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Peninim on the Torah

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Rabbi A. Leib Scheinbaum
Hebrew Academy of Cleveland


And it will be that when he hears the words of this imprecation, he will bless himself in his heart, saying, "Peace will be with me." (29:18)

People invariably delude themselves into thinking that it will happen to someone else. One can go merrily about his miserable life, doing what he wants, ignoring the admonitions and punishments that are slowly creeping up on him. When he wakes up from his delusion, it is often too late. Hashem has given him every opportunity to return, but he is ignoring it. While this is true for most, there are those who, because they are under the influence of a misguided leader, sadly follow him until they all descend to infamy.

A classic case of the above would be the sons of Korach and their counterparts - the sons of the two hundred fifty heads of the Sanhedrin who were ensnared in Korach's vicious web of evil. The Torah teaches that U'bnei Korach lo meisu, "The sons of Korach did not die" (Bamidbar 26:11). Chazal explain that Korach's sons repented at the very last moment. They were Moshe Rabbeinu's talmidim, students, and - when it made a difference between life and death - they remembered their Rebbe's lessons well.

Let us analyze this. Korach was the despotic "wannabe leader" who led a mutinous rebellion against Moshe. He was joined with Dasan and Aviram, two of Moshe's nemeses, who were involved in every issue to cast aspersion and cripple Moshe's leadership. In the past, it was basically these two and whatever riffraff they could rally to their cause. Now, it was a national rebellion, an attempted coup, supported by the most distinguished leadership of two hundred and fifty heads of the Sanhedrin. They all gathered with the support of their families and friends to see who would emerge triumphant - Moshe or Korach.

It all went down when Hashem intervened: Korach, Dasan and Aviram and their supporters were swallowed up by the ground. The two hundred and fifty heads of the Sanhedrin and their supporters were consumed by fire. Apparently, the only ones to repent were the sons of Korach. Why? What did they know that no one else knew?

In his commentary to Bamidbar 26:11, the Netziv, zl, explains this anomaly, thereby allowing us a window to understanding the curse that hangs over one who is misguided. Korach was an egomaniac, for whom nothing was sufficient. All the money, power and prestige that he possessed and experienced were insufficient to appease his lust for power and reverence. He was almost there, but "almost" was not enough. He wanted it all - and he wanted it his way. He connected well with his henchmen, two malcontent and malevolent individuals, Dasan and Aviram, who from day one were bent upon making life miserable for Moshe. These evil men formed an evil conglomerate whose sole purpose was impugning Moshe's integrity and undermining his leadership. Contending that Hashem was not supportive of Moshe's decisions, they insisted that Moshe was playing the nepotism card and favoring those closest to him.

Korach's children naturally followed their father. After all, he was a distinguished and revered leader. At first, they probably had some difficulty distinguishing between their father and their Rebbe, Moshe. At first, they both gave the impression of respectability. When push came to shove and the mutiny was in full progress, Korach's sons finally had the opportunity to discern between the evil Korach and the righteous Moshe. They decided to follow their Rebbe - even though it meant opposing their father. What is right is right - and what is wrong is wrong. They could not support their father. It was a simple question of black versus white. Unless someone is blind, he chooses white, which Bnei Korach ultimately did.

The sons of the head of the Sanhedrin were not so fortunate. Their fathers were not evil men - only misguided individuals who were willing to perish in the flames because they believed that what they were doing was the right thing. How tragic was their end - how more tragic was the punishment that spread to their supporters and family. Their sons had only one color to view - to them it was not black and white, because their fathers were also righteous - albeit ill-advised. Their erroneous alignment with Korach was their - and their children's -- undoing.

If an activity is prohibited - outreach does not permit it. If tradition has no record of it - it continues to be unrecorded. This is how the original divisions within the spectrum of Jewish belief took root. It began with confused, ill-advised Jews who wanted change, because "change" would make Judaism more palatable to a greater number of disenchanted Jews. They either did not realize or did not care that we follow halachah, rather than our emotions. Unfortunately, they have had their successors in every generation. The end result is always the same: Judaism is not strengthened. On the contrary, splintering weakens the base and causes the newly-initiated to lead lives that are far from observant.

And you will return unto Hashem, your G-d, and listen to His voice. (30:2)

The Torah admonishes the sinner to repent. The encouragement often comes in the guise of physical, emotional and financial challenges. Yet, there are those who ignore the message, claiming that it either is not addressed to them, or it really is not a message. It is simply "one of those things" that happen to the best of us. Just forget about it. The believer, however, knows better. Nothing "just happens." Whatever occurs in our lives is meant to be and is most often a call from Hashem to get our spiritual act together. If so, why does the person not wake-up and respond accordingly? It must be that he is a "horse." How does a horse enter into the equation? Horav Sholom Schwardron, zl, renders a practical analogy concerning the fear one should have as he approaches Rosh Chodesh Elul, Rosh Hashanah, the Aseres Y'mei Teshuvah, and finally the tefillos of Yom Kippur, culminating with Neilah, the Closing of the Gates.

