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Peninim on the Torah

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Rabbi A. Leib Scheinbaum
Hebrew Academy of Cleveland


And Moshe was angry with the commanders of the army. (31:14)

The soldiers returned from the front. Their battle with the Midyanim was successful. Yet, Moshe Rabbeinu became angry with the army's leadership for preserving the lives of the Midyanite women who were responsible for luring the Jewish men into sins of immorality and idolatry. These sins brought about a plague that claimed the lives of 24,000 Jews. Moshe's anger spurs a strong comment by Chazal. In the Talmud Pesachim 66b, they say, "Whoever becomes angry, if he is a wise man, his wisdom departs from him." Because Moshe became angry, the laws concerning the guidelines on how to kosher any utensil that absorbed a forbidden food were "forgotten" by him, so that they had to be transmitted instead by Elazar HaKohen. Chazal add that this applies equally to a prophet who loses his prophecy as a result of anger. They go so far as to posit that even if it was decreed by Heaven that he would achieve distinction, such as Eliav, the brother of David HaMelech, he will lose it as a result of anger.

We should add that the anger the Torah attributes to Moshe Rabbeinu is not the loss of control of emotions that is common with us. Moshe had a lapse, and Chazal derive a lesson from this isolated instance. We, however, suffer terribly from this character flaw. It destroys marriages, families and friendships. Relationships of all kinds are not safe from its devastating and far-reaching consequences. It is the result of a lack of self-control. It strikes everyone unless he takes great care to work on himself.

L'shem Shomayim, anger for the sake of Heaven, is not justifiable, claims Horav Chaim Vital, zl, in the name of his rebbe, the Arizal. Anger is never the correct path to choose. Even when one must admonish congregants, the Shulchan Aruch cautions that this be done with an external expression of anger, but, in his heart, the Rav should remain calm and collected.

In his commentary on Chumash, anthologized by Rabbi Sholom Smith, Horav Avraham Pam, zl, notes the tragedy of the lifelong emotional scars inflicted by parents who lose self control and berate their children with derogatory and demeaning names. While these parents certainly do not want to hurt their children, little do they realize the long term effects of their words and the damage is regrettably done.

Rav Pam notes that it is especially during the pressure-filled hours of Erev Shabbos and Erev Yom Tov that the anxiety level is increased and people are more prone to outbursts of anger. He cites an incident when a husband's unthinking, but no-less unpardonable, outburst at his wife destroyed the tranquility of a Pesach Seder and severely shook up the family's harmony. Had the husband exerted just a little self control and mentchlichkeit , humaneness, his wife's error could have easily been glossed over.

When a person allows anger to take control of his emotions, he is certain to err and often overlooks the obvious solutions to his problems. Learning to suppress anger can save one much heartache and grief, ultimately benefitting him at times when a clear head is necessary. This alone should be one's greatest motivation for correcting a serious character flaw.

Bnei Reuven and Bnei Gad had abundant livestock - very great. Bnei Gad and Bnei Reuven came…They said, "If we have found favor in your eyes, let this land be given to your servants as a heritage. (32:1,3,5)

There is much to be learned from the dialogue that ensued between Moshe Rabbeinu and Bnei Gad and the Bnei Reuven. Let us examine the conversation that took place and address some of the issues that surfaced. First, we find two tribes who, due to their abundance of livestock, expressed a desire to remain in Ever HaYarden. The Torah does not tell how and why these tribes had more livestock than everyone else. The Ohr HaChaim Hakadosh attributes it to their military skills in being able to plunder more effectively than the other tribes. The Midrash HaGadol asserts that, in fact, they did not have a greater share of livestock. It is just that they attributed greater significance to their herds than the other tribes did. In any event, they wanted to stay in Trans Jordan. Moshe understandably was very disappointed with their attitude, and he criticized them for forsaking their brother tribes during a time of crisis. They were all in this together. Bnei Gad and Bnei Reuven quickly responded that they had no intention of reneging their responsibilities. They would fight side by side with their brethren. They just wanted to return and settle in this land after the war. First, however, they wanted to build shelter for their livestock and cities for their children.

