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Rabbi A. Leib Scheinbaum
Hebrew Academy of Cleveland


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

The Torah seems to underscore the number of soldiers involved in the war of vengeance against Midyan. It then makes a point to detail how much booty was taken after the war. Veritably, numbers do not seem to play a role in the parshios, other than the parshios which deal with the census of the Jewish nation. In this case, however, the size of the army and the amount of booty apparently maintain a significant position in the parsha. Horav Arye Leib Heyman, zl, suggests that the key to the role of numbers in the parsha is to be found in a statement made by Rashi concerning Bilaam's visit to Moav to collect his reward for causing the deaths of twenty-four thousand Jewish men. The hatred that the Midyanites harbored for Klal Yisrael was so intense that they counted each Jew whose death they caused. Such animus is unreal and not found anywhere else in the Torah. They celebrated each and every death.

Furthermore, the war against Midyan is called the vengeance of Bnei Yisrael. It was neither a war for land, nor a war to defend themselves. It was a war designed for the sole purpose of exacting vengeance for the tremendous pain MIdyan had caused. Thus, after Bilaam made a point to count out twenty-four thousand Jewish deaths, Hashem sent twelve thousand Jewish soldiers, with Pinchas HaKohen at the helm. Pinchas is equal to them all. Thus, twenty-four thousand Jewish soldiers went out to attack, to avenge the twenty-four thousand untimely Jewish deaths which Midyan had caused. Likewise, when it came to an accounting of the booty that was taken in, the Torah counts the amount meticulously. The Midyanim were exact in the war of hate which they waged against us. We will, likewise, play the numbers game, so that our vengeance will conform with their hatred.

Rav Heyman draws a parallel to the war of hatred waged against us by the accursed Germans. The hatred that the Nazis manifested towards us was so intense, so diabolical, that they reveled in every Jewish soul whose death they succeeded in catalyzing. They meticulously kept an accounting of how many Jewish lives they destroyed, by tattooing their victims with numbers. We were no longer human beings - we were numbers! Their punishment was specific sentences which coincided with their evil. It was all about numbers: years, months, weeks; they kept "score." So does Hashem.

This was no simple war. It was a nekamah, vengeance, for Hashem and for Klal Yisrael. The payback had to coincide with the evil. With this in mind, Rav Heyman explains a somewhat ambiguous passage in the Talmud Bava Kamma 38A. Klal Yisrael is admonished not to initiate a war with Moav. The Talmud wonders: Would Moshe Rabbeinu take it upon his shoulders to initiate a war? Our leader never made a move without Hashem's instruction. Why would destroying Moav be any different? Chazal explain that Moshe (could have) made a kal v'chomer, a priori logic: Although Midyan only joined Moav to help them with the Jewish problem, Hashem said take everyone against the Midyanim. In that case, Moav who initiated the evil, for sure should be destroyed. Hashem responded to Moshe's query: My thoughts are different. I have two preidos, good birds, to extract from them (Moav and Amnon), Rus HaMoaviah and Naamah Ha'Amnonis. Because of these two women, Moav will be spared!

Rav Heyman does not view Hashem's response to Moshe as a reason for sparing Moav. Indeed, if Midyan deserved vengeance, so certainly did Moav and Amnon. Their vengeance, however, was unlike the vengeance exhorted against Midyan. What greater vengeance can there be against Moav than for them to realize that the Jewish kings of the stature of Shlomo and Rechavan would descend from them? If these evil people who sought to destroy the Jews would have realized that specifically they would be responsible for their enemies' ultimate triumph, they would have gone insane. What a fitting punishment it would be to know that, not only did you lose the war, but you catalyzed your enemies' ultimate enduring triumph!

I remember vividly the funeral of my mother A.H. She had survived the entire World War II years as an inmate in various concentration camps. She suffered greatly, but the Nazis could not destroy her spirit. She passed away from this world a proud woman- proud with nachas, spiritual satisfaction, proud in the knowledge that her children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren were all observant and committed, with many disseminating Hashem's word to future generations. I asked that her aron, coffin, be carried out by her grandsons, all of whom are Bnei Torah. As her aron was being carried out by my sons and nephews, an elderly survivor who had known my mother for most of her life commented, "She just had her nekamah, vengeance, on Hitler, y.m.s." Our vengeance is not by raising our fist in defiance, but by delving into our Gemorah. Our vengeance is an enduring Judaism that will be transmitted to the future generations. Hitler sought to make a "museum to an extinct race." We have shown them that, as long as we embrace Hashem, we are far from extinct.

