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Peninim on the Torah

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Rabbi A. Leib Scheinbaum
Hebrew Academy of Cleveland


If a person will have on the skin of his flesh a s'eis, or a sapachas, or a baheres, and it will become a tzaraas, affliction on the skin of his flesh. (13:2)

Chazal teach that tzaraas, spiritual leprosy, is the result of slander or sinning with one's speech. Words can destroy. They can also build up a person. Words can kill. They also have the ability to engender life, to animate a person who is otherwise hopeless and capable of only a limited emotional or intellectual life. Much depends upon: what one says; how he says it; when he speaks; and the level of sincerity supporting his words. Lashon hora, slanderous speech; Motzi shem ra, speaking ill of others, are the classic Hebrew terms which describe the power of words to destroy. The word ra, however, means bad, evil, in its multifarious shades of unacceptable behavior. Lashon hora should, therefore, be defined as bad speech. One can state the truth, but, if his timing is poor, the truth becomes bad speech. One can be dressing down a person - rightfully so, but in an inappropriate manner, which causes his words of tochacha, reproof, to be classified as bad. Instead of correcting a person, encouraging him, by guiding him in the right direction - he has destroyed him. All of this is the product of bad speech, or, perhaps, we should classify it as poor speech, picking the wrong words, the improper venue, a condescending attitude, etc; simply, when that which comes out of someone's mouth can just not be justified as good.

We have the power to produce positive speech and the power to produce negative speech. Positive speech is approbatory, complimentary and friendly. Negative speech is none of these. Indeed, we never know the good that we can achieve with positive speech. The following story, quoted by Horav Moshe Toledano in his He'emanti Va'adabeirah, demonstrates the incredible, almost life-sustaining effect that positive speech can have on a person.

Yaakov made a point to stop by the hospital daily to visit various patients; individuals whom he knew could use that extra attention. It was not as if Yaakov had nothing to do. He had a sizable family, and he spent a good part of his day learning in the local Kollel. He then worked in the afternoon and evening in order to earn enough to support his family. Chesed - acts of lovingkindness - was a part of his daily schedule.

One of the patients whom he visited daily was a forty year old man who had been injured in a car accident. While his body had healed, his mind had not. He lay there, eyes closed, breathing through a ventilator, every breath sounding like it was his last. The doctors had basically despaired of his ever regaining consciousness; they were, therefore, pained that Yaakov "wasted" his time by visiting him. "Would it not be more constructive if you would make better use of your time by visiting a patient who would actually benefit from your visit?" they would ask. "He is a lost cause."

Yaakov was relentless, not giving up on this patient. He continued visiting him, telling the doctors and nurses, "Your job is to heal - not to give up hope. To determine if a person will live or die is in Hashem's domain - not yours. You have no right to mix into an area which is not your affair." Indeed, over the years, Yaakov had witnessed miracles, whereby patients who had little to no chance of survival returned from the "dead" to lead vibrant, contributory lives.

Yaakov continued visiting, speaking, soothing, engendering hope. It appeared to be for naught, because the patient appeared to be out of it. Eight months of visiting and talking had elapsed; suddenly, the doctors came running to Yaakov, screaming excitedly, "He opened his eyes! The patient opened up his eyes and motioned to have the ventilator removed, so that he could speak." Yaakov ran to the room, and, when the patient heard his voice, he motioned to the doctor to bring over the one whose voice he heard. Yaakov bent his ear close to the patient's lips, and, with tears streaming down his cheeks, he heard the patient whisper, "You saved me! Every day that you came and spoke to me encouraged me to fight, to want to live, to once again see my family. It was your constant encouragement that brought me out of my stupor."

One month later, that patient left the hospital with his arm around the angel called Yaakov. Positive words had broken through the dense fog that had enveloped his mind.

Another form of positive speech exists which many of us - especially those who are insecure or on an ego trip - seem to ignore. Perhaps we should refer to it as positive listening. This means that we allow someone who comes to speak with us - to speak, not force him to listen to us without regard for his feelings. In an article I recently read, a successful businessman relates how, when he was starting out, he had to interview the leaders of several major organizations. They each held a distinguished position on the world religious scene, directing large institutions which had a compelling reach of the world. The following is the writer's impression of each leader, based upon his experience interviewing him.

