golden Calf, is recognized as one of our people's darkest moments. What makes it more egregious is that it took place a mere forty days after they had accepted the Torah amid a resounding declaration of Naase v'Nishma, "We will do and we will listen!" In the Midrash Rabbah, Chazal compare this incident to a servant who has been given two very expensive goblets. "Please take great care with these goblets. They are very precious," the king said to the servant. Understandably, the servant took great pains to take care of the goblets. Regrettably, as he walked into the palace carrying the goblets, a calf that was situated by the door gored the servant, causing him to drop one of the goblets. It shattered. The servant was beside himself with fear of the king. He had no choice but to tell his master what had happened to one of his precious goblets. Shaking, he waited for the king's reply, "I gave you two goblets. Now one of them is gone. Take special care of the other one." Likewise, Hashem told the Jewish People, "You poured two 'goblets' at Sinai - one for Naase, 'We will do'; and the other for Nishma, 'We will listen.' You have already lost one of them. Take great care not to lose the other."

Two precious gifts became part of the nation's heritage: naase, representing mitzvah observance: and nishma, which is a reference to limud, study of Torah. When Bnei Yisrael sinned with eigal ha'zahav, they "broke" the naase. The gift of mitzvah observance was destroyed. Hashem said, "Be careful with the second!" Horav Shimshon Pincus, zl, quotes from an adam gadol, distinguished Torah scholar that following the sin of the Golden Calf, the primary function and purpose of a Jew is to study Torah. No minute should pass devoid of Torah study. If we were to "lose" this second precious goblet, we would be "finished."

Rav Pincus notes that this idea is quite evident in recent years, as young people have returned to their Jewish roots and embraced their heritage. Shabbos, kashrus, Tefillin and mitzvah observance, however, are not the end. If the people will not be availed opportunities for Torah study, there is a possibility that even the mitzvah observance will eventually wane. In order to maintain a baal teshuvah's spiritual consistency, to see to it that he completes his journey of return, one must see to it that Torah study is an integral part of his life. This is the essence of our relationship with Hashem, which extends to all Jews across the board. To focus on anything less is to court disaster.

This is how Jews of old lived. Their primary focus was Torah study, early in the morning, late at night; it was all about Torah study. It was their geshmak, sense of satisfaction. Veritably, there was little else - no sports, electronic media, be it for entertainment or "business." They had their Gemorah. Thus, they needed little else. Were they "simple" Jews? We should be so simple.

Yehoshua heard the sound of the people in its shouting, and he said to Moshe, "The sound of battle is in the camp." (32:17)

Moshe Rabbeinu could discern the true nature of the sounds that emanated from the Jewish camp. While Yehoshua thought it to be the people's response to an aggressive attack, Moshe, the quintessential leader, understood that the cacophony of sound was an indication that the people were actually enjoying their blatant rebellion against Hashem. Celebrating the blasphemous and immoral behavior which accompanied their worship of the molten calf conveyed to Moshe a depressing message: these people were enjoying their sinfulness. It is very difficult to bring about change in a person who rejoices and luxuriates in the filth of his iniquity.

This is one approach to understanding the shouting that came from the camp. Targum Yonasan ben Uziel writes: Kad me'yabvin b'chedva kadam eglah, "As they wailed with joy before the calf." The choice of words me'yabvin, related to yevavah, wailing, seems misplaced. If they were having a "good time," where does yevavah enter the picture? A kol yevavah, wailing sound, is used to describe the blowing of the teruah sound with the Shofar, an activity that does anything but catalyze joyful response.

The Mirrer Mashgiach, Horav Yeruchem Levovitz, zl, derives a powerful lesson from here - one that we should reflect upon over and over. Anyone who has savored the taste of Torah, who has imbibed Torah lessons either during his youth in a yeshivah setting, a bais medrash, a shul - even if he later, Heaven forbid, were to reject his learning, his surroundings, his Torah-oriented life - will never fully appreciate a life of sin. The taste of sin, the taste for which some feel it is worth rejecting everything for which our people have lived and died, this taste will forever elude him. This is what Torah does for the one who learns it: it has destroyed the taste of sin. He will no longer enjoy his transgression. Something will always be tugging at him, reminding him: This is not for you; you are better than this.

