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Peninim on the Torah

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Rabbi A. Leib Scheinbaum
Hebrew Academy of Cleveland


When a woman conceives and gives birth to a male. (12:2)

Rashi cites the famous statement of Rabbi Simlai, "Just as the creation of man followed that of all of the animals, wild beasts, and fowl, so, too, do the laws concerning man follow the laws governing animals, wild beasts and fowl. The soul of man, however, was created on the first day of Creation. The Midrash responds to this by commenting, "If he is zocheh, deserving, he is told, 'You preceded everything in Creation'; if he does not merit, he is told, 'Even the yitosh, tiny gnat, preceded you in Creation.'" What are we to derive from the fact that the lowly gnat preceded man in Creation?

The Ksav Sofer explains that, in truth, man towers over the rest of creation. Who is like man, that is endowed with such abilities as wisdom, cognitive powers and abilities to communicate and articulate his thoughts, to create tools for living, to elevate and develop his potential? On the other hand, the other creatures of the world have an advantage over man. Their sustenance is waiting for them without an obligation to worry about earning a livelihood. Moreover, animals have been created with a natural instinct and ability for self-preservation and self-protection. Despite all of his cognitive skills, man must worry about earning a living and protecting himself from predators. In other words, the idea, "The gnat preceded you," is not simply a chronological concept, it is a perception regarding the quality of life.

There is one difference, one consideration, that must be taken into account: purpose. Man has purpose; he has a mission, while the animal does not. Regarding the quality of life, animals might have the advantage, that they are able to live without worry, without a care in the world, but man's advantage is that he has a purpose. We know that life on this world is only temporary. It is a stepping-stone, a vestibule for the real life of Olam Habah, the World to Come. This purpose, this opportunity, gives meaning to life, overshadowing whatever difficulties we might encounter.

We distinguish ourselves from the insignificant gnat and other creatures by the manner in which we demonstrate respect to the Torah. We are compensated by others for the respect which we accord the Torah. On the other hand, one who maintains a materialistic lifestyle, who shows a greater respect for money than he does for the Almighty, profanes himself and loses the respect of people. If he merits, it is considered a mark of distinction, granting him precedence before all creatures. If he is not deserving, then his position is behind that of the lowliest creature.

One who values life and lives it with purpose develops a sense of self-respect as well. He is revered and admired by other people. This is what Chazal mean when they say, "Who is considered mechubad, honorable? He who honors others." The Shevat Mussar explains that one who honors other people will, in turn, receive respect from honorable people.

The average person thinks that an honorable person is he who receives much honor from others. The Torah's attitude is quite the opposite. It considers the honorable person to be the one who gives honor, not the one who receives it. This attitude has been the hallmark of our gedolim. Horav Akiva Eiger, zl, writes in a letter to his son, who was preparing his fathers' responsa for publication, "You will see among the letters of correspondence from people who identify themselves as having learned in my yeshivah. Do not refer to any of them as students. I have never referred to anyone as my student, because how do I know that I did not learn more from him than he did from me?"

Another short vignette which demonstrates this characteristic occurred concerning Horav Bentzion Halberstam, zl, the Bobover Rebbe, who resided for a while in the city of Tchebin where Horav Dov Berish Weidenfeld was rav. The Bobover made a comment and quoted a Tosfos to support his thesis, whereupon Rav Weidenfeld, himself a scholar of great distinction, replied, "There is no such Tosfos." Months later, while lecturing to his yeshivah, Rav Weidenfeld came across the Tosfos to which the Bobover had referred. He then exclaimed to his students, "Look at the incredible restraint the Bobover Rebbe exercised. He had the correct source which I had overlooked. He did not, however, want to embarrass me in public, so he remained silent."

Horav Chaim Shmuelevitz, zl, cites the Talmud in Shanhedrin 102b which quotes a dialogue that Hashem had with Yoravam ben Nevat. Hashem "grabbed" him by the cloak and said, "Repent! Repent! And I, you and the son of Yishai (David Hamelech) will stroll together in Gan Eden." Yoravam replied, "Who will be at the head?" Hashem answered, "Ben Yishai." Yoravam countered, "Then I am not interested."

