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Peninim on the Torah

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Rabbi A. Leib Scheinbaum
Hebrew Academy of Cleveland


Safeguard the Shabbos day to sanctify it. (5:12)

Shabbos is more than a mitzvah in the Torah; it is a staple of our religion. Yet, it is one of the first mitzvos that was reneged during the waves of the European immigration to America. "Shabbos was important," the immigrants agreed, "but if you cannot make a living, its significance takes second place to survival." Consequently, shemiras Shabbos, Shabbos observance, was identified with the European shtetl. Much of Orthodoxy and the moral, ethical and social behavior that was endemic to Orthodox Judaism in Europe was discarded along with Shabbos. They were, however, wrong then as they are wrong today. A Jew identifies with Shabbos as Shabbos identifies with the Jew. It sustains him physically and spiritually. I recently came across a story that emphasizes the protective power of Shabbos Kodesh.

It is a story about a twelve-year-old girl at the beginning of the twentieth century, leaving Europe for America. Of her nine siblings, she was chosen to come to the goldeneh medinah, golden land. Life in Poland was difficult, hunger a constant companion. After much scraping and penny-pinching, her family saved enough for a single, one-way ticket. Miriam, as the youngest in the family, was chosen to go.

It was not easy to send away a child in those days. Who knew if they would ever see each other again? Furthermore, would she remain faithful to her religion? With trembling hands and a breaking voice, Miriam's father said, "Miriam, mein kind, my child, remember that Hashem is watching you every step of the way. Remember His laws and keep them well. Especially observe the Shabbos. Never forget that Shabbos protects the Jewish People. It will be difficult for you in the new land. Never forget who you are. Keep the Shabbos - regardless of the sacrifices you must make."

They both wept as she ascended the steamship. As the ship steamed away from the shtetl life in Poland, for many it was also the end to their religious observance. For this young girl, the trip was crammed with questions and uncertainty. Would her relatives extend themselves to her, or would she be all alone in a strange land? Would the new land fulfill its promise of hope, freedom and wealth? Would her relatives meet her, or was she now homeless?

Miriam should not have worried. Her family was there waiting for her. They welcomed her to their home with love. It was not long before she found a job as a sewing-machine operator. Life in America was quite different from her European home life. Polish mannerisms, together with religion, were quickly shed. Modesty, kashrus and the Torah were slowly abandoned.

Miriam's relatives insisted that religion was simply not in vogue; it was an unnecessary accessory in America. The young girl, however, never forgot her father's parting enjoinment. She was prepared to dress the part of an American, but she would never give up Shabbos.

Every week she gave a different excuse to her employer. Once, it was a stomach ache; another time it was a toothache. After a few weeks, the foreman, an assimilated Jew, grew wise. He called her over and said, "Miriam, you are a nice girl and I like your work, but this Shabbos business has got to stop. You are in America. Shabbos is a European holiday. In America - everybody works on Shabbos, or they do not eat. Either you come to work this Shabbos, or you can look for a new job." Miriam's relatives were adamant. She must work on Shabbos. They applied pressure, but in the back of her mind her father's words kept echoing in her head. What could she do? The week went by in a daze. Back and forth, she argued with herself. Should she listen to her father? After all, what did he know about America? On the other hand, how could she give up the beauty that her father had taught her?

Back and forth, the questions, the answers - they all kept gnawing at her! By Shabbos morning, she had decided. She was not going to turn her back on thousands of years of commitment and dedication. Jews had sacrificed their lives for the Torah. She was prepared to sacrifice her livelihood. It was a cool day. She walked all over the Lower East Side, and continued on towards Midtown. She finally stopped at a park and watched the pigeons for the rest of the day. She was not going to desecrate the Shabbos. Her father said that Shabbos would protect her. She was sure that it would.

Three stars had risen in the sky. She made a Baruch Hamavdil, the blessing said at the departure of Shabbos, and prepared to face the scorn of her relatives. She trudged homeward, dreading the nasty scene that was sure to greet her when her relatives learned that she had not been to work that day.

As she neared home, a shout broke her reverie, "Miriam, is that you? Oh, how are you? Thank G-d, you are alive!" Miriam looked up at her cousin Joe with a sad expression. "I am sorry. I kept Shabbos, and I lost my job. Now everyone will be angry and disappointed. They will think I am ungrateful. I could not let my father down. I will keep Shabbos!"

Joe looked at her strangely. "Miriam, didn't you hear what happened at the factory?"

"Hear what? I did not go to the factory. I kept Shabbos," she said.

"Miriam, there was a terrible fire at the factory, and only forty people survived. There was no way out of the building. People even jumped to their deaths." Suddenly, Joe's voice became quiet and he began to cry. "Miriam, don't you see? Because you kept Shabbos, you are alive. You survived because of Shabbos!"