The question that presents itself is: How do we reconcile the peshatim, interpretations, which reflect two extreme perspectives on Klal Yisrael's sin? Sforno feels that the joy destroyed them. The debauchery accompanied with frivolity, the dancing and out-of-control lewd behavior, sealed their fate. Targum Yonasan claims that they "wailed" joyfully. Their joy was not real. It was a "put on."

Perhaps we just view this pragmatically. Whenever someone does something wrong and deep down it bothers him, he manifests an air of indifference, even joy, to show that he does not care, but he is crying inside! I do not believe that those who, as a result of "circumstances," made poor choices in their lives, thus causing the alienation and eventual extinction of their future progeny from a life of Torah, are really proud of their decision. They cry bitter tears constantly! It is difficult to cry in public and proclaim publicly, "I erred. I was a fool." Instead, they laugh and romp. It is all a miserable fa?ade. We may see what appears to be laughter, but they are really wailing.

"Show me now Your Glory"… "You will see My back, but My face may not be seen." (Shemos 33:18, 23)

The question: "Why do bad things happen to good people?" has plagued man from time immemorial. To the individual who does not believe in an All-good, Omniscient, and Omnipotent G-d, this question remains unanswered. If Hashem is not all-good, He could do evil and even enjoy inflicting it on others. If the Almighty is not Omniscient, bad things could easily occur, since He does not know everything that is taking place in the world which He created. Last, if G-d is not Omnipotent, then bad things could just happen, because forces exist in the world which are beyond His control. So, clearly, the believing Jew does not question things of this nature, because for him the Thirteen Principles of Faith, the Ani Maamin, is a reality, a verity of verities, which remains the bedrock of Jewish Faith. As the famous dictum goes, "For the believer, there are no questions. For the non-believer, there are no answers." With this premise in mind, we can take an intellectual approach to suffering, tragedy, and to all events which are beyond our ability to comprehend. The answers remain theoretical, since we truly must understand that no human being is able to understand Hashem's ways, nor should any human being expect a cognitive appreciation of Hashem. That idea undermines the very basis of humanity with its limited vision, versus the spiritual with its unlimited scope.

This does not mean that questioning is not good. On the contrary, one should question - himself. Events in our life are not random accidents. Indeed, the word coincidence does not belong in the lexicon of the believing Jew. The very notion of coincidence is heretical. If one believes in an All-knowing, All-powerful, All-good G-d, nothing, as the popular contemporary clich? declares, "just happens." Let me take a moment to share with the reader a fundamental truth expounded by Horav Moshe Chaim Luzzatto, zl, in his Daas Tevunos. I paraphrase:

"One who believes in G-d's Oneness and understands its implications must believe that Hakadosh Baruch Hu is one, single, and unique Being, subject to no impediment or restraint whatsoever. He alone dominates all; there is no other beneath Him who exercises any dominion in the world. He alone supervises all of His creatures individually, and nothing transpires in this world except through His will and agency. There is no chance, no nature, no constellation. It is Hashem Who governs all of the earth and all that is in it. He alone decrees all that is to be done."

This perspective gives our life meaning, as it grants us the ability to accept that Hashem's guiding hand is an active part of our life. We are never alone, nor does something just happen. It is all from Hashem. Why? That is a question that, for the most part, we are unable to answer. The need to understand, demanding answers to every ambiguous situation, every question, suggests that the individual considers himself great enough to demand what he feels is his inherent right to be privy to G-d's Divine plan for the world. It does not work that way. Hashem owes us nothing; we owe Him everything. It is as simple as that. Our brains lack the capacity for understanding the ways of the Creator Who created us. As the Kotzker Rebbe, zl, was wont to say, "I could never believe in a G-d whom I could understand."

Living a life where everything is based upon good fortune, chance, or coincidence, reduces the meaningfulness of life. When we ignore Hashem's Divine messages, relegating them to coincidence, we are robbing ourselves of meaning, inspiration, and the ability to maximize our potential. Hashem "talks" to us constantly. At times, it is a subtle message, while at other times it is a powerful wake-up call. When we ignore His call by saying it was bad fortune, we waste our greatest opportunity for spiritual growth and closeness with Hashem.

We are all here for a purpose, to carry out our own personal mission. We are part of a large picture, a collective destiny, all fitting together in one tapestry of events as a component of Hashem's Divine plan for the perfection of the world. One day we will all be privy to clarity of vision, when the veils of ambiguity will be lifted, and we will see that what we thought was "bad" was inherently "good", and what was perceived as chastisement and tribulation were actually the precursors and evolution of blessing.

