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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 in all your cities. (16:18)

The commentators note the use of lecha, (for) you, in the singular form. This prompts them to assert that every individual has a moral obligation to monitor and discipline himself, to make sure that he is following the laws of the Torah in letter and spirit. Otzros HaTorah supplements this with another thought concerning oneself. One should judge himself in accordance with "himself," with reference to his own abilities, his talents, his background, his G-d-given gifts, which enable him to function as a contributing member of the Jewish community. Some activities which might be viewed as sinful for one person may not have such a negative connotation for another. For one person a specific act might be viewed as meritorious, while for another it might not produce such positive feedback. It all depends on "lecha," you - nobody else.

Horav Yeruchem Levovitz, zl, legendary Mashgiach of Mir, related that he attempted to emulate some of the behaviors of Horav Yitzchak Blazer, zl, a preeminent student of Horav Yisrael Salanter, zl. For instance, Rav Itzele, as he was referred to endearingly, would refrain from speaking during the entire month of Elul until after Yom Kippur. Rav Yeruchem attempted to follow suit, but just could not. He realized that he just was not on Rav Itzele's madreigah, spiritual plateau. In fact, one who talks himself into believing that he should act to the extreme concerning a certain issue is doing nothing more than listening to the counsel of the yetzer hora, the evil inclination. Whenever a person attempts to go beyond his spiritual level, he is following the advice of the yetzer hora.

The act of imitating others who are greater than oneself is the expression of an insecure person, someone who is uncomfortable in his own skin. Horav Chaim Zaitchik, zl, relates a mashal, analogy, he heard from Horav David Bliacher, zl, Rosh Yeshivah of Bais Yosef/ Novardok in Mezrich. A horse once took note of his master's satisfaction with the family dog. The master would play with the dog and go for walks with the dog. The horse watched enviously when the dog placed its paws all over its master, even licking his face and falling all over him. It made the horse jealous. It also wanted to have such a loving relationship with its master. The decision was simple: when his master took a nap in the afternoon, it would join him, just like the dog. No more sleeping on hay in the barn and standing in its own waste. The horse was going to act like a dog.

Well, the reader can imagine what happened. The horse entered the master's bedroom and, with all 2000 pounds, lay down on top of the master. Next came the licking, which almost suffocated what was left of the poor man. The clincher was when the horse attempted to place its hooves on the master's head. The badly bruised and barely alive man screamed out for help, and the horse was shot by one of the servants.

The lesson is obvious: one who seeks to emulate another person must be certain that he has everything in common with him. To imitate for the purpose of being a copy cat can do greater damage than one thinks. Every person should strive to be who Hashem wants him to be - and not someone else.

Horav Shraga Feivel Mendlowitz, zl, the architect of Torah in America, was himself a master mechanech. He understood that every student in Mesivta Torah Vodaath had his own unique capabilities which needed to be refined individually. One of his resolutions in chinuch was to spend more time giving thought to the life goals of every individual student, rather than merely assessing how he was progressing in the Mesivta. His underlying assumption in guiding students was that each Jew has a particular destiny in life and a specific contribution to make to Klal Yisrael. The key to success in Torah chinuch is to help each student to identify the special qualities which Hashem has imbued in him, to unlock them, and to find the task for which those abilities make him uniquely suited.

Rav Shraga Feivel would interpret this idea into the Mussaf Shemoneh Esrai of Rosh Hashanah, when we say: Ki zeichar kol ha'yetzur lefanecha ba, maaseh ish u'pekudaso, "For these the remembrance of everything fashioned comes before you; everyone's deed and mission." From this we derive that man is judged on two scales: first, according to his mitzvah performance, his maaseh ish; and second, whether he has fulfilled the task for which he has been uniquely created, his pekudah. Rav Shraga Feivel would add that it was by no means certain that the first judgment is more severe than the second. Even if our slate of aveiros, sins, is relatively clean, we cannot ignore the fact that we are being judged on a second slate, in which we can expect strict judgment if we have not fulfilled our purpose in life. If one has not fulfilled the specific task for which he has been created, he has missed his raison d'?tre.

