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Peninim on the Torah

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Rabbi A. Leib Scheinbaum
Hebrew Academy of Cleveland


And On ben Peles, offspring of Reuven. (16:1)

Although On ben Peles had originally been included among the leadership of the rebellion, he seems to have dropped out along the way. Chazal explain that his wise and righteous wife had persuaded him to withdraw from the ill-fated group. She was also successful in preventing his colleagues from convincing him to come along with them. She stated simply: "Regardless of who leads the nation, Moshe or Korach, you will still be nothing more than a subservient, insignificant follower. Why bother involving yourself in something from which you will not benefit?" She then proceeded to give her husband a bit too much wine, so that he fell asleep, then she sat by the doorway of their tent and loosened her hair from beneath its covering. When the great tzadikim came to fetch On, they refused to approach the tent where a woman was sitting immodestly attired. They left, and On was saved by the quick actions of his astute wife.

In the Talmud Sanhedrin 110A, Chazal apply the pasuk in Mishlei 14:1, "The wise among women, each builds her house" to the wife of On ben Peles. In connection with this, Horav Eliezer M. Shach, zl, would say, A kluger ken nisht zein kein shlechter, "One who is wise, cannot be evil." This was in addition to the idea that, Der Eibishter hot lieb kluge menchen, "The Almighty loves smart people." He would explain that a wise man knows how to placate the yetzer hora, evil inclination. He knows how to get around his blandishments. This statement coincides with a statement often quoted in the name of the Chofetz Chaim: Men darf nisht zein kein frumer; men darf zein a kluger. "It is not so much that we have to be observant as much as we have to be astute." What he meant was that common sense plays a crucial role in warding off the effects of the evil inclination. Sometimes we simply work out a "deal" and get it off our case, rather than fighting head to head with the yetzer hora. This is a battle which we usually lose. If we can circumvent the battle, we will have a greater chance of attaining success.

Korach…separated himself…They stood before Moshe with two hundred and fifty men from Bnei Yisrael, leaders of the assembly, those summoned for meeting, men of renown. (16:1, 2)

The fury of controversy has lamentably blazed, long and blistering, destroying individuals, families, relationships, even communities. Is it all bad? Chazal have established criteria for determining the integrity of a dispute. In Pirkei Avos, Chazal teach, "Every controversy which is l'shem Shomayim, in the name of Heaven, will, ultimately ,endure, and every controversy which is not in the name of Heaven, will, ultimately, have temporary results. Which controversy was in the name of Heaven? The controversy between Hillel and Shammai. Which controversy was not in the name of Heaven? The controversy of Korach and his followers." It is characteristic of Jewish thought that when the term "Heaven" is mentioned, it is a reference to Hashem. The machlokes, dispute, of Korach and his henchmen is considered the paradigm of shelo l'shem Shomayim, not for the sake of Heaven. Korach was an ambitious usurper, who resented Moshe Rabbeinu's selflessness and Aharon HaKohen's dignity and love for each and every Jew, and he went around convincing his followers that their present leadership did not bode well for the nation.

Two aspects of the Mishnah require clarification, especially in light of the various areas of contention that have flared up in recent times. First, what is the meaning of sofah l'hiskayeim, "will ultimately endure"? Is endurance the mark of a good and kosher dispute? Second, how do we define l'shem Shomayim? Is that not what everyone contends is his motivation? Is anyone so foolish to declare that he is debating for personal reasons? They all use the l'shem Shomayim crutch.

In addressing the question of sofo l'hiskayeim, I cite the Baal HaAkeidah, Horav Yitzchak Arama, zl, who interprets the Mishnah from a practical point of view: "Any controversy conducted for G-d's sake is aimed at preservation, and any controversy that is not directed for G-d's sake, is not targeted for preservation." He feels the Mishnah is establishing a value system, a standard by which we can determine the morality of an issue, its constructiveness and integrity, or the converse. When one enters a controversy--either to dispute an organization or to question the actions of an individual whom he believes is acting inappropriately--it may be meritorious on his part, but he must be clear in the understanding that he have a superior alternative in mind. Otherwise, he is just working to destroy, to undermine, and to create a rift. If one cannot create something new and better, then he is quibbling simply for the pleasure of destruction. That is certainly not acting in the best interests of Heaven. I might add that in the event the leadership of an organization--or even an individual--acts in a manner unbecoming a representative of Torah, he or they should be repudiated and removed - even if no viable substitute is in sight. No leadership is less beneficial than one which is alienated from Hashem and His Torah. Once again, this is the author's personal opinion.

