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Peninim on the Torah

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Rabbi A. Leib Scheinbaum
Hebrew Academy of Cleveland


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

There are no grey areas in Judaism. One either listens to the word of G-d and is blessed, or he is cursed for refusing to listen. Moshe Rabbeinu seems to underscore the significance of the word, ha'yom, "today." Does it really make a difference if it is "today" or "tomorrow"? The message is the same. If you listen - blessing; you do not listen - curse! Why does he emphasize that he is presenting it "today"? In the Likutei Moharan, Horav Nachman Breslover, zl, is quoted as saying: "A man has in this world only 'that day,' 'that hour,' 'that moment,' during which he is presently dynamic. Tomorrow is a completely different day altogether."

In explaining the Breslover's statement, Horav Yaakov Meir Shechter, Shlita, cites the Ohr HaChaim HaKadosh in his commentary to Parashas Vayechi, who quotes the Arizal- who explains that man's neshamah, soul, is comprised of many variant nitzotzos, Divine sparks of holiness. (Lurianic Kabbalah views every element of life and the physical universe as containing Divine sparks which need to be released and redeemed, so that our existence is able to reach a higher state of being. These Divine sparks are concealed within kelipos, shells, which prevent the shefa, Divine flow of energy, from reaching them. By performing mitzvos, one erodes these barriers, thereby revealing the Divine sparks.) These Divine sparks are divided throughout man's lifespan, with each day receiving its sustenance from its individual spark. The more nitzotzos one has, the longer his lifespan will be.

Rav Yaakov Meir takes this to the next level, observing that each day an individual has the ability to repair the nitzotzos of that day. Therefore, on specific days of the yearly cycle, such as Shabbos, Moadim, Festivals, Aseres Yemei Teshuvah, Ten Days of Repentance, one should be exacting and execute the mitzvos to the fullest degree of stringency. If one misses it "today" - it is gone - forever. We cannot make up for "today." Indeed, those nitzotzos which are Divinely selected for Shabbos and other holy days are unique and carry more "fire power,"greater ability to sustain and nourish life. To denigrate the chumra, stringency, to seek the easy way out is to impugn one's ability for greater spiritual growth. As the Rav explains, just as there are organs in the body that play a crucial role in one's life-- such as the heart, liver, and brain-- so, too, do the nitzotzos of certain holy days have greater critical significance.

We now understand the deeper meaning of ha'yom, "today." Moshe underscores the importance of not losing even one day, because what is lost today is lost forever. Man should concern himself with the present, valuing every moment that has been Divinely granted to him. Do not push off until tomorrow that which should be done today. While there might very well be a tomorrow - there will no longer be a "today."

Horav Zelig Reuven Bengis, zl, was the consummate masmid, diligent in his Torah study, never wasting a moment. As a result of his unparalleled diligence, he merited to complete Shas, the entire Talmud, many times. During one particular siyum ha'Shas, festive meal honoring the completion of the Talmud, Rav Bengis was in an especially festive mood. Indeed, he went out of his way to prepare a king's banquet for the siyum. When one of his students asked why this siyum was different, Rav Bengis replied, "This siyum is for the Shas that I completed during periods of 'downtime,' such as: waiting for the baby to arrive for a bris, circumcision; waiting at weddings for the proceedings to begin; and various other occasions where people just sit around waiting. He would keep a miniature copy of Talmud in his pocket and learn whenever he was "waiting." By making good use of these downtime opportunities, he was able to complete the entire Shas.

Rav Yaakov Meir concludes with an inspirational thought that he heard from a tzaddik. This righteous person once took an apple out of his pocket and said, "Observe this apple. This apple was not here before and soon will be gone forever." Imagine a man takes this precious apple which is here just for "now" and eats it without reciting a brachah; he is destroying this gift from G-d - forever! On the other hand, if he makes that blessing and eats the apple properly, with the correct intentions as per His will, he is achieving something eternal for himself, the fruit and the moment.

Upon addressing the inestimable value of time, a story comes to mind that is well worth repeating. Horav Moshe Yitzchak, zl, the Kelmer Maggid, spoke in Bialystok and made the following point: "Imagine if the Heavenly Tribunal granted all those who are buried in the Bialystok cemetery a thirty-minute leave. Yes, they could leave their place of eternal rest and come 'above ground' for a very short liberty. It sounds incredible. Now, let us see what would be the reaction of everyone involved.

