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Peninim on the Torah

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Rabbi A. Leib Scheinbaum
Hebrew Academy of Cleveland


On the eighth day, the flesh of his foreskin shall be circumcised. (12:3)

One day the Sefas Emes asked one of his close chassidim to take his two young sons, (Rav) Avraham Mordechai and (Rav) Moshe Betzalel, to a certain Jew in Warsaw for a brachah, blessing. The person left the next day in search of this Jew whom he assumed must certainly be a famous tzaddik, righteous man. He arrived in Warsaw and, after some inquiry, he discovered that the individual he sought was actually a simple, common Jew.

The man, indeed, had no idea why the famous Rebbe of Gur would send his two sons to him for a blessing. Yet, at the behest of the messenger, he took the two boys and blessed them profusely. The chassid returned to Gur, thinking that this man must be one of the lamed-vav tzaddikim, thirty-six righteous Jews who live common lives and keep their piety secret.

When he returned to the Sefas Emes, he gathered up his courage to ask the Rebbe why he had sent his sons to this seemingly simple Jew. "True," answered the Sefas Emes, "he gives the impression of being a simple Jew which, indeed, he is. However, he once demonstrated such unparalleled devotion to a mitzvah that in Heaven he was granted tzaddik status. It happened that when his son was born, this Jew did not have penny to his name. He was so destitute that he could not afford to pay for the bare necessities to perform a Bris Milah. What did he do? He sold his bed and slept on the floor, so that he could have enough funds to pay for a Bris. He was left with nothing. Yet, he did not care. He was able to perform the mitzvah of bringing his son into the covenant of Avraham Avinu. This action caused such a stir in Heaven that he was granted a unique reward - every blessing that issues forth from his mouth will be fulfilled. In fact, he himself is unaware of his great power. Do you now understand why I sent my sons to him?

We should now have an inkling of the significance of the mitzvah of Bris Milah and the reward for adhering to its precepts. If a person will have on the skin of his flesh a s'eis, or a sapachas, or a baheres. (13:2)

In the Pleasant Way, a collection of some of the shmuessen, ethical discourses, of Horav Avraham Pam, zl, a meaningful shmuess focuses on the root of lashon hora, evil speech. In his inimitable manner, Rav Pam lovingly explains and guides us concerning how to distance ourselves from the harmful effects of this dreadful sin. He explains the juxtaposition of Parashas Tazria, which discusses the laws of tzaraas, upon Parashas Shemini, which addresses the laws of kashrus. Just as we should be meticulous in what we ingest, we should likewise take great care in what emerges from our mouths. The consumption of forbidden foods causes timtum halev, a spiritual malady that severely hampers one from serving Hashem. Forbidden speech does the same. We just do not realize its harmful effects, because we are so oblivious to our participation.

While in recent years there has been a strong movement to raise public awareness in regard to lashon hora, its effects and consequences, to a certain extent the focus is on the mouth, when actually it should be on a person's eyes and heart. The mouth only speaks the faults that the eyes have seen and the bad feelings which the heart has felt. The mouth expresses the jealousy and insensitivity of the heart, and the overall malignancy in our eyes, when we view another Jew in the wrong light.

When one cares about another Jew, he overlooks his deficiencies; he glosses over his shortcomings. We must train ourselves to react to another person's failings as if they were those of our own children. We overlook and defend our children from their critics. Why should not all Jews be granted a similar dispensation?

By focusing on the positive attitudes of every person, we curtail the urge to speak lashon hora. Looking for opportunities to speak well of another person - seeing the good side of that individual, finding a reason to justify his seemingly inappropriate behavior -is a sure way to prevent lashon hora from occurring.

Rav Pam comments that guarding one's tongue is not limited exclusively to avoiding lashon hora. Avoiding onoas devarim, verbal abuse, is equally important. The Sefer Hachinuch writes that one should not say words that cause pain and shame to another Jew from which he cannot defend himself. Included is making another person the subject of a joke or a sharp retort. This form of harmful speech is not necessarily intended to hurt. It is only the careless, thoughtless expression of a person who, if he would think twice, would never have said it. Yet, he did not think, he did not care, and, therefore, he hurt someone's feelings to such a point that he has no idea how deeply and how painfully. This is forbidden speech, thoughtless speech, harmful speech.

Rav Pam cites the following incident to illustrate the damage of words spoken inconsiderately: A young girl, Malke'le, saved a portion of her weekly allowance, so that she could buy her mother a small gift. Finally, she had amassed enough money to buy her mother a small, inexpensive trinket. This gift meant so much to Malke'le.

Malke'le brought the gift home all wrapped in colorful wrapping paper. Her mother was in the kitchen preparing dinner, so Malke'le placed the gift prominently in the middle of the dining room table. When her mother walked in she noticed the gift. "Where did this come from, Malke'le?" her mother asked. Malke'le was very excited when she answered, "I bought you a present, Mommy. Please open it up. You will love it."

