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Peninim on the Torah

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Rabbi A. Leib Scheinbaum
Hebrew Academy of Cleveland


Moshe spoke to the heads of the tribes of Bnei Yisrael. (30:2)

Moshe Rabbeinu honored the heads of the tribes by speaking to them first. He later taught the same lessons to the general public, just as he did with all of the other mitzvos in the Torah. The leaders played a critical role in the matter of vows, since they had the authority to annul a vow or oath. In Shoftim 11:31, we read about Yiftach's ill-fated vow, which endangered his daughter's life, and his refusal to go to Pinchas, Klal Yisrael's spiritual leader, to have it annulled. He felt that as the nation's highest ranking leader, it was below his dignity to go to the Navi, Prophet. Pinchas maintained a similar attitude, feeling that the spiritual leader does not humble himself before the nation's secular leader. They remained at an impasse. This seems difficult to grasp. As the nation's spiritual leader, the individual who set the standard for defining true honor, he should have effaced himself and been mochel, overlooked/forgiven, his kavod, honor, for the sake of a Jewish life. The life of Yiftach's daughter was hanging in the balance. This was certainly not the time to assuage one's own ego.

The Gerrer Rebbe, zl, the Bais Yisrael, explains that the power invested in a chacham to annul a vow originates from the fact that the noder, one who makes the vow, condescends himself to the chacham, accepting his leadership. When Pinchas saw that Yiftach was resolute in his arrogance, that he refused to humble himself before the spiritual leader of the generation, he realized that he could not annul the vow. His power was derived from Yiftach, and Yiftach was foolishly refusing to give.

If so, why was Pinchas censured for not going to Yiftach? He was simply acting accordingly. Horav Yitzchak Zilberstein, Shlita, answers this from a practical perspective. Had Pinchas gone to Yiftach, it would have tempered his arrogance and knocked him down a notch. Had Yiftach noted Pinchas' humility, he would have been shamed into submission. During Korach's dispute with Moshe, our leader went to Dasan and Aviram, two of the mutineers, who had been his nemeses as far back as Egypt. His goal was to rebuke them. By going to them, he was intimating to them that he was a better person than they were. Perhaps this would cause them to recant their perfidious position.

This, explains Rav Zilberstein, is how the chacham succeeds in reaching out to people. When he lowers himself, he gets their attention. He shows what he is, and what they are. Thus, he is able to influence them positively in order to return them to Hashem. This is what Moshe achieved by speaking first to the heads of the tribes. The people would take notice and pay greater respect to their leadership. People respond to someone who gives them respect, to someone who humbles himself before them. It makes them feel good and puts them in a positive, "willing to listen," frame of mind. It works. Ask any salesman. When the salesman makes the customer feel good, appreciated, needed, even superior, the customer is more apt to purchase what the salesman is selling. We think with our ego. When it is positively assuaged; we have a greater proclivity to listen to inspirational words, words to which we might otherwise turn a deaf ear.

He shall not desecrate his word. (30:3)

A Jew's word is sacred. Thus, if he violates his word, it is a desecration. In the Talmud Chagigah 10, Chazal say that while the individual who made the vow may not desecrate his word, others, such as a talmid chacham, Torah scholar, or bais din, court of three qualified adult males, may permit it. This is the capacity with which Hashem has endowed our chachamim. They have the ability to annul a vow, thereby rendering permissible something which had become prohibited by the "tongue" of the individual who made the vow. From where is this unique power derived? How can they permit that which has been prohibited?

In his commentary to the parsha, the Kli Yakar explains that the power of annulment granted to the chacham or bais din, is driven by the same dynamic as the power of a father or husband. When a young, unmarried woman or a woman who is married makes a vow, it is made with the understanding that either her father or husband acquiesce to it. Since she is in their "possession," as a result of the relationship she has vis-?-vis her father or husband, her vows are subject to their approval. Likewise, when an individual makes a vow, he does so based upon the premise that the chachamim are in agreement. Otherwise, no vow exists. It is almost as if one has issued a pre-condition stating that his vow is valid only if the chachamim are acquiescent.

