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Peninim on the Torah

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Rabbi A. Leib Scheinbaum
Hebrew Academy of Cleveland


You are standing today, all of you, before Hashem, your G-d. (29:9)

The Midrash notes the juxtaposition of Parashas Netzavim on the previous parsha, Ki Savo, which enumerated the ninety-eight curses that would serve as punishment for he who transgressed the Torah. When Klal Yisrael heard these terrible curses, their faces became green and they asked, "Who is able to withstand such curses?" Moshe Rabbeinu began to appease them, explaining, "You have angered Hashem numerous times, yet He has not destroyed you. Indeed, you are standing before Him today." A number of questions regarding this Midrash should be addressed. First, why did their faces turn pallid due to the number of curses? Hashem could easily accomplish a devastating punishment with even one curse. We either listen to Him, or we do not. If we are cognizant of His mitzvos and we observe them, we have nothing to worry about. If, however, we do not listen, then there is no difference whether it is ninety-eight curses or one curse. The effect is equally destructive. Second, when Klal Yisrael stood at Har Sinai and accepted the Torah, they were basically told that non-observance was not an option. If they observed, they would be rewarded. If they reneged, they would be punished. They did not seem to be impacted to the point that their faces turned pallid with fear. What had occurred now that had created such a change in their attitude?

Horav Nosson Ordman, zl, cites the Talmud Chagigah 5A, which relates that when Rabbi Yochanan would read the pasuk in Devarim 31:17, "And I will conceal My face from them and they will become prey, and many evils and distresses will encounter it," he would cry and say, "A slave whose master creates for him evils and distresses, is there any hope for him?" What is the meaning of this pasuk, and what prompted Rabbi Yochanan to react so intensely to it?

Horav Leib Bloch, zl, explains this with a powerful analogy. If a king were to send his trusted servant on an important mission, there is no doubt that the servant would do everything within his power to carry out the mission to its fullest and to achieve total success. This would be especially true if the king gave an added incentive, "if you fail, you will be executed." Nonetheless, the servant would always have in the back of his mind the notion that his king is a kindhearted and compassionate human being. Even if the servant were to err, he would know he could count on the king's mercy that the punishment would not be carried out.

This situation would be altered greatly if the king sent along guards to carry out the execution immediately if the servant had failed. This would certainly add to his trepidation. Knowing that he could not rely on the king's compassion but, instead, having to appeal to the guard's sense of humanity and mercy, would raise his fear level a few notches. As severe as the punishment may be, there was always a degree of hope in the back of his mind. Maybe he could convince the guards to overlook his error.

What if his mission was such that if he failed, however, then the actual object that he was working on would destroy him? For instance, if he were told to dismantle a bomb and, if he failed, the bomb would explode. There would be no recourse, no option for appeal. He either succeeded, or he would perish. There was no king to appease, no guards to ask for clemency. If he failed, he would die. Obviously, under such circumstances, the servant would be filled with overwhelming fear and trepidation.

The Telzer Rav explains that regarding sin, the punishment lies within the sin itself. The evil, the poison that will blemish and eventually destroy a person's neshomah, soul, is inherent in the aveirah, sin. The sin that he commits will itself be the precursor of evils and distresses, just like the servant who must dismantle a bomb. If he fails, he dies. The punishment for a sin is another sin, for sin leads to sin, and this path leads to ultimate ruin.

Likewise, when one performs a mitzvah, when he listens to Hashem, the positive effect on the entire Creation is awesome. It is an immediate response to listening, as well as an immediate reaction to not listening. We understand now why Klal Yisrael's faces turned pallid when they heard the many curses. It was not the number that frightened them, nor was it the idea of punishment. What scared them was the realization that there was an immediate connection between sin and punishment. There was no medium, no go-between, no appeal. If they sinned, they created ruin for themselves and for the world. This awareness can certainly create overwhelming emotional distress.

