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Peninim on the Torah

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Rabbi A. Leib Scheinbaum
Hebrew Academy of Cleveland


And the fire of the Altar should be kept aflame on it. (6:2)

The fire of one's avodas Hashem, service to the Almighty, should burn passionately bo, "within him." In other words, he should do nothing during his service to Hashem that in any way offends, takes advantage of, or imposes upon someone else. The well-known Chazal (Sukkah 28) relates the level of intensity evinced by the Torah-study of the Tanna, Yonasan ben Uziel. His intensity was to the extent that when he studied Torah, birds flying over the roof of his house would be burned. The Sfas Emes was presented with the Chazal accompanied by the following question: If this was the level of intensity of the student (Yonasan ben Uziel), what level did his holy Rebbe, Hillel HaZakein, attain? The Sfas Emes replied that Hillel's level was so sublime that he maintained the fire well within him, such that no bird was harmed as a result of his learning.

This is a powerful lesson concerning our avodas HaKodesh. It may not adversely affect another person. Moshe Rabbeinu held out for seven days, refusing to accept the leadership over the Jewish people, lest it impinge on the honor his older brother, Aharon HaKohen. Moshe empathized with the pain and persecution of his brothers in Egypt. He identified with their every adversity, yet he could not bring himself to acquiesce to Hashem if it meant that Aharon's feelings would be affected. Only after Hashem assured him that Aharon would be overjoyed with Moshe's appointment did he accept the position. This, explains the Alter m'Slobadka, is the extent to which one should go in order not to infringe upon another Jew.

Horav Yisrael Salanter, zl, met with the Chidushei HaRim in Warsaw. The Gerrer Rebbe treated the founder of the Mussar (ethical character refinement) movement with great deference, which was immediately noticed by his Chassidim. Word spread quickly that the Rebbe had accompanied Rav Yisrael outside of his house all the way to the street. This was unusual, indicating that Rav Yisrael was a distinguished Torah personality.

Soon, everyone in the community knew that a distinguished Lithuanian gaon was in town. Everyone ceased what they were doing: businesses closed; craftsmen left their work; and everyone went to the shul where Rav Yisrael was davening Minchah. The entire shul was filled from wall to wall. There was standing room only, as everyone came to view the exalted sage whom the Gerrer Rebbe had honored. It was therefore a surprise - almost a letdown - when the Chassidim saw Rav Yisrael conclude his recital of Shemoneh Esrai, the silent prayer of eighteen benedictions, very quickly - almost as quickly as the simple worker who was rushing to return to his job.

Rav Yisrael sensed their bewilderment. He gave them a lesson in mussar, ethical imperative: "I saw that people were losing time from their work due to my presence: the shoemaker left his shop to attend shul with me; the tailor left his work to be with me; the blacksmith left his smithy to come to shul; the storekeeper closed his store - all because they wanted to daven with me. If I were to prolong my prayers, it would have an adverse monetary effect on the people's livelihood. What right do I have to do that?"

Religious observance is what defines the Jewish people. Nothing is more important than our commitment to Hashem, His Torah and His mitzvos. This should not, however, come at the expense of another Jew's feelings or his livelihood.

If he shall offer it for a Thanksgiving offering. (7:12)

Rashi explains that the Korban Todah, Thanksgiving offering, was offered as gratitude for miracles incurred in four different circumstances: when one who has crossed the sea; when one traveled through the wilderness; when one was liberated from prison; or when one was healed from serious illness. In each of these circumstances, the Torah enjoins the individual to demonstrate his gratitude to the Almighty. Interestingly, the Korban Todah was accompanied by forty loaves which, together with the sacrifice, had to be consumed during the requisite period of one day and a night - less time than was allotted for a regular korban. Sforno explains that a vital component in the gratitude process is publicity - public declaration and proffering gratitude for being saved. Forty loaves is a lot of bread/matzoh - much more than one person can consume in such a short period of time. He should have either been given more time or less bread. If the Torah required such a sum to be completed "overnight," there is only one practical way this could be done: invite all of one's friends and have a "Todah party." Let everyone know why he is thanking Hashem, so they, too, will reflect, acknowledge and share in the gratitude.

Another explanation supports inviting one's friends to celebrate, other than simply to publicize the miracle that one has experienced. One should share his good fortune with his friends. When one has received a blessing, the correct and proper thing to do is share this blessing with others. This, too, is part and parcel of showing one's gratitude. If one has received a wonderful gift, he should share that gift, because we do not live only for ourselves. Self-centeredness is not consistent with Jewish practice.

