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Peninim on the Torah

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Rabbi A. Leib Scheinbaum
Hebrew Academy of Cleveland


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

The Torah is complete. It requires no addition and no subtraction. If Hashem has commanded us to perform a mitzvah in a specific manner, it is perfect in the manner it was given. To append or amend is to impugn the integrity of Hashem's command. Thus, the mitzvah of Lulav is comprised of four species - not two or five; Tzitzis are fringes on the four corners of a garment - not five or three. While it is understandable that one may not diminish from Hashem's word, but what is wrong with giving a little extra? Why place restrictions on augmentation? Indeed, why not allow for "creativity" in mitzvah observance?

The Sefer HaChinuch puts it quite simply when he writes: "For the Master Who commanded us concerning the (observance of the) Torah is the essence of perfection. All of His actions and imperatives are perfect and good. (Therefore) to add is to decrease - and this is certainly true if one decreases." With these succinct words, the Sefer HaChinuch explains that making any change, either by adding or subtracting from Hashem's words, makes the statement: the Torah is not perfect. Its Divine Author has given us something upon which we can improve. This is the gist of his explanation, but it goes deeper than that.

In his sefer, Ikvei Eliyahu, Horav Akiva Adler, Shlita, draws upon the exhaustive educational and ethical discourses of Horav Shlomo Wolbe, zl, with whom he studied, gleaning significant lessons from them. He delves into the idea of Bal Tosif, adding to the mitzvah. In Sefer Bereishis, we find the tragic consequences of such erroneous behavior. When the primordial serpent attempted to convince Chavah to partake of the forbidden fruit, she replied, "Of the fruit of the tree which is in the center of the garden, G-d has said, 'You shall neither eat of it nor touch it, lest you die'" (Bereishis 3:3). Rashi observes that here Chavah was appending Hashem's command. The Almighty forbade them only from eating - not touching. The result of this seemingly minor addition was dire. By adding, she actually decreased, for, when the serpent pushed her against the tree and nothing happened, it said, "Just as you did not die from touching it, so you will not die from eating of it." This was to convince her that Hashem only wanted to intimidate them into not eating. They would, however, not die.

The serpent is the symbol of the yetzer hora, evil inclination, which seeks to trip us up at every juncture. We derive from this episode the ramifications of adding to Hashem's perfection. Yet, we may wonder why Hashem punished Chavah for her actions. Her purpose in adding was to cordon off the mitzvah with greater scope. Thus, she was distancing herself even further from the remote possibility of sin. How did this expression of self-improvement backfire to the point that it was the catalyst for her sin?

The Baalei Mussar, Ethicists, explain that the Torah is matim, corresponds, perfectly with the strengths and weaknesses of the human being - for whom it serves as the blueprint for life. Mistakel Hakadosh Baruch Hu b'Oraisa ubara alma, "Hashem looked into the Torah and then created the world (mankind). Every mitzvah is custom-made to fit perfectly with man's nature, proclivity and character. Therefore, when one changes the Torah, he undermines his own ability to carry out its commands properly.

This was the serpent's objective in manipulating Chava's addendum to Hashem's command. The serpent was acutely aware that once a human being becomes personally involved in mitzvah "enhancement," it is the beginning of his journey on the road to sin. Once Chavah made that slight addition, the serpent knew exactly what to do to take her down.

Rav Adler applies this lesson to child-rearing and to all areas of educating a child. Parents and educators must weigh their instructions to-- and demands of-- their children/students. Every demand must be consistent with the child's ability and total psychological profile. One should not "choke" a child by demanding too much, or allow the child to waste away by cutting back on expectations and demands. Every added responsibility or demand can become the proverbial straw that breaks the camel's back. Who does not know a family that has fallen victim to this inappropriate and unforgivable manner of raising children?

