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Peninim on the Torah

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Rabbi A. Leib Scheinbaum
Hebrew Academy of Cleveland


But if the bondsman shall say, "I love my master…I shall not go free…" and his master shall bore through his ear with the awl. (21:5,6)

There is no sin in the Torah for which a similar punishment is meted out. Chazal say that the ear is bored because it was the ear that heard Hashem say on Har Sinai, "To Me shall the Jewish People be servants," and this individual went and acquired for himself a (human) master anyway. The question is glaring: If the issue is becoming a slave, why is he bored now - after six years of servitude? It should have been done immediately when he sold himself as a slave. Why is he punished now, after all of this time, when the fellow seeks to extend his servitude?

Horav Yoel Kleinerman, zl, distinguishes between the concept of hechrech, necessity/compulsion, and ahavah, liking/desire, or simply between "needs" and "wants." We make choices in our lives. Some things fall under the category of compulsion. An example is the person who steals because he is starving; his family has nothing, and he is the sole supporter. Since no jobs are available, he has resorted to doing something which, under normal circumstances, he would never have done. This does not exempt him from punishment, but, he clearly did not steal just for "fun." He was forced into a life of crime. Another example is the one who sells himself as a bondsman, so that he can support his family. Once again, he has not done this out of a desire to lay back and not take a regular job. He has done this because he was forced into it. He is acting out of "need" - not out of "want."

Now, six years later, he is freed from servitude. He should be going home to his family. Only, he does not want to leave. He loves his job, his master, and his newly-acquired wife and children. He likes the security of a boss who takes care of him, who looks out for his needs. He "wants" to stay. This is not something which he "needs." He is not compelled to stay. This is something he "wants." He has no shame, no guilt; he simply loves working for his master. He is now reminded that a Jew has only one Master: Hashem. A Jew who accepts another master in addition to Hashem detracts from his relationship with the Almighty. Thus, his ear is bored, because it was the ear that heard Hashem declare that Jews are to be servants to only one Master: Hashem.

Six years earlier, he had been under trying circumstances, he was heavily in debt and he had a family to support, with no income. He was forced into making a drastic decision about which he was not happy, but he had to take some action. At this point in his life, however, he is free to go. If he chooses to stay, his ear must be bored.

Our lives are filled with excuses to justify our lack of acceptance of the yoke of Torah and mitzvos with greater devotion, more feeling, deeper sincerity. It is always too difficult or too problematic; I am not cut out for it. While these rationales might be valid for some, for most they are shams, excuses - and weak excuses at best. The same individual who finds it so difficult, so demanding to serve Hashem properly, suddenly has the time, patience, dedication and sincerity for the mundane areas of his life's endeavor. The "head" which he did not have as a yeshivah student confronting the "difficult" logic in the Gemorah, is suddenly working at full capacity in his chosen field of medicine, law, business. The bondsman who sold himself into slavery because he had no other recourse, suddenly enjoys life as a bondsman. He loves his new master, his wife and children. What had been an excuse six years ago has become an accepted way of life today. It is all about choices and the excuses we employ to enable us to make those choices.

If a man shall steal an ox or a sheep or goat, and slaughter it or sell it, he shall pay five oxen in the place of the ox, and four sheep in place of the sheep. (21:37)

The Talmud Bava Kamma 79b distinguishes between a ganav, thief - who steals surreptitiously - and a gazlan, robber, who fears no man and steals publicly. The ganav pays keifal, a fine of double the value of the principal, and arbaah v'chamisha, four and five times the principal depending on whether is a sheep or an ox, in the event that he sells or slaughters the animal. The students asked Rabban Yochanan ben Zakai why the Torah is more stringent concerning the ganav than it is toward the gazlan. Rabban Yochanan replied that he (the gazlan) has equalized the respect he gives to his Master to that which he gives to His servant. The analogy is: The robber fears no one, neither G-d nor man. He steals publicly, demonstrating his disdain for all. The ganav, in contrast, is careful to make sure that people do not see his act of thievery. Apparently, he does not care that Hashem sees what he is doing. He is only concerned with what people think of him. Regrettably, this is the moral posture that seems to prevail in the minds and actions of many members of contemporary society.