"There is a great and mighty sound like an earthquake, as the individual earth above each grave in the cemetery opens up, allowing for the corpse which is interred there to rise up and leave. The graves open and a multitude of corpses clothed in their white shrouds run out. Meanwhile, their family members are waiting to anxiously to get a glimpse, to say 'hello,' to embrace, to schmooze. That is not happening, however, because the 'dead' are running. They only have thirty minutes, and the clock is ticking, time is running out. They all rush to the bais ha'medrash to grab any sefer: a Gemorah, Mishnayos, Chumash, Siddur, Tehillim - anything - just as long as they are learning. Thirty minutes go by very quickly. The relatives are waiting: 'Please Zaidy! Ta! My brother! 'What happened to you?' 'Do you not recognize me?' The dead do not hear. They are too busy savoring the thirty minutes. One of the dead screams, "We have five minutes left. Hurry! Learn what you can!"

Suddenly, the Maggid stopped and looked at the assemblage and cried out to them, "What about us? We, who have more than thirty minutes, are we using our allotted time properly, or are we squandering it? This is the only chance we will have. A moment of teshuvah and good deeds is worth all of the reward in the World to Come. Once we arrive there it is over; we 'collect' whatever we have accumulated in this world. If we wasted our time here, we will have very little over there!"

If there should stand up in your midst a prophet or a dreamer of a dream… do not listen to the words of that prophet… Hashem, your G-d, you shall follow and Him shall you fear; His mitzvos shall you observe. (13:2, 4, 5)

The Torah admonishes us not to listen to the false prophesies of a prophet who encourages us to turn away from Hashem. While the prophet's message might be very subtle, the heresy is still present. Regrettably, the common man might not see through the beautiful picture that he paints, but false remains false, regardless of the presentation and background. We are told to follow only Hashem, to fear Him and observe His mitzvos. This is the only protection against those who would do us harm. A similar posuk is found in Parashas Eikev, "Hashem, your G-d, shall you fear, Him shall you serve" (Devarim 10:20). Interestingly, there it is written in lashon yachid, singular, while here the Torah writes in lashon rabim, plural. What is the distinction?

The Gerrer Rebbe, the Imrei Emes, presented this question in his opening comments at the first Kenessiah Gedolah, held in Vienna in 1923. The theme of the convention was achdus, unity, serving as the opening forum for the nascent Agudath Israel movement. The Rebbe explained that the parsha of navi sheker, false prophet, emphasizes the plural because, in order to succeed in battle against one who entices others to go astray, we must fight as a unified group. It is not enough that individuals issue calls and pleas; the entire observant community must band together as a strong unified force to fight the heresy and lies of the self-loathing iconoclasts who will stop at nothing to subvert us away from Hashem.

This is not the fight of the individual. These agnostics are enemies of the Jewish People and G-d. They are strong and filled with hatred. They have the backing of all of those too weak to stand up for themselves and declare their disdain for the Torah way. Therefore, they hide behind a cloak of civility, allowing others to do their dirty work for them. We must maintain a united front, or else they will become stronger by feeding on our own weakness.

You shall smite the inhabitants of that city with the edge of the sword. (13:16)

There are a number of halachos pertaining to Ir Hanidachas, the wayward city, and to the testimony of the witnesses who attest to the guilt of its inhabitants which do not seem to be consistent with one another. The people living in a city in which most of its inhabitants have been persuaded to worship idols are put to death. This includes all inhabitants of the city - including women and children, who might otherwise be innocent of the charges. The Torah demands that the testimony of the witnesses must be eidus she'atah yachol l'haazimah, a testimony of witnesses that can be disqualified through a second pair of witnesses who claim that the first set could never have witnessed the incident in question. The punishment for an eid zomeim, false witness, is reciprocal punishment; he receives whatever punishment his intended victim/the defendant was to receive. Thus, if the witness claims he has worshipped an idol, which is a capital crime, the eid zomeim will be executed. There is one exception: the false witness receives only the punishment of his intended victim - not that of his children. Thus, in the case of the Ir Hanidachas, in which children are also executed, the false witness would not receive his full punishment, since more than his intended victims are put to death. If an eid zomeim cannot receive his full due, we do not accept his testimony in the first place. The Minchas Chinuch therefore questions how we can even accept testimony concerning a wayward city. Since it will mean that children are put to death, the testimony is not disqualifiable, because the witness's children are not punished together with their father.

