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Peninim on the Torah

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Rabbi A. Leib Scheinbaum
Hebrew Academy of Cleveland


He shall not desecrate his word; according to whatever comes from his mouth shall he do. (30:3)

For the most part, the idea of "keeping one's word" is ethical in nature. I gave my word; someone relied on my word; it is only right that I keep my word. Our parsha teaches a new dimension in "word keeping": our words are sacred. If one breaks his word, as in a promise to pay back a debt, to perform a specific endeavor, etc., he is not just acting unethically, but he is actually desecrating his word. Words are holy.

We are used to thinking that kedushah, holiness, is relegated to space, time, objects. We view sanctity as innate. Something is either holy from the get-go - or it is not. The Torah teaches us that holiness can be created, manufactured at will. When one consecrates an object, animal, or even money, it becomes holy. The object that had once been mundane is now sacred. Why? It has been sanctified through the medium of someone's word.

The Torah goes even further. Not only does holiness attach itself to words which are designated for the purpose of sanctifying something, but even ordinary speech, whose goal is not to create holiness, is inviolate once it exits the mouth. When a person makes a vow and abrogates it, the Torah refers to it as an act of desecration. He has profaned his word. The act of breaking one's word is an act of desecration. Why should "mere" words be holy if their purpose is, in fact, mundane?

The Nesivos Shalom cites Rabbeinu Yonah's commentary to Pirkei Avos 1:17, in which he compares the Jew's mouth to a keli shareis, ministering vessel, used in the Bais HaMikdash. These vessels have a significant role in the Temple service. For example, a Korban Minchah, Meal-offering, achieves full korban status as soon as it is placed in a keli shareis. The vessel endows its contents with kedushah - just by being there. Likewise, a Jew's mouth becomes a keli shareis, since it is used for so many functions of service to Hashem. If the mouth is holy, its contents - the words that exit from it- are, by extension, holy.

Why would the mouth more than any other organ of the body achieve keli shareis level? Do we not serve Hashem with every fiber of our being? True - but the mouth exemplifies service of Hashem more than any of the other organs of the body. It is with our mouths that we pray, which is a conversation with G-d. We study Torah, recite Kiddush, and articulate our remembrance of specific mitzvos, such as Shabbos, erasing the name of Amalek, and the exodus from Egypt. It is with our mouth that we chose to become Hashem's Nation with the seminal declaration, Naase v'Nishma, "We will do and we will listen."

Our power of speech is the ministering vessel which transforms our mouths into a keli kodesh, holy vessel. Thus, when a Jew does not keep his word, it is a much more egregious sin than simply an ethical character deficiency. It is a disgrace, for he has profaned the holy ministering vessel - his mouth.

Exact the revenge of Bnei Yisrael from the Midyanim… Moshe sent them… with Pinchas ben Elazar HaKohen. (31:6)

Hashem instructed Moshe Rabbeinu to exact revenge against the Midyanim for their role in causing Klal Yisrael to sin with the Moavite girls and worship the Peor idol. Moshe himself did not lead the way; instead, he chose Pinchas. Rashi attributes Moshe's reasoning to the fact that Pinchas had begun the deed of reckoning, by slaying Kozbi, the Midyanite Princess, who had cohabited with Zimri, the renegade Prince of the Tribe of Shimon. Let the one who initiates the revenge carry on to the next phase. Alternatively, Pinchas was a descendant of Yosef HaTzaddik who was sold by his brothers to the Midyanim, who, in turn, sold him to the Egyptians. Veritably, Yosef was actually sold three times: the brothers sold him to the Yishmaelim; who sold him to the Midyanim; who, in turn, sold him to the Egyptians.

The idea that Pinchas should exact revenge due to his ancestral connection to Yosef begs elucidation. The Midyanites referred to in the Yosef-sale were merchants, interested in purchase, sale and profit. To them, Yosef was nothing more than a piece of merchandise. Therefore, asks the Avnei Nezer, is this a reason for his descendant, hundreds of years later, to take revenge and decimate the Midyanim?

