Back to This Week's Parsha

Peninim on the Torah

subscribe.gif (2332 bytes)

Previous issues

Rabbi A. Leib Scheinbaum
Hebrew Academy of Cleveland


See, I present before you today, a blessing and a curse. (11:26)

Sforno interprets this pasuk to be a reference to the fate of Klal Yisrael's being characterized by extremes. He writes: "Look and perceive that your affairs (as a nation) are not of an average nature, as is the case with other nations. This is because, indeed (in your case), I present before you today a blessing and a curse." These are two extremes, since the blessing represents good fortune beyond that which is adequate, on a level which is exceedingly good. The curse is one which brings about diminishment to such an extent that even a state of sufficiency becomes unattainable: both of these - blessing and curse - are 'before you' - attainable, based upon your choice.

The fate of other nations is not one of "either/or": full prosperity or extreme devastation. Theirs is not a condition of extremes: blessing or curse. They have "grey" areas in which neither is the blessing complete, nor is the curse that extreme. Not so Klal Yisrael, who are unlike other nations. As the people of G-d, our lot is destined to be uncommon. There is no middle road for us. It is either blessing or curse; nothing is in between. This idea is signified by the word Re'eh, "See!" which intimates that something novel, a new idea, is being introduced.

Sforno explains that the choice is ours. It is lifneichem, "before you." Do we choose to hear the word of G-d, or not? Torah brooks no compromise. One either listens and is, therefore, blessed, or one chooses to ignore the commandments and is, therefore, the recipient of curse. It is as simple as that.

Horav Arye Leib Bakst, zl, derives an important principal from Sforno. Since we are neither measured on an intermediate level, nor are we rewarded/punished on an average level, we must choose to serve Hashem through the medium of extreme. Thus, our she'ifah, striving, in ruchniyos, areas of spirituality, must be to the extreme. We do not seek simply to fulfill our responsibility; we seek to excel. Chazal, cited by Tanna D'bei Eliyahu 25, say, "A man is obligated to say (to demand of himself); 'When will my deeds reach those of my forebears?' Clearly, our predecessors had a stronger, closer, more disciplined attitude towards Torah study and mitzvah performance. Our attitude should not be any weaker, nor should our achievements be less than theirs. We must demand of ourselves to go farther, higher, stronger.

While we may discover a number of citations in Chazal that encourage us to be mistapek b'muat, satisfied with a little, this applies only in connection with gashmiyus, physicality and materialism. In the area of spirituality, one should never be satisfied - period. This is not a matter of discretion, but rather, a demand. In the realm of the spiritual, one either grows higher, or he descends lower. There is no status quo.

When Potifar's wife attempted to seduce Yosef HaTzaddik, he told her, "Hashem has a practice of revealing Himself at night to the beloved ones of my father's house." Yosef was intimating that by consorting with her, he would lose out on this incredible opportunity. Rav Bakst explains that Yosef was not simply pushing her off. He was serious. His striving was to be like the Patriarchs to whom the Shechinah appeared. Therefore, he could not contaminate himself to her. Yosef was spared from falling into the abyss of sin, because he had his sights on the zenith of spirituality. If one does not want to fall into the nadir of sin, he must keep his sights on the summit of spirituality. It is a clear choice.

The Rosh Yeshivah quotes the Mashgiach, Horav Yeruchem Levovitz, zl, who went through a period during which he lost his appetite. He traveled to Koenigsburg to seek the medical opinion of a distinguished physician. He asked the physician "Is this really an illness? After all, I do eat." The physician replied that, indeed, it was a serious illness, since eating without an appetite does not achieve its objective. Likewise, Rav Bakst comments, spirituality without desire, ambition, striving for distinction, will not succeed.

Horav Meir Chadash, zl, Mashgiach of Chevron/Slabodka encouraged his students to complete Shas, the entire Talmud. One of his most distinguished students, the renowned Maggid, Horav Sholom Schwadron, zl, related that he would frequently walk with his rebbe back and forth in the bais hamedrash. As they walked, engrossed in Talmudic discussion, the Mashgiach still noticed everything that was taking place in the study hall. Once, during their walks, the Mashgiach asked Rav Sholom, "Will you complete Meseches Bava Basra this z'man, semester?" Rav Sholom was shocked. Bava Basra was the longest Meseches in the Talmud. There was no way he could complete in in time, and he told this to the Mashgiach. The Mashgiach's response was, "Learn diligently all week, and then come back to me at the end of the week."

