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Peninim on the Torah

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Rabbi A. Leib Scheinbaum
Hebrew Academy of Cleveland


And all the nations will say, "For what reason did Hashem do so…why this wrathfulness of great anger?" (29:23)

The question asked by the nations of the world is truly a compelling one. Why did Hashem do so to His People, His Nation whom He loves so much? Many nations have been punished for their sins, but no nation has suffered so greatly as Klal Yisrael. What was their transgression that catalyzed such unprecedented punishment?

The answer is written in the following pasuk: "Because they forsook the covenant of Hashem." No other nation was granted such a relationship - a covenant bonding Hashem with Klal Yisrael. Consequently, Hashem does not deal with them as He deals with other nations. When Klal Yisrael sins, they are not simply rebelling; they are, instead, nullifying a covenant of friendship, a bond of love. When one is guilty of a wrongdoing against his friend, it is much worse than if this infraction were to be committed against an average person with whom he has not cemented a bond of friendship.

Horav Eliezer Menachem M. Shach, zl, explains this further. He distinguishes between a Jew's personal relationship with Hashem, and Klal Yisrael's collective relationship. When an individual sins, it is viewed as a shortcoming, a failing due to one's falling under the influence of his yetzer hara, evil inclination. When Klal Yisrael sins as a nation, it is much more serious. Then it is haforas bris, an abrogation of their covenant with Hashem. This is especially noteworthy when the Jewish People as a "nation" do not act in accordance with the code of Jewish Law given to us at Har Sinai. This is referred to as "organizational iniquity," which, in effect, denotes a general breakdown of our relationship with the Almighty. Regrettably, when in the eyes of the world people come across as speaking for the Jewish nation as a whole, we are all responsible for its consequence, even if we do not ascribe to their views and practices. Our indifference is our initiation and, subsequently, our source of responsibility.

For this commandment … it is not hidden from you…It is not in heaven. (30:11,12)

Rashi explains that if Torah were to be in heaven, we would be compelled to try to scale the heavens to study it. The Maharsha supplements this, explaining that if the knowledge of the Torah were so above us that it was beyond our capacity, we would still be expected to make every attempt to master it. In other words, there are no excuses. We must study Torah to the best of our abilities, extending ourselves as much as humanly possible.

The Torah was given to us on Har Sinai - a place which today eludes us. There is even a dispute among Chazal as to the exact date it was given. Indeed, as the Baalei Mussar explain, Torah has no time or place. It must be studied anywhere and always. The Maharal m'Prague teaches that one must study Torah up until the moment his soul leaves its earthly abode - the moment of death. Death does not cause a cessation of Torah study, but rather, one continues to study Torah in the Eternal world as he did in this world.

I remember hearing that my rebbe, Horav Boruch Sorotzkin,zl, shortly before his petirah, passing, was sitting in a wheelchair waiting to undergo therapy for the devastating and painful disease that wracked his body. The pain was beyond intense, yet, he held a sefer in his hand and studied Torah. His son, Horav Yitzchak, Shlita, asked him, "How can you learn at a time like this when you are in such terrible pain?" The Rosh HaYeshivah responded, "When else shall I learn, if not now?" One who learns in this world with such an ahavas Torah, love of Torah, will certainly continue his study when he takes his rightful place in the Heavenly Yeshivah.

Why, really, is it expected of a person to go to "the limit" to study Torah? After all, if it is overwhelming, if it is beyond our grasp, how can we be commanded to study it anyway? Apparently, the idea is that one must understand that as far as the study of Torah is concerned, there are no shortcuts nor excuses. Once a person has an inkling that he might be excused from his responsibility because of extenuating circumstances, he will find a way to interpret even the most minor excuse as an extenuating circumstance. Let us take morning minyan for an example. When one has more than one minyan which he can attend, he will sleep late knowing fully well that he has an opportunity to daven later. If there is, however, only one minyan, then he has no alternative but to arise in the morning on time. Likewise, once one knows that he has a way to validate his lack of Torah study, he will make use of it. Veritably, anything of value is worth working for.