In his Darkei Mussar, Horav Yaakov Neiman, zl, expounds on this concept. Emunas chachamim, faith in the Torah giants, is a basic tenet of our faith. We believe that the talmid chacham who is completely rooted in Torah and who exemplifies every aspect of Torah - spiritually, morally and ethically - is endowed with a high level of abstract thinking and intellectual perfection. After much deliberation, he voices his understanding of the Torah's opinion about a given subject or endeavor. This is the product of rigorous intellectual analysis, spiritual integrity and extreme humility. He has total faith in the Torah and its disseminators, and he studies Torah with this level of conviction. He is worthy of being called a chacham.

Emunas chachamim is essential to Torah acquisition. Without it, one will not advance beyond his own limited way of thinking, stunting his intellectual growth and stymieing his ability to learn from the greatest intellects who lived. This applies equally to those who believe with blind faith in everything that is said, and those who listen only to those chachamim whose line of thinking most resembles his own intellectual intuition, or emotional attachment. Emunas chachamim enables us to grow by gaining from the ideas and expositions of our sages, by subordinating our yet underdeveloped minds to their superior intellect. Also, since Torah achievement is a gift from Hashem, the Divine Authority, we have a chance to study from those individuals who lay their life on the line to study Torah with extra ameilus, toil, and ultimate love. Their intellectual achievement is the product of this ahavah and ameilus.

Horav Aharon Kotler, zl, venerated gedolei Yisrael to their true pinnacle, as per the Mesorah, tradition of Torah transmission, from generation to generation, with each successive generation digressing as it becomes further removed from Har Sinai, the place where it all originated. The Rosh Yeshivah once "merited" to explain/answer a difficulty he had with a Biur Ha'Gra, commentary of the Gaon, zl, of Vilna. This difficulty plagued Rav Aharon for over twenty years, troubling him greatly, so attached was he to the Gra! His joy in applying the answer knew no bounds; he actually began jumping up and down in ecstasy!

Rav Aharon later commented that Hashem had "opened his eyes" to the true explanation of the Gra's words after so many years, because, in all those years, he had never entertained the notion, the possibility had never entered his mind… if after all these years of intense searching for an answer with no success and his question continued to remain so strong… and David Hamelech did say to Hashem, Shegios mi yavin, "errors are so difficult to be aware of"… perhaps he should assume that his question is chas v'shalom, Heaven forbid, unanswerable. But, no! The thought had never infiltrated his mind! This is the definition of unflinching, unstinting emunas chachamim. I may add that one must himself be a chacham to maintain such emunah, conviction.

Rav Neiman cites Chazal in the Talmud Berachos 3b, who teach us that David Hamelech hung his harp above his bed. When it became midnight, the north wind would blow upon the harp, causing its strings to vibrate and emanate music. David would immediately rise up and learn Torah throughout the night. At daybreak, the chachmei Yisrael, sages, would enter and say, "Our master, the king, your nation requires parnassah, livelihood/sustenance." This passage begs elucidation: What does the nation's material needs have to do with David's harp and his studying Torah throughout the night?

Rav Neiman explains that the Torah encompasses every aspect of Jewish life. It touches upon the religious, social and even material/business aspects of one's life endeavor. He quotes Ramban, who writes that the Torah could not address every aspect of one's daily life. It, therefore, restricted itself only to the mitzvos, commandments, and added sort of a golden rule by which a Jew should live. V'asisa ha'yashar v'hatov, "You shall do what is fair and good in the eyes of Hashem" (Devarim 6:18). Whatever is good and fair, honorable and just, one may do; otherwise; it is prohibited. When one acts justly, he maintains honor and integrity, he is acting in accordance with the Torah. Regrettably, we often tend to think that what we are doing is correct, just and even ethical - according to our self-determined standards. This is why Chazal have included emunas chachamim as one of the forty-eight ways to acquire Torah. One must ask, listen, and believe in what our chachamim tell us. If they say it is wrong - it is wrong!

We now understand why the sages came to David Hamelech to inform him of the nation's material needs. They sought to signify that they are connected with a chacham, such that even a mundane issue as material sustenance was decided by David Hamelech. Last, they came in the morning, after he had studied Torah all night, to demonstrate that they were seeking his counsel - not because he was king, but because he was a talmid chacham. After spending the night engrossed in Hashem's Torah, David could render "sage" advice.