In his commentary to the Torah, Parashas Ki Seitzei, the Brisker Rav, zl, questions this explanation. On the contrary, the gazlan has descended to a more reprehensible nadir in that he manifests greater contempt for authority. He shows that he does not even fear human beings. He has such chutzpah that nothing and no one seem to impress him. Such a person is out of control, beyond discipline. Yet, the Torah seems to treat him with greater respectability than the ganav, whose fraudulent pursuits remain hidden.

The Brisker Rav explains that the very mahus, essential make-up of the gazlan, is that he does not make cheshbonos, think through, contemplate, what he is doing. He does exactly what he wants to do - when he want to do it, and he does not care about anyone or anybody. The gazlan is not a cerebral person. He acts on impulse, passion, desire. The ganav, however, is quite deliberate in his actions. He ponders a situation, mulls over the danger of getting caught, considers the ramifications, and, after much cogitation, reaches a decision. He is a thinking man. He is, thus, condemned for not "including" Hashem in the equation. Why does he not take into consideration that Hashem sees all and will punish him for his nefarious deed? The answer is, he does not care. He lacks yiraas Shomayim, fear of Hashem. The ganav's act of corruption reflects a lack of yiraas Shomayim. The gazlan, on the other hand, just demonstrates thoughtlessness.

The Brisker Rav applies this concept towards explaining the idea behind the mitzvah of mechiyas Amalek, erasing the name of Amalek. The Torah (Devarim 25:18) attributes the idea due to asher kamcha ba'derech, va'yizarev becha kol ha'nechashalim acharecha… v'atah ayeif v'yagea, v'lo yarei Elokim; "(Amalek) that he happened upon you on the way, and he struck those of you who were hindmost…when you were faint and exhausted and did not fear G-d." Rashi comments: "Amalek did not fear G-d, he was not afraid to wage war against the Jewish People." What relationship exists between Amalek's lack of fear of Hashem and the fact that the Jewish People were "faint and exhausted"? Furthermore, Amalek was not the only nation that waged war against us, yet, no other nation is so condemned as Amalek; no other nation is so anathematized, so accursed as is Amalek. Why?

Amalek indicated by his very tactics that he feared people, but he did not fear Hashem. Had he made a frontal attack, as did other nations who were our enemies, it would have demonstrated that he had no fear of G-d or humans. He defied them both. The mere fact that Amalek thought out his battle plan, and attacked the hindmost flank at a time when the people were faint and exhausted, showed that he feared human repercussion, but cared less about Heavenly reaction. His strategy was well-planned, factoring all of the Jewish "army's" strengths and weaknesses. Hashem, however, was not a factor in his plans, because Amalek did not fear Hashem. One who does not fear Hashem is punished with his name being eternally obliterated.

Horav Mordechai Weinberg, zl, adds that yiraas Shomayim is a factor, not only as a deterrent from evil, but it is also a stimulus that galvanizes one to be proactive in mitzvah performance. He quotes Rabbeinu Yonah in his Shaarei Teshuvah 3:12, who says that the performance of the mitzvos asei, positive mitzvos, are as much dependent upon yiraas Shomayim as refraining from falling into the abyss of performing prohibitive mitzvos. Indeed, one who is not actively engaged in asei tov, doing good, has rejected fear of Heaven.

The Rosh Yeshivah applies this idea to explain Rabbi Yochanan's blessing to his five students, who were themselves erudite, pious Torah leaders. When his students asked him to bless them as he lay on his deathbed (Talmud Berachos 28b), he replied, "May it be the will (of Hashem) that the fear of Heaven should be on you (as great) as the fear of flesh and blood." The question is obvious: Is this the kind of blessing that is appropriate for men of such high caliber? These were righteous individuals, each one a Torah giant in his own right. Surely, they each must have warranted a blessing more suitable to his spiritual plateau. Basically, the gist of the blessing was: You should have more yiraas Shomayim than the average ganav! It almost seems unreal.

The Rosh Yeshivah quotes the Nefesh Ha'Chaim (Shaar Gimel) who explains the following: Although tzaddikim gemurim, consummately righteous individuals, might not fall prey to transgressing a prohibitive commandment, they nonetheless cannot execute a mitzvas asei, positive commandment, if they do not possess yiraas Shomayim. The entire fulfillment of a mitzvas asei is dependent upon one's fear of Heaven. Rabbi Yochanan blessed them to be worthy of complete yiraas Shomayim, true/absolute fear of Heaven, so that their service to the Almighty would not be flawed in any manner.