You are standing today, all of you, before Hashem, your G-d. (29:9)

The commentators address the meaning of the word "today." They explain that "today" is every day. We are to stand before the Almighty on a daily basis and accept the Torah with renewed vigor as we originally did at Har Sinai. In an alternative exposition, the Likutei Torah posits that hayom, "today," is a reference to the most auspicious day of the year: Rosh Hashanah, the Day of Judgment, when we all stand before the Almighty to be judged for our deeds of the past year and to receive the decree for the upcoming year. We stand upright, confident and positive that we will emerge triumphant on this holy day. How does one stand before Hashem on this most decisive day? What "position" should one maintain as he stands in judgment before the King of Kings?

In the Mishnah Rosh Hashanah, Chazal teach us: "On Rosh Hashanah, all who walk the earth pass before Him like bnei maron, young sheep." This refers to the way young sheep pass through a narrow opening in the corral to be counted for the purpose of being tithed. Chazal add two alternative explanations for bnei maron. One interpretation is like maalos bnei maron, a narrow pass on a high mountain which allows for only one person to go through at a time. In another interpretation, bnei maron are soldiers who file by individually before the king. We must endeavor to understand the distinction between these three interpretations. Is there really a difference how we pass before Hashem?

Horav Shabsai Yudelewitz, zl, compares this to three types of people and their individual perspectives on the judgment they are to receive on Rosh Hashanah. He cites the following mashal, analogy, from Horav Chaim Soloveitchik, zl. A certain merchant went to the market to purchase merchandise for resale. He took with him two million ruble, some of it his own, with the remainder being money from various investors. Hashem was with him, and he succeeded in purchasing an impressive amount of merchandise at a very reasonable price. This would incur a tremendous profit for him and his investors. All he had to do now was bring it home. He rented a large wagon and a driver. He was not, however, prepared to pay the unreasonably high tariff demanded by the customs inspectors at the border. Therefore, he decided to return home through a somewhat difficult and dangerous route that was seldom traveled and, thus, was basically free from the border patrol.

The wagon driver that he had hired was an expert who showed no fear of the danger that might confront them. They left at night under the cover of darkness, in order not to arouse any attention as to their intentions. It would take a few days to return home. Understandably, the merchant was nervous form the moment of departure. He had much to lose, much more than the wagon driver. This was the scenario on the wagon: The driver was calm and relaxed, while the merchant was a basket case. "Why are you so nervous?" the wagon driver asked. "The earliest possibility of danger is not for three more days. Relax!" His words had no effect on the merchant, who was becoming increasingly agitated with each passing mile. Finally, as they were getting closer to the border, the wagon driver himself started to show signs of stress. Little beads of sweat began to appear on his forehead, and his voice became more sullen as they neared the moment of truth. Suddenly, the merchant asked the driver, "Why are you so nervous? What do you have to lose? I have everything to lose. What is your excuse?"

"Do you think horses grow on trees?" the wagon driver replied. "If I get caught, I will lose my business. My horses are my only source of income." As they approached the border, all was quiet; the merchant was mumbling Tehillim to himself; the wagon driver was sweating profusely; this was the moment of truth. Suddenly, the horses begin to neigh at the top of their lungs. Of all times, now at the most critical point in the trip, they had to create a disturbance. They were horses, however, and they did not realize what there was to lose.

The analogy is very apropos. There are three levels of preparation for the Day of Judgment, each dependent upon one's depth of understanding of the proceedings and what he might lose. The first group are individuals who fear Hashem, whose piety and virtue is their hallmark. They begin to fret from Rosh Chodesh Elul. The moment the shofar is blown, they are acutely aware of the approach of the Yom HaDin, Day of Judgment. They understand what is at stake and how much they have to lose, similar to the soldier who files before the king for inspection and approval after much preparation and training. He realizes how meticulous he must appear. He is sure to come well- prepared.

Members of the next group do not manifest any anxiety until they are on the road for awhile. As Rosh Hashanah approaches, they begin to get their act together and demonstrate some outward signs of concern. They are like the wagon driver who has little to lose and shows it. Only when the border comes into his immediate sight does he become anxious. Like those who climb up the mountain, they manifest no fear until they reach the narrow pass that permits only one person at a time to pass through.