At the end of the week, Rav Sholom returned and told the Mashgiach how much he had learned. Obviously, in order to make his rebbe happy, he had really pushed himself. The Mashgiach took everything in stride and accepted the number of blatt, pages that he had covered and said, "From here on in, you must cover that number every week!" Rav Sholom mused, "I completed the Meseches four times and was subsequently tested on it by the Rosh Yeshivah."

The Mashgiach would make heavy demands of his students, because he knew that they could succeed. They needed to be motivated. He was their motivation. He would constantly reiterate, "Move forward! Use every minute! Cover ground! Know Shas!" He was wont to ask his students, "What page are you in Shas?" His point was to teach them that they had to raise the bar; Shas had to be their goal. They should settle for nothing less. "The happiest man is he who knows Shas!" was one of the Mashgiach's favorite quotes.

The concept of constantly raising the bar in his goal of spiritual achievement is something that each student in Telshe saw and sensed in his daily relationship with the Rosh Yeshivah, Horav Chaim Stein, zl. Since Peninim is written approximately two months before it appears in circulation, I write this shortly after the petirah, passing, of the Rosh Yeshivah. Having known him for over fifty years, I am amazed at his breadth of knowledge and total recall. Torah was as much a part of him as the air that he breathed. As he prodded himself more and more to achieve greater goals in his knowledge of Torah, he inspired his students to do the same. He was relentless in his drive for excellence and in his passion for knowledge. He could not fathom bitul Torah, wasting time from Torah study. After all, how does one squander life? Perhaps this is why he was blessed with such longevity. Life meant so much to him, because each day allowed him to study more Torah.

See, I present before you today, a blessing and a curse. (11:26)

Much has been written by the commentators to explain the message of this pasuk. Horav Yosef Chaim, zl, m'Bagdad, the Od Yosef Chai, offers a practical exposition of this pasuk which is especially relevant to those who are experiencing what they interpret as brachah or kelalah. The journey that each human being is compelled to undertake, the journey called life, is fraught with challenges. For some, good fortune is exactly that: good. For others, however, who find it difficult to grapple with the yetzer hora, evil-inclination, during times of plenty, good fortune is not necessarily good. It might be the source of an individual's downfall. Likewise, there is what we often define as curse: travail; pain; misery; financial hardship; tzaar gidul banim, difficulty in raising our children. These are all challenges, but are they curses? It depends upon the individual.

In any event, life has its challenges - both good and bad. How does one address the issues? How does one confront the challenges? Rav Yosef Chaim comments that the answer is in the pasuk: Hayom, "Today." It is all about today. One must acknowledge and absorb that all we really have before us is "today." Do not worry about the future. Do not concern yourself with: What if? What will be? Address the "here" and "now." Veritably, all we really have is the hayom, "today," which is before us.

This perspective on life is vital. At times, when a person is the recipient of Hashem's beneficence, blessed with wealth, health, mazel and brachah, the yetzer hora has a field day. It convinces him that it is all here to stay; he has got it made. He is revered, admired, envied and sought out. The yetzer hora wants all of this good fortune to go to his head, so that it can convince him to act foolishly, arrogantly, contemptuously, and to rebel against the Almighty: Vayishman yeshurun va'yuvaat, "And Yeshurun became fat and kicked" (Devarim 32:15). Prosperity brings about dissolution. People are prone to indulge themselves, satisfying all of their lusts, when they have the wherewithal to carry out their fantasies. This is not a hypothesis. It is a lamentable reality. How does one shelter himself from the curse of vayishman? How does one prevent himself from falling into the challenges that accompany "good fortune"?

Hayom, "Today". Get it through your mind that one is assured only of today. Tomorrow, it might be all gone, or even worse, the person might be gone. How many of the high and mighty fell prey to the economic crisis that reverberates until this very day? Upon encountering the obstacles surreptitiously laid before us by the yetzer hora, we should focus on hayom, remembering that we must live wisely today, because we are not assured of a tomorrow.