The Talmud Megillah 31b relates that when Rechavam became king following the passing of his father, Shlomo Hamelech, the nation entreated him to ease up on their yoke. The people claimed that they were overworked and could not continue for long at this rate. Rechavam turned to his royal advisors who were divided into two groups: the older generation and the younger generation. The older advisors were far more experienced than the younger advisors. They claimed that Rechavam should listen to the demands of the people. This would solidify and harmonize his monarchy. In contrast, the younger advisors felt that a nation becomes strong when people work hard, when strong demands are made of people. Rechavam was a good person, but a weak king. He listened to inexperience, which resulted in rebellion and a chasm in the nation.

Another lesson can be derived from Bal Tosif and Bal Tigra. The primary purpose of mitzvah observance is to immerse oneself totally in servitude to Hashem. The greatest goal for a Jew is to achieve the appellation of avda d'Kudshah Brich Hu, to be "A servant of the Holy One, Blessed be He." A slave abrogates his selfhood and devotes himself completely to his master, 24/7. He does not have his own will. He is subservient to his master in all ways. Thus, when a person makes changes in the Torah, he undermines its very essence, making a farce of his subservience to Hashem. He does not belong to Hashem; on the contrary, Hashem belongs to him! This attitude ultimately leads to rebellion.

Moshe Rabbeinu and Aharon HaKohen were our quintessential leaders. Regarding them, the Torah attests, shelo shinu, "they made no changes." They followed Hashem's command unequivocally. So should we.

But the seventh day is Shabbos to Hashem your G-d; you shall not do any work. (5:14)

Shabbos is much more than the catchword for the day of rest or the prohibition against laboring. Shabbos represents a covenant between Klal Yisrael and Hashem. It is a principle of our faith that Hashem created the world in six days and rested on the seventh day, proclaiming it holy. By not observing Shabbos, one impugns the belief in Hashem as Creator of the world. Shabbos calls to mind the exodus from Egypt, without which we would have continued as a slave people. As Ibn Ezra observed, "A slave never rests." Hashem liberated us from the slavery of Egypt and commanded us to rest (on Shabbos), so that (by nature of the contrast) we remember that we were once slaves.

We have no dearth of Shabbos stories. Throughout the millennia, our people have sacrificed in order to observe Shabbos. One point should be emphasized: They never viewed their devotion as a sacrifice. It was to teach them the Jewish way of life. It is for this reason that I quote two stories related by Horav Shlomo Levenstein, Shlita. We are living in a time when not only is the major segment of the Jewish population non-Shabbos observant, but those of us who observe Shabbos have almost begun to accept non-Shabbos observance as an accepted way of life. There used to be a time when great people fainted at the mere report of chillul Shabbos, desecration of Shabbos. Indeed, "desecration" has been replaced with "non-observance." Chillul Shabbos has sadly lost its anathema status, because many neither understand the gravity of Shabbos, nor realize what shemiras Shabbos used to mean, and, in most cases, still means to a Torah Jew.

The Sefer Shalmei Chagiga, authored by Horav Yisrael Algazi, relates the following episode which took place with Horav Kalonimus, a holy mystic, father-in-law of the Maharashal. The gentiles in Yerushalayim concocted a blood libel against the Holy City's Jewish inhabitants, claiming that they had murdered a gentile youth on Shabbos. We must understand that, as ludicrous as the libel sounds, the blood thirsty goyim of six centuries ago required very little to get them riled up against the Jews. It was their favorite pastime.

The people came to Rav Kalonimus and entreated him to avert what might become a Jewish massacre. Understanding that the issue involved hatzolas nefashos, saving Jewish lives, Rav Kalonimus resorted to proceeding in an atypical manner. He wrote down certain letters of Hashem's Holy Name and used them to resurrect the murdered gentile. The deceased arose from the "dead" and pointed out his murderer. He then returned to his "past tense." This action saved the Jewish community.

The punch line came afterwards. Although it was totally permissible to desecrate Shabbos to save Jewish life, Rav Kalonimus felt spiritually tainted by his action. He, therefore, left in his will that, for the first one hundred years after his death, stones should be thrown on his grave. This would atone for his "sin" of chillul Shabbos.

