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Peninim on the Torah

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Rabbi A. Leib Scheinbaum
Hebrew Academy of Cleveland


You shall surely set over yourself a king whom Hashem, your G-d, shall choose… so that his heart does not become haughty over his brethren and not turn from the commandment right or left so that he will prolong years over his kingdom. (17:15, 20)

The institution of Malchus Yisrael, Jewish monarchy, is one that bespeaks contrast, primarily in the area of esteem. In the second perek of Hilchos Melachim, the Rambam describes the halachic implications of a melech, Jewish king, his position of importance and the obligation of the people towards him: "Great honor is accorded to the king… His fear and trepidation should be in the hearts of each Jew… We stand before him and bow down to the ground before him… This applies to the Navi, prophet, who must stand and bow before the king… Indeed, everyone is obliged to honor the king… The king, however, is commanded to be humble and feel himself null and void. He is not permitted to act arrogantly in any way… In fact, the king should consider himself an eved, slave, to the people… Is there anyone greater than Moshe Rabbeinu, who, although serving as Klal Yisrael's preeminent leader, turned to the people and declared, V'anachnu mah? 'What are we?' He must suffer with them and tolerate their recalcitrant nature, the troubles they present, their bickering and anger. The Jewish leader is much like a shepherd."

Horav Shmuel Truvitz, zl, derives from here the two aspects of the esteem of a king: the people in their relationship to the king; the king in his personal self-esteem. On the one hand, the people must treat the king with the respect that is suited for royalty. They must fear him, as he should inspire fear in the hearts of the populace. The king may not dismiss his kavod, honor. Regardless of the circumstances, the king must receive the respect of the people. On the other hand, the king must achieve the zenith of humility, viewing himself as a servant of the people. These contrasting emotions are difficult to attain simultaneously. One can be expected to be humble if he has very little to shout about from the rooftops. The man who has "been there," however, who has achieved a position of unparalleled distinction; for him to act with consummate humility is a test of strength of character.

Horav Truvitz explains that the position of malchus in halachah and Jewish life is quite different from the exposure we have to royalty and monarchy in today's cultured society, flavored by decadence, strife and pompousness. According to a belief held throughout the ages, contemporary society expects the king to have control. He is in control of the government, issuing edicts to please his whim and fancy. He is the Man! Whether he is called King, Queen, President or Prime Minister, he is self-serving; it is all about him. He, of course, does not present it this way, but, generally, his actions and innuendo reflect his mind.

The Torah teaches us that the quality of malchus applies even to an individual who rules over no one other than himself: no large country; no society; no congress; just himself. The nazir receives the appellation of melech, king: Nezer Elokav al rosho, "The crown of his G-d is on his head" (Bamidbar 6:7). Ibn Ezra explains this phenomenon: "All men are slaves to their desires. A king is the one who wears the crown and who is in control of his subjects. One who dominates over his desires, who is free of their impact, is truly a king." Anyone who has achieved mastery over his will, whose mind governs his heart, is deserving of the crown of royalty. He is a monarch.

Rav Truvitz quotes Horav Chaim Shmuelevitz, zl, who derives the meaning of true monarchy from Chazal's statement in Meseches Nedarim 24a. In order for a neder, vow, to be valid, it is essential that piv v'libo shavim, "his mouth and heart be in accordance;" intention and verbalization must coincide. Therefore, such nedarim that are nidrei zeruzin, purely for motivational purposes - whereby the individual who makes the neder does not really mean what he says - are invalid. In the case of one who says, "I place a neder on myself that I will not benefit from you if you do not accept from me," one Tanna feels that this is not a motivational neder, since the vower can say, "I am not a dog that I should benefit from you without you benefitting from me!" In another case, the vower says, "I prohibit whatever benefit you might derive from me, if you do not give my son a cask of wine." Once again, this Tanna feels that this neder is real, since the vower can say to his friend, "I am not a king that I should bestow benefits upon you without you bestowing benefits upon me."

Rav Chaim derives from here the distinction between a dog and a king. A dog takes from all and gives nothing in return. A king gives and gives, but takes nothing for himself. A monarch is in control. He needs nothing. He is not subservient to anyone or anything. One who is living off others, giving nothing in return, is a dog.

