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Peninim on the Torah

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Rabbi A. Leib Scheinbaum
Hebrew Academy of Cleveland


Noach walked with G-d. (6:9)

In interpreting the above pasuk, Targum Onkelos writes: Bidechalta d'Hashem halich Noach, which, loosely translated, means, "With fear/trepidation, Noach followed Hashem." We find a vast difference between the success, or lack thereof, enjoyed by Avraham Avinu and Noach in relating to the members of their respective generations. Noach tried very hard, suffering abuse and humiliation for 120 years, in his efforts to inspire the generation to repent and, thus, prevent the devastating flood from wiping them out. He did not succeed. Avraham, however, enjoyed incredible success, having a profound influence on his immediate community and making a name for himself and his monotheistic beliefs. Wherein lay the difference? Was it the people? Perhaps the evil perpetrated by the generation of the flood was so insidious that they simply could not bring themselves to return.

Horav Yitzchak Zilberstein, Shlita, feels that the key to understanding the anomaly concerning the members of Noach's generation may be found within the words of Targum Onkeles. Noach served Hashem amid fear, awe, trepidation. His relationship vis-?-vis the Almighty had not reached "love" status. Quite possibly, Noach built on his personal relationship with Hashem when he spoke to people. He spoke about a G-d that one must fear, because he feared. He did not yet love. Fear is not a helpful concept when one attempts to reach out to the unaffiliated. They need to be brought back with love. Avraham, however, acted out of deep, unabiding love. It was this emotion that he sought to imbue within the hearts and minds of his followers. He succeeded.

Inspiration through the medium of love is an all-important approach - if one seeks to leave a lasting impression. In fact, it is probably the only means for success. Anyone who has had the privilege to work in the field of Torah chinuch will attest to this. Children respond positively when we teach them with love. Fear only promotes negativity and feelings of low self-esteem. Indeed, often the difference between success and failure is measured by the amount of love the rebbe or morah has shown to the student. A caring rebbe has brought back many a student whose self-generated feelings of hopelessness had brought him to the edge of an abyss in life. Using love as the spark, he managed to ignite a passion for Torah which endures over time.

The following story supports this idea. One of the preeminent Torah educators in Eretz Yisrael related this story at the wedding of his grandson. He intimated that the story was autobiographical. As a youth, he lived in Krinick, Poland, and attended the local cheder. A bright boy, he used his G-d-given talents for everything but Torah learning. Regardless of the reproofs, warnings, and even disciplines, he continued along his own way, doing whatever he desired - Torah learning was clearly not one of his passions. The Rav of the city was a wise man, and he recognized the young boy's phenomenal capabilities. He had to somehow, someway, reach the child.

One day, the Rav asked the boy to sit in on a din Torah, court litigation. He needed the boy's "advice." The boy thought the rav was either fooling with him, or he had lost his senses. The Rav, however, was serious. He told the boy, "You are well-known as very bright and practical. I need your help." The boy, being no fool, replied, "I first must know the identity of the two litigants." The Rav immediately responded. "They are, the "shoes" belonging to the citizens of Krinick, and the Sifrei Torah in the shul."

When the Rav noted the look of incredulity on the boy's face, he related the following story: The "shoes" presented their complaint. "Until a few months ago, we were all parts of animals, sharing a barn and pasture with other cows. One day, a distinguished looking man arrived at the farm and said that he dealt with Sifrei Torah. He asked the owner of the farm to sell him a number of cows, so that he could make parchment for a Torah scroll. The deal was concluded, money passed hands, and a number of our "sisters" left the farm on the road to becoming part of a Sefer Torah.

"A few days later, another man appeared. He was a simple man, far from distinguished, perhaps a bit uncouth. He was seeking cows to serve as components for making shoes. We were sold to him. That is when the trouble started. We had all been raised on the same farm, ate the same grass, slept in the same barn, but that is where our similarities ended. Look at our lot in contrast to that of our brothers, who became part of a Sefer Torah.