The first leader was charming, regaling the interviewer for forty-five minutes about his work, successes and aspirations. He talked about his growing family, his children and grandchildren. Never once did he question the interviewer about his life, his family, his business. Indeed, when the interview was over, the interview sounded much like a speech. Interestingly, the interviewer was never given an opportunity to ask a single question. Apparently, the interviewee did not care about him. At least, this was the impression that he gave.

In the second instance, the interviewee began by asking the questions. He wanted to know all about the interviewer, his family, his life, his goals. He spoke as a friend, making the interviewer comfortable in his presence, feeling validated. Two leaders - two completely different experiences. One took the time to show that he cared about the other person; the other demonstrated that he cared about no one other than himself. This may not be lashon hora. No one was slandered, although someone was hurt, made to feel that he was insignificant, irrelevant to the larger scheme of the interviewee's goals and objectives. We have been given the power of speech to communicate - not to pontificate.

If a person will have on the skin of his flesh a s'eis or a sapachas, or a baheres, and it will become a tzaraas affliction on the skin of his flesh. (13:2)

Lashon hora, slanderous speech, which is the cause of tzaraas, is most often the result of envy and controversy in their various states. In the scheme of things, for every dispute among people, every point of contention which catalyzes animus towards one another and the resulting inevitable lashon hora, there is one simple point, one solitary position, that would make the controversy dissolve, if the individual would opt for it. If so, the envy dissipates and harmony continues to reign. What has the power to mitigate dispute, to put an end to contention between people? Vitur, acquiescence, submissiveness. One who has an accommodating nature, who is compliant and tolerant, will inevitably never be involved in a machlokes, controversy. He does not look to promote himself; he is willing to bend, to submit to the will of others. It takes two people to start and maintain a dispute. When one is mevater, compliant, he has no one with whom to contend.

Horav Elazar M. Shach, zl, once remarked concerning a dispute that raged between two distinguished people, Es iz a shad as zei beida vaisin nisht der ziskeit fun zein a mevater, "It is a shame that neither one knows the sweetness of vitur, acquiescence." Furthermore, he was wont to say, "Throughout my life, I have always been mevater - and you should know that I never lost out" (due to my submission).

A number of years ago, an episode occurred that received some attention and was recorded by a number of periodicals - Peninim included. I take the liberty of repeating it because of its capacity to inspire. Rav Eliyahu Mann, who serves as a close student and aide to Horav Chaim Kanievsky, Shlita, was asked by a man to set up a special appointment with Rav Kanievsky. Apparently, his daughter was engaged to a fine ben Torah, with the wedding date set for three weeks from then. That day, they had been informed by the chosson's parents that their son was ill with the dread disease and would require treatments for some time. They asked the Gerrer Rebbe to advise them with regard to the wedding plans. The Rebbe replied that this was a difficult question. The only person who could render a halachic response consistent with Torah dictate is Rav Chaim Kanievsky. The meeting was arranged.

The next morning, the chosson and his parents, together with the kallah and her parents, met with Rav Chaim, who listened to the two sides. The chosson claimed that, since he would have to undergo painful and, at times, debilitating treatments, it was not fair that the kallah should have to be subjected to such a relationship during the first year of their marriage. The kallah, however, claimed that it was not proper that such a distinguished ben Torah as her chosson should be compelled to suffer alone through such an ordeal.

When Rav Chaim heard the two sides of the "dispute," he immediately rendered his decision: they should get married on the designated date, and they should be blessed to build a bayis ne'eman, a true Jewish home, committed to the Torah and a glory to Hashem. As soon as the Rav rendered his decision, all the parties present broke into tears of joy, knowing that the wedding would go on as planned.

