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Peninim on the Torah

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Rabbi A. Leib Scheinbaum
Hebrew Academy of Cleveland


Whoever strikes his father or mother… whoever steals/kidnaps a man and sells him… whoever curses his father and mother. (21:15,16,17)

Social murder, which consists of depriving a human being of his personal freedom, is tantamount to actual murder. To kidnap a human being and sell him is a capital offense. To strike a father or mother, to injure one of them, is indicative of an evil person. Last, a child's verbal articulation of his wish to see his parent destroyed is also a capital offense. What kind of person would be so vile as to strike a parent or to stoop so low as to curse a parent? Such a person is so filled with himself that no one else matters. A kidnapper cares not about another person's freedom. He has no respect for another human being. He is G-dless, because a person who acknowledges G-d likewise acknowledges and appreciates G-d's handiwork. What is greater among Hashem's creations than man? Every person has within him a Heavenly component. It is this Heavenly component within the person that we are to respect. A person who does not view another human being as G-d's creation, as an extension of the Divine, will likely have no respect for his parents either. He will strike and curse them, as if they were nothing.

Such an abominable person is not born. He develops and grows into his nefarious nature. Certainly, something was wrong with his upbringing. This is indicated by the extreme hatred that he manifests for his parents. Only a G-dless person, who does not acknowledge the Divine, is capable of such egregious behavior. Someone who has never been taught about the Divine component inherent in man will grow up G-dless, and he will be capable of carrying out the most evil acts against others - even against his own parents.

How does such a metamorphosis occur within a human being? Better yet - how does a human being descend to such depths of depravity as to evince a behavior that would - and should - repulse an animal? Perhaps this will explain the insanity that prevails today among extremists in the world, individuals who declare their adherence to a Heavenly code, but who act as if G-d does not exist.

In his commentary to the Torah, Horav Shimon Schwab, zl, wonders why the Torah inserts the laws concerning a kidnapper in between the laws regarding a son who strikes a parent or curses them. He cites the Talmud Kiddushin 30a, which states, "As long as your hand is upon your child's neck, you should discipline him." The Talmud posits that a parent may discipline a child only up to a certain age. Once children reach the age when they no longer accept parental instruction and reprimand, the parents should not "push it." They should acknowledge the fact that their son or daughter is beyond the disciplinary stage. At this point, parents should not attempt to dictate their rules to their children, nor should they discipline them.

Parents who do not follow these guidelines, those who insist on dominating the lives of their children, treating them basically like their "possessions," like captives, by stifling their desire for selfhood, freedom, and self-expression, may be viewed as "kidnappers." As such, these parents play an active role in effecting their children's descent into a life filled with venom. We must take great pains not to overeducate our children, to snuff out their creativity, to quell their abilities to grow at "their" own rate and potential. Parents who are guilty of such suppression are no different than a kidnapper who quashes another human being's personal freedom. He is like a murderer! Such a parent causes resentment, hatred and rebellion to the point that a child might, at one point, lose himself or herself to such an extent that he or she will lash out to hit or curse a parent. This is why kidnapping is inserted between striking and cursing.

What is a father's -- or, for that matter, a mother's -- role, in raising a child? This is a loaded question, because there are many answers - some classical and objective, while others are subjective, given by fathers who want to justify the way they have raised their children. These answers might be incorrect, specifically due to their lack of objectivity. There are also the responses presented by fathers who base their answers either on a utopian situation, or, the opposite, a difficult child from a difficult home. Their response will be subjective and, thus, not reflect a realistic opinion.

After giving the question some thought, I realize that every answer is subjective in some way. Nonetheless, I would like to suggest the following. At the end of Sefer Bereishis, the Torah relates Yosef's liberation from the Egyptian dungeon and his conversation with Pharaoh, in which Pharaoh appoints Yosef as viceroy over the entire country. Pharaoh said to Yosef (Bereishis 41:39,40), "See! I have placed you in charge of all the land of Egypt." This pasuk seems to reiterate everything that Pharaoh had up until now said to Yosef. Why does Pharaoh repeat himself? What is this pasuk teaching us?