"After he slaughtered us, he crafted our skins into shoes. We live a life of misery and humiliation. We are always facing the ground, stepped upon by everyone, sullied with mud or whatever waste is on the ground. Even at night, when people remove us from their feet, they leave us outside the door, so that the odor emanating from us does not disturb their senses. After we are used up, we are thrown into the garbage like any other form of refuse.

"Our sisters who were sold to be used as a Sefer Torah have received the honor due a king. They are stored in a beautiful ark, doted on constantly, revered and kissed by all. If the slightest error is found in the Sefer Torah, it is respectfully put away or buried in the same cemetery in which they bury people!"

When the Rav concluded the story, he said that the shoes are calling the Sefer Torah to court for all the humiliation they have sustained. Why should they suffer, while the Sefer Torah receives all of the glory? The young boy listened intently and replied, "I agree with the shoes. Their claim makes sense."

Hearing this, the Rav took hold of the boy's arm and said, "Yankele (the boy's name), do not be so quick to decide in favor of the shoes. I will explain to you why the Sefer Torah is worthy of the great honor it enjoys: The cow whose skin becomes parchment for a Sefer Torah goes through much preparation in order for the skin to be thin and taut. Much toil is put into preparing the skin. Shoes, on the other hand, are made from thick skin, which needs little or no preparation." The Rav stopped, looked at the boy and said, "The lesson you should learn from here is that in order to garner respect, one must toil, but, with the toil, comes a place of honor."

Yankele took the hint. The Rav's loving lesson, rendered without rebuke, without imposition, without implying fear and punishment, did the trick. Soon thereafter, Yankele turned his life around and commenced on the road to becoming a gadol ba'Torah. All because a rebbe took the time and effort to address his problem with love.

Now the earth became corrupt before G-d; and the earth had become filled with robbery. (6:11)

In two instances in the Torah we find use of the word machoh, erase/dissolve/wipe out, with regard to the destruction of a people. Earlier, in 6:7, the Torah relates Hashem's discontent with the contemptuous actions of the dor ha'mabul, generation of the Flood. Emcheh es ha'adam asher barasi, "I will dissolve Man whom I created." Later in Shemos 17:14, Hashem says, Ki machoh emcheh es zeichar Amalek, "Because I shall surely wipe out the memory of Amalek." Apparently, michui, wiping out, dissolving, erasing is a form of destruction unlike any other. When one erases writing from a piece of paper, his goal is to make sure that there remains no recognition of the writing. Likewise, the destruction Hashem wrought on the generations of the Flood is similar to what He expects of Amalek: total obliteration; no recollection; no memory of his existence; complete and final negation of who they are and what they represent. We must endeavor to understand the correlation between Amalek and the dor ha'mabul, their iniquity and punishment, and how it relates to the concept of middah k'neged middah, measure for measure. While their modus operandi were clearly not similar, apparently the insidious results of their actions must parallel one another.

Let us first consider our archenemy, Amalek, enemy of Hashem. The Jewish People had just been liberated from Egypt. They were not threatening him or his land. In fact, nothing about the Jewish People had affected Amalek. Yet, he dared to rear his ugly head, to attack the people when they were weak. He had no reason to engage them in battle. He just wanted to show that he was not afraid; he was not impressed by the Jews; he did not fear Hashem. What about punishment? Did Amalek think for one moment that his miscreancy would go unrequited? Yes, he knew he would pay dearly; he knew he would get burned, but he did not care. He did not acknowledge Hashem. He jumped into the scalding water fully aware that he would get burned, but it did not concern him. At least, the water was cooled off for the next person. People would no longer fear the Jews as they had before.