A yarei Shomayim acts without ruminating back and forth whether the act is beneficial or appropriate, whether there is a better way. He is instructed to do, to execute, to perform. His immediate response is yes, "hineni,here I am," ready and willing. He asks no questions; he expects no answers. Avraham Avinu was the first one about whom it was said, Atah yodaati ki yerei Elokim atah, "Now I know that you fear G-d" (Bereishis 22:12). The Patriarch clearly did not understand Hashem's request that he slaughter his only son. One who fears Hashem, however, does not have to understand. He has to do. Avraham immediately responded with his famous, Hineni! "Here I am!" We suggest that this is the clarion call of all yarei Shomayim: Hineni!

Distance yourself from a false word. (23:7)

The admonition against prevaricating, uttering a falsehood, is quite different from other prohibitive mitzvos. Nowhere does it state that one must distance himself from the aveirah, sin. Proximity to the sin, or area which might bring one to sin may not be advisable, but there does not seem to be a specific exhortation against it. Falsehood, however, seems to be very dangerous, having such a strong gravitational pull that simply being in its immediate environment is dangerous and can influence one to sin. Why is it different than maachalos asuros, forbidden foods, which do not carry such a stringency that one is prohibited from being in close proximity with them?

Horav Zushia, zl, m'Annipole explains that the tirchak, "(you shall) distance (yourself)," applies to one's relationship with Hashem. One who prevaricates distances himself from the Almighty. Hashem abhors falsehood. Chosomo shel HaKadosh Baruch Hu emes, "The seal of the Holy One is truth." There is nothing more to say. Hashem is the essence of unvarnished truth. One can perform wonderful deeds; he can execute mitzvos in the most conscientious manner; yet, if he lies, if his life and dealings are not paragons of honesty, he distances himself from Hashem. Good deeds do not protect the individual from the ill effects of mendacity. One who is deceitful cannot be close to G-d, regardless of his mitzvos.

A man approached the Bais HaLevi and questioned him concerning the pasuk, Emes mei eretz titzmach (Tehillim 85:12), "Truth will sprout from the earth." "Rebbe," the man asked, "if truth grows in abundance from the earth, why is there such a dearth of truth in the world?" Indeed, he was asking a good question. Truth is at a premium. In every phase of life, in every sector of society, integrity is quite lacking. The Bais HaLevi replied, "It is, indeed, accurate that truth sprouts from the earth, but people must bend down to pick it up. It does not harvest itself." Yes, truth is readily available, but we must seek it out. Regrettably, falsehood is much more aggressive in its growth. It comes right at us - without shame. Most people appreciate that which is "convenient" over that which requires effort.

The Kotzker Rebbe, zl, was wont to say, "True, emes sprouts from the earth, but nothing grows unless a seed of some sort is first planted in the earth. When one buries seeds of truth in the ground, all that is produced is falsehood. When falsehood, however, is planted in the ground, it will sprout emes."

His entire life, the Kotzker waged a war for the truth. Indeed, the chassidic court of Kotzk became synonomous with a burning and piercing form of truth. It was a fiery truth that singed anyone who dared to delve deep enough to uncover it. The Kotzker came on the scene during the early stages of chassidus. While he believed in chassidic doctrine, he felt that Torah should be the focal point of all avodas Hashem, service to the Almighty, and people should be more self-reliant, not subjugating their G-d-given minds to their Rebbe. A person should take personal responsibility for his life and work towards developing a personal relationship with Hashem. His greatest legacy is his staunch support of the truth.

The Kotzker's approach to avodas Hashem, although laudatory, was not for everyone. Indeed, while the Baal Shem Tov embodied the middah, attribute, of Chesed, kindness, Kotzk represented Din, strict justice. The Baal Shem Tov attempted to reach all people. The Kotzker was available only to the elite. The Baal Shem Tov elevated people, taking them out from the "dumps." The Kotzker rebuked and rebuffed, making great demands on his students, constantly pointing out their inadequacies.

Clearly, the Kotzker's approach attracted the unique, the brilliant, the aspiring youth who were prepared to undergo his demands of self-analysis and mitzvah performance on the highest level of sincerity. Indeed, sincerity was as much a catchword for him as was emes. Veritably, they are both the same. One who is not truthful is not capable of being sincere.

