Back to This Week's Parsha

Peninim on the Torah

subscribe.gif (2332 bytes)

Previous issues

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, though I walk as my heart sees fit…" Hashem will not be willing to forgive him. (29:18, 19)

We hear it all of the time, "It is not me… True, bad things do happen, but - to others - not to me." We have convinced ourselves that we are immune from punishment; disasters happen to others; tragedies are events that we read about - but they do not happen to us. It is almost as if we have sprayed ourselves with Teflon, preventing anything bad from happening directly to us. Ibn Ezra offers a rationale for this delusion: "Peace will be with me, though I walk as my heart sees fit." I will live in the merit of the tzaddik, righteous, holy people, who outnumber me. Their merit will protect me, so I might as well enjoy life. This attitude does not define the rasha, wicked man, who acts with malice against Hashem. No - explains Horav Gedalya Eisman, zl. According to Ibn Ezra, the Torah is addressing the perverted attitude of an individual who is quite possibly G-d-fearing, a believer, who not only performs mitzvos, he even respects and believes in those who live the perfect life. Otherwise, he does not care that Hashem will not forgive him. The rasha could care less about admonition, threat of punishment. He either does not believe in anything, or he does not care about the consequences of his actions. The G-d-fearing Jew does care. He just believes that he will be spared in the merit of the truly righteous.

The fellow that attaches himself to tzaddikim, who attends the shiurim, lectures, mussar shmuessen, ethical discourses, goes to davening, recites Tehillim - who, for the most part, is a decent, upstanding observant Jew - he is the one to whom the Torah is speaking. You cannot save yourself by "hanging around" with the righteous, unless you personally repent and cleanse yourself of your indiscretions. Attending all of the frum events, from talks to prayer gatherings, does not absolve a person from personal introspection and "house-cleaning." First - do teshuvah, remove the spiritual dross from your life; then - you can rely on the merit of the tzaddik.

Thus, the Mashgiach explains the apparent redundancy of the U'Nesaneh Tokef prayer. Kein taavir v'sispor, v'simneh, v'sifkod - nefesh kol chai, likewise, "So shall you cause to pass, count, calculate, and consider the soul of all the living." Each person is judged as if he were free - standing alone - without the support of the congregation. Once one has purged himself of his negative activities, his spiritual demerits that bog him down - then - and only then - can he be included in the merit of those who are consistent in the commitment to Hashem, who do not look for shortcuts in observance.

The Mashgiach adds that the litmus test for the Yamim Noraim, High Holy Days, is when we stand in trepidation regarding our past, while aspiring for a positive and encouraging future; praying shalom viheyeh li, "Peace will be with me." The individual who believes that he is cool, that he will make it, he has nothing to worry about - he is the only one who truly has everything to worry about!

While what has been said is only common sense - no one gets a free ride - we delude ourselves into thinking that we receive a pass for good behavior, a little charity, attendance at a religious event. When the punishment is in the guise of illness, financial adversity, and the host of problems that plague us individually, we refuse to draw the line connecting the punishment to the deed that was its precursor. It is so much easier to ignore a situation, hoping that it will go away - rather than to confront the truth: We are the problem; we must make amends.

Horav Chaim Shmuelevitz, zl, was walking one summer day, when he chanced upon the funeral of a man with whom he had been acquainted. He inquired as to the cause of death, since the man had appeared to be in good health. "He contracted a cold, which deteriorated and eventually caused his death;" he was told. "How does one get a cold during the heat of the summer?" the Rosh Yeshivah asked. "Actually, he picked up the cold in October, and it festered throughout the winter, taking its toll on his weakened body in the summer."

When the Rosh Yeshivah heard this, he contemplated for a moment and said, "Actually, the cold did not start in October, but earlier, on Rosh Hashanah/Yom Kippur! Just because the "cold" occurred during October does not mean that the decree that he become ill with the illness that would eventually end his life took place in October. The "cold" mishap, catalyst for whatever occurs in our life, occurs on Rosh Hashanah.

