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Peninim on the Torah

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Rabbi A. Leib Scheinbaum
Hebrew Academy of Cleveland


When Hashem, your G-d, broadens your boundary… and you say, "I would eat meat," for you will have desire to eat meat, to your hearts' desire may you eat meat. (12:20)

One of the great ills which plague society is the disease of "keeping up with the Jones'." While envy has been around for some time, its effect on people varies. It drives some people to act irrationally, causing them to spend outrageous amounts of money, so that they purchase items which they do not need and which they certainly cannot afford. One would think that this is a personal, social problem, but one not necessarily an issue addressed by halachah. Well, think again!

In his commentary to the above pasuk, Rashi writes, "The Torah is teaching us derech eretz, proper conduct: that one does not desire to eat unless he has been enabled by Hashem to afford it." This interpretation seems quite unambiguous. Apparently, eating meat is considered an inappropriate luxury unless one has the requisite meat in his own flocks and herds. Rashi's commentary is based on the Talmud Chullin 84a, which states that a person should eat meat only when he has the desire. One might think that he should purchase meat in the market and eat. In response to this, the Torah writes, "You shall slaughter some of your cattle and sheep" (ibid 12:21). Rashi explains that a person who possesses only one cow and one sheep shall not eat meat, since the definition of one with "appropriate means" is a person who has sufficient flocks and herds, so that when he slaughters part of them, he still has some remaining.

Chazal continue with the statement, "Whoever has one maneh (a coin worth 100 silver zuz) should take a pound of vegetables for his pot; one who has ten maneh should take a pound of fish for his pot; one who has fifty maneh should take a pound of meat for his pot."

Horav Meir Bergman, Shlita, notes a powerful lesson to be derived from Rashi's choice of words. Rashi writes: "A person should only desire to eat meat when Hashem has enabled him to afford it." He is very precise with his parlance. He does not say, "A person should only eat when he can afford it." Rather, he says, "A person should only desire to eat…" The single word desire adds a new dimension to this halachah. The Torah demands that one be of such emotional refinement that he does not even desire meat as long as Hashem has yet not "broadened the boundaries of his material abundance."

One must train himself to be content with what he has. If this means eating vegetables - so be it. The quality of sameach b'chelko, being happy with one's lot, must be intrinsically inscribed in the depths of our being. It should be a part of our thought process, so that we naturally and effortlessly understand that Hashem wants only what is best for us, and He determines what we need. Thus, if He has not yet "broadened our boundaries," it is His way of saying, "You do not need it." If such is the case, then we have no reason to crave it. With one word, Rashi has encapsulated the underlying principle of the Talmud's statement. If we do not need it, then we should not want it. The Jones's may have it, but that is not a reason for us to have it. Our "haves" and "have nots" are determined by the Almighty.

In order to realize the full measure of his humanity, man must learn to curb his desires and reign over his emotions. One can control his thought patterns. Our desires should coincide with Hashem's determination of our needs. If He would have wanted us to have luxuries, He would have provided us with the wherewithal to procure such items. Apparently, He gave them to the Jones's instead.

You are children to Hashem, your G-d; you shall not cut yourselves. (14:1)

The Navi sheker, false prophet… the meisis, enticer, who leads people astray… the ir ha'nidachas, wayward city, a community so spiritually corrupt that all its inhabitants were persuaded to worship idols. All of these are followed by the prohibition of Lo sisgodedu, the prohibition against cutting oneself in mourning over the passing of someone close. What is the area of commonality between these prohibitions? After some thought, we observe that the navi, meisis and ir ha'nidachas are all the results of an adverse influence imposed upon us by someone who has attained a position of eminence through his intellectual gifts or social status; whether it be: a brilliant leader whose false visions control our lives; a close, trusted friend who takes advantage of our relationship with him to lead us astray. The result is an entire city worshipping idols because they have succumbed to the sedition of their leadership. This does not mean that we should not follow the direction of our charismatic leadership. We should - but all relationships, regardless of how close, should cease to exist if they provide a means to lead us away from Hashem.