Rav Chaim notes: Yoravam was worthy of talking to Hashem. He was so obsessed with kavod, honor, that he threw it all away, because David would go first! Better he should be banished to the nadir of oblivion than to observe David at the helm. To someone like Yoravam, we say: "The gnat preceded you."

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

The Midrash Tanchuma makes a powerful distinction between Klal Yisrael and the nations of the world that conveys a powerful message to us. Regarding the mitzvah of Milah, the Navi says, "Ribono Shel Olam, You gave the nations peace and tranquility. Yet, they did not praise You. You grant an individual a son and he does not circumcise him, but raises him in accordance with his culture and lifestyle, disregarding Your ethical and moral imperatives. He later brings him to the house of idol worship, inculcating him with pagan belief. You grant him a home, and he fills it with idols. You give him a long, good life which he wastes on frivolous and immoral activity. Klal Yisrael, on the other hand, responds differently to Your favors. When you grant a member of Klal Yisrael a son, he circumcises him. If he is the firstborn, he redeems him when he is thirty days old. When he begins to mature, the father brings him to the bais ha'medrash and bais ha'knesses to study Torah and offer praise to You. When You grant him good life, he celebrates his well-being with praise and feasting, going to the bais ha'knesses to offer prayers of thanksgiving. See how Klal Yisrael value and appreciate mitzvos and repay Your favor." Hashem responds, "You celebrate joyfully in the performance of My mitzvos. I will, therefore, supplement your joy with increased joy."

The Midrash teaches us an all-important lesson: Hashem responds to the way in which we acknowledge His gifts. He constantly blesses us with His favor; yet, some of us make our own determination about how we will react to his blessing. Whether it is material blessing or the gift of children, He has conveyed to us in the Torah how we are to relate to these gifts. It is now up to us to respond appropriately.

And it will become a tzaraas affliction on the skin of his flesh. (13:2)

We find throughout rabbinic literature that the word v'hayah, "and it will be," alludes to a joyful experience. What joy is there in discovering that one has tzaraas? Horav Daniel Goldstein, zl, gives a practical explanation. He cites the Ohr HaChaim HaKadosh who explains the pasuk of V'haya b'or besaro, "And it will become a tzaraas affliction on the skin of his flesh," as being to the advantage of a Jew. When a Jew has a failing, it is manifest in his skin - not in his neshamah. An indiscretion on the part of a Jew does not penetrate into his inner being. It is an external shortcoming that can be corrected, an extraneous taint that can be removed. This is the reason the Torah uses the word v'haya, implying joy, upon introducing the laws of tzaraas. Upon noticing the plague on his skin, the Jew is certainly distraught in the awareness that Hashem is conveying a compelling message to him. The fact, however, that this plague is only "skin-deep" and susceptible to cleansing after he undergoes the process of teshuvah, repentance, is a source of joy to him.

After reading an article in one of the Torah-oriented newspapers, I feel that there is another approach we can take. The article was a plea from a ben Torah who had tragically become addicted to the filth that is to be found on the Internet. This was a model student, who for all intents and purposes had externally been the paradigm of Torah and avodah until his parents brought the Internet into their home. He fell prey to his curiosity, which raged the more he was exposed to the filth that he saw. He could not control his lust and fell deeper and deeper into the nadir of sin. This was, of course, always behind closed doors. Outwardly maintaining the sham of being the consummate ben Torah, this tormented soul suffered greatly in that he could not go for help, because he did not want anyone to discover his affliction. Acutely aware that it was getting progressively worse, he came out of the closet in the sense that he conveyed his private plea with the hope of warning others of the dangers that lurked on the Internet.