Rav Shraga Feivel would force each student to take a hard look at himself as an individual in order to figure out what he would do best with his life. Approaching one of the older students in the Mesivta, he asked him about his plans for the future. The young man was acutely aware of the pivotal role that chinuch played in Rav Shraga Feivel's life. Therefore, he answered, "Chinuch."

To the young man's chagrin, Rav Shraga Feivel was unimpressed with his response. He immediately told the student that one does not just decide on chinuch as a vocation. It is a lifelong mission for which one must prepare himself. It is a demanding career in which excellence does not just happen. One must work at it. Rav Shraga Feivel was intimating to the young man that he might not make the greatest educator unless his heart was really into it. The exchange was still not over. He asked the student whether he was good with his hands. Assured that he was, the astute Menahel said, "You are a yarei Shomayim, a G-d-fearing man and you are good with your hands. Why not become a mohel, circumciser, or a shochet, ritual slaughterer? There is a shortage of qualified people in these fields."

Rav Shraga Feivel understood his students, their individual talents and unique abilities. He harnessed the widest array of talent on behalf of Torah education, putting together a group of highly motivated and talented young men to form the nucleus of the original Torah U'Mesorah, the organization that steered and guided the development of Torah education in America post World War II. He showed each individual how he contributed his own vital quality to the larger whole in order to create a well-tuned organization, such that the unique strength of each individual was being utilized to its maximum.

You shall come to the Kohanim, to the Leviim, and to the Judge who will be in those days. (17:9)

While this pasuk is addressing the adjudication of cases involving capital punishment and other issues of primacy to the Jewish community, we also derive from here the importance of listening to the Daas Torah, wisdom derived from the Torah, as expounded by the Torah leaders of each respective generation. This applies to halachah, as well as advice in accordance with the Torah's view. Jews must first turn to their rebbe, rabbi, rav, rosh yeshivah - anyone who represents true Torah perspective and lives according to the standards of what he represents. A Torah personality is not only to provide a brachah, blessing. He is there for advice and guidance, since his counsel is based upon years of Torah study and ethics. I take the liberty of citing a psak, decision, from Horav Chaim Kanievsky, Shlita, which many have heard, but perhaps not quite as many have understood. I hope that I will do justice to the explanation.

Horav Yitzchak Zilberstein, Shlita, relates that he was asked by the chief neonatologist at Shaarei Tzedek Hospital concerning the use of ultrasound for a pregnant woman in determining the possibility of any defects or illnesses in the unborn fetus. Rav Zilberstein presented the question to his brother-in-law, Rav Kanievsky, who rendered the following decision. For a woman who has no reason to believe that anything is wrong with her fetus - she is having a perfectly normal pregnancy - it is better that she not take any tests. Despite the safety of the test and its possible therapeutic effect in the event that they discover a problem, it should not be performed - unless a specific health issue has raised the doctor's concern. As long as no specific concern exists, prayer has greater efficacy, since it supplicates Hashem to perform a covert miracle. In contrast, once the ultrasound has been performed and a critical problem detected, then overt Heavenly intervention is required. Under such circumstances, the supplicant needs greater merit in order for his prayers to achieve efficacy.

Rav Zilberstein explains the above statement based upon Rashi's commentary to the episodes with Elisha Hanavi and the two women. In the first incident, the woman's husband had died leaving her with two sons who were about to be seized by creditors for the widow's debt. Elisha instructed the woman to gather as many empty containers as she could obtain. She was then to shut the door and the miracle would occur: all of the pots would fill with enough money to repay her creditors. Rashi explains that the door was to be closed because "it is more honorable for the miracle that it occur in private." Likewise, we find that when the Shunamis' son died, Elisha dispatched Geichazi with instructions not to speak about it with anyone on the road. Rashi explains that Elisha feared that, in the course of conversation, Geichazi might divulge that a miracle was about to take place. Once again, this is not kavod, honor, for the miracle.