Out of 190 workers of the infamous Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire on Saturday, March 25, 1911, only 44 workers survived; 146 immigrants who came to this country in search of a new life perished. Because it was Shabbos, Miriam was not at work. After all, her father had taught her that the Shabbos would always protect her.

Honor your father and your mother, as Hashem, your G-d, commanded you, so that your days will be lengthened. (5:16)

Rashi says that the commandment to honor one's parents was first given at Marah. Does it really make a difference where Hashem first commanded Klal Yisrael in regard to this mitzvah? Perhaps this teaches us that our entire approach to the mitzvah of Kibbud Av v'Eim is wrong. There are those who think that we have an obligation to honor our parents out of a sense of gratitude for what they have done for us. They bring us into the world, clothe and feed us, arrange our education and provide for our basic material needs. This is not the Torah's perspective on the mitzvah. One is obligated to honor his parents, regardless of the benefit - or lack thereof - that he has received. We are enjoined in the mitzvah because "it was commanded to us at Marah." What occurred in Marah that was so unique, yet endemic to the mitzvah of Kibbud Av v'Eim?

In Marah, Hashem began sustaining us - miraculously: water from a stone; quail from Heaven; our clothes did not become ruined, the manna descended from Heaven. In short, everything came to us "special delivery" from Hashem. There was no need for the medium called "parents." They did not have to labor to earn a living to support their children, because everything was served to them on a silver platter from Hashem. They were commanded in the mitzvah of honoring their parents, specifically in Marah - in a place in which their parents did not have even a supporting role in sustaining their children. Hashem's miracles were overtly manifest, so that all would see and benefit from them. Our relationship to our parents has nothing to do with what we receive from them; it has to do with Hashem. He commanded us to honor them.

This thesis is especially crucial in today's society, when some children might feel that their parents neglect them. Let us ask ourselves; Are they really wrong? Do we spend as much time with our children as our parents spent with us? Today's society makes great demands on our time. The economy leaves much to be desired, making it much more difficult to earn a living. The result is less time at home, and a father and mother who are under greater pressure - with less patience for their children. In the larger communities where Judaism flourishes, we sometimes have a wedding, Bar-Mitzvah, parlor meeting or Chinese auction every night of the week. For those who are not that socially inclined, or simply cannot afford the expense, being "stuck at home" becomes a source of depression. Then there is always a shiur to attend, a chavrusa with whom to study, a lecture that will change our life. There is always something. Who loses out in the shuffle? Our children. While it is indeed true that Kibbud Av v'Eim is a mitzvah, when we are in need of their time and good will, our children will remember how much time we had for them.

Rarely does the Torah emphasize the concomitant reward for performing a mitzvah. Kibbud Av v'Eim is an exception. The Torah tells us that for honoring our parents, we will merit longevity. The word used by the Torah is yaarichun, lengthen [your days]. Interestingly, the Torah does not write yosifun, which would mean adding days. Is there a significant lesson to be derived from here? I recently heard a practical explanation for this choice of words from my uncle. To lengthen one's days is to maintain the youthful vibrance that one had when he was younger. To add days, however, means to add years to one's life. Growing "old" is not the same thing as growing "older."

The aging process can be invigorating, challenging and satisfying. It can also be depressing - both physically and emotionally. Arichas yamim should be defined as lengthening one's days, giving added life to the youthful exuberance of one's youth. When you see an octogenarian who is both healthy in mind and body, whose visage and perspective on life bespeaks a man twenty years younger - that is arichas yamim. His days of youth were lengthened. This is a reward for a son or daughter who has dedicated him or herself to serving their parents appropriately, to seeing to it that their parents were able to maintain their own youth without being overwhelmed with responsibilities and obligations.

What does kavod/kabed, honor, really mean - especially in the context of contemporary society? Horav S. R. Hirsch, zl, suggests that kavod, which is also related to the word koveid, heavy, is the expression of the spiritual and moral worth of a being. Thus, kabed would mean demonstrating our estimation of the value of our parents. The mitzvah of Kabed es avicha v'es imecha instructs us to demonstrate in every way in our entire demeanor to our parents how thoroughly we are permeated by the great significance that Hashem has given our parents in our lives. Parents, as Hashem's emissaries for carrying out His wishes in regard to their offspring, are granted importance by virtue of this transmission.

We suggest that kabed goes one step further. With the same idea in mind, I think the Torah is teaching us to add weight to our parents by seeking to raise our estimation of them. All too often we hear of children commenting derogatorily about their parents in comparison to someone else. "My father's job is not as important as his neighbor's." "My mother does not do very much" and so on and so forth. We are enjoined to look for the good, the significant, the praiseworthy, the honorable aspects of our parents, so that we can add weight to them. Thus, as they increase in the weight of our esteem and estimation of them, we give them kavod.