Horav Sholom Schwadron, zl, offers us a powerful insight into human nature. Even the finest human being feels the need to remind someone whom he has benefited that he is his benefactor - that without him the beneficiary would never have attained such success. We crave attention, because we are basically selfish (my explanation). Indeed, posits Rav Sholom, the more one can remove himself and stay in the background, the less one reminds a person of a favor he had done for him in the past, the more he is unlike the average human being - and the closer he is to being angel-like. He supports this premise with an interesting statement made by Manoach, Shimshon's father, concerning the Angel that foretold his birth.

In Shoftim 13, the Navi relates that an angel appeared to Manoach and his wife to presage the birth of Shimshon. The angel came twice: once to speak to both Manoach and his wife; and a second appearance for the benefit of Manoach alone. The Navi writes (13:21), "The Angel of Hashem did not continue anymore to appear to Manoach and his wife; then Manoach realized that he was an Angel of Hashem." What was the proof? The fact that he did not return to remind the once childless couple that he had been the one who heralded the birth of their son. A human being would have asked, "So, how is my baby - you know - the one that I told you about?" An angel does not remind a person of the debt he owes him, because he is not involved for himself. An angel is selfless. People normally are not.

Between the level of angel and the level of human being is a large divide. Pharaoh manifests the low end of the totem pole; the angel represents the extreme high end. Pharaoh is an egotist who wants attention; the angel is on a mission and follows Hashem's directive, without personal benefit. I think a good parent is angel-like. Parents do not think of themselves; their whole lives are devoted completely to their children - or at least this is how it should be. Their children take precedence over everything else. Parents are (or should be) happy to sit in the background and watch their children grow - without reminding them how they should act. In that way, the children will be acutely aware of their parents' contribution toward their development - without the parents having to remind them of the fact constantly.

You shall not cause any pain to any widow or orphan. (22:21)

It takes a truly reprehensible person to take advantage of a widow or orphan. These are individuals who are alone against the world. Why make life even more difficult for them? At first glance, we may even wonder why the admonishment against afflicting the almanah, widow, or yasom, orphan, is even included with the many laws that are mentioned in this parsha. Quite possibly, Hashem wants to put everyone on notice: He takes a special interest in the plight of these lonely people. He will listen to their pleas when they cry out to Him in pain. Anyone who causes them harm will have to answer to Hashem.

Another - perhaps deeper - lesson can be derived from here. Although many laws can be found in the Torah, the Jewish Code of Law, other equally important laws may not be written explicitly in the Torah. These are the laws that are written on the Sefer ha'lev, book of the heart. While the laws of the Torah are written on parchment, the laws concerning the widow or orphan - or anyone like them - are written on the walls of one's heart. Only someone whose heart is made of cold stone turns a deaf ear to the pleas of the widow and orphan. The following story, which took place with Horav (Dayan) Yechezkel Abramsky, zl, demonstrates this concept.

In England, where Rav Abramsky was Head Dayan of the Bais Din, full-time yeshivah students who were registered in a bona-fide yeshivah were exempt from military duty. Her Majesty's royal army respected Torah study. England is very meticulous in its adherence to the letter of the law. Thus, a student was required to produce papers that were filled out by the yeshivah and had proper signatures affixed, before he would be freed from military duty. The exemption was renewed annually. The signature of the Chief Judge of the Rabbinical court had to be affixed to the paperwork, or it would be rejected.

One day, just before the deadline for submitting the exemption requests, a woman visited Rav Abramsky with a tale of woe. She was a widow, the mother of a ben yachid, an only son. He was a special young man whose commitment to Torah study and mitzvah observance was unquestionable. He spent every waking hour immersed in Torah. The problem was that since his father had passed away, he felt that his mother should not be left alone. He, therefore, had left the yeshivah and was studying the entire day and most of the night in the local shul. While this was acceptable to his mother, she could hardly expect him to receive a military deferment based on shul attendance. The government demanded organized institutional learning; studying in shul did not qualify for an exemption.

