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Peninim on the Torah

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Rabbi A. Leib Scheinbaum
Hebrew Academy of Cleveland


You shall observe the Shabbos, for it is holy to you. (31:14)

Shabbos is to the Jew much more than a mitzvah imperative. Shabbos is a holy day, consecrated from the beginning of time by the Almighty Himself. This is an idea which we often do not consider. If Hashem made this day holy, what right do we mortals have to desecrate it? People tend to offer two common excuses/answers to this question. First, "I do not care." This is the response of the individual who disregards the Torah. It has no bearing on his life. Such a person simply does not fit into the equation. He has written himself off from the Torah. He has divorced himself from the centerpiece, the nucleus, of Judaism. Second, is the Jew who claims to be a Jew at heart. He cares, but it is difficult for him to accept the yoke of mitzvos. He is a sort of non-practicing Jew. Regrettably, he is very much like a flashlight without its battery. It is still called a flashlight - but, without the battery, what function does it have?

If we keep in mind that Shabbos is holy and that devout Jews embrace this idea, we will better understand and appreciate the following vignettes: One Shabbos morning Horav Avraham, zl, m'Kopichnitz was walking to the Mikveh, to immerse himself prior to davening. He chanced upon two young Jewish men who were not wearing headgear (hat or a yarmulke) standing outside the Mikveh. One of them held a lit cigarette between his fingers. The righteous Kopichnitzer turned to him and said, "I do not know you well, but I am certain that within your chest pounds a good Jewish heart. If you would realize how much pain you are causing me by smoking on Shabbos, you would surely not smoke."

The young man was moved by the Rebbe's sincerity, and immediately disposed of the cigarette. His friend, however, was not so acquiescent. "If we want to smoke, what is it your business? We are not in Europe. This is a free country. If I have no problem with your Shabbos observance, why then should you deprive me of my pleasure?"

The Rebbe smiled, "I recognize you, too," he said. "You also have a good heart. If you see someone fall and hurt himself, you would immediately run to help him. Why? Why do you simply not say, 'This is a free country, I do not have to help him!' You should know that one who profanes Shabbos breaks not only his leg; he endangers his entire spiritual dimension. He is punished with Heavenly excision. If I walk down the street and notice a Jew bleeding to death - will I not do everything to save him? Surely, I would be wrong to say, 'It is a free country!'"

The young man understood fully well where the Rebbe was going with his critique. "Rebbe, what should I do?" he asked.

"Keep Shabbos, observe it properly." The Rebbe said.

"I cannot do that. I already take off on Sunday. There is no way I can be free for two days."

"I understand," said the Rebbe, "but, at least, observe this Shabbos." The young man acquiesced and observed that Shabbos. Sometime later, he visited the Rebbe and said, "Once I observed that one Shabbos, my entire outlook was altered, and I now accept upon myself to observe Shabbos every week."

The second story takes us back seventy years to the Lodz Ghetto. Unique among Polish cities, Lodz was able to secure an agreement with the accursed Nazis to allow its Jewish citizens to work for the Third Reich. In return, the city would be designated as a labor camp, rather than an extermination camp. This, of course, did not prevent its inhabitants from succumbing to starvation, deprivation of health, infection and disease. Furthermore, every once in a while, the Nazis selected the infirm and sickly and sent them away to the dread extermination camps. So, yes, Lodz was not as dreadful a ghetto as the others, but it was a ghetto no less, and far from a happy place. In 1944, when it was clear that the tide had turned against them, the Nazis saw the Russians breathing down their necks and poised for an attack on Lodz, they began liquidating a good portion of the Jewish population. In the end, only 10,000 Jews remained in this once beautiful Jewish city.

There was a factory in Lodz which, prior to the occupation, had belonged to a Jew. Now it was under Nazi control. Its workers, however, were all Jewish. Among the workers was an individual who was nicknamed Reb Shabbos, because he related everything to Shabbos. Each day of the week was Shabbos related - either to the previous Shabbos or to the coming Shabbos. No one knew his origins. They knew only that his knowledge of Judaism seemed to be limited, but his knowledge and passion concerning Shabbos were prodigious.

