Back to This Week's Parsha

Peninim on the Torah

subscribe.gif (2332 bytes)

Previous issues

Rabbi A. Leib Scheinbaum
Hebrew Academy of Cleveland


And you shall not erect for yourselves a pillar. (16:22)

The Torah addresses various forms of idolatrous worship which were common practice among the pagans. Horav Levi Yitzchak Berditchev, zl, interprets the pasuk homiletically, adding a practical twist. Chazal teach that This World, Olam Hazeh, is compared to a vestibule before Olam Habba, the World to Come. Everything which we do in this world is but a preparation for the World to Come. We eat and drink, so that we are nourished and healthy enough to perform the mitzvos which will be our access to Olam Habba. Our entire lives revolve around Olam Habba, with life on this world nothing more than an avenue for gaining entry to true life.

When Chazal refer to life on this world, they use the term lachem, "for you." The phrase, chatzi lachem, "part is for you," v'chatzi l'Hashem, "and part is for the Almighty," is employed by Chazal to describe the split between personal, physical enjoyment and mitzvah devotion, which is for Hashem. Thus, explains the Berditchever, the Torah admonishes, "Do not erect a pillar of worship lecha, for you! Do not lend credence to the physical needs as if they are an end to themselves. Physicality and all of its appurtenances are necessary for one purpose: Olam Habba. Do not transform them into anything more than that.

While this is a nice thought, how do we impress upon people that this world is not an end to itself? Whatever happened to the concept of happiness? Is one not supposed to enjoy himself on this world? Are temporary pleasures taboo? This question stems from society's misguided perspective of happiness. Many people equate happiness with fun. Veritably, fun and happiness have little connection with one another. Fun is the enjoyment we experience b'shaas maaseh, during the course of an activity. Happiness is what we experience following the activity. It is a deeper, more concrete and abiding emotion. Fun is temporary, while happiness is a more enduring emotion. We do many things which generate fun. We go places, do activities, attend events, which have a positive effect on us, but how long does the joy last? The positive effects end when the fun ends. We experience a wonderful vacation, a great trip - then we return home and find we quickly forget the joyous elements.

We see people having fun, but are they truly happy? Horav Yaakov Galinsky, Shlita, tells the story of a fellow who came to a psychiatrist with a problem: He was depressed. Nothing made him feel good. He saw negativity in every aspect of his life. The psychiatrist told him that he was presenting the symptoms of a serious illness, one that could be cured over time. It would take many sessions "on the couch" for him to emerge from his depressive state. What should the patient do in the meantime? The depression was eating away at him. He did not have a year or two to wait until he recovered. The psychiatrist suggested that he go across the street to a show. Apparently, a famous comedian was playing. People claimed that he was hilarious. "Laughter is a wonderful antidote for depression," the psychiatrist said. "The comedian will take your mind off your problems." The patient listened and became even more depressed: "Doctor, you do not seem to understand. I am the comedian from across the street."

Many of us put on a fa?ade of happiness, but it is only our reaction to fun. As long as we do not address the issues in our lives which seem to cloud over the fun, we will never achieve true happiness. When we live our lives in such a manner that it reflects our pursuit of olam hazeh, the joy is temporary; it is frivolous fun. It will not last. If our lives, however, reflect a deeper understanding of the meaning of life; if we live for Olam Habba and understand that this world is nothing more than a means, a vestibule, for gaining entrance into the World of Truth, then we can achieve inner peace and true joy.

Knowing "where" we are going and establishing priorities in life define our ultimate happiness, and is reflected in our projected attitude in serving Hashem. I recently read a story, related by Rabbi Shlomo Price, which has unfortunately repeated itself more often than we would care to acknowledge, but, if it will help even one person, it is well worth repeating. A prominent rav and mechanech, educator, was visiting a student of his in one of the up and coming communities in New York. The rav davened in the local shul. After davening, he was approached by a man who was roughly his age. This person had sustained a terrible tragedy: his only son had met a devout Christian girl while he was volunteering at a local hospital and was smitten by her. She convinced him to reject the Torah way of life and embrace Christianity - which he, sadly, did. An intelligent young man with a warm personality, he became a sort of para-priest, working as a missionary in outreach for this Christian organization. Not only had he destroyed his own life, he was facilitating and encouraging the spiritual demise of others as well.