While this episode occurred more than six centuries ago, one should not mislead himself into thinking that devotion to Shabbos was something that was in vogue during the late middle-ages. The following episode, which took place during the European Holocaust, refutes this notion.

"Stealing" food from the kitchen in the Auschwitz death camp was an unpardonable sin. If a Jewish internee were to risk stealing a morsel of food, it was to save the life of someone who was dying of hunger. A young Jewish mother was accused of this "dastardly" act. Her young daughter was literally dying before her very eyes. She was prepared to risk life and limb to save her child.

The Nazi beasts did not see it this way. The woman was hauled before the camp commandant to have her case adjudicated and for a rendering of the verdict against her. The court case took place took place on Shabbos afternoon. After the prosecution had presented its case, the defendant was asked if she had anything to say in her own behalf. She remained silent, refusing to utter a word. As a result, the judge ruled that she should be severely punished. Afterwards, she was asked why she had absolutely refused to vindicate herself, to speak in her own behalf. She replied that, upon noticing that the "court" stenographer was a Jew, she realized that, by speaking, she would be causing another Jew to desecrate Shabbos. She would rather remain silent, thereby incurring severe punishment, than cause another Jew to be mechallel Shabbos. Halachically, this was not demanded of the woman, since it was part of saving her life. Nonetheless, the lengths to which a Jew will go to observe Hashem's mitzvos knows no bounds.

You shall not desire your friend's house… or anything that belongs to your fellow. (5:18)

In Pirkei Avos, the Tanna underscores the egregious nature of envy. Hakinah, v'hataavah, v'hakavod motziin es ha'adam min ha'olam, "Jealousy, lust and glory remove a man from the world." The sequence of these deficient character traits intimates that envy has garnered first place. Indeed, it all starts with envy, moves on to lust and self-aggrandizement. The triple crown removes a person from the world - or, perhaps, each one has a negative effect on a person. Regardless, we see that kinah is the worst of the bunch. When one is obsessed with the possessions which his friend has, he may be provoked to act in a manner atypical and unbecoming to his nature.

Horav Yaakov Galinsky, zl, suggests that not only is envy a harmful character defect, but the individual who is guilty of envy is, at the end of the day, quite foolish. After one digests everything that his friend has amassed and then takes into consideration the price he paid for them, pending the travail that has accompanied his good fortune, he realizes that he really has nothing about which to be jealous.

A person who lives in his three bedroom apartment with his wife and ten children observes his neighbor with whom he sits at the same table in shul, whose family is much smaller, living in a villa in which each child has his own bedroom the size of his entire apartment - he will become envious. "Wow, if only I could have such a villa, I would fill every nook and cranny. Why does he need such a large home?" As the person stands outside gazing hungrily at the villa, his list of complaints continues to grow. "Why him - and not me?" is the gist of his grievances. Wait, however, let him now take into account a few issues which might even the playing field.

First, is he fully aware that the man and his wife have serious shalom bayis issues? Domestic harmony is for this couple an unrealized dream - or nightmare. This is only the beginning. The man is over-extended, owing money to everyone, the butcher, the baker, the grocery store, not to count school tuition. No camp will accept his checks. It is either cash or no entrance. Indeed, even his cash is suspect. His two "sweet" children are far from sweet. The tension at home has taken its toll on their emotions. They are not doing well in school, and friends are a high premium for them.

So, is there really a reason to feel envious of the fellow with the beautiful villa and shallow, miserable life? At this point, the famous dictum attributed to the Admor m'Ropshitz, zl, is very apropos: "If everyone were to place their pekel, package, of troubles into a large circle, we would all rush to retrieve our own pekel."