Now that the Nazis had assumed ownership of the factory, the work week included Shabbos. This troubled Reb Shabbos, who rallied the men around him saying, "If we work an hour or two extra each day, we will fill our quota without having to work on Shabbos." His suggestion was accepted. The workers would show up on Shabbos at the designated time, but, instead of working, they davened. A worker stood guard stood at the door to notify them if any Nazis were coming to visit. One day, catastrophe struck. The guard had dozed off from sheer exhaustion and was not awake when one of the camp guards came visiting - during Mussaf Shemoneh Esrai.

This guard grew up in Lodz close to the Jewish neighborhood. He, therefore, was quite knowledgeable of Jewish tradition and conversant in Yiddish. "Ha! You are davening with such kavanah, concentration," the guard began. "Have you begun laining, reading the Torah? Who is the Baal Korei, Torah reader?" he asked with a devious smile across his face.

The men realized that they were in a very serious predicament and were resigned to accepting the worst. Suddenly, Reb Shabbos came forth, approached the Nazi, and, with a sense of self-confidence, said, "Honored sir. Last night I had a compelling dream. My saintly father, may he rest in peace, appeared to me in the company of my departed mother. He implored me, 'My son, tomorrow is my yahrtzeit. I beg of you to somehow convene a minyan and recite Kaddish. If you do not do this, I will descend from Heaven and take your life!' He reiterated his request and once again emphasized the punishment.

"It is because of this dream that I convinced nine other Jews to join me in prayer. Please do not hold them responsible. They are here because of me." The men could not believe what they were hearing. Essentially, Reb Shabbos was relinquishing his life for them. What was all the more shocking was the guard's reaction: "Good, but this better not happen again. The next time, you might not be so fortunate to have a 'nice' guard like me."

The men breathed a sigh of relief. They could not believe what had just transpired. It was a miracle. Nazi guards were not understanding people. They were cruel fiends. Apparently, there was something more to this Reb Shabbos than people realized. Indeed, as soon as the Nazi guard left the block, Reb Shabbos said, "Nu, let us return to our davening!"

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

Six weeks after the seminal event in Jewish history - the Giving of the Torah - the nation demonstrated that all was not "good." Thirty three hundred years later, we still experience the ramifications of chet ha'eigel, sin of the Golden Calf. Indeed, Hashem told Moshe Rabbeinu, U'byom pakdi u'pakedeti aleihem chatasam, "And on the day that I make an accounting, I shall bring their sin to account against them" (Shemos 32:34). Rashi quotes the Talmud Sanhedrin 102a, where Chazal explain this pasuk: "There is no punishment that comes upon Yisrael which does not have in it some retribution for the sin of the Golden Calf." It is truly difficult for us, more than three millennia removed from that dreadful day, to come to terms with some understanding of how such an exalted nation could descend to such a nadir of depravity [after experiencing the greatest event in Jewish history].

Reasons are beyond our grasp, but lessons are not only within our level of comprehension - they are a requirement, a necessary tool to guide how a Jew should live and how he should serve Hashem. Every experience - both good and bad - imparts a lesson about which we must ruminate and with which we should imbue our lives. The most glaring lesson to be derived from the sin of the Golden Calf is that evil is not prejudiced. The yetzer hora, evil-inclination, can destroy anyone, regardless of his greatness and in spite of everything that he has experienced. Man is no match for the yetzer hora, and he must be acutely aware of that. Horav Moshe Rosenstein, zl, asked Horav Yeruchem Levovitz, zl, this question: How could a nation that was so spiritually refined, that had been exposed to so much holiness and revelation of Godliness, plummet almost overnight to such a low point? The answer was simple, but incredibly profound: "This is the power of the yetzer hora."

Horav Eliyahu Lopian, zl, would often relate how a young student, an exceptionally brilliant and holy student, lost an opportunity for spiritual distinction beyond anyone's dreams, in one night. At the funeral of Horav Moshe Kordovero, zl, author of the Tomar Devorah, the Arizal observed this young man who was in attendance. Speaking to him later on, the young man revealed that he had seen amudah d'nehora, an invisible pillar of Heavenly Fire, following behind the body of the deceased as it was carried to its final resting place. Rav Moshe Kordovero was, indisputably, a holy man. The fact that the young man saw what only the Arizal had been able to discern, was indicative of his own exalted spiritual plateau. The Arizal asked to speak with him again the next morning. It was the intention of this great mystic to propose his daughter to the young man. The next day, the young man showed up, but, for some reason, the Arizal gave him the cold shoulder. Afterwards, the Arizal explained that he had noticed on the young man's forehead an indication that he had sinned that night. Overnight, he fell from his lofty, spiritual perch.