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

Moshe Rabbeinu expressed his annoyance with the officers of the army for allowing the survival of the women who had participated in the orgies which entrapped the Jewish males. It was their responsibility to take appropriate action. We wonder why Moshe did not simply direct his anger at Pinchas, the commander-in-chief. He was in charge of the army. Thus, every decision that was or was not made fell under his domain of leadership. The Sifre claims that Pinchas defended his commanders, claiming that they had executed Moshe's orders to inflict a crushing defeat upon the army of Midyan. Moshe, however, felt that there was no excuse for sparing the young women who had debased themselves by seducing the Jewish men. They were the catalysts of Klal Yisrael's moral degradation. They brought death and destruction to the Jews. They should pay. All this may be an appropriate complaint, but why not direct it at the leader in charge of the army: Pinchas?

Horav Dov Eliezrov, zl, quotes Chazal in the Talmud Bava Metzia 33a, "The Torah scholars of Bavel would stand up for one another (out of mutual respect). Rashi explains that they learned Torah from each other. Thus, each one felt that he owed honor to his rebbe. Pinchas reminded Moshe of the halachah that Bo'el aramis kanaim pogin bo, "One who cohabits with a gentile, zealous ones shall slay him." For this reason, Moshe considered Pinchas to be his rebbe. Therefore, in his consummate humility, Moshe felt that he could not express anger towards Pinchas. He was his Torah mentor.

I am not sure whether this was a humility issue, or a manifestation of Moshe's profound appreciation for every halachah of the Torah. It is, nonetheless, a notable lesson, which is worth incorporating into our lives. The quintessential Torah rebbe of all Klal Yisrael was "reminded" of a halachah, and as a result of this retrospect, he viewed Pinchas as his rebbe. How distant we are from this degree of achievement.


Aharon HaKohen went upon Har Hahar at the command of Hashem and he died there, in the fortieth year after the exodus of Bnei Yisrael from the land of Egypt, in the fifth month on the first day of the month. (33:38)

The yahrzeit of Aharon HaKohen occurs on Rosh Chodesh Av. We do not believe in coincidence. A connection must exist between the passing of the individual who personified brotherly love and the advent of the month which heralds a period of national mourning for the losses of our Batei Mikdash. The destruction of the second Bais Hamikdash was precipitated by sinaas chinam, unwarranted hatred, among Jews. Veritably, we do not find anywhere else in the Torah in which the date of the passing of a tzaddik, righteous person, is recorded, except for that of Aharon. It is as if the Torah wants us to remember that this spiritual giant died on Rosh Chodesh Av. Indeed, the Tur Orach Chaim, 580, writes that although it is Rosh Chodesh, one may fast. Chazal refer to this as taanis l'tzaddikim, fast for the righteous. Clearly, this day carries great significance.

Chazal exhort us to "be among the disciples of Aharon, love peace and pursue peace" (Pirkei Avos 1:12). Horav Shimshon Pincus, zl, interprets Chazal to be teaching us that we require a mentor to teach us to love peace. Apparently, most people enjoy a good dispute, a raging controversy. It adds zest to life. When things are peaceful and everybody gets along, it is too quiet. Furthermore, when there is peace, too many people are taken for granted. No one notices them; they are not seen or heard. During a machlokes, controversy, these "little guys" suddenly come out of the woodwork, articulating their opinions and making their demands. Suddenly, they have a venue, an audience that will listen to them.

This is why we need a rebbe, mentor, of the calibre of Aharon HaKohen to teach us the significance of living peacefully. People would rather live with strife. In order to promote peace, however, we must first learn to love peace. Only then can we go to the next level in order to create a venue for peaceful coexistence.

Rav Pincus shares an insightful parable which elucidates this point. A young boy chanced upon a fire that was devouring a large building. The excitement that permeated the air was overwhelming: fire trucks blaring their sirens; firemen climbing ladders, carrying hoses, shouting orders; the smoke and flames; the spray of the water; and the rising steam as it extinguished the flames. Even though the boy was nothing more than a spectator, the experience engulfed him, creating an almost "unquenchable" desire to see more, to experience another such "exhilarating" encounter. Such a boy can be suspected of going as far as to set a fire just for the rush that it brings.

