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Peninim on the Torah

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Rabbi A. Leib Scheinbaum
Hebrew Academy of Cleveland


Take vengeance for Bnei Yisrael against the Midyanites. (31:2)

The Midrash relates that Yehoshua was destined to live one hundred and twenty years, as did Moshe Rabbeinu, his rebbe. Yehoshua died when he was one hundred and ten years. Why was his lifespan shortened by ten years? When Moshe was instructed to exact vengeance from the Midyanites prior to his death, he immediately took steps to follow Hashem's command with alacrity and determination - despite his anticipated death following the war. When Yehoshua was instructed to battle the thirty-one kings, he delayed. He conjectured, "Moshe, my rebbe, died immediately following the war with Midyan. Why should I hasten my own death? I will prolong the war, so that I will live longer." In response, Hashem, shortened Yehoshua's life.

Certainly Yehoshua could not have been interested in extending his life for personal reasons. He always followed Hashem's command to the letter of the law. Why would he look for excuses to delay his fulfillment of Hashem's command? Horav Elya Lopian, zl, explains that Yehoshua observed what had occurred following Moshe's death. The spiritual regression that prevailed was the result of feelings of dejection that engulfed the people following the loss of their rebbe and spiritual leader. The well, the Manna, and the clouds of Glory all disappeared with Moshe. The idyllic world as Klal Yisrael knew it was gone. Even Yehoshua, Moshe's successor, forgot three hundred halachos the day Moshe died.

When Yehoshua realized the spiritual loss that accompanied Moshe's death, he felt that he must do everything within his power to live. True, Moshe was compared to the sun, and Yehoshua was likened to the moon. While the moon's illumination is not as brilliant or as powerful as that of the sun, it is not something to ignore. The world could nary afford to lose the brilliant spiritual light that Yehoshua generated. He wanted to live, so that he could protect his people.

Is this so bad? Yehoshua's intentions were noble. In that case, why did Hashem punish him by taking ten years off his lifespan? We derive from here that a person may not make cheshbonos, calculations. He must follow Hashem's command, regardless of what negative consequences he thinks will result. Moshe was acutely aware of the prophecy concerning Klal Yisrael's spiritual descent following his passing. He says in Devarim 31:29, "For I know that after my death you will surely act corruptly, and you will stray from the path." Nonetheless, he did what he had to do, readily complying with the will of Hashem.

Yehoshua meant well. He thought of Klal Yisrael and, like the dedicated leader that he was, he sought to delay carrying out Hashem's command so that he could benefit his flock. Hashem did not see it this way. One does not make cheshbonos, nor does he second-guess the Almighty. We must accomplish our own tasks - He will do His.

A thousand from a tribe, a thousand from a tribe, for all the tribes of Yisrael you shall send a legion. (31:4)

The Midrash teaches that actually three thousand men represented each tribe: twelve thousand were soldiers who went into battle; twelve thousand took care of the armaments and weapons; and twelve thousand prayed for the soldiers.

Consequently, for each soldier that went to the battlefield, a counterpart prayed for his health, welfare and success. This is enigmatic. First, this was a milchemes mitzvah, a war that Hashem commanded them to wage. Their success was guaranteed by Hashem. Why was tefillah, prayer, necessary? Second, if tefillah was that essential to their success, why did they need one person to pray for each soldier? Would it not have sufficed to have Moshe Rabbeinu and the people pray for everyone collectively? Last, it seems to be implied from the Midrash that the individuals who prayed also went out to the battlefield - or, at least, they did not simply pray at home. Why? Could they not have served their purpose by praying in the bais ha'medrash at home?

Horav Yechezkel Levinstein, zl, explains that a great danger lurks for he who enters the battlefield. The idea of kochi v'otzem yadi asah li es ha'chayil hazeh, "My power and the strength of my hand made for me this great might" is a compelling force to overcome. The fear that the soldier might think that he has the strength - he has the ability to vanquish his adversary - is a real fear. To counter this impulse, for each soldier who went into battle another soldier stood near the battlefield, praying for him to emerge victorious. This image catalyzed two victories: the soldier emerged unscathed both physically and spiritually.

And Moshe sent them… as an army, with Pinchas ben Elazar to lead them. (31:6)

Hashem had instructed Moshe Rabbeinu to take vengeance against the Midyanites to punish them for attempting to corrupt Klal Yisrael spiritually. Interestingly, Moshe Rabbeinu carried out the Divine decree, but through the medium of Pinchas, whom he delegated to lead the army. Why did Moshe, who was the consummate servant, who followed every Divine command to the letter, not immediately seize the opportunity to carry out the command personally - as directed? Chazal explain that Moshe felt that it was inappropriate for him to lead the battle personally, due to a debt of gratitude that he owed Midyan. It was in the country of Midyan that he sought asylum when he fled Egypt. He reasoned that Hashem surely could not have meant that he, Moshe, personally should lead the battle, because the "ways of the Torah are gentle" (Mishlei 3:17). Hashem would want him to delegate this mission to another person.

