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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)

In its commentary to this pasuk, the Midrash cites the pasuk in Tehillim 139:5 as a basis for Chazal's perspective on the human condition. Achor v'kedem tzartani, "Back and front You have fashioned me," is the pasuk which the Midrash cites as a reference to humans. Reish Lakish asserts that "back" refers to the last day of Creation. If a person has led a virtuous life, he is deemed worthy. Thus he is told, "You preceded the entire work of Creation." If his life has been far from exemplary, choosing sin over virtue, his life is considered unworthy. Thus, he is told, "Even a gnat preceded you; even an earthworm preceded you."

Chazal are delving into the relationship between the soul and the body. From the perspective of the spirit, man came first. He preceded all of Creation, because he was the purpose of Creation. This is only true if the soul and the spirit govern his lifestyle, and he does not give in to the blandishments which affect the body. If, however, he has led a purely physical, materialistic lifestyle, in which he has immersed himself in gratifying his basic desires, so that he has disregarded the higher calling of the spirit, then he is told, "The lowliest worm preceded you." The animal world is equipped for the mundane life that it is relegated to live. Animals are healthier and have a greater capacity for physical survival than humans do. Their lives are simple, and they are not burdened by the anxieties to which humans are predisposed.

Simply, Chazal are teaching us that an individual's priorities in life determine his position in the order of Creation. Although man was created last, because he was the purpose of Creation, it was all established for him. Will the individual take his rightful position and precede Hashem's other creations, or will he stumble to the back of the line behind even the lowliest creature? I think there is a deeper explanation for the idea that the creation of the earthworm preceded the creation of the human being.

The Netziv, zl, elaborates upon the notion that there are four types of creations: domeim, inanimate objects; tzomeich, growing vegetation; chai, living creations; medaber, speaking creations, i.e. humans. He explains that when any of these creations falls from its designated perch, it does not simply descend to the next plateau; rather it falls to the bottom! Therefore, the higher its position, the deeper it falls, causing its descent to be more devastating. For instance, when a living plant is yanked out of its source of nourishment, the ground, it does not simply become a domeim, inanimate object - it dies and becomes nothing! An animal that dies becomes a foul-smelling carcass - not a living plant. A person who dies descends even further than an animal. At least an animal can be used as food.

The Kuzari says that Klal Yisrael comprises an even higher madreigah, level, than a medaber, human. Therefore, when a Jew falls off his designated spiritual berth, he falls even lower than a gentile. Is it any wonder that some of the individuals who are leaders of the most depraved cults of immoral lifestyles are of Jewish extraction. They were supposed to be the highest, the most elevated, and the most spiritually developed. Instead, they have fallen into the abyss of disaster.

We were the purpose of Creation. We were supposed to be "front," on top, the first and highest of all Hashem's work. Some of us have made it; others, however, have chosen to descend to a life that is even lower than that of the animal. These individuals are told, "Even the lowly earthworm preceded you." You have fallen and, now, even the lowliest creature has risen above you.

The Kohen shall look at the affliction on the skin of his flesh. (13:3)

Chazal teach us that when Hashem declared the Kohanim to be the ones who would determine the status of a nega, plague, Moshe Rabbeinu was troubled. The Midrash says that Moshe had great tzaar, pain, realizing that his brother, the great Kohen Gadol, would be relegated to looking at-- and deciding-- the ritual purity of a plague. Moshe felt it was not l'fi kevodo, consistent with his exalted position. Hashem replied, "Does he not benefit from the twenty-four gifts that are given to Kehunah?" Chazal analogize this to one who eats together with a bird and becomes trapped in the net that is set out for the bird. In other words: It goes with the territory. The Kohen receives a multitude of support from Klal Yisrael. He cannot contend that his is too high a status for him to determine negaim. Someone of his spiritual caliber is needed, even if it is not so geshmak, pleasant. His fringe benefits serve to compensate for the more demanding aspects of his position.

We can derive a powerful lesson from Chazal. Among us are individuals who dedicate their lives to helping others. They often do so with mesiras nefesh, devotion and self-sacrifice, giving up time, money and family for the sake of others. At times these contributors are involved in circumstances which demand that they degrade themselves; or they are compelled to raise money for individuals or organizations - an endeavor that is not pretty and often demeaning. Therefore, during a moment of respite, they might wonder," Is it worth it?" The answer is that it most definitely is worth every moment. The bizyonos, demeaning moments, go with the territory. They merit fringe benefits that come to them directly from the Almighty. That should account for "something."