Imagine, something happens during the year, the common reaction is to lament something that we should have done or foreseen. We rarely stop to think that had we had a Rosh Hashanah davening which manifested our urgency, our fervent prayer and devotion; had our Aseres Yimei Teshuvah been observed with greater feeling, things now would have been different. The gezeirah, decree, takes places on Rosh Hashanah. It is executed whenever Hashem wants it to take effect.

And all the nations will say… and He cast them to another land, as this very day! (29:23,27)

Horav Chaim Shaul Kaufman, zl, Rosh Yeshivas Tiferes Yaakov (London) gleans from this statement the stark difference between the attitude of the gentile during a period of Heavenly concealment and the Jewish perspective on adversity. The gentile "believes" in G-d (according to his limited understanding of this term). When a moment of hester panim, Divine concealment, occurs in his life, he feels that G-d has forsaken him, cast him off (perhaps even deservedly) to the point that, whatever adversity and challenge he confronts, it will not provide a lesson for him from which he can learn and change. Whatever happens in his life is the result of G-d's rejection of him.

Not so, the Jewish outlook on travail. We sinned; we are being punished. Hashem is pushing us away, but, at all times, He is in charge; He is pushing; He is calling the shots, because He wants us to improve, so that He can soon welcome us back home. We are neither thrown away, nor does Hashem separate Himself from us. This contrast is apparent from the vernacular of the pasuk which describes the comments/observations made by the gentile nation concerning our banishment from our homeland.

They say, "He cast them to another land." When someone is cast away, a separation occurs between the one who casts and his subject. They are no longer together. When someone is pushed, however, he is merely moved by the individual who is pushing him, but they are moving together! The goyim think that Hashem has flung us away. We are no longer in contact with Him. He wants nothing to do with us. How foolish! Does a father ever throw away his son? The dysfunctional dogma of Christianity is responsible for their inability to comprehend the very basics of our relationship with Hashem. He is our Father, and we are His children. That will never change. This is why, in 30:1, the Torah writes: "When Hashem, your G-d, has dispersed you." Hidichacha, dispersed/pushed away, means: We acknowledge that we are not in Hashem's good graces, and, as a result, we have been exiled from our Land, but He came with us! At no time are we separated from Hashem. Thus, when we are confronted with misfortune, we understand that Hashem is speaking to us, hoping that we will listen and come back home.

For this mitzvah… it is not hidden from you and it is not distant. (30:11)

The Ramban writes that "this mitzvah" refers to the mitzvah of teshuvah, repentance. The sinner conjures up a wealth of lame excuses for not repenting. For the most part, the primary hurdle is believing that one can successfully navigate the teshuvah process and return to pre-sin status - both in the eyes of the community and in the eyes of the sinner. The offender has convinced himself that he has gone too far, offended too many, hurt so many close family and friends, so why bother?

We are at the gates of Rosh Hashanah, and each and every one of us has his own pekel, bundle, of aveiros, sins, which we have pushed to the back burner. Perhaps now would be an appropriate time to rethink our excuses. Teshuvah means return, through which we return to Hashem. Every sin distances us from Hashem. The process of teshuvah is our about-face; we turn around and face Hashem. We are not any closer than we were before, but at least we have altered our direction. Horav Yechezkel Levinstein, zl, offers a simple, but compelling, analogy.

In Russia, a common city ordinance requires each homeowner to be responsible for cleaning the snow off the sidewalk in front of his home. As in most cities, inspectors do not walk around checking every home. When they spot check and find a homeowner in noncompliance, they present him with a hefty ticket/fine. One such homeowner ignored the code and, for some time, he was able to get away with it, because the inspectors rarely came to his block. This time, the inspector walked up and down the block, checking each person's sidewalk. As soon as they saw him coming, every homeowner quickly grabbed his broom/shovel and started to clean the sidewalk. One homeowner was not impressed. He continued reading his paper until the inspector came by and slapped him with a large fine. "Why are you singling me out? No one else on the block has removed his snow. Why me?" he asked indignantly.

