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Peninim on the Torah

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Rabbi A. Leib Scheinbaum
Hebrew Academy of Cleveland


Moshe went and spoke these words to all of Yisrael. (31:1)

Moshe Rabbeinu was the quintessential leader. His behavior throughout his life; his reaction to dealing with the Jewish People teaches us many lessons concerning leadership. His demeanor on the last day of his life is perhaps the most telling example of leadership and sensitivity to one's flock, imparting lessons for leaders, teachers, parents, and anybody who is in a position in which his actions influence others. The parsha commences on the last day of our leader's life, a day that he was acutely aware was looming closer, a day which he senses has finally arrived. He was to bid farewell to the flock which he had nurtured for the past forty years. Veritably, his initial charges were no longer present, having themselves perished throughout the forty year trek in the wilderness. He was speaking to the next generation, the children, many of whom witnessed much of the travail and triumph that accompanied the nascent Jewish nation on their journey from Egypt to the Holy Land.

What did Moshe do on this last day of his life? He paid a visit to the people, walking through the camps of all twelve tribes, to bid them farewell. The Ramban explains that he came to comfort them: "I am old. Do not be afraid. It will be good." He came to encourage them, to empower them, to continue on into Eretz Yisrael under Yehoshua. He had reached the end of his life. It was time to say goodbye. This is a Jewish leader. He thinks not of himself, but solely of his people. Sforno goes even further in his explanation of this final day of Moshe's life. He interprets va'yelech as indicating arousal, animation, stirring oneself into action. Moshe felt it necessary, on this last day of his life, when he certainly had other things to occupy his mind, to comfort and encourage the people who were devastated by the thought of losing their leader. Moshe's imminent death cast a cloud over the state of joy that should have prevailed in the camp. After all, they had just entered into the Covenant with Hashem. It was essential that this be a time of great exultation for Klal Yisrael, regaling in the notion of their relationship with the Almighty. Moshe could not allow his impending death to cast a pall over the people during this auspicious moment. He, therefore, roused himself to strengthen their resolve, to elevate their spirits, to enkindle them with renewed enthusiasm by reassuring them that Hashem will never forsake them. He would guide them into the Holy Land through the proxy of Yehoshua's leadership.

How did Moshe convince them? What did he say to hearten them, to lessen the pain? Sforno explains that Moshe focused on three ideas: He had lived a long life, a life of productivity. No one lives forever. He had lived; he had accomplished; he was obligated to move on. Second, even if he were to live, his advanced age would prevent him from maintaining his hectic schedule. His vigorous leadership would not be the same. He could not continue at the pace to which they had become accustomed. Last, since the Heavenly decree was that he not enter into Eretz Yisrael, by continuing to live, he would be delaying their crossing over into the Holy Land. He did not hurt them in any way.

Incredible! This is what Moshe was thinking about on the last day of his life. How far are we from even understanding such an exalted plateau of leadership and caring. Moshe is secondary to the people. His feelings, his emotions, his goals and objectives yielded to the needs of the people. Perhaps it is deeper than the above. As the quintessential leader of Klal Yisrael, Moshe did not have any personal emotions, goals or objectives. He lived entirely for the nation. He did not acquiesce to their needs; rather, their needs were his needs. Their needs and his needs became one and the same. Thus, on the last day of his life, his thoughts revolved only around them.

There is more, however, to Moshe's leadership. The Midrash Rabba, Parashas Chukas, relates that Hashem asked Moshe on what premise he wanted to enter Eretz Yisrael. The Midrash explains this with an analogy. The king's shepherd took the sheep out to graze. The shepherd was overwhelmed by a band of robbers, and the sheep were seized. Later on, the shepherd sought to return to the palace of the king. The king told him, "If you enter the palace at this time (with the sheep still captive), you will be entering with the reputation of the shepherd who lost the king's sheep." Similarly, Hashem told Moshe, "Your reputation now is as the great leader who led the Jews out of Egypt only to bury them all in the wilderness during his forty-year leadership. If you enter into Eretz Yisrael while your flock remains buried in the wilderness, it will support the notion that the dor ha'midbar, generation of the wilderness, has no portion in the World to Come. Therefore, you should stay here and be buried with them."

The Midrash teaches us that Moshe's entreaties would have accessed his entrance into Eretz Yisrael. Hashem was prepared to forgive his involvement in the mei merivah, waters of dispute, when he struck the stone, causing it to bring forth water, rather than speaking to it as he had been instructed. He did not enter the land because of his responsibility as a leader not to abandon his people - even in death - so that he would bring them into the World to Come. We now have an inkling of the qualities inherent in a Torah leader. Moshe Rabbeinu taught us by example. He set the standard for others to emulate.

