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Peninim on the Torah

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Rabbi A. Leib Scheinbaum
Hebrew Academy of Cleveland


If your dispersed will be at the ends of heaven, from there Hashem, your G-d, will gather you in and from there He will take you. (30:4)

This is a very moving and inspirational pasuk. Hashem never gives up on us. Once Klal Yisrael repents, Hashem's mercy has no limits. No matter where we are, regardless of how ensconced we are among our host nations, He will bring us back to Eretz Yisrael. Horav Eliyahu Lopian, zl, renders this pasuk homiletically. Even if a person were to sink into the moral decay of this temporary world; even if he were to fall prey to a life of unbridled passion and unrestrained desire, becoming alienated from a Torah way of life - as long as a spark remains, a tiny spiritual ember that has not yet completely been extinguished, Hashem will take him back If that spark of Judaism has not been completely cooled off, it can still be stoked back to life. If the spark is present, b'ktzei ha'Shomayim, at the ends of the heaven; if there is still a bit of "heaven" left in him, Hashem will take him back - even from the pits of iniquity, the nadir of sin.

We have all seen this phenomenon. Young men and women, who have been estranged from the religion of their ancestors torn from the past, living in a present filled with the filth that characterizes and has become the trademark of contemporary society, and relegated to a future of abandon, to a destiny of hopelessness have returned to the fold. They have become contributing members of a vibrant Jewish religious renaissance. They retained that small spark which was sufficient to bring them back. Hashem welcomed them, embracing them as a loving Father.

It does not take much - one spark. Horav Simcha Wasserman, zl, relates the story of a young man whom he met at a yeshivah in Eretz Yisrael. He apparently looked like someone who was new to the observant yeshivishe way of life, so Rav Simcha asked him how he came to be at the yeshivah. The student explained that he had come to Eretz Yisrael to work on a kibbutz sponsored by the leftist Hashomer Hatzair movement. This is a neo-communist program whose members are virulently anti-religion. During his stay, he had occasion to take a taxi. He noticed on the seat a magazine called "Shema Yisrael," published by one of the outreach yeshivos. It is a very sincere, meaningful and state-of-the art-publication. He questioned the driver about it. The driver said that probably some chareidi, observant Jew, had left it on the seat. The young man began to read and was impressed. He jotted down the address of the yeshivah, and the next day he went to visit. He has not returned to the kibbutz and is today an observant Torah Jew, all because of a spark that ignited in his soul. Hashem was waiting for him.

At times, this spark remains embedded, concealed for centuries, waiting patiently to be extracted. As long as it is present, there is hope. The Torah observant person who was the dean of the bacteriology department at an Ivy League university in California had a Mezuzah on his office door. One day, he was walking with a non-Jewish colleague who noticed the Mezuzah and inquired about it. As he was about to explain, he was called to the phone. Meanwhile, a non-Jewish female student who had noticed the interchange went over and explained everything about the Mezuzah as if she were reading from the Shulchan Aruch and Sefer HaChinuch.

When the Jewish professor returned and heard her explanation, he inquired how she knew so much about Judaism. He knew that she hailed from a devout Catholic family in Mexico. She replied that for the previous two years she had taken an interest in Judaism for no apparent reason and had been studying everything about the religion.

When the professor shared this story with his rebbe, Rav Simchah, the Rosh Yeshivah instructed him to tell the girl to research her ancestry, since he was certain that somewhere she must have had a trace of Marrano blood in her family's history. She followed his instructions and discovered that Rav Simchah had been correct. He explained that the Navi Yechezkel prophesized that one day Hashem would bring back all of those who have been lost among the nations. Her gravitational pull towards Judaism indicated that Jewish blood coursed through her veins. Hashem was bringing back a lost soul.

I think this last story puts it all into perspective. Horav Yissachar Frand relates the story of a troubled young man who was so conflicted about the direction his life should take. During the day he spent his time engrossed in Torah study, just like the many other students of his yeshiva. At night, however, he was a drummer in a rock band, playing gigs in nightclubs throughout New York City. He was a great drummer as was evidenced one night when a man approached him after a show and offered him an audition. Apparently, he was a producer for some of New York's premier bands, and he felt that this yeshivah bochur's skills were sensational. The student auditioned and immediately was offered a job as the backup drummer for one of the most famous rock bands in the country.

It was a once in a lifetime opportunity, something that he had been dreaming of from the very first day that he began to beat on a drum! His excitement was overwhelming and mounted as the producer presented a contract and proceeded to fill in the blanks. However, when the young drummer noticed the date of the first gig, he almost passed out. It was Friday night! While he might have lived a "double life," and at times gone to places and done things that were inappropriate for a yeshivah bochur, he had never desecrated Shabbos. This was one line that he had never crossed. Was he prepared to deviate from the past and destroy his future?