The inspector agreed, "You are correct. Their sidewalks are also snow covered. They, at least, are out there with a shovel, going through the motions. You - are doing nothing!"

The Mashgiach cries out to us: "At least pick up the shovel to do something! Attempt to remove the 'snow' from your heart!"

Horav Shabsi Yudelevitz, zl, the venerable Maggid of Yerushalayim, relates that he once spoke to a group of Jews who were on the fringe with regard to religious observance. Everyone seemed interested, and they all walked away with a more positive feeling about themselves. Many set goals for a return to stronger and more consistent observance. One young man just sat there, bored and disinterested. Rav Shabsi felt that he did not make it to first base with him. Thus, he was shocked when, a number of years later, a bearded man bedecked in the full garb of a Yeshivah man approached him and asked, "Does the Maggid recognize me?"

"No, I do not," Rav Shabsi replied.

"I am that student that attended the class many years ago," he said. "I know I appear quite different than I did that day. It took some time, but I finally came to my senses."

"At what point did you decide to alter your course of living, and become an observant Jew?" Rav Shabsi asked.

He replied, "We say in Krias Shema, 'And these matters that I command you today shall be upon your heart' (Devarim 6:6). Hashem commands us to apply the inspirational words upon the heart. Why not inside the heart? The answer is that it is impossible for us alone to penetrate the heart. We can place the inspiration above the heart and pray for siyata diShmaya, Divine assistance, that it ultimately penetrates. I heard every word that the Maggid said, but it just lay stagnant, waiting for the shaas ha'kosheir, appropriate time or incident, which would allow it to enter my heart.

"That time came during the Yom Kippur War. I was a tank soldier. We were hit, and the rest of my crew was gone. I was alone in a smoldering powder keg which would blow at any moment. Understandably, my life passed before me. Even that fateful lecture which the Maggid had given came back to me. Alas, it was too late. I had forfeited my life - both here and in the World to Come. One cannot present himself at the Gates of Gan Eden empty-handed.

"Suddenly, I noticed a hole at the bottom of the tank where one of the shells had penetrated. I saw my way out. The rest is history. The shell that had penetrated the tank's skin was the impetus for my heart to open up and allow the words of mussar, rebuke, to enter."

For someone who repents with sincerity, it is a giant undertaking. I underscore the word "sincerity," since it takes extraordinary effort to embrace a life that either one has never had or had shunned, due to an incident that had occurred or as the result of an individual who made him his punching bag. Some dysfunctional individuals love to take out their personal problems on the weak people around them. This is usually after they have done so to the members of their immediate family, who have nowhere to go, but suffer in silence. Regardless of the reason, this person has returned. He is here, and we must do everything to welcome him back. A complete change is, at best, very difficult. It seems like such a long, difficult road, but, when one realizes the reward in store for him, it smoothes out the bumps.

Horav Yoel Alkarif, Shlita, quotes a lesson he heard from Horav Yaakov Edelstein, Shlita. One day, a non-practicing Jew passed away at the age of eighty-six. The man had merited a long, healthy life. He was not one of Rav Edelstein's closest students; he was not even frum, observant. Yet, Rav Edelstein was asked to attend his funeral - and deliver the eulogy! He did! It was an amazingly powerful eulogy, because it imparted a powerful verity concerning the significance of teshuvah. This man had lived in Eretz Yisrael during the Second World War. The British sought young, strong men to serve as soldiers to repel the German war machine from reaching the Holy Land. The deceased was a hardy soul, physically fit, the perfect specimen for the British. He volunteered, because he wanted to see the Germans defeated. After a short training period, he entered into the British navy to patrol the waters around Eretz Yisrael.