Horav S.R. Hirsch, zl, sees a continuation in the prohibition against making a wound in one's flesh as a sign of mourning. The motivation for making a wound in our flesh might give the appearance of being similar to the motivation for rending one's garments as a sign of mourning - something which is expressly commanded upon the death of a close relative. Appearances can be deceiving. A basic difference exists. The tear made in one's clothes symbolizes the "tear" that the passing of the departed has rendered in the intimate world of the survivor. Something has been destroyed in his world. It is no longer the same. A wound made in the survivor's flesh, however, implies that the death has created a breakdown in the survivor's physical self. This can never be allowed. To paraphrase Rav Hirsch, "No matter how dear and precious the departed was to us, no matter how much he meant to us, the end of his existence must not be permitted to end - or even diminish - the value and meaning of our lives."

The value of our lives has a significance of its own, based upon our direct relationship with the Almighty. Every fiber of our being, every spark of energy, every minute of our lives, belongs to Hashem. As long as He permits our existence on this world, we belong to Him. Hence, we have no right to impair our continued well-being. We must persevere in our service to Him, regardless of the challenges which we encounter. On the contrary, the loss of one whom we held in great esteem, who means so much to us, must spur us on to even greater energy, to redouble our vitality in service to Hashem, to fill the void which the death of a loved one has created.

This is the reason that the Torah places the prohibition against cutting oneself in a display of excessive mourning following the incidences of navi sheker, meisis and ir ha'nidachas. In each of these cases, our relationship with Hashem is impugned due to the stronghold that another human being has on our lives. No person may have such a stronghold upon us, or permit us to become so identified with him, that the cessation of his life compels us to discard our own personality after him. We are banim la'Makom, children of Hashem. The bond that we have with Him supersedes all other spiritual and emotional ties.

The Alshich HaKadosh offers an alternative explanation of this pasuk. He compares the experience of death in a family to a mother and son whose husband and father has lived in a distant city for an extended period of time. During the father's stay there, he was fortunate to amass a large fortune. One day, the son, who has longed so much for his father, decides to join him. It does not take much to understand the mother's sadness to see her son leave. Yet, the happiness she anticipates with the knowledge that her child is joining his father in a rich household filled with all of the wonderful things that he presently lacks gives her great joy, limiting her present sadness.

Moshe Rabbeinu says to Klal Yisrael, "You are children of Hashem," and, as such, you should not be disconcerted over being separated from the deceased, because the child has gone to his "wealthy" Father. The World to Come will be a much better place for him, where he will bask in Hashem's Presence and have pleasure beyond anything imaginable in this world. The soul is eternal. Therefore, a person never really dies. Its earthly container, which is all we can perceive, is what ceases to exist. Excessive weeping indicates a lack of belief in the eternity of the soul. It is natural to cry - over our personal loss, our friendship, our relationship - but not for the deceased, who is much happier in his eternal rest. May the Almighty once and for all bring an end to the challenges which we confront as a result of illness and death, so that we may serve Him amid greater freedom and joy.

If there shall be a destitute person among you, any of your brethren… you shall not harden your heart or close your hand… rather, you shall open your hand to him; you shall lend him his requirement, whatever is lacking to him… beware lest there be a base thought in your heart. (15:7, 8, 9)

What a wonderful mitzvah! The ability to be able to share one's good fortune with someone less fortunate is truly a G-d-given opportunity. For some reason, however, it does not always work that way. One would think the "haves" would be happy to share with the "have nots," but, for some reason, this phenomenon does not materialize all of the time. Clearly, the "have nots" are willing to participate! People always have excuses to refrain from being charitable. Some excuses are creative, while others are simply cover-ups for the real reason: a lack of empathy with the plight of others. It is always about "me."