The mother opened the package and noticed that it was a simple trinket. Not realizing her lack of self-control, the mother blurted out, "Malke'le, why did you waste your money on this? It is worthless junk. Who needs it?"

One can only imagine what went through the young girl's mind. She was devastated. She wanted so much to please her mother, to demonstrate her love and appreciation. So, she did not know the value of the trinket. Is that a sin? She meant well, and her actions should have been encouraged and lauded. What possessed her mother to act so heartlessly, so cruelly? Is this the action of a mean mother - or a thoughtless mother? Surely, no mother wants to hurt her child, but we often forget - or we are under pressure, and we act and speak thoughtlessly.

Rav Pam extends this thought to all relationships, especially the delicate relationship of marriage. Consider the following situation: A spouse "remembers" a birthday or an anniversary and buys a present. It just so happens that it was a poor choice. Let us play the Malke'le scenario at home between husband and wife. We can imagine the disappointment and hurt that an inconsiderate comment or even a sour face can create. The individual who takes a positive outlook on life will only see good and will not "lose it." He will give credit for good intentions, even if the result was not that perfect. He understands what goes on in the mind of the giver. His intentions were noble, and that is all that matters.

Last, little things make a world of difference in someone's life: a compliment, a "thank you." It is so easy to do; yet, for some individuals, it is almost impossible to give a compliment. It is almost as if complimenting another person takes away from his own stature. "Thank you" are two words that cost nothing, but mean so much. While it is important that we are meticulous in eradicating any form of forbidden speech, we should not lose focus of our obligation towards positive speech.

If a tzaraas affliction will be in a person. (13:9)

The laws of tzaraas, a spiritual malady which manifests itself in a physical illness which mimics leprosy, is the result of "speech problems." People who do not use their G-d-given tongues appropriately, such that they disparage and slander, are visited with tzaraas. Volumes have been written addressing the sin of lashon hora, evil speech. What about lashon tov, good speech, positive speech, words that heal and soothe? The power of speech is a special gift that we must learn to appreciate. A good word can lift a spirit and save a life. How often do we regret not saying the right thing? A kind word at the right moment can make a world of difference in someone's life. A secular author once wrote, "The bitterest tears shed over graves are for words left unsaid and deeds left undone." What a powerful statement! How often do we regret not saying something nice - to our mate, our child, our friend, our student, our parent? While it is necessary to focus on the effects and consequences of lashon hora, it is equally important not to ignore the positive effects of lashon tov. In this country, referring to an individual by his first name is commonplace. The prefix "Mr." and "Reb" have long disappeared from a society where respect, etiquette and refinement are considered archaic. We do not realize that by referring to someone with the prefix "Reb," we are adding a sense of respect and dignity to his name - and, for some people, this is very important.

Horav Moshe Aharon Stern, zl, the Kamenitzer Mashgiach of Eretz Yisrael, left a legacy of respect for every human being. The paragon of humility, he made every person feel that he was great. I write this as a personal testimony to the few times he came to my home. He did not enter as an esteemed Rosh Yeshivah, which he certainly was. He spoke meekly, with refinement and modesty, inquiring about my work. He always made it a point to speak to my wife. He was an individual who embodied everything Chazal teach us about the qualities and attributes of a Torah leader.

During the shivah, seven-day mourning period, after his sudden passing, the common man, the "regular Jew," came forth to articulate his praise. One such individual who came emphasized Rav Stern's ability to use the right word at the right time. He said, "You think that he was only your father. Well, he was also my father. The only one in my entire life who called me "Reb" Yaakov was your father. No one ever addressed me with the respectable title of "Reb" except him. He would listen to my chiddushim, novellae, and then tell me, Ihr zogt gut, "You are saying a good thought." Indeed, one Shabbos someone came over to me and said, "Rav Moshe Aharon told me a chiddush in your name."

This is the definition of real humility: accepting all people, listening to all people and speaking respectfully to all people. The one simple title of "Reb," added to this person's name, changed his life! It gave him stature, knowing that a gadol, Torah giant, appreciated him. It is incredible how easy it is to help another person and equally shocking how few of us act upon it. In the Talmud Bava Basra 9:2, Chazal teach us that one who gives a pruta, penny, to a poor man receives six blessings, while one who cheers him up receives eleven blessings. Rav Moshe Aharon derived from here that encouraging another person is greater than giving him money. A beggar will regrettably not become wealthy from the few pennies he receives, but a few well-chosen words of encouragement have the power to elevate him from a life of poverty and dejection. Very often I hear the excuse, "But I do not know what to say." Knowing the right words to say to the sick, bereaved, the downtrodden, is difficult. Even seasoned professionals are at times at a loss for the right words. In truth, I think it is just being there, a smile, a reassurance, an offer of assistance that is all that is needed. People who are ill want to know that they are not alone. People who are bereaved need reassurance. People that are broken need to be encouraged. Long visits do more for the visitor than the visited. It is just being there that counts.