The man asked the rav, "I davened in the same minyan as you. We attended the same shiur. Our sons went to the same school; in fact, they were in the same class. Yet, your son became a rabbi, while my son became a priest." With these words, the father broke down, weeping incessantly.

The rav looked at the man and, with a soft, comforting voice, said, "I do not know the perfect answer, because there never is a perfect answer concerning a tragedy, but I do want to share with you a perspective on mitzvah observance. It may not ameliorate your situation, but who knows? It might help someone else.

"There are two ways to serve Hashem. There are parents, who, upon rising in the morning, get up with a complaint: 'I am tired, this hurts, and that hurts. If I could only sleep a little longer. Why do I have to go to davening so early?' All of this is part of their daily morning litany. Then they go to shul. Their son asks, 'Why do you have to go to shul?' 'I have to daven' is the curt answer. 'Why?' asks the son. 'Because Hashem says so.' The father does not indicate a sense of personal desire or sense of satisfaction in davening - just, "Hashem says so.' A similar response is given concerning Shabbos. 'I observe Shabbos, because Hashem says that I should.' Yom Tov, be it Pesach, with the matzah that does not appeal to everyone, or the cold, unwelcoming Succah in which we must sit, all raise questions in the son's mind. The answer is always the same: 'Hashem says that I have to;' subject is closed. 'I do not have much choice in the matter. I do what I am told.'

"When this is a father's response, it reflects an attitude that cries out, 'I clearly do not want to do this, but I have to because Hashem says so.' Well, the son will grow up and say, 'Maybe my father has to, but I do not, and I will not!'

"Then there are parents whose approach to mitzvah performance is positive. When they rise in the morning, they are excited, happy to be able to serve Hashem for another day. 'I can go to shul, put on Tallis and Tefillin and pray to Hashem, thanking Him for all the wonderful things He has given to me.' When a child grows up hearing this, when he sees his father's enthusiasm for Yiddishkeit, he naturally wants to follow."

When the unfortunate father heard this, he began to cry. His tears were filled with guilt over lost opportunities and often foolish mistakes which his son had either heard or observed. The message that he must have conveyed to his son was: "I have to be an observant Jew; I must keep Shabbos. Kosher may not be fun, but this is what I must do as a Jew."

Imagine, buying your spouse an expensive gift and saying, "I really did not want to buy this for you, but I have to, since it is our anniversary." Such presents leave a bad taste.

If this will be found among you… who commits evil… and he will go and serve gods of others… and it will be told to you and you will hear; then you will investigate well, and behold! It is true, the testimony is correct - this abomination was done in Yisrael. (17:2,4)

The Torah seems to employ a lengthy vernacular in order to describe this idol worshipper. The words, ki yimatzei, "If there will be found," is an unusual phrase to describe the discovery of one who worships idols. It could simply have said, "If there will be among you." "Finding" focuses on the detection of something unknown, whereas this case is one in which witnesses attest to a man's guilt. It is a fait accompli - a done deal; it happened; now we must punish the sinner. Why does the Torah emphasize the next step in the process of establishing guilt: then you shall investigate well? What need is there for investigation? Witnesses have testified. The Torah implies that if we do not investigate the veracity of the testimony, guilt cannot be established. Why? In every other case of capital punishment the witnesses are believed and the dependent is punished - case closed.

Horav David Chananyah Pinto, Shlita, explains that an important lesson is being taught here. In the Talmud Berachos 29a, Chazal teach, Gemiri tava lo hava bisha, "A good man does not become bad." Therefore, when we discover that one is guilty of idol worship, we must understand that the process of spiritual disintegration did not just begin. It goes back some time. One does not throw away his Judaism overnight. It is a process that began years earlier with some innocuous deviation from traditional observance. Over time it festered and germinated, until it grew into consummate rebellion. Why were we unaware of his nefarious activities? Because he was able to conceal them - either out of shame or weakness. Viewing it from a positive perspective, perhaps he thought he could turn himself around; and thus, he was not yet prepared to declare his mutiny.

In any event, today, here and now, the fellow has left the fold. How do we view this? The Torah teaches us that just as a lost object has actually always been here - only we were unaware of it; like-wise, this idol worshipper did not just decide today to take the plunge into spiritual extinction. It began much earlier - only it was covert. Therefore, we must investigate deeply into his past behavior and, after careful examination, we will discover that these activities have been going on for quite some time. Perhaps, if his original deviation had been caught and addressed earlier, he might still be with us.

