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Rabbi A. Leib Scheinbaum
Hebrew Academy of Cleveland


Parashas Netzavim

And you shall return unto Hashem, your G-d.. (30:2)

Teshuvah is popularly translated as repentance, when, in fact, it means return. Repentance is to return to one's source, to what he was - or was supposed to be. Teshuvah means to return to Hashem. The Jew who is estranged, alienated, turned-off, is distanced from Hashem. Thus, his return must be to Hashem. Teshuvah eradicates sin. In order for this phenomenon to occur, one must make a significant change in the nature of his character. In his newly-acquired level of spirituality, he is no longer capable of committing the original sin for which he did teshuvah. As a new person, he is not held accountable for the sins of his previous/other self.

Changing one's character is a major challenge. Many think they have changed, but, in effect, the change is only transitory. When circumstances become challenging, some revert back to their "old" selves. They often resist change. Only when he develops the firm conviction that the act that he committed was, indeed, wrong, and he feels real remorse, intense regret about acting in the manner in which he did, can the individual overcome his resistance to change. Then, only when he takes steps to ensure that a revival of his original self does not materialize, the individual can avoid having to repeat the teshuvah process.

In order to change one's character, one must first introspect and soul-search to discover why he was vulnerable to committing a specific sin. Certain traits render the individual vulnerable to committing sin. These traits must be expunged from his system. With character improvement and sincere increased spirituality, one can prevent a recurrence of his initial problem.

We are accustomed to think that teshuvah is the reparation one makes for the commitment of a sin. What if the act was not an actual sin, but rather, a failing? For example, one could achieve more than he is presently achieving. Is this acceptable? If a person could do better; achieve more; have greater qualities; be a better person: are these reasons for teshuvah? After all, he did no wrong. He just did not do "more right." Is that so bad?

In his Darkei Mussar, Horav Yaakov Neiman, zl, explains that, indeed, stunting one's ability to grow spiritually is a sin. If an individual is born with the potential for greater achievement, and - for some unacceptable reason - he does not rise to the occasion, he is considered a sinner, so that he must repent. Indeed, we find Chazal commenting that, while Hashem has tolerated our transgressing the three cardinal sins of murder, adultery, and idol-worship, He does not countenance the sin of bitul Torah, wasting time from Torah study. Rav Neiman explains that when one dismisses Torah, not only is he losing out on the actual Torah, he is also relinquishing the positive attributes that he would have gained through Torah study. Hashem will not expiate this sin.

In response to any other sin which a person commits and, regrettably, for which he does not repent, Hashem will send his neshamah, soul, to Gehinnom, Purgatory, to be cleansed. The taint on his soul which has resulted from the sin will undergo a spiritual expurgation in Gehinnom. This is only possible if an actual sin has been committed. If the sin is such that a person could have advanced his spiritual plateau, and, as a result of bitul Torah, did not, there is nothing to cleanse. Gehinnom will be of no avail. Thus, Hashem cannot help him. A person experiences Gan Eden commensurate with what he has achieved in this world. If one's achievement in this world is in stark contrast to the Heavenly portrait of his potential, then he will remain on the lower level.

The Alter, zl, m'Kelm was wont to say, Lebt men pashut, bleibt men pashut, "One who lives simple, remains simple." In this case, the meaning of simple is amateur, unsophisticated, plain. A person's function on this world is to be anything but plain. He is to strive to reach the highest spiritual and moral elevation, to never be satisfied with mediocrity, to maintain excellence, as the barometer of his achievement. Perfection was indeed the goal of Kelmer chinuch, imbued by its founder and primary expositor, the Alter. His students were hand-picked in accordance with their conformity to the specific discipline of Kelm. The Alter had a clear vision of an adam ha'shaleim - a complete, harmoniously whole man - that he wished to create. Every student of Kelm bore the remarkable, unmistakable imprimatur of Kelm.

