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Peninim on the Torah

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Rabbi A. Leib Scheinbaum
Hebrew Academy of Cleveland


If a man takes a vow to Hashem…to establish a prohibition upon himself, he shall not desecrate his word. (30:3)

The first place in the Torah in which we find someone who took a vow to establish a commitment to Hashem is in Sefer Bereishis 28:20, where Yaakov Avinu took a vow: "Then Yaakov took a vow, saying." Chazal understand the word "saying" as implying that this statement was to be repeated. Since there was no one there who could have repeated the vow, Chazal derive that Yaakov was speaking to future generations. He was setting an example that when one confronts danger or is distressed, he should vow to perform good deeds which will provide a source of merit that will hopefully protect him in his time of need. The Teshuvos Ralbach cites a halachic question concerning one who made a vow to fast for a consecutive number of days. Included therein was a Yom Tov which is a time in which one must eat. The psak, verdict, is that he must fast on Yom Tov. The neder, vow, supersedes the festival. He will, however, receive lashes for fasting on the festival.

Horav Chaim Zaitchik, zl, derives a powerful lesson from this halachah. When a person is in an eis tzarah, time of misery, when he is emotionally strained, his nerves stretched taut, his mind is on one thing: his tzarah. Nothing else plays a role, just his adversity. In order to allay some of his fear, to soothe the emotional upheaval that is taking place within him, he makes a vow with the intention that it will strengthen his resolve and give him the fortitude necessary to maintain his trust in Hashem. Due to the overwhelming concerns that cloud his mind, he forgets to stipulate that he will not abide by his fast on Yom Tov. Regrettably, the Torah does not allow for such mistakes. He should have been thinking: Yes, he has an excuse. No, it is not sufficient to validate his actions. Yes, he will receive malkos, lashes, for not distinguishing Yom Tov. To put it simply, one should not act like a wealthy man concerning one mitzvah and like a poor man regarding another mitzvah. There must be consistency in mitzvah observance. We do not disregard one mitzvah in order to perform another.

Rav Zaitchik relates that Horav Yisrael Salanter, zl, once met a pious Jew walking in the street on Erev Yom Kippur, his head bent down, looking at the ground. Rav Yisrael bid him good day, to which the man did not respond, because he was deep in thought concerning the approaching Day of Judgment. The father of the mussar movement asked him, "Just because you are worried about the fear of judgment, I have to suffer?" In other words, his worries do not absolve him from acting like a mentch and greeting his fellow man.

Hashem has created man with an abundance of capabilities, so that he has the capacity to act under all circumstances and to confront all situations. Thus, one talent does not infringe on another, because we have enough to go around.

Likewise, Hashem wants man's actions to achieve shleimus, completeness. Therefore, one mitzvah will not impinge on another. While it is important to have one's mind on the approaching Yom HaDin, it is also important to greet people.

Miriam HaNeviah passed away, and there was no longer a source of merit for Klal Yisrael to receive water from the well. Miriam was gone, and the well had suddenly dried up. The Yalkut explains that Miriam's two brothers, Moshe Rabbeinu and Aharon HaKohen, were sitting shivah, observing the seven-day mourning period, for her. Hashem said to them, "Because you are in mourning, Klal Yisrael should die of thirst? Arise and take your staff and give the people water to drink."

Can we imagine the pain and sorrow that gripped Moshe and Aharon during this traumatic period? They had just lost their only sister. Furthermore, this was not merely a physical loss; it had also left a spiritual void of epic proportion. The pain must have been enormous - especially for Moshe. Miriam had played a pivotal role in his birth, by encouraging her father to take her mother back as a wife, and she had stood watch over the little reed basket in which he floated on the river. She was more than a sister to him. She had given him life. No, we cannot imagine the pain that Moshe and Aharon were experiencing.