A businessman who earned his living buying and selling merchandise at a profit was doing well. He would purchase his wares in one city and turn around and sell them in another city. Over time, he became quite wealthy. This went on for years, until one day he made a bad investment which ruined him financially. He was now on the other end of the coin of financial success. A few short weeks later, he was offered a spectacular proposition, to purchase a large consignment of grain which could bring him a large profit. There was one catch: he would have to smuggle it past the border into another country. The trip would not take a long time, but it would entail much danger. If he was caught smuggling, he could be shot dead on the spot. He gave it some serious thought. This was his only chance of getting financially back on track. He would risk it.

As the businessman made preparations for his trip, he began to become anxious concerning what might happen. There is something about a bullet in the head that can do that to a person. He searched for a wagon and driver, one who knew his way across the border and who understood the inspectors at the border. He was fortunate to locate a man who was as proficient in guiding the horse and wagon as he was in dealing with the inspector if a problem would arise. A date was set for the trip, and the businessman began the countdown to the date of departure. A month before the departure date, the businessman was already fretting. What would happen if they were caught? He would probably be tortured and beaten and then sent to a slave labor camp in Siberia. If he was "lucky," he would receive a bullet as a "going away" present. The driver, however, was not even anxious. He had taken this trip a number of times. It usually worked out. The inspectors were not in the mood to leave their cozy, warm building to search the contents of every wagon that crossed their post. True, he was carrying contraband, but it would be a problem only if the officers discovered it.

A week before the trip, the anxiety barometer intensified. Now, even the driver was beginning to get nervous. He no longer slept restfully at night, waking up a number of times with terrible nightmares which depicted his punishment for participating in a smuggling operation. It goes without saying that the businessman was now a basket case. The slightest noise caused him to jump. Eating and sleeping were bodily functions which no longer meant very much to him. The trepidation that overcame him the night prior to the trip was something which he had never experienced in his life. Sleep was impossible; eating was unappetizing; nerves were on edge. This time it was not only the businessman who was seized with fear. The wagon driver was in no better shape. Yet, one individual was not shaking with fear. Apparently, it was the custom for a driver to take along a boy to help feed the horse, carry packages, and be an all-around gopher for whatever was needed along the journey. Well, the gopher was able to sleep. The truth of the matter was that he had no clue concerning the contraband they were transporting across the border. He was hired as a worker - no questions asked - no questions answered.

The next night, they all left for the trip. Now the gopher was informed regarding the wares they were transporting. After seeing the anxiety that had subdued the driver and his passenger, he began to get nervous. What did he get into? Was this a one-way trip? He was too young for jail - or worse. This went on all night until they reached the border. If the guards had no prior idea that these people were involved in shady business, one look at their trembling faces told them everything!

The guard came over to the wagon with a gun in his hand. The hammer was cocked, and he asked, "What is it you are carrying in the wagon?" That was all he had to say. The boy began to stutter and sweat profusely. The driver was tongue-tied and about to go have a seizure. The businessman passed out from fright. It was all over for them.

One participant, however, continued to be calm. After all, a horse does not understand what is taking place. That is because he is a horse. His lack of intelligence allows him to ignore everything around him. In other words, the horse's fearlessness has nothing to do with innocence or even courage. He is a horse, a simple-minded, puerile, insensate, short-sighted horse.

This is to what various classes of people may be compared as they approach the Yamim Noraim, High Holy Days. The righteous, G-d-fearing people get their act together as Rosh Chodesh Elul approaches. The feelings of awe and trepidation immediately infuse them with a preparedness for the Days of Judgment. With each day, the intensity grows, the anxiety concerning the upcoming Yemei HaDin increases in fervor and fear.

The next level of Jews do not ignore Elul, but they certainly do not take those days very seriously. When the Yemei HaSlichos begin, even they begin to tremble. Then there are those who need the Shofar blowing of Rosh Hashanah to arouse them from their spiritual slumber. The Ten Days of Repentance see an increased intensity as each day brings them closer to Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement.

One individual, however, is very much like the horse, who does not move until he has been struck repeatedly with the master's whip. Is this what we are waiting for? Have we not been struck enough?