And you shall return unto Hashem, your G-d. (30:2)

The Shulchan Aruch Orach Chaim (580:2) details the various fast days that have been decreed by Chazal. Included in the list is Elul 17, because it was on this day that the meraglim, Jewish spies, sent by Moshe Rabbeinu to reconnoiter Eretz Yisrael, died. The Magen Avraham questions this, wondering why we should fast over the passing of the wicked. These men returned after forty days, and they had the temerity to slander the Holy Land. They caused a powerful uproar and uncontrolled, unwarranted weeping, indicating the nation's lack of trust in the Almighty. Their punishment was: they got their wish! They did not go into Eretz Yisrael; all of them died in the wilderness. He explains that they probably repented prior to leaving this world. Regrettably, their teshuvah was not accepted. Therefore, we fast. The Shlah HaKodesh adds that originally they had been righteous leaders. They made a terrible mistake which cost them everything. We cannot ignore what they were.

Let us attempt to digest this halachah. Men, who at one point had been righteous, devout Jews, leaders of the congregation, individuals who could have inspired the nation to greatness, erred and acted in such a manner that they were labeled reshaim, wicked. On the anniversary of their untimely deaths we are to fast. Why? Because they did not merit that their teshuvah be accepted! To put it simply: they blew it. Their window of opportunity was closed. Their sin was egregious. We fast out of a sense of empathy. They tried to make amends, but their teshuvah was not accepted.

Horav Chaim Zaitchik, zl, explains this in his usual poignant manner. Imagine the pain of the Jew who has lived a life of abandon. It was probably not his fault, having been raised in a home estranged from a Torah-oriented life. Life goes by quickly. He thought he was having fun, but when he arrives at the court of the Heavenly Tribunal, he realizes that had he repented even one moment before his passing, he would have been allowed entry into Gan Eden. He could have enjoyed the spiritual pleasures that await the righteous. Now, he will not. He will probably be "sent back" to try over again.

While this scenario is sad, can one imagine the pain and hurt of he who did repent, but it was not accepted? This person did come to his senses. He made the right choice and begged to be reinstated, but it was too late - or his sin was insufferable. He did not receive the pardon he was counting on, hoping for. His pain is so much greater. No words can describe the hurt, the rejection, the awareness that it is hopeless. This is why we fast for the meraglim. We must have rachmanus, compassion, for everyone - even a rasha.

The Alter, zl, m'Kelm would manifest a striking, cheerful countenance on Shabbos. The sanctity and serenity of the day glowed within him - and it showed. One Shabbos, his students noticed that their revered rebbe appeared unusually distraught. His usual Shabbos appearance had changed. It was later discovered that the Alter had been notified of the passing of an infamous secular writer, who had many times vilified his co-religionists with his invective. The Alter was upset for his soul, because he could have repented a moment before his death - and it would have been accepted. He chose not to, leaving this world as a victim of his own malice. The Alter empathized with his soul.

It is so easy to criticize. It is so easy to hate. Beneath the evil exterior, however, lies a tormented soul, who, through no fault of its own, is trapped in the body of an evil person. Empathy might be difficult for some of us, since we are not used to separating the body from the soul. Vilification, however, might be taking our lack of empathy to an extreme. We fast for the meraglim. Look at what they caused. At one time they had been righteous. They did make an attempt at teshuvah. It was not accepted. Too little, too late. There are some individuals who understand nothing about their heritage and what they are doing wrong. A little empathy goes a long way.

Parashas Vayeilech

Gather together the people - the men, the women and the small children. (31:12)

Rashi quotes Chazal who explain the reason for gathering the men and the women as an introduction for his upcoming question: Why bring the children? The men come, so that they will learn. The women come, so that they will listen. Why are the children brought? To give reward to those who brought them. This refers to those children who are too young to learn from the experience of the gathering. They must come only for the purpose of rewarding the adults who brought them.

We wonder what benefit is derived by the women who come only to "listen." Obviously, they do not understand the Torah which is being taught. Otherwise, they would be included among the men who have come "to learn." Apparently, there are those who learn and those who listen, and it probably applies across the board. There might be men who, for some reason, had not been availed of an education, and, thus, did not understand the Torah that was being taught. This does not, however, answer the question. What is to be gained by attending if one has no clue concerning comprehension?