It is with the above in mind, that I return to our stated pasuk in which Moshe Rabbeinu asked Hashem, Hareini na es Kevodecha, "Show me now Your Glory," to which Hashem responded, "Behold there is a place near Me; you may stand on the rock. When My glory passes by, I shall place you in a cleft of the rock; I shall shield you with My hand until I have passed. Then I shall remove My hand - V'raissa es Achorai, u'panai lo yeirau - "and you will see My back, but My face may not be seen" (33:21-23).

The Chasam Sofer explains Moshe's request, and Hashem's reply, allegorically. Moshe was asking the age-old question: "Why are there righteous who suffer and wicked people who prosper?" This question has befuddled the minds of many as they seek an answer to a question that can only be elucidated from a vantage point beyond the human realm of cognition. Hashem replied, "My face cannot be seen - I can only be seen from the back." What does this mean? Chasam Sofer explains that seeing Hashem's face up front is an allusion to understanding life's events as they take place. Man is incapable of understanding an event while it is happening. Thus, the idea of the righteous suffering while the wicked prosper is an anomaly beyond man's ability to grasp. Only when man "stands with G-d" and has an all-encompassing perspective of the entirety of history - from the beginning of time, until the End of Days - will he have the ability to comprehend things in context, and then appreciate everything that Hashem did. "Seeing from the back" is a reference to hindsight. Only in retrospect can man have the clarity of vision to see and understand. To expect it all now - in the present - is nonsensical. To make theological decisions based upon one's current perspective is heretical.

Horav Yissocher Frand cites the Kol Arye in the introduction to his Teshuvos, Responsa, where the author elaborates on this subject, availing us greater insight and inspiration: As Yaakov Avinu was about to descend to Egypt, Hashem appeared to him and said, "I am G-d, G-d of your father. Have no fear of descending to Egypt, for I shall establish you as a great nation there. I shall descend with you to Egypt, and I shall also surely bring you up; and Yosef shall place his hand on your eyes" (Bereishis 46:3, 4). The Zohar makes a cryptic comment concerning the words, "And Yosef shall place his hand on your eyes." He says, "This is what the secret of Krias Shema is all about."

In order to give meaning to the Zohar, Kol Arye cites Chazal in the Talmud Pesachim 50a who make the following statement: Rav Acha bar Chanina distinguishes between This World and Olam Haba, the World to Come - the world of truth. In This World when one hears good news, he recites the blessing of Ha'tov u'meitiv, "Blessed is the One Who is good and does good." If he hears bad news, he blesses, Dayon Ha'Emes, "the True Judge." In the World to Come, regardless of the tidings, the blessing is always Ha'tov u'meitiv, "Who is good and does good." This, explain Chazal, is the meaning of the pasuk in Zechariah 14:9, V'hayah Hashem l'Melech al kol ha'aretz; ba'yom hahu, yiheyeh Hashem Echad u'Shemo Echad, "And Hashem will be King over the entire world; on that day His Name will be One and He will be One."

In his commentary Tzlach, to Meseches Pesachim, Horav Yechezkel Landau, explains that life in This World is fraught with what appears to us both as "bad" and conversely, as "good" tidings. While we pray for events that are filled with joy and hope, nonetheless, we are privy to events that are tragic and heartbreaking. A Jew must believe that ultimately everything is for the good. Indeed, tzaddikim, the righteous, throughout the millennia have uttered the words Gam zu l'tovah, "This is also for the best." I underscore the tzaddikim, because this is not the attitude of the average Jew. For most of us, we see "bad" and "good." It takes enormous conviction to view what clearly appears as "bad" through the prism of optimism and positiveness. In The World to Come, it will make sense as our perspective widens and deepens, creating a clarity of vision that in This World, with its restrictions of time, make it impossible to perceive. Then, it will all be good, allowing us to declare, without reservation, the blessing of Ha'tov u'meitiv, for all occurrences.

The belief that Hashem always does good is the underlying message of the Krias Shema. Our most seminal prayer, the prayer which connotes our kabbolas ol Malchus Shomayim, acceptance of the yoke of the Heavenly Kingdom, and the last words a Jew utters prior to leaving This World, is the Shema Yisrael, Hashem Elokeinu, Hashem Echad. This declaration of the unity of G-d, tells it all. How?