Moshe was angry with the commanders of the army…Moshe said to them, "Did you let every female live?" (31:14,15)

Moshe Rabbeinu was angry with the officers of his army for not following his orders. They spared the Midyanite women, despite their involvement in inciting the orgies which catalyzed the plague that brought death to so many Jews. Upon reading the pesukim, one may question why Moshe's name is repeated in his rebuke. The Torah said that Moshe became angry. Obviously, he was the one rebuking the officers. Why did the Torah mention his name again?

The commentators explain that Moshe did not immediately rebuke them out of anger. He waited a short while until his anger subsided and then rebuked the officers. Thus, the two pesukim did not take place immediately one after the other. Indeed, we find concerning the laws of koshering utensils following the Midyanite war that it was Elazar HaKohen, rather than Moshe, who transmitted the laws. As a result of Moshe's anger, the laws became temporarily obscured from him. We find a similar critique when Moshe became cross with Elazar and Isamar (veritably, his sharp criticism was directed at Aharon HaKohen, but, in deference to his older brother, he spoke instead to his sons) for not eating from the sin-offering. As a result of his anger, he erred in his criticism. It was his brother Aharon who respectfully brought the error to his attention.

Clearly, Moshe Rabbeinu's anger is unlike the uncontrolled raw emotion which represents our anger. Ours is a corrosive emotion which can taint our mental and physical well-being. Releasing anger does not necessarily dissipate it. Anger in its own right is a form of indignation. It is the accompanying aggression which represents the problem. The Torah attests that Moshe became angry three times; each one had a negative impact on his cognitive ability. We must understand that, when speaking about the Rabban Shel Kol Yisrael, these negative terms are totally relative. The Torah seems to be teaching us that anger has a corrosive effect on everyone - even on our quintessential leader. This is probably the reason that the Torah points out these three instances in which Moshe became indignant.

Having said this, we must ask ourselves the realistic question: How often do we get angry? What effect does it have on us, our loved ones, and our relationship with others? In Chinuch Malchusi, the following meaningful and all-too-common vignette is related.

A rebbe, known for his punctuality, once came late to school. Apparently, he was caught in a traffic jam which had delayed him. As he walked into the classroom, one of the students walked over, raised his arm and pointed to the watch on his hand. Taking this as a slight against him for being tardy, the rebbe became quite angry. At first, he was about to punish the child for his chutzpah, insolence. How dare he call attention to the rebbe's late arrival? He decided to wait, to hold in his anger, to see how things would materialize.

That morning, following the recess bell, when all the classes were out for break, the rebbe shared the incident and his feelings concerning the boy. How surprised (and thankful) he was to discover that, the night before, the boy had just received a brand new watch from his parents. It seems that he had excelled on a certain test, and the watch was his prize. The boy had waited patiently that morning to show his prize to his rebbe - because his rebbe's approval meant so much to him. Chutzpah was the furthest thing from his mind.

Now - let us imagine the scenario had the rebbe not held back his anger, had he instead lashed out at the youngster for his supposed chutzpah and, simultaneously, released his pent- up anger concerning the traffic that had delayed him that day; it would have been a disaster. The child, through no fault of his own, would have become a victim of the rebbe's anger. The joy of receiving a new watch, which he had wanted to share with his rebbe, would have quickly dissipated. Instead, a rift between rebbe and student that could have negative ramifications far beyond the school year would emerge. There is a time to act decisively, and there is a time when the most decisive thing to do is - not to act.

Yair ben Menashe, went and conquered their villages and called them Chavos Yair. Novach went and conquered Kenas and its suburbs, and called it Novach after his own name. (32:41,42)

Yair had no children to carry on his name. Therefore, after conquering the villages, he named them after himself as a memorial. Everyone wants to be remembered. Indeed, after having lived a mortal life replete with many achievements, all that is left are memories - memories of the individual. He is gone, but his memory lives on. It is up to each and every one of us to decide, by the way we act, how we want to be remembered. Sadly, for some, when we wake up to this realization, it is too late.

Novach also conquered villages. He, too, named them after himself. Only, in this situation, we observe a disparity in the naming process. Rashi indicates that, in the word "lah," the letter "hay" is not marked with a dagesh, dot. (This is referred to as mapik hay, whereby such a hay is mapik, brought forth, underscored, and pronounced as a full consonant with the same sound as the English letter H, even though it is at the end of a word, which usually does not have a sound. When the suffix hay is used for "her" or "it," it usually takes a dagesh.) The fact that the dagesh is missing indicates a weakening of the possessive message implied by the "hay." Rashi quotes Rabbi Moshe HaDarshan who explains that, since the name Novach did not endure for long, the word lah was weakened, so that it sounds more like la (with an aleph), which means "not."