In his sefer Ben Yehoyada, Horav Yosef Chaim, zl, m'Bagdad, explains that when one listens to Torah being taught, regardless of his or her ability to understand, the mere listening with sincerity warrants that in the Olam HaEmes, World of Truth, he or she will be availed the opportunity to understand the depth and essence of what he or she heard. He cites the Zohar HaKodesh in Parashas Shelach that describes the myriad of nashim tzidkaniyos, righteous women, who sit by the Heichal of Gan Eden, engrossed in studying profundities of Torah being taught by such distinguished moros as Bisyah bas Pharaoh, Serach bas Asher, Yocheved, Miriam and others. This is, indeed, the purpose of nashim ba'os lishmoa, women coming to listen. Their listening for the purpose of picking up divrei Torah provides them with the chance to attain the Torah's profundities one day. One who wants to learn values every opportunity for learning - even if it is beyond his ability or prior knowledge to grasp.

I think the reason for this is that the Torah talks to one's neshamah. True, the physical mind grasps a part of it. Some minds grasp more than others. What one learns, however, remains forever ingrained in his psyche, so that when the time comes, it all becomes revealed to him. Torah is spiritual knowledge. There might be a physical aspect to it. Based upon one's endeavor in this wonder, it will be determined what he will be granted to understand in the next /real world. This applies equally in this world. One who applies himself with proper yegiah, toil, will be rewarded with an understanding of Hashem's word. Mere acumen will not catalyze achievement. Hashem's word cannot be grasped through conventional methods.

I am reminded of a poignant story quoted by Horav Chaim Beifus, Shlita. There lives in Yerushalayim a ger tzedek, righteous, sincere, convert. A while ago, he was queried with regard to his conversion: What pre-empted his decision? Why did he chose Judaism? He explained the following: After World War II, he was living in Amsterdam. Upon reading about the atrocities committed by the German people during World War II, he became terribly distraught. How could his people have acted so demonically against the Jewish People? He then decided that, as his personal act of contrition, he would move to the Holy Land and serve the Jewish People. He was able to obtain a position in a home for severely challenged children. These children were, for the most part, incapacitated both physically and mentally.

For a number of months, he had noticed a woman who came daily to spend time with her sixteen-month-old child. The baby was severely handicapped, unable to move or think. Sadly, it just lay there, for all intents and purposes totally oblivious to its surroundings. His mother would take three busses for two hours each way to come to the home to visit with her son. When she came, she went over to the child and kissed him on his forehead. She combed his hair and then placed a tallis katan on him, while reciting the accompanying blessing. She then proceeded to recite Modeh Ani, Shema and various blessings with him. This was followed by reading stories from the Torah and Midrash to him.

Watching this for three straight months, the man decided that this woman had, sadly, lost her mind. After all, she was going through this daily ritual for a child that had no ability to acknowledge anything that she was doing. It was insane. Her actions seemed to be the response of a mentally unbalanced woman to an emotionally depressing situation. Perhaps this was how she was coping with the tragedy, but, she had to be realistic! She was destroying herself in the process.

After a few months, the man gathered together his courage, approached the woman and asked, "Giveret, why are you doing this? Every day you come amidst much hardship to visit your son. You act toward him as if he could listen and understand you. Are you not aware that he is not well? Your son's body does not function. Why are you doing this to yourself?"

The woman looked deep into the man's eyes as she replied, "You think I am speaking to his body. Do you think that I am unaware that his body does not hear nor understand what I am saying? Do you think that I am insane? No! I am very normal. I am speaking to my child's neshamah, soul. His soul is eternal and, thus, transcends the constraints of his limited body. It is not impeded by mental or physical infirmity. It is that miniscule part of Hashem, our G-d, which resides in every human being. I am talking to my son's neshamah, which derives great spiritual pleasure and satisfaction from the words of Torah and tefillah."