It is very difficult to defeat a submarine due to its ability to approach with stealth. By the time the radar picks up the submarine's presence, the battleship is already in the target zone of the submarine's torpedoes. This is exactly what happened when the young recruit, together with a full shipload of sailors, was attacked by a German torpedo. A direct hit decimated the British ship, immediately sending half of the sailors to an early grave.

The deceased happened to be at the other end of the ship when the torpedo exploded. He jumped and began to swim. Being very strong, he swam and rested, swam and rested in the frigid water for three days. On the third day, as he sensed his strength waning, he raised his eyes Heavenward and cried, "Master of the world, if You allow me to live, I promise that I will never again light up a cigarette on Shabbos." A few minutes later, a British search plane that was scouring the sea looking for survivors, found him. He was spared to live another sixty years!

Rav Yaakov Edelstein went to the funeral. He delivered a moving eulogy, paying tribute to the deceased for his steadfast commitment in keeping his word. The deceased lived in Ramat HaSharon in a neighborhood inhabited by Polish ?migr?s who had survived the war. They were not frum. Well - neither was the deceased, but he did not smoke on Shabbos! In fact, every motzoei Shabbos, he would go outside, look up at the sky and search for three stars. When they appeared, he lit up!

Rav Edelstein said the following: "Before us lies a man who did not observe Shabbos. He neither put on Tallis and Tefillin, nor did he daven. He did everything else on Shabbos, cooking, driving, etc. He simply did not smoke on Shabbos. Why? Because he gave his word! He promised Hashem that, if he survived, he would no longer smoke on Shabbos! For this, he received sixty years of life, a wife, children, a legacy, a future! All of this was the result of changing one aspect of his behavior. Can anyone imagine the value of a Jew who rises above his desires, who is willing to affect even a small change in his life?"

Now, multiply this one change by many. We have an overwhelming amount of merit. Yes, it is difficult to change completely. That is why some opt not to change at all! We see from here that every change, every alteration, is life altering. What better time to change than a week before Rosh Hashanah?

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)

The pasuk teaches us that Hashem wants us to choose life. By not choosing the path of life, we, by default, choose evil. This is something that everyone understands. When two options contrast one another, choosing one means negating the other. The pasuk, however, is teaching us something else. Horav Michel Feinstein, zl, understands that there exists the entity of good and the entity of evil. The fact that the Torah refers to each entity individually compels us to acknowledge that ra, evil, is much more than a lack of good. It is a separate free-standing entity which exists as an adversary to good. One must choose between good and evil. It is a choice, a decision to support one in contradistinction to the other. Just as the kingdom of Hashem is represented by holiness, purity, good and life, we must battle the malchus ha'zadon, evil kingdom, or it will vanquish us.

What is the difference whether evil is the absence of good, or if it is a new creation? Bad is bad!

The Rosh Yeshivah explains that the difference lies in our perspective on evil. If evil is defined as the absence of good, all one has to do is follow the path of good, the path toward life. If evil is a new creation, a unique entity, then it must be expunged, eradicated. We must wage war with the forces of evil; otherwise, we are not properly choosing good/life. As long as evil stands powerful, glaring at us, seeking every which way to take us down, then we are not secure in our decision. Every action, every endeavor, must be introspected, checked and rechecked, to make certain that no evil has penetrated it. In other words, choosing good does not guarantee that evil has been expunged. It is still waiting for us to slip up, so that we fall into its net of deceit. From the very cradle of our nationhood, we have been fighting against evil. Yaakov Avinu and Eisav fought in the womb. Hashem battles Amalek midor dor, from generation to generation. Good is not guaranteed. One must want it so bad that he is willing to fight to get it - and keep it.