If a tzaraas affliction will be in a person, he shall be brought to the Kohen. (13:9)

Good advice is a precious and often unappreciated commodity. David HaMelech gives us excellent advice that has proven itself positive time and again; yet, most of us seem to ignore him. In Sefer Tehillim 34:13-15, he says: "Who is the man who desires life, who loves days wherein to see good? Guard your tongue from speaking evil, and your lips from speaking deceit. Turn away from bad and do good. Seek peace and chase after it." At first glance, the closing words of the pasuk, "Turn away from bad and do good," are superfluous. Clearly, if one is admonished to turn away from bad, which means refraining from committing any sins, "do good" is a redundant phrase.

In a shmuess, ethical discourse, Horav Moshe Aharon Stern, zl, the Kaminetzer Mashgiach, cites Horav Eliyahu Lopian, zl, who offers the following explanation. In Pirkei Avos 4:2, Ben Azai says, "Run to do an easy mitzvah as you would to do a hard one, and run away from the aveirah, sin." Why does the Tanna enjoin us to run away from the aveirah, using the hay ha'yediah, denoting hay, indicating that he is referring to a specific aveirah?

Rav Elya explains that the Kabbalah seforim mention that, in the era prior to Moshiach Tzidkeinu's advent, no new neshamos, souls, will descend to this world. The Tikunei HaZohar explains that in past generations, when a neshamah had not accomplished its mission on this world, it was sent back. Regrettably, some neshamos do not achieve a remedy for their deficiencies, so they are compelled to return a second-- and even a third-- time. The Zohar asserts that three times is the limit. After the third time, there are no more contingencies. The neshamah does not return again.

With this in mind, we must assume that in our times each neshamah is not present for the first time. Rather, the neshamah has been here once or even twice before. It is in this world either to complete its original mission, or to rectify sins it had committed in a previous lifetime. Time is limited and-for all intents and purposes - it might be the only chance we have left to return the neshamah to the Almighty with a "mission accomplished" notation attached to it!

An individual might have a valid protest. If he were to be aware of why he had been sent back, what he had done wrong in his earlier life, he would be able to focus on that deficiency in order to do everything within his power to correct it. After all, who does not want to go to Gan Eden? Rav Elya explains that Hashem has provided each and every one of us with a hint to guide us to the aveirah which we need to address. We all have a netiyah, an inner gravitational pull, towards a specific sin. Every one of us has a greater proclivity to transgress his own little sin, his particular weakness. We must examine our actions, and scrutinize our tendencies, so that we develop a clearer picture of our netiyos. We can then identify the aveirah which we must rectify. This is what the Tanna means when he states, "Run away from the aveirah." He is referring to the particular sin which catalyzed the return of his neshamah to this world.

This point is vividly demonstrated in the following episode. A young talmid chacham, Torah scholar, contracted a serious illness. The prognosis was bleak, hope for a recovery running out. He told one of his close friends, "I have introspected into my life and cannot discover what aveirah has catalyzed such a punishment." His friend suggested that he go seek an audience with Horav Meshi Zahav, a mekubal, mystic, who reads palms. He was able to discern an individual's sins and determine whether the necessary teshuvah, repentance, had been completed. They went together, but decided not to say that anything was wrong. They were simply coming for a "reading."

The young, stricken man went into the rav. When he emerged a short while later, he was visibly perturbed and trembling. "What happened?" his friend asked.

"I entered the room, and Rav Meshi Zahav began to berate me, 'You are wondering why you have been afflicted with this disease?' he asked. 'How long have you been learning in yeshivah?' I quickly replied, 'Thirty-three years.' 'You have been learning for thirty-three years, and you have studied under some of this generation's most distinguished Torah leaders,' the rav began, 'and how much have you achieved? You could have learned so much, and you ended up accomplishing a mere two percent of your capability! Your neshamah has descended to this world; this is not even the second time. It is the third time! During your previous sojourns in this world, you were not successful in accomplishing your mission. This is your last chance, and you are doing it again! Do you still wonder why you have this dread disease?'"

In an alternative approach, Horav Chaim, zl, m'Volozhin, asserts that "the" aveirah to which the Tanna is referring is the sin of lashon hora, evil speech. It is a transgression that affects everyone, one from which we all suffer. Rav Stern suggests that these two explanations can be combined. Which aveirah are we all inclined to transgress? To which sin do we all have a netiyah? Lashon hora certainly comes to mind. It is the one sin which Chazal feel impacts on everyone. It is the aveirah which our souls were sent here to rectify.