Understandably, this incident contains much more than meets the eye. Horav Mordechai Miller, zl, explains this based on an important lesson to be derived from the Manna, the Heavenly food which sustained our ancestors for forty years in the wilderness. After entering Eretz Yisrael, Klal Yisrael ate from the produce of the land. This began on the day after Pesach, after the Omer offering was waved and brought up to Hashem. In Yehoshua 5:11, 12, Rashi explains that the Manna actually stopped falling on the day Moshe died, the seventh of Adar. Nonetheless, the Manna which they gathered on that day sufficed to sustain them until the fifteenth of Nissan. This idea coincides with the posuk that says, "They ate Manna for forty years." A mathematical difficulty remains, since they began eating Manna on the sixteenth of Iyar - one month after Nissan. Thus, we actually ate Manna for forty years minus thirty days. The Torah does not make mistakes. How are we to understand this? Rashi explains that for the first thirty days after leaving Egypt, prior to receiving the Manna, the nation ate matzah, which had the taste of Manna!

Rav Miller posits that Rashi's commentary not only solves our technical difficulty, but it also provides us with a critical principle essential to our spiritual development. The shift from matzah to Manna was gradual; the transition was gentle. To shift from eating physical food to living off Heavenly sustenance must occur gradually. The people had to become accustomed to the taste of the Manna before being presented with it in its physical form. Spiritual growth requires gradual modification. One does not leap to the top. He scales the heights of spirituality step by step, rung by rung, at a steady pace, establishing his spiritual foundation solidly on each step before he ascends to the next level.

Likewise, when the nation entered Eretz Yisrael, a measured gradual alteration took place as they transitioned from eating Manna exclusively to eating the natural produce of Eretz Yisrael. This was not a culinary transfiguration, but rather, a preparation for an entire spiritual change in their manner of living. The wilderness was the backdrop for miracles on an almost steady basis. The nation understood that miracles were real and nature only a concealment of reality. Crossing the border into the Holy Land, they would be expected to live on a totally new spiritual plane. Their perspective would be altered as they confronted the world of nature, of cause and effect, a world in which the Divine Hand of G-d, which is always in control of the rudder, would be obscured. They would have to look with a profound and discerning eye to perceive the Divine maneuvering of life. Thus, the people were slowly weaned off the Manna, which last descended on the seventh of Adar. It continued to taste like Manna, but it did not arrive daily with the morning dew. Just as they ascended from Egypt on a gradual and gentle basis, likewise, they descended back into the world of obscure reality, where man must gaze through the maze of ambiguity resulting from the veil of nature to see the Divine truth.

There is, however, a negative side to gradual descent: one is very likely unaware of his decline. It is so gradual and gentle that what he perceives as nothing is actually another nail in his spiritual coffin. Thus, one might commit a small sin, an activity that on its own is not significantly damaging, but when he overlooks a few of these insignificant sins, he is sadly laying the foundation for a major and cardinal transgression.

In his Gur Aryeh commentary to Bereishis 25:28, Maharal advances this idea with regard to the sale of Yosef, a sale whereby he was thrice exchanged. Yosef was sold a number of times. The change was gradual, as he moved from one domain to another. He was first sold by his brothers to the Yishmaelim - who were also descendants of Avraham Avinu. While the Yishmaelim were not his brothers, since they shared in the Patriarchal lineage to Avraham, they maintained a certain element of kinship. Thus, the descent was gradual. The Yishmaelim brought Yosef to Egypt; Egypt was the home of their ancestress Hagar. In Egypt, Yosef was sold to peddlers who had Midyanite origins and were not considered Midyanim, but rather, businessmen who were going about their vocation. After this, Yosef was sold to Midyanim, who then sold him to the Egyptians. Hashem made Yosef's descent into Egypt as gradual as possible. This was a country in which hedonism had been elevated to a cultural status, where moral debauchery was a standard by which the people lived. Coming from Yaakov Avinu's spiritually sequestered home, this was a devastating transformation for Yosef. It had to be very gentle and gradual.

Having laid the foundation for understanding the Midyan factor in Yosef's life, Rav Miller returns to our original difficulty: Why Pinchas? Why was he the one chosen to exact revenge on Midyan? We mentioned that Rashi offers two reasons. First, Pinchas began the job by killing Kozbi; he might as well complete the work. Second, as a descendant of Yosef, he was taking revenge for what the Midyanim had done to his grandfather. On a cursory level, the two reasons appear disparate. In reality, they are related and even complement one another.