Horav Yerachmiel Kromm, Shlita, supports the notion of the invincibility of the yetzer hora with proof from Yaravam ben Nevat, whose erudite knowledge towered above that of all the scholars of his generation. It was no wonder that he was selected to succeed as Shlomo Hamelech's heir to the throne. Yet, due to a smidgen of envy for Rechavam's lineage from Shevet Yehudah, which allowed him to sit in the Azarah of the Bais Hamikdash, while Yaravam, who descended from Shevet Ephraim, could not, he diverted Klal Yisrael from going up to Yerushalayim. He was a choteh u'machati es ha'rabim, a sinner who also induced others to sin. Such a great man fell due to a twinge of unfounded jealousy. One cannot change his lineage. Obviously, Hashem wanted Yaravam to descend from the tribe of Ephraim. Live with it! He could not, and, as a result, he destroyed his life and the lives of countless others. Rather than go down in history as an exalted Jew worthy of emulation, he was recorded in infamy as a choteh u'machati.

Rav Kromm derives another important lesson from the chet ha'eigal: metinus, patience. The Satan succeeded in taking down the nation because they were befuddled, literally not knowing if they were coming or going. Everything was done b'mehirus, impetuously. They were impatient. Moshe had not returned on time. So what? Perhaps they were mistaken about his time of arrival. Why not give him the benefit of the doubt? When one lacks patience, is impulsive, acts without thinking the subject through, he will make critical mistakes, disastrous mistakes, like the Golden Calf. We are still paying for the impetuosity that they exhibited. "Seize the moment" applies to something good - not something bad. Saru maheir min ha'derech, "They have strayed quickly from the way": When one is flustered, not thinking cogently, he will make foolish, unforgivable mistakes.

Last, we learn from Moshe Rabbeinu exactly what should be the reaction when sinful behavior reaches a point of such depravity that there really is no return. He broke the Luchos. The Tablets had been fashioned by G-d. As such, they were no ordinary creation. Why did Moshe have to shatter them? Was there no other way for him to prove a point? Apparently, Moshe understood that if the nation had fallen to such a low point that they were dancing around a molten calf of their own creation, mere words would have no effect. He had to awaken them, to shatter their reverie, to bring them back to reality. Nothing less than breaking Hashem's handiwork would send the necessary message: It is all over. You have just acted in a manner so egregious that there is no other recourse but shattering the Luchos. You may do teshuvah and even receive a second set of Luchos, but, you have lost the first ones forever.

Indeed, Moshe's message worked, for, from that day on, until after Moshe's death, the nation never again lapsed in their relationship to Hashem. They complained; they bickered; they doubted, but they never turned to an idol. Moshe got his point across to them.

It becomes a serious problem when one begins to accept the behavior of others, which under normal circumstances would be offensive. Our comfort zone sadly seems to change when we become complacent. What used to be a shonda, shameful, now becomes tolerable. Fashionableness that once bespoke a level of sophistication today engenders an ambience of wanton shamelessness. What once troubled us, today has become trendy. Our comfort zone has been altered and, once this occurs, nothing short of an epic and shocking incident will rouse us from our slumber. Shattering the Luchos was Moshe's version of a wake-up call.

And now if You would but forgive their sin! - but, if not, erase me from this book that You have written. (32:32)

Herein lies the test of the true Torah leader. What are his priorities? Is it now about himself, or is it about his flock? Moshe Rabbeinu's first priority was to save his nation. The Almighty had threatened to put an end to this nation that seemed to keep on testing Him. Moshe first had to save them. Then he would see to it that they regain their status as the Chosen People. Once again, it is important to underscore that it was not the entire nation that had sinned. It was a group of mixed multitude who had come along for the ride. They could not handle the pressure. While their influence on the people was not great, they engendered a feeling of indifference within the people. Therefore, while the hamon am, common Jew, did not sin - he did not prevent the eirav rav from sinning either.