Horav Yechiel Yaakov Weinberg, zl, explains that the children of a wayward city are executed as yoshvei ha'ir, inhabitants of the city - not as guilty defendants. He compares this to a ship filled with passengers of whom a majority have become infected with a deadly virus. The officials refuse to allow the boat to dock - essentially a death sentence for everyone on the ship. What about the children and those people who are still healthy? Sorry. The decision has been made concerning the boat - not its passengers. The healthy passengers are regrettably part of the boat.

Likewise, when witnesses report that inhabitants of a certain city have worshipped idols, they are condemning the city - not its individual inhabitants. The wives and children of the sinners will suffer not because of their relationship to the sinners, but because they are yoshvei ha'ir, residents of a city which has been condemned. The key word toward understanding the laws of the wayward city is kibutzius, collectivism and collective living. This is one community, one city, one ship. When the city turns away from Hashem, its inhabitants in their entirety must accept their collective guilt and cumulative punishment.

And He will give you mercy and be merciful to you and multiply you. (13:18)

Being designated as agents of destruction can take its toll on people. We read horror stories about young high school graduates who enlist in the military, and, after a tour of duty, become hollow, often depraved individuals. This is what death and killing can do to the mind. Of course, this is especially true when the victims are one's own people. The inhabitants of the Ir Hanidachas, wayward city, have committed a most egregious crime, for which they are duly and rightfully punished. The ones carrying out the punishment, however, might become affected by it. They might develop a callousness toward killing and persecution, thereby eroding their natural proclivity toward sympathy and compassion. There is a serious fear that these obedient servants of G-d will become heartless and cruel as a result of the mission they have been sent to execute. The Torah allays these fears by stating that Hashem will infuse them with new feelings of compassion and sensitivity. As they progress, they will merit greater compassion from Hashem,Who will reciprocate in kind.

Rachmanus, compassion, is one of the three primary character traits by which a Jew is defined: rachmanim, merciful; baishanim, easily embarrassed, gomlei chassadim, carry out acts of loving-kindness. Compassion is derived from the above pasuk which supports the notion that Jews are a compassionate people. Indeed, in the Talmud Beitzah 32b, Chazal state that one who is merciful towards people indicates that he is of Avraham Avinu's offspring. One who does not show mercy towards others demonstrates the obvious, that he is not of Avraham's offspring.

In his Mesillas Yesharim, the Ramchal observes that Hashem rewards a person middah k'negged middah, measure for measure. Thus, one who is compassionate towards others can expect the Almighty to deal with him mercifully. One who is not forgiving of others, who does not go that extra mile to overlook the dent in his ego caused by another, will have great difficulty in presenting his own case for mercy before the Heavenly Tribunal. Toward the end of the parsha, the Torah admonishes us to be merciful with the poor person. "If there shall be a destitute person among you, any of your brethren in any of your cities, in the land that Hashem, Your G-d, gives you, you shall not harden you heart or close your hand against your destitute brother" (Devarim 15:7). It seems that the Torah is connecting the mitzvah of tzedakah, charity, with Eretz Yisrael. Otherwise, why would it write, "In any of your cities, in the land"? The obligation to be charitable transcends land; it is a mitzvah, everywhere, anytime. All of this is part and parcel of rachmanus, compassion.

In his Od Yosef Chai, Horav Chaim, zl, m'Bagdad, explains this with an analogy. A poor man was making the rounds on a cold, winter day. The roads were slushy and mud was everywhere. His shoes were filthy, the mud seeping into his socks. He knocked on the door of the palatial home of a wealthy man. The servant allowed him to enter as he called for the owner of the house. The poor man entered a foyer whose floor was made of solid white marble. Indeed, everything in the room was white. The mud on his shoes and pants began to drip all over the floor. One can imagine the reaction of the homeowner when he came out to greet the poor man who had just soiled his beautiful, shiny floor. He screamed, berated the poor man, and instructed his servant to rid his home of this pest!