We see from here that it is difficult to repent from sinful behavior which remains covert. Moreover, the sinner is often tormented by his own inability to cope with his problem. When the tzaraas is manifest on the skin, the individual has no recourse but to approach the Kohen to seek spiritual help. The first step toward healing is to seek therapy. One does not seek therapy until after he has acknowledged his error. We know that this is a difficult first step for anyone, especially one whose sins are carried out under the most clandestine situation. At times, Hashem gives us a subtle nudge in the guise of a punishment to awaken us from our pitiful slumber, to remind us that we cannot get away with it forever, to assist us in returning to Him and correcting our error. When we think about it, that form of motivation is a favor, since it forces us to confront the reality of our misconduct. Yes, the tzaraas is to our benefit, because we no longer have to live in secrecy.

The Kohen shall look… the Kohen shall declare him tamei, contaminated; it is tzaraas. (13:8)

The Ramban, as well as the other commentators, explains that tzaraas is not a physical condition. It is a physical manifestation of a spiritual affliction. It is a punishment for a number of sins, the most predominant of which is lashon hora. A person officially becomes a metzora only when, after viewing the plague and determining its authenticity, the Kohen proclaims him to be tamei, contaminated. If the afflicted person were to surgically remove the plague, he could not become a metzora. Removing the plague, however tempting, is categorically forbidden by the Torah. Why?

The Sefer Hachinuch explains that a person should learn to accept pain and suffering with which Hashem afflicts him. By nullifying the tzaraas, he has not solved his problem. He has sinned and, as such, he must expiate his sin. He should accept his punishment and pray to Hashem for forgiveness and that He remove his pain and suffering.

This is a very powerful statement. No one wants to suffer, but then, when we do wrong we invariably forget about the consequences of our actions. Suffering is regrettably a part of life which cannot be completely avoided. Hashem has His cheshbonos, calculations, for determining the amount of pain a person will endure. Man's function is to entreat Hashem to remove the afflictions and suffering, so that all will be reckoned positively for him. Indeed, a maxim of Jewish belief is that suffering in this world is an "altar of atonement" which can wipe away the stain of sin, in order to free the person from the pain that would be his in Olam Habah, the World to Come.

In Rabbi Sholom Smith's latest anthology from Horav Avraham Pam, zl, on Chumash, the venerable rosh yeshivah addresses suffering and the proper attitude we must manifest toward it. He explains that while suffering comes in different forms, the form which is packaged in disease, the terrible physical pain that some people must endure, is indeed very difficult for the average person to accept. Yet, there is a type of suffering with which people can learn to live, one that provides us with great spiritual benefit: this is the ability to be ne'elavim v'einam olvim, to accept the insults, mockery and derision of others. When someone directs verbal abuse at us personally, it is very difficult to respond appropriately. Immediately, there awakens within us a desire to retaliate with much of the same, to stoop to the level of the individual who is disparaging us. This eventually leads to the long list of sins associated with verbal response; lashon hora, machlokes, contention, revenge and anger. A person can be happy in suffering if he accepts the verbal abuse without responding. Accepting the abuse will hopefully take the place of some other form of suffering he was to endure either in this world or in Olam Habah.

At the conclusion of the Shemoneh Esrai, we say v'limkalelai nafshi sidom, "to those that curse me, let my soul be silent." Why does it say nafshi, my soul? It could have simply said, "I" should be silent. Why bring in the soul? I think we may note from here that to keep quiet in the face of verbal abuse and embarrassment is an overwhelming ability - one that needs the support of the soul, the spiritual dimension of a person. The soul is acutely aware that the individual who is abusing us is Hashem's agent, sent to cause us pain. It is the will of Hashem that we suffer, and the soul inspires us to accept this reality. In other words, one whose spiritual dimension plays a positive role in his life will be able to control his physical response to someone who insults him. The Chafetz Chaim, zl, explains that David Hamelech is called "the fourth leg of Hashem's Chariot," because he ignored the curse and insult of Shimi ben Geira, a privilege not granted even to Moshe Rabbeinu.