He decided to speak with his rabbi with whom he had developed a close and trusting relationship over the years. "Rebbe," the young man said, "I want this real bad. This is what I have been longing for my whole life. Now is the moment of truth. What do I do?"

The rabbi replied, "Go home and make a list. On one side of the paper jot down all of the benefits of taking this position. On the other side, write down all of its disadvantages. Then, evaluate the plusses and minuses and make an intelligent decision. I am here to help."

A few days passed until the young drummer appeared at the rabbi's home with the paper in his hand. He placed it on the desk and began to cry. The rabbi read the long list of advantages: some were appropriate; others lacked substance, while yet others were unmentionable. On the right side there was listed one word: ETERNITY! The young man had finally realized the value of the spirit and the critical importance of knowing one's priorities. This might give us all something to think about on the last Shabbos of the year, as we search for merits to insure us continued life.

Hashem, your G-d, will circumcise your heart and the heart of your offspring, to love Hashem, your G-d. (30:6)

Ibn Ezra explains, that Hashem will remove the spiritual impediment that stands in the way of total repentance. Parashas Nitzavim occurs at the end of the month of Elul, as we prepare for a new year. This is by design. The Seforim cite this pasuk - U'mal Hashem Elokecha es levavcha v'es l'vav zarecha, as an allusion, with the first letter of each of the words, "es levavcha v'es levav," aleph, lamed, vov, lamed, serving as a mnemonic for the word Elul. This pasuk focuses on the heart as the source which impedes teshuvah. Hashem will circumcise the evil inclination that thwarts our ability to return to Him.

There is another way of viewing the "heart." Shlomo HaMelech says in Shir HaShirim 5:2, "I sleep but my heart is awake," which is interpreted as: I allow my devotion to slumber, but the G-d of my heart was awake. He continues: "The sound of my Beloved knocking!" which is interpreted thus: Throughout all my slumbering, my Beloved, the Shechinah, has been knocking, sending messages to awaken me. In his inimitable manner, Horav Shabsi Yudelevitz,zl, explains the metaphors of this pasuk. Klal Yisrael tells Hashem: "Yes, we might appear to be sleeping, but it is only a fa?ade. At a cursory glance, we give the impression of being out cold. We show no signs of life. Veritably, however, libi er - "my heart is wide awake." Deep inside our hearts, in the recesses of our Jewish souls, we are awake and seeking a closer relationship with the Almighty." With no signs of life manifest by a person, distinct possibilities are presented. Either the person is gone, he has expired; or he is out cold, but very much alive. There is one way to ascertain if he is alive: listen to his heart. If his heart is beating, he is asleep, but, very much alive. If his heart is still, he has regrettably expired. A similar idea applies to Klal Yisrael. While some of us may appear to be spiritually inert, almost lifeless, this is only an external perspective. In reality, their Jewish hearts are still beating. They are alive. Hashem, however, is not satisfied with simply a Jewish heart. He knocks! He does not want us to sleep. He wants to see outward signs of life. This is the meaning of Kol Dodi dofeik, "The sound of my Beloved knocking."

Rav Shabsi relates that he once met such a "Jew at heart." To all external signs, this man was out cold, but he claimed that his Jewish heart was beating loud and clear. He was on a plane flying from Eretz Yisrael to America. Sitting next to him was a world famous cardiologist on staff at Hadassah Hospital. The physician's lack of observance was obvious when he did not order a kosher meal for the flight. Rav Shabsi had his specially wrapped kosher meal, while the physician was enjoying a non-kosher dinner. Rav Shabsi had a difficult time "swallowing" the scene of this Jewish doctor biting into his non-kosher meal. He could not keep his disdain to himself, as he said to the doctor, "Excuse me, does it not bother you to eat that non-kosher portion? You are a Jew! Are you not ashamed?"

The physician looked at Rav Shabsi without any show of emotion and said, "One does not die from eating non-kosher. It is not the end of the world."

Rav Shabsi was not rebuffed that easily, as he countered, "You claim to be a Jew; yet, you eat to your heart's content, regardless of the food's kashrus. In what area does your Jewishness manifest itself?"

"Rabbi, let me explain to you. One does not die from eating a ham sandwich. You question my Jewishness. I have a Jewish heart. I support the State of Israel, and I contribute generously to the Jewish National Fund."

A number of hours elapsed, and it was time to daven Minchah. Rav Shabsi was about to join a group of Jews who were making a minyan. He politely asked the doctor, "Perhaps you would like to join in a minyan to daven Minchah." The doctor answered, "No. I do not do Minchah or any other prayer for that matter. Rabbi, in case you did not understand, I believe I am a good Jew at heart. I do not, however, perform any mitzvos. It just is not my thing. I see no reason to carry out something in which I do not believe."

Hearing this, Rav Shabsi decided to try another approach: "I understand you are a world renowned cardiologist. Perhaps you can tell me some of the contributing factors to a heart attack."

