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Peninim on the Torah

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Rabbi A. Leib Scheinbaum
Hebrew Academy of Cleveland


You shall not deviate from the word that they will tell you, right or left. (17:1)

The command to listen to our sages, Torah leaders of each individual generation is a command that stands at the very foundation of our nation. As Rashi and Ramban explain, the enjoinment is to obey their decision, even if we are convinced that they are wrong, even if they seem to be telling us that right is left and left is right. We listen to them even contrary to our own perception, because they represent Hashem's edict. To listen to them is to listen to Hashem; to defy Chazal or the Torah leaders of each generation is tantamount to defying Hashem. The reason is simple, as Horav Yechezkel Abramsky, zl, explains. One whose vision is better because he is closer to a given place -- or on a higher plane and can consequently see further -- is believed over someone who does not have this advantage. Our Torah leaders are on a higher plane and can, therefore, develop a perspective that eludes us. The problem with some of us is that we refuse to recognize their ability to see what we cannot.

In addition, the perspective expounded by Chazal is one that is applicable to the spiritual arena, as well. We are to listen to them concerning areas of human endeavor and life. Hashem gives them the ability to see what the average human eye cannot perceive.

In a thesis on this subject, Horav Mordechai Gifter, zl, explains the individuality and distinction of the Torah scholar vis-?-vis the nation. First, we must recognize that Torah can exist among the Jewish people only to the extent that the nation is capable of evaluating and appreciating the Torah scholar - the talmid chacham whose personality symbolizes a Torah presence. Torah lives on in the Jew whose soul mirrors the image of what Torah demands of us. Our teachers must embody the Torah.

The Torah, unlimited in her depth and breadth, must have followers who will strive to draw from her life-sustaining waters. The talmid chacham seeks and discovers new horizons in Torah. There is no end for him as he delves deeper and deeper into the Torah's profundities. Indeed, for such a person the experience of Revelation occurs daily. Every moment of study is for him a continuation of the Giving of the Torah at Har Sinai.

"We dare not," says Rav Gifter, "make the error of thinking that this process may be treated in the same manner as if we were approaching a human/secular code of laws." As in every area of science or body of knowledge, one must first prepare himself to evaluate properly that science according to its unique perspective. A good doctor is one who approaches medicine with a profound inner desire and zeal to study and master it. He must appreciate his work.

Torah wisdom is no different in approach. The distinction lies, however, in attitude. If one wishes to master Torah wisdom and to become an embodiment of Torah, he must approach it according to the nature of Torah wisdom, as a revelation of Divine will. Torah must be studied in the same manner that it was given - with awe and fear - with profound inner trembling. Only then does his Torah study achieve legitimacy, and only then can he hope to begin to reap its profundity.

A talmid chacham is a student of Torah who directs his life and study according to the Torah path. He represents the continuation of the Giving of Torah to our People. He is more than a teacher; he symbolizes the phenomenon of the Torah being transmitted to the Jewish People from Hashem. He upholds the continual Revelation through which Hashem gave the Torah at Sinai. We now understand the fundamental principle of emunas chachamim, faith in Torah sages. Regardless of the judgment they render, even if it does not seem appropriate in our eyes, we dare not turn away from what they tell us. Their understanding of the Torah is wholly different than ours. They and the Torah are one. To defy a Torah leader is to repudiate the basic foundation of Torah.

Regrettably, an interesting phenomenon has occurred. With increased learning and greater Torah knowledge, people also manifest increased arrogance accompanied by a greater license to criticize. We have become distant from the concept of emunas chachamim of old, when one would never dare to utter a word against a gadol b'Yisrael, Torah leader. We have become so obsessed with gaining greater knowledge that we have lost sight of the source of this knowledge, Har Sinai. The titles -- sage, rabbi, Torah leader -- all have meaning when they affirm and represent the studying of Torah. One who is missing the fundamental ingredient of emunas chachamim misrepresents his position and carries a title that is bogus. What remains is a Torah that is devoid of Har Sinai. Once we take the Sinai out of the Torah, we unfortunately understand where the road leads.

The judges shall inquire thoroughly. (19:18)

The judges have a halachic and moral responsibility to be absolutely certain that they render their decision based upon the integrity of the witnesses. They must question them thoroughly until they are satisfied that they speak the truth. At times, a potential catastrophe has been averted through the sheer brilliance of the judge. The Austrian government appointed Horav Yosef Shorr, zl, to the position of municipal judge. While this might have been viewed as a great honor for a Jew, it also placed the rav in a difficult position. Whenever a Jew ascends to a distinguished position, he incurs the envy and wrath of the gentiles.