In Shulchan Aruch, Yoreh Deah 35:10, it is stated: "One who has a sick person in his home should go to the chacham ha'ir, wise man/rav/tzaddik, of the city, and ask him to entreat Hashem for mercy on behalf of the ill person." The Klausenberger Rebbe, zl, added that this "prescription" is intended to be used before one goes to the doctor for a diagnosis. Once the physician has stated his verdict, it becomes increasingly difficult for the chacham to rescind it. It is so much easier and more efficacious to pray before the medical community has issued its diagnosis. In this way, the miracle that must take place can do so with much less fanfare.

You shall not deviate from the word that they will tell you, right or left. (17:11)

The decision which the Torah leaders have rendered must be accepted and adhered to, regardless whether it defies our sense of logic. All too often, our perspective is mired by political expediency, vested interests, or just plain distorted objectives. Our Torah leaders view issues through a different spectrum, one whose clarity is refined by their total relationship with the Torah. Rashi explains "right and left" as, even if they tell you about right that it is left or vice versa; i.e., if what they say does not make any sense, to the point that they seem to mix up the two extremes of right and left. Ramban explains it a bit differently: even if you are as certain that they are wrong, as you are sure that right is right and left is left. In any event, one must maintain a strict sense of emunas chachamim, trust and faith in our Torah leaders.

This is a powerful exhortation. We are clear beyond any shadow of a doubt that what we are hearing from Daas Torah, the wisdom of Torah as expounded by our Torah leadership, is incompatible with what our mind deems sensible. Yet, we are enjoined to listen to what Daas Torah says. This is the definition of obedience: to listen even if it clearly does not seem rational. When we think about it, the Torah's use of the extremes "right" and "left" seems questionable. Why not use the terms "night" and "day" or "Heaven" and "earth"?

Otzros Ha'Torah explains that herein lies the underlying concept of emunas chachamim. When one faces the east, his right hand coincides with the south and his left is opposite the north. In contrast, when one faces the west, his right hand is on the north side and his left hand coincides with the south. There is no contradiction between the "hands". It all depends upon which direction one is facing. We must understand that what we accept is "right" and "left" is based upon our perspective. The Torah scholar views this same issue from a perspective that is not tainted by vested interests and other personal objectives. Thus, "his right" is quite different from "our right".

The Alter, zl, m'Kelm, felt that the entire Purim miracle was the result of the merit that Esther HaMalkah accrued by following Mordechai's instructions not to reveal "her nation or her birthplace." Obviously, people had begun to talk. They had no idea where this woman came from. For all they knew, she had been a homeless vagabond with questionable pedigree, who just happened to be in Shushan at an opportune time. Such talk was not helpful to fulfilling Esther's objective, but her uncle Mordechai, who just happened to be the gadol ha'dor, preeminent leader of the generation, told her to keep quiet. Who was she to disagree? In the end, Mordechai was proven right. Had she revealed her background, Haman would have been careful not to reveal his diabolical plans in her presence and, quite possibly, the Purim story would have had a different ending.

Horav Eliyahu Eliezer Dessler, zl, was a firm believer and exponent of the concept of emunas chachamim. He did not just believe in the concept, he literally felt it. In the late summer of 1915, Rav Dessler's uncle, Horav Chaim Ozer Grodzenski, zl, came to their home in Homel to escape persecution from the Russian government. Already the presence in Homel of one of the generation's preeminent Torah leaders, Rav Chaim Ozer, attracted many other Torah leaders to Rav Dessler's home. The young man of 23 was privy to many a Torah meeting in which decisions were addressed concerning the future of the Jewish People, both physically and spiritually. In one of his letters, Rav Dessler records from memory a statement made by Rav Chaim Ozer, in response to the argument by a certain Rabbi that the yeshivos were doomed by the apparent lack of any natural means of support. Rav Chaim Ozer replied, "Do not worry. The Torah always exists on miracles; it will never have a natural basis."