Incidentally, the Hebrew term for gratitude, hakoras hatov means "recognizing the good." The phrase does not state that one must demonstrate his feelings of gratitude. I think this is a given -one acknowledges that he has received a gift of good, that he has benefitted from something. Our problem is not the lack of overt expression, but, rather, the lack of internal acknowledgement of the good. We take so much for granted, until the moment that we might lose it. Then we are suddenly "motivated" to pray that we do not lose our gift. Life is all about hakoras hatov, because what greater reason do we have for showing gratitude than life itself?

Horav Yosef Kahaneman, zl, popularly known as the Ponevezer Rav, was a living example of hakoras hatov. Every conversation that revolved around his beloved yeshivah was peppered with exemplary faith in the Almighty. He reiterated time and again that Mimcha hakol, "Everything is from You (Hashem)." He took no credit for his unusual success in building Torah in Eretz Yisrael. He attributed it to angels in the guise of men who supported his efforts and assisted him in his every endeavor. It was never about himself.

The Ponevezer Rav once wanted to solicit a one-thousand dollar contribution for the yeshivah. The would-be benefactor was a wealthy man to whom such a donation, albeit considerable, would not have made a dent in his financial portfolio. Regrettably, the Rav was unsuccessful. The man emphatically refused to give. The Rav left empty-handed and dejected. A few moments later, completely out of the blue, a Jewish man, whom the Rav had never before encountered, came up to him and said, "I have heard so much about your wonderful work. I would like to contribute to your cause. The man proceeded to present him with a check for one thousand dollars! When a person realizes that life is filled with miracles - that life in itself is a miracle - he will be the beneficiary of miracles.

The Chida had a unique signature, which included the image of a ship. In his Shem HaGedolim, the Chida writes that his grandfather, Horav Avraham Azulai, descended from the distinguished Chachmei Castilia, wise men of Castille, who were holy, righteous Jews that were expelled from Spain in 1492. The family traveled to Fez, Morocco, by boat. As soon as the boat docked in the harbor, they alighted and set foot on dry land. Suddenly, a storm appeared as if from nowhere and sank the boat with all of their belongings. They were miraculously spared. In recognition of the miracle and to ensure that they would never forget Hashem's gift of life to them, his grandfather incorporated the image of a ship in his signature. This became a family tradition of hakoras hatov.

Gather the entire assembly to the entrance of the Ohel Moed. (8:3)

Rabbeinu Bachya writes that the ability of the entire eidah, Jewish congregation, to assemble in front of the Ohel Moed was miraculous. Hichzik ha'muat es ha'merubah, this was a case of the few supporting the many. Indeed, the Midrash quotes a dialogue between Moshe Rabbeinu and Hashem concerning this anomaly. Moshe asked, "Ribono shel olam, how can I place 600,000 men and 600,000 youths in front of the Ohel Moed?" Hashem replied, "Concerning this you are wondering? The Heavens were (originally) the size of the pupil of an eye; yet I 'stretched' it out to cover the entire world." In Maayanei Chaim, Horav Chaim Zaitchik, zl, quotes Horav Elchanan Wasserman, zl, in distinguishing between the ben Torah and the baal habayis, the perspective of the yeshivah student versus that of the religious layman. The baal habayis is concerned for tomorrow: what will be; how we will handle the upcoming challenges. The ben Torah, however, is concerned with the past: how he was able to survive the vicissitudes, the challenges, the poverty, the difficulty. For him, this is a source of amazement which encourages an even deeper, more powerful sense of faith and trust in Hashem.

Rav Zaitchik observes that, if we look back in time, we truly may wonder how we achieved all of this! How did we manage to learn in two small classrooms, unheated, with broken chairs and tables, and lighting that was, at best, inferior? We did learn Torah, however, and we produced gedolim, Torah giants! We wonder whether it is really true that we were able to function without the electronic conveniences which have become a staple of contemporary society. The yeshivos of Europe functioned with minimal food, and inadequate sleeping arrangements; yet, the learning continued unabated on a level that we have yet to emulate! Indeed, we wonder if the tables were to be turned around, and we would be subject to learn Torah under such primitive and degrading conditions: would we be as devoted? The bottom line is that we must acknowledge that our very existence, our success, our every achievement, is the result of Hashem's miracle. This is what distinguishes the ben Torah. The ben Torah realizes that it is not "he" that accomplishes. It is Hashem; he is merely the fortunate spectator.