The Chidushei HaRim, the first Rebbe of Gur, was a close disciple of the Kotzker. He once brought to the Rebbe his chidushim, novellae and commentary, on all of Choshen Mishpat, the section of the Shulchan Aruch which deals with monetary matters. Since the laws are difficult, the Kotzker was very impressed with his student's achievement. Yet, he said, "I feel that such a work should be destroyed…I feel that it will minimize the credit due to the Shach (whose immortal commentary to the Shulchan Aruch is without peer). The Shach studied Torah with such mesiras nefesh, self-sacrifice, and with such sincerity, that it would truly be a shame for people to ignore his commentary."

The Chiddushei HaRim took his son and immediately burned his kesavim, written manuscript. When the Gerrer Rebbe's son visited the Kotzker a short time later, the Kotzker asked him, "What ever happened to your father's commentary on Choshen Mishpat?"

"He burned it," the son replied, "at the Rebbe's suggestion." The Kotzker was amazed. "Such nobility; such pure intent! I am certain that, before long, your father's reputation will spread throughout the world!"

One would think that a person who has confronted the truth in its untainted form would realize that some things are simply not surmountable. Take the yetzer hora, for instance; one cannot triumph over the evil inclination. It is a constant, never-ending battle in which we may never weaken and surely not give up. As aware as he was of man's weakness, the Kotzker refused to compromise his aspiration for the truth and purity of action.

One of the Kotzker's close chassidim, Reb Shemaya, lay on his deathbed. We would think that at this moment of ultimate truth, the yetzer hora had no "takers." One of his fellow chassidim asked him, "Nu, Reb Shemaya, does the yetzer hora still bother you now?" "Of course," he replied, "do you not see him standing near my bed, whispering into my ear, 'Reb Shemaya, say Shema Yisrael in a loud voice, and draw out the echad." See, I recognize the ganav, thief, that he is. He wants to seduce me into acting righteous, so that you will say, 'Reb Shemaya left this world in a pure state.'" This was Kotzk. It did not have a large following, because he demanded of his adherents that they search for the unattainable. His devotees were the pure, the sincere, and the real.

He took the Book of the Covenant and read it in the earshot of the people, and they said. "Everything that Hashem has said, we will do and we will obey!" (24:7)

Our greatest moment in history was when we received the Torah. Our nationhood became fused with our acceptance of Hashem's word. The anthem of our faith for all time was our resounding declaration, Naase v'Nishma, "We will do, and we will obey!" We set the standard of priorities for Jews for all time: we do/ we act. The reason will come later. If we understand - good. If not - also good! That is what being a Jew is all about: uncompromising faith; unequivocal commitment. Yet, over time, people have strayed and alienated themselves and their descendants from the Torah. We can point the finger of blame at others, but it all points back to us. How strong was our commitment? How well did we transmit our beliefs? What method did we employ for conveying our feelings, our emotion about Torah observance? Better yet: Did we manifest emotion, joy, passion for Yiddishkeit, or were we, at best, complacent?

We all stood at Har Sinai and made that declaration. It became part of our psyche, our DNA. It is there, concealed under layers of history, some good, some bad, but it is there. That is why so many return after generations of estrangement and apathy. We made a promise to "observe and obey" - no questions asked. For some, it has taken a little longer to keep that promise.

Rebbetzin Esther Jungreis relates an episode concerning her great uncle, Horav Hillel, zl m'Kalmia, Hungary, a well-known tzaddik and chassidic leader, who was traveling by train on Chol HaMoed Pesach, accompanied by a group of students. They were engrossed in a Talmudic discourse, when they noticed a young man of Jewish extraction remove a sandwich from a bag and begin to eat. They were shocked, since the meat in the sandwich was unkosher. In addition to this outrage, it was Pesach, and he was eating chametz.

The Rebbe and his students were shocked into disbelief. How could a Jew have such audacity - to eat chametz on Pesach, together with pork, in front of a distinguished Torah leader. No shame whatsoever! How could he do this? The students were beside themselves in anger - an indignity which they wanted to express to the young man. The Rebbe said, "No!" He would personally address the young man.