Upon reviewing the text, we note that the Torah begins by saying that Bnei Reuven, the oldest son, and Bnei Gad had abundant livestock. It then continues by relating that Bnei Gad, the younger son, came forward and addressed Moshe. Why did Bnei Gad speak before Bnei Reuven? Where was their respect for their older brother? Second, the entire dialogue that took place seems to have involved only Bnei Gad and Bnei Reuven, while, in truth, the Trans Jordan was settled by another tribe - half of the tribe of Menashe joined them. What happened? We do not find them asking for land in Eiver HaYarden.

The Kli Yakar explains that Bnei Gad had more livestock than Bnei Reuven. Their enormous wealth went to their heads. In the ensuing arrogance, they denied the respect they should have rightfully given to their older brother. As far as the second question is concerned, in his commentary to the beginning of Sefer Devarim, the Netziv, zl, explains that specifically because of a deficiency in the spiritual character and values of these two tribes, it was necessary that another tribe be sent along to offer a positive influence. Menashe had no desire to live in Trans Jordan. They were sent to assist in maintaining the spiritual status quo among the two tribes that chose to live there.

Bnei Gad and Bnei Reuven were guilty of misplacing their priorities. They were concerned for their livelihood more than for their children; they placed their present before their future. Furthermore, the effect of their behavior hurt their present and had a far-reaching effect on their future. Children respond to the way in which they are raised. The values they see imparted in their home remains with them for a long time. When children grow up in a home in which the priorities are misplaced, it influences the way they view life. On the other hand, if children see true commitment and mesiras nefesh, self-sacrifice, for their values, it will accompany them throughout life.

I recently had occasion to read an incredible story about a young boy and his mother in Rabbi Yechiel Spero's, Touched By A Story. The story clearly affected the child as he grew up to become one of America's gedolim, Torah giants, a Rosh Yeshivah who, during his life, inspired thousands and whose legacy continues its impact even after his passing. The story goes back to the beginning of the twentieth century when most Jews subsisted on an income slightly above the poverty level. While materialistic needs were not a high priority, every once in awhile a person would take some of his hard-earned money and use it for material goods that had a connection to a spiritual principle. A young boy by the name of Yitzchak learned the value of spirituality from his parents.

One year, shortly before Pesach, Yitzchak's father decided to buy his wife a new dress l'kavod Yom Tov, in honor of the approaching festival. His wife toiled throughout the year. She never asked for anything. The least he could do is give her the opportunity to honor the festival in a manner that would also engender personal enjoyment for her. Buying a dress in those days was not as simple a task as entering a store and picking one off the rack. It meant picking out material and paying a number of visits to the seamstress. Finally, the dress was finished. It was an expensive proposition, but well worth it. The whole family waited excitedly for the mother to don her new dress, but she said that she was waiting for Pesach. Disappointed, the children began to count the days until they would see their mother in her new dress.

Yitzchak was a precocious eleven year old. He studied diligently in the yeshivah where he was one of the most outstanding students. His humility matched his scholarship. Thus, he rarely called attention to himself. That year, a few days prior to Pesach, he came home and excitedly shared with his family that he was about to make a siyum on Meseches Bava Kama. His mother was so proud of him, but Yitzchak simply shrugged it off.

The next evening, Yitzchak went home and was greeted by an incredible sight. The table was set with the finest dishes, the candles were lit, and his mother was wearing her new dress! What was happening? he wondered. It was not yet Yom Tov. "Mama! Why are you wearing the new dress? It is not yet Yom Tov!" young Yitzchak blurted out.

His mother smiled at him and said, "Yes, I was saving the dress for Yom Tov, but you told me yesterday that you had completed a Mesechta and were about to make a siyum. This might be a simple feat for you, but, for me, this is the greatest Yom Tov. There is nothing more important to me than my son learning Torah!"