Likewise, when one is confronted with life's vicissitudes, the pain and misery of illness, financial crisis, issues with children or even parents, one should apply the word hayom as a source of encouragement. Why worry about tomorrow when one knows not what will be today? In the Talmud Sanhedrin 100b, Chazal say, Al tatzeir tzoras machar, ki lo seida mah yeled yom. "Do not be distressed by tomorrow's troubles, for you do not know what will occur today." Shema l'machar einenu, "Perhaps by tomorrow one will not be alive, and it turns out he was grieving over a world that was not his." He worried about tomorrow's troubles, when, in fact, he never lived to see that day. It is all about acknowledging hayom. Hashem tells us that Re'eh, "See, I present before you, hayom, today." That is all you have to concern yourself with - today. This concept will serve as a beacon of light to illuminate your lives, both in times of blessing and during periods of curse.

An episode which occurred concerning the Chafetz Chaim is applicable to this exegesis. It took place during one of the dark, dreary nights of World War I. A group of Radiner Jews came to their revered rebbe, depressed by the events of the war and how it was taking its toll on the Jewish community, both physically and emotionally. The Chafetz Chaim listened to their outpouring of grief, and -- in his calm, sweet voice -- assured them. "Why do you worry? What do you fear?"

He proceeded to quote Chazal in the Talmud Avodah Zarah 8a, who relate that come nighttime Adam HaRishon had become very depressed. He thought that he had caused darkness to envelop the world, shrouding the light that had accompanied him throughout the day. "The world is returning to tohu va'vohu, astonishingly emptiness, with darkness over the deep." He began to fast and weep the entire night. As soon as the dawn broke with the rise of the morning star, he realized that this is the way of the world.

The Chafetz Chaim explained that Adam grieved for only one night, because he feared that the darkness would not end. He thought that the light was gone forever. There would be no end to the darkness and desolation. Once he realized that light follows darkness, he no longer worried. The setting sun, with its impeding glooming darkness, is part of a cycle of life. "My friends," asked the Chafetz Chaim, "the present darkness that encapsulates the world - is it the first one that we as Jews have endured? From our earliest days of nationhood, we have been shrouded in darkness. What has kept us going? The light at the end of the tunnel. We know that there will always be light. Every period of gloom has been followed by light. So, why is this darkness any different? The war will end, and there will once again be light." He was teaching them about the hayom factor, an idea which generates hope and instills confidence.

Perhaps we must focus on another word of this pasuk, Anochi, "I," Hashem, as the underlying source of reassurance and inspiritment. Let me explain with the following story: A blaze broke out in a small town in Russia. Many homes belonging to both Jew and gentile were completely destroyed. After the fire was extinguished, everyone made an assessment of the damages. Life had to go on. This is how people lived in Pre-World War II Europe. A fire meant that everything was destroyed. There was no insurance. Yesterday was gone. They had to look forward to tomorrow. One Jew walked over to the mound of ash that had once been his home. At first, he stared at the rubble. Then, in a loud voice that resonated to all those in his proximity, he recited the blessing She'lo asani goi, glorifying Hashem for not making him a gentile.

Those who heard this incantation emanating from this broken Jew conjectured that he had lost his mind, or was, at least, seriously depressed as a result of the fire. How is not being created as a gentile connected to the tragedy that had befallen him? When the man who had made the blessing noticed that those around regarded him as being slightly bent out of shape, he looked at them and explained, "My friends, please do not look at me as having lost my mind. I am as rational as you. Perhaps even more rational. The blessing that I recited was made with a clear and lucid mind, recognizing, perhaps for the first time, the full meaning of the blessing. My entire life I have recited this brachah without giving a second thought to its penetrating meaning. Did I realize my good fortune at being a Jew? No! I would recite this blessing in much the same manner that I daven everything else, with very little feeling and less aforethought. Now, however, as I see what has happened to our gentile neighbors, I fully begin to understand the tremendous bliss inherent in being a Jew.

"My gentile neighbor lost everything: his house, his clothes, furniture, indeed, his entire fortune. He is left penniless, with nothing. Even his godhead, which had been situated above his cabinet, was burnt. He is left bereft of all his earthly possessions. I, on the other hand, also lost all of my material possessions, but I still have Hashem! I have something that the goy does not have: the Ribono Shel Olam! Do you wonder why I am so enthusiastic about reciting the blessing?"