The story is told that a man was once waiting in line to enter the office of the Yismach Yisrael, Alexander Rebbe, zl. While waiting, he noticed something that struck him as unusual. The poor people entered the Rebbe's office, handed him the kvittel, card on which they had written their requests, and they came out almost immediately. In and out: a couple of pennies for pidyon, redemption money, a quick blessing, and, "next in line." The wealthy people, however, would enter the Rebbe's room and spend quite some time engrossed in conversation with the Rebbe. The supplicant became enraged. True, this is the way of the world; the wealthy receives preferential treatment, but he would never have expected this to occur with the holy Alexander Rebbe. This was something that could be expected in a bank when a large depositor enters, and the entire staff - from the president down to the tellers - all come forth to greet him.

He could not keep his incredulity to himself. When he entered the Rebbe's room, he immediately shared his feelings. The Rebbe understood the man's consternation and, with a benevolent smile and extreme patience, explained to the simple man why the wealthy people took much longer for their entreaties to be discussed. "Believe me," the Rebbe began, "my time is very valuable. I have much to achieve with the short time I have for myself. I must learn and maintain my devotions, but I allot a certain amount of time to listen to the requests of Jews in need and attempt to ameliorate their concerns and offer them blessings.

"When a poor man enters my office, I immediately know what is on his mind. I know what he has and how much he is missing, and I attempt to offer him my blessing. When a wealthy man enters my room, smiling, feeling good about himself as if he does not have a care in the world, I begin to extract from him the real motivation for him to come for my blessing. 'How is everything?' I ask, to which he replies, 'Wonderful, could not be better.' 'Truly?' I ask. Is there nothing that is bothering you? Is your family well? How about your business? Are you faring well with your partner?' With each question, another layer of the false fa?ade of happiness is removed, until he blurts out that his business is going down; his partner has deceived him; he and his wife are not on the same page concerning how to raise their children. Therefore, their children have serious issues. After some time, I have been able to reveal the real reason for his visit. You must realize that it takes time to reveal that the wealthy man is himself quite poor."

So, what is there about others that provokes our envy?

Not because you are numerous than all the peoples did Hashem desire you and choose you, for you are the fewest of all peoples. (7:7)

Toward the end of the parsha, the Torah describes Hashem's relationship with Klal Yisrael, claiming that it has nothing to do with our being numerous - because we are not. We are a minority among nations. Because we are the fewest of peoples, however, Hashem has decided to bestow His love on us. Rashi explains that size does not actually play a significant role in determining our relationship. Rather, "fewest" means we minimize ourselves, like Avraham Avinu who said, V'Anochi afar va'eifar, 'I am but dust and ashes" (Bereishis 18:27) and like Moshe Rabbeinu and Aharon HaKohen, who said, Va'anachnu mah, "What are we?" (Shemos 16:8).

This explanation does not appear to be consistent with Rashi's earlier commentary on, "not because you are numerous - because you do not aggrandize yourselves when I provide you with goodness." This means that the subdued nature of Klal Yisrael--their lack of aggrandizement, their ability to minimize themselves--was not the reason that Hashen chose them to be His People. How are we to understand these two seemingly contrasting interpretations?

The question that confronts us is: was Klal Yisrael chosen due to their humility or not? The Shem MiShmuel analyzes the various aspects of humility and their application, thus allowing us to unravel the meaning of the pasuk in light of Chazal. Clearly, Jewish thought frowns on one who is filled with self-pride. Self-image is important, but self-enoblement and obsession with one's self is far from the humble nature with which Judaism wants a person to be inculcated. On the other hand, allowing oneself to become the world's stepping stool does not coincide with the Torah's idea of humility either.

In Shir HaShirim (2:14), Shlomo Hamelech compares Klal Yisrael to a dove. "My dove in the cleft of the rock." Chazal say, "To Me (Hashem) they are like a (gentle) dove, but, to the nations of the world, they are like wild beasts." The Midrash in Shemos 21:15 explains, "To Me they are like a dove, for everything which I decree upon them they do, but when the nations of the world attempt to disway them from mitzvos, by undermining their observance, they make themselves as tough as wild beasts in their response."