I recently read about Horav Yitzchak Yeruchem Diskin, zl, the avi yesomim, father of orphans, who founded the famous Diskin Orphanage in Yerushalayim. He had a special way of dealing with his unfortunate charges. It is related that just before he moved into the orphanage's new building, he began to weep uncontrollably. He explained, "A shoemaker tends to be careless with shoes, and a book-binder frequently is careless with holy books. Who knows if I, too, will treat orphans with less feeling if I have to deal with them all day long?"

Once, a couple of young orphan girls were staying with him, since the orphanage was filled to capacity. His wife personally cared for the young girls. Once Rav Yitzchak Yeruchem noticed that one of the girls began to sob after his wife bathed her. Concerned, he asked his wife, "Perhaps you were careless and allowed some soap to get into her eyes?" His wife looked at him with shock, "I am so careful to make sure this would never happen." Finally, he went over to the little girl and asked, "Why do you cry after your bath? Is my wife not taking proper care of you?"

"No, no Rebbe!' the child cried. "The Rebbetzin is so kind and gentle. My mother, alehah ha'shalom, may she rest in peace, did not watch over me with such care as the Rebbetzin. It is just that my mother used to kiss my head after my bath, and each time I remember this, I begin to cry." All the child needed was a kiss - not a speech, a pat on the shoulder - not a lecture, a smile - not a harangue.

Lashon hora can destroy a life. Yet, words, if used correctly, can also create happiness and sustain life. We have only to look around, extend ourselves to those around us, and we will see the difference a good word can make.

He is a person with tzaraas, he is contaminated, the Kohen shall declare him contaminated, his affliction is upon his head. (13:44)

In the various forms of tzaraas mentioned previously in the parsha, the Torah has either written tamei hu, he is ritually impure, or v'timo ha'Kohen, the Kohen shall declare him tamei. Regarding nigei ha'rosh, the plague that sets itself upon one's head, the Torah emphasizes ish tzarua hu, he is a person with tzaraas, and then reiterates the status of impurity with the words, "The Kohen shall declare him contaminated." Why such emphasis upon tzaraas ha'rosh?

The Netziv, zl, explains that unlike the other forms of tzaraas, which are a punishment for lashon hora, evil speech, tzaraas ha'rosh is visited upon one who is deficient in his thoughts, reflecting a lack of emunah, faith in the Almighty. One whose faith in Hashem is questionable is a person from whom we should distance ourselves even more than from he who speaks lashon hora. The slanderer who disparages with his mouth - whose mouth is a fountain of evil, spewing forth venom, invectives and defamation of people's character - hurts. He hurts himself. He hurts others, but he does not establish disciples that follow in his ways.

The individual who has a serious problem in his emunah, whose mind is perverted with heretical thoughts, who questions the Almighty, is not satisfied with his own apostasy. He has to develop followers, to increase his tainted ideas, to inspire others with his crippled mind. The Torah is concerned with such a person. His effect is far-reaching. We are admonished to stay clear of him and his ideas. He is an ish tzarua, a person with tzaraas.


On the eighth day the flesh of his foreskin shall be circumsized. (12:3)

At the Bris Milah we declare, "As the (infant) has entered into the Bris, so shall he enter into (the study of) Torah, marriage and good deeds." Horav Menachem Mendel, zl, m'Kotzk explains why this is declared specifically at a Bris Milah. As the infant enters into this lofty mitzvah with equanimity, with no haughtiness regarding his ability to fulfill such a great mitzvah, so, too, should he perform all mitzvos throughout his life with such composure and humility.

Imrei Binyamin explains that there is no other mitzvah which is, without question, going to be with him his entire life. A Jew can be observant for many years and suddenly renege his beliefs. One mitzvah, the mitzvah of Bris Milah, is with him forever. We, therefore, bless this infant with the hope that just as this mitzvah will always be with him, so should the others always be a part of his life.


He shall be brought to Aharon the Kohen. (13:2)

Why Aharon Hakohen? Horav Yechiel Meir, zl, m'Gustonin explains that the slanderer justifies his iniquity by saying that all he is doing is telling the truth. His sense of "integrity" drives him to communicate another person's shortcomings. To this hypocrisy we reply that Aharon Hakohen, the paragon of integrity, was very often compelled to bend the truth in order to promote peace and harmony among his fellow men. We learn from him that, at times, integrity is a lower priority than shalom, peace.


Peninim on the Torah is in its 11th year of publication. The first seven years have been published in book form.

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