Amalek acted as if Hashem was not there. Thus, his punishment consisted of being wiped out in such a manner that no remembrance of him exists. No enduring imprint of Amalek remains. He did not acknowledge Hashem. He will, therefore, never again be acknowledged. This is the punishment for someone who performs evil for no apparent gain - just to spite. The one who acts malevolently for gain or to fulfill a base desire, at least recognizes that Hashem is in control. He just feels that satisfying his desire, responding to his personal weakness, acting on his perverse fantasies, overrides his allegiance to Hashem. He is doing this for himself. While this deference to the yetzer hora, evil-inclination, is inexcusable, it does lend itself to some slight rationale. Amalek, however, acted for spite, because he did not care; he did not acknowledge. Therefore, he is not worth remembering. He should be erased as if he had never existed.

The sin of the dor ha'mabul has a strong similarity. While the members of this generation acted in a most reprehensible manner, idol-worship and debauchery being the staples of their insidious behavior, it was chamas, thievery, which catalyzed their ultimate destruction. Chazal teach that lo nichtav g'zar dinam ela al ha'chamas, "their fate was sealed only for their thievery." What was it about this "seemingly" all-too-common act of greed that brought about such an ultimate obliteration of their entire generation?

Chazal tell us that the people did not "really" steal. They would help themselves to less than a shavah perutah, value of a penny, of someone's possessions. Theft is defined by taking something of value, the least of which is a shavah perutah. Less than this is not considered to be theft, because nothing is of reasonable value. This might be true, but when a number of people take less than a shavah perutah, the victim's loss is magnified considerably. If this was the case, why did the members of the dor ha'mabul steal? They gained nothing! It was for no profit, no benefit, no reason! They did it because they were demonstrating that they did not care about anyone but themselves. They were sending a message to the victim: You mean nothing to me because, although I gain nothing by harming you, I do it because I want to. You simply do not count. The dor ha'mabul did to the people what Amalek did to Hashem. Therefore, they deserved similar punishments.

Since the imagery of man's heart is evil from his youth. (8:21)

Man has a natural tendency to gravitate to evil. In order to triumph over the yetzer hora, evil-inclination, man must turn to Hashem for siyata d'Shmaya, Divine Assistance. Without Heavenly intervention, we have no chance of successfully overcoming the challenges presented by the yetzer hora. This idea is expressed by Chazal in the Talmud Succah 52a, "The evil-inclination of a person strengthens itself against him every day, and seeks to destroy him, and if Hashem would not help him, he could not overcome it." In the Kochvei Ohr, Horav Yitzchak Blazar, zl, asks why Hashem established the world in such a manner that, without His Divine Assistance, man would fail to survive spiritually. He would naturally defer to his yetzer hora. Why did Hashem make it so difficult for man?

We suggest that Hashem is teaching us the proper attitude to maintain in our quest for a spiritually-correct life. Had it all been left to us, without the yetzer hora as a natural component in our psyche, life would be a constant battle -- one in which we could conceivably succeed-- but a battle, no less. We would always be fighting our yetzer hora, because that is the only path to success. Life would be filled with negativity. Failure to overwhelm the yetzer hora would be an indication of a deficiency in our spiritual prowess. As a result, our teshuvah, repentance, would have to focus on our lack of "negativity" in negating the yetzer hora.

Instead, Hashem made the yetzer hora an intrinsic part of our natural composition. On our own, we are unable to triumph over the yetzer hora. It is impossible for us to win, because it is too strong, too crafty, too unyielding. We must pray to Hashem for assistance, "Hashem! Please help us to overcome the yetzer hora. We cannot do it without You. We need Your intervention." We now focus on prayer - not negativity. We are not at war with the yetzer hora. That would be a ludicrous undertaking on our own. Rather, we hold onto Hashem's coattails, as He divests the yetzer hora of its power to lure us into sin. No battle - just prayer; no negativity - just hope. Thus, if we fail, and our option is teshuvah, we have not failed in our war with the yetzer hora. Our failure is founded in not supplicating Hashem sufficiently. Next time, we will pray with greater intensity.