Yet, Hashem nonetheless turned to them and said, "You must leave your personal mourning and attend to the needs of the nation. Klal Yisrael needs you - now." Miriam would have to be mourned at a later date. There are immediate needs that must be addressed. What a compelling Chazal. We have responsibilities that take precedence over our personal emotions. Although we are not being told to ignore our personal issues, they do, however, take a back seat to our spiritual and moral obligations to Hashem and Klal Yisrael.

There is no shortage of stories which, in detailing the lives of our Torah luminaries, underscore this crucial aspect of their behavior. Therefore, I have decided to include a meaningful story about nedarim, vows, which occurred concerning the Sadigerer Rebbe, indicating how faithful he was to a vow which he had taken many years earlier. Rabbi Yisrael Besser tells about the elderly Yemenite street sweeper in Tel Aviv who worked the street next to the Sadigerer shtiebel. He diligently swept both sides of the street. As he approached the entrance to the shul, he stopped, raised up his broom and, almost ritually, walked by the entrance and did not sweep it. A spectator might wonder about the nature of the dirt in front of the shul. Was it special?

Well, in a way it was special, because only one person was permitted to sweep it. The Sadigerer Rebbe insisted on being the one to sweep the street in front of the shteibel. Thus, he asked the sweeper to desist and allow him the "honor." Apparently, the Rebbe had visited Vienna on Parashas Zachor of 1938 - the Shabbos the Nazis entered Vienna and began the Anshluss. They had immediately sought out and arrested the city's most prominent and distinguished Jews for one purpose: to humiliate them personally and degrade the Jewish religion in general. They took these Yidden whose only offense was being Jewish and, raising the banner of their religion to a level of distinction, publicly abased and denigrated them.

The Sadigerer Rebbe had portrayed malchus, royalty, in bearing and demeanor. He was handed a little brush and told to sweep the stairs leading up to the Vienna Opera House. To add to his shame, he was forced to don a small cap reserved for street sweepers.

The Nazi beasts did not succeed in breaking the Rebbe's spirit. As he bent over with his little brush to sweep the steps, with tears streaming down his cheeks, he uttered a prayer to Hashem. "Aibishter, save me from these fiends; lead me out of this country to Eretz Yisrael, and I promise that there I will sweep the streets with delight and gratitude."

That was why the Rebbe insisted that the street in front of his shul was his to sweep. He had to keep his word to Hashem.

And they said, "Sheepfolds we will build for our cattle here, and cities for our children." (32:16)

While the tribes of Bnei Gad and Bnei Reuven had no intention of shirking their responsibilities toward their brethren in the battle to conquer Eretz Yisrael, they requested that the lands of Ever Ha'Yarden, east of the Jordan River, be their inheritance. They were willing to fight in the fiercest battles, take their place at the front, as long as they could first settle their families and provide for their cattle - then they would join the rest of the nation. At first glance, this seems to be an innocuous and reasonable request-certainly not one that deserves censure.

Shlomo HaMelech presents what appears to be a dim view of their actions. In Sefer Mishlei 20:21, he says: "An inheritance that is hasty at first - its ending will not be blessed." Rashi explains that the pasuk is a reference to one who rushes to take his position first, as was the case with Bnei Gad and Bnei Reuven. The conclusion of the pasuk alludes to the fact that these tribes went into exile years before their counterparts in Eretz Yisrael proper. Since they had taken their portion before the other tribes, they lost it first.

The punishment does not seem to fit the infraction. Indeed, what really was the sin? Was their request so wrong? It is not as if the rest of the nation was going to suffer as a result of their establishing residence in Ever Ha'Yarden. Indeed, they would gain, since they would now have a fighting force that was not encumbered by having to care for family at home. The families of Bnei Gad and Bnei Reuven were ensconced in a safe, secure place. They were willing to remain in the fray of war until every inch of the land had been conquered. What difference did it make if they received their inheritance now, or later?

