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Peninim on the Torah

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Rabbi A. Leib Scheinbaum
Hebrew Academy of Cleveland


When he zealously avenged Me among them. (25:11)

Kanaus, zealotry, is truly a noble trait - albeit a dangerous one. Quite often, the well-meaning zealot gets caught up in his enthusiasm, forgetting his original goals and objectives. He forgets that while his adversary is wrong, he is still a human being with feelings and emotions. To say one does not care about the person is to defeat the objective of his actions. The kanai, zealot, is guided by considerations of avodas Hashem, service to the Almighty, and not by any negative spiritual flaw that he might possess. This is most often indicated by the following manner in which he seeks to achieve his goal, by his reaction if things do not go his way; his attitude to those with whom he is in dispute.

Horav Yosef Chaim Sonnenfeld, zl, was such a person. Although he was a zealot who was uncompromising in his devotion to raising the banner of Torah, he nevertheless, went out of his way to provide humanitarian assistance - even to his adversary. He never responded in a manner unbecoming a person who was the epitome of Torah refinement as evidenced by the following episode.

Rav Yosef Chaim sustained many personal tragedies that would have destroyed a lesser person. When his son Rav Shmuel Binyamin was stricken with typhus, Rav Yosef Chaim sat by his bed day and night, reciting Tehillim. The pain was overwhelming. To stand by, helpless, watching his beloved son's terrible convulsions was too much to handle. He remarked that he was no longer able to bear the sight of his son's excruciating pain and suffering. He closed his Tehillim and rose from his seat. At that moment, Rav Shmuel Binyamin returned his holy soul to its Maker, as Rav Chaim recited Shema Yisrael in a heart-rending voice. His loss was especially painful to Rav Yosef Chaim, because it followed by just eleven weeks the death of a younger son, Rav Moshe Yehudah, and just a few short years after the passing of his brilliant son, Rav Avraham Aharon, at the age of thirty-four.

It was Erev Shabbos, and there was no time to arrange a funeral. They arranged for people to sit with the body for Shabbos. Rav Yosef Chaim braced himself to keep the tragic news from his family in order not to destroy the sanctity of Shabbos. In reply to their anxious inquiries, he only responded, "May Hashem have mercy." He then dressed for Shabbos and, with a radiant face, he wished his family "Gut Shabbos," and left for shul.

Throughout Shabbos he greeted his congregants with a smile, reflecting the love and good cheer that was his hallmark. Indeed, no one suspected the terrible tragedy that had just taken place. After the conclusion of Maariv on Motzoei Shabbos, however, Rav Yosef Chaim was no longer able to hold back the pain over his beloved son, and he fainted. This was the seventh child that he had offered up as a sacrifice to the Almighty.

Word spread quickly throughout a stunned Yerushalayim. The sudden death of their beloved rebbe's son in the midst of a very active life, left people trembling. At the height of these troubled times, the Angel of Death had struck down one of their great and dear.

Bereaved and broken-hearted, a small party of mourners wound their way down the narrow streets of the Old City to the home of the deceased. Suddenly, at the entrance to one of the alleys, stood the arrogant figure of one of Yerushalayim's "enlightened" Jews. One of the lost souls who had long ago reneged against the religion of his ancestors, his hatred of religious Jews sizzled within him like a viper's poison. With a mocking smile he stopped squarely in front of Rav Yosef Chaim and wished him a cheerful, "Shavua Tov." He waited a moment, then added, "Well, Rav Yosef Chaim, I guess Heaven has punished you for your vehement opposition to us."

How low can a person descend? This was the nadir of callousness! The entire party was aghast at the vulgar joy of the rebel. Unwavering in his faith in Hashem, Rav Yosef Chaim straightened himself up and responded in a steady and controlled voice, "You are correct. Heaven punished me for my laxity in battling those who would violate the Covenant and destroy the faith and especially for my tardiness in entering the battle against those who undermine the Torah. From now on, I will strengthen my resolve and devote all of my strength to this sacred war."

I have stretched out this story in order to emphasize the frame of mind that Rav Yosef Chaim might have manifested. Yet, throughout his overwhelming travail, he maintained the clarity of vision and the presence of mind to respond as a gadol baTorah, Torah leader, whose commitment to the ideals of Torah were uncompromising and unwavering. He saw himself on a mission for Hashem, a mission which overrides all else - even personal pain and grief.