According to the teaching that they will teach you… shall you do; you shall not deviate from the word that they will tell you, right or left. (17:11)

One must obey the decision of the court even if he is convinced that the court has erred in its ruling. Even if the ruling seems to be saying that right is left and left is right - you must obey. It goes without saying that, if one is certain that the court has ruled correctly, he must obey its decision. The law is timeless. We must listen to daas Torah, the wisdom of the Torah as interpreted and expounded by our Torah leaders. The Sefer HaChinuch comments: "In every generation, we must listen to the rulings of the wise men who have studied under and received their understanding of the law from the sages of the previous generation. They toiled to understand the meaning and logic of every halacha and spent days and nights laboring in the field of Torah to understand its truth. One should not rely on his own understanding of the truth. He must ask, listen and obey. This is the meaning of the Torah's admonition not to deviate from what they will tell you."

Regrettably, we have witnessed individuals who have taken the mantle of Torah leadership into their own hands, deciding what is right and what is wrong, when one should be stringent and when one may be lenient. They feel that they are also scholars and that they understand the situation better than the Torah leaders. Thus, they have no problem ruling according to what they see fit - even if they are going against the ruling of the mora d'asra, rav of a community, who has already rendered his decision. They will seek out a scholar elsewhere who neither has a clue concerning the issues involved, nor has a right to render a ruling regarding a community which has a mora d'asra who has already ruled in the matter. In their desire to pander to the forcers of secularism and modernity, they are willing to usurp the Torah and wrest it from its leadership. They are themselves often well-meaning, but misguided, and willing to act unconscionably in their encroachment of Torah leadership.

There is nothing worse than a "little" knowledge. One who is an am ha'aretz knows nothing and will, for the most part, stay out of the fray, because he knows quite well that he is out of his league. It is the one who has studied in high school, perhaps even continued on to yeshivah gedolah, who has perhaps accumulated some yedios, knowledge. He knows the "lingo," the correct phrases; he may even have studied some of the texts on an elementary level. He is now caught up in a misplaced sense of outreach and social justice, and he is willing to throw it all away for a little bit of fame or ego enhancement. Thus, he will have no problem standing up to a rav, rosh yeshivah - even gedolei ha'dor, the generation's Torah leadership, in pursuit of his goals. Make no mistake: These are Orthodox Jews who, for the most part, are observant and do listen to the words of the gedolei Yisrael - when it serves their purpose. They just feel that anything beyond the realm of issur v'heter, kosher and not kosher - is the pot permissible to use or not? - is outside the purview of the Torah scholars. Indeed, they feel that a Torah scholar's lifelong dedication to - and toil in the sea of - Torah gains him no more insight than anyone else.

In a famous letter concerning such people who pick and choose Judaism and its leadership as they see fit, the Chazon Ish wrote: "The notion that the Torah can be divided into different parts - one addressing the laws concerning issur v'heter, and the other concerning guidance in other areas of life - with the rulings of the Torah sages applicable and binding only to laws of issur v'heter, what is kosher and what is not, is, in fact, the ancient position taken by the German Reform movement, which led to the near total assimilation of German Jewry. To delineate between the powers vested in the Chachmei Yisrael is tantamount to one who is megaleh panim ba'Torah (literally, one who reveals face in /at the Torah, or debunking the Torah) by issuing interpretation which subverts the traditional and accepted perspective.

After all is said and done, does this mean that a student may not question his rebbe? What is the accepted criteria concerning intellectual dialogue? In his Michtav M'Eliyahu, Horav Eliyahu Eliezer Dessler, zl, asks why Miriam HaNeviyah's critique of Moshe Rabbeinu was labeled as lashon hora, slanderous speech. Does this mean that if a student has a question concerning his rebbe's position regarding a certain issue, it is considered lashon hora to voice an opinion? Rav Dessler explains that it is dependent upon what the questioner thinks in his heart. If he acknowledges that his rebbe is acutely attuned to the truth as seen by the Torah, then he may ask his question as a medium through which he can get closer to the truth. If, however, the student thinks, "I am no slouch. I know how to learn, and I feel that my rebbe is not cognizant of all the issues; he does not see the wider picture. I feel that if I do not take issue with my rebbe, his opinion could backfire," then he had better keep his peace. We can go on and on with various scenarios. I think the reader understands what we are saying. If one has emunas chachamim, if he sincerely believes in what the gedolim say, and he feels this is Torah mi'Sinai, then he may seek a deeper understanding of their position. If, however, he thinks that he knows better - he manifests the early symptoms of a disease called kefirah, heresy.