Horav Meir Chodosh, zl, proves a similar exegesis from the beginning of Sefer Bereishis: "And G-d made the two great luminaries, the greater luminary to dominate (l'memsheles) the day, and the lesser luminaries." The sun and the moon are referred to as moshlim, rulers, even though they take nothing for themselves. This monarchy is comprised solely of giving and sharing their illumination with the world. We see once again that a king is one who gives - not one who takes.

From the above, we see that monarchy through the spectacles of the Torah is quite different than what we might think and, clearly, from what we see in contemporary society. The Jewish king is selected from among his brethren because of his outstanding qualities. It has nothing to do with money or connections. The Jewish monarch must write two Sifrei Torah: one which is kept in his private vault; and one which he keeps with him at all times. This is how he lives - never away from the Torah. The individual who wears the Jewish crown on his head controls his heart. He dominates over himself. Thus, he is qualified to rule over others. He views monarchy as a responsibility, both to Hashem and to the people. He is their servant; thus, he is completely beholden to them. Never does arrogance creep into his mind. Indeed, the more honor he receives from the people, the greater he realizes his debt of gratitude is to Hashem. The king is acutely aware Who really made him king and to Whom he is really beholden.

Who is the man who has built a new house and has not inaugurated it?... And who is the man who has betrothed a woman and not married her? Let him go and return to his house. (20:5, 7)

The Sefer HaChinuch writes that these individuals are to return home - not as a dispensation - but as a demand. They are disqualified from battle, because they are considered weak. Their minds will wander to what or to whom they left behind at home and, as a result, they will affect the emotions of the other soldiers, who will become disheartened. A soldier must remain focused on his mission, on the battle, on the enemy. Horav Arye Leib Bakst, zl, explains that a good soldier is one who views himself as part of the larger whole. He will, thus, sacrifice his life, if necessary, for the good of the tzibur, greater group, in which he finds himself. One who is involved with himself, his mind wandering to his personal issues, is a tarnished soldier. His effectiveness is greatly diminished. Such a soldier is concerned with his own personal needs - not the needs of the regiment. Furthermore, his selfishness will spread and soon there will be much discontent festering within the army. It does not take more than one malcontent, one coward, to take down an entire regiment. Thus, these men are asked to leave and return home where they will, at least, be effective on the home front.

The Rosh Yeshivah cites the Mishnah in Meseches Rosh Hashanah 16a: "At four junctures during the year the world is judged: on Pesach for the grain; on Shavuos for the fruit of the tree; on Rosh Hashanah all who enter the world pass before Him like bnei maron; on Succos they are judged for water." The Mishnah changes its syntax pertaining to Rosh Hashanah. Regarding the other three festivals, the Mishnah informs us for what they are being judged. Concerning Rosh Hashanah, however, it apprises the reader of the method of judgment. It should have said: "On Rosh Hashanah, all men are judged."

Rav Bakst posits that the answer lies in the Talmud's, (ibid. 18a) interpretation of bnei maron. In one explanation the term maron is related to marus, which means authority. Thus, ki'bnei maron means like the soldiers of the house of Dovid HaMelech, who were counted one at a time as they walked out to war in single file. When a Jew is judged on Rosh Hashanah, he is evaluated as a soldier. A person is not judged individually as a single unit, but as part of a whole congregation. This is one of Hashem's kindnesses, because, on his own, man stands little chance of achieving a favorable ruling. It is only as part of a larger group that he has hope. There is one issue: How much has he contributed to the tzibur, community? A soldier is judged commensurate with his devotion to his unit, his dedication to helping the collective war effort. On the other hand, those who live for themselves, to satisfy their own personal desires, will not be granted a sympathetic judgment.