Horav Avraham, zl, brother of the Gaon, zl, m'Vilna, was a distinguished talmid chacham, Torah scholar, in his own right. He was the author of the Maalos HaTorah, a profound treatise on Torah study. He would often travel to Vilna to be near his revered brother, to study and be inspired. Travel was difficult and involved much hardship. This did not deter him, since it meant so much to him to be with his brother.

Rav Avraham was once asked why he did not simply move to Vilna. It was not as if he was obliged to live in his village. Rav Avraham replied that, veritably, it would be the correct and proper thing to do, but he could not do it to his righteous wife, for whom living in their village meant so much. Obviously, this was not the expected answer. When Rav Avraham saw the look of incredulity on the man's face he felt that he must explain.

"One year, prior to Succos, it seemed that there would not be any esrogim mehudarim, beautiful esrogim, available. My rebbetzin knew a certain esrogim dealer who, in all likelihood, might be able to help us. She was right. Without asking about the price, she immediately agreed to purchase the esrog for me. She knew how much the right and proper esrog meant to me. When the seller informed her that the esrog would set her back fifty ruble, she did a double take. Fifty ruble at that time was an enormous sum of money - something which we did not have. Yet, a mitzvah is a mitzvah, and it meant so much to her. She proceeded to mortgage our house and, in return, she purchased the esrog.

"Succos went by, and the joy in our house was palpable. The z'chus, merit, of giving up so much for a mitzvah truly added to the joy of the mitzvah. Sadly, after Succos, we did not have enough money to pay the loan. We lost our house - in return for the mitzvah of esrog. We moved to a small, modest home, in which we have been living since then.

"Twice daily, as my Rebbetzin walks to shul to daven, she stops by our old house and stares with deep satisfaction as she utters words of praise and gratitude to the Almighty for having availed her the opportunity to give up her house for a mitzvah!

"Do you now understand why we cannot leave my village? How could I deprive my Rebbetzin of paying gratitude to Hashem twice a day? It means so much to her - and it should!"

This is what it means to remember the past with gratitude.

He put the Turban on his head; and, upon the Turban, toward his face, he placed the golden Head-plate, the sacred diadem/crown. (8:9)

Interestingly, the Tzitz HaKodesh, Holy Head-plate worn by the Kohen Gadol, is referred to as a nezer, crown/diadem, while the crown worn by a king is called an atarah. Why is the Kohen Gadol's crown called a nezer, and the crown of the Melech Yisrael, King of Yisrael, called an atarah? Horav Moshe Nechemiah Kahanov, zl, distinguishes between these two terms in the sense that their functions are not similar. The nezer, which is wrapped around the forehead does not, in fact, cover the entire head. In the case of the Kohen Gadol, it was a gold plate with Hashem's Name on it, and it was wrapped around the head. An atarah is a crown that sits on top of the head, engulfing the entire head.

The dichotomy between the two is based upon the individual function of each person. The Kohen Gadol is supposed to be gadol meichaveirav, greatest of his brothers, the Kohanim. He must tower above them in learning and yiraas Shomayim, fear of Heaven. His focus, however, is primarily in the area of the spirit. Mundane knowledge, secular wisdom, knowledge of worldly disciples, is not his forte. He is a holy man who dedicates his life to sanctity and spiritual development. He is the one to whom Klal Yisrael looks up to for guidance and inspiration. Therefore, he wears a nezer, which represents what it covers: the mind, Torah wisdom and fear of Heaven.

The king of Yisrael plays a dual role. He must be replete in Torah knowledge and a G-d-fearing person. He must also be worldly, well-versed, and erudite in the mundane/worldly disciplines of languages and wisdom. He represents the Jewish People to the world community. As such, he must be an individual who is comfortable outside of the confines of the Sanctuary - as well as inside. Thus, he wears an atarah, which represents a total head-covering, reflecting the roles that a king must encompass.

In his eulogy for Sir Moses Montefiore, Rav Kahanov applied this thesis to describe an individual who was replete in his fear of the Almighty, love of His People, and uncanny devotion to their every need. He was also a person who was well-versed in worldly wisdom, commerce, politics and diplomacy. He was a champion of the Jewish People at a time when the old Yishuv, settlement in Yerushalayim, was suffering through the labor throes of its exponential growth. Sir Moses was there as a loving father, friend and diplomat.