"Surely," the doctor answered, happy to have the subject changed from religious observance to medicine. "Eating too much fat will clog the arteries. The blockages in the arteries can erupt, and the blood will be unable to flow to the heart causing it to stop." He went on to elaborate this and other causes of heart failure. After all, it was his area of expertise.

"Incredible!" exclaimed Rav Shabsi. "Now I understand exactly the mechanism of the heart and how it can be impeded. You really gave me food for thought. Thank you very much. Oh, and perhaps I can ask you one more question."

"No problem," the doctor replied. He was happy to talk about anything other than religion.

"You tell me," began Rav Shabsi, "that you are a Jew at heart. You place your entire Jewish observance in your heart. Your davening; your kashrus; your Shabbos - everything. This might create an overload. The Torah gave us 613 mitzvos to be distributed throughout the entire body. You have placed all of them just on your heart. Do you not think this is too much? If you place your whole Yiddishkeit on your heart, you might cause a heart attack! Are you not afraid?"

It goes without saying that the doctor did not alter his lifetstyle. He remained a Jew at heart-- and for all outward appearances-- a lifeless human being. This is why Hashem is not satisfied with libi er, "my heart is awake." He continues to knock, to send messages, so that we wake up before the heart becomes mortally wounded.

For this commandment…is not too wondrous for you, nor is it far beyond you…But, the word is very near to you, in your mouth and in your heart that you may do it. (30:11,14)

There is a difference of opinion concerning "this mitzvah": whether it refers to the Torah in general, or if it is a reference to the mitzvah of teshuvah, repentance. While teshuvah is translated here as repentance, its actual definition is return. One returns to his Source, his true home, his Father in Heaven, but, it does not seem to be as "easy" as the Torah presents it. Otherwise, we would all be baalei teshuvah. Many people refuse to take the plunge, to return to Hashem, because they are afraid of being unsuccessful. How often do we meet someone who tells us, "I would love to try, but it is so difficult! There is so much to know, so much to do, so many commandments to observe, so many challenges to overcome. I will not even try." Many of us are reluctant to try something that we fear will not meet with success. Our lack of self-confidence pulls us down and does not permit us to go forward.

This is what Moshe Rabbeinu is telling us: This commandment is not as difficult as it seems. In fact, it is quite simple to achieve. All you must do is try. Make the attempt. Hashem will help you go all the way. If you do not make an attempt, however, He will not help you. It is easier than you think. The hardest part is making the decision to go forward.

"And you will return unto Hashem, your G-d, and listen to His voice, according to everything that I command you today" (ibid. 30:2). In his Shaarei Teshuvah, Rabbeinu Yonah writes, "It is explained in the Torah that Hashem helps those who return, as they are not, by nature, able to achieve this alone. He will renew within them a spirit of purity that they may be able to attain the benefit of a love for Him." Hashem wants us to come to the "door" and ask, make a statement articulating our desire to return, our regrets for the past and a desire to initiate change. That is all!

Horav Boruch Mordechai Ezrachi, Shlita, cites a parable from the Maggid, zl, m'Dubno that elucidates this point. The wealthiest man in the small town was seeking a husband for his daughter. She was not only wealthy; she was a young lady endowed with excellent character traits, refined, educated and attractive. All of these wonderful attributes created a difficulty for most young men to make it onto her "short list." There was one young man in the city who fit the bill. He was learned, a diligent student, whose love for Torah was matched only by his overwhelming love for his fellow man. He had one "failing," however: he was poor. The girl's father was not concerned. After all, he had plenty of money. The match was made, and the young people met. Each one was pleased. A date for the marriage was discussed, and the girl's father agreed to everything. He did make one stipulation. Since he was undertaking all financial responsibility, it was only right that the boy's father contribute "something," to the dowry. He did not ask for much, but for the poor man, anything was too much. Nonetheless, he promised to raise the necessary money in time for the wedding.

The poor man's idea of raising money was to go door to door and beg. He proceeded to undertake to raise the necessary funds to comply with his future mechutan's demand. It was not easy, as he went from house to house asking for whatever help people could afford. After a few weeks of trudging and begging, he counted up his contributions and discovered that he was dismally short of the necessary total. He would have to keep on begging, but the prospects of success were becoming dimmer.

It dawned on him that there was one more person he could approach: the wealthiest man in the city. The next day he presented himself at the front door of his future mechutan and waited to be admitted. "Welcome! How good to see you," the wealthy man exclaimed. "I am sure you have fulfilled your end of the bargain, and we can proceed with the wedding plans."

"No," the poor man answered. "I have tried to raise the necessary funds, but, alas, I have fallen short of the goal. That is not why I am here, however. I am here as a poor man seeking funds to marry off my son. I have not come to you as your future mechutan. I have come as a beggar asking for charity. As the wealthiest man in the city, one who is known for his many acts of charity, I am turning to you for assistance."