It is not in heaven…Nor is it across the sea…Rather, the matter is very near to you - in your mouth and in your heart - to perform it. (30:12,13,14)

The Torah is accessible to all. The goal of knowing and fulfilling the Torah may seem difficult, but it only seems that way. Indeed, it is very much within human reach. All one has to do is make a sincere effort to grasp it - and he will succeed. There is a more profound aspect to the idea of "a sincere effort." Horav Chaim Shmuelevitz, zl, cites the Talmud in Temurah 16a wherein Chazal explain the source of Osniel ben Kenaz's name. Actually, his name was Yehudah. He was called Osniel because it is an acronym for "Ono Kel," "Hashem answered him". He is also referred to as Yaavetz, which denotes "Yaetz v'ribeitz Torah b'Yisrael," "he advised and disseminated Torah to Klal Yisrael." Chazal explain that Osniel demanded that he be granted the opportunity to disseminate Torah to the masses. Otherwise, he would go to the grave - immediately! Rav Chaim queries how one can make such a demand on the Almighty? "If you fulfill my request - good. If not - I am finished. I will go to the grave!" Is this not a bit presumptuous? Rav Chaim explains that the key word in Osniel's request was the word "miyad," immediately. He was saying to Hashem that "success or failure is dependent on me, and consequently it is a matter of life or death. I will either make it or I will die." When success in Torah is measured by such extremes, then Hashem responds immediately. This should be the way a ben Torah, student of Torah, studies. He must realize that success or failure are extremes. He either succeeds in grasping the Torah, or he is lost. When success means that much to him - he triumphs. Man's success or failure is determined by his personal striving and attitude. He has no one to blame for his failure other than himself. Likewise, his success is attributed to his own persistence and tenacity - and Hashem's "help."

Questions & Answers

1) Who were the wood-choppers and water-drawers?

2) How did the pagans protect their idols of silver and gold?

3) The Torah equates blessing with ______ and ______.

4) Why does Hashem use ________ and _________ as witnesses?


1) The Canaanites who came to Moshe pretending to be members of a distant nation who wished to convert, were accepted partially. Moshe, suspecting their insincerity, did not allow them to convert, but instead, allowed them to remain as water-carriers and wood-choppers.

2) They would hide them.

3) Life, good.

4) Heaven, Earth. Since they exist eternally, when Klal Yisrael sins, they will be available to testify that the nation was duly warned of the consequences of their actions. Also, they serve as a lesson to Klal Yisrael. For, although they do not receive any reward, they still conform to their duties, never deviating from their function.


Moshe went. (31:1)

It was Moshe Rabbeinu's last few hours as a mortal and he "walked." This is the end of his life. The genesis of the Jewish "movement" opens with Hashem's enjoinment to Avraham, "Lech Lecha," go for /to yourself. (Bereishis 12:1) Interestingly, the Torah begins with "Lech lecha" - going - and ends with "Vayelech Moshe" - Moshe going. The concept of halichah, going/ walking, implies a means to an end. One walks somewhere. The walking is the means by which he arrives. It is not a goal in itself - or is it? Avraham is told to "go;" Moshe on his last day is "going." It is as if Moshe is continuing Avraham's lech lecha and does so until his heart stops beating. Is "going" a Jewish concept?

In the ethical discourses of Bais Sholom Mordechai the notion is submitted that the Torah demands of us "halichah" - that we "go." The actual halichah is an end in itself. We are commanded to move - not to arrive. The results of our moving, the consequences of our endeavors should not be the focus of our thoughts. Our function is to do - Hashem will see to the results. We are to be "holech b'derachav," go in His ways. The results are for Hashem to determine. We only listen - and go. We are rewarded for the toil and effort - not the result.