This, explained Rav Kahanov, is what is meant by naflah ateres rosheinu, "The crown of our head has fallen," a phrase often quoted at the funeral of a great Torah leader. An individual whose abilities and inspiration were all-encompassing is symbolized by the atarah, the crown that covers the entire head.

At the entrance of the Ohel Moed shall you dwell day and night for a seven day period, and you shall protect Hashem's charge so that you will not die. (8:35)

The Chasam Sofer, as cited by U'masuk Ha'or, interprets this pasuk homiletically to teach us a lesson concerning man's true focus in life. If a person lives his life in such a manner that he "dwells" in front of the Ohel Moed it means that he never forgets the most important principle of existence in this world: life does not go on forever. One day, each and every one of us will return "home," from whence we came. If this awareness accompanies our every life's endeavor, then we will merit to "protect Hashem's charge, so that you (we) will not die" without teshuvah, atonement. One who lives his life in such a manner that he realizes that he stands at the entrance to the Sanctuary, and that everything he does must be carefully "weighed and measured" to be certain that he is carrying out the will of G-d, then he need not worry. He will leave this world in the proper frame of mind, for he does not have to worry about the "future." It has been secured by his "present."

Horav Chizkiyahu Mishkovsky, Shlita, relates the story of a Kollel fellow, who after years of devoted Torah study, left the four cubits of halachah to endeavor in the world of commerce. He maintained a regular daily schedule of learning with his chavrusa, study partner, Rav Berachyah Shenker. Sadly, one day, after complaining of various aches and pains and following a battery of tests, he was told that he was suffering from a terminal illness. His days were unfortunately numbered. It was possible to prolong his lifespan by up to three months, but it would mean undergoing painful radiation and therapy which would only fill his last days on this world with pain and misery.

The fellow decided that it was not worth it. He began to psych himself up to the reality of death. He sat there for the first few days, hopeless and dejected, miserable with his lot in life. His wife was beside herself. She pleaded with him to change his mind and make an all-out attempt to extend his life - even for a few months. For her sake and for the sake of their children, she begged him to relent and take the treatment.

The man refused to listen. Pleading and weeping did not move him. He was not taking the treatment. As far as he was concerned, his life was over. His wife called his chavrusa and asked for his help. Rav Berachyah decided to take the man to Horav Elazar M. Shach, zl, who, aside from being the gadol hador, preeminent Torah leader of his generation, was also a very practical person whose common sense approach to life's questions had guided many a questioner. The fellow agreed to go to Rav Shach; if the conversation were to turn to the issue of extending his life, however, he would immediately leave. His mind was made up. He would petition the Rosh Yeshivah for his blessing - and nothing else.

The two - Rav Berachyah and the ailing man - went in together to meet Rav Shach. The man was thoroughly prepared to make an about face if the conversation were to turn to extending his life. He was, however, totally unprepared for Rav Shach's questions. "Are you at ease concerning your death?" the Rosh Yeshivah asked. "Do you have what to take with you? You know that in Heaven there is an accounting of our achievements on this world. Are you so sure that you have sufficient achievement to gain entry in the World-To-Come?"

Suddenly the man burst into tears. "What am I going to do?" he cried. "No, I do not know if I have sufficient merit."

"So what are you doing about it?" the Rosh Yeshivah countered.

"Nothing," the fellow replied. "The doctors say there is no hope. I will soon die of my disease."

"Can they not do anything to prolong your life - even for a short time?" Rav Shach asked.

"Yes," the fellow responded, "but it involves much pain and will work only for three months."

"Three months! That's a lifetime," Rav Shach said. "What is the question? If you can extend your lifespan even for only a few months, go, go immediately and start the treatments!"

The sick man who had given up on life, who had refused to have any treatments for prolonging his life - ran to the doctor and asked to be accepted into any experimental program that could add time to his life. Regardless of the consequences, he realized how correct the Rosh Yeshivah was: one must come to terms with "where he is going." The only way and place to prepare for our destination is here and now - during the journey called life. A life well lived in accordance with the Torah will beget a reward worth living for in the World-to-Come.

It all reverts to what the Tanna says in Pirkei Avos (3:1), "Consider three things, and you will not come into the grip of sin: know from whence you came; where you are going; and before Whom you will give justification and reckoning." These three questions incur a fourth question, which essentially is the underlying question that we must answer: Why did you come here? Why did Hashem create us? For what purpose were we placed on this world? Regardless how we phrase it, the question is compelling and frightening. The question should make us cease whatever we are doing (unless we are in the midst of carrying out a mitzvah) and ask: Is this why Hashem placed me here? This question can really ruin someone's day!