An inspirational episode concerning the significance of emunas chachamim and its power took place with Horav Moshe Feinstein, zl. A woman who was still childless after many years of marriage came to Rav Moshe and pleaded with him for a brachah. Apparently, her husband had approached the Rosh Yeshivah a number of times, to no avail. This time, however, the wife came. She refused to settle for a blessing, actually demanding, that Rav Moshe issue a decree that Heaven grant her a child. The woman felt, Tzaddik gozer, v'HaKodesh Baruch Hu makayeim, "A righteous man decrees and Hashem fulfills his decree." In other words, this woman felt that Rav Moshe's gezeirah, decree, was "money in the bank." She would have a child.

Rav Moshe looked at the woman incredulously, as he asked, "Me? I should issue a decree? What power do I have to achieve efficacy?"

The woman was intractable. She would not budge. "The Rosh Yeshivah has it within his power to intercede in my behalf. I want a child! Please!"

Clearly, she was having difficulty understanding the meaning of the word "no."

Finally, Rav Moshe relented and acquiesced to her request. He said, "I cannot decree that you have a child. On the other hand, in the merit of your emunas chachamim, in which you believe that one who studies Torah possesses incredible powers, Hashem should bless you."

One year later, the woman gave birth to a healthy child.

And you shall do to him as he planned to do to his brother. (19:19)

In the beginning of Meseches Makkos, the Mishnah asks the question: "In what manner do witnesses become zomeimim?" Hazamah is the process by which witnesses are proven false by testimony that places them elsewhere at the time that the alleged incident took place. The penalty for hazamah is reciprocal punishment, meaning the punishment the false witnesses sought to impose on the dependent by their testimony is meted out to them, be it monetary payment or corporal punishment. This is the meaning of, V'asisem lo kaasher zomam laasos l'achiv, which is the Scriptural reference to the reciprocal penalty incurred by those witnesses. The laws of hazamah play a significant role in establishing the criteria for all. If one's testimony is not susceptible to refutation by hazamah or eidus shei atah yachol l'haazimah, it is not admissible. Likewise, if the very nature of their testimony is such that they could not be reciprocally punished for testifying falsely, if they are found to be zomemim, such testimony is not admissible.

Returning to the Mishnah's opening question, it replies, "If they said, we testify concerning this person, who until now had been considered a Kohen who is qualified to perform the Temple service, that he is actually the son of a divorced woman, which would render him a Kohen challal, disqualified Kohen, we do not say that the witnesses themselves become challalim (in the event that they are Kohanim). Rather, the witnesses receive malkos, lashes. The Talmud explains that this halachah is derived from the above pasuk, "And you shall do to him as he planned," which implies, lo - to him, v'lo l'zaro - but not to his offspring. If we were to disqualify the witness from service by considering him a challal, it would affect his children who would also become challalim. The Talmud then wonders why we cannot simply disqualify the witness and not his children. Thus, there would not be an impediment to applying the law of reciprocal punishment. They reply that, in order for the punishment to be reciprocal, it is necessary for bais din, the court, to do to the witness exactly as he had planned to do to the defendant. This is lacking, since his testimony would have inevitably disqualified the victim's children - something which we could not reciprocate.

Tosfos question this, since we do find cases in which a false witness intends to disqualify an individual, and this disqualification will not pass down to his children. For instance, if the witnesses were to testify that a certain person was actually the son of an Egyptian, his children who are the third generation would be permitted to convert and marry a Jewish girl. (An Egyptian is prohibited from entering the Jewish congregation until the third generation.) Therefore, the false witness will become a Mitzri, an Egyptian, and will not be permitted to marry a Jewess. His children, however, will not become disqualified, since only the subject of his testimony himself was affected by his words - not the subject's children. Tosfos reply that while his children are not disqualified, his wife will not be permitted to remain with him, since he is considered an Egyptian. Thus, the reciprocal punishment cannot be carried out.

In addressing the question raised by Tosfos, Horav Yechiel Yaakov Weinberg, zl, explains that the laws concerning hazamah do not fully apply to a pesul ha'guf, disqualification of the body of the person, such as legitimacy of birth and Egyptian pedigree. Bais Din can only issue monetary or corporal punishment. They are not able to alter the status of a person if such status is birth-related. One who is not himself disqualified through birth cannot have his status altered by judicial punishment.