The stirring prayer, U'Nesaneh Tokef, which we recite during the Mussaf service of the Yamim Noraim, High Holy Days, describes the scene in Heaven as Hashem sits in judgment: "The angels of Heaven are dismayed and are seized with fear and trembling, as they proclaim, 'Behold the Day of Judgment! The Hosts of Heaven are to be arraigned in judgment, for in Your eyes even they are not free from guilt. And all who enter the world pass before You like bnei maron.'" Rav Bakst explains that the Heavenly Hosts tremble because they are alone - each one distinct from the other. There is no tzibur in Heaven; the angels do not have the concept of a k'hal, congregation. Thus, they are filled with fear: How can they succeed in judgment on their own? Klal Yisrael, however, has the advantage of coming before Him as bnei maron, as soldiers who are part of a large unit. While they pass in single file, they are all part of one totality. How important it is for each one of us to attach himself to the greater whole of Klal Yisrael, by praying not only for himself, but for all members of his large family who are in need of blessing.

A soldier in Hashem's army must maintain focus on his mission, which is Torah study. Digressing from one's concentration is to lose focus on the mission. Achieving the kesser Torah, crown of Torah, should be the goal of a Jew. Every Jew is born with a potential for success. Achieving one's full potential defines his success. Horav Aharon Kotler, zl, would often comment on the Mishnah in Pirkei Avos which uses a kesser, crown, as the metaphor for portraying success in Torah. He explains that a crown is unique in that its value and significance transcend the quality and material equivalent of the precious jewels which comprise its physical structure. Its worth is not determined by how many diamonds it has or by the weight of the gold from which it is formed. The value of a crown lies in the majesty it symbolizes, the perfection it represents.

Thus, a crown which has the slightest imperfection, the most miniscule flaw, loses its value as a crown. It might still be a valuable piece of jewelry, but it is no longer a crown. Its transcendent worth as a symbol of perfection is devalued by its flaw. A king will not wear a defective crown.

The crown of Torah should be the aspiration of every Jew. To wear that faultless crown means to achieve it by studying Torah to the fullest of one's potential. Anything less will only engender a defective crown, one whose value has been considerably diminished.

How does one reach this goal? How does one achieve the distinction of wearing the perfect crown of Torah? Focus, concentration, diligence are words that come to mind. In Hilchos Talmud Torah 3:13, the Rambam outlines it very succinctly: "Anyone who wishes to earn the crown of Torah should take care not to waste even one night on only sleeping, eating, talking and the like, but he should spend his night studying Torah and the words of wisdom." Na'eh doresh na'eh mekayeim, Rav Aharon was the embodiment of such a person - every moment of his life was devoted to his precious Torah.

In his biography of the Rosh Yeshivah of Telshe, Horav Mordechai Gifter, zl, Rabbi Yechiel Spero poignantly describes Rav Gifter's intensity of Torah study. The Rosh Yeshivah lived and breathed Torah. It coursed through his veins. It was his greatest joy, his greatest love. He was a firm believer that the only thing that could rebuild the "world that was" - a world that was lost - was intense, undiluted Torah study.

In 1953, a young man entered the portals of Telshe, America. It was obvious from his attitude that learning was not his top priority. He was far from serious - at first. The transformation came about one day - out of the blue. He happened to be in the bais ha'medrash when it was just about empty, and he heard a remarkable sound. The sound emanated from Rav Gifter who was bent over his Gemorah, learning aloud with great concentration. The sound compelled him to listen, and that he did. He was mesmerized by the intensity, the hidden joy that seemed to resonate with the sound. He could not leave his place as he continued to sit there for hours, listening to the sound that was emitting from the Rosh Yeshivah. The image was gripping and memorable. Indeed, it never left him. Seder began, and bochurim entered the cavernous study hall, each bochur finding his designated seat. Never did Rav Gifter take his eyes off the Gemorah. Five hours went by, and the young man sat there transfixed by the sight of the Rosh Yeshivah learning. He knew that he had just observed greatness. He had witnessed Torah being transmitted from Sinai. This experience never left him; it changed his outlook on Torah learning. Almost sixty years later, he attributes his personal success in Torah to the revelatory experience of that day.

This is what it means to be focused on Torah study. One is not aware of anything taking place in his proximity. He is glued to the Torah. That is all that matters, because nothing else really exists.