Horav A. Henoch Leibowitz, zl, explains that since man is created b'tzelem Elokim, in Hashem's image, he is expected to develop a sense of sensitivity toward others, even when they are unaware or do not mind. His sensitivity is about himself, not about the other. This is why it is wrong to take one's portion first - even if the others do not mind, if it does not make a difference to them. Bnei Gad and Bnei Reuven should have said, "How can we enjoy this respite, when our fellow Jews are unable to do so?" Quite possibly, they thought that they were doing their brethren a favor, but their emotional responsibility should not have permitted them to act in such a manner. I enjoy only when my brothers also enjoy. Otherwise, it is not enjoyment. This slight lack of sensitivity warranted their early exile from the land which they had prematurely enjoyed.

The Rosh Yeshivah raises another point. It was this same lack of feeling and sensitivity which created a misguided priority system. When Bnei Gad and Bnei Reuven had made their original request, they mentioned the need to provide for their cattle and their children, indicating that their cattle took precedence over their children. While they surely cared more for their children than they did for their cattle, the manner in which they expressed themselves seemed to indicate otherwise. This meant that, on some level, their priorities were, indeed, unbalanced. In Mishlei, Rashi states that this was a manifestation of their state of haste. Speech is a window into one's inner self. His true nature glares out through what he says and how he expresses himself.

Our sensitivity towards others must go beyond the expected "not hurting them." We must go further to develop an attitude of concern that actually strives to see to it that they benefit as well and as much as we do. There are many well-meaning people who wish the best for their friend, but with one stipulation: they must have more. That is what I would refer to as frum selfishness. Some people cannot tolerate it if their friends are doing as well as they are. I want the best for my friend, but I want more for myself. To the extent that we raise the bar of sensitivity towards others, Hashem will reward us with increased sensitivity towards our personal needs.

We often think that the hallmark of our gedolei Yisrael, Torah leaders, is their brilliance and encyclopedic knowledge. While this is certainly true, there is another aspect of gadlus, eminence that should not be ignored: sensitivity to the needs of others. In his book, "Warmed By Their Fire", Rabbi Yisrael Besser presents a collection of biographies that delve into the lives of a number of gedolei Yisrael, revealing to the reader aspects of their character that goes far beyond their exemplary erudition.

In his appreciation of Horav Isser Zalman Meltzer, zl, he describes him as an individual with "a heart overflowing with love." What an apt personification of the individual who revolutionized Torah study in Eretz Yisrael. As great as Rav Isser Zalman was in learning, however, his compassion towards others earned him special commendation. Indeed, the more formidable his erudition, the more underscored was his sensitivity. Numerous episodes have been recorded concerning Rav Isser Zalman's sensitivity and caring for his fellow Jew. One episode, which has oft been repeated, is one that gives us a powerful perspective of this Torah luminary, as well as conveying to each one of us the path of derech eretz, respect and dignity, which we should choose for ourselves. After escaping the European inferno of World War II, his grandson, Horav Shneur Kotler, zl, spent the ensuing years with Rav Isser Zalman, engrossed in Torah study. The two established a relationship that went beyond and deeper than that of a grandfather and grandson. It was more like a father and son.

The war ended, and Rav Shneur, who was a chosson, knew that this blissful period was soon coming to a close. The day of parting drew near, and the young chosson was well aware that he probably would never see his aged grandfather again. The moment of farewell arrived, and Rav Isser Zalman walked his beloved grandson through the door of the apartment. The last few years had been ultimate joy for him, but now, it was all coming to an end. He walked him through the porch toward the stairwell and suddenly stopped on the second step. The Rosh Yeshivah was going no further.

Those who were watching were disturbed by what they saw or, rather, by what they did not see. This parting should have been something special. They had expected much weeping, hugging and warm kisses-especially given the fact that the Rosh Yeshivah was such a warm, demonstrative person, but they saw nothing. Goodbye - and that was it. A student, who stood watching, could not contain himself. It was just not right. "Why is the Rosh Yeshivah so withdrawn? Why is his goodbye without feeling, without emotion?" he asked one of the older students of Rav Isser Zalman. The elderly Rosh Yeshivah heard the exchange and turned to his close talmid, Rav Shimon Zeleznik, and said, "My grandson, Rav Shneur, is one of the fortunate ones. He survived the war; he will marry his kallah and build a home. What about all of his friends from Kletzk who studied with him in yeshivah? Where are they now? How many survived? How many will be able to survive? They never merited to get married, to raise families. They lost everything. In deference to their memory, I restrained myself from kissing my grandson and expressing the outpouring of love that is welling up within me. I must think of the others."