Yet, Moshe's feeling of impropriety was not sufficient for him to deviate from Hashem's instruction. He relied on a precedent. When the time came for the plague of blood to be executed against Egypt, Hashem instructed Aharon to strike the Nile River. Why Aharon and not Moshe? Chazal explain that the river had provided a sanctuary for Moshe as an infant when he was cast into the river. When we are enjoined to show our gratitude even to an inanimate object, how much more so should we parallel this behavior towards people?

We derive from Chazal that the Torah is sensitive to - and considerate of - everything and everyone. Gratitude is an attribute that is of cardinal importance to the Jew. It should be part of the Jew's moral compass, without which he is missing an integral component of his personality. When Moshe was instructed to act in a manner that was counter to his sense of gratitude, he immediately understood that this could not be consistent with the Divine will. He must seek an interpretation. He must find a precedent that would illuminate the command, "The ways of the Torah are gentle" - No command would undermine this rule.

We find a parallel in a previous command that Hashem gave to Moshe. When Moshe was living in Midyan in the home of his father-in-law, Yisro, he was instructed by Hashem to leave and lead the Jews from Egypt. Moshe's response, as noted by Chazal, was that he would ask permission of Yisro and then go to Egypt. This is incredulous! Hashem instructed him to leave, and Moshe responded, "I will check with Yisro." Does this sound rational? How can one refuse to comply with Hashem's directive?

Horav Yechezkel Levinstein, zl, explains that since the obligation for ha'koras ha'tov, paying gratitude, is so great, Moshe was certain that Hashem took into consideration in His directive that Moshe would have to take leave of Yisro. After all, is that not simple derech eretz, menchlichkeit, human decency and manners? Yisro took Moshe into his home and provided him with a haven from Pharaoh's wrath. How could he suddenly leave without asking Yisro's permission? Clearly, this is what Hashem wanted him to do.

Two nations, Ammon and Moav, are never to be accepted as converts to the Jewish People, because they forgot what Avraham Avinu did for their ancestor, Lot. Thus, because they did not offer us bread and water when we wandered in the wilderness, they can never become accepted as Jews. Is this punishment not just a bit harsh? No, explains Horav Elya Lopian, zl. In fact, it is not even a punishment. It is a metzius, essential truth. Since they did not have gratitude, they are missing the necessary component that would allow them to connect with Judaism. They could be wonderful people and even G-d-fearing, but, if they do not possess ha'koras ha'tov, they cannot become Jewish. Appreciation is part of the Jewish gene. It is a major factor in our DNA. They simply do not have what it takes.

In his commentary to Parashas Vayigash, the Shalah Ha'kadosh writes that during the Egyptian famine, when Yosef purchased the land from the Egyptians, he did not touch the land belonging to the Egyptian priests. This sentiment goes back to the time in which he was judged concerning the incident with Potiphar's wife, when he was tried before a tribunal of priests. They acquitted him, because they believed that he was telling the truth. In return for their sparing his life, Yosef refused to make them give up their land.

It is related that the Chafetz Chaim, zl, once passed out in the bathhouse. The heat was intense, and the Chafetz Chaim was out cold. His chances for survival were, at best, slim. Luckily, the individual who saw to the maintenance of the coals happened to enter at that moment. He was able to revive the Chafetz Chaim. As soon as he regained consciousness, the Chafetz Chaim could not thank this man sufficiently. He kissed him and blessed him with good health and longevity. He seated the individual next to him in shul, and every Yom Tov he would invite him to make a l'chaim together with him. The man lived to a ripe old age, passing away in his nineties, shortly after the petirah, passing, of the Chafetz Chaim.

Horav Moshe Feinstein, zl, was a talmid, student, of Horav Pesach Pruskin, zl. There existed a profound respect and affection between the talmid and rebbe. Indeed, when Rav Pesach's grandson got married, Rav Moshe attended the wedding. The next day, when the family was opening the gifts, they noticed that Rav Moshe had enclosed a check for $500.00! This was during a time when $50.00 was considered an impressive gift. They were sure that it was an error. The gadol hador meant to write a check for $50.00 and had mistakenly added an extra zero. They decided to return the check to Rav Moshe.

When they returned the check, Rav Moshe was taken aback. "Do you have any idea how much I owe my revered rebbe? This is the least I can do when the grandson of my rebbe gets married. This is no mistake. I only wish I could afford to have given a bigger check!"

Whenever Horav Elazar M. Shach, zl, traveled with one of his students to Tel Aviv, he would make it a point to stop to visit at the home of a certain elderly gentleman. Why? It seems that this Jew was the messenger who had delivered Rav Shach's Tefillin from his father prior to his bar mitzvah. How could he ignore such a debt of gratitude?

Furthermore, there was a student in Yeshivas Ponevez whom Rav Shach went out of his way to be mekarev, reach out to. He would even give him money before the Yamim Tovim. When he was queried concerning this singular attention, Rav Shach explained the following. "When I was a young bachur, I was very poor. I owned one change of clothes, which I washed every week. I did this secretly, waiting in the freezing cold while my clothes dried. Over time, my pants wore out and a hole in them became larger and larger. I would make sure to arrive at the bais hamedrash early and remain in my seat for hours, so that no one would notice the tear. It eventually became known to one of the women in the community, who promptly sent me two pairs of pants. This bachur is that woman's grandson. I owe him ha'koras ha'tov."