One of the more common justifications for veiling one's stinginess is to present the petitioner in a dubious light, casting aspersion on him, the organization he represents, or both. One of the oldest, reputable tzedakos, charities, is the Kollel Shomrei HaChomos, a charitable organization dedicated to distributing money to families in Yerushalayim. The system for distribution was established a century ago by its founders, under the guidance of the gedolei hador, pre-eminent Torah leaders of the generation. It was not an arbitrary system, but rather, meticulously designed to support the neediest families. As with all good things, however, there are always those malcontents who must find fault with every system, regardless of its merit.

In 1923, a group of beneficiaries expressed their disapproval over the Kollel's distribution of funds, claiming that it was giving money to everyone without confirming individual need. They felt that some of the recipients should not be supported. At one point, this group communicated with the Kollel directorate in America, seeking the chairman of the board's intervention in the matter. To add to their insolence, they took the liberty of including the names of the entire Kollel membership, going so far as to intimate that they had the support of its president, Horav Yosef Chaim Sonnenfeld, zl.

This could not have been further from the truth. Rav Yosef Chaim was in total disagreement with the goals of this group. Thus, he penned his own letter to America. He wrote the following: "I state my unequivocal opposition to any change in the distribution of funds of the Kollel. The great rabbis who founded the Kollel did so with integrity and prophetic vision, seeing that it was specifically in this manner that the settlement of the Holy Land would be established.

"By the grace of G-d, I have had the privilege to live in Yerushalayim for fifty years, and I have never seen any one of the members of our Kollel who, upon his death, had any wealth to bequeath. Almost all those who were considered by others to be well-to-do, left behind them nothing but debts.

"Chazal have already established the punishment for one who undeservingly takes charity. 'Whoever is not entitled to take (charity) and does so anyway shall not pass from this world before he indeed becomes dependent upon others' (Peah 8:9). Let us leave such individuals to the fate determined for them by our sages, and not implement a new system of distribution." The protestors were relentless. They claimed that donors who contributed to the Kollel did so with the specific intent that their money be given only to those in dire need - a request which they felt was not being granted. Rav Yosef Chaim responded with a novel interpretation of the above pasuk.

When the Torah writes, "Beware, lest there be a base thought in your heart," it does not mean that the contributor has a base thought. Rather, he portrays the petitioner who stands before him asking for money as a base person. "Perhaps, he is not as poor as he claims.' This is the thought of baseness about which the Torah warns us."

While we are justified in exercising caution concerning to whom we give our money, it does not grant us license to portray everyone who wants to relieve us of our hard-earned money as a crook. We might make the mistake of turning our back on someone who is really in need, but for some reason did not measure up to our standards of "poverty." The cry of the poor never goes unheeded, and, when they cry, we will be called to task.

Charity means giving more than money. It means giving a part of our self. A wealthy Holocaust survivor relates the following incident which gives meaning to this idea. The Jews in the concentration camps received the bare minimum of food. It was just enough to subsist. Without it, one's suffering might come to an early end. One day, the bread ration of one of the inmates was stolen. This was literally a death sentence for him. Without that slice of hard - sometimes moldy - bread, he simply would not survive. It was that crust of bread that spelled the difference between life and starvation.

The man was hysterical. His despair was heartbreaking; his anxiety was palpable. Everybody in the barrack felt his pain, but the storyteller and two other inmates did something about it. They each broke off a piece of their own bread and gave it to the victim.

The survivor concluded his story with the following statement. "You know, since the end of the war, I have been blessed by G-d and have done quite well financially. I have been very generous with my gifts, both to individuals and organizations. If I were to add up the hundreds of thousands of dollars I have given away in the past years, however, it would not even come close to that crust of bread that I gave away in Auschwitz. You know why? Because all of the money I gave away, I could spare. I always had plenty of money, but, I could not spare that piece of bread. Even though I needed it to live, I gave it up to help another Jew. That is why it is worth more than anything else I have ever done in my life!"