It happened once that five gentiles came to the court over which Rav Shorr was presiding and accused a Jew of setting fire to a house. This was a serious allegation, since in those days all the houses were nothing more than wooden tinderboxes built close to each other. A fire in one home could conceivably devastate a large portion of the town before it could be brought under control.

These five men swore that the Jew set the fire. The prosecutor had very little to do. The witnesses were all that was needed to put the Jew away for a long time. During the entire testimony, Rav Shorr sat impassively, staring out into space. His colleagues deliberated the case back and forth and came to a unanimous decision that the Jew was guilty beyond any doubt. They wondered why the presiding judge remained quiet during the entire interchange. Perhaps he was embarrassed by the actions of one of his co-religionists. They wrote up their decision and sentenced the accused to five years of hard labor.

They each affixed their name to the official document and brought it to Rav Shorr to sign. Rav Shorr said, "It is my opinion that the accused is innocent. Instead, I am holding his five accusers in contempt of court for perjuring themselves in order to place the onus of guilt on this man. Indeed, each of the witnesses should immediately be placed under arrest and be required to serve two years in prison for his malicious lies."

The other judges looked at each other in shock. What was Rav Shorr saying? It was clear from the witnesses' testimony that the Jew was to blame. Understanding their astonishment, Rav Shorr explained, "My friends, let me ask you. Five able-bodied men see a weak Jew set fire to a house. Will they not do something about it? Do you believe for one moment that one puny Jew would get away with setting a house ablaze with five strong gentiles just watching him? Would they permit him to light a fire that could quite possibly destroy the entire town? No! These men are certainly lying." The judges acted upon his advice. After inquiring, they discovered that the witnesses were "truly" false!

In another instance, it was the rav's sensitivity that saved a person's livelihood and probably his life. Horav Menachem zl, m'Kosov was once approached by a group of laymen complaining about the moral behavior of the town's shochet, ritual slaughterer. They enumerated a number of rumors about the man and demanded that he be dismissed from his position. There was, however, one person who disputed their claims, citing their envy and hatred towards the shochet as the motivating factor behind their "rumors."

To the people's surprise and chagrin, Rav Menachem rendered his decision in favor of the shochet, dismissing the witnesses' testimony as being nothing more than hearsay. When the witnesses' complained about the decision, Rav Menachem explained, "I have proof from the Torah to substantiate my decision. When Avraham was told by Hashem to sacrifice his son, he immediately listened. On the other hand, it was an angel that told Avraham to desist from sacrificing his son. Why did he listen to the angel? Why did he not wait for Hashem to issue an order to halt the proceedings?" The answer is that when it concerns killing a human being, one needs to hear Hashem's command. When it involves saving a person's life even an angel is sufficient. Similarly, the testimony to destroy a person's life must be free of any taint or doubt. On the other hand, to save a person, any testimony which speaks positive of the defendant is acceptable.

Our hands have not spilled this blood. (21:7)

The parsha of Eglah Arufah, axed heifer, ends with Bais Din declaring that the people had no culpability in regard to the death of the person that was discovered near their town. This means that they attested to the fact that he was accompanied and assisted as he left their community. The Torah implies the critical importance of seeing to the needs of those who visit our community, who live in our community, but are like visitors - since they are alone. All too often, something occurs to a member of our community who lives alone either by choice or by constraint, and we then ask ourselves: What could I have done to have prevented this? Veritably, most of us wake up after the fact, after someone has been hurt, humiliated, or become ill. We have justifiable excuses, or at least they "seem" justifiable. The fact that we have legitimized our indifference does not absolve us. We cannot say, "Our hands have not spilled this blood."

Why is this? Why should our excuses absolve us from responsibility? I recently read a simple story with a poignant -- but compelling -- message, which I feel addresses the integrity of our excuses. A scholarly, observant Jew, whom we will call Reuven, went out one evening to purchase medicine from the corner pharmacy. It was a nice evening, a bit cool, in an average neighborhood in Brooklyn. As he left the store, he noticed an elderly woman sitting on his neighbor's porch. Knowing fully well the members of his neighbor's family, he knew that this woman was a stranger. Moreover, she looked lost. He asked her if she needed anything. She replied that she was lost and wanted to go home.