The daughters of Tzlafchad drew near…and they stood before Moshe. (27:1,2)

The Yalkut Shimoni gives a powerful insight into the episode with Bnos Tzlafchad. Every adam kasheir, pious individual, who stands up for what is right and true, especially during a time - or in an environment - that is antithetical to Torah, will earn the reward for all the members of his milieu. Noach took a stand during the generation of the flood: he merited their reward. Lot stood up to the evil citizens of Sodom: he received their reward. Likewise, the righteous daughters of Tzlafchad stood up for their beliefs at a time when there were those in Klal Yisrael who clamored, "Give us a new leader, and we will return to Egypt!" They rightfully deserved to receive the reward intended for those who had sought to undermine Klal Yisrael's leadership.

What a profound lesson can be derived from the Yalkut. Horav Mordechai Ilan, zl, explains that a person's actions are not measured only according to their own value, but also in light of when and where they are executed. The generation, the society, the environment, the circumstances under which they take place determines the significance of the action. One's ability to overcome the winds of apathy, the waves of assimilation and the sea of venom that is leveled against he who stands up for what is right, decides the reward that he will receive.

Throughout Jewish history, individuals have stood their ground and fought for Torah - under the most difficult conditions and backdrop. Yet, they persevered and stood their ground. In their merit, the Torah reigns supreme as it grows stronger and greater each day.

Horav Shraga Feivel Mendlowitz, zl, the architect of Torah in America, is a clear example of an individual who stood resolutely against the flood of assimilation that had engulfed America. He came to a land where, to paraphrase him, "Eretz lo zeruah," the lo/no was planted. Everybody said no. We cannot fight. We cannot keep Shabbos. Torah has no chance. It was a land where apathy and negativism deluged everyone. It was "Eretz ocheles yoshvechah," a land that devoured its inhabitants. It destroyed their spiritual component, leaving them spiritually sterile.

True, there were many scholars and rabbis of stature that had arrived here before him. Of these individuals, even if they had saved themselves, only a few were successful in saving their children. For sure, none of them were able to reach out and save others. The self-confidence that the contemporary Orthodox Jew takes for granted was a rarity in those days. Rav Shraga Feivel would not accept a no. While others were prepared to accept America assimilation, Rav Shraga Feivel considered it to be a challenge that he needed to overcome. He was a revolutionary who battled the status quo of apathy. He made up his mind to do whatever was in his power to save his fellow Jews in America from spiritual demise.

While space does not permit for a full appreciation of his accomplishments or the challenges of the times during which his efforts received successful fruition, he deserves that a few vignettes of his achievements for Torah in America be mentioned.

Just to give a perspective of the spiritual panorama of the times, we cite from the famous observation made by Horav Yaakov David Wilovsky, zl, the Ridbaz, one of the great European scholars to come to America. As a consequence of the halachic standards of kashrus that he attempted to impose in Chicago, he eventually had to flee for his life. He writes in his introduction to his Nimukei Ridbaz, "In America, Jews have gathered from all corners of the globe, and, as a result, no one knows anyone, or what was his position in his native city. Many who were outcasts and derelicts in Europe have become leaders in this country. They give public sermons that any priest, lehavdil, could also give in his church. Here, however, they are called rabbis.

"Likewise, many evil-doers in their hometowns have come here and entered the meat business, calling themselves 'kosher butchers.' They are neither butchers nor kosher. They have joined forces with the chameleon rabbis, and together they are feeding treifah, non-kosher, meat to unsuspecting Jews. Even the shochet, ritual slaughterer, spends his Shabbos kodesh at the theater."

Rav Wilovsky went on to decry the spineless attitude of those who should do something about the sad state of kashrus in America. America had become a place where the spirit of Judaism had dried up, and the Jews were overcome by a lust for everything that was abominable to their religion.

It was in such a spiritual wasteland that Rav Shraga Feivel set forth to make a change. He organized a small group of like-minded individuals to plan a newspaper to combat the filth and vitriol that was spewed out from the contemporary secular Yiddish press. He borrowed $10,000, the equivalent of eight years salary in those days. Together with the renowned chazzan, Cantor Yossele Rosenblatt, who contributed $25,000, he started "Dos Yiddishe Licht," the Light of Israel. They struggled for years to recoup their losses - but they made an impact; they created a dent in the spiritual status quo. His scathing editorials were eye openers to many people and inspired many to think about the path they were treading toward spiritual extinction. He neither minced words, nor feared accusing "rabbis" of turning a blind eye to the non-kosher practices of the day. He would say, "I have a burning within my bones; I am weary with containing myself." He knew that his rabble-rousing tactics might cause people to denounce him, but there was no other way. Regrettably, no one else was doing anything to challenge the establishment.