Controversy is similar. Those who are used to a sedentary life become awakened to the fires of strife. It gives meaning to their lives, structuring a mission, to get involved and say their piece. Those who do not have a controversy available will go to great lengths to initiate one, just so they have something to do with their lives. Aharon HaKohen taught us the importance of loving peace and quiet. This is why his passing heralds a period of mourning and weeping for generations. We must always remember what he taught us: love peace - so that you will pursue it.

Many gedolei Yisrael have exemplified this middah, character trait. They understood that if Jews do not get along in peace and harmony there cannot be a kiyum, continued existence, for our nation. One gadol, whom I had the privilege of knowing, particularly exemplified this middah. Indeed, he was a person who absolutely abhorred machlokes. Interestingly, the Bobover Rebbe, Horav Shlomo Halberstam, zl, was niftar, died, on Rosh Chodesh Av. He was our contemporary Aharon HaKohen. The Rebbe's conversation expressed his innermost thoughts. His dialogue always revolved around the needs of others and what could be done to alleviate their pain. He refused to be party to any endeavor that might negatively affect another Jew or to cause strife of any kind. This does not mean that he was not provoked. Much discord is the result of insecurity and discomfort with one's status quo. Regrettably, many insecure people are out there. He focused on the wholeness of Klal Yisrael, not on ways to fractionalize into groups. He was Rebbe to thousands, but focused on the concerns of each individual. His thoughtfulness, his sensitivity to the needs of each individual, catalyzed his love of peace. He simply could not tolerate it if people did not get along.

A short vignette is very telling. When he was in the hospital, the people who sent him food often forgot to include his attendants. The Rebbe would proceed to cut each portion into four parts and partake only after each of his attendants had eaten his fill.

You shall arrange cities for yourselves, cites of refuge they shall be for you. (35:11)

In his commentary to Devarim 4:41, the Kli Yakar cites the Mishnah in Pirkei Avos 4:18, Hevai goleh li'm'kom Torah, "Exile yourself to a place of Torah." He explains that the inadvertent murderer was exiled to the Arei Miklat, Cities of Refuge, where he was protected and safe from harm. He was to flee there, so that "he may live." Likewise, the Torah and mitzvos are a source of life, V'chai bahem, "And live by them" (Vayikra 18:5). Thus, one should literally exile himself to a makom Torah, which will be his ir miklat, city of refuge. The yeshivah, its pristine Torah environment, protects one from the spiritually harmful elements that prevail in the "outside" world.

Perhaps this is the reason that the Tanna chooses the word, goleh, exile, which is a strong term reflecting banishment, expatriation, basically a forced separation from his present society. It certainly does not imply anything of a positive nature. The purpose of galus for the inadvertent murderer is to protect him from the wrath of the go'el ha'dam, relative/redeemer of the blood, who has a right to kill him if he is not in the city of refuge. Yes, he is compelled to go there against his will, but it is for his own protection. Likewise, the ben Torah is exiled, so to speak, to the makom Torah, but it is for his protection. The alternative is hardly acceptable.

The sister of Horav Eliezer M. Shach, zl, related that, as a young girl, she never saw her brother. He had been studying Torah in another city. When World War I broke out, the borders were shut down. Rav Shach's mother, together with her neighbor, whose son studied in the same yeshivah as Rav Shach, resolved to meet her son at the border. The women would give their sons some packages of food and necessities, spend some time together and return home. They sent letters to the "boys" and made up to meet at a specific time and place.

The three women, two mothers and Rav Shach's sister - all arrived at the appointed place with time to spare. They waited anxiously for their sons to appear. Suddenly, one of the students appeared, and with him, he carried a letter from Rav Shach to his mother. In it, he apologized for not coming to the meeting. Certainly his mother would remember that she had told him at the beginning of the war, "The safest place was the bais ha'medrash." He feared that if he came to the meeting, his mother, who was a widow, would be so overcome with emotion that she might not want him to return to the yeshivah. He was, therefore, certain that she would forgive his absence. It was just not safe to leave the yeshivah.