It is not about how much money we give. It is all about how much of ourselves we give. This brings us to another aspect of tzedakah. In the Talmud Sukkah 49b, Chazal teach us that gemillas chassadim, acts of loving-kindness, are more valued than charity. They explain: charity is connected to one's money, while gemillas chesed does not differentiate between one who is poor or one who is wealthy; charity is for the living, while chesed is both for the living and for the deceased.

Many of the halachos that apply to tzedakah, apply equally to chesed. Horav Shimshon Pincus, zl, selects one halachah which I feel is especially pertinent at this time of year, as we are rapidly approaching the Yamim Noraim, High Holy Days, when every z'chus, merit, counts. At the end of Hilchos Matnas Aniyim, the Rambam writes: "Whoever gives charity to a poor man, (but expresses himself) with a bad countenance, with his face turned down to the ground (demonstrating that he really has no desire to give the poor man anything), even if he gives him one thousand gold coins, he has (nevertheless) lost his merit. (Rather) one should give (charity) with a good and cheerful countenance, empathize with the poor man's plight, and (attempt to) soothe him with words of encouragement and comfort. If the poor man asks to borrow (money or possession) from you, and you are unable to give him what he needs, then you should appease him with words. One should never be cross, speak down, or raise his voice at a poor man, because he has a broken heart, and, when he cries out Hashem listens. Woe is to anyone who humiliates a poor man. Hashem is the Heavenly Father of the poor and He listens."

This halachah applies equally to acts of loving-kindness. One who asks for a favor - regardless of the petitioner's financial status, if he is in need of a certain chesed - is considered as an ani, poor man, with regard to his present need. Therefore, it is incumbent that we comfort the person as if he is a poor man.

Rav Pincus notes that this halachah applies especially to those who are involved b'tzarchei tzibbur, in the needs of the community. This is extremely pertinent to rebbeim, teachers, administrators, - even a store keeper. When an individual is in constant contact with people, he plays a role in their lives. Therefore, when he asks for a favor which might be difficult to carry out, one must remember that with regard to this specific need, he is like an ani. This is what the Rambam refers to when he writes, "Woe is to him that humiliates a poor person."

Rav Pincus adds, that while this halachah applies even when the petitioner is not in great need, such as he has to borrow a car or needs a ride - nothing life-threatening or earth-shattering, just a simple favor - still, the respondent must be compassionate; how much more so when it actually affects the individual's life. He gives practical examples to which we can all relate. A neighbor, friend, acquaintance, or even someone off the street asks us to learn with him; a parent comes to a school administrator and asks to have his or her child admitted to the school. These are just two cases which occur more often than we care to divulge. At times, we do not have the time to learn with another person, or the individual is just not our type, and we say no. Our school accepts students based upon a narrow-minded profile adopted by our governing body of parents and administrators. Once again, the answer is no. This is not the forum to discuss the hypocrisy behind many of these decisions or the devastation that they wreak on innocent lives - both parents and children. The manner in which we say no does make a difference. We neither have to string the person along, nor do we have to humiliate him and treat him like a second-class citizen. Part of giving tzedakah is to preserve the dignity of the petitioner. The individual seeking a chavrusa, study partner; the parent looking for a school for his child, whose only failing is his lack of pedigree or weak financial portfolio, should be treated with dignity and respect. Otherwise, when he cries out, Hashem will listen.

You shall remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and Hashem, your G-d, redeemed you; therefore I command you regarding this matter today. (15:15)

What is the chiddush, novelty, of yetzias Mitzrayim, the exodus from Egypt? Although a slave never escaped from the stronghold that was Egypt, that was because Pharaoh did not allow it. He had security throughout the land, and the threat of being caught was sufficient reason to discourage the most foolhardy from making an attempt at freedom. We are talking, however, about Hashem! He created the world and everything in it. He created Pharaoh. There is nothing that He cannot do. So what is so special about the liberation? Is it that important that it is mentioned so many times in the Torah?

