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Peninim on the Torah

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Rabbi A. Leib Scheinbaum
Hebrew Academy of Cleveland


Judges and officers shall you appoint. (16:18)

Whichever translation we choose to apply - judge, leader, rav - the spiritual leader and arbiter of Jewish law has to fulfill certain criteria. Thorough knowledge of the law is only one; it's the beginning of the many attributes he must possess. The Yerushalmi in Meseches Sanhedrin 1:4 details some of the other virtues inherent in a dayan who sits on the Bais Din situated on Har HaBayis: chacham, wise; anav, humble; shafui, defers to those greater than he; ayin tova, good eye; nefesh shefalah, simple spirit; ruach nemuchah, lowly spirit - patient; lev tov, good heart; yetzer tov, always seeks to do good; chelek tov, seeks to have a chelek, portion, in every good activity.

It is understandable that a shofet Yisrael must be a chacham, wise and erudite, but all of these additional attributes do not seem essential for arbitration of Jewish law. Horav Avraham Kilav, Shlita, suggests that there are really only four criteria, as some are duplicates of the others. Shafui and anivus are two forms of humility. The anav is humble in regard to himself. He distances himself from unnecessary honor, always seeking to play himself down. The shayaf is one who simultaneously seeks to glorify others. He "bends," defering to those who are greater than he.

The ayin tovah is one who enjoys sharing with and giving to others, while the nefesh shfeilah indicates that he feels undeserving of what he possesses, understanding that it is all a gift. The ruach nemuchah, lowly spirit, coupled with the lev tov, defines a personality that is calm, lenient, persevering, who does not succumb to anger or scorn. The yetzer tov is the opposite of the yetzer hora; one who possesses a good inclination always seeks to do good. Together with the trait of the chelek tov, we see an individual who is caring, sharing and perpetually seeking to do good.

Chazal also add that a judge must be compassionate. If he is subject to a condition that might predispose him to having a somewhat cruel nature, he is disqualified from serving as a dayan.

What do we derive from all these criteria? Is the judge not supposed to render Torah law - not his own personal feelings? There is, however, a concept of shikul hadaas, the ability to think something through properly, correctly, without prejudice or preconceived notion. For this type of thought process, the dayan must be the paragon of ethical thought and behavior. While I am specifically referring to the dayan, the idea applies equally to anyone who stands at the spiritual helm of Klal Yisrael.

Rav Kilav comments that the Sanhedrin HaGedolah, which was the primary source from which Jewish law was promulgated throughout the nation, was comprised primarily of Kohanim and Leviim. He suggests this is due to the extreme nature of their personalities. The Kohanim are baalei chesed, purveyors of kindness, as they are the descendants of Aharon HaKohen who exemplified the concept of o'haiv shalom v'rodef shalom, he who loves peace and pursues peace. The Leviim, on the other hand, were stern, adhering to theMmiddas ha'Din, strict justice, to the letter of the law. These two extremes worked in consonance with one another, so that halachah would emanate from the Sanhedrin in a manner that reflected both justice and compassion, both integrity and sensitivity.

Judges and officers shall you appoint. (16:18)

Jewish leadership has to be strong - yet flexible. Compassion for, and sensitivity to all Jews are prerequisites for leadership. Strength of character and fear of no man are just as essential. The following narratives demonstrate these two inimical qualities which were the hallmarks of two Torah leaders.

Horav Yosef Chaim Sonnenfeld, zl, was a talmid chacham without peer. Yet, he had no problem performing the most menial task if it would help another Jew - regardless of his age or station in life. Rav Yosef Chaim was once late in returning home from Shacharis. This was an anomaly, since he was a very punctual person. Concerned, his wife sent their daughter in search of Rav Yosef Chaim. She found her father drawing water from a well and pouring it into pitchers, which two little boys - ages six and seven - carried to their nearby home. The boys emptied the water into a large earthenware barrel and quickly returned to the well for more water.

"Father!" his daughter exclaimed. "Have you added water-carrier to your list of positions?"

"No," responded Rav Yosef Chaim, "but as I was returning from shul, I noticed these two little boys bending over the well in an attempt to draw water. What they were doing was dangerous, and I told them so. They replied that they had no alternative, since there was no water at home, and they could not afford to hire a water-carrier. Their mother had recently given birth, and their father - a poor talmid chacham - was laid up in bed with a severe case of the flu. What could I have done? I immediately took off my Tallis and Tefillin and began to draw water for them. I will continue doing so until I fill their water barrel."

"But, father, what will people think when they see a talmid chacham of your stature engaged in such menial activity?" his daughter rejoined.