You shall read this Torah before all Yisrael, in their ears…Gather together the people - the men, the women, and the small children…so that they will hear and so that they will learn. (31:11,12)

As Moshe Rabbeinu prepared to take leave of his people, he commanded them to assemble. During this gathering which is referred to as the mitzvah of Hakhel, in which Moshe-- and afterwards the king-- would read from passages that reiterate our allegiance to the Almighty, the Covenant and reward and punishment from Sefer Devarim. The commentators explain that since the Jewish people were distinguished from the nations of the world due to our affiliation to the Torah, it is fitting that everyone - men, women and children - come together as a national affirmation that the Torah is our guide, our majesty, our splendor. Since this took place during the mitzvah of Hakhel, we wonder why they were instructed concerning the reading of the Torah before they were enjoined in the mitzvah of Hakhel. It makes sense that first they were told to assemble and then they were instructed concerning what they should do once they assemble. The sequence seems to be out of order.

The Gerrer Rebbe, zl, the Imrei Emes, explains that the actual assemblage of Klal Yisrael in a cohesive, affable and comradely manner is, in itself, Torah. When Jews gather together as one, k'ish echad b'lev echad, as one man with one heart, when harmony and love reign, when divisiveness and discord is nonexistent, that is Torah. Each Jew has the ability to reach out and help another Jew. That is the essence of Torah. Therefore, the Torah introduces the Hakhel experience after it mentions the mitzvah to read the Torah. This teaches us that the mitzvah of Hakhel is not merely a prerequisite for the reading of the Torah. It is the Torah! The reading is in addition to the gathering. It is the convocation in its own right that achieves distinction. The reading of the Torah adds to it.

This was Moshe's lesson on his last day on earth. This was his "good-bye," his farewell remarks. "Get along, see eye to eye, maintain genial relationships, harbor no animus towards one another. This is the foundation stone upon which the mitzvos of the Torah are based."

Apart from its significance as a mitzvah in its own right, the love one should manifest for his fellow Jew is an integral component in the complete fulfillment of all mitzvos. Horav Yehoshua, zl, m'Belz, comments that unfortunately an aveirah, transgression, is performed very simply, without much effort or concentration. A mitzvah, however, takes considerable effort and extreme concentration in order to carry it out bishleimus, to perfection. One must be sure that his mind is free of any alien thoughts or intentions that might cause him to deviate from the proper kavanah, concentration and devotion, to the mitzvah. He must see to it that it is performed l'shem Shomayim, for Heaven's sake, with the proper enthusiasm, passion, and fervor. There should not be any vestige of personal pomposity. When we take all of this into consideration, performing mitzvos to perfection is quite difficult. Therefore, continues the Belzer, at the moment one performs a mitzvah, he should express that this is being carried out in the name of all Klal Yisrael-- and for all Klal Yisrael. By acting in conjunction with the rest of the nation, his mitzvos become inclusive, thereby incorporating the intentions and devotions of all of Klal Yisrael. Together our mitzvos become complete. My mitzvah completes that of my fellowman, as well as his acts on my behalf.

Horav Elimelech, zl, m'Lizensk, visited a small town and stayed there for a short visit. When the townspeople saw that the great sage was departing, they surrounded his coach and walked along with it, accompanying it out of town. After a few moments, Rav Elimelech descended from the coach and joined them. Seeing this, the people asked, "Why did the Rebbe alight from the coach? This is why we gathered here to accompany his honor out of the city." Rav Elimelech replied, "I saw an incredible outpouring of religious fervor to perform the mitzvah of levayah, accompanying me out of the town. I asked myself, "Is it possible that people are performing such an important mitzvah with such devotion and enthusiasm, and I should not be a part of it? I decided to join in the mitzvah with my fellow Jews."

Behold, your days are drawing near to die. (31:14)

The concepts of life and death, as perceived by the non-Torah believing society, are different than the way in which the Torah defines these two contrasting states. The world around us defines life as maintaining a regular pulse and respiration. One breathes - he is alive. The Midrash Tanchuma teaches that a rasha, evil/wicked person, is considered dead, despite his respiration and healthy appearance. According to the Midrash, life means much more than simple respiration. The Midrash explains that a rasha forfeits the status of being considered among the living because he sees a sunrise and does not bless Hashem; he eats and drinks and does not recite a brachah, blessing. His physical body may be alive, but his spirit is dead. This is an incredible statement. Clearly, one who eats without paying his respects to Hashem is wrong; one who has risen in the morning and not recited a blessing of gratitude to Hashem is an ingrate. His life is impaired; he is considered as if he is dead. His spirit lacks life. Upon reading this Midrash, one is confronted with Chazal's understanding of life and death. Is this really the factor that determines if one is alive or dead? Should the rasha's status of "death" not be defined by his evil nature and actions? Are we to disregard the fact that he steals, cheats, and commits a plethora of infamous acts and transgressions? Should they not be the primary cause of his "death"?

Horav A. Henach Leibowitz, zl, explains that such reasoning is based upon our own misguided perception and understanding of life in general. We are blessed with the ability to think, to understand, to perceive. We have the ability to recognize the beauty, depth and complexity of the universe, an ability which should trigger a more profound realization of Hashem's greatness and His role as the Designer and Creator of all that exists. As a result of this impetus, one should be spontaneously moved to express his gratitude and praise to Hashem for these gifts.