Midyanites were, sadly, very successful in their attempt to seduce Klal Yisrael, to pull the rug of morality from under our feet. Why? It was precisely due to their closeness to our people, their lineage descending from the union of Avraham and Keturah. It was uniquely as a result of our sense of kinship to these people that we were so susceptible to their contemptible influence. When one falls under the influence, especially an influence based upon the erroneous belief that the other person/nation, the aggressor, would never harm you because of their closeness - then one falls very hard. This is what happened to the Jews. They allowed themselves to be violated by the Midyanites guile-- to become compromised by them, because they believed in them. After all, we are kinsmen. They would never hurt us. (How many times throughout our tumultuous history have we repeatedly made this same mistake?)

The Midyanites personified a slow, insidious calculating lowering of personal values. The individual who could successfully battle against them would have to be an individual who represented unbending, untarnished truth. When Pinchas saw Zimri make a fool of himself by desecrating himself and profaning Hashem's Name in public, Pinchas acted decisively, with courage and resolution, to expunge this evil from the midst of our nation. Pinchas acted swiftly to eradicate the evil of a nation whose primary strategy was an agenda of gradual corruption. Pinchas unleashed his vengeance swiftly and with malice, avenging the injustice perpetrated against his ancestor.

Rav Miller adds that Midyan had a great and wily mentor: the evil-inclination, whose primary technique for leading people to sin is gradual and gentle persuasion. First, it is a tiny compromise for the sake of a mitzvah, then it is a greater compromise, so that people will see that we are flexible. By then the protective armor has developed a crack, a chink which ultimately leads to the fatal flaw. Each and every Jew has as his life's mission the responsibility to remain steadfast and strong; to serve as a bulwark of truth and moral values, so that we withstand the strong winds that constantly seek to undermine us.

Behold! You have risen up in place of your fathers, a society of sinful people. (32:14)

At the end of Talmud Sukkah (56b) Chazal teach that the mishmor, watch, of Bilgah always divides in the south. This means: The incoming watch divides the Lechem HaPanim, Showbread, in the north, since most offerings were slaughtered in the northern side of the courtyard. Thus, it was apparent that they were the incoming mishmor. The outgoing watch divided the Lechem HaPanim in the south, so that it should be clear that they were leaving. The family of Bilgah always divided in the south as the result of an incident involving Miriam, the daughter of one of the Kohanim of the Bilgah family. She apostatized herself and married a Greek officer. Subsequently, when the Greeks entered the Sanctuary, she scornfully kicked with her sandal on the Altar and exclaimed, "Lucus, Lucus, Wolf, Wolf (referring to the Altar as a devouring wolf), how long will you consume the many sacrifices of Yisrael and you do not stand by their side at a time of pressing need?" As a result of this abominable behavior, the entire mishmor was punished. The Talmud asks why did Hashem penalize Bilgah in response to the actions of his daughter? They explain, "It is correct to punish the entire watch, as people say, 'The utterances of a child in public express the views of either his father or his mother.'" Clearly, this girl must have heard her father speak disdainfully of the Temple service.

The above is a frightening condemnation of the ramifications of a parent's less-than-thought-out comments concerning a religious endeavor, an organization, or a person in a position of spiritual leadership. Had Miriam not heard a less than complimentary remark from her father concerning the Temple service, she quite possibly would not have eschewed Judaism.

This is what our parsha teaches us. The origin of the sins of the sons is in the actions of the fathers. When a father talks in shul, he shows his son that davening is not very important, that he does not value the shul very much. As time goes on, the son grows up and outdoes his father: he does not attend shul - period. The mother decides that the latest styles concocted by the delusionary designers in Paris is how a Jewish mother should dress. If she is not embarrassed by her mother's lack of spiritual refinement, her daughter will probably outdo her later on in life. There is no status quo in Judaism. One either ascends, or plummets to the bottom. There is no reason for parents to give their children a head start by manifesting their own personal shortcomings.

The Melitzer Rebbe, Shlita, was questioned concerning those whose antipathy towards Torah has gotten the better of them, transforming them into self-loathing, bitter antagonists of Torah Judaism, who spew forth their virulent diatribe against Torah and its disseminators. How did they become this way? What is the origin of their animus? Indeed, some of these maligners have even had a somewhat decent Jewish education. What ticked them off? He explained that at one point, perhaps three or four generations earlier, they had an ancestor whose attitude toward Jewish observance was, at best, lackadaisical. He observed - but in a dispassionate way, almost as if he were compelled to do so. Over the years, his lethargic mindset intensified to the point that his descendant now harbors an acrimonious distaste for the Torah way, so virulent that he feels compelled to make it his personal campaign to destroy this way of life.