The Shem MiShmuel derives from here that every ben Yisrael must possess two simultaneous contrasting self-views - with each one dependent upon varying circumstances. In respect to Hashem's awesome power, we maintain an almost puny, gentle and bashful self-image, because we are acutely aware of our limited abilities. Our attitude changes diametrically when we must stand up for ourselves against the opposing nations of the world. When our Torah and mitzvos are maligned, our observance impugned, we respond like fierce beasts, demonstrating our commitment to the Almighty. Successful Jewish life demands that a Jew maintain a synthesis of these two character traits: strength and resolve in the face of our enemies; a gentle, dovelike, and bashful nature with regard to our interaction with Hashem.

Sur meira va'asei tov, "Turn from evil and do good" (Tehillim 34:15). When turning from evil, one must be tough and inflexible, while maintaining softness and humility in his quest to do good. The Maharal explains that the mitzvos lo saaseh, prohibitive mitzvos, are intended to ensure that we remain within the parameters of humanness. When we breach these mitzvos, we have fallen into the abyss; we have descended below minimum standards and must now take strong, but essential, steps to recover our essential humanity. The positive mitzvos are intended to elevate us beyond this level, developing us into spiritually inclined, holy people. As such, we receive a reward for carrying out a mitzvas asei, positive mitzvah, but no reward for abstaining from a prohibited act. Perhaps, the fact that we maintain our humanity is in itself the greatest reward.

We may now return to our original difficulty. When Hashem says that He chose us not because of our size, this could not have been due to our inherent humility in contrast to the other nations. Such a comparison remains within the framework of "turn from evil" and is no reason for a reward, since it only preserves our essential human dignity. That is not a sufficient reason to warrant choseness. To be chosen, one must elevate himself to be worthy of establishing that special Heavenly bond with Hashem. This is achieved through the "do good" aspect of life, which we accomplish through positive mitzvah performance and by "minimizing ourselves," realizing our true smallness in our relationship with Hashem.

Va'ani Tefillah

U'ksavtam al mezuzos beisecha - L'maan yirbu yimeichem. And write them on the doorposts of your house in order to prolong your days.

The entire parsha of Krias Shema from Vhayu im shamoa is written in the plural. It is, therefore, surprising that the injunction concerning writing and placing a mezuzah on one's doorpost is written in the singular, u'kesavtam. In Meseches Shabbos 103b, Chazal derive from the word u'ksavtam that the kesivah, writing, must be tamah, the script shall be perfect. (The shape of the letter should be exact.) The Meshech Chochmah offers an insightful exposition to supplement Chazal.

The halachah states that when a city is deemed to be an ir ha'nidachas, a city that has worshipped idols, the entire city-- its inhabitants, their possessions, all of their material bounty-- must be destroyed. Additionally, they lose their position in the World to Come. Chazal, however, present one contingency, in the Talmud Sanhedrin 113a. If one mezuzah is on a house, it will save the entire city. A city can be designated as an ir ha'nidachas only if it is "mezuzahless." Furthermore, as it saves the inhabitants from civil punishment by bais din, so, too, are they spared the wrath of the Heavenly Tribunal, allowing them still to receive their portion in Olam Habba, the World to Come.

Thus, if one single Jew in a city otherwise filled entirely with idol-worshippers were to write a mezuzah and place it on his doorpost, he would be the catalyst for saving the entire city from the human and Heavenly verdicts of guilt. This is to what the Torah is alluding when it writes u'ksavtam - even if a yachid, individual, writes a mezuzah and affixes it to his doorpost, he will be mezakeh es ha'rabim, bring merit for the community. Therefore, L'maan yaarichun yamecha, (he will cause) your days to be prolonged.

In honor of the milestone birthday of
Libby Brody
May the Almighty grant you many more years of health and happiness together with your beloved Stanley

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