Horav Elchanan Wasserman, zl, the legendary leader of pre-World War II Europe and Rosh Yeshivah of Baranovitch, traveled to America on behalf of his yeshivah. Fundraising in those days was not a fun job. This was especially true in light of fact that the idea of full-time Torah study for adult young men had not yet permeated the American mindset. It was a grueling trip which many a European Rosh Yeshivah was compelled to take. It was time-consuming and often quite degrading. The flipside was that the American community was able to see, meet and be inspired by a bona fide gadol baTorah.

One of Rav Elchanan's ex-students was very wealthy, having made it in the burgeoning clothing business as the producer of buttons of all types, sizes and materials. His factory produced the buttons that were used by many of the clothing manufacturers. He was a fine man, but, sadly, having left Europe at a young age and arriving in America at a time when religious observance was an anomaly, he had become one of the many tragedies of the American Jewish community: he was no longer observant. He would be happy to meet his revered Rebbe once again, even though he no longer looked or acted like the yeshivah student he once had been.

Rav Elchanan arrived at the facility and entered the man's office. Following the proper welcome gestures, the student asked, "Rebbe, how can I help? What brings the Rebbe to my factory?" "I have a button that came off my coat, and I was hoping that you could fix it," was the Rosh Yeshivah's reply. The student could not believe what he had just heard. Nonetheless, he called over a worker and asked him to match and sew a button on to the Rosh Yeshivah's frock. Rav Elchanan thanked the man profusely and prepared to leave. "Rebbe," the man asked, "why did the Rebbe come all the way to America to see me?" Rav Elchanan responded in his sweet voice, "I told you; I needed to have a button sewn onto my frock."

Something was not right. The great Torah leader of European Jewry, the individual upon whose words the entire Torah world hinged, certainly did not travel across the ocean just to have a button sewn onto his frock. The man was troubled and that night could not sleep, so bothered was he by his Rebbe's unexplained presence. He called the home where Rav Elchanan was staying and asked to speak with the Rosh Yeshivah. "Rebbe, please tell me the reason for the Rebbe's trip to America."

Rav Elchanan instructed his student to come to the home where he was staying, and he would explain. The student immediately took a taxi to the home where the Rosh Yeshivah was residing. After greeting him, Rav Elchanan said, "You asked me why I traveled across the ocean to visit you. When I replied that it was to sew a button on my frock, you refused to believe me. Imagine, making such a long trip, enduring such hardship, just to have a button sewn on my frock. The answer was nonsensical, almost ludicrous. Yet, let me ask you a question: Why did you, a distinguished, successful, Jewish businessman and civic leader come to this world? Hashem created you in His Heavenly abode and sent you down to this world. For what reason? To make buttons? Is my response any less ludicrous than yours?"

The man took the hint and realized the message his beloved Rebbe was conveying to him. How many of us realize and acknowledge the lesson of his story? We, too, each have his or her own personal purpose for being placed on this world. Do we ever give it some thought, or are we too busy, too involved, too uncaring to realize that we are not fulfilling our G-d-given purpose? Time flies when one is having "fun"; our time is flying by quickly.

Va'ani Tefillah

Al ha'Rishonim v'al ha'acharonim davar tov v'kayam l'olam va'ed.

Upon the earlier and upon the later generations, this affirmation is good and enduring forever.

The above prayer is a historical testimony to the commitment to the Torah that our people have had throughout the generations. As Horav Shimon Schwab, zl, puts it, the Torah was acknowledged as the "good word" for generations. The secularists decided to impugn the integrity of the Torah, to question its Divine origin and even to dispute the Revelation at Har Sinai. What they have achieved over the last two-and-a-half centuries is to poison the minds of the unknowing and to turn them away from their G-d-given heritage. Through acculturation, assimilation, and intermarriage, they have succeeded in severing the historical bond that their followers had established with Hashem, His Torah and mitzvos. Sadly, what remains with them today are historical artifacts of the glorious religion which they eschewed, by trading away eternity for a bowl of modern-day red lentils. We, however, declare emphatically, "Al ha'rishonim v'al ha'acharonim, 'Upon the earlier and upon later generations' we will continue to cherish His 'good word' for all time. It will continue to endure."

In loving memory of
Mrs. Fanny (Brunner) Feldman
by her family

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

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