As an aside, the meaning of u'bacharta ba'chaim, "and you shall choose life," does not simply enjoin us to maintain an observant lifestyle. Horav Dov Zuchowiski, zl, Mashgiach in Lomza, explains that the mitzvah to choose life requires one to feel that serving Hashem and maintaining an observant lifestyle constitute living! Performing mitzvos, even with all of the hiddurim, adornments, to beautify the mitzvah, the chumros, stringencies, does not yet define choosing life. One must feel exhilarated, excited, enthused that he has chosen life - a life of service to Hashem.

To serve Hashem, but think it is a drag, or to do so out of a sense of complacency is to undermine the foundation of the mitzvah. He must acknowledge and manifest the feeling that he has chosen life - and this is the meaning of true living.

For He is your life and the length of your days. (30:20)

A Jew is defined by his relationship with Hashem. Nothing else is considered living. A person who truly cares about - and values - his life devotes his time to Torah study or to strengthening his relationship with Hashem. Some of us pass through time, not realizing that the greatest Heavenly gift is slipping by with each passing minute. The gift of life is immutable - once it is gone, it is gone forever. Thus, the defining outlook of a Jew is, "How do I value my spiritual life? Is it my primary objective, or does it place a far second in my value system?" Therefore, when the Torah enjoins us to "choose life," it is an admonishment to make Hashem the primary focus of our life. Otherwise, we are merely existing; our lives have no enduring meaning or value.

Horav Shlomo Zalmen Auerbach, zl, devoted his every waking moment to Torah study. His avodas hakodesh, service to the Almighty, was his primary sense of being. Thus, when he was asked by a distinguished rav from Tel Aviv to meet with him at 4:00 p.m., he was on time, waiting patiently. Every minute counted. At 4:15, the rav had not yet arrived. Rav Shlomo Zalmen left, slightly annoyed. When the Rav arrived fifteen minutes later and asked why Rav Shlomo Zalmen had not waited - after all, the bus from Tel Aviv is not always on time - Rav Shlomo Zalmen replied, "You should have taken an earlier bus, arrived early and waited. Why is my time not important to you?"

While this was not typically the nature of Rav Shlomo Zalmen, it was his way of intimating, "My life is valuable, and I do not have the luxury of wasting fifteen minutes."

Va'ani Tefillah

V'Neeman Atah l'hachayos meisim. And You are faithful to resurrect the dead.

Chazal (Sanhedrin 90a) posit that, while all Jews have a designated portion in the World to Come, one who denies that Techiyas HaMeisim, Resurrection of the Dead, has its source in the Torah loses his portion in Olam Habba. Rashi explains that, even if a person actually believes that some sort of resurrection of the dead will occur (which is accepted dogma by many religions), but does not believe that there are sources for this in the Torah, he is still considered a kofer, nonbeliever/heretic: as such he will not share in the world of Techiyas HaMeisim.

Horav Shimon Schwab, zl, explains that veritably the resurrection of the dead is a universal belief based on man's survival instinct: we all want to live forever. Also, it is comforting for one who is in bereavement following the loss of a loved one to know/believe that he can look forward to one day being reunited with his loved one. The Jewish concept of Techiyas HaMeisim, however, is not based on wishful human thinking, but rather, it is min haTorah, from the Torah. Our belief rests solely on the Torah's teaching that it will occur. Thus, a person who believes in the resurrection of the dead, but denies that there are sources for Techiyas HaMeisim in the Torah, is a kofer, who will have no share in that future life. If his belief is not rooted in the Torah, it is of no value.

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

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

Peninim on the Torah is in its 20th year of publication. The first fifteen years have been published in book form.

The Fifteenth volume is available at your local book seller or directly from Rabbi Scheinbaum.

He can be contacted at 216-321-5838 ext. 165 or by fax at 216-321-0588

Discounts are available for bulk orders or Chinuch/Kiruv organizations.


This article is provided as part of Shema Yisrael Torah Network
Permission is granted to redistribute electronically or on paper,
provided that this notice is included intact.
For information on subscriptions, archives, and
other Shema Yisrael Classes,
send mail to
Jerusalem, Israel