There is, however, yet another group. This group sleeps through Elul, and makes a farce out of Rosh Hashanah; it is all meaningless to these individuals. They simply have no clue what is at stake. Are they different than the senseless horses who pick the most inopportune time to announce their arrival at the border? These people are like the young sheep who pass through the narrow pen. Every tenth one is marked. They have no clue why they go through or why they are marked. When they discover the reason, it is too late. Regrettably, there are those among us who act like those young sheep. By the time we wake up, it is too late to do anything about it, and, instead of making a last resort attempt at salvaging what we have lost, we go back to sleep.

As we approach the Day of Judgment, we should remember what we have to lose and decide what we should do to prevent us from incurring this loss.

Parashas Vayelech

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

The Talmud Megillah 3A relates the incident in which Yehoshua was laying siege to Yericho, when he met an angel at night. The angel said to him, "This evening you neglected the Korban Tamid Shel Bein Ha'Arbaim, Afternoon sacrifice, and now you have neglected the study of Torah." Yehoshua asked, "In regard to which (of these two sins) have you come?" The angel answered, "Ata basi," "I have come now." Immediately, the next night, (Rashi) Yehoshua studied Torah. The Rivan in Tosfos explains the relationship between the word ata, "now," and Torah study, as being derived from the above pasuk, V'ata, so now, kisvu es ha'shirah ha'zos, "Write this song for yourselves." Chazal teach us that "this song" is a reference to the Torah. We wonder why the angel cited this pasuk to emphasize the sin of bitul Torah, wasting time from studying Torah. Surely, there are other pesukim that state the preeminence of Torah study in our lives. What was the angel alluding to with this pasuk?

The Ponevezer Rav, zl, explains that from the perspective of Torah study alone, quite possibly Yehoshua could have found a dispensation for not studying at that time. After all, it was during a war. They were in the midst of the battlefield in the dead of night. There was sufficient reason to forego any critique concerning their laxity in Torah study. There was an aspect of Torah study, however, which they were missing. Torah is called shirah, song. Just as a melody is refreshing, exciting and pulsating, so too, does the Torah add excitement and vibrance to one's life. One who views the Torah as a song will never recuse himself from learning. How could he? It is his life! During battle, deprivation, and throughout any time frame or period, one finds time to study Torah. It is not merely an intellectual pursuit. It is chayim!

The angel criticized Yehoshua for the lack of the v'ata, "and now," referring to the Shira, the song, that Torah is to be. Horav Elazar M. Shach, zl, would often relate from Horav Yisrael Salanter, zl, who commented, "I cannot fathom any greater enjoyment in Gan Eden than a shtender, a book stand, with a Talmud Nedarim with the commentary of the Ran opened on it." This was life to him! No joy, no sense of satisfaction was comparable to the passion he felt through cheshkas haTorah, desire to study Torah. He is impervious to the extraneous hustle and bustle of the world around him. He was content with immersing himself in the sweet melody of the song of Torah.

The Klausenberger Rebbe, zl, was well known for his boundless love of Torah. This was demonstrated by the manner in which he davened, especially when he recited the tefillah of Ahavas olam. He would begin by beseeching Hashem to have mercy on us, and then he would slowly articulate each request accompanied by a torrent of tears. "Please, Hashem," he would supplicate, "V'tein b'libeinu. 'Place in our hearts (the ability and desire) 'l'havin, to understand, lishmoa, to listen, lilmod, to learn, u'lelamed, and to teach." He would then collapse in uncontrollable weeping as if he were bent over begging for his life. In truth, he was - because he knew no life other than a life of Torah. Without it, he was not alive.

For I shall bring them to the land that I swore for their forefathers… and (they) will turn to gods of others and serve them…It shall be when many evils and distresses come upon it…for I know its inclination, what it does today. (31:21,22)

The pesukim depict the situation and religious climate among the people even before they enter the Promised Land. Rather than sense a feeling of anticipation and holiness in preparation for this seminal event, they turn instead to idols, to the gods of others, to foolishness and absurdity. Afterwards, they have no idea why they are plagued with evils and distresses. Hashem relates that everything is a direct consequence of man's deference to his yetzer hora, evil inclination. We seek out alien cultures, hoping that we will ingratiate ourselves to them, not that they will help us. It is all upon the counsel and guile of the yetzer hora that manipulates us according to its goals. Moshe Rabbeinu presents all of this in the Torah, so that the people will have a clear and lucid picture of what will occur when they are drawn by their yetzer hora to the cultures of surrounding societies. They will wonder why all this is happening to them. The answer will be in the Torah - if they are willing to listen. For some, however, it will be too late.