There shall not be for the Kohanim, the Leviim - the entire tribe of Levi - a portion and an inheritance with Yisrael; the fire offerings of Hashem and His inheritance shall they eat… Hashem is his inheritance. (18:12)

The Kohanim and Leviim did not receive a portion of Eretz Yisrael, as did the rest of the nation. As the nation's spiritual leaders they must devote themselves primarily to spiritual pursuits. Their livelihood is provided through the medium of gifts from the people. Shevet Levi neither shared in Eretz Yisrael, nor were the spoils of war theirs for the taking. In Hilchos Shemittah v'Yovel 13:12, the Rambam writes, "Why did Shevet Levi not warrant a portion of Eretz Yisrael? It is because he is separated to serve Hashem and to teach His righteous ways…Therefore they were removed from the ways of the world. They do not serve in battle as other Jews. They are Hashem's army."

Shevet Levi is different. As Hashem's private legion, they do not participate in the Jewish nation's wars. Horav Moshe Tzvi Nariyah, zl, wonders how the Jews historically reacted to this dichotomy. Were there those who complained? Did they murmur under their breath and express their displeasure with this law? He posits that most Jews accepted the decision. It was not a question of whose blood ran thicker. They understood that a nation is divided into divisions, sort of compartmentalized. As such, some men are soldiers, devoted to battle and the protection of the community, and others support the soldiers through their devotional prayer and Torah study.

Moreover, Shevet Levi understood its venerable calling. They viewed their function not only as a privilege, but also as a responsibility, an obligation to serve the nation through the medium of the spiritual realm. During times of peace, when the members of the nation go about their daily endeavor as an agrarian society, the Levi does not participate. He has no portion in the land. He is drafted for life in Hashem's army. There is no going AWOL. Furthermore, the individual Jew makes an accounting of his personal world, where he is holding in life; what he has achieved; what he is bequeathing his family. The Levi has no personal life. His life is different. His focus is different. He is removed from the ways of the world.

Shevet Levi belongs to Hashem and is His gift to the Jewish People. Soldiers retire; Leviim do not. As Rambam says, "They are Hashem's legion." From cradle to grave, the Levi's obligation is to serve his G-d and, in turn, his people. This privilege does not belong only to the pedigreed Levi. As the Rambam writes: "Not only Shevet Levi alone, but each and every Jew whose spirit dedicates him to the service of Hashem is sanctified Kodesh Kedoshim, Holy of Holies, and Hashem will be his portion forever and ever."

While the Roshei Yeshivah certainly understood the need for the modern-day Shevet Levi of yeshivah students, both unmarried and married, who are conscripted in Hashem's legion, do we understand their significance? Do we understand the need for spiritual protection? I am reminded of a fascinating Chazal, which is relevant to this theme. Shevet Levi was not enslaved in Egypt. They did not fall for Pharaoh's peh rach, soft tongue, the ruse the Egyptians originally prepared for the Jews to enter the workforce as volunteers. Pharaoh understood that as long as a segment of the Jewish People devotes itself to Torah study, the nation will not be conquered. Shevet Levi continued their learning. Somehow, Pharaoh had to separate them from Torah.

Diabolical plans were a way of life for this despot. He announced that food would be given only to those who worked. No work - no food was Pharaoh's way of enslaving Shevet Levi. It did not work. Shevet Levi was not leaving Goshen. They were attached to its yeshivah where they spent long, waking hours studying Torah. So, how did they exist? A person must eat in order to live. Chazal teach that the other Shevatim, Tribes, took part of their daily fare and shared it with Shevet Levi!

Imagine, not only were they not envious that Shevet Levi did not work, that they remained home studying Torah while everyone else went to Egypt to work, but they shared part of their bread with them. No one complained. No one kvetched. They all accepted it with pride. It did not bother them that the young, strong Leviim were spending their time in the Bais Ha'Medrash, while their sons were toiling in the Pyramids. Why? Because they were acutely aware that one segment of Klal Yisrael must always be learning. When someone understands, acknowledges and appreciates the value of Torah, only then is he deserving of receiving it. This is why the dor deah, generation of knowledge, that left Egypt with Moshe Rabbeinu was worthy of receiving the Torah.

The generation that was liberated from Egypt had not witnessed all of Hashem's miracles. They had neither experienced the Revelation, nor had they received the Heavenly manna for forty years; they had not had a Bais Hamikdash, nor had they been miraculously saved from the fires of the Holocaust. They were Jews without miracles. Yet, they understood the overriding importance of Torah. They did not complain about the yeshivah bachur or kollel yungerman, because they understood that without them, without Shevet Levi studying Torah, there is nothing! They understood. It is about time that we woke up to this realization.

