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Peninim on the Torah

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Rabbi A. Leib Scheinbaum
Hebrew Academy of Cleveland


Hashem said to Moshe behold, your days are drawing near to die. (31:14)

The Midrash asks, "Do 'days' die?" People die - not days. This refers to the righteous, who, although when they leave this world and their days are over, they still are considered alive. The righteous are considered alive, even in death, while the wicked are viewed as lifeless and dead even when they are alive." The Midrash continues explaining the difference between the righteous and the wicked in regard to the concept of life and death. The rasha, wicked person, sees the sun shine, but he does not make the blessing of Yotzeir Ohr, He creates light; he sees the sun set, but he does not make the blessing HaMaariv Aravim, who brings on evenings; he eats and drinks, but he does not have the decency to recognize the source of his food, and, consequently, he does not bless Hashem. In contrast, the righteous make a point to bless Hashem at every juncture. Wherever they eat or drink, what ever they see or hear, they always bless the Almighty. They do not express their gratitude and recognition only during their lifetime. They even praise Hashem when they are in their eternal rest, as David Ha'Melech says in Tehillim 149, "Let the devout exalt in glory; let them sing joyously upon their beds."

From this Midrash we derive a profound lesson regarding the true meaning of life and death. Horav Meir Rubman, zl, explains that the common definition for life is one who eats, drinks, sees and hears. One who does not possess these faculties, who is totally devoid of any physical activity is, to a great extent, lifeless. The Midrash does not seem to agree with this definition. Chazal teach us that life is based upon one's active participation in blessing Hashem for the bounty that he receives from Him. In other words, it is all in the heart, the seat of emotion and feeling. One who perceives, who feels alive, blesses Hashem. One whose sensitivity is dead, who does not feel obligated to bless Hashem, has a heart that might beat, but is lifeless.

One who blesses Hashem with devotion, with a sense of recognition, accepting that whatever he possesses or is able to do, be it physical activities or simple bodily functions, which so many of us take for granted, is alive. When one blesses haphazardly, devoid of feeling and devotion, his life is very much like his blessing - lifeless.

Shlomo HaMelech in Sefer Koheles 9:4 says, "A live dog is better than a dead lion." Simply, this means that while the dog is a lowly animal compared to the "king of beasts," it is still alive; it eats and drinks, runs and plays. The lion is dead and can do nothing. The analogy to a human being is that the lowliest person, regardless of his station in life, as long as he is alive and well, is better off than someone who is not as fortunate as he.

Shlomo HaMelech uses another barometer for distinguishing between the "living" dog and the "dead" lion. He says, "For the living know they will die, but the dead know nothing at all." It all boils down to perspective. The advantage of the living is that they know that they will one day leave their earthly abode. With this thought acutely impressed in their mind, they live their life.

And many evils and troubles shall come upon them, and they shall say in that day, "Have not these evils come upon us because G-d is not among us?" And I will surely have concealed My face on that day. (31:17,18)

These two pesukim begin by asserting Hashem's anger, followed by the concealment of His countenance as a result of Klal Yisrael's transgressions. Afterwards, when the nation recognizes that its suffering is due to Hashem's concealment, the next pasuk continues with Hashem concealing Himself once again. This is enigmatic. One would think that recognition of sin is a step towards teshuvah, repentance. Surely, it should not be followed with more hester Panim, concealment of Hashem's countenance. Indeed, this is a difficult and most tragic prophecy. What could be worse than Hashem removing Himself from our midst? It is softened only with the promise that, regardless of our infamy, Torah will not be forgotten from our People. Yet, the question still remains: Why would Hashem continue His concealment after we have taken that first step towards teshuvah?

Ramban explains that Klal Yisrael's acknowledgment of their iniquity falls short of genuine teshuvah. They realize that they have erred, but they still refuse to confess and repent wholeheartedly. A half-baked teshuvah will not effect a completely favorable response from the Almighty. We will have to do better than that. Although the Torah does not indicate any new punishment, we still do not merit Hashem's return.

Sforno explains that while Hashem conceals His presence, He will always be there to protect and preserve our People. We can, and still, should pray to Him, even during moments of hester Panim. Horav Bunim, zl, m'Peshischa, addresses this pasuk homiletically, maintaining that for a Jew to say that Hashem is not in his midst is in itself a grave sin. No Jew should ever feel alone. No Jew has the right to say that Hashem has deserted him. Even during those moments of pain, terror and affliction, Hashem is with us.