Parashas Masei

Then Aharon HaKohen went up to Har HaHar by the mouth of Hashem, and died there in the fortieth year after Bnei Yisrael went forth from the land of Egypt, in the fifth month on the first of the month. (33:38)

It is notable that the Torah emphasizes that Aharon HaKohen's yahrzeit, time of death, occurred specifically on Rosh Chodesh Av, while, concerning Moshe Rabbeinu, the Torah only mentions that he was buried in Gai opposite Peor. The fact that we know that Moshe died on the seventh of Adar is a tradition transmitted to us by Chazal. Nothing in the Torah refers to his time of death. Why is there a disparity between the manner in which the Torah records the deaths of Moshe and Aharon? In his Shemen Hatov, Horav Zev Weinberger, Shlita distinguishes between the sins which were the precursors for the punishments for which each of their deaths was to atone.

Aharon's death atoned for a sin that occurred at a specific time. Thus, his passing coincided with the period during which the perpetrators of that sin were punished. Moshe's death, on the other hand, atoned for a sin that was the result of environmental influences. Thus, the Torah emphasizes the place of his death.

Aharon left this world on Rosh Chodesh Av, right in the "thick" of the three weeks, when we, as Jews, mourn the destruction of the Bais HaMikdash which was catalyzed by the sin of sinaas chinam, baseless hatred. His sin was a transgression which involved time, with the punishment carried out during a sad period on the Heavenly calendar. Who would be better than Aharon, the ohaiv shalom v'rodef shalom, one who loved and pursued peace, to be the one to atone for this breach? His passing on this sad date in Jewish history conveys a message concerning the atonement which his passing stimulated.

Moshe's death atoned for the sin of worshipping the Peor idol. This was a sin engendered by the pagan influence to which the Jews were exposed. They assimilated, eventually taking their women and worshipping their god. Moshe's death in this place mitigated their sin and atoned for it. Hence, the Torah underscores where he died, not when he died.

We can derive an important lesson from the above exposition. Nothing is to be ignored. A person's passing should not be an isolated phenomenon. When a tzaddik takes leave of this world, it catalyzes some measure of atonement. We have to contemplate why and for what. The "when" and the "where" are all part of the Divine Plan which conveys a message to the living - one that we should not evade.

I would be remiss not to take note of another notable passing on Rosh Chodesh Av - that of the Bobover Rebbe, Horav Shlomo Halberstam, zl. He was an individual who, like Aharon HaKohen, embodied love of all Jews and sought to promulgate peace among them. There was no greater anathema to him than dispute of any kind. No reason justified disharmony. People tried to drag his name into communal infighting - unsuccessfully. He focused on the big picture, the wholeness of Klal Yisrael, the need for true peace. Yet, he cared about each individual's personal feelings. He saw to it that the honor of anyone who came into his presence was upheld. He did not just talk about loving peace; he pursued it with every fiber of his being.

And a murderer shall flee there - one who takes a life unintentionally. (35:11)

One who kills someone unintentionally, but with a clearly defined degree of carelessness, is sent to the Arei Miklat, Cities of Refuge. This is for his own protection from the go'el ha'dom, redeemer of the blood, a close relative, and to serve as atonement for his act. This galus, exile, is imposed by the Torah and carries with it several halachos.

Unintentional murder can take on many guises. While it is, Baruch Hashem, rare that a Jew is responsible for the death of a co-religionist, other forms of retzicha, murder, are often ignored. Horav Aharon Kotler, zl, asked why is it that it was "decreed" for Roshei Yeshivah to travel all over the world raising funds for their yeshivos? Is this not some form of galus, exile? Do we have any inkling of the hardship and stress this creates? Is it something that they deserve, or does it just come "with the territory"?