A gadol, Torah leader, places his flock's welfare before his own needs. He will even sustain personal material loss in order to spare his people pain. The following analogy, quoted by Horav Yitzchak Hershkowitz, Shlita, in his sefer Nitzotzos, aptly describes such a scenario. While the veracity of the story might not have been established, the message and intent is clear.

A small village in Japan was built atop a hill. At the foot of the hill was a beach that banked the ocean. The residents of this area were simple, hardworking family people. They lived a serene lifestyle, unbothered by the hustle and bustle of the big city. A wise old man lived in this city - right at the top of the hill. He was revered by the townspeople for his erudition and spiritual integrity. As such, he became the undeclared leader of the town. The sage was respected and loved by all, and these sentiments were reciprocated. The village was undergoing difficult times. During the last three years, it had not rained sufficiently, and the earth was parched. There was very little to eat, since, for the most part, the inhabitants sustained themselves through the produce which they yielded from farming. No crops - no food.

Then it began to rain. After three years of drought, it finally began to rain. The fields were irrigated, the seeds germinating and the crops returning. It was a bumper crop like no other. The people were excited and decided to throw a party to celebrate their good fortune. Since there was no room on top of the hill, they set up the festivities at the bottom of the hill, on the shore of the beach. Everyone joined in the celebration, except for the elderly sage and his grandson, who took care of him.

The sage sat atop the hill and watched with great joy and anticipation as his community's inhabitants enjoyed themselves. Suddenly, the sage and townspeople noticed the ocean move backward, at first just a few inches, then a few feet. Finally, the ocean came to rest fifteen feet from its original bank. When it pulled back, it left incredible treasures, such as fish and old coins of gold and silver left over from sunken ships.

The people were overwhelmed with the enormous bounty which had just literally been placed at their feet. They all began to dig in and claim the treasures. From above, the sage watched the entire scene with great joy. Suddenly, his joy turned to utter horror, as he saw the ocean rising up and forming a giant tidal wave. At any minute, this water would come crashing down on the unsuspecting people, crushing them all. What would any able bodied person do in such a situation? He would yell and scream, run down to warn the people, "Save yourselves! Save yourselves!" The elderly man was physically unable to walk - let alone run. His voice would never carry the distance to the ocean, let alone be heard over the cacophony of excitement as the people collected the ocean's booty.

The old man did not give up. He cared about the people. They were his community. He was their leader. He asked his grandson to take a torch, set it aflame and torch his house! The fire spread immediately and, within a few moments, everyone at the foot of the hill looked up in disbelief as they saw fumes of smoke rising up from their beloved leader's home. They dropped what they were doing and ran to save their leader's home. As a result, when the ocean came crashing down, they were no longer there. The old man had saved their lives by sacrificing all of his worldly possessions.

The analogy is obvious; the lesson is compelling. Our Torah leaders, who sit high up on the hill, have an ability to see lucidly without being impaired by involvement in hoarding material booty that claims our allegiance away from Hashem. We do not hear their cries, because we are too busy chasing our profligate visions of grandeur. We are so obsessed with obtaining the booty that we do not see the mountain of horror about to come crashing down on us. The gedolim attempt to get our attention, but we do not hear them above the sounds of our excitement. We are programmed on self-destruct. The fire in the hearts of the gedolim, the fiery passion with which they cry out to us, even at the expense of their own health and welfare, can wake us up. The question is: Will they be in time?

Whenever Moshe would go out to the Ohel, the entire people would stand up and remain standing, everyone at the entrance of his tent, and they would gaze after Moshe until he arrived at the tent. (33:8)

Chazal (Midrash Tanchuma) derive from here the reverence one must accord to a Torah scholar. "One must stand in the presence of an elderly Jew, a Torah scholar, an Av Bais Din, Head of the Rabbinical court, and a king." Moshe Rabbeinu was the nation's quintessential leader; it would make sense that he be demonstrated such respect due to his position as leader - no different than a distinguished political leader, king, etc. Chazal do not say this explicitly. The fact that they mandate kavod talmid chacham, the respect one must show to a Torah scholar, indicates that Moshe Rabbeinu was respected because he was Rabban shel kol Yisrael, the Rebbe of the entire Jewish nation. They were honoring the Torah which he embodied. When one honors the Torah, he honors Hashem. The talmid chacham, Torah scholar, who devotes his life to Torah study is the present-day embodiment of a living Torah scroll. This is how one honors Hashem.