So now, write this song for yourselves, and teach it to the Bnei Yisrael, place it in their mouth. (31:19)

"Simah b'fihem," "place it in their mouth" - this means that we are to make certain that our students are well-versed and thoroughly grasp the Torah. A rebbe, Torah teacher, must review the material as often as needed to ensure that his students are proficient and fully understand the lesson. Chazal teach us about the famous Rav Preida who had a student whose capacity for grasping his Torah lesson was so limited that Rav Preida would have to review the lesson with him four hundred times. Once Rav Preida had to leave to perform a mitzvah. The student, sensing that his rebbe was about to leave, had a more difficult time than usual in comprehending the lesson. Every moment, it seemed that Rav Preida was leaving, causing the student's mind to wander.

Rav Preida was not deterred. He told his student, "Do not worry. I will not leave you," and he proceeded to review the lesson another four hundred times! A voice from Heaven came forth and declared, "You (Rav Preida) may choose your reward from one of two choices: You will either be granted four hundred more years of life; or you, and every member of your generation, will merit Olam Haba, the eternal World to Come." Rav Preida chose the latter, and was subsequently rewarded from Heaven with both rewards.

We wonder why Hashem granted Rav Preida both rewards. His response was correct, for, regardless of one's lifespan, his life on this temporary world is of little consequence in comparison to Olam Haba. Everyone is acutely aware of the significance of the eternal world. What did Rav Preida do that warranted a dual reward?

Horav Yosef Zundel Salant, zl, explains that once Rav Preida was given the opportunity to enter Olam Haba together with his generation, he was willing to "be mevater," relinquish, his chance for longevity - despite the incredible opportunity for personal spiritual advancement. Because he surrendered his own ambitions for the common good, he was doubly rewarded. Hashem did not want him to lose his reward because he was so devoted to the general community.

Putting the community first is an awesome challenge - one which is not easily surmounted. We live in a society which lauds taking care of "number one." Torah agrees that our focus should be first on "number one." It does, however, have a different perspective on Who is number one.

Our Torah leaders understood that greatness was measured by where one placed himself. If the community came first and only then, when everyone's needs were addressed, did he care about his personal needs, then he was worthy of distinction. The Satmar Rebbe, zl, would often relate how a chassid once came to the Sanzer Rav, zl. The Rav asked him, "To which rebbe are you traveling?" "I am going to the Shiniyaver Rav (the son of the Sanzer)." "You are going to my Yechezkele? He is a rebbe? What makes him a rebbe?" the Sanzer asked. "His avodas ha'kodesh, service to Hashem, and Torah study makes him a rebbe," the chassid answered. "No. Neither Torah study nor exceptional devotion transforms one into a leader. Everybody has to serve Hashem without exception. What distinguishes him?" the Sanzer countered.

This went back and forth. Every time the chassid would mention an episode in which the Shiniyaver was exemplary, his father would disregard it. Finally, the chassid reminded himself of an episode worthy of a leader. It was a freezing wintry day and a poor man met the Shiniyaver on the street in the middle of a snowstorm. The Shiniyaver took a look at the man's shoes and noticed that he was not wearing boots. His shoes, or at least what was left of them, were soaked and snow covered. Realizing that the poor man could not traverse the city seeking alms because of his shoe problem, the Shiniyaver removed his own shoes and gave them to the poor man. The poor man could now continue begging and the Shiniyaver was left in the street without boots. When the Sanzer heard this, he declared, "Anyone who ignores his own plight and thinks first of others, is worthy of being a rebbe."

Questions & Answers:

1) Was Moshe's ability to move about impeded by his advanced age?

2) Moshe transferred the mantle of leadership to Yehoshua in the presence of the People. Why?

3) What is the procedure for Hakhel?

4) The enjoinment to write the Torah is given in the plural - "kisvu" - which seems to refer to Moshe and Yehoshua. Who actually did the writing?


1) Old age did not impede Moshe in anyway.

2) Moshe wanted to add to Yehoshua's prestige by charging him in the presence of the nation.

3) Once every seven years - on the first day of Chol Hamoed Succos that followed the Shemittah year, the Melech Yisrael

would read from Sefer Devarim, in the presence of the entire nation.

4) When Moshe wrote the Torah, Yehoshua stood at his side, watching and reading aloud.


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