"I care much more about what they would say in Heaven if I were to sit and eat a leisurely breakfast while Jewish children are putting their lives in danger, so that they can bring a few drops of water to their sick parents," was Rav Yosef Chaim's reply.

This was the attitude of a gadol b'Yisrael. His overriding concern was for the welfare of two young boys. This concern overshadowed whatever position he held. The lives of Jewish children were involved. What could have held greater significance? It would serve our own leadership well to digest this story and take heed of Rav Yosef Chaim's reply. How many children do we overlook because of vested interests? How many mothers' complaints fall on deaf ears because we refuse to take a stand? How many children leave the path of Torah because it is below our dignity to help? There are leaders who lead, and there are leaders who are led. It all depends where one places his emphasis.

The second story is really excerpts of a letter written by the Klausenberger Rebbe, zl, to the Jews in free countries, following World War II, pleading with them to fulfill their duty towards their destitute brethren who had survived the Nazi inferno. The letter demonstrates the Rebbe's concern, compassion and strength of character. He saw his brethren perishing before his very eyes, and no one was doing anything about it. He was not subject to petty politics or protocol. Jews were dying, and action had to be taken. This was Torah leadership at its zenith.

"To our Jewish brethren:

"As a result of our sins, we, the Jews of Europe, have suffered years of persecution, in which the evil oppressors have risen against us to wipe out, kill and destroy all the Jews. During all those years, no one rose to share our suffering or to assist us. Those few who survived, did so only through the promise of the Torah, 'I will not cast them away, nor will I abhor them,' (Vayikra 26:44) and by the covenant that the Jewish people will not be destroyed. Yet, though we have been freed from slavery, we have not yet regained our freedom.

"Single family members, remnants going from place to place in search of their lost ones - fathers, mothers, wife, children and relatives - wandering and confused in the land of their enemies. Burning tears stream down our faces, we see our enemies already content and at peace, while we linger in pain and deprivation.

"All the doors have been shut. Even the gates to our Holy Land are closed to us. We are kept in camps in poverty and shame, without clothing or shoes. Some of our people are still wearing their accursed prison uniforms.

"Our supply of kosher food is limited. Thus, many of our fellow Jews are relegated to continue eating non-kosher food. While I am aware that a number of organizations have been founded under a variety of names, they have yet to accomplish anything. Indeed, I can honestly say that to date, nothing of value has reached the camps.

"Is it not your responsibility to care for the remnants of European Jews - especially the thousands who are deathly ill? Our military commander is doing whatever possible to ease our plight, but even his hands are tied.

"Are we to ignore our spiritual obligations? Literally a hundred men grab onto a single Tallis which one person received from a relative. Men wait for hours to don a single pair of Tefillin, so as to recite the first paragraph of Shema. Holy Jews who survived the crematoria crowd together and look from afar at a page of a Siddur. Immeasurable time is wasted from Torah study, because there are no seforim. Even during these holy days we have no one to supply us with kosher Torah scrolls, Tefillin, Mezuzos, Tzitzis, Siddurim, Machzorim, Chumashim, Mishnayos and etc…

"I have been silent too long. I thought that the feelings of mercy would be aroused in my fellow Jews. However, my pain does not permit me to remain silent any longer. I cry out, again and again, to the heads of every committee and organization: Where are you?

"Jewish nation! Have you examined your deeds before your Creator? Have you fulfilled your obligations to your brethren who are withering away from agony, living in the valley of tears, fearful of what the next day will bring? After all the years of suffering, do they deserve this?

"On behalf of all the holy martyrs who were murdered and burned alive, we scream! Please save us! Do not wait any longer! Please see to it that your assistance reaches those in need without interference or politics.

"I sign this with a broken heart with the hope that my pleas will be heard.

Rabbi Yekusiel Yehudah Halberstam"

I am sure that the pain was felt by many, but no one else had the fortitude and resolution to make a public demand. Not everyone wants to be Klal Yisrael's conscience. It takes true leadership.

You shall not accept someone's presence. (16:19)

Everyone must be treated fairly and equally. This idea does not apply exclusively to a court of law. A sickness prevails in a society in which we favor one person over another. In some cases, it is their pedigree; in others, it is their material wealth, or it is simply what we personally have to benefit from them. As a judge should not favor one litigant over another, so, too, should we not treat one Jew differently from another.

Horav David, zl, m'Lelov was once traveling with the Yehudi HaKadosh, zl, m'Peshischa to raise funds for charity. They came to the home of a wealthy Jew. After ushering them in, the man gave to Rav David, whom he recognized, but refused to give a thing to the Yehudi HaKadosh. In fact, he berated him, saying, "I can tell that you are a charlatan. You are not raising money for charity. You are really seeking funds for yourself. I will give you nothing!"