On the day of the wedding, Rav Eliyahu suggested to Rav Chaim that perhaps they should attend the wedding. After all, the Rav had played a critical role in preserving the shidduch, match. Rav Chaim agreed. The arrival of Rav Chaim at the wedding created quite a stir, since it was highly unusual for him to attend any affairs. He sat with the chosson for a few minutes, then rose and danced with him. Following the dance, Rav Chaim bid the chosson and kallah mazel tov and wished them well. As Rav Chaim walked from the hall to the waiting car, he was accompanied by the chosson and kallah and all of the guests.

When they returned home, Rav Eliyahu asked Rav Chaim the reason for his decision that the young couple not delay their wedding. Rav Chaim replied, "It is an explicit Midrash (Bereishis Rabbah 33:1). In its commentary to the pasuk (Bereishis 7:11), the Midrash addresses the concept of the judgment that is rendered by Hashem. A story is quoted in which Alexander of Macedonia visited a far-away country for the purpose of studying their judicial system. A case presented itself in which two litigants came before the ruler (who was also the judge) with the following dispute: One person sold a ruin, in which the buyer later discovered a hidden treasure. The buyer claimed that he had purchased a ruin - not a treasure. The seller claimed that he had sold the churbah, ruin, with whatever may be in it. The ruler rendered the following decision. He asked one of them, "Do you have a son?" He replied in the affirmative. After confirming that the other litigant had a daughter, he suggested that the two children marry one another and share in the treasure.

Alexander, of course, took issue with this judgment, saying that he would have had both litigants killed and the treasure reverted to the king. The ruler of the country countered that, if it rains in Alexander's kingdom, it is only in the merit of the animals. The human beings are not worthy of blessing - if this is how judgment is rendered in his country.

Rav Chaim commented that we derive from this Midrash that, when two people are each out to be mevater, to acquiesce to one another, the only way to "solve" their "dispute" is through a matrimonial match in which they will now share together as one. "Therefore," concluded Rav Chaim, "I advised the young couple to marry - in compliance with the sage advice of Chazal."


And for the person being purified there shall be taken two live clean birds… and one bird shall be slaughtered… and he shall set free the live bird upon the open field. (14:4,5,7)

As part of the process of purifying the metzora, two birds are brought as an offering to Hashem. Only one of them is killed, however, while the other one is set free. Birds are used for the korban, sacrifice, because birds are constantly chirping, and the metzora had not stopped spewing his slander when he should have kept his mouth shut. This explains why one bird is killed, but what about the second bird? Why is it released? The explanation as cited by the commentators is that the Torah is hereby circumventing a common error, thus imparting an important lesson. If there was only one bird and it was killed, one might suggest that speaking is a bad thing. Keep your mouth shut. Only evil can result from speech. This is, of course, untrue. There is good speech and bad speech - a time to speak, and a time and place when one should not articulate his feelings and position. Talking Torah - utilizing one's ability to speak to assist, guide and inspire others - constitutes good speech. Taking a stand for the Torah way - repudiating those who usurp the Torah and its disseminators - constitutes good speech. Just simple, friendly conversation can make someone's day. The Torah is teaching us that the bird representing evil speech is killed. The other bird is released, because it represents the inherent good one can accomplish with his G-d-given power of speech.

Alternatively, we may suggest that both birds represent the baal lashon hora, slanderer. Together they impart a crucial message to him: ultimately, the only one who will be hurt is you. The subject of your slander will eventually be vindicated. True, he might, as a result of your slander, suffer temporarily. After the smoke clears, the only one that will be destroyed is the slanderer. The other fellow, whom he sought to destroy, will "fly away" free and clear, expunged of the dirt that the slanderer attempted to throw at him.

Horav Eliyahu Baruch Finkel, zl, quotes Horav Yosef Shalom Elyashiv, zl, who explains that while a snake has two reasons/opportunities for biting - neither one delivers him any pleasure. Other animals attack their prey, but they, at least, derive pleasure from devouring it. The snake bites for the sole sake of biting - nothing else. Additionally, even when the snake consumes its enemy, it derives no pleasure. All that it tastes is dirt. The snake was cursed that, while its food would be plentiful, it would only taste like dirt.