Second, I have grappled concerning the definition of l'shem Shomayim. Since so many "supposed" acts of l'shem Shomayim are clearly not, one must establish criteria that are honorable. I came across a story by Jonathan Rosenblum the other day which I feel sheds light on the meaning of l'shem Shomayim. A couple in Bnei Brak was having a family dispute about a car. The wife had decided that she wanted to purchase a new luxury car, and the husband felt that such a luxury car might incur the neighbors envy and lead to an evil eye. Being Torah Jews, they understood that the way to resolve such a dispute is to seek the counsel of a Torah leader. They proceeded to Horav Aharon Leib Shteinman, Shlita, to ask his opinion concerning the matter of their contention.

Rav Aharon Leib listened. Then he asked the husband what perek he was learning in Gemara. The husband seemed to have a difficult time remembering the perek he was learning - probably because it did not exist. When Rav Aharon Leib asked him if he had a chiddush, original thought, on the Gemara to share with him, he replied in the negative. Next, the Rav asked him whether he had some insight into the parshah. Once again, he stumbled for the right word to say no, and, in the end, he just remained silent.

Finally, Rav Aharon Leib told the husband in all innocence, "I do not understand your problem. You have nothing to say about the Gemara. You have nothing to say about the parshah. Why would anyone envy you? You can purchase any car that you please."

Rav Aharon Leib clearly lives a life to which many of us cannot relate. In his mind, he cannot fathom how anyone would envy someone's material success. In his weltenshauung, the essence of life is intense, with total involvement in Torah - nothing else. His idea of living l'shem Shomayim is to devote one's entire essence for Torah, with nothing else playing a role. A machlokes l'shem Shomayim, dispute conducted for the sake of Heaven, is exactly that. It revolves around Torah issues with no other motives attached. That was the dispute of Hillel and Shammai.

Furthermore, it is wrong to even include Moshe Rabbeinu as a party in Korach's controversy. It takes two to have a dispute. Otherwise, it is a one-sided contention. Horav Dovid Povarsky, zl, points out that the Mishnah refers to it as the dispute of Korach and his followers, but is that not only one side of the dispute? Why is Moshe's name not mentioned? Because he did not contend with Korach. Moshe remained passive throughout the entire debacle. He was not about to enter the ring with someone whose sole pursuit was self-aggrandizement motivated by envy and fueled by insecurity. How much we can learn from this. It can only be a fight when two people throw punches.

It seems that the more one struggles for unity, the harder Satan seeks to find ways to undermine his efforts. In 1888, an attempt to introduce to America the already accepted European concept of a chief rabbinate lasted but a few years and devastated the life of the candidate for Chief Rabbi, Rabbi Yaakov Yosef, zl. A talmid chacham, Torah scholar, of great renown, a brilliant and effective orator, he was the perfect candidate for the position. In pursuit of carrying out the demands of his mission, he was compelled to step on some toes, especially those involved in the kosher meat business. A few rabbanim also took umbrage with his position, feeling that he was infringing upon their own domain. Suddenly, there were two chief rabbis with two rival kehillos - something totally unheard of in our day and age! This, however, was not sufficient. Rav Yosef's detractors set out to destroy him personally, much like Korach attempted to do to Moshe Rabbeinu. Rumors began to fly, allegations were leveled, stories were spread. Through all these attacks and tribulations, just as Moshe persevered, Rav Yosef attempted to maintain his dignity. He refused to allow his opponents to be attacked in the same base, vicious manner by which he was being assailed both orally and in the secularly controlled Anglo-Jewish press. The hate mongers did not stop their diatribe, and the more Rav Yosef maintained calm and dignity, the more they attempted to deny him his peace.

The final blow came in 1895 when the butchers, who had once been his greatest supporters, refused to pay his salary. The congregations followed suit and the chief rabbi was left penniless. Soon after, he suffered a stroke which left him bed-ridden for the rest of his life. He became a forgotten man who spent the rest of his days as a paralyzed invalid living in squalid misery. So ended another tragic outcome of machlokes. It happens all of the time. It seems like the Korachs are winning, but that depends upon one's definition of victory. Rav Yosef may have lost his position, his money, his health, but he did not stoop down to the level of his scurrilous detractors. He did not lose his dignity. They obviously never had any.