å They shall speak up and say, "Our hands have not spilled this blood and our eyes did not see." (21:7)

In the case of an unsolved murder, in which the victim is discovered in the open field with no indication as to who might be the perpetrator of the crime, the Torah requires the elders of the city closest to the discovery of the body to perform a public ritual. The elders declare their innocence of this heinous crime and pray for forgiveness for the Jewish People. Exactly why the elders might be held culpable is a discussion among the early commentators. Rashi says this means to say that they were unaware of the traveler and had no part in allowing him to go on his lonely way without food or escort. Sforno says that they had not permitted a known murderer to roam the land. Whoever had committed this crime was not one of theirs. Ibn Ezra says that the elders carry a degree of responsibility because, if sinful behavior had not been present in their community, this would not have occurred.

Each of the above expositions warrants its own explanation and parallel in the contemporary Jewish community. I will, however, focus on another aspect of the elders' declaration: ha'dam ha'zeh, "this blood." Rashi quotes the Talmud Sotah 46b in which Chazal state this pasuk is a reference to the blood of the victim: "It is not our fault that he was killed. We were unaware of him; otherwise, we certainly would not have allowed him to leave without food or escort. We simply did not see him."

The Talmud Yerushalmi suggests a different approach which should give us all something to consider. They say "this blood" refers not to the victim, but to the killer himself! While it seems logical to assume that the text is addressing the "blood" of the victim, we cannot ignore the Yerushalmi. Horav S.R. Hirsch, zl, explains that the Yerushalmi is referring to a unique situation, in which a man completely alone and in extreme poverty, could have attacked another Jew as an act of desperation. The elders would then declare that in their city this does not happen. No man was allowed to remain in such poverty that he would resort to crime.

We have just been exposed to a whole new dimension of guilt. We are always addressing the victim, but when we have the courage to think about it, we must realize that there is another victim: the killer. One is not born a killer; one is not born a deviate; one is not born evil. There are many factors in the descent of a human being into the nadir of depravity. Each of these digressions presents its own unique sign, which any competent teacher, rabbi, parent, etc. can and should notice - if he cares. When a tragedy occurs it is always easier to cast blame on the other guy, the terrible creature, the fiend, the deviate. What about those of us who should have seen this coming? Can we say, Yadeinu lo shafchu es ha'dam ha'zeh? Can we say, "Lo ra'eenu - "We did not see? Or should it be, We refused to see! We refused to look! We turned our head away, because we did not want to get involved." We look forward to that glorious day when we can, in truth, declare in all good conscience that we have a society in which no man is compelled to turn to crime and that one who does will immediately receive the help he needs.

Va'ani Tefillah


There is no prayer more accepted by every segment of the Jewish People than the Kaddish. Regardless of one's religious affiliation, Kaddish is the prayer that all recite. When one takes note of the meaning of the text, it is not surprising that it receives such wide acceptance. As Horav S.R. Hirsch, zl, explains, "Kaddish is an expression of that avowal of Judaism which is to be preserved at all times, wherever we may be; namely that, whatever course the events of life may take, eventually Shemai rabba, the greatness of Hashem's Name, in all its significance, will be recognized and sanctified by all - irrefutably and without reservation, in a world, 'which He Himself created in accordance with His will.'"

The goal for which G-d has made the world will surely be reached, this goal being simply: Kiddush Hashem throughout the world. It is this hope that has sustained Klal Yisrael throughout its trials and tribulations. The public avowal of this hope constitutes the very foundation upon which our entire congregational worship is based. Thus, at the end of every major portion of our prayers, the chazzan who leads the service restates this on behalf of the entire congregation. The Amen response affirms the congregation's adoption of this declaration as the life-sustaining force of their existence. Y'hei Shmei rabba is the congregation's own declaration of its desire and trust that Hashem's Name be blessed and sanctioned throughout this world. While we reflect upon the meaning of the Kaddish text, we begin to realize why it has been the one prayer that has been accepted throughout time by virtually everyone. It defines the essence of Jewish belief.

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