The anxious mother reported to Rav Abramsky, "I spoke to the administration of the yeshivah and asked them if they could still keep my son on their list of students. After all, he is studying full-time. They replied that rules are rules; if a student does not actually attend the yeshivah, he may not be included on their roster of students. I have come to the Rosh Bais Din, Head Dayan, of England, to help me in my plight. I cannot allow my son to be drafted."

Rav Abramsky replied, "Now look, according to natural law, there is no way around this rule. One is either registered in yeshivah - or he is not. There is, however, a different "code of law", that to which we Jews adhere: supernatural law, l'maalah min ha'teva. Hashem is the Father of widows and orphans. His Divine compassion overrides all laws. I will immediately go to the clerk in charge of deferments and appeal to him. You should supplicate Hashem for rachmanus, mercy. I will do mine. You will do yours. Together, we will hopefully succeed in saving your son."

And so it was. The widow sat down with her Sefer Tehillim and poured out her heart to her Father in Heaven. The tears flowed freely. When a child appeals to a father, no holds are barred. One says what one feels. Rav Abramsky wasted no time. He immediately took a taxi to the Ministry of Defense and presented himself before the individual in charge of deferments. Rav Abramsky was a well-known, highly respected figure in England. When he personally came to the ministry, it was understood that it was not a social call. It was a matter of the greatest importance.

Rav Abramsky was immediately ushered into the clerk's office. "How can I help you, Rabbi?" the clerk asked. Rav Abramsky related the entire story, saying how he had prepared the list of all yeshivah students who were up for deferments. He explained that a widow had appealed to him to help her son. Her story was sad, her circumstances certainly extenuating. Could he help? The man gave the usual response, that he would love to help, but his hands were tied. Rules were rules.

Rav Abramsky now began his plea. "My good young man, I am already an old man, while you still have a long life ahead of you. With old age comes life experience of which I have plenty. You live by and adhere to your codex of written laws. I am aware of another book of law, one which is of greater value and significance than your codex. I refer to the Book of the Heart. In the Book of the Heart, it is inscribed that whoever acts kindly towards a widow or an orphan will be greatly rewarded by the Almighty Himself. Indeed, this reward will continue on for generations. Anyone who helps G-d's children will be the beneficiary of the Almighty's enduring kindness. I reiterate to you. Think twice about what I am asking you. Let the Book of the Heart be your guide. The heart implores you to act kindly towards this widow and her only son."

Rav Abramsky returned home and waited. Three days later, a letter came from the Ministry of Defense exempting the young man from military service. The clerk had listened to his heart.

Do not oppress a stranger; you know the feelings of a stranger… six years shall you sow your land… and in the seventh, you shall leave it unattended and unharvested. (23:9,10,11)

The juxtaposition of the laws of Shemittah upon the admonishment not to treat the ger, convert, in a lesser manner than we would treat anyone else is enigmatic. What relationship exists between these two seemingly disparate mitzvos? Furthermore, how is the admonishment concerning the proper treatment of the ger linked to the fact that we were strangers in the Land of Egypt? Had we not once been Egyptian slaves would it in any way diminish the responsibility to act appropriately with the ger?

Horav Avigdor HaLevi Nebentzhal, Shlita, quotes Rashi, who explains, "For you were strangers in the land of Egypt" as a lesson concerning the empathy we must manifest towards the ger. We know what it feels like to be a stranger, to be an outcast, to stand out in a community where everybody is different than we are. It is specifically because of our "acquired" sensitivity, due to our own dismal history in Egypt, that we can relate best to the plight of the ger. The Rosh Yeshivah posits that, in order to maintain the proper attitude towards the ger, one must internalize what it meant to be a stranger in a strange land - Egypt.

Therefore, the Torah juxtaposes the laws of Shemittah which declare the land free to evyonei amecha, the poor of your nation. During the Shemittah year, everybody is considered to be an ani, poor man, since he has had to relinquish his field. Now, the wealthy landowner relinquishes his status. This is taught to us by the laws regarding the ger, to whom we cannot properly relate unless we put ourselves in their shoes by remembering Egypt. Both Shemittah and geirus teach us that true empathy can only be derived when the person actually lives the predicament of the other person.