I recently saw another approach towards understanding this pasuk. The question that has occupied the searching mind for generations, from Moshe Rabbeinu to the contemporary Jew, is, "Why do bad things happen to good people?" - and vice-versa. Moshe Rabbeinu asked Hashem, "Horeinu na derachecha." "Let me know Your ways." Indeed, Sefer Iyov focuses on this pivotal question - with the conclusion that there is no logical answer. It is a principle of faith that Hashem is just and compassionate. Those decisions that seem severe and cruel to us are beyond our limited scope of understanding. To believe in Hashem means to place our trust in Him even at those times when doing so challenges our cognitive abilities. Just because something does not make sense to us does not mean it does not make sense. We are limited by mortal parameters; Hashem certainly is not.

Regrettably, over time, some individuals have postulated that bad things happen to good people because, at times, Hashem "loses control." He cannot be everywhere all of the time. Therefore, some situations just seem to get away from Him. Such heresy is what we have come to expect from those who have alienated themselves from Torah and, consequently, from Hashem. Moshe Rabbeinu foresaw this breakdown in Jewish faith when he said, "They will say in that day, 'Have not these evils come upon us because G-d is not among us?'" We are cautioned not to err and think that tragedy is the result of Divine shortcoming or a lack of Hashem's Providence or Omnipotence. While it is true that there is no logical explanation for the bad things that happen to good people, we must depend upon our faith. Does religion always have to be logical? If so, why is it called religion? It is logical! Indeed, as is stated in the chassidishe seforim, if Hashem would have felt that it was to our advantage to understand Hashem's ways, He would have availed us the ability to do so. Apparently, the leap of faith required of us to accept and justify Hashem's actions is a necessary component in our spiritual development.

This song shall speak up before it as a witness, for it shall not be forgotten from the mouth of its offspring. (31:21)

This is the only consolation for a prophecy foretelling Klal Yisrael's slide into a life of sin and rebellion against the Almighty. The Torah might be ignored; it might even be snubbed, but it will never be completely forgotten. Throughout history, there has always been a revival of Torah study following a period when many thought that its end was near. During the Holocaust of World War II, when Europe was burning, there were those doomsayers that said the end of Torah was near. It would die with European Jewry. This was not the case. Those who miraculously survived did not give in to depression and apathy. They realized that they were spared for a reason - to rebuild the Jewish nation, to develop thriving Torah centers that would educate the next generation of observant Jews, to see to it that "it shall not be forgotten from the mouth of its offspring."

Many stories recount the hardship, the emotion, the fear and the ultimate triumph connected with the near loss of our national heritage and its rejuvenation in this country. I feel that one very poignant story, cited by Rabbi Paysach Krohn, encapsulates these emptions. He writes about a Holocaust survivor who traveled from his home in the Midwest to Monsey, N.Y., to witness his grandson putting on Tefillin for the first time. This was a very special occasion for him, one that he did not want to miss.

They went that morning to the students' minyan at his grandson's school. Three generations: a grandfather, survivor of the Holocaust; a son, who grew up in the specter of the Holocaust; and a grandson, an American boy, who was continuing the legacy of previous generations. One can imagine the deep sense of pride and gratitude to Hashem that prevailed that morning. There was a deeper emotion, however, a pent-up emotion that lay dormant for years awaiting the moment when it could be expressed. It occurred as the young Bar-Mitzvah boy took out the Tefillin from its velvet pouch and, with the help of his father and under the watchful proud eyes of his grandfather, recited the blessing with enthusiasm and devotion, as he wrapped the Tefillin on his left arm.

Suddenly, the grandfather's eyes welled up with emotion and burst forth into tears. He did not just cry; he began to sob - loudly. For a few moments it seemed as if the grandfather's weeping was uncontrollable. After a while, he regained his composure and settled down to enjoy the simchah, special joyous moment. The grandson's rebbe took this all in. He cautiously approached the grandfather and said, "This must be a very emotional moment for you. To have survived the horrors of Hitler, to stand side by side with your son and grandson at this momentous occasion, must truly be overwhelming."