It was this period of about a year in which Rav Dessler saw Torah come alive in the guise of the various Roshei Yeshivah and rabbanim who gathered together with Rav Chaim Ozer. Thus, in his later years, when he became the venerable Mashgiach who was transforming the yeshivah man's perspective with his powerful ethical discourses, he would often speak of the necessity for faith in the judgment of the generation's Torah leaders. He himself would frequently seek the advice of Rav Chaim Ozer, Horav Elchanan Wasserman, zl, and in later years, the Chazon Ish.

Following the Holocaust, Rav Dessler penned a letter to a young student concerning the impact of Rav Chaim Ozer and the other gedolim on him. Apparently, the student had raised the question that had been on the mind of many others: Did the gedolim err in not encouraging European Jewry to emigrate to Eretz Yisrael?

In responding, Rav Dessler came as close to anger as he ever did. He wrote, "Were it not that I understand that you must have picked up these ideas from other people who call themselves bnei Torah, I would not have replied at all." This was totally uncharacteristic of a man who was the paradigm of ethics and self-control. He continued with a description of what it was like to experience being in the presence of such gedolim as they deliberated matters concerning all of Klal Yisrael.

"I had the merit of knowing several of these great men personally… men such as the Chafetz Chaim, zl, Rav Chaim Brisker, zl, and Rav Chaim Ozer, zl, and I have observed them during meetings on matters concerning Klal Yisrael, and I can tell you with all sincerity that the amazing ability of their minds could be perceived even by puny intellects such as ours… though there was not the slightest chance than anyone like you or me could follow completely the crystal-like clarity of their understanding.

"Furthermore, whoever was present at those meetings would have seen with their own eyes the extent and depth of the sense of responsibility with which they approached these matters. It was written all over their faces, as they deliberated the solution for Klal Yisrael's problem - all for the sake of Heaven. One who has not seen this personally has never observed feelings of responsibility in his life. Whoever had the merit to stand before them on such an occasion could not doubt that he had seen the Shechinah resting on the work of their hands and that the Holy Spirit was present during these deliberations."

Rav Dessler leaves us with a characterization that a lack of self-effacement towards our rabbinic leadership, is the root of all sin and the beginning of all destruction. On the other hand, faith in the sages is the root of all spiritual progress.

And he shall write for himself two copies of this Torah in a book… It shall be with him, and he shall read from it all the days of his life. (17:18, 19)

The Torah instructs the Melech Yisrael, Jewish king, to "read from it (the Torah) all the days of his life." This seems a bit demanding. It is not as if the king has nothing else to do all day but to learn Torah. That would be wonderful, but who would address the needs of the kingdom? Being king does carry "some" responsibility. The Chasam Sofer teaches us a compelling lesson. The Torah contains within it everything a person needs to know to respond to any question which arises in life. In the preface to his commentary to the Torah, the Ramban writes that every wisdom in the world is hidden within and alluded to in the Torah. In addition, writes the Chasam Sofer, every individual should be able to derive the answer to his life's questions in the Torah.

This is the meaning of, "He shall write for himself two copies of this Torah. It should always be with him." The Torah demands a level of erudition on the part of the Jewish king that he should see and discern the events of his life in the Torah. In this way, he will appreciate the unparalleled value of the Torah, and it will elevate his perception and fear of Heaven, so that he will be an outstanding king.

I think we might take this idea further. During one's lifetime, an individual writes his own book of life. This is more than a mere autobiography. His actions, both positive and negative, comprise his legacy for the future and his testament which accompanies him to his eternal reward. One cannot ignore his own autobiography. Most important, his life story should mirror the Torah, to the point that his actions complement the Torah's instructions for Jewish life. If one receives his direction from the Torah, it is "with him all the days of his life," such that he can be assured that his book of life will receive a prominent position in the Heavenly library.