The Name Hashem - Yud, Kay, Vav, Kay - has a different connotation than the name Elokim, with the latter reflecting the Almighty acting as the Divine Judge, applying the Attribute of Din, Strict Justice, and the former reflecting Middas HaRachamim, Divine Mercy. Thus, the Shema Yisrael prayer expresses the belief that: Hear O' Yisrael, Hashem = Mercy and Elokeinu = Justice are one, echad - one and the same! We have one G-d. He sometimes appears merciful, and other times acts like a strict judge. But, how do we ignore the bad, the tragic, the painful? How do we overlook the depressing, the heartbreaking, the nerve-shattering experiences of life? We cover our eyes. We do this so we will not see the various troubles appearing right before our eyes, so that we can affirm our faith - attesting to our full conviction in the unity of G-d - without any impediment. At least symbolically, we do not see the tribulations before us.

The Kol Arye uses Yosef's experience as an example of this verity. His life, albeit miserable for many years, ended on a high point. Upon looking back in retrospect, Yosef was able to say, it was all "good"! Thus Hashem told Yaakov, "Do not fear descending into Egypt, with the doom and gloom of the upcoming exile overshadowing your every move. Yosef will place his hands over your eyes." This is the secret of the Krias Shema. We see from Yosef that it all works out - that "Hashem" and "Elokeinu" are One. But, what about the present tragedy - "cover your eyes."

After all is said and done, what does the individual who is not yet on the spiritual plateau of belief that everything is inherently good - do? If one cannot believe - he should attempt to at least learn from the experience. Transform tragedy into hope. When bad things happen, apply them to sensitize yourself to the plight of others. Rather than live with the compelling question of "Why?" one should say, "I will not succumb to this misery. Instead, I will reach out to others." Everything that occurs happens for a purpose. There are no spiritual vacuums. Seize the opportunities to turn tragedy into triumph and hope, and to strengthen one's affirmation of belief in Hashem.

Hashem, Hashem G-d, Merciful and Compassionate, Slow to Anger, and Abundant in Kindness and Truth. (34:6)

When Klal Yisrael stood at the foot of Har Sinai, they pledged their eternal devotion to Hashem with their seminal declaration of Naase v'Nishma, "We will do and we will listen!" Their obedience to the Almighty and His Torah was affirmed and ratified with these words. Alas, forty days later, they broke their trust by betraying their promise, instead offering their allegiance to a molten calf of their own creation. This marked the nadir of disloyalty. Hashem stated His wish to put an end to this recalcitrant people. Such people did not deserve a commutation of Hashem's desired decree. Moshe Rabbeinu's impassioned pleas on their behalf brought about a second chance for his nascent nation. Hashem turned His anger to mercy. The climax of the pardon came as Hashem passed before Moshe and revealed to him the Thirteen Attributes of Mercy, Yud Gimel Middos Shel Rachamim.

Chazal describe the scene and ensuing dialogue. The Talmid Rosh Hashanah 17a states, "Rabbi Yochanan said: The Torah teaches us that Hashem wrapped Himself in a Tallis like a chazzan and showed Moshe the order of the prayer. Hashem said to him, 'Whenever Yisrael sins, let them perform this order of service and I will forgive them…'" Chazal continue with the notion that a covenant has been struck that the Thirteen Attributes are never turned back unanswered.

The Brisker Rav, zl, explains the nature of this covenant. He explains that it is as if Hashem had gathered an enormous cache of mercy. Hashem would forever withdraw "mercy" from this treasure trove. Thus, whatever was needed to respond to Klal Yisrael's invocation of the Thirteen Attributes would be available for disbursement. Therefore, when a plea for mercy is accompanied with the Yud Gimel Middos, it is answered because there is ample supply of mercy available for those in need.

Obviously, there is more to the meaning of the Yud Gimel Middos and their exceptional powers than meets the eye. The Reishis Chochmah, Shaar Ha'Anavah observes that Hashem was deliberate in saying Yaasu lefanai, "Let them perform before Me" this order or service. He did not say Yomru lefanai, "Let them say before Me." Simple recitation of the Thirteen Attributes will not effect Divine pardon. A Jew must act in accordance with Hashem's Attributes. He must follow in His ways: Ma Hu Rachum - Af atah rachum - "As He is merciful, so shall you be merciful." In their relationship with their fellow man, they must conduct themselves with a degree of mercy worthy of Hashem's Divine mercy. Thus, the Yud Gimel Middos serve as a map, offering directions on how a Jew should emulate the Almighty.