"My son," the Rebbe began, "you know that your soul stood at Har Sinai, together with the rest of the Jewish nation. Have pity on yourself. Do not be a traitor to the covenant of which you are a part."

It was an emotional plea, but it fell on deaf ears.

"Rebbe, I do not believe any of this. Do not waste your time on me. I am not interested in any of this." The young man ignored the Rebbe and his students, and he returned to his lunch.

Rav Hillel was relentless when it came to a Jewish soul. He was not giving up. The students were embarrassed for their revered Rebbe, whom they felt was degrading himself by talking to this recalcitrant young man. It was below their teacher's dignity to "beg" this fellow to respect his "vows."

Rav Hillel expressed himself strongly to his students. "Do not think like this. This fellow is a lost soul, a son to a noble Jewish heritage, of parents and grandparents. Who knows how many bitter tears were shed over him, how many prayers his grandparents issued forth in his behalf?"

As the Rebbe spoke, his eyes welled up with tears, "You should know, my dear students, that we have a Rabbinic axiom: Words that emanate from the heart will penetrate the heart. My words are spoken from my heart. Thus, they will surely enter this young man's heart. If not today - then tomorrow, but they will pierce that layer of assimilation. I do not know when, but, I assure you, it will occur!"

Stories are inspirational and, undoubtedly, many alienated Jews of all ages do return and embrace the religion for which their forebears lived and died. All power to the many who are in the trenches fighting to save every Jewish neshamah, soul, from extinction. What is being done, however, to reverse the trend before it begins? Why are we losing them in the first place? There is no single answer to this critical question. Many factors play a role in the acculturation and eventual assimilation of many of our Jewish brethren. We have a more pressing question: Why do some of our youth, despite having been raised in wonderful, distinguished, observant homes, suddenly drift off the face of the observant Jewish map?

I am sure no single answer addresses this anomaly. I recently read an article which was written by someone who was attempting to champion dialogue - and exposure - to Jews and members of other ethnic groups who do not live a life of Torah observance. While I disagree vehemently with his goals, the story which I feel he misconstrued has much merit.

A young Orthodox teenager rebelled against his parents. He basically went over the deep end, ignoring Shabbos, kashrus and morality. His parents brought him to their rabbi for a talk. The rabbi passed him along to a non-Jewish psychologist. It took only one session, and the teenager was back on the path of Torah observance. What happened?

The boy had never encountered anyone to whom he had to explain his story: his culture; his religion; his way of life. He never had to explain what it meant to be an Orthodox Jew, the beauty, the serenity, the sanctity. Thus, he had never articulated his values for himself. Relating his story to a "stranger" allowed him to embrace his identity in a new and powerful way.

What has happened is that we have taken a complacent attitude to Torah. I am frum because my parents are frum. We take it for granted. Rather than inspiring, inculcating the next generation with the bren, passion/fire of Yiddishkeit, we serve it up cold, dispassionately, expecting our children to accept it without feeling. It works for most. We cannot afford to lose the few for whom it does not work. Observance should be vibrant, exciting, fiery, with religious fervor that embraces the entire human being. If we are excited, they will follow suit.

Va'ani Tefillah

Kadosh, Kadosh, Kadosh Hashem Tzvakos Holy, Holy, Holy Hashem of Hosts.

We have two ways to understand the meaning of this threefold repetition. Horav Shimon Schwab, zl, explains that the Malachim, Heavenly Angels, together with the neshamos, souls, of the great tzaddikim, righteous individuals, extol Hashem in terms of ascending levels of sanctity. According to this interpretation, the idea is that the higher each creature - be it spiritual or physical - elevates itself toward Hashem, the higher its conception of Hashem becomes. This is so because Hashem, the ultimate Kadosh, source of sanctity, is so far removed from any of His creations that one must ascend in levels of sanctity in order to comprehend His sublime level of sanctity. Thus, the more penetrating one's understanding, the greater he perceives Hashem, and the greater Hashem's sanctity becomes.

by his family:
David, Susan, Daniel, Breindy, Ephraim, Adeena, Aryeh and Michelle Jacobson
and great grandchildren

Peninim on the Torah is in its 20th year of publication. The first fifteen years have been published in book form.

The Fifteenth volume is available at your local book seller or directly from Rabbi Scheinbaum.

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