This was a mother's lesson to her young son. Torah study reigned supreme. A siyum was likened to Pesach. Gadlus ba'Torah, achieving greatness in Torah knowledge, was a major accomplishment that overshadowed and outshined everything else. Yitzchak remembered his mother's lesson well throughout his life, as he grew in Torah, as he achieved the pinnacle in Torah knowledge and leadership. As Yitzchak became the venerable Horav Yitzchak Hutner, zl, Rosh HaYeshivah of Mesivta Rabbeinu Chaim Berlin, legendary rebbe and mentor to thousands, his mother's lesson became his legacy.

Parashas Masei

They traveled from Marah and came to Eilim, and in Eilim there were twelve springs of water and seventy palms. (33:9)

When you think about it, seventy palm trees and a few springs of water do not comprise a tremendous amount of nourishment, enough to sustain a nation the size of Klal Yisrael. Why then does the Torah emphasize the features of Eilim? One would think that the Torah is distinguishing between Marah, where the water was bitter and Eilim whose food was plentiful. It is not, however, so. The Baal Shem Tov Hakadosh explains that actually the water in Marah was not bitter. Rather, it was the people who were bitter. Their negativity and sense of dejection are what gave the water a bitter after-taste. When someone is down, if everything he looks at he views through a lens of bitterness, then everything he sees and tastes will smack of rancor. When "Vayisu miMarah," they traveled away from Marah; when they experienced a release from their bitterness, they were able to accept the features of Eilim, whatever it may have been, and they appreciated it.

It happens all of the time. A person is unhappy with his personal life. He is plagued by issues which are not being resolved quickly enough, and he becomes depressed. It suddenly becomes everybody's fault - especially G-d's. The first institution that becomes a punching bag is religion. I recently had occasion to meet a young man who, in the short span of one hour, spewed forth a venom against everything religious - beginning with rabbis and concluding with Hashem. After virtually denying the validity of the Torah and the veracity of the mitzvos, he finally intimated that he was angry because of a personal situation that was making his life miserable. After sharing his problem with me and releasing the burden that had been weighing him down, he conceded that he did not really believe all of the negative statements he was making. He was miserable, and this was his reaction to his misery. After all, he had to blame someone.

How does one deal with such a problem? Vayisu miMarah - travel away from Marah. Separate yourself from the issue. Do not let the bitterness become a part of you. No one is denying that there are bitter situations, but one should not let the bitterness envelop him and take control of his life. By distancing oneself from the problem, thereby allowing for an objective approach, he will invariably be able to view the situation more realistically and without prejudice.

Happiness plays a pivotal role in mitzvah observance. An unhappy person is rarely a happy Jew. Accordingly, an unhappy Jew is likely to be deficient in his shemiras ha'mitzvos, mitzvah observance. A person who has a jaundiced perspective on life has a difficult time maintaining relationships. Unhappy with himself, he has little tolerance for others. After awhile, he even begins to search for faults in others. Young people who are unhappy tend to be less forgiving of their parents and teachers or of any individual who might serve as a role model for them. This, of course, causes a negative feeling toward the Yiddishkeit these role models represent. All too often these same individuals place their focus on the young person's attitude toward religion, while ignoring the real reason for their discontent - themselves.

Of course, this does not mean that the problem is always within the person. Quite often, parents or teachers can--and do--err. When mentors demonstrate love and sensitivity towards their charges, they set the tone for emotional security, which is intrinsic to emotional well-being. When mentors act thoughtlessly, or if their exalted ego interferes with their common sense, the student is sacrificed.

Moreover, when children are taught to believe that frum people are happy, and when someone is not happy, it is due to his lack of observance, the child may begin to question Judaism's effectiveness when he sees an observant person in pain. This will cause him to lose faith in Judaism and its disseminators. One must be taught that Judaism gives us a certain perspective on life, one that adds depth and meaning. It does not create happiness when it has to overcome one's unhealthy emotional depression. Torah teaches us how to cope with the problems, how to deal with the issues as it engenders hope and increases faith.