Horav Shimon Schwab, zl, notes that every dot in the Torah is present for a reason; every dot teaches us a lesson. What important lesson is imparted by the missing dot? Why is it important for us to be aware that the city of Novach did not retain its name for an extended time?

In contrast, the Chavos Yair, thirty cities conquered by Yair ben Menashe and named for him still carry the name he gave them - Chavos Yair. Wherein lay the difference between the "namings"?

The Rav explains that a property is often called by its owner's name to indicate possession. He wants people to know that he conquered it, he built it. It is his. Thus, Yair named the cities Chavos Yair to inform everyone that he had built these cities. Novach also wanted to indicate possession, but he had another agenda. His message was, "Yes, it is my city, but, actually, it is more than my city. It is Novach - Novach city. I and my city are one and the same." Novach identified completely with his property. This is inappropriate. One may identify with possessions, but not to the point that he and his material abundance are one and the same. Thus, the city did not retain the name Novach. As all physical entities are temporal, so, too, was the name Novach; here today - gone tomorrow.

While Novach was censured for identifying himself so closely with his material abundance, a person who identifies with ruchniyos, spirituality, becomes elevated. One who identifies with his spiritual demeanor takes on a new image. He may have a physical body, but his essence is ruchniyos. The greatest blessing is to become one with Hashem, His Torah and mitzvos. Thus, he epitomizes virtue and holiness. Success in life is determined by one's identity - the identity that he has established for himself. For example, a sports figure who devotes his life to success on the field or on the court, will live and die as a sports figure. The "ball" will be his epitaph, his symbol of achievement. When one identifies with ruchniyos, the Torah and mitzvos are his memorial. We have no reason to elaborate on this contrast in values.

Parashas Masei

The cities that you shall give to the Leviim: the six cities that you shall provide for a murderer to flee there. (35:6)

Forty-eight cities were set aside for the Leviim. Of these, six cities were specifically for the rotzeach b'shogeg, unintentional murderer. One wonders why men of such spiritual distinction were relegated to live with individuals who had blood on their hands. True, the murders that they committed were unintentional, but there are various levels of lack of intent, some of which border on carelessness. Only Hashem knows the truth. The Leviim led very spiritual lives. Obviously, their families had a different moral and spiritual compass than that which guided the rest of the nation. Is it fair that these fine, upstanding people should have to have "marked" men in their community?

The Sefer HaChinuch offers two reasons for the Leviim serving as "host" to the unintentional murderer - both focusing on their unique spirituality. In order to inspire the unintentional murderer, to teach him the value of human life, it is necessary that he be exposed to holy and devout people. In his second explanation, he offers a powerful reason which goes to the very core of bein adam lachaveiro, relationships between man and his fellow man. The Leviim are sensitive and caring people to whom character refinement is essential and middos tovos, positive character traits, are the measure of man. Such people will bear no animus, harbor no grudge against the unintentional murderer, even if his victim were one of his own - a friend, a relative! This is the type of people they were and the upbringing they had and imparted to their children. It was into such a lofty environment that the rotzeach b'shogeg was thrust. It is in such a community, surrounded by such caring individuals, that he has a chance.

A powerful statement. The Torah in concerned for the emotions of the unintentional murderer. Obviously, we are not dealing here with an act of violence that was purely accidental, because then the perpetrator is as much a victim as the deceased. There is no requirement of ir miklat, city of refuge, in such a case. It is when the "accident" is ambiguous, when the lack of intention is a cross between accident and carelessness, that the individual must seek refuge. It is also a form of penance for his actions. Clearly, he did not expect to spend years away from everyone, without his family and friends, quite possibly not the most popular man in the community. He feels bad; he is depressed, dejected; his life is a shambles. It is in such a community of unique individuals that he has a chance. The Torah cares about everyone's feelings - even those of one whose actions, albeit unintentional, placed himself into this predicament.

A human being's emotions should weigh heavy on the hearts and minds of every Jew. Noticeably, I did not use the word Jew, but rather, human being. Hashem created people with emotions. It is wrong to hurt anyone. Once we lose our sensitivity it taints us, and eventually we will become insensitive to the plight of our brethren. In an inspirational address, Horav Shabsai Yudelevitz, zl, poignantly describes for us the cries of the mother of Sisra, the Canaanite king, who the Jews, under the leadership of Barak ben Avinoam and Devorah HaNeviyah defeated. First, some background on the story.