Likewise, the baal lashon hora speaks vilely of his fellow for the sole purpose of inflicting his "bite" - not for any benefit or personal gain. He wants to make him hurt. This is perhaps his source of pleasure - the other person's pain. In another instance, the slanderer is bent on doing away with a competitor, attempting to climb the ladder of opportunity upon the shoulders of his fellow. The slanderer does not realize that Hashem decides who wins, who succeeds, and who loses. Thus, the slanderer has no gain from the hurt that he causes, because the final "word" is up to Hashem.

When you arrive in the land of Canaan… and I will place a tzaraas affliction upon a house in the land of your possession. (14:34)

V'nasati, "and I will place." The structure of the pasuk is such that it implies good tidings - when, in fact, it means the destruction of one's home. Rashi explains that, when the Canaanite inhabitants of Eretz Yisrael saw that their sojourn in the Holy Land was soon coming to an end, they concealed their valuables in the walls of their homes. They were not about to enrich their Jewish victors. In order to avail His People of the Canaanite wealth, Hashem placed an affliction on the part of the wall in which the treasure was hidden. Once the tainted stones would be removed, the hidden treasure would be revealed.

This is a clear case of "it is not what it seems." To the spectator who is not a believer, purchasing a home and then having to demolish it does not reflect good fortune. When he discovers the hidden treasure, suddenly everything makes sense. Life is good. This, explains Horav Yaakov Galinsky, zl, is the rationale behind Chazal's statement, "One is obligated to bless (Hashem) for (what seems to be) bad, as he does for good" (Mishnayos Berachos 9:5). Likewise, Chazal (Berachos 60b) interpret the pasuk in Krias Shema, V'ahavta es Hashem Elokecha b'chol levavcha u'b'chol nafshecha, u'b'echol meodecha, "You shall love Hashem, Your G-d, with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your resources" (Devarim 6:5). B'chol meodecha, b'chol middah u'middah sheHu moded lach, hevei modeh Lo b'chol, "Whatever measure (regardless of what your "portion" may be) He metes out to you, praise Him very much."

We simply do not know Hashem's Divine plan, but we believe that, whatever it may be, it is ultimately good for us. In his Pirush HaMishnayos commentary, the Rambam explains that, as one is filled with inner joy upon reciting a blessing over "good," so, too, should he maintain a like emotion when circumstances compel him to recite Dayan HaEmes, the Truthful Judge, with the passing of a close relative.

It is well-known that, when the daughter of the Chief Rabbi of Yerushalayim, Horav Eliyahu David Rabinowitz Teumim (Aderes), died, the entire community assembled in front of the Rav's house and waited to accompany the deceased to her final resting place. They waited - and waited, but the Aderes remained ensconced in his room, apparently not yet ready to commence with the funeral. When he finally came out of his room, he explained that he was trying to achieve a frame of mind in which he would feel the same inner joy at the moment of his daughter's passing as he felt when he had received the news of her birth!

It requires superhuman emunah, faith, to achieve such a level of perception - to believe that birth and death have a commonality with regard to their "goodness." To be able to look tragedy in the eye and maintain the inner sense of devotion, joy and acceptance that one has when enveloped in boundless joy takes a perceptive and lucid sense of emunah - one that is so clear that there is no room for questioning - only acceptance.

This vision is invariably complete when one views the situation through the spectrum of hindsight. Then one sees clearly that what he had envisioned as tragedy, misery, or just plain hard luck, was, in fact, his source of salvation. Rav Galinsky relates that when the Russians came out with their virulent hatred of anything Jewish, they arrested one hundred students of the Novaradoker Yeshivah system, who had been in Lithuania during the Russian occupation. After a quick, mock trial, they were sentenced to hard labor in the frozen tundra of Siberia. The rest of the group, under the direction of Horav Gershon Liebman, zl, were able to hide from the Russians. They felt fortunate in being spared from the Russian anti-Semite, while, at the same time, they grieved over the decree to which their fellow yeshivah students were subjected. Following the war, Rav Liebman, who miraculously survived the war, commented, "We felt bad for you, knowing that you were relegated to the misery and back-breaking labor to which the subhuman Russians subjected their prisoners. At the same time, we were grateful at being spared your fate. Little did we know that soon the tables would be turned on us, when the Germans overran Lithuania and Poland and either outright killed or sent our students to the death camps. Indeed, the decree that sent you to Siberia saved your lives, while what we thought was our salvation, was not."