Regrettably, the "modern" human mind has difficulty equating Torah with Hashem, or, rather, the individual who studies Torah with great diligence and devotion with carrying out Hashem's command. It is, therefore, no surprise that the contemporary secular Jew has no understanding of the critical importance of the maintenance of Torah study in our midst. Indeed, a few decades ago, shortly before the petirah, passing, of the venerable sage, the Tchebiner Rav, Horav Dov Berish Weidenfeld, zl, the Gaon was approached by representatives of the security forces of Eretz Yisrael to discuss issues of national security. They presented a bleak picture, emphasizing that the newly-established State was under increased pressure from its surrounding enemies. This was their overture to getting him to "understand" permitting yeshivah students to leave the bais hamedrash and join the country's security forces. The Tchebiner Rav listened to their request, and very calmly he replied, "Let me share a story with you. I am hopeful that, after hearing the story, you will on your own understand my response to your request. A wagon laden with various wares attempted to make it up a steep mountain. The wagon driver nudged the horses along - at first, ever so gently, but then, as the climb became increasingly difficult, he applied greater pressure. At one point, the horses could no longer go on. They had reached their breaking point. It was just too much for them.

"The wagon driver descended from the wagon and began removing some of the heavier items that he was carrying. It was to no avail. The wagon would not budge. Finally, the driver removed everything from the wagon. Yet, the wagon was stuck in "park." It could not budge forward. What was the driver to do? Suddenly, he thought of a brilliant idea. The wagon's large wheels were made of steel. As such, they were quite heavy. If he could remove the wagon's four large wheels, the diminished weight should do the trick.

"Obviously, you understand that once its wheels had been removed, it was no longer a wagon. It was a large immovable box. A similar idea applies to the phenomenon of Torah study with relationship to the Jewish People. Without Torah, we have no "wheels." We cannot move! With their Torah study and prayer, the yeshivah students are truly protecting the Jewish nation. To halt their studies would be tantamount to removing the wheels of the wagon."

Va'ani Tefillah

The Talmud Taanis 2a asks: "What constitutes service of the heart?" They reply: "Prayer." Usually the term avodah in the Torah is a reference to the service we offer Hashem through the vehicle of korbanos, sacrifice. Here, however, avodah is described as something carried out with the heart, which is tefillah, prayer. Merely thinking the tefillah is insufficient to fulfill the requirement of tefillah. One must vocalize the words, enunciating them properly. Of course, if one is ill or in an environment which is inappropriate for the recitation of holy words, this requirement is waived. While the verbalization of one's thoughts is the kiyum ha'mitzvah, the manner in which the mitzvah is carried out, its essence, its spirit, is to pray with the heart, to place oneself at the mercy of G-d.

Although tefillah is essentially avodah she'b'lev, it is greatly enhanced when it is said as part of a tzibbur, group/minyan. Horav Shimon Schwab, zl, observes that it is, indeed, quite presumptuous for an individual with all of his shortcomings and failings to assume that Hashem will listen to him - alone. Indeed, as the Rav notes, when we address Hashem at the beginning of Shemoneh Esrai, we do so by saying Elokeinu v'Elokei Avoseinu, which means, "We come to You not as individuals, but rather, as children of our parents, and we are all bound up together as descendants of the Patriarchs of our nation."

Every tzibbur, every shul, every minyan, regardless of its size, represents a segment of Klal Yisrael. When one speaks from within the "nation," he approaches Hashem as a segment of His nation, which has been assured of His closeness. The relationship serves us well - if we take advantage of it. If our shul attendance becomes more of a social function than a tefillah assembly, this unique connection might not function in our best interest.

in memory of
Rabbi Dovid Bergstein z"l
Harav Dovid ben Yehoshua z"l
niftar 24 Shevat 5774

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