Bnei Reuven and Bnei Gad had abundant livestock… they said, "If we have found favor in your eyes, let this land be given to your servants as a heritage; do not bring us across the Jordan." (32:1,5)

The Midrash makes the following statement, "Three gifts were created in the world: wisdom; strength; and wealth. Since these gifts do not originate from Hashem, there is no guarantee that they will endure. There were two wise men in the world: Bilaam from the gentiles; and Achitofel from Yisrael. They both lost their portion in both this world and the next world. There were two rich men in the world: Haman from the gentiles; and Korach from the Jews - they, too, lost their gifts. Likewise, we find Bnei Gad and Bnei Reuven, who were very wealthy and, due to their concern for their sizable herd, asked to remain across the Yarden and not enter Eretz Yisrael. Consequently, they were the first to go into exile."

Chazal's statement is perplexing. First, Bnei Gad and Bnei Reuven were the first to be exiled, because they were more interested in their large herd than they were in participating in settling in Eretz Yisrael. They had misplaced priorities. It had nothing to do with their wealth. Second, what do Chazal mean when they say that these gifts do not come from Hashem? From whom else do they come?

Horav Baruch M. Ezrachi, Shlita, explains that certainly these gifts, as well as all gifts, originate from Hashem, the source of everything. What then is the meaning of Chazal's statement? Apparently, Chazal's statement is a reference to man's relationship to these gifts and his recognition of their true source. Undoubtedly, everything, including wealth, strength and wisdom all come from Hashem. This realization should be clear and should accompany man throughout his life. Never should he forget - for even a moment - that the power he has, the wisdom he possesses, and the wealth that he has amassed, are all gifts from Hashem. If he forgets this, he is in jeopardy of losing his gifts.

This occurred with Korach and Achitofel; it happened to Shimshon ha'gibor when he forgot the source of his strength; and it happened to Bnei Gad and Bnei Reuven. The fact that Chazal attribute the early exile of Bnei Gad and Bnei Reuven to their misplaced priorities is not inconsistent with the above reason. They are one and the same. One who understands that his wealth originates from Hashem does not worry about his large herd. Hashem will take care of his needs. How important it is for us to realize that what we possess is a gift - and Who our Benefactor is.

The land which Hashem smote… is a land (suitable) for cattle and your servants possess cattle. (32:4)

If we take note of the claim of Bnei Gad and Bnei Reuven, we will see that they were justified in asking for this land. It only made sense that Hashem would apportion the land according to the individual needs of each Shevet, tribe. They needed suitable grazing land for their sizeable herds, so why should they not receive the land of Sichon for themselves? Furthermore, as we study in Navi, each tribe was first designated his portion in Eretz Yisrael, and then he went to battle to conquer that portion of land. If so, Bnei Gad and Bnei Reuven asked now for the land of Ever HaYarden, so that they would not have to fight the battles of the other tribes.

Horav David Feinstein, Shlita, explains that Moshe Rabbeinu viewed the matter from a different perspective. While it is true that their arguments carried weight, as leader, he was concerned with the reaction of the other tribes. The rest of Klal Yisrael might think that Bnei Gad and Bnei Reuven's real motive was a lack of confidence in the nascent nation's ability to triumph over the powerful nations that lived in the land. This feeling of helplessness would soon lead to panic and disdain for Eretz Yisrael. Soon, they would be reliving the tragic night that followed the spies disparaging report. The people lost their sense of conviction after panic spread throughout the nation.

When one believes in what he is doing, when he has a sense of confidence in himself based upon a strong conviction in Hashem, he can overcome even the apparently insurmountable odds.

Va'ani Tefillah

Parashas HaKetores - The Incense

What is the underlying message of the Ketores? Based upon a thesis from Horav Shimshon Pincus, zl, we suggest the following: Korbanos express our willingness to sublimate our physical bodies to Hashem. The animal's life, spilling its blood, is a metaphor for mesiras nefesh, our preparedness to offer our lives for Hashem in self-sacrifice. Life is filled with metaphors. One who gives his wife a diamond ring does so not because he wants her to have a piece of jewelry, but rather, as an expression of their relationship. Likewise, the korbanos are an expression of our relationship to Hashem.

Man lives for enjoyment, the greatest enjoyment being l'hisanag al Hashem, to take pleasure in basking in the glory of Hashem. Ultimately, this should be our goal - to achieve a level of spirituality whereby our greatest delight is in our closeness with the Almighty. Of the various senses that man has, the one which most aptly relates to pure satisfaction is the sense of smell. It is distinct only to man, who, unlike the animals, does not use his sense of smell only for food. He enjoys good aroma. Chazal teach us that the most spiritual of the senses is the sense of smell. It is something that the soul - not the body - enjoys. The Ketores, which focused on blending together specific ingredients to provide a pleasureful and powerful aroma, conveyed the message that we not only submit our physical dimension to Hashem, but we also totally devote our spirit to serving the Almighty.

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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