In the course of life, one invariably experiences brachah and kelalah. The doses and frequencies vary, but no one escapes kelalah, and everyone, in one way or another, encounters brachah. We often forget the Source of these Heavenly communiqu?s. Everything has its purpose. Everything has its reason. They all come to us from Anochi - I/Hashem. If we remember the Source of the brachah, it is much easier to deal with the challenges it engenders. When we acknowledge that the kelalah is Hashem's way of sending us a message, it becomes much more palatable. Re'eh Anochi - remember the Source!

You shall not eat any carcass; to the stranger who is in your cities shall you give it that he may eat it, or sell it to a gentile, for you are a holy people to Hashem, your G-d. (14:21)

The Torah enjoins us not to eat of a neveilah, carcass of an animal that died without shechitah, ritual slaughter. The pasuk concludes: "For you are a holy nation." This implies that neveilah is prohibited due to our kedushah, holy status. Sforno comments that neveilah is not an abomination like the eating of non-kosher animals. It is prohibited because it lacks shechitah. For a nation whose status in life is sanctity, it is demeaning to partake of such an animal.

Rashi cites the Sifri that has an alternative understanding of this pasuk. He was probably bothered by the question that is posed by many commentators: Why is the fact that we are an am kadosh, holy nation, at the end of the pasuk, separated by the dispensation allowing for neveilah to be consumed by the ger toshav, alien convert, and nachri, gentile? If am kadosh is the underlying reason for forbidding us from eating prohibited foods, then it should follow after the next pasuk of Lo sevashel gedi ba'chaleive imo, "Do not cook a kid in its mother's milk." Apparently, am kadosh is not connected with maachalos asuros, prohibited foods. Sifri explains the injunction of am kadosh as reference to sensitivity training. Kadesh atzmecha b'mutar lach, "Sanctify yourself by refraining from or doing something that is technically permissible." As an am kadosh, we are required to be sensitive to the rigorous demands that others place upon themselves. Thus, we should not act leniently in the presence of those who have placed strictures upon themselves. It indicates a lack of respect for the individual. The demands of holiness are such that one must always be cognizant of another person's self-proclaimed prohibitions. If that is what he wants to do; if this is how he wants to live, so be it. To ridicule him by acting permissively shows a lack of mentchlichkeit, humanness.

A similar idea is expressed by Sforno in his commentary to Vayikra (22:2) regarding safeguarding the sanctity of offerings and Terumah. V'yinazru mikdoshei Bnei Yisrael, "They [the Kohanim who become tamei, spiritually contaminated] shall withdraw from the holies of Bnei Yisrael." A Kohen who becomes contaminated must withdraw from all aspects of service, lest he disqualify the offerings that the Jewish People have sanctified. Sforno comments: "Let them not think that on account of their exalted status, the holy things of Klal Yisrael may be considered as chullin, profane, to them." This is similar to the halachah in the Talmud Moed Kattan 16a, where Chazal distinguish between a cherem, ban, imposed by a teacher and one imposed by a student. In the former case, the ban must be respected by the disciple as well. In the latter case, however, although the ban remains in effect, the teacher is not required to heed it.

We derive from this halachah that degrees of stringencies in law exist in which one might erroneously assume can be likened to degrees of sanctity. Just as the disciple's authority does not bind the teacher in the ban, one might think that the stature of holiness declared by the ben Yisrael, regular Jew, over an animal or object should not be binding to the Kohen, due to the Yisrael's inferior status in relation to the Kohen. Therefore, the Torah makes a point to accentuate that this analogy is incorrect and that the sanctity of all things is binding on the Kohen as well. If a Kohen does not honor the Yisrael's sanctified object, it is fitting for the Kohen who profaned it to be punished.

Why would someone ignore the self-imposed strictures of another person? What possesses a person to be so spiteful? If an individual seeks to elevate himself spiritually, to accept upon himself rigorous demands, should it bother me? Should I go out of my way to show that I do not agree with him? It all originates with envy. If someone who is just like me wants to impose chumros, stringencies, upon himself, the yetzer hora, evil-inclination, within me says: "He thinks he is better than you. Who is he to think so? You are just as frum, observant, as he." This is how it begins. We all know how it ends.