The poor man "agreed" to leave. Actually, he had little choice in the matter. He did, however, beg the homeowner to permit him to say a few words - to which the man acquiesced: "We say in Pesukei D'Zimra, Baruch meracheim al ha'aretz, Blessed is the One Who is merciful on the land; Baruch meracheim al ha'briyos, Blessed is the One Who is merciful on the creatures/people. This should motivate us to derive a lesson from the Almighty: as He is compassionate, so should we be compassionate. I see that you have adopted to follow Hashem's way with regard to showing compassion to the land/ground. You seem overly concerned about the welfare of your beautiful floors. Perhaps you should take your compassion to the next level and also care about people. You see before you a poor man whose clothes are tattered and soiled. All I ask is a few rubles to help satisfy my basic needs. Is that too much to ask of you?

"Rav Yosef Chaim explains the meaning of artzecha, your land. The Torah alludes to the individual who has 'made it.' He has an impressive home, fine furniture, beautifully sculptured lawns. All of this demands money to sustain it. The upkeep of a house and its grounds requires more than pocket change. The Torah addresses the individual who has been blessed with affluence, who finds the funds to take care of his personal physical accouterments, but lacks the compassion and thoughtfulness to help people in need.

"The Torah writes: 'If there shall be a destitute person among you,' someone just like you, an observant, virtuous person, whose good fortune was not as good as yours. You are able to sit in a palatial home while he must go door to door, begging for alms. He needs your help. He is not asking for much. So, why do you not reach out to him? At this moment, when the down trodden man stands before you, his hand stretched out for assistance, reflect upon all the blessings which you have received from Hashem. Think about the 'land,' the physical luxuries which you have - and how much effort and money you expend to see to it that they remain beautiful. Why not do the same for the poor fellow at your door? As you show compassion for the aretz/land, so should you show equal compassion on the briyos, people. They deserve at least as much."

How often is it that we lose sight of our 'beginnings?' Many of us do not always have the ability to help others. Indeed, most of us, for the most part, have been on the receiving end. Hashem has blessed us, and now we are able to be of service to others. We should step up to the plate. There is no motivator like past experience that one puts to good use. While the following story was used by Horav Shabsi Yudelevitz, zl, during the Chanukah season, its message is timeless:

It was during the early twentieth century, and the Jews in Yerushalayim were suffering through another year of hunger and deprivation. At a meeting attended by the leaders of the community, the leaders decided that they would send an emissary to the various Jewish communities in Europe. His function would be to appeal to the hearts and pocketbooks of European Jews. Perhaps they would help. They selected Reb Avraham to represent the community. Our "hero" spent his days and nights engrossed in Torah study. Fundraising, as well as travel, was beyond his experience. Yet, if the community asked him to volunteer, how could he refuse?

Boat travel was dangerous in those days. Foul weather, pirates and poorly constructed ships all added to the traveler's anxiety. Finally, after experiencing many terror-stricken days at sea, Reb Avraham reached Italy's shores. He sat there on the dock with his little bag that held his Tallis, Tefillin and barest essentials, and he began to weep uncontrollably. A few hours elapsed and suddenly, as if out of nowhere, an exquisitely appointed coach pulled by four white horses pulled up, and the man in the coach, who was obviously Jewish, offered Reb Avraham a ride.

The man listened to Reb Avraham's story and assured him that he would help both personally and through his many contacts in the business world. Shortly, they pulled up at the man's home or, rather, his palace. The edifice was huge and luxurious. The man encouraged Reb Avraham to take a tour of the house while dinner was being prepared. Reb Avraham could not believe his good fortune. He had never even dreamed of such a mansion. Every room he entered was stunning beyond belief - until he came to what appeared to be a study, or sanctuary. There were no books-- only a simple table in the middle of the room, an old chair. On top of the table was a broken jar that was soiled and greasy. If there ever was an anomaly, it was this jar in this room. It was not consistent with the setting in this elegant mansion.

Dinner was an event in its own right. Indeed, Reb Avraham had never seen so much sumptuous food in his life. It was a veritable feast. It was during dinner that Reb Avraham asked his host to explain the meaning behind the broken jar in what seemed a special room. "It is a long story, and, if you are willing to listen, I will share with you the basic story of my life," the host began. "I grew up in Spain in a wonderful home, to loving, observant parents. My grandfather, who was the Patriarch of the family, lived in Italy and was a successful merchant. As he aged, it became evident that he required assistance with managing his business. Being the eldest grandchild, I was nominated to join my grandfather in his business.