Many people consider this aveirah exactly what it is: loathsome. They do everything within their power literally to "run away" from opportunities that present themselves to speak lashon hora. Rav Stern relates that his uncle, Reb Nochum David Herman, described his own father-in-law, Reb Avraham Horowitz, as such an individual. He never heard his father-in-law utter a derogatory word about anyone. This was not because he did not speak. On the contrary, he was a prolific speaker. He just did not say anything forbidden. When he passed away, three words were etched onto his tombstone: Shomar piv u'leshono. "He guarded his mouth and tongue." No other praises. This describes the individual who devoted his life to adhering meticulously to laws concerning lashon hora. Indeed, this was a kabbalah, a commitment, which he adopted on the occasion of his Bar Mitzvah. Following his aliyah, being called up to the Torah, the assembled heard him saying, "Ribbono Shel Olam! I saw in the seforim, a holy book, how terrible is the sin of speaking lashon hora. I now accept upon myself never to speak lashon hora for the rest of my life!" This is exactly what he did. He made a commitment at a very young age, at a critical juncture in his life, and he stuck to it - his entire life. Indeed, it is not everyone who is worthy of such an epitaph.

In conclusion, I cite Rav Elya Lopian who ruminates concerning the phrase we say before Shemoneh Esrai, Hashem sefasai tiftach, u'fi yagid tehilasecha, "Hashem, open my lips and my mouth will declare Your praise." It seems strange that an entire day can go by, during which we never bother to ask Hashem to open our mouths. We simply talk and talk without paying attention - not even "lip service" to the Hashem factor in our lives. Why is it only concerning davening that we take notice that we must ask for help?

Rav Elya explains that it is because we need Hashem's help when it comes to davening. We cannot do it without Him. We speak inappropriately during the entire day, thereby contaminating our lips. We really should not have the audacity to use those same lips to speak to Hashem and entreat His favor through prayer. The only way that we can use these lips is if Hashem opens them for us. Clearly, this is a concept to think about the next time we recite Shemoneh Esrai.


This shall be the law of the metzora. (14:2)

Shlomo HaMelech says in Mishlei 18:21: Maves v'chaim b'yad ha'lashon, "Death and life are in the hands of the tongue." The power of speech has a compelling impact on a person. With it, he can rise to the highest elevations; and, with it, he can descend to the nadir of depravity. It can engender life, and it can cause death - both in this world and in the World to Come. He who seeks life will be sure to guard his tongue. The Chafetz Chaim, zl, who made it his life's mission to teach the world about the harmful effects of lashon hora, writes that, while Chazal encourage one to be me'urav im ha'briyos, get along with people, this does not apply if the group in question is engaged in speaking lashon hora. Better he should be considered a fool his entire life than be viewed as a rasha, evil, by Hashem for even one moment.

In 1973, a group of students was sitting with Horav Elazar M. Shach, zl. In the ensuing conversation, they proceeded to discuss a certain distinguished individual. One of the participants in the conversation asserted that he had seen a letter addressed to this person from the Chafetz Chaim, and the introductory appellations to him by the sage were quite impressive. When he mentioned this to an adam gadol, preeminent Torah scholar, his response was doubtful and terse, "This can only occur to a person who never heard lashon hora." In other words, if the Chafetz Chaim would have been more "practical" and checked this person out a little better, he might have heard some startling revelations concerning his character.

When Rav Shach heard this comment, he immediately asserted that such a statement was ludicrous. Anyone who had ever met the saintly Chafetz Chaim was acutely aware of his brilliance and penetrating wisdom. He did not make mistakes; just as the Rambam did not err (even when the Raavad disagreed with him), neither did the Chafetz Chaim err. If he had written an appellation referring to someone, then it was true. His lack of involvement in conversations which centered around denigrating people did not diminish his ability to discern an individual's true character.

This shall be the law of the metzora on the day of his purification: He shall be brought to the Kohen. (14:2)

The Sifsei Kohen explains that the Kohen goes out to meet the metzora who is returning to the community after his period of solitude. The reason for this gesture is kavod, honor. The metzora has performed his penance. He has suffered the necessary humiliation and experienced the pain of being alone. It is now over. Adding more insult will do nothing more than distance him from the community. We are trying to bring him back - not send him away.

We can derive an important lesson from here. Even when one is punished, the punishment must be executed with dignity and mentchlichkeit, human decency. He had sinned, and had gone through contrition. Now he is brought back with a degree of honor. He paid his debt to society and to Hashem, and he has reformed himself. Let bygones be bygones.

Miriam HaNeviah was punished with tzaraas for speaking against Moshe Rabbeinu. Yet, Klal Yisrael gave her the honor she deserved, and Hashem did not allow them to move on until she had been healed. Punishment tempered with compassion and dignity: that is the way we do it. We punish when it is necessary, but only to the degree that is absolutely required. Parents and educators should take heed, for punishing excessively will only turn off, and turn away a child.