As in most things, however, there is a flipside to this attitude. When a parent is moser nefesh, sacrifices himself, for the Torah way, even if it is on lesser degree, generations later this devotion will play itself out with banim u'bnei banim oskim baTorah u'bamitzvos, generations of descendants whose commitment to Torah is without peer. Any act of going beyond the call of duty will germinate into a tree of life that is not only esthetically pleasant, but its powers to sustain are enormous. It all depends on the type of seeds one plants.

So Moshe gave to them - to Bnei Gad, and Bnei Reuven, and half the tribe of Menashe ben Yosef - the Kingdom of Sichon… And the Kingdom of Og. (32:33)

The lands which were inhabited by the kingdoms of Sichon and Og were very fertile. Bnei Gad and Bnei Reuven were two tribes which had large herds of sheep and cattle. The fertile grazing land would be a boon for them. They, therefore, approached Moshe Rabbeinu and requested to lay claim to the eastern portion of the Jordan, Eivar ha'Yardein, for themselves and their families. They were granted their wish, and the two tribes, with the added complement of half the tribe of Menashe, were allowed to remain on Eivar haYardein. The question is obvious: Where did the tribe of Menashe enter into the picture? The discussion was about Reuven and Gad - not Menashe. The Netziv, zl, explains that Moshe was concerned for the spiritual health of the two tribes who remained separated from the rest of the nation. Their involvement in agricultural commerce would certainly occupy much of their time, hence not allow for the necessary exposure to spirituality which is required to maintain a spiritual status quo. The members of the tribe of Menashe, who were strongly committed bnei Torah, would inspire their brethren. This teaches us the significance of maintaining one's residence in a Torah-friendly community, one which is replete with individuals who devote themselves-- and inspire others-- to maintain a strong relationship with the Torah.

We wonder why Shevet Menashe, which had among its ranks some profound Torah scholars, was selected to be the tribe that remained on Eivar ha'Yardein-- and not Shevet Yissachar, whose vocation it was to study and disseminate Torah. Horav Yaakov Galinsky, zl, cites Chazal who teach that because the Shevatim, tribes/brothers, caused Yaakov Avinu to rend his garment in mourning over the news that Yosef had been killed, they, too, were compelled to tear their garments when they were accused of stealing Yosef's goblet. Two hundred and fifty years later, the tribes were separated and one tribe was "torn" in half - Shevet Menashe. Why? Chazal inform us that the messenger that Yosef sent to search for his goblet in the brothers' grain sacks was none other than Menashe. Thus, the one who indirectly caused the brothers to rend their garments was Menashe. Thus, two and a half centuries later, his tribe was split - half on the western bank of the Jordan and half on the eastern bank.

We have no understanding of G-d's ways, because we are limited by the temporal nature of time. Our tenure in this world is temporary and filled with questions - questions that are answered decades and even centuries later. Our inability to connect the dots, to put everything into perspective, hampers us from seeing life in its true perspective. No one is ignored. Everyone receives his due - both positive and negative. It might take time, but it will invariably occur -often when we least expect, or understand, it.

The Chafetz Chaim would cite two unrelated episodes which demonstrate this idea. There will always be a payback. It might take some time, and it might arrive when one least expects it, but it is guaranteed to come.

The first story concerns a poor widow who lived in Radin. It was winter, and she had run out of rent money. She begged the landlord not to evict her in the cold of winter. Could he please wait for the spring when the weather was not as harsh? The man was obstinate. She would have to go. He was embarrassed to leave her belongings in the street. Instead, he removed the windows from the apartment, exposing the woman to the elements, thereby forcing her to seek shelter elsewhere. The poor widow went into the street, shocked by the man's cruel insensitivity, broken and weeping bitterly over her own miserable plight.

When word concerning the incident reached the Chafetz Chaim, he commented, "Such an episode evokes Heavenly anger. It will not go by unrequited." Years passed, in fact sixty-seven years went by, during which the landlord lived a very good, peaceful life. He was healthy and prosperous, not a care in the world. Everyone had forgotten about that terrible incident - everyone but Hashem. One day, the landlord went for a walk and was bitten by a rabid dog. He became ill with rabies, and suffered greatly until his painful death. Everyone took pity on him; everyone felt his pain. The only one who remembered what had taken place sixty-seven years earlier was the Chafetz Chaim. He noted, "One must have a Torah perspective on life and view everything that occurs through the prism of Torah." Everything that takes place is part of one long continuum. What seems shocking to us today might not be so earth shattering if we would know the "rest of the story."