The question that one may ask is: Were these not frum, observant people? How did they face Hashem three times a day to daven, after they had performed such reprehensible acts of character assassination? Did they have a different definition for observance? While I may not know the answer to this question, these people had a precedent to follow. Chazal teach us that On ben Peles, who was one of Korach's original henchmen, was saved due to his smart wife. She told him that regardless of who would win - Moshe or Korach - he, On, was essentially going to remain a loser. It was only a question of whom he would follow. Regardless of the outcome, he was not going to be elevated to any leadership status. So, why bother? Realizing that his wife's astute argument made sense, On responded that it was too late. He had drawn the straw and was included in Korach's lot. The other rabble rousers were about to come fetch him for the great test between Korach and Aharon. He could not free himself from it. She said not to worry. She would take care of everything. When she saw the men coming "up the driveway" to pick up her husband, she stood by the window and loosened the strands of her hair that were originally covered, so that they would be exposed. When the men came to the door and saw her in such a state, they immediately left. Heaven forbid they should see a woman whose hair was uncovered. On's wife was acutely aware of the double standards that were so much a part of the religious observance of these men. They would not look at a woman whose hair was uncovered, but they had no problem undermining Moshe's leadership, even impugning his Divine mandate and denying the Divine authorship of the Torah. Why did they do this? Because it involved them. Suddenly, religious observance took on a new meaning. Things have not changed, as our generation is still plagued with the Korachs - and his henchmen - in various forms, sizes and shapes.

In the morning G-d will make known the one who is His own and the holy one, and He will draw him close to Himself. (16:5)

Rashi explains that by delaying Hashem's response until the morning, Moshe Rabbeinu was attempting to gain some time. Perhaps the mutineers would come to their senses and halt their foolish claims. The Midrash wonders why Moshe used the expression boker, morning, rather than the usual machar, tomorrow. They explain that Moshe was conveying an important message to Korach. He said, "G-d has set boundaries in His world. Can you undo the separation G-d has made between day and night? As He has separated day from night, so, too, has He separated Klal Yisrael in the midst of the nations. Similarly, G-d has sanctified Aharon from among the people. When you are able to undo the division that G-d has set between day and night, then you will also be able to abrogate this separation." In this vein, with reference to the pasuk in the account of Creation, Vayehi erev, vayehi boker, "And there was evening, and there was morning, one day," (Bereishis 1:5) Moshe responded to them: "boker, morning."

In a homiletic rendering of the Midrash, Horav Shlomo Breuer, zl, first cites another Midrash. Vayehi erev, "And there was evening." This refers to the actions of the wicked. Vayehi boker, "And there was morning" refers to the actions of the righteous. Rav Breuer understands Chazal's reference to the slow, regressive relationship that the lawless have with the lawful. As day and night follow each other in the realm of natural phenomena, so, too, are lawlessness and law obedience daily occurrences in the lives of men. Day and night, although they are in sharp contrast with one another, have in common the fact that their development is gradual. It neither suddenly becomes day, nor does night appear in a flash. It is a progressive, carefully orchestrated process which inches towards its climax. From the darkest night day emerges, working its way towards noon. Erev, evening, also means mixture, alluding to a time when the shadows of the approaching night mix with the waning light of day. It is only after this that night slowly descends.

This idea applies equally to man's moral development. It is also gradual. A tzadik, righteous person, and a rasha, wicked person, are contrasts, such as day and night. However, one neither becomes a tzadik overnight, nor does he descend to the nadir of depravity in a twinkling. One who has stood at the summit of morality and virtue does not become an apostate all at once. He gradually weakens. The Shabbos observant Jew does not become an open violator overnight. First, he closes the store at the last minute, followed by allowing the gentile workers to come in and make up some time, until the owner's brief visit to the office ultimately becomes a weekly occurrence. It is like this in all aspects of observance, from kashrus to family purity. The slight deviations which signal erev, mixture, are the beginning of the downslide to complete alienation from religion.

As this is true for the individual Jewish life, it is equally true of organizations who present themselves as representing the paradigm of respectability, while simultaneously compromising their ideals in order to gain acceptance among those who have long ago deviated from Jewish practice. They do so carefully and with great diplomacy, never openly rebelling, but only subtly revealing their true malevolent intentions. Had Korach and his assembly come forward in open rebellion, proclaiming their open opposition to Hashem and His Divine mandate for Klal Yisrael's leadership, they would have been immediately repudiated and their evil scheme repulsed. They, however, cloaked their evil with a coating of erev, mixing it with piety and virtue, claiming that they had no desire to destroy, but rather to enhance, to rebuild and rejuvenate the community, making it stronger and more open to "suggestion." Why shouldn't everybody participate? Just because Hashem has chosen Aharon - is that proper? Why not accept everybody as holy? Moshe responded, "boker." You attempt to confuse the issues, veil your true intentions with a cloud of ambiguity. Boker, we will see as clear as day that everything you say is a sham.

This is how it has been throughout history. The Korachs of each generation clamor for change, for progressive, forward movement, for inclusion. What they really want is to destroy, not to repair. It is up to the Moshe Rabbeinus of each era to see through the fa?ade and expose it for what it really is.