And six years you shall sow your land… but the seventh year you should let it rest and life fallow… six days you should do your work, but on the seventh day you should rest. (23:10,11,12)

The Torah juxtaposes the laws of Shemittah, the Sabbatical year, upon the weekly Shabbos, simply because both attest to the handiwork of the Creator which took place during the Six Days of Creation. Following these "working" days, Hashem rested, which was the first Shabbos. This seventh day of rest is commemorated both weekly on Shabbos and every seven years, in the form of Shemittah. In his Pri Tzaddik, Horav Tzadok HaKohen, zl, cites the Mechilta 20, that tells us that the Torah cautions us not to neglect the weekly Shabbos during the Shemittah year. This statement begs elucidation. Why would we think that the prohibitions associated with Shabbos Kodesh are relaxed during the Shemittah year? In what way is the Shemittah year different from all other years?

Rav Tzadok explains that the Torah is alluding to a misguided presumption that we might make. There are those who err, thinking that Shabbos was given to us as a day of rest from the difficult work in the fields, so that we can focus on our Torah studies. The Shemittah year was a time when physical work in the fields was suspended, allowing for sufficient time for studying Torah during the course of the entire year. Since one might speculate that Shabbos observance was not compulsory during the Shemittah year, the Torah makes a point of underscoring the requirement to observe Shabbos day during Shemittah.

Rav Tzadok wonders what is really wrong with the premise that the Shemittah year be a time for relaxed Shabbos observance. After all, it makes sense that, if one is constantly free to study Torah, it would not be necessary to set aside a specific day for rest. If we have all of the time in the world to study Torah, why assign a special day of rest for the purpose of studying Torah? Rav Tzadok explains that such a question indicates that one does not understand one of the founding principles upon which Shabbos is established.

When we observe Shabbos, Hashem bestows upon us an elevated level of kedushah. A Shabbos-observant Jew is a new being. He is endowed with greater kedushah, sanctity. "Verily you shall observe My Shabbos, for it is a sign between Me and you throughout your generations, that you may know that I am Hashem, Who sanctifies you" (Shemos 31:13).

Indeed, although we have sufficient time during the Shemittah year to study Torah, the reward of increased levels of kedushah are available only to those who observe Shabbos Kodesh. Hashem designated us as a holy nation. Kedushah is the purpose of our lives, and Shabbos is the time for renewing and increasing our capacity for it. Rav Tzadok observes that the Torah often prefaces the mitzvah of Shabbos with instructions concerning the days preceding Shabbos, such as, "Six days you should work." Is it not obvious that one may work on the days leading up to Shabbos? Why does the Torah specifically address working on the days preceding Shabbos?

Rav Tzadok explains that herein the Torah is teaching us an important principle concerning Shabbos. To get the most out of Shabbos, one must prepare during the six days preceding it. On a spiritual plane, this means that Shabbos is inherently linked to the weekdays that precede it. The preparation of "Six days you should work" is a reference to the spiritual "work" of Torah-study and mitzvah observance.

One does not just become holy. It is a mindset that he achieves through plumbing the depths of Torah, by developing a strict code of ethical behavior, and by understanding that "we" are not like everyone else. Hashem wants us to strive for holiness. Kedushah is a state of being that applies to the entire Jew; it does not just address basic halachos. I recently came across an article decrying the fact that ethical behavior, which used to be the measure of a Jew, no longer seems to play much of a role. There are written rules, and there are written rules and behaviors that obligate a ben Torah to act in a demeanor which reflects kedushas Yisrael.