Another incident occurred in Aishishuk, during the Cantonist decree, when young Jewish youths were forcibly grabbed and conscripted for a minimum of twenty-five years into the Czar's army. Word reached the leaders of the Jewish community that they would have to supply a certain number of young men for the army. There was no room for negotiation. If the community did not supply them willingly, the boys would be taken by force, and everyone would pay. The soldiers went around indiscriminately picking up Jewish boys. Among those was the son of the town's butcher - a burly man who would stop at nothing to achieve his objectives.

When the butcher heard that his son had been taken, he went into a frenzy. He went to the barracks where the boys were being held captive. The wailing that he heard was heart rending. He proceeded to the commanding officer and asked, "How much do you want so that my son may leave? Name your price and you will have it." The officer looked at the hysterical father and said, "You do not seem to understand. There is a certain number of boys which I must provide for the army. If that number is missing - no amount of money can make up for the loss." The officer was intimating that he really did not care who took the butcher's son's place, but someone - not money - must replace the boy.

The butcher performed a dastardly sin. Late at night, he entered the bais hamedrash and found one boy who was a masmid, diligent student, studying alone in the back of the study hall. The butcher snuck up on him, grabbed him and brought him to the army barracks, together with a gift of one hundred rubles for the officer - all of this in lieu of the butcher's son. The son went free, replaced by the poor yeshivah student.

The Chafetz Chaim was studying in Aishishuk at the time and became aware of the tragic incident. The entire community was in an uproar. How could the butcher get away with committing such an outrageously cruel act? Time, however, was on the butcher's side, as people began to forget. Soon, he was "yesterday's" tragedy, yesterday's news. The Chafetz Chaim, however, did not forget. He patiently waited to see how Hashem would deal with the butcher's requital.

The butcher took his son into the business, and he soon became his father's right hand man. One day, the butcher gave his son a bag of money with which to purchase calves from a nearby town. The road to this town took the son through an area notorious for various insects - many of which carried dangerous germs. The son was bitten by a mosquito carrying the deadly black plague. As the trip went on, the son became more and more ill. He purchased the calves and proceeded to return home. By the time he entered the city limits of Aishishuk, his entire body was covered with painful black blisters which were already oozing blood. Finally, unable to continue on, the young man died a painful, gruesome death in the middle of the street.

The Chevra Kaddisha, Burial Society, was summoned, but when they saw the condition of the deceased, they said, "We are unable to come in contact with the corpse. It would make us susceptible to the vicious infection which killed him. The butcher was called and told that his son was lying dead in the street, with no one even to move him. The father was relegated to performing the gruesome ritual all by himself, as he picked up the corpse, prepared the grave and personally buried his son. The entire town felt the pain of the father who so tragically lost his son. The Chafetz Chaim, however, remembered. Hashem had not forgotten what the butcher had done to the poor yeshivah bachur. It was payback time.

V'limaditem osam es b'neichem l'dabeir bam.

Interestingly, the Torah chose to enjoin parents to teach Torah to their children specifically in the Shema Yisrael, which focuses on Kabbolas ol Malchus Shomayim, accepting upon oneself the yoke of Heaven. Was there no other place in the Torah where the mitzvah of limud haTorah to the next generation could be placed? Horav Moshe Mordechai Epstein, zl, explains that true Kabbolas ol Malchus Shomayim occurs only when we see to it that our children study Torah. Otherwise, there is no guarantee that the next generation will maintain its relationship with Hashem. Ol Malchus Shomayim is, indeed, a yoke. It has demands, obligations and responsibilities. The only way that adherence to this kabbalah, acceptance, is maintained is by commitment to Torah study - which does not happen on its own. It requires that a father spend time to see to it that his son studies Torah. When parents confuse their priorities, often demanding strict standards for secular disciplines, while simultaneously being lax and settling for substandard, mediocre Torah instruction, they have just imparted a subtle, but rather clear, message: Torah is not that important. If Torah lacks significance, the yoke of Heaven and religious observance will sadly soon follow.

In loving memory
of our parents and brother

Cy and Natalie Handler
3 Av 5772 - 24 Teves 5771
Jeremy Handler
19 Tamuz 5766

by the Handler Family

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