You must assemble the nation, the men, and the women and the children so that they may hear and that they may learn and fear G-d. (31:12)

Assembling men and women is understandable, but why the children? Do they even begin to understand what this event is about? Do children understand enough that what they hear at the public reading of the Torah would move and inspire them to study the law? Perhaps if they were all alone without their parents, our questions would have some basis. The Torah wants their parents to remain with them - not like the father who comes late to davening, drops off his son and proceeds to the Kiddush club. Bringing the child in such a manner truly has very little value. Whatever the child may have picked up at the shul will quickly be forgotten as a result of the father's hypocrisy. Lasseis schar l'miveihem, "To give reward to those (parents) who bring them": These are Chazal's words. A child is inspired by the experience of standing with Klal Yisrael all together focused on the Torah. L'miveihem; "to those who bring themselves with them" is perhaps how Chazal should be understood.

The Yerushalmi Yevamos 1:6 teaches that the mother of Rabbi Yehoshua ben Chananya would bring his bassinet into the bais hamedrash, so that the young infant's ear would become attuned to Torah study. Why? There is no listening, no learning - just being there. Is this enough to warrant award? Horav Yeruchum Levovitz, zl, derives a powerful lesson from here concerning the significance of chinuch, education, and when it begins. Not first grade or even preschool, but from birth, children are influenced by their environment. Children are impressionable. They hear and see. If what they hear is positive, they will acknowledge the significance of a Torah life and follow through as they grow older.

Is just bringing their children to the experience sufficient reason to reward the parents? Rav Yeruchum quotes the Alter, zl, m'Kelm, Horav Simcha Zissel Broide, who quotes the Torah's statement regarding the meisis u'meidiach, Lo sachmol v'lo sechaseh alav, "Neither shall you show him mercy nor keep silent concerning him" (Devarim 13:9). Halachah is clear that we do not seek reason for mitigating his justice. Indeed, the one who incites the Jew to worship idols is worse than the actual offender. Why? Because "He sought to turn you away from Hashem." Influencing others to act negatively is worse than the actual perpetrator. This is true even if the inciter had been unsuccessful. The mere fact that he attempted to turn a Jew against Hashem is sufficient reason for executing him - without mercy.

We see from here how evil it is to take advantage of the unknowing and turn them away from Hashem. How much more so, observes the Alter, is the reward of one who devotes himself to bringing back the lost souls, the alienated, the assimilated, the individuals who simply never had a chance. This is true even of those who labor in the field of outreach with no great success. Just trying is reason for reward. Heaven forbid should one even think to himself - "This is a waste - I have not succeeded in altering the course of the subject's life. He is still not observant and will probably continue living this way." It is not about success. It is all about the attempt.

Thus, the Ramban is teaching us that bringing the children to the Hakhel experience is not due to chinuch, education. It is because "bringing them" is important - not because they will listen or learn. The mere fact that one made the attempt to reach out, to bring a Jew closer to Hashem is what earns him the reward. This is a powerful message for all those who devote themselves to Jewish outreach, who devote their lives and energies toward bringing their alienated brothers and sisters closer to Hashem. Success is not the barometer of eternal reward. Hishtadlus, the actual endeavor, is what counts. Success is in the Hands of Hashem.

It will say on that day "Is it not because my G-d is not in my midst that these evils have come upon me?" (31:17)

One would think that Klal Yisrael's acknowledgment of the sins which catalyzed Hashem's wrath should be considered a sort of teshuvah, repentance. If so, why does it not inspire a reciprocal merciful response from Hashem - instead of continued concealment? Indeed, hester Panim, concealment of Hashem's countenance, is a harsh punishment. What could be worse than being ignored by the Almighty?

Ramban points out that, although the pasuk indicates feelings of introspection and an acknowledgment of shortcomings, it does not represent complete teshuvah. One is definitely on the correct road to repentance, but he is not yet there - not by a long shot. This is a remarkable statement. Perhaps it might even be too demanding. What more is expected of a person than acknowledgment of sin and concession of guilt? The individual is the recipient of Hashem's punishment, and he owns up to it, saying that - yes - I deserve this. I acted inappropriately. I am guilty of wrongdoing. Is this not teshuvah?

Horav Mordechai Gifter, zl, explains that teshuvah denotes much more than a recognition of sin. The realization that his behavior has created a breech in his relationship with Hashem, distancing him from the Source of all life, coupled with his decision to refrain from any idolatrous behavior, should be the clincher. Yet, it is not. This step is only the beginning. It represents a break with the past, cutting himself off from his idolatrous behavior. Until he returns completely and totally to Hashem, however, he has only begun the journey. He has gone part of the way, perhaps the most difficult part of the trip - but he is still not there.

The Rosh Yeshivah quotes the Navi Hoshea, "Shuvah Yisrael ad Hashem Elohecha, ki kashalta ba'Avonecha. "Return O' Yisrael to Hashem, your G-d, for you have stumbled in your sins." Although we may have acknowledged that we have stumbled and that Hashem is sovereign, we still must continue our return until we return to Hashem.