Because he must remain in his city of refuge, until the death of the Kohen Gadol. (36:28)

Rashi explains that the release of the one who commits an act of inadvertent manslaughter is dependent upon the death of the Kohen Gadol, because the Kohen Gadol regrettably shares some of the responsibility of this tragedy. He should have prayed that such a mishap not occur during his tenure. It seems a bit much to expect that a person be blamed for the sins of these inadvertent murderers--just because he did not pray that they not sin. This seems a bit unrealistic. That his death be the subject of their prayers seems to be an excessive punishment.

Yet, we find a similar halachah with regard to the Eiglah Arufah, the calf whose neck is broken as part of the ritual carried out when a corpse is found with no known assailant. At the end of the procedure, the zekeinim, elders, declare, "Yadeinu lo shafchah es ha'dam ha'zeh," "our hands have not shed this blood." What did they - or did they not-- do that places such culpability upon them?

Horav Mordechai Rogov, zl, explains that the spiritual leadership has the ability to create an environment that is spiritually correct, whereby there is a spirit of respect and mutual cooperation among the populace. They can and should entreat Hashem's Divine assistance, so that brotherhood and tranquility reign in their community in order that such tragedies that send the unintentional murderer to the city of refuge, will be averted. The mere fact that such a tragic occurrence has taken place during their "watch" reflects poorly upon their leadership in creating a mood of calm and peace. The Kohen Gadol did no wrong, but he should have prayed that others also not do wrong. The welfare of the people of his generation is his responsibility.

I must add that this responsibility does not apply only to the Kohen Gadol. It applies to all of us. Each and every one of us has a moral obligation to pray for the welfare and peace of our community. Our success will correspond with our input.

Since we have come this far, I think we might tread a bit further and address the responsibility we all have towards our less observant and non-observant brethren. While there are many outreach professionals working tirelessly to reach out to the unaffiliated, regretably there are still so many unaffiliated Jews who are just waiting for the opportunity to be invited to return home. Each of us knows a nonobservant neighbor, coworker, or relative. Rather than wait for them to contact an outreach organization, why do we not personally reach out to them?

Horav Moshe Feinstein, zl, exhorted the observant community to "maaser," take a tithe, of their time and use it for kiruv, outreach. Fifty years earlier, the Chafetz Chaim, zl, emphasized the need and obligation for frum, observant, Jews to reach out to their non-observant brethren. We are one people with one destiny, each of us responsible for one another. By burying our collective heads in the ground and attempting to ignore the problem, we are adding to the flames of assimilation that are destroying so many of our brethren. On the other hand, if we own up to our responsibility, we can turn the tide and impact the future of our nation.

Va'ani Tefillah

Baruch gozeir u'mekayeim

Blessed is He Who makes decrees and upholds them.

Horav Shimon Schwab, zl, interprets gozeir, decrees, as a reference to the meting out of punishment to the wicked. While some reshaim, wicked people, seem to thrive in this world, it is only a temporary experience. Hashem will carry out His decrees and give them their due at the appropriate time. Yirmiyahy Ha'Navi prophesized the decimation of Babylonia, a prediction that saw fruition. Thus, in the Talmud Berachos 57b, Chazal suggest a number of berachos, blessings, to be recited upon seeing the remnants of this once flourishing civilization. The last berachah that is mentioned is Baruch gozeir u'mekayeim.

Horav Avigdor Miller, zl, takes an alternative approach, interpreting this brachah as reference to Hashem creating the world ex-nihilo, from nothing, and maintaining the world by upholding His decree. While any artifact, once it is fashioned, maintains its existence independent of its creator, the matter and energy of the world have no intrinsic existence, since they have been created from nothing. As Hashem willed them into existence, He continues to maintain their existence by His continuing will.

Gozeir is a decree which is the act of a king. Gozeir also means to cut as with a knife, thereby implying a decree that is irrevocable. Hashem not only created the world as an act of altruism. He maintains it irrevocably, despite the evil acts committed by some of its inhabitants.

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