"I was young and energetic, and my grandfather allowed me to innovate. Before long, business doubled and tripled. We opened stores in other cities. At first, my grandfather studied Torah with me daily, but, as he became weaker, he left it up to me to study on my own - which, regrettably, I did not. As I became more and more immersed in the business, I became less and less involved in shul and in performing daily mitzvos. As we spread our wares, I was forced to travel throughout the country. Kosher was a problem at first - until I decided that kosher was an encumbrance which would not permit me to travel freely. Once my grandfather died, all attempts at concealing my diminishing Jewish observance came to an end.

I met a like-minded young woman; we married and began to raise a totally assimilated family. Life was good. Business was good. My family was well. For what more could a person ask? Then, one day, during the Chanukah season, I had occasion to be walking through the Jewish ghetto when I noticed a young boy sitting on the curb crying incessantly. I approached him and asked him what was wrong. He explained that his father had been saving his pennies every week, so that he would have enough money to purchase pure olive oil for Chanukah. When the required amount was reached, his father had entrusted him with the money and sent him off to the store to purchase a jar of oil. On the way home, the child's excitement got the better of him as he skipped freely through the street. A loose stone caused him to fall, during which he released the jar from his hand, causing it to break and spill the oil. When I heard the child's story, I was moved at how his father had saved every precious penny to purchase a jar of oil for a mitzvah. I gave the boy enough money to purchase more than one jar, but I insisted that he give me the broken jar as a memento. There was something about this broken jar that invoked feelings of sadness - for a past, my own, that had once shown so much promise.

"As I was leaving the ghetto, I noticed a sign that invited the community to a lecture at the local synagogue given by a noted Maggid. Something within me compelled me to attend. The room was packed, nary a seat to be found, as the entire town turned out to hear this prolific speaker. He ascended to the podium and began to cry. He commenced his speech with the heart-rending words of Yehudah, Ki eich e'eleh el avi v'ha'naar eino iti, 'For how can I go up to my father if the youth is not with me' (Bereishis 44:34). (This was a reference to Yehudah's promise to Yaakov Avinu to return with Binyamin.) The Maggid began, 'We will all have to face our Father in Heaven and He will ask us, "'What happened to your youth? What did you do with your youthful potential; your many opportunities for spiritual growth which you squandered?'"

"I did not need to hear any more. The Maggid was talking to me. I immediately went home, and, after a long and serious conversation with my wife, we both decided to change our lives, to return to religious observance. I kept the glass jar because, through it my spiritual metamorphosis was catalyzed. Every day I enter this room and remind myself from where I came and how it all began."

This is called remembering. One must never allow himself to forget how and when his life changed and who played a role in assisting his growth.

Va'ani Tefillah

V'ahavta es Hashem Elokecha b'chol levavcha, u'b'chol nafshecha u'b'chol me'odecha. You shall love Hashem, your G-d, with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your resources.

Chazal question the need for adding b'chol me'odecha, "all of your possessions," since it has already stated b'chol nafshecha, "with all of your soul." If one is enjoined to relinquish his life out of love for Hashem, surely it goes without saying that Hashem takes precedence over his worldly possessions. They reply that (sadly) there are people for whom their life and health take a backseat to their money. The pursuit of the holy dollar rises above all, but after all is said and done, the majority of people are sane; thus, they value their lives over their money. If so, why does money precede life in the sequence of the pasuk? Usually, the pasuk will work its way down, with the last subject being a greater novelty than its predecessor. Having to part with one's possessions is certainly not as great a sacrifice as giving up one's life. While some people may disagree, they are certainly not in the majority.

Horav Chaim Kanievsky, Shlita, explains that those individuals who value money over their lives are not people who do not care about their lives. They certainly care about their lives - just as well as everyone else. It is just that they go overboard concerning their wealth. Thus, the Torah is teaching us that even those individuals who are afflicted with an unusual lust for money - they, too, must give it up for Hashem.

IEtzmon & Abigail Rozen
& Children
in loving memory of their mother and bobbie
Mrs. Faiga Rozen

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

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