We ask Hashem to protect us from suffering because we realize that we are not on the level to request the yesurim shel ahavah, "afflictions of love," which the great Jews of earlier generations have requested. We understand that our capacity for studying Torah and performing Hashem's mitzvos properly will be hampered by suffering and illness. Yet, we acknowledge the great value of accepting this suffering with faith and conviction if it is decreed upon us.

Rav Pam relates that when Horav Shmuel Rozovsky, zl, was ill with the devastating disease to which he eventually succumbed, he received a letter of encouragement from the Steipler Gaon, Horav Yaakov Kanievsky, zl. In the letter, he wished Rav Shmuel a refuah sheleimah, offering a prayer that Hashem would relieve him of the agony he was enduring. He added that he was sending this wish in regard to any future pain that he might endure, but the suffering that he had already braved was an immense treasure and a source of great merit in the World to Come.

One individual, the Piascesner Rebbe, zl, who was the subject of much affliction, addressed the meaning of suffering as he attempted to provide hope, consolation and a message of inner joy to the many Jews in the Warsaw Ghetto during the bitter years of the Holocaust. He did not focus on suffering from the point of theological justification vis-?-vis the doctrine of reward and punishment, but rather on the concept of "afflictions of love." Drawing upon a number of citations in Chazal which speak of accepting suffering in love, he invoked the analogy of korbanos, the sacrifices that were offered in the Bais Hamikdash. He goes as far as to suggest that one may offer up his suffering as a gift to the Almighty. He views suffering as an occasion for the sufferer to give others the opportunity to demonstrate compassion and empathy. The empathizer, in turn, reciprocates with prayers and expressions of concern on behalf of the sufferer. This reciprocal interaction has great cosmic significance.

He explains that on a fast day, we pray, "May the diminution of my fat and blood be considered a sacrifice offering." Indeed, all afflictions purge the individual of his sins, because they diminish his strength, fat and blood. All the suffering that Klal Yisrael endures is a form of sacrificial offering. These are rendered with love to the Almighty.

Undoubtedly, the notion of nobility in suffering is a concept that is above the reach of the average person. If one could, however, transcend the pain and deprivation to sense a feeling of contentment in the knowledge that what he is enduring is G-d-given, purposeful and purifying, he might then be able to experience nobility that comes with spiritual ascendancy which will enable him to dedicate his moments of pain to Hashem as a sacrifice that Hashem will hold dear.

We hope for the day when Hashem will remove illness and affliction from our midst and that we will merit joy and blessing for ourselves and for our families.

Va'ani Tefillah

Ashreinu, mah tov chelkeinu, u'mah na'im goraleinu. U'mah yafah yerushaseinu. We are fortunate - How good is our portion, how pleasant our lot, and how beautiful is our heritage.

Ashreinu - we enthusiastically declare our good fortune: our relationship with Hashem gives us reason to be happy. Horav S.R. Hirsch, zl, explains that asher or ashrei means to progress, to go forward. Indeed, a person is in a happy frame of mind when he is progressing forward towards achieving his goals and objectives in life.

In this Tefillah, we emphasize that our good fortune which is founded in our relationship with the Almighty has three facets: chelkeinu, our portion; goraleinu, our lot; yerushaseinu, our heritage. We have what others do not have. Horav Shimon Schwab, zl, explains these three terms in the following manner: Chelkeinu is a reference to our partnership with Hashem. He has selected us to be His partner in the Torah. We are blessed to have the Torah as our portion, as the unit which we "share" with Hashem. Goraleinu is a reference to the mitzvos. A goral is a lottery, but in this sense it is more than a lottery. In a lottery, one wins by chance. In the goral of mitzvos, we have chosen the mitzvah way of life. It is our choice, our lot. Last, we underscore yerushaseinu, our being the beneficiary of the entire Jewish heritage of the Torah, both written and oral, the mitzvos, the codes of Jewish Law and everything that is a part of Jewish life, culture and literature. From our prayers to our customs and traditions, everything has been transmitted to us as an inheritance. It has been acquired without effort as a gift from the Almighty. This is our good fortune.

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