The parallel to this story applies to us when we prepare to repent, to return home to Hashem. We have sinned. We recognize our failings and are remorseful over them and we hope that Hashem will forgive us. All He asks of us is that we come to the door and knock. Open up our hearts so that He can help us. We do not come with the finished product, because we are unable to do it alone. We ask for help. Hashem responds to our plea. We have to make the first move, however, to ask, to open up our hearts, to knock at Heaven's door. He will do the rest.

We say it everyday in Shemoneh Esrai, Hashiveinu Avinu l'Torasecha…Korveinu Malkeinu l'avodasecha, v'hachazireinu b'teshuvah sheleimah lefanecha… "Bring us back, our Father, to Your Torah…and bring us close, our King, to Your Service…Bring us back with a perfect teshuvah before You."

What are all of these requests? It is up to us to repent, to return, to come closer. Why are we asking Hashem to do it for us? Rav Ezrachi explains that even concerning the minimum which is our part of the bargain, Hashem is willing to help. We only have to realize that He is willing to offer His siyata di'Shmaya, Divine Assistance. We have to ask, Hashiveinu, korveinu, hachazireinu.

Horav Shimon Schwab, zl, suggests an insightful parable to elucidate this point. There was a son who had embezzled a huge sum of money from his father and then disappeared. After many years of not communicating with his father, during which time the son had squandered away all of his ill-gotten money, he tearfully phoned his father begging for forgiveness, asking to be reinstated at home. The father was a "father," so that--with great compassion-- he accepted his son's apology and invited him to return home. The son said, "Thank you Dad, but there is one problem. Unfortunately, I am penniless. Could you send me money to purchase a ticket, so that I could come home?"

Ironic, but that is what we are asking Hashem. We want to "come back" home, but we do not have the means to do it alone. Hashem, please help us. Our hope and prayer on this last Shabbos of the year is, may it be Hashem's will that our return to Him will be accepted and that we will maintain a relationship with Him in which we will never leave home again.

See - I have placed before you today the life and the good, and the death and the evil…and you shall choose life. (30:15,19)

There is no gray area concerning our choice of Torah. One either chooses Torah, or he invites death by selecting a life antithetical to Torah. If one seeks life, he must choose a Torah way; otherwise, the alternative is death. These are powerful words. Interestingly, in the beginning of Parashas Re'eh (ibid.11:27) the Torah mentions blessing and curse as the result of making the wrong choice. Why does the Torah now mention death as being the consequence of a poor choice? The Meshech Chochmah cites the Gaon, zl, m'Vilna's interpretation of din, judgment, and cheshbon, accounting. Din is the punishment we receive for committing the actual sin, while cheshbon is an accounting of the mitzvos that could have been performed during the time that was wasted committing a sin.

Parashas Re'eh takes place prior to the giving of the mitzvah of teshuvah, repentance. Now, in Parashas Nitzavim, after teshuvah has been presented as part of the Torah's framework for life, to choose a life of sin is much more egregious. Now that one could have repented and has chosen not to, he has committed an unfathomable sin, one whose consequence is death. This is why the Torah concludes with U'bocharta ba'chaim, "And you shall choose life." For now that we have the mitzvah of teshuvah, to ignore this mitzvah and continue along our merry way, living a life filled with transgression, is tantamount to ignoring the opportunity to live.

Va'ani Tefillah

L'hodia livnei ha'adam gevurosav u'kavod hadar malchuso.
To make known to the sons of man His might; and the Glory of the splendor of His kingdom.

In the previous pasuk, the categories of glory and might are presented for introspection and study. It is not sufficient, however, for men to occupy themselves with study for the purpose of self-enlightenment. They are also obligated to teach and enlighten others, to make known these awesome qualities, to promulgate them so that others can also be inspired. Horav Avigdor Miller, zl, notes that in this pasuk, in contrast to the previous one, the "might" precedes the "glory." He explains that this is by design, since "might" which refers to the upheavals, indicates miraculous occurrences that Hashem wrought. They are more easily transmitted and taught to others. Students are more readily impressed by miracles than by the regular marvels of nature, which require greater study and longer training. Thus, their minds can be freed from the shackles of complacency and from the darkness that blinds them from seeing the truth. It takes great perseverance and deep thinking to see through the cloud of ambiguity that veils the everyday occurrences which we refer to as "nature." Furthermore, people want to trust in miracles, since it gives them hope, allowing them to believe that the impossible is attainable.

l'zechar nishmas avinu moreinu
R' Avrohom Aharon ben Yekusiel Yehuda z"l
she'holech l'o'lamo b'erev Rosh Hashana 5753

Mishpachas Mayer

Rabbi & Mrs. Harry Mayer and Family
Queens, New York

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