Separate yourselves from amid this assembly, and I shall destroy them in an instant. (16:21)

In a small village near the town of Koznitz, a dispute erupted within the religious community. The issue was probably not life-threatening, but it nonetheless prompted a group of chassidic Jews to take upon themselves to establish a new shul, and basically split the community. This seems to be part of the growing pains of any Jewish community. When word of this controversy and its ensuing consequences reached Horav Yisroel, zl, m'Koznitz, the saintly Koznitzer Maggid, he immediately summoned the leaders of this splinter chassidic group to his home, in an attempt to dissuade them from taking such foolhardy action. He did not succeed. The men were stubborn, respectfully refusing to change their position. They were moving forward with a new shul, regardless of the damage it would cause to the community. They felt this was the correct and proper thing to do.

When the Koznitzer saw that these men were recalcitrant and were refusing to budge, he said the following, "There are a number of serious sins recorded in the Torah, the most heinous being idol worship, murder and adultery. Indeed, the punishment for committing such sins is death. Interestingly, despite the loathsome nature of the sin and the severity of the punishment, we do not find that it is prohibited to associate with the sinner. In fact, the only instance in which the Torah instructs us to separate from a sinner is in the case of a baal machlokes, one who is embroiled in dispute. Only in the controversy initiated by Korach do we find Hashem commanding Moshe and Aharon to separate themselves. That is the deleterious effect of controversy. It is like an infectious disease, a plague which quickly becomes an epidemic. If one does not immediately remove himself from the altercation, he will soon be devoured by it."

Shall one man sin, and You be angry with the entire Assembly. (16:22)

The punishment meted out against those involved in a dispute is selective. It is the leadership, the individuals who initiated the controversy, that are held in contempt. Horav Eliezer Gordon, zl, notes from Moshe Rabbeinu's entreaty of Hashem, "Shall one man sin and You be angry with the entire Assembly?" This is the evil force of controversy: one man begins the dispute, and, in a flash, he has a significant following. Moshe had been Klal Yisrael's leader, who had taken them out of Egypt; he had been there when they crossed the Red Sea, he had interceded on their behalf to get the manna; and he had brought down the Torah. Yet, one Korach was able to turn everybody against Moshe. First, he had Dasan and Aviram, Moshe's nemeses from Egypt. This was followed by the 250 heads of the Sanhedrin, with the disease then spreading on to the common people. The entire assembly seemed to be disputing their leader. Yet, Moshe entreated Hashem not to punish them. It was the leadership that was to blame. The people simply followed along.

Why is this? True, Korach had started it all, but the people had followed. We cannot ignore their actions in rebelling against the Divine selection of Moshe. Why is Korach primarily the one who is held in contempt? It is not as if he acted alone. I think it was because Korach breached the wall of respect that stood between Moshe and the people. Moshe was Klal Yisrael's quintessential leader, who was Divinely chosen for this position. As such, he was accorded an unusual level of respect. Moshe was not questioned. He was revered. Korach broke through this wall of distinction. He kicked away the pedestal upon which Moshe stood. The esteem in which Moshe was held began to crumble. The people were no longer in awe of their leader. It was just not the same, and it was Korach's fault. His actions set the tone for the people's rebellion. Had he not struck against Moshe with such blatant chutzpah, the people would never have considered rebelling. Moshe understood this, and he prayed that they be spared.

Va'ani Tefillah

Hashem pokeach ivrim, Hashem zokeif kefufim ã' àåäá öãé÷éíHashem ohev tzadikim
Hashem gives sight to the blind; Hashem straightens the bent, Hashem loves the righteous.

Horav Shimon Schwab, zl explains that Hashem does not simply make the blind see, but it also means that He grants sight to those that had heretofore been blind to the Kingdom of Hashem. He will enlighten a world that has been groping around in darkness. "He will straighten out the bent" is a reference to the physically crippled and to those who are bent down in despair, broken and depressed. He will give succor to those deeply disappointed people whose world is nothing but a vale of tears, whose lives seem hopeless. He will restore them with a meaningful, purposeful life. We will see that "Hashem really loves the righteous." The tzadik feels and understands that Hashem loves him, but the "world" around him sees only the suffering and pain which he experiences. They mistakenly think that Hashem does not really love the righteous. They will find out otherwise.

A chasid once asked the Kotzker Rebbe, zl, why David HaMelech included the tzadik among those who are physically challenged. Does he belong in this category? The Rebbe replied, "Where else should he be?" This means that, just as the one who is challenged realizes that he needs Hashem to help him, he cannot make it alone, so, too, the righteous person realizes that he needs Hashem at every juncture. The tzadik is acutely aware of his need for Hashem. That is the trait that renders him a tzadik.

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