Simply, one could say that this is actually the lesson of yetzias Mitzrayim. The exodus teaches us that regardless of Pharaoh's supreme powers, they were no match for Hashem. A deeper lesson can be derived from here that goes to the crux of the meaning of freedom. Horav Shalom Schwadron, zl, suggests that the word, Mitzrayim, is related to metzorim, which means constraints. A person who leads a life dominated by physicality and materialism - who is not bound by purpose, goals, religion; who just does whatever he wants - might think that he is a free man. After all, why not? He answers to no one but himself; he acts freely, going anywhere he pleases, whenever he pleases, with whomever he pleases. He watches whatever strikes his fancy, hangs out with all types of unsavory people whose goals and objectives in life are equally without direction. He is free!

Well, he might think that he is free, but, actually, he is subject to serious constraints. He is bound to his physical desires, which control his every movement. He thinks that he can do what he pleases, but, in reality, he is an epic slave, subjugated to his habits, enslaved to his base desires, constrained by his inability to release the compelling hold they have on him.

Egypt was the land of debauchery, home to moral perversion and all forms of self-indulgence. Some misguided individuals might consider such self-gratification to be a symbol of freedom. The thinking person understands, however, that this "freedom" is a seriously debilitating form of slavery. It creates a stronghold on the person whereby he is not free to do what he wants or what he needs, but rather, what his passion and addiction dictate. It is the land of metzorim, constraints, a land which affects body and soul.

It was from this land of confinement and circumscription that the Jewish nation was redeemed. Hashem shattered the metzorim of Mitzrayim. They were no longer constrained, since now they were dedicated to the Torah. Everyday, whenever possible, we must remember what Mitzrayim represents and how our cultured allegiance to Hashem and His Torah delivered us from the grasp of its muck.

Va'ani Tefillah

U'matzasa es levavo ne'eman lefanecha. You found his heart faithful before You.

Levavo implies two hearts, in contrast to libo, which is singular, one heart. At the end of Meseches Berachos, the Yerushalmi teaches us that Avraham Avinu served Hashem with both inclinations - his yetzer tov, good-inclination, and yetzer hora, evil-inclination. Horav Mordechai Ilan, zl, explains this to mean that Avraham was able to transform the koach ho'ra, forces of evil, to do good. This is essentially man's purpose in life: to take the forces of evil and employ them for good. In the Neilah prayer, conclusion of the Yom Kippur service, we quote Hashem, Ki lo echpotz b'mos ha'meis, ki im b'shuvo m'darko v'chayah, "For I do not desire the death of he who deserves death, but only that the wicked return from their (evil) path and live." Homiletically, this can be interpreted as, "I do not want you to destroy the harmful forces within man, since they can be used as a medium for catalyzing blessing." It is up to man to place these destructive forces on the correct path, so that they can generate positive results.

David Hamelech was unable to transform his yetzer hora. He, therefore, destroyed it, as he says in Sefer Tehillim 109:22, v'libi chalal b'kirbi, "And my heart has died within me." The Meshech Chochmah distinguishes between the challenges inflicted upon Avraham by his evil-inclination and that which was imposed upon David through his evil-inclination. Avraham was compelled to deal with heresy, philosophical dialect concerning idol worship which was prevalent in his day and age. The approach to mastery over such a yetzer hora is to deal with it intellectually, think things out afterwards in order to develop a stronger belief in Hashem. David, however, was compelled to deal with the yetzer of taavah, base desire. There is no room for dialectic, discussion, or compromise with this form of evil. One either destroys it, or he becomes its slave. This is why concerning Avraham it says, U'motzasa es levavo, in the plural. He was able to subjugate the evil-inclination to good. David was forced to destroy his yetzer hora. Thus, he says libi - in the singular. There is no other way to deal with such evil.

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