Furthermore, as the Sifsei Kohen adds, the metzora's punishment was the result of his gasus ha'ruach, arrogance, haughtiness. He had thought that he was better than others, so he could talk negatively about them. Humility was an anathema to him. The Kohen, who is the most exalted spiritual leader, leaves his place of dignity and goes out to meet the returning metzora. This teaches the metzora the meaning of humility. When the greatest leaves his pedestal to greet the lowest, it illustrates the Torah's concept of modesty: no man is so high that he cannot bend down to the lowly.

He shall go forth to the outside of the camp; the Kohen shall look, and behold - the tzaraas affliction had been healed from the metzora. (14:3)

The Sifsei Tzadik notes that the phrase raah haKohen, "the Kohen shall look," is repeated more than ten times. Once, the Torah writes v'raahu haKohen, "The Kohen shall look at it." He derives from here that merely looking at the plague to determine if change has occurred is not sufficient. It is necessary for the Kohen to look at the entire person, to take a deep, penetrating look at the metzora to ascertain if the man has changed. To see a change in the nega, plague, but not on the metzorah's face, indicates that the metzora's character defect has not been expunged. He is as flawed as he was before. Solitude, pain and humiliation were not enough to eradicate this man's evil disposition. He had not really repented. He only went through the motions.

Horav Chaim Zaitchik, zl, explains that the tzaraas affliction has a purpose. It is to catalyze a feeling of remorse, a desire to change, a sense of contrition and eventual repentance. True, the change in the plague's color indicates that change is taking place, but unless the entire person has been transformed, the change is only the beginning. The individual still has a ways to go.

When Yaakov Avinu finally came face to face with his long-lost son, Yosef, he said, "Now I can die, after having seen your face, because you are still alive" (Bereishis 46:30). The Ohr HaChaim HaKodesh wonders why Yaakov had to make this statement. Why did he have to see Yosef's face? He had already heard reports from his other sons that Yosef was alive. Furthermore, when Yosef sent the agalos, wagons, which were an allusion to the laws of Eglah Arufah, the last Torah discourse which Yaakov had with Yosef before he disappeared, he already knew that Yosef had retained his religious observance. Why was it necessary for him to see Yosef's face? What was he hoping to observe?

The Ohr HaChaim explains that Yaakov was concerned about the length of time that Yosef was in Egypt. Had he acculturated? Was he affected ever so slightly by the Egyptian lifestyle? He might remember his Torah studies, but was he the same Yosef, or had he become the Egyptian version of his son? Yaakov had to "see" his face, his entire countenance, to determine the truth, to allay his fears. When he "saw" Yosef, he was convinced that his son had remained true to his original convictions. He was the authentic Yosef, not the Egyptian facsimile.

The Ohr HaChaim goes so far as to assert that a truly righteous man would rather have his son remain "missing" than be a disgrace to his heritage. Yaakov's joy in hearing that his beloved Yosef was alive was equivocal. He welcomed the wonderful news with mixed feelings. What if Yosef were physically alive, but spiritually extinct? When he saw Yosef's countenance, he understood that his fears had been unfounded: "Now I can die, for I have seen that you are truly alive."

We derive a powerful lesson from here. An individual can go through the process of teshuvah, repentance, and even be successful, but it might only be an external manifestation. His real essence might, regrettably, not have changed. He could be on the road to recovery, but without yet having arrived at his destination.

Ahallelah Hashem b'chayay
I will praise Hashem with my life.

Horav Eliezer Lopian explains that one can praise Hashem through the life he leads. If one's lifestyle sets a standard for others to emulate; if it engenders praise whereby others envy the serenity, joy and devotion to Hashem in his life; if his life is a reflection of true Kiddush Hashem, whereby he sanctifies Hashem's Name in every endeavor, then he, by his very living, praises Hashem every moment. This enables Hashem to declare, "Look at what I have created!" Concerning the pasuk, Kol ha'neshamah tehallel Kah (Tehillim 150:6), "Every soul should praise Hashem," Chazal add, al kol neshamah u'neshimah tehallel Kah, "For each and every breath (that one takes) he should praise Hashem." One's gratitude for the gift of life should be constant and boundless. With the above idea in mind, we may add: With every breath one breathes, he should catalyze praise for Hashem. One's life, indeed, his every waking moment, should be a source of praise to the Almighty.

l'ilui nishmas hrh"tz
R' Chaim Tzvi ben Betzalel HaCohen Katz zt"l
niftar 5 Iyar 5755
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