This lesson is taught to us by the hidden treasure found buried in the walls of the plagued house which must be demolished. That which at first appears to be the end of the world for the Jewish landowner, is, in fact, his great opportunity for achieving wealth and peace of mind. How he must have wept when they tore down that wall, when he realized how his dream home was becoming a serious liability. How that initial reaction must have changed when he saw the hidden treasures of gold and jewelry. When the Kohen declared his house to be covered with a plague, it meant destruction. His home, his domicile of security and stability, was about to be torn down. How he must have prayed to Hashem to spare him this fate, to eradicate the plague, so that he could continue living in his home. How he must have cried that Hashem have pity on him - and how he must now be offering his overwhelming gratitude to Hashem - for not listening to his prayer! Thank you Hashem for decreeing that my house be demolished!

Rav Galinsky quotes a story he heard from Horav Avraham Yoffen, zl, which underscores this change in attitude, concerning the focus of one's prayer. There was a bochur, student, in one of Novaradok's branch yeshivos. He was a sweet, likeable, young man. His acumen, however, was quite limited; thus, his ability to excel academically was stunted. This affected his entire demeanor, to the point that his family and friends worried about his future. How would he earn a living? How would he make it in the world with all the societal pressures that one must overcome to achieve even the slightest modicum of success? The simple rudiments of math were beyond him. How could he succeed in the world of business? Someone suggested that he purchase a lottery ticket. Who knows? He might win. Imagine the excitement when he guessed all three numbers and won the first prize of five thousand rubles!

He was immediately asked, "How did you do it? How did you know which numbers to pick?"

He explained, "Truthfully, I had never planned on buying a lottery ticket. It was never something in which I believed. One night I had a dream, in which the numbers 17, 18, 370 were prominently displayed. I felt this was Providential; a sign from Heaven that I should invest in the lottery, and that I would win using this number scheme."

Hearing this, his friends asked, "But the lottery has only three numbers. You have seven."

"I know," he replied. "I combined the numbers by adding 17, plus 18, plus 370 to total 415. I then purchased a ticket and picked 4,1,5 which were the winning numbers."

"But 17,18, and 370 equal 405 - not 415! You were wrong." "Well is it not a good thing that I am weak in math?" was the young man's reply.

Everyone had taken pity on him. How would he make it in life? The poor fellow did not even know simple addition. In the end, however, the fact that he could not add correctly is what catalyzed his winning choice of numbers. We do not know what is good and what is bad. We are clueless. We grope through life and survive only by trusting in Hashem, and we accept His Divine Plan for us - with gratitude!

Va'ani Tefillah

Emes she'Atah Hu Hashem Elokeinu v'Elokei avoseinu.
Malkeinu Melech avoseinu Go'aleinu Goeil avoseinu.

It is true that You are Hashem, our G-d, and the G-d of our forefathers. Our King and the King of our forefathers, Our Redeemer, the Redeemer of our forefathers.

It is amazing how often we recite these phrases without giving them a second thought, without cogitating upon the profundity of their meaning. We seem to be repeating the concept of emes, truth, affirming our belief in Hashem. We want to reiterate that what we accept and believe as true, is the same belief that our forefathers maintained. Nothing has changed. We stand tall and strong with our ancestors in our commitment to Hashem. We accept His Torah as unchanged from the very same one which our ancestors accepted at Sinai, and we accept Hashem as unchanging from the Almighty Who revealed Himself to our ancestors at Sinai. We have no new dogma, no innovative perception of the Divine. We also affirm that Hashem, Whom we accept as the King and Redeemer, is the very same King and Redeemer Who liberated our ancestors from Egypt. Nothing has changed.

in loving memory of
Beate Frank a"h
Baila bas Eliezer a"h
By her husband, Walter Frank, and her children and grandchildren,
Birdie and Lenny Frank and Family

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.

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