V'hachazierinu bi'seshuvah sheleimah lefanecha, "And return us with a complete repentance before You." Until we reach the point that we have actually returned to Hashem, our teshuvah cannot be considered complete. We cannot have it both ways. Acknowledging that one has sinned, but not doing anything about it, impugns the integrity of the teshuvah. If you are so troubled regarding your sinful behavior, then you must return completely to Hashem. Partial return, a "u" turn, so to speak, does not make one a baal teshuvah, penitent. One either goes all of the way, or he remains a spiritual cripple.

For it will not be forgotten out of the mouth of its children. (31:21)

This promise guarantees that our People - regardless of the circumstances in which we find ourselves - will never entirely forfeit its calling, never totally forget its mission, until the end of time. There will always survive within us a spiritual principle protected by Hashem Himself, through which again and again we will return and achieve a spiritual renaissance. I take the liberty of paraphrasing an inspiring paragraph from Horav S. R. Hirsch's commentary to the end of this parsha. The Rav lived in Germany during a period when the reformers, heirs to the Haskalah, Enlightment movement, ran rampage over the Torah, destroying the very foundation of our beliefs, leading thousands astray to alienation, apostasy and even the baptismal font. He fought them valiantly - and succeeded in turning the tide and saving what was left of German Jewry.

Now, thousands of years later, we look back upon these past millennia of "that" people and of "that" Book of Moses. We see how everything predicted in the text has come true in the course of time. We see how, in the end, precisely during the periods of its direct suffering, this nation wedded itself so intimately into this Law that for its (the Torah's) sake it endured a martyrdom unparalleled in world history. This Law became the "wings of eagles" upon which Divine Providence bore Yisrael, beyond all trials and tribulations, from the midst of a world that offered it only hatred and scorn, misunderstanding and embitterment, into ever-renewed vitality and vigor

For, despite their sin, the Jewish People have carried with them into exile sparks that can spread and seeds that can germinate among all mankind. Is there a thinking man who - "after reading Moshe Rabbeinu's final declaration and reviewing the history of this nation and this Book - could refrain from acknowledging that this, precisely, is why the Law could not have been the work of Moshe - the man. It could only be the Law of G-d, of which Moshe was only a messenger, so that both the Law and the nation will remain the finger of G-d showing the way to all mankind."

Yet, after all this time, despite all of the proofs, they refuse to see that the Torah will never be forgotten. Social justice, empowerment, be like the outside world: it did not work then and it will certainly not work now. The only thing that will endure is the Torah. The sooner we all wake up and concede to this verity, the quicker Moshiach Tzidkeinu will arrive and bring an end to our exile.

Va'ani Tefillah

b'chol meodecha - with all your possessions.

The word meodecha is closely related to middah, measurement, which leads Chazal to interpret b'chol meodecha as, "with all your measures," with whatever treatment you receive - whether it seems good or bad. Accept it and serve Hashem; nonetheless, Chazal state, "It is incumbent on a man to bless G-d for the evil in the same way as for the good." There is a classic story which, because it is well-known, is often not appreciated as well as it should be. Perhaps repeating it in this venue will catalyze a deeper understanding of its message.

Two brothers who later became famous as distinguished Torah giants, Horav Pinchas and Horav Shmelke Horowitz, came to the Mezritcher Maggid for guidance in chassidus. They inquired about the nature, goals and objectives of chassidus. Chassidic philosophy focuses greatly on simchah, joy, and the need for infusing every aspect of life with joy. They asked the Maggid how it was possible to thank G-d equally for bad and for good. The Maggid replied, "Go to my Zushia (a reference to Horav Zushia m'Annipole), and he will answer your question."

Rav Zushia was a unique individual, who spent most of his day engrossed in Torah study in the Maggid's bais hamedrash. He was beset with a number of serious physical maladies that caused him constant pain. He was destitute. In addition to it all, his wife was notorious for her ill treatment of her husband. Yet, Rav Zushia remained the paragon of joy. Rarely was a smile absent from his face.

The two brothers presented their question to him, with the addendum that the Maggid had suggested that he could enlighten them. He looked at them and said, "I have no idea why the Maggid would send you to me. This is a question for someone who has endured pain and deprivation. I can attest that I have never suffered in my life. I have truly been blessed with everything that I need."

When the brothers heard this they understood why the Maggid had sent them to Rav Zushia. Hashem expects us to be so faithful that we are actually unable to discern between what appears to be bad or good. If it comes from Hashem - it must be good.

In memory of a
dear friend
on the occasion of
his first yahrtzeit

Hachaver Harav Tzvi ben Hachaver R' Moshe z"l
niftar 4 Tishrei 5773
Mr. Bjorn Bamberger

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