The Jewish army was up against a powerful general - one who had heretofore been undefeated in battle. Chazal teach us that Sisra was an individual of extraordinary physical strength. At the age of thirty, he had already succeeded in conquering the entire civilized world. When he came upon a city fortified by walls, Sisra would just stand opposite the wall and scream. The walls came tumbling down. It mattered not if the wall was thick or supported. It came tumbling down. When Sisra would bathe in the Kishon River, he would trap fish in his beard - enough to feed many people. Animals and wild beasts trembled from the sound of his voice.

Sisra was supported by an army of millions of the most powerful warriors and nine hundred armed chariots. He was a formidable leader with an equally formidable army. His battles would last about three to four hours before the enemy either surrendered or was destroyed. Thus, when six hours had passed and Sisra's mother had not yet heard from her "dear" son, she became concerned. At first, she conjectured that he must have stumbled on an incredible amount of booty. "Certainly in his victory he is gathering silks, gold and silver," his mother fantasized. She could only think of him as a successful warrior who was delayed due to an overwhelming amount of spoils. She could never imagine that her son had fallen prey to the weak Jews.

When she received the news of his death (at the hands of a woman, Yael), her distress was not limited to that of a mother losing a son; her weeping reflected the shocking inversion of her entire view of the world. Everything that she had expected had shockingly been destroyed, and the weak, hapless enemy, about whom she had never even given a second thought, had now become the victor. She wept because now she realized that all that she had accepted as true and real had been shattered.

Sisra's mother wailed one hundred times. She wailed because her son was late in returning from battle where she was certain he had destroyed the Jewish army. This was no simple weeping of a sweet mother for her loving child. It was defiled wailing emanating from a horrible woman who was concerned that her son was late in returning from killing Jews.

Tosfos (Talmud Rosh Hashanah 33) state that the reason we blow the shofar one hundred blasts (Yevamos) is that Sisra's mother wailed one hundred times. His mother was certain that Sisra would emerge victorious from this battle, as he had from earlier, more difficult battles. War is war, however, and there is always that one obscure --almost irrational -- doubt that something might occur which would change the course of the war, turning it against her son. This one doubt initiated her worry, which intensified after the usual four hours had elapsed.

This idea is represented by the shofar's teruah, wailing sound. During the course of the year, indeed, during the course of life, we lull ourselves into believing that olamo k'minhago, noheig, the world is as it is, goes on the way it was; life is life, and we will continue living. We have become so entrenched in our complacent view that we have come to accept life as we live it - disregarding the truth as Hashem would like us to see. The shofar's sound awakens our inner senses, forcing us to realize that a change in perspective is necessary. It is time to remove our blinders and see the truth. Man must awaken to the realization that he is not in charge; he is not in control. Just as the world of Sisra's mother, who had it all -- fame, fortune, goyishe nachas, a life of privilege-- was rudely shattered, so, too, are we made conscious that Hashem runs the world, and we must be participants according to His will - not ours.

An inspirational homily, but what does it have to do with the unintentional murderer living in the Levi city? It is all about empathy, concern for another person's feelings. The rotzeiach b'shogeg committed an unintentional act of murder. A Jewish life was snuffed out as a result of his error. He is miserable, alone and in need of a friend. The Levi is that individual, who, because of his spiritual upbringing and affinity, is able to overlook what most others will view as a fault. He will be sensitive to the rotzeiach's tears; he will understand his emotions and support him in his time of need.

Va'ani Tefillah

Mechayeh meisim b'rachamim rabim He resuscitates the dead with abundant mercy. What is the meaning of "mercy" with regard to Techiyas HaMeisim? It is certainly an act of chesed, kindness, but why mercy? Chazal (Sanhedrin 91A) compare the human body minus the soul to a healthy person who is tragically blind. On the other hand, the neshamah, soul, sans body, is very much like a cripple who had perfect eyesight. In other words, the individual either cannot go forward because he cannot see where to go or, alternatively, he sees where to go, but cannot get there, because he is crippled. The handicap of each individual immobilizes him. If, however, the cripple is placed atop the strong blind man, he can lead the blind man where to go. Thus, each one's handicap is ameliorated by the other person. Likewise, the soul requires the body for it to achieve anything in this world. The body is in a similar predicament: unable to accomplish its goals without the lifeline provided by the soul. Together, body and soul can work in harmony to carry out Hashem's mitzvos. When body and soul are separated by death, they suffer, because neither is able to achieve efficacy. Thus, when Hashem is mechayeh meisim, resuscitates the dead and returns the soul to its rightful body, He exercises abundant mercy by reuniting them, so that they can resume the relationship that was cut short by death.

IYaakov and Karen Nisenbaum and Family
In memory of our mother and grandmother
Anna Nisenbaum

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