Did it ever enter our mind that the fellow who imposed strictures upon himself did so after much introspection? Perhaps he knows himself, and this is what he feels he needs to do. To impugn the integrity of his strictures, to put him down as being insecure and different - to oppose him by acting in an insensitive manner to him by making a point of eating or drinking in front of him a food or beverage that we know he has prohibited himself - shows a lack of kedushah on our part. Imagine the hurt that we cause, the discouragement that results from our actions. Imagine if he is a baal teshuvah, penitent, who is trying to grow spiritually, and our put-down just let the air out of his spiritual ascent. Regrettably, this happens more often than we care to consider.

Sensitivity training goes hand in hand with religious observance. Regrettably, some of us take it for granted that if we are frum, we are "holier than thou." Consequently, we have license to do whatever we want, including expressing our disdain for another person's practice, shortcomings, or even physical or emotional shortcomings. Anyone who possesses the slightest modicum of intelligence knows this to be untrue. Yet, this does not prevent the self-righteous from offering their sanctimonious, judgmental views of people - regardless of whom they hurt.

Some stories remain with me; their impact is such that I often repeat them. This is one of them: Every day, the gadol hador, preeminent leader of Torah Jewry in Pre-World War II Europe, Horav Chaim Ozer Grodzenski, zl, would walk home after his shiur, lecture, accompanied by his students. One day, while walking home, a teenager approached Rav Chaim Ozer. In a stammering voice, he asked directions to an address that was some distance away from where they were at that time. Surprisingly, the gadol hador accompanied the young man. It was a cold, frigid day with a howling wind blowing in their faces, but if Rav Chaim Ozer was walking, the students accompanied him.

Finally, they reached the destination, and now they had to turn around and walk to Rav Chaim Ozer's home. They began to think to themselves with faint bitterness. Rav Chaim Ozer was not a young man, and every minute of his time was valuable. Why did he waste forty-five minutes walking in the bitter cold, when he could easily have given the boy directions? What is the worst that would have happened? He would have had to ask someone else. Nu. What is so bad about that? Finally, one of the older students conveyed what was bothering them to Rav Chaim Ozer.

The rav looked at his students and explained the following: "You must have noticed that the boy had a serious stuttering problem. He has difficulty speaking, and he was clearly embarrassed to ask the one question that he did ask. Had I simply given him directions to the street that he sought, he would have been forced to stop a number of times to ask again to confirm the directions. This would mean more contact with people, more stuttering, more humiliation. I would not allow a young Jewish child to be so humiliated. Not if I could help him. This is why I walked him to the house that he sought." The venerable gadol hador taught his students a most valuable lesson: the importance of being sensitive to the needs of our Jewish brethren.

Va'ani Tefillah

Y'hei Shmeih rabba mevarach.

In the Talmud Shabbos 119, Chazal place extreme significance on saying Y'hei Shmeih rabba with the fullest concentration. In fact, they say that whoever answers Y'hei Shmeih rabba - b'chol kocho, with all his strength, i.e., with his fullest concentration, it is so powerful that it can cause Bais Din Shel Maalah, the Heavenly Tribunal, to "tear up" a decree of punishment that had been issued against him, allowing him a chance to repair the breach created by the sin. What is it about b'chol kocho, "with his complete concentration," that catalyzes such a Heavenly reaction? Horav Shimon Schwab, zl, explains that "complete concentration" means "total devotion." At that moment, the individual is prepared to relinquish his life, to return his soul, for one purpose: Yisgadal v'yiskadash Shemeih rabba, Sanctifying Hashem's Name throughout the world. Thus, Y'hei Shmeih rabba is a pronouncement of Kiddush Hashem, a declaration of one's faith, of his total commitment to the Almighty. Such a person is truly worthy of an evil decree against him being torn up.

Sponsored by
Etzmon & Abigail Rozen
& Children
in loving memory of their mother and bobbie
Mrs. Faiga Rozen
Maras Faiga Gittel bas Harav
Nissan Aryeh Halevi a"h
niftar 27 Menachem Av 5748

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