Perhaps we may offer an alternative homiletic rendering of this pasuk. The yetzer hora has a powerful cache of weapons which enable it to ensnare us in its net of deceit. Most of the time, we do not even realize that the evil-inclination is working in overdrive to prevent us from observing Torah and mitzvos. One of the most powerful weapons which the yetzer hora has at its disposal is the force of inertia. The most difficult thing is to get up, get started, begin an endeavor. The yetzer hora succeeds in utilizing the force of inertia to restrain us from undertaking mitzvos and acts of loving-kindness. Ki yetzer lev ha'adam ra mi'neurav. The word ne'urav may be derived from neor, to move, to stir. This is the ra, evil, of the yetzer hora. It prevents us from moving forward, from taking the initiative. By overcoming our natural sluggishness and engaging in mitzvah performance, we triumph over the yetzer hora.

And Hashem came down to see. (11:5)

Sforno interprets the idiom "came down to see" with a much different meaning than it would seem to one who is rendering a simple, literal translation. This phrase is used concerning Hashem, in a circumstance in which the action of the sinner does not in itself merit punishment - right now. It will, however, lead to a more egregious deterioration which will warrant punishment. A similar interpretation is to be found concerning the ben sorrer u'moreh, wayward and gluttonous son, about whom Chazal state: Yardah Torah l'sof daato, "The Torah descended to the depths of his intention (Sanhedrin 72a). They saw that his present actions would inevitably lead to a more serious encounter with sin. It would lead to murder. Concerning the evil inhabitants of Sodom, the Torah writes: "I will go down now and see" (Bereishis 18:21). As Sforno observes, their present wickedness is no greater than other people who merit punishment. The reason that they receive such a devastating punishment is that their cruelty against poor people is so evil that it would result in total deterioration. Last, Sforno posits that this is also true concerning Klal Yisrael's punishment in their exile. As we see in Sefer Devarim 32:20, Ereh mah acharisam, "I will see what their end shall be."

To recap Sforno's words, we see that Hashem judges us based upon the ultimate consequences of a present act or condition. This is the case concerning the severe punishment meted out to the rebellious son. Hashem knows that ultimately he will murder and steal in order to appease his gluttonous appetite. Sodom's punishment was based upon the inevitable results of their present iniquitous behavior. Likewise, Hashem examined the inevitable results of the Tower of Bavel and decided that it must be prevented through dispersion. Last, Sforno renders a compelling interpretation of the pasuk in Devarim which would normally be translated as a reflection on Klal Yisrael's vulnerability. Instead, Sforno explains that Hashem will "hide His face from them" (beginning of the pasuk), because He sees what their actions will lead to. Therefore, He turns away from them - now!

Horav Yeruchem Levovitz, zl, derives from Sforno's words that we do not view the results which emanate from a given action to be merely secondary consequences. No! They are all part and parcel of the original act. This applies to every ramification - regardless of how indirect, far-fetched and far-flung it may be. If it results from the original - it is part of the original. When Kayin slew Hevel in a fit of envy, Hashem reproved him with the words, Kol demei achicha tzoakim eilai min ha'adamah, "The blood of your brother cries out to Me from the ground!" (Bereishis 4:10). Rashi notes the use of the word demei, bloods, as opposed to dam, blood. The plural construct of the word leads Chazal (Sanhedrin 37a) to say that Kayin's crime was not limited to the death of Hevel alone, but, in effect, he shed the blood of Hevel and that of his many future descendants.

Likewise, when Moshe Rabbeinu slew the Egyptian, the Torah writes, Vayar ki ein ish, "And (he) saw that there was no man" (Shemos 2:12). Rashi comments, "He saw that there was no future proselyte who would descend from the Egyptian assailant." Moshe made sure that his actions would not have negative consequences down the line. Only then did he kill the Egyptian.

Shaul HaMelech was called to task and punished for killing the Givonim. Did he really kill them? No. But, since he killed out the Kohanim in Nov, who were sustaining the Givonim, he was held accountable for their deaths - as if he personally was their murderer.

Regrettably, when we err, commit an indiscretion, transgress or blatantly act with malice, we think that it is over. We were wrong, and now we must repent, but it is not over. The scourge created by our sinful behavior continues to haunt us - for generations to come. This is a very sobering reality which we must consider when expressing remorse for our actions. Our regret must be as far-reaching as the ramifications of our transgressions.