It shall be with him, and he shall read from it all the days of his life, so that he will learn to fear Hashem. (17:19)

The Torah commands the Melech Yisrael, Jewish king, to write two Sifrei Torah, one to keep in his private possession, and one to keep with him at all times. In this way, he will become G-d-fearing and totally observant of Hashem's laws. Ibn Ezra writes that the purpose of this Torah is so that the king himself becomes spiritually complete. Interestingly, the Torah does not instruct the king to increase yiraas Shomayim, fear of Heaven, among the people. He is not told to reach out and elevate the people's level of mitzvah observance. All he is told to do is to work on himself. This teaches us that before one can reach out to others, he must first work on himself and, only afterward, will it have a ripple effect on those around him and the rest of Klal Yisrael.

That is how one reaches out to others. He first reaches out to himself, perfecting his own character, correcting his own deficiencies, addressing his own issues, before he is ready to work with others. Horav Shmuel Berenbaum, zl, related that when the Chafetz Chaim, zl, was a young man, his goal was to change the world, to return everybody to Hashem in order to live a life of Torah. After awhile, he saw that he could not do that, so he decided to focus on his own country. When that did not prove successful either, he decided to center on his own town. This endeavor also did not meet with success. It was then that he realized that he would have to proceed - the other way around - with himself as the focal point. Once he had perfected himself and became the saintly Chafetz Chaim, his influence spread far and wide, with his community, city, country and, eventually, the world, falling under the inspiration and influence of the saintly Chafetz Chaim from the small town of Radin.

Indeed, it was the Chafetz Chaim who distinguished between the physical geographical map of the world and the spiritual projection of the world. On the secular topographical chart, the larger the city, the larger is the "dot" which delineates it. A small town is represented with a small, thin, gray dot, while the larger cities are marked by a larger and darker dot. Not so the spiritual map, which delineates a community in accordance with its spiritual impact. Thus, the small town of Radin, whose dot on the secular map was probably inconsequential or even non-existent, has a large, dark dot on the spiritual map. The Chafetz Chaim and his yeshivah changed the world's impression of this town.

Outreach works with a mushroom effect, such that the individual first sees to it that he himself has no issues, that his own life is in order, his character is ethically correct, and his relationship with the Almighty is sound and filled with awe and trepidation. One who fears the consequences of his errors is careful not to err. In contrast, one whose attitude is spontaneous, impulsive, will be guided by his heart, often ignoring what is appropriate, out of a desire to reach out, out of a sense of love for fellow Jews. One who reaches out is mashpiah, which means influences others. Horav Yaakov Kamenetzky, zl, saw a deeper meaning in this world, which he felt was related to shipuah, which means slanted. Parents and rebbeim - anyone who reaches out to others - do so through shipuah: it slides down from him to his child/student. Thus, in order for it to slide properly, for the influence to be correct, the one from whom it is being propelled must himself have a "smooth slant."

Va'ani Tefillah

Ha'rofeh lishevurei lev u'mechabesh l'atzvosam. He who heals the broken hearted, and He dresses their wounds.

Hashem will heal the Jews who have survived the trauma of the long galus and will dress their wounds by removing all of the post-traumatic effects. Siach Yitzchak adds that not only will the atzvus, traumatic wounds, be healed, but they will actually be transformed into good. Hashem's way in giving salvation to His People is to turn what has heretofore seemed "bad" into "good." David Hamelech says in Tehillim 36:12, "You have changed for me my lament into dancing." Indeed, if we were to peruse the various tribulations experienced by Yosef HaTzadik, we will notice that every "bad" experience was actually the precursor for achieving his incredible salvation and elevation to the position which allowed him to help his family. This has been the case throughout our tumultuous history. We must be patient and never lose hope. Hashem is planting the seeds from which will sprout our salvation. It may be compared to one who owns a large diamond. One day he drops it, causing it to develop a bad chip. Understandably, he is quite depressed. He goes to a diamond cutter who says that he could cut the diamond into a number of smaller, more brilliant stones, which would raise the value of the stone considerably. Furthermore, he would commence his cutting from the chip, and from there the various stones would emerge. Likewise, Hashem uses the actual decrees against us to generate our salvation.

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