"In a way you are correct, but it was not my grandson who brought me to tears," responded the grandfather. "It is the sight of hundreds of boys davening together, raising their voices with "Amen," acknowledging the Almighty with gratitude, love and awe, that brought about my display of emotion. I remember an incident that took place back in 1945, soon after the war. I was one of the lucky ones to survive the destruction of the Vilna Ghetto. It was Simchas Torah, the festival when we rejoice with the Torah, when singing and dancing reign throughout the shul, when children joyfully dance with their flags. We had a minyan, but - there were no children. "We finished davening and were about to dance the Hakafos, traditional dance with the Sefer Torah, but - there was no Torah. No children - no Torah. The children did not survive, the Torah had either been looted or destroyed. What kind of Simchas Torah could a group of broken men have without children and without a Torah? We stared at each other in despair as the horrors of the past few years returned to haunt us.

"Suddenly, a young couple entered the shul with two little children, a boy and a girl. The poor girl's vocal cords had not developed properly, because she had been hiding in an attic for over a year, where she was only permitted to whisper quietly. We all stared at each other incredulously. We did not know who this couple was; we had never seen them before tonight. As they entered the shul, however, we realized that these children were our future. We scooped them up and, with tears of joy, we took turns dancing with them. They were our Hakafos, as we danced clutching these children to our hearts.

"As I look around this yeshivah today, and I see hundreds of living Sifrei Torah, I remember that fateful Simchas Torah. We were uncertain then of the future. We had hope, we aspired, we thirsted, but we did not know if our longing would ever achieve fruition. Today, I cry because I see that we have triumphed. We survived the horrors of the Holocaust, and we have rebuilt Torah in our communities. Today, I cry with joy and gratitude that Hashem allowed me to live to see and experience this moment."

This grandfather was one of thousands of survivors who feared that spiritual extinction would follow on the heels of the physical calamity that befell our People. They desperately worried that the Jewish nation was spiritually beyond help. It was no wonder that in the aftermath of such a cataclysmic destruction, this feeling was prevalent. Yet, there were those who remembered the pasuk. Hashem's promise that the Torah will never be forgotten. They toiled with blood, sweat and tears to rebuild the Torah centers of Europe. They undertook to build day schools throughout this country. The thriving educational institutions of today are a living testimony that the Torah will never be forgotten from our midst.

Vignettes on the Parsha

Moshe summoned Yehoshua and said to him before the eyes of all Yisrael, "Be strong and courageous." (31:17)

The Meshech Chochmah explains that while the Jewish leader is enjoined "not to let his heart become haughty over his brethren," when it involves carrying out his function as king/leader, he must act with force. This is consistent with Chazal's dictum that a king who forgives/disregards his honor is not forgiven. In other words, the king does not have it within his power to absolve his position. This is what Moshe told Yehoshua. "L'eiynei kol Yisrael" - When you are before the people - then you must be strong. A leader must be compelling, or he will have no one to lead.


For it shall not be forgotten from the mouth of its offspring. (31:21)

Addressing a gathering of rabbanim in Vilna, the Chafetz Chaim, zl, said the following: When we want to ascertain if a craftsman, such as a shoemaker, tailor, or any professional for that matter, truly cares for his field, there is one way to determine this. We have only to look to see if he teaches his trade to his son, so that he can follow in the same field after him. This same idea applies to Torah. When a father makes sure to teach Torah to his children, then we know that he truly cares about it. If he is not moser nefesh, devoted to the point of self-sacrifice, to see that his children are also proficient in Torah, it indicates that he himself has very little love for the Torah.


For I know its inclination. (31:21)

The yetzer hora, evil-inclination, does everything within its power to cause us to stray. When one defers to his evil-inclination, not only does he sin, he also destroys his own spiritual potential. The Ponevezer Rav, zl, cites the following story in support of this idea. After the Chafetz Chaim married, he studied Torah incessantly throughout the day, subsisting on very little material means. His wife would go out daily to the bakery and purchase the simplest slice of bread on credit, which she would bring to her husband who then ate it with a glass of tea. One day, when she arrived at the bakery, the owner refused to give her the bread, claiming that she owed too much money. She returned home empty-handed. As she brought the cup of tea to her husband without bread, she burst into tears. The Chafetz Chaim was still for a few moments and then banged on the table and raised his voice, "Satan! Satan! I know what you want. You want me to close my Gemora. I will not listen to you!"

When the Ponevezer Rav finished the story, he added, "Imagine, had the Chafetz Chaim given in, there would be no Chafetz Chaim, no Mishnah Berurah - none of the thousands of students that he raised to become the next generation's leaders." All because he would not let the yetzer hora be victorious over him.

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