Now that I have succeeded in depressing everyone, we should look at the flip-side. Chazal teach us that the reward Hashem gives us for a positive action is five hundred times greater than the punishment He metes out for a sinful deed. Therefore, one mitzvah can certainly have not only positive ramifications, but the reward can be mind-boggling! Imagine, performing a mitzvah that has enduring consequences for generations. There is no way to tally up the reward. One mitzvah can transform a life! Multiply that by many mitzvos - many people - many generations. It is incalculable!

"One mitzvah": A quick story, which I related years ago, demonstrates the significance of one mitzvah and the impact it has had for generations. In a resort hotel, outside of Yerushalayim, the mashgiach, kosher supervisor, would see to it that a daily minyan was provided for the guests. One day he found it challenging to come up with the requisite ten worshippers. He decided that he would go outside and search for the elusive tenth man. Soon, he met a Jew who neither had a clue what a minyan was, nor the desire to participate in one. The mashgiach patiently explained the significance of minyan to the man and the awesome reward in store for those who pray with a minyan. Shortly thereafter, the stranger acquiesced and joined the minyan.

He followed the mashgiach into the apartment. Soon, the son of one of the worshippers arrived. They now had a minyan - without the stranger from the street. The mashgiach thanked him for his good intentions and bid him a good day. Since he really could not relate to the entire ceremony, the stranger, feeling more comfortable elsewhere, said good-bye and left.

The years elapsed. The mashgiach was sleeping one night, and he had a dream. In the dream, the man whom he had called to be the tenth man appeared before him, his countenance shining brilliantly. The man related to the mashgiach that he had passed from this world during the previous month. "I have come to pay my gratitude to you," he said, "for attempting to include me in your minyan. You have no idea of the unimaginable spiritual reward I have received as a result of the three steps I walked up to complete the minyan." He added, "I have one favor to ask of you. I have one son who lives in Yerushalayim. Regrettably, I raised him with as much religious affiliation as I myself was acquainted. He is non-observant. In fact, he is very estranged from a life of Torah and mitzvos. As a result, I have no one to recite Kaddish for my soul. If you could go to speak to him, perhaps convince him of the importance of saying Kaddish, he might listen. It will mean so much. Please."

The mashgiach, of course, met with the son of the deceased and succeeded in convincing him to say Kaddish for his late father. All this was the result of three steps! Can we even begin to imagine the reward for complete mitzvah observance? Three steps led to the son's return to Hashem. Hashem takes all of this into account. How encouraging. How compelling.

Va'ani Tefillah

Ki yadaata ki heizidu aleihem. For You knew that they sinned flagrantly against them.

The commentators question why Hashem punished the Egyptians so severely. After all, the Torah writes, "And they will enslave them, and they will afflict them" (Bereishis 15:13). All of this was part of the Divine Plan which Hashem shared with Avraham Avinu. The Egyptians were Hashem's agents selected specifically for the purpose of "tempering" the Jewish people and preparing them for their destiny. In his commentary to Bereishis 15:17, Ramban writes that had the Egyptians enslaved the Jews for the sole purpose of carrying out Hashem's mission, they would have not have been so harshly punished. This is an idea that applies to all of those despots who have inflicted pain and misery on our people. If they would only realize that they are merely tools in the hands of the Almighty to "keep us in line," but no - their deep animus toward the Jewish People and Hashem overwhelms them. So, they act malevolently - with malice. They enjoy what they are doing. As far as they are concerned, G-d has nothing to do with it. Pharaoh acted against the Jews, because he feared and utterly despised us - not because he was performing Hashem's will.

The Meshech Chochmah interprets this idea into the pasuk, "For You knew that they sinned flagrantly against them." Since the Egyptians treated the Jews miserably due to their hatred toward them, You punished them. Had they acted solely as Your agents, they would not have been so severely punished.

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