The Rosh Yeshivah explains the reason for this as relating to the core understanding of the punishment meted out to a false witness. Through its punishment of the witness, the Torah seeks to bring the witness into a state of kaparah, atonement. Veritably, this cannot occur concerning a sin against one's fellowman unless the victim wholeheartedly forgives his assailant/the witness. Regarding sins between man and his fellowman, there must be ritzui, appeasement, and mechilah, forgiveness. Otherwise, Hashem will not atone for the man's sin.

Therefore, the Torah established reciprocal punishment, in which the witness becomes like the intended victim, creating circumstances whereby the victim is appeased and the false witness can achieve atonement. When witnesses testify that a Kohen is the product of a prohibited marriage, they engender within the Kohen a feeling of doubt, of inadequacy concerning his Priestly status. "Maybe it is true," the Kohen begins to wonder. "Perhaps I am pasul." This sense of doubt, this feeling of ambiguity, is something that only the victim can feel. Even if we were to reciprocate and declare the witness pasul, it would not engender doubt within his mind, because he knows the truth. Thus, he will not achieve atonement. So, why bother if the desired consequences will not be realized?

Since a bais din does not have the ability to find an appropriate punishment for the false witnesses, and to stigmatize him as disqualified will not be effective because he knows that it is not true, the Torah instead gives the witness makkos, lashes, in place of what they would have liked to give him. A balance must be struck between the crime and its punishment. Therefore, to label the witness an Egyptian is not realistic, since the witness knows it is not true. Thus, we revert to a punishment which is just and represents integrity: makkos.

Va'ani Tefillah

B'chol levavcha u'bchol nafshecha.

The Talmud Berachos 61b relates that when the Tanna Rabbi Akiva was led to his execution, it happened to be z'man Krias Shema, the appropriate time for reciting Krias Shema. The Romans began to scale his skin with metal combs. As he endured indescribable pain, he recited Krias Shema and was mekabel, accepted upon himself, ol malchus Shomayim, the yoke of the Heavenly Kingdom. His students asked him, "Rebbe, ad kan? Until even now?" In other words, "It is enough." Rabbi Akiva replied, "My entire life I was troubled concerning this pasuk (b'chol levavcha u'b'chol nafshecha), which implies that we must love Hashem - even when He takes your life from you. Now that I have the opportunity to fulfill this pasuk, I should not fulfill it?"

Rashi explains the students' question as: How did you achieve such a sublime spiritual plateau in which you maintain your sense of devotion to Hashem amidst joy and gladness of heart, despite being subjected to excruciating pain and depravation. Rabbi Akiva replied, "My entire life I aspired for this moment." This means, explains Horav Zalmen, zl, m'Vilna, my fear of this moment did not just begin. No! I have been living with it, practicing the feeling of having a sharp blade across my neck, feeling the anxiety of being moments before a painful death. Every time I recited Krias Shema, this is what went through my mind. In fact, the image of death amidst the pain is for me very real, for I lived through it many times. Now that everything for which I had aspired and practiced is becoming a reality, should I not fulfill it?"

Rav Zalmen relates the well-known incident that occurred during the Spanish Inquisition concerning the righteous mother, whose two young sons were slaughtered before her eyes. She looked Heavenward and declared, "Hashem, my G-d, I have always loved You, but it was not totally complete because I shared my love with my two sons. Now that it has been decreed upon me that I should be left bereft of my sons, I turn all of my love to You." This is the meaning of b'chol, "with all," levavcha, "your heart," and with all your soul.

Sponsored by
Rabbi & Mrs. Sroy Levitansky

In memory of her parents
Mr. & Mrs. Sol Rosenfeld
Shlomo ben Zvi z"l niftar 7 Elul 5735
Henna bas Binyomin Menachem a"h nifter 2 Av 5751

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

The Fifteenth volume is available at your local book seller or directly from Rabbi Scheinbaum.

He can be contacted at 216-321-5838 ext. 165 or by fax at 216-321-0588

Discounts are available for bulk orders or Chinuch/Kiruv organizations.


This article is provided as part of Shema Yisrael Torah Network
Permission is granted to redistribute electronically or on paper,
provided that this notice is included intact.
For information on subscriptions, archives, and
other Shema Yisrael Classes,
send mail to
Jerusalem, Israel