Rav Aharon explains that there are times, although very rare, when Roshei Yeshivah are indiscriminate in the manner of giving mussar, offering rebuke, to a student. Such circumstances border on halbanas panim, literally, "whitening the face," causing such embarrassment for the student that the blood in his face drains, and he turns white. According to Chazal, this is a form of murder - and for unintentional murder, one is sent into exile! Imagine having to go from city to city, country to country, success being dependent upon the mood of wealthy philanthropists who might be respectful - or might not. This is galus - and it is all because the individual was perhaps not careful in the way he had rebuked his student. He had not been malicious. In fact, his intentions had been noble: to help the student; to correct him; to prevent him from swerving off the proper path. He did not, however, rebuke properly, and this humiliated the student. The rebbe was obligated to go into galus.

Otros HaTorah cites the Pele Yoetz, who writes that the individual who must leave his home, either to study Torah or in order to earn a living, should have intention that these "trips" are galus-oriented, and they should atone for anything that he might have done which would incur the punishment of exile. He should accept with love the Heavenly decree, so that it truly serves as penance for his actions. This is equally true whenever one is compelled to uproot himself from his comfortable abode and reestablish himself elsewhere. One who leaves his home on Succos and establishes his new residence in the flimsy succah is going into galus. Even the individual who leaves the comfort of his home and walks to shul, despite the inclement weather, be it very cold or very hot and humid, is living a life similar to galus. One should accept these minor changes in life as an opportunity for experiencing galus, thereby relieving some of his Heavenly debt.

Likutei Maharan reiterates this idea, based upon Chazal's statement in the Talmud Sanhedrin 37b: Galus mechaperes avon, "Exile atones for sin." He explains that the word Eilah of Eilah masei Bnei Yisrael, "These are the journeys of Bnei Yisrael" (Bamidbar 33:1), is directly related to Eilah elohecha Yisrael, "These are your gods, O' Yisrael" (Shemos 32:4), the statement uttered by the eirav rav, mixed multitude, when they declared the Golden Calf to be their replacement leader. The various changes that take place in one's life, his wanderings and forced excursions, take their toll on him, physically and emotionally. Thus, they atone for his iniquities.

When a person is in an unhealthy situation, he is obligated to change position or to alter his course, so that he emerges from the muck. Hopefully, his circumstances will resolve themselves, and he will become a better person. If things are not right in one place, if life just does not seem to pan out, move elsewhere. Do not remain static; move on. This is a form of atonement.

On the other hand, if one is doing well spiritually, if he sees positive growth in his life, he should not move. As it is incumbent to move when the situation is unwholesome, so, too, it is crucial that one remember where he is. If is doing well, why threaten the status quo? Someone who can not leave well enough alone is himself not well enough.

Va'ani Tefillah

Yasom v'almanah ye'oded. He encourages the orphan and widow.

Even one who is blessed with parents must realize that their good intentions are of no avail without Hashem's decree. Indeed, all are orphans and widows, helpless and forlorn, if not that Hashem sends His help by means of compassionate and understanding parents and loving relatives whom He imbues and endows with the ability and desire to help. Horav Avigdor Miller, zl, notes the use of the word ye'oded, which his derived from the word od, meaning more, indicating that this encouragement and endowment of strength and compassion are in the present. It is happening right now. Ye'oded - He continues to encourage. One should not think that Hashem's relationship to the parent is a singular occurrence. It is constant. He encourages. In this sense, we understand that all diligence, confidence, perseverance and courage are gifts bestowed - and not merely results of the parents' choice of free will. The strong should realize that their strength is bestowed upon them by Hashem, and the weak and dispirited should pray to Hashem for guidance and encouragement.

We learn from here that we may take nothing for granted. Everything - even the wonderful and kind expression of emotion towards us - is a gift from Hashem.

Roza Rochel bas R' Moshe Aryeh a"h
niftar 8 Av 5756
Shelley Horwitz

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