Quite possibly, the most difficult aspect both physically and emotionally of giving proper respect to parents is when they age, become ill, or infirm. For a child to view his once strong, proud parent in a situation of extreme pain, weakness, or infirmity can be devastating. The pain is magnified when the illness is of an emotional nature. That is the price, however, we pay for love - the love we have received and the love we are to give. It is not a duty that we are allowed to renege, regardless of the pain associated with it. When I once returned from an exhausting trip to Chicago to spend some time with my mother, AH., a friend once told me, "Remember, your children are watching you." When we carry out our responsibility towards our parents with a sense of gratitude, reverence, affection and admiration, we can aspire that our children will do the same for us - someday.

And it shall be, when Hashem, your G-d brings you into the land… to give you great and goodly cities that you did not build, and houses… which you did not build, and wells dug, which you did not dig, vineyards and olive trees, which you did not plant… Then beware lest you forget Hashem. (6:10,11,12)

The Torah seems to emphasize that Eretz Yisrael is a land of abundance, for which we can take no credit. The cities are great, but we did not build them. The houses are filled with all sorts of good things, but we did not fill them. The wells, vineyards, olive trees are all great and wonderful. Material abundance is everywhere, but we had nothing to do with it. Does it really matter whether we had a hand in preparing this incredible abundance? The primary problem is that when people have too much, they might forget about Hashem, the Source of everything. What difference does it make whether these cities and houses were acquired from others, or whether they were created by the people themselves?

Horav Mordechai Rogov, zl, explains that one who works to develop the world around him is acutely aware of the many obstacles and challenges that he has had to overcome in order to succeed with his endeavor. He has plans and he is willing to toil, but he is confronted with life's challenges. Without warning, all of his plans are for naught. He finds himself unable to solve the problems which he has encountered. Unanticipatedly, a solution appears out of the clear blue, and his problems are solved! In such a situation, a person with the slightest modicum of intelligence can readily recognize the Yad Hashem, Hand of the Almighty, guiding, directing and assisting him in overcoming the difficulties he had faced. In such an instance, there is no ambiguity in perceiving that Hashem has guided his destiny.

However, when a person is handed everything on a silver platter, without having to confront the difficulties, the frustrations and the threat of failure, he lacks the clarity of vision to see the hand of G-d. Just as he lacks the challenges, so, too, does he lack the opportunity to feel the triumph that comes with Hashem's direct intervention on his behalf.

The Torah alludes to this danger when it tells us that when we arrive in Eretz Yisrael, everything will be prepared for us. Fields, houses, cities filled with goods - what more can one ask for? Consequently, there was a direct concern that the people would not appreciate the "Hashem factor" in all of their bounty. The very fact that the gifts were to be obtained without any effort of their own could result in their overlooking the fact - and eventually forgetting - that it all has come from Hashem. This is often the case: we forget Who the Benefactor is until we almost lose the benefit.


You shall not add… nor shall you subtract from it. (4:2)

One wonders why it is forbidden to add to the mitzvos. Horav Yehonasan Eibeshitz, zl, explains that Torah is compared to a powerful medicine. It is an elixir for life. As everyone knows, medicine must be taken in strict accordance with the prescription. There is an assigned dosage that is healthy and therapeutic. To exceed the dosage can be life-threatening. Torah is no different.


And which is a great nation that has righteous decrees and ordinances, such as this entire Torah. (4:8)

Horav Yisrael, zl, m'Rizhin, comments that there are mitzvos that are chukim, commandments for which no apparent reason is given, and there are also mishpatim, mitzvos which are logical. Similarly, there are tzaddikim, righteous Jews, whose actions are not understandable, and there are those whose actions are logical.


For which is a great nation that has a G-d that is close to it, as is Hashem, our G-d, whenever we call him. (4:7)

Someone once came to the Chafetz Chaim, zl, for a blessing. The Chafetz Chaim gave a bittersweet laugh and said, "One beggar asks another beggar for assistance. Is this not ironic? Why not go to the One who is the Baal Hayeshuos, Master of salvations, Himself. After all, does the Torah not say that Hashem is always there?"


But you shall greatly beware for your souls. (4:15)

In the Talmud Berachos 32b, Chazal derive that one must guard his body from physical danger. Horav Moshe Shternbuch, Shlita, notes the use of the word nefesh/nafshoseichem, soul, to describe the physical body. This teaches us that we are responsible for guarding the body due to its role as a receptacle for the soul.

Arthur & Sora Pollak and Family
in loving memory of our mother & grandmother
Mrs. Goldie Jundef


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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