The ger tzedek concluded by saying, "I then decided to join the Jewish People. I want to be part of a nation that talks to the soul."

Behold, your days are drawing near to die. (31:14)

In their insight into the concept of death, Chazal teach that life and death go far beyond breathing. Indeed, one may manifest the picture of health, yet be viewed as being far from alive; and one might be ill and bedridden, but very much alive. Life is not defined by respiration, but by appreciation. Chazal state that the rasha, wicked person, is considered as dead not because of his many sins but because he sees a sunrise and does not have the decency to bless Hashem and to offer gratitude for the gift of life. While the physical body may have a pulse, he is considered dead because he has no appreciation of life. Stealing, murder, infidelity and other heinous sins do not eschew his life. It is his lack of recognizing the "gift" of life, the opportunities available to him as a result of this gift.

Horav A. Henach Leibowitz, zl, explains that Hashem has endowed us with the ability to perceive and understand. When we see the beauty and complexity of this world, it should arouse us to awe of its Creator. The world is one constant miracle. Every moment - everywhere, anywhere - a miracle is taking place. Anyone who does not respond positively to the external stimuli with which he is bombarded must be spiritually catatonic. Every sunrise is a miracle; yet, the rasha does not perceive it that way.

The Rosh Yeshiva cites the Alter, zl, m'Slabodka, who suggests that we can derive a powerful lesson by observing an infant. Every step in his or her development is a major milestone which calls for photographs - stills and video - phone calls to grandparents, informing them of their grandchildren's incredible development. Every step is recorded, every nuance is appreciated and cherished. Parents recognize that this development comes from Hashem, and they appreciate His gift. Why is their gift of life any different from that of their child?

The Alter posits that similar to a child, an adult goes through developmental stages daily. When we sleep, our metabolism slows down and our conscious functions are completely disabled. Nonetheless, the very next day - and every day after that - Hashem opens our eyes and grants us the opportunity to see. Slowly, our skills and talents return, our abilities to function the way we do - and the way we have taken for granted - are revived. We must appreciate our G-d-given abilities as if they had been granted to us on this very day for the first time. We must rejoice daily as a mother rejoices with her new baby, celebrating every step of the child's maturation process. To be alive is to appreciate life.

We cherish what we know we may lose. In fact, when something is almost taken from us, our bond with it becomes that much more inexorable. As we stand during the Yamim Noraim, High Holiday season, we pray for another year of life - while we have the spectre of death looming in front of us. Hashem enjoins us, U'bacharta ba'chaim, "You shall choose life." How does one "choose" life? He does so by: appreciating it; sanctifying each moment with Hashem; acknowledging that the life we live is a gift from the Almighty - and we thank Him for it. That is how a Jew chooses life. We should take nothing for granted - especially life. Life is filled with disappointment, tragedy and grief. It is also filled with hope, success and joy. We must embrace the joys, welcome the success, and cherish every minute of health. Rather than worry about what might go wrong, we should treasure all of Hashem's gifts - while we have them - by appreciating them and offering our gratitude to Him for our good fortune. This is how a Jew lives. May Hashem inscribe each and every one of us into the Book of Life, and may we learn to appreciate the meaning of that inscription.

And I, I will hide My face at that time only because of all the evil that it has done. (31:18)

We complain that G-d has forsaken us, while, in fact, it is we who have forsaken Him. Hashem will continue to be our G-d as long as we continue to be His People. Our special relationship with the Almighty is contingent upon our complete obedience to Him. We claim that G-d is not in our midst. The Torah responds that this claim is entirely unfounded. Hashem will never abrogate His special relationship with Klal Yisrael. Indeed, it is because he is in our midst that our sinful behavior is so glaring. In other words, Hashem is here; He never left. We left. He is ready and willing. It is now up to us.

The idea of Hashem concealing Himself from us is a difficult one to fathom. According to the above pasuk, Hashem does not conceal Himself from us; we, in fact, hide from Him by turning to other gods. It is not unusual, however, for the perpetrator to cast blame on everyone but himself. The Baal Shem Tov makes a profound statement. He says, "I can tolerate it when Hashem is concealed. What is so difficult to tolerate is when His concealment is concealed."