The author quotes Horav Dov Katz, zl, author of the Tenuas HaMussar, a close talmid, student, of Horav Reuven Dov Dessler, zl, and the Alter of Slabodka, Horav Nosson Tzvi Finkel, zl. He writes: "It is obvious that all contemporary dealings concerning religious issues revolve around the commonly known mitzvos, such as Shabbos, kashrus, shul worship, etc. It is almost as if the entire Torah consists only of these few principles and in them lies the salvation of Judaism in its entirety. No one seems to protest against heretical views and false conceptions disseminated among the masses…. No one cries out against the breakdown of modesty and purity, both abroad and at home, against the desecration of the sanctity of Jewish family life, against the permissiveness that has become rife and that has exceeded all limits (the author passed away in 1979). No protests are raised against lying, cheating, deceit and forgery prevalent in business, against theft and violence, usury, the withholding of wages and exploitation that fill every corner of the land. No one decries the hatred toward man, the widespread corruption of virtuous conduct, the foolishness (in the way people act) and ignorance (which by their actions they manifest). No one deplores the dissolution of every vestige of the image of G-d from the human personality… These matters, it seems, are not the function of Orthodoxy. They do not enter into the purview of Judaism."

These are powerful words which can be summed up simply as: We do not reflect a presence of kedushah in our lives. We live by what is permissible and what is not. Apparently, everything in between and above - what is proper and correct, and what is inappropriate and should be frowned upon - does not seem to affect us.

Returning to Rav Tzadok's thesis, we must bear in mind that what we do in the "six work days" is critically relevant to the creation and success of our Shabbos experience. The level of kedushah that we achieve on Shabbos is greatly determined by the scope of our spiritual preparations for Shabbos. Thus, after Shabbos passes and we have risen to new heights, we once again commence our journey of preparation for the upcoming Shabbos.

Rav Tzadok delves deeper into the important aspect of Shabbos preparations. We often think that we function in two disparate arenas of activity: physical and spiritual. On one side of the spectrum stands the Torah, with its positive and prohibitive commandments. On the opposite side of the spectrum are the physical activities of life, the mundane acts eating, sleeping, working, etc. We view some of these activities as necessary, while others are viewed as neutral activities, which, if a person desires, he will carry out. We certainly do not view them as necessities.

The Ramban says that there is no such thing as a neutral activity. Rather, we should elevate our actions: sleeping, so that one is not tired when he learns Torah; eating, so that one has sufficient strength for Torah-study. In such a manner his "mundane" activities achieve mitzvah status. They are no longer in the realm of physicality. If, however, his intentions remain purely physical, he has obviated their ability to achieve kedushah, relegating them to the dimension of physicality.

The lesson to be derived herein is significant and profound. We need not disavow our involvement in legitimate physical activity. It is just that when we carry out these legitimate activities, we do not execute them simply in accordance with the "dos" and "do nots" of halachah. Our eating should contain sublime thoughts concerning the origin of all food and the true purpose of life. Thus, we accord our gratitude to the Almighty for enabling us to serve Him, and for giving us the food which will energize us to carry out our mission in this world. As such, the mundane act of eating takes on a new perspective. Animals eat and humans eat, but only a fool is unable to discern the difference between these two legitimate physical activities. When we "plant" spirituality - we reap spirituality

Likewise, our Shabbos is reflective of our work week. When the primary focus of the mundane is physical in nature, we cannot expect much more from our Shabbos. The more sanctity we inject into our daily mundane lives, the greater will be Hashem's bestowal of holiness from Above.

Va'ani Tefillah

V'nechmad v'naim. And desired and sweet.

There are things in life that we desire - for the right reason. "This matter," which is the topic of these sixteen appellations, is desirable, for it contains all benefits - both the mundane benefits of this life and the spiritual advantages in Olam Habba, the World to Come. Therefore, every reasonable person understands that "this matter" is nechmad, desirable. There are, however, a number of benefits which, albeit desirable, are quite bitter and difficult to come by. There are medicines that benefit us, but the "pill" is difficult and bitter. We add that "this matter" of which we speak is not only desirable - it is attainable and immensely pleasant and sweet. Additionally, as Horav Avigdor Miller, zl, observes, the Torah is not only sweetness in the end result; it is sweet all the way - from beginning to end. "Sweetness" is a commentary on the v'nechmad - desired - and on the v'naim. The Torah is sweet, period - from its "desirable" stage through its "benefit" stage.

In loving memory of

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

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