Horav Eliyahu Schlessinger, Shlita, sees a deeper message in these pesukim, a message that is both timely and pragmatic. The nature of man is to search for a reason whenever something dreadful occurs. He must rationalize everything. He will blame everyone and everything. The last thing that will enter his mind is to blame himself for what has occurred. He is the righteous person, he is faultless. Everybody else is evil, he is a saint. If it sounds familiar, it is because we are all guilty of this offense. At one time or another, we will lay the blame at everyone's doorstep but our own. This pattern has, regrettably, been our trademark throughout history.

The Torah is conveying to us that we are wrong. If you wonder why we are suffering; why we are inundated with distress; why we are plagued with one crisis after another? The answer is that we are to blame; we caused the problem, we initiated the consequence. Hashem recognizes our inclination and knows how low and how far one will go to satisfy the burning desire created by his yetzer hora. Before we lay blame where it does not belong, let us look in the mirror and see from where it all starts.

We derive this lesson from Yonah Ha'Navi. He was traveling by ship, when a raging storm threatened to sink the ship and all of its passengers. Everyone prayed to his own god to no avail. They decided to throw lots to see if this would reveal the reason for the storm. The lot fell on Yonah. They asked him what he had done to incur the wrath of the Almighty. Yonah conceded that he was to blame and had them throw him overboard. Incredible! The ship was filled with idolaters of every shape and form. Certainly, the travelers were not all members of the righteous elite. Yonah could have easily made light of the lottery and blamed any number of people. He did not. Surely, his infraction paled in comparison with those of his fellow passengers. He could have kept quiet and ignored them. He did not, because he did not shirk his responsibility. He had erred, and he would accept the blame. The sooner one owns up to his responsibility, the quicker he can implement the changes necessary to put his mistakes behind him.

Va'ani Tefillah

Baruch podeh u'matzil Baruch Shemo.
Blessed is He Who redeems and saves, Blessed is His Name.

The various commentators distinguish between these two forms of deliverance. The Gaon,zl, m'Vilna, in his commentary to Sefer Mishlei explains that podeh, redemption, is a deliverance with the agreement of the aggressor. Matzil is a forced emancipation against his will. The Gaon adds that podeh is effected through the medium of tefillah, prayer, during which one supplicates Hashem to redeem him. Matzil is the result of Torah study, which is more compelling and has a stronger effect.

In an alternative exposition, the Maggid Tzedek explains that podeh is a reference to redemption, such as when one is already in a state of servitude or captivity, he is redeemed from a master. Matzil is used in a preventative state, to ensure that one does not fall into the hands of the enemy. Yaakov Avinu prayed to Hashem, Hatzileini miyad achi miyad Eisav. "Save me from the hands of my brother, from the hands of Eisav." (Bereishis 32:12)

Applying this interpretation, he explains the redundancy of Hashem's Name in the pasuk, "Hashem, Hashem Keil Rachum (Shemos 34:6)." Chazal interpret this: "I am Hashem prior to the sin and I am Hashem after the sin, after one has repented." The question is obvious: Why is Hashem's mercy needed prior to sin? After all, one has not yet committed any wrongdoing. Apparently, the yetzer hora, evil inclination, sets a trap to ensnare us into sin. We need Hashem's Divine mercy to protect us before the fact - and then afterwards, if we did not succeed in warding off its blandishments. This is the meaning of Hashem, Hashem. We need His Divine compassion for pedus after we have been taken captive and we need His hatzalah to protect us from falling into sin.

Peninim on the Torah is in its 14th year of publication. The first nine years have been published in book form.

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