Yet, the pressure of public censure can destroy a person. How did he do it? How was he able to continue his battle and withstand the pressures of negative public opinion? He viewed himself as a shelucha d'Rachmana, an agent of Hashem. On any issue, he could be expected to present his own independent opinion without fear of ridicule or opposition.

Like Pinchas, Rav Shraga Feivel did not permit his zealousness to cloud his ahavas Yisrael, love for all Jews. Two directors of the Mesivta Torah Vodaath, Rav Shraga Feivel's yeshivah, approached the yeshivah's president to accept two boys who had been in a catholic orphanage for some time. The president, a fine G-d-fearing man, responded in the negative, claiming that boys who had previously been kissing a crucifix would have a difficult time accepting the Torah and mitzvos. In order to circumvent a dispute, both sides agreed to present the problem to Rav Shraga Feivel for his final decision. Rav Shraga Feivel ruled that the boys should be accepted. He contended "better they should be poshei Yisrael, sinful Jews, than sonei Yisrael, haters of Jews." The boys were accepted, and at least one of them later became observant.

Perhaps the world "zealot" should be exchanged for "idealist," for a true zealot is an idealist who is committed to his goals and ideals. He does not allow negativism and apathy to stand in his way. He does what must be done, and he acts where action must be taken. He fears only Hashem to whom he has the utmost allegiance. His commitment is unswerving, and his dedication is boundless. In every generation we have idealists who give their lives for the dissemination of true Torah ideals and the upholding of Torah and mitzvos. They are self-effacing, never seeking the limelight unless it is absolutely necessary in pursuit of their goals. They have made and continue to make the difference in the battle to preserve and spread the sanctity and purity of Torah true Judaism.

Why should the name of out father be omitted from among his family because he had no son? (27:4)

Parents need their children. Horav Avraham Berish Flohm, zl, a distinguished disciple of the Maggid of Dubno, gives the following explanation of this pasuk. A father and his son were traveling together on a long journey. It was a difficult trip, and the father went to great lengths to provide for his son's comfort. He provided for all of his needs and protected him from the vicissitudes of the way. This added responsibility took its toll on the father, but what does a parent not do for their child? When they reached their destination, they discovered that the gates to the city were locked, and no one could enter or leave. The father searched the area and noted a small guard's hut alongside the outer gate. He peered through the tiny window and - to his delight - he saw the keys to the gate. The problem was how to enter the guard's hut. There was no guard, but the door was locked and the window was too small for him to enter.

The father turned to his son and said, "Until this point, I have attended to all of your needs. Now, I need your help. There is a little window in the side of the wall. It is just large enough for you to fit through. Go into the guard's hut and retrieve the keys to the gate, so that we can finally reach our destination."

This is the story of life. Parents worry and provide for all of their children's needs - both physical and spiritual. During the yemei Hadin, Days of Judgment, the parents have to face the Heavenly Tribunal and hope that they are given a chance for another year. Chazal teach us that the world is sustained through the hevel pihem, of tinokos shel bais rabbon, children who study Torah. Their merit is great and can make the difference. They can get through that "window of opportunity" that eludes their parents. Through their merit, their parents can achieve forgiveness from the Heavenly Father. Parents need their children. Now, if only the children would realize this.


Because he took vengeance for his G-d, and he atoned for Bnei Yisrael. (25:12)

Horav Yisrael, zl, m'Rijzin explains that to Moshe it appeared that Pinchas acted zealously because he sought vengeance for Hashem's Name. In truth, Pinchas' intentions were far more noble: he was prepared to give up his life out of his overwhelming love for Klal Yisrael.


These are the sons of Binyamin according to their families…These are the sons of Dan according to their families. (26:41,42)

Binyamin had ten sons, while Dan only had one son. Yet, Dan's descendants were more numerous than Binyamin's. This teaches us, comments the Chafetz Chaim, zl, that if one is favored by Hashem, he can achieve greater success with one son than he who has ten sons. This idea applies equally to material possessions. A poor man who has very little - but is happy with his lot - is in a far better position than his wealthy counterpart who is never satisfied.


May Hashem appoint …a man over the assembly. (27:16)

The Kotzker Rebbe, zl, explains that the designated leader should be a man among men: a man - and not an angel, who is distant and above everyone; a man - and not a fiery angel to whom no one can draw close; a man - and not a zealot like Pinchas.


My offering, My food for My fires. (28:2)

The Korban, sacrifice, that satisfies Hashem the most, says Horav Pinchas Koritzer, zl, is effected when a Jew shares a piece of lechem, bread, with ishai, My people.


Peninim on the Torah is in its 11th year of publication. The first seven years have been published in book form.

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