You shall designate cities for yourselves, cites of refuge shall they be for you, and a murderer shall flee there - one who takes a life unintentionally… he shall dwell in it until the death of the Kohen Gadol. (35:11,25)

In the Talmud Makkos 11b, Chazal posit that if the current Kohen Gadol died just before the bais din had the chance to issue forth its decision that would send the unintentional murderer to the city of refuge, the rotzeiach, murderer, would be obligated to remain in the ir miklat, city of refuge, until his death. The Talmud questions this halachah. After all, what was this new Kohen Gadol to do? Why should he be the subject of the murderer's entreaty that he die, just so that the murderer could leave? Chazal reply that during that short interval between his appointment as Kohen Gadol and rendering the final decision concerning this man's being exiled for the life of the Kohen Gadol, he should have prayed that the bais din finds the defendant completely innocent, so that they would have exonerated him!

What a powerful statement! What an amazing lesson! Horav Chaim Zaitchik, zl, observes that the time involved between the Kohen Gadol's appointment and the rendering of the decision by bais din is extremely short. It is the ultimate moment of joy of the new Kohen Gadol. Klal Yisrael has selected the next Kohen Gadol, the preeminent spiritual position in Jewish hierarchy. He is to serve as the intercessor between the people and Hashem, and he is to enter on Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the year, into the Kodesh HaKodoshim, Holy of Holies, to effect atonement for the nation.

This is the simchah, joy, that the greatest and the finest can only dream of. One of them ascends to the position - a dream come true. Yet, at this moment of heightened joy, he must drop everything and intercede on behalf of the unintentional murderer! This is the obligation of the Kohen Gadol. It goes with the territory. No time for personal joy. The nation is in need. He must immediately perform the function for which he was selected.

Rav Zaitchik takes this idea to the next level: the contemporary. Let us imagine that one is informed that he has been chosen, above thousands of others, to become the leader/director of a distinguished world entity/organization. He would be totally suffused with joy, savoring every moment, enjoying every declaration of congratulations and good wishes. Would he for one moment think about the wretched, the poor, the broken-hearted, the sick and infirm, the "little guy" in need? Absolutely not! This is his moment. He will empathize and address their needs at a later date. He will certainly attend to his responsibilities, but this is his moment! After all, the prevalent rule of modern society is that there is a time and place for everything. Today happens to be my time of joy. Tomorrow I will deal with your issues, but today is for me.

Our Torah does not conform with the contemporary line of thinking. The demands placed upon the ish ha'klal, communal leader, are quite different. He has no "down" time. The new Kohen Gadol cannot take time out to allow his new status to sink in. He must "hit the ground running." At this moment, when others would party and enjoy, he must remember and pray for those in need. After all, it is for this that he was chosen.

Furthermore, it is specifically during the new Kohen Gadol's moment of heightened joy that his prayers on behalf of the wretched and needy will have their greatest efficacy. He is taking his moment and making it their moment. This has the opportunity to catalyze Hashem's positive response.

Va'ani Tefillah

U'matzasa es levavo ne'eman lefanecha. And you found his heart loyal before You.

Horav Avigdor Miller, zl, notes the specific vernacular used in this pasuk and interprets it accordingly: U'matzasa, "And You found." It does not simply say his heart was loyal to You, but, You found his heart loyal. Hashem Himself attests to Avraham's fidelity. Hashem sees into a person's heart and knows whether his convictions are real, whether they are true. Second, the word levavo is used, as opposed to libo. Levavo is a stronger term, which implies the innermost chambers of the heart, while libo is a reference to the surface or external heart. Avraham Avinu was subjected to a battery of tests which demonstrated his loyalty to Hashem under all situations, in all aspects of emotions and attitudes.

Last, the word used to describe Avraham's relationship with Hashem is ne'eman, loyalty. This indicates that Avraham's primary significance was not merely in the remarkable deeds which he performed. His acts of chesed, loving-kindness; his striving to reach out to a pagan world and teach them monotheism; his willingness to walk into a fiery furnace in support of his convictions: all these are impressive. It was his loyalty, however, his ordinary deeds which he performed with complete fidelity, total equanimity, solely for the sake of Hashem, that earned him Hashem's recognition. Avraham lived solely for Hashem. His most mundane daily activities were all carried out for the sole purpose of performing the will of Hashem. This is why he and his son and his grandson were chosen to be our Patriarchs.

Roiza Rachel bas R' Moshe Aryeh a"h
niftar 8 Av 5756
Shelley Horwitz a"h

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