As long as we realize that the origin of our present situation is Hashem, we can live with it. We pray; we repent; we hope that our entreaty is accepted, and we can go on. We believe that His infinite goodness will sustain us during the most trying times. It is when we lose sight of the Source, when we forget that it all comes from Hashem Who is concealing Himself, that the suffering becomes unbearable. When we erroneously believe that we are at the mercy of inescapable physical laws, the difficulties of life, the hardships and travail, become meaningless. If they come from Hashem, however, they have purpose and meaning. As painful as they may be, the mere fact that they originate from Hashem makes the experience more palatable, since we know that they are there for our ultimate good. Those who become depressed by hardship, do so because they do not perceive the G-d factor in this experience.

The Kotzker Rebbe, zl, was wont to say, "Even darkness is not dark when it comes from Hashem." Yes, there is hope even in darkness. Redemption is conceived from amidst the ashes of destruction. The Arizal teaches that in the throes of Tishah B'Av afternoon, as the raging fires of destruction were consuming our Bais HaMikdash, Moshiach is born. Time, in Jewish thought, is a spiral energy flow that annually repeats its orbit. Events in history are actually forms of energy - experiences that we relive when we return to that same point each year. In other words, Hashem created the first year with its 365 solar days. Each time frame was imbued with a spiritual flow from Hashem. Some moments were to be periods of joy; others are for rejuvenation, with a time set for sadness and reflection. Thus, we have the month of Av with its sadness; Elul is set aside for teshuvah; Adar is a time for joy; Nissan is a time for rejuvenation and liberation. Each year as Tishah B'Av comes upon us, the opportunity for Moshiach's birth is renewed.

This is how time plays a role in our lives. When we realize that everything that is "thrown" at us originates from Hashem, it should catalyze within us a sense of hope. The darkness that engulfs us is not real darkness. It is from Hashem and, thus, it is an opportunity for positive potential.

Life is not perfect. Some have it "rougher" than others. The issue is how does one deal with rejection, disappointment, shattered dreams, broken promises? Some of us view the darker moments in life as bleak, hopeless moments. Others see Hashem presenting them with an opportunity for positive growth. They can either grab the proverbial bull by the horns, and, with faith and determination, turn the situation around, or they can give in to utter hopelessness. It all reflects one's perspective.

Va'ani Tefillah


In concluding the commentary to Kaddish, I take the liberty of quoting Horav Shimon Schwab, zl, who sums up the message of Kaddish and its powerful meaning for us. I write this with the awareness that Kaddish is undervalued by many. Often recited at the end of the tefillah, there are those who are no longer in attendance when the Kaddish Yasom, orphan's Kaddish, is recited. Indeed, this makes the actual Kaddish a yasom, bereft and all alone. Rav Schwab writes: "When we think about the exalted nature of Kaddish and how we are to respond to it, we are reminded of how Chazal (Berachos 6b) interpret the pasuk in Tehillim 12:9, K'rum zulus livnei adam, "'When the basest of men are elevated.'" There are certain things which are of primary importance in the world, but, regrettably, people still belittle them. If one would understand the true meaning of Kaddish, he would certainly treat it as one of those things which are of supreme significance, as we have seen from the commentary on Kaddish.

"When an entire congregation listens to the chazzan who may be representing the neshamah, soul, of his deceased parent beseeching them to give up their lives, if necessary, for the purpose of Yisgadal v'yiskadash Shmeih rabba, sanctifying Hashem's Name, and they respond affirmatively with a resounding, Yehei Shmeih rabba mevarach, 'May His Name be blessed,' this is the highest form of a verbal Kiddush Hashem in this world."

As we stand at the threshold of a new year, may our entreaties be accepted for a year filled with blessing.

לזכות ולרפואה שלמה
ברוך בן שרה חשיא
בתוך שאר חולי ישראל

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