The Shalah HaKadosh (Shaar HaOsios) perceives man's fulfillment of the Yud Gimel Middos as a cardinal act of faith. He demonstrates how the Thirteen Attributes of Mercy correspond with the Thirteen Attributes of Faith. The individual who melds his entire being in consonance with the Heavenly model/standard of mercy achieves an unprecedented level of emunah, faith, in the Almighty.

Thus, if someone were to insult, degrade, humiliate, curse him, he should accept this degradation with love. The realization that the offender is nothing more than Hashem's Agent - who is acting out a mission to cleanse and purify him from past sins - makes this humiliating experience not only palatable, but embracing.

Mah Hu - Af atah. "As He is - so should you be." Forgiveness takes incredible resolution and strength of character. At times, the reluctance to "bury the hatchet," so to speak, stems from one's desire to save face, to exact some form of revenge. This is especially true when the damage inflicted is traumatic, emotional, when someone has humiliated him in such a manner in which the hurt remains, the pain perseveres. If someone is not forgiving, does it make him a miserable person, an unworthy person? So he is not G-d-like! Is that not why G-d is G-d, and we are but human beings, subject to human frailty?

I came across a story that puts it all into perspective. The dichotomy between man and the Divine is an unfathomable gap, but, if one does not make the attempt to close this aperture by emulating the Divine, well, he should not personally expect treatment that is any different from the one he renders to others.

A talmid chacham, Torah scholar of note, was deeply humiliated by a member of the community in which he lived. The hurt was overwhelming, the pain staggering. This was a scholar who was a fine, unassuming individual, but this was an exceptional situation - or so he felt. A few days after the incident, he received a note from the offender expressing his regret, claiming that he had "lost it" and gone too far. Could the scholar find it in his heart the ability to forgive him? The scholar was too hurt to even continue reading the note. So many things went through his mind, as he remembered the humiliation, the emotional pain that had accompanied him wherever he went. There was no way he could - or would - forgive the offender, regardless of how many notes he would send. This was an infraction that he simply could not ignore. As he was about to tear up the note and place it in its "rightful" place in the wastebasket, his wife interceded. He was blessed with a wise woman who was less emotionally involved in this incident, affording a perspective variant to that of her husband. "Do not tear up the note!" she said. "Save it and place it between the pages of your Siddur. During Shemonah Esrai, when you stand in supplication before Hashem, reciting the blessing of S'lach lanu Avinu, ki chatanu, m'chal lanu Malkeinu, ki fashanu. "Forgive us, Our Father, for we have sinned; Pardon us, our King, for we have sinned willfully," remove the note and say to Hashem, "Ribbono Shel Olam, Master of the world, it is so difficult for me to forgive and forget the emotional distress which someone caused me. I have suffered indescribable pain as a result of his iniquity; yet, I found it in my heart to forgive him b'lev shaleim, with a complete heart. I went against my innate nature, because it was the correct thing to do. Therefore, I ask You, Hashem, to likewise forgive me for my sins and transgressions."

When someone hurts us, our relationship with Hashem is probably the last thing that comes to our mind. It should not be. Emulating Hashem means just that. We should expect no less from ourselves than that for which we entreat Hashem.

L'Keil Baruch neimos yiteinu.
Hu levado po'el gevuros.

They give forth sweet melodies in praise of Him Whom they have defined as Baruch… He alone performs mighty deeds.

Applying Horav Shimon Schwab's zl, interpretation of this prayer is both meaningful and practical. We have explained that the previous declaration made by the malachim was one of awe, in which they see the Kadosh, Kadosh, Kadosh of Hashem's indescribable holiness come into the proximity of mimkomo, His place. How do we reconcile these two descriptions: Hashem far removed; Hashem extending His Divinity further from wherever He is, so that He comes closer and closer to His creations - both spiritual and physical? The brachah of Yotzer Ohr continues with a description of the unique perception these spiritual creatures have of Hashem, Whom they now describe as Baruch. The term Baruch, as taken from Baruch kavod Hashem mimkomo, is a reference to Hashem's close proximity to His creations, and how this relates to the physical world.

The malachim begin with a recognition that Hu levado po'el gevuros, the mighty deeds, inventions and achievements of the human race throughout time are all the result of Hashem. Man is merely an instrument. Hashem has granted man the intelligence, the energy, the drive, the ingenuity to conquer the physical, so that we may execute the act. The ability to perform that execution and everything that is its precursor originates with Hashem.

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

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