He helped her to his car and drove to the address that she gave him. Regrettably, that address did not exist. He drove her around in an attempt to locate a familiar area. She claimed she lived near a synagogue. He drove her to the synagogue with the same results. No home, no address, no place to go.

Finally, Reuven drove the woman to the police station. They would know what to do. The sergeant listened to the all too familiar story and said, "You can go now, sir. We will take over. Sooner or later, someone will come looking for her." Reuven looked at the sergeant and said, "No. My mother is about her age. If she was lost or in trouble, I know I would want someone to be with her, not just dropped off."

So he remained with her. He asked her if she was hungry, and she said yes. He went out and bought her a meal from the nearest restaurant. Above all, he did not leave her. He kept her company for a few hours, until someone called the police station reporting a lost mother.

Why did he do this? What motivated him to stay and not do the "usual." He thought of his own mother. If this woman would have been his mother, he would have wanted someone to stay with her. So, he stayed. "What if it was my mother?" is a question that erodes the very foundation of our excuses, because surely we would not be indifferent if it was "ours." We must begin to view those in need, those who are alone and who do not even realize that they are in need, through the prism of self-examination. What if it would be me or mine? Would I act in the same manner?

The story is not yet over. A few days later, Reuven received a call from his mother. "You must hear what just happened to me," she said excitedly. She had accidentally locked her keys in her car. It was night, and she was not in one of the finer, safer neighborhoods of Brooklyn. Suddenly, as if from nowhere, two young men appeared. They were dressed in contemporary summer garb: shorts, tank tops, with a couple of tattoos for good measure. Reuven's mother was scared, to say the least. These men could be members of one of the prominent gangs that roamed the city. She was almost ready to hand over her purse, with the hope that they would then leave her alone, when one of them asked, "Can we help you, ma'am?" She nervously explained her predicament. They left and searched various gas stations for an attendant capable of entering a car without a key. They soon returned with a mechanic, who successfully opened the car door. She was very appreciative and attempted to pay the two men for their time. One of the men looked up at her and said, "We won't accept any money, lady. Just take care of yourself. If this would be my mother, I would want someone to help her out, too."

Perhaps this is something we should think about next time: What if this was my mother - or father - or son or daughter? We can always refer to this as preventive chesed. This attitude might circumvent a problem from occurring to one of "ours." Speaking about our responsibility to the wider community on a preventative basis, I am reminded of an unnerving incident that recently occurred. A Jewish youth, regrettably very far-removed from the observant community, tragically died as a result of an overindulgent, chemically-induced lifestyle. For some reason, his single mother decided that he should have an orthodox burial. This is not uncommon; people choose to live one way and die another. It was after the taharah, purification and washing ritual, that the members of the chevra kadisha, sacred society, were outside of the funeral home, and the distraught mother came over to the leader. She looked at him and asked, "Are you the rabbi who just took care of my son?" The leader of the group very quietly responded, "Yes." Suddenly, the mother turned to him with a wild look on her face, a look that reflected years of tension, anxiety and depression and asked, "Where were you when he was alive? I do not need you any more. He is dead!" With those few words, she turned and walked away.

She was wrong in blaming the local chevra kadishah for years of neglecting her son. The closest he ever came to religion was the local secular temple on Yom Kippur. Whose fault was it? Yet, this does not change or justify our responsibility towards reaching out to all Jews. Can we say, "Yadeinu lo shafcha es ha'dam ha'zeh?"

Questions & Answers

1) Where is the death penalty for an idol worshipper carried out?

2) Klal Yisrael as a nation had ____ mitzvos to carry out once it was established in Eretz Yisrael. What are they?

3) Moshe divided the Kohanim into ____ mishmaros, groups. David ha'Melech and Shmuel ha'Navi increased this number to ____ ____.

4) The fruit of the fourth year is called ___ ____. Where may it be eaten?


1) The death penalty is carried out in the city where the idol worship took place. This demonstrates that the idol is powerless to save its adherents (Sforno).

2) Three mitzvos: To request a king; to eliminate the descendants of Amalek, to build the Bais HaMikdash.

3) Eight. Twenty-four.

4) Neta Revai. The fruit must be taken to Yerushalayim to be eaten or redeemed for the money used to purchase food in Yerushalayim.

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Rabbi and Mrs. Sroy Levitansky
in memory of
Mr. Sol Rosenfeld


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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