Hearing this gross insolence, Rav David returned his contribution, and they both left the house humiliated. It did not take long for the wealthy man to discover who Rav David's partner was. The man was miserable. He searched all over for the two tzaddikim. After awhile, he was able to locate them.

Approaching the Yehudi Hakadosh, he begged forgiveness. "I did not know who the rav was. I would never have acted so rudely. Please forgive my insolence," the man pleaded with the tzaddik.

The Yehudi's response should send a shudder up the spine of anyone who ever treated a meshulach, fundraiser, who came to our door, in a disrespectful manner.

"To forgive you for my kavod, honor, is no problem. I know you had no intentions of insulting me. What about the poor man, however, whom you thought was standing in front of you? I have no right to be mochel, forgive, his kavod. It is not in my power to forgive the hurt and humiliation sustained by another Jew.

"I have only one suggestion for you in order to attain penance for your actions. Whenever a Jew comes to your door for funds - give him gladly, and from each one should you ask mechilah, forgiveness, because of the hurtful words that left your mouth."

Perhaps the next time a poor man stands by our door and he does not measure up to our preconceived standard of qualifications, we should remember this story so that we will treat all Jews with equality.

You shall not move a boundary of your fellow. (19:14)

It is forbidden to increase one's property at the expense of one's neighbor. A simple law, which is really common sense. Yet, we find hasogas gvul to be a common malady, whether it is in business or in any other endeavor. For some reason, when one Jew is doing something and doing it well, soon he will have a competitor down the block, doing the same thing. The following story, although it does not condone the inappropriate actions of Jew versus Jew, does offer rationale for the offensive behavior.

Horav Yitzchak Elchanan Spektor, zl, the distinguished rav of Kovno, was in St. Petersburg to meet with the leaders of the Jewish community there. Two of the wealthiest Jews in Russia, Baron Hertz Ginzburg and Shmuel Poliakov, made a reception to honor the famous Kovnor Rav and invited members of the Russian parliament to attend. One of the most powerful cabinet members was very impressed with the Rav's brilliance and ability to converse in all areas of intellectual endeavor. One question particularly bothered the cabinet member about the Jewish people: Why is it that the Jewish people are always encroaching upon each other's business? A Jew opens a store, and a few days later someone else opens a store right down the block - or across the street. Indeed, this was a phenomenon found only among the Jews. No other nationality seemed to encounter this problem.

Rav Yitzchak Elchanan gave the following response: "We see among the animal world that members of each individual specie do not attack one another. The lion does not prey on another lion, the bear does not bother another bear, and so on and so forth in regard to all animals. This phenomenon stops when it comes to fish. The fish of the sea prey on each other. Survival of the fittest and the biggest is the rule in the sea. Why is this? The answer is simple. The animal world is vast. They can roam wherever they want in search of sustenance. Since they have no problem finding food among the other species, they have no reason to prey on their own. The fish, however, are restrained to a specific area - the sea. They cannot exist out of the water. Being remanded to one area, they are compelled to fight for their existence even at the expense of each other.

"We Jews are no different. We are not permitted to live in the large cities. We are subject to living in the cramped quarters allotted to us in the small dingy ghettos. Earning a livelihood is almost impossible, since we are constrained wherever we attempt to go. While encroaching on one another is inappropriate, it is regrettably forced upon us by the Russian Government."

The purpose of the above narrative is not to condone the reprehensible behavior of a minority. It is rather to emphasize that their offensive behavior is for the most part due to circumstances. Some can just manage the situation better than others.


Righteous, righteous, shall you pursue. (16:20)

Horav Simchah Bunim, zl, m'Peshischa explains that even the tzedek, righteousness, that you pursue, should be done through a medium of righteousness. The end does not justify the means.


That Hashem, your G-d, gives you. (16:20)

Horav Nosson, zl, m'Makov comments, "Choose a leader who will give you Hashem - who will bring Hashem into your hearts."


And you shall not accept a bribe. (16:19)

A poor widow once came to Horav Yehoshua, zl, m'Kutna with a complaint against a member of the community who had wronged her. She wept bitterly, pleading with the rav to summon him to a din Torah, court litigation. Rav Yehoshua would not sit on the din Torah to adjudicate the law. He attested that the Torah's admonition against accepting a bribe applied not only to money, but also to a widow's tears. He was so moved by her weeping that he felt that he could no longer be impartial.


You shall be wholehearted with Hashem, your G-d. (18:12)

The Alshich HaKadosh comments, when you are alone - only with Hashem, and no one sees you - even then, be sure to be tamim, wholehearted and pure.

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