We are besieged with the miracles of daily life on a constant basis. We witness the unified interaction of the forces of nature, all coming together to serve Hashem and to perform His will. Seeds grow into plants, babies are born and grow. Our hearts beat incessantly as our lungs and other vital organs are working continually, so that we may live. Anyone who is complacent concerning these occurrences, who does not respond to these stimuli by praising Hashem, is considered to be spiritually comatose. He is in a state similar to death.

The rasha who does not appreciate Hashem's gift of life, not only misses out on living life to the fullest, but he actually does not live life at all. To live life one must appreciate it. To really appreciate life, one must pay gratitude to the Creator. It all works in a cycle. If part of the cycle is missing, the person is dead. Just like that! Those of us, however, who understand that Hashem renews Creation every day appreciate every sunrise, reflecting upon its meaning. We recognize that every heartbeat is a gift. Just ask someone who was fortunate enough to "come back" from a heart attack. He no longer takes each heartbeat for granted. One who acknowledges and appreciates the regeneration of life truly experiences life and its pleasures. Rav Henoch cites Horav Nosson Tzvi Finkel, zl, the Alter m'Slabodka, who suggests that we take the lesson derived from observing an infant as it begins life in this world. At first, the infant stares blankly into space, unable to focus. Slowly, by the third month, he or she is able to focus on moving objects, although real perception has not yet materialized. He or she begins to grab for objects, even though they lack meaning and are still a blur. Soon, the infant coos and makes other sounds, turns over, smiles, sits up, begins to talk, walk and develop a complete assortment of motor and mental skills and achievements. At each stage, the parents are excited, overjoyed and awed with the almost daily developments. They value every nuance of their child's development. Gratitude to Hashem is an accepted reality.

Even as adults, we go through these transformations on a constant, daily basis. When we are asleep, our bodies slow down, our metabolism is no longer in first gear and our conscious function is completely immobilized. Yet, every day we wake up in the morning, open our eyes and a new day, a new life begins. Is that so different from the development of a child? Therefore, why do we take it for granted and not acknowledge Hashem with an excitement that parallels that of parents with a newborn infant? The Alter emphasizes the need for all of us to acknowledge, appreciate and express our gratitude to Hashem for everything He bestows upon us - daily - constantly - always. Last, our degree of vibrancy and life is commensurate with our understanding and appreciation of Hashem's blessing. It is only through such recognition that we achieve viability and a sense of being.

And it will say on that day, "Is it not because my G-d is not in my midst that these evils have come upon me?" But I will surely have concealed My face on that day because of all the evil that it did. (31:17, 18)

The pasuk prophesies Klal Yisrael's reaction to the terrible punishments meted out against them. The people then acknowledge that these punishments do not "just happen." They are deliberately designed. It would seem that acknowledging that their suffering is the result of Hashem distancing Himself from them would constitute some sort of repentance. Surely, it is the beginning of repentance. Why then does Hashem repeat in the next pasuk that He will conceal Himself from them? They made the move. Do they not deserve a chance? The Ramban explains that while their actions reflect a sort of repentance, it lacks authenticity. It falls short of genuine repentance because, although they acquiesce their guilt, they are not yet prepared to confess and offer unfeigned repentance. Teshuvah denotes more than recognizing one's sin and realizing that it has distanced him from Hashem. This is only the first step in a long process of "return." Unless one has "returned" completely to Hashem, his teshuvah is fractional.

This state of flux, in which a person gropes his way toward teshuvah, presents a dilemma in which one may well find his life filled with contradiction, such that he is torn between conflicting goals. This continues on until his return is complete, and the ambiguity of his state undergoes a dramatic change. The individual who is going through the process of change understands that undertaking only part of what Judaism demands is self-deceiving. On the other hand, complete commitment is a move of such compelling finality that the mere thought traumatizes him. Let us face it, radical change is not a simple matter. It creates a host of problems and issues.

While every baal teshuva undergoes his or her personal transition, there is one common denominator between them all: the recognition that teshuvah is a process wherein each stage is a rung on the ladder of faith, each one bringing the penitent closer to the top with the acute recognition that each rung is not an end in itself, but one more step up the ladder. The flip side of this is the tendency that some have to forever remain on the ladder without reaching any specific destination. This, of course, leads to a confused self-image and is in direct contradiction to the transition process. The purpose of this process is transformation, not aimlessness and ambiguity. One must never lose sight of the real goal; embracing Judaism in its totality - all 613 mitzvos.

Our pasuk addresses the initial awakening. It is a great start, but only a start. The decisive point is not the awakening, it is the affirmation that one accepts upon himself to grow, to do, to act, to plod on until he reaches the summit. Yes, some of us wake up - but, regrettably, we go back to sleep. Once the process begins, it must be continued until it achieves fruition.

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

The prophecy concerning Klal Yisrael's spiritual future was indeed grim with its downslide into sin and provocation of Hashem. There was one positive note, however; the Torah will never be forgotten. Regardless of how far they slip into the nadir of depravity, how distant from Hashem they are through assimilation, there will always be a resurgence of Torah learning which will ultimately bring them back. Many will be lost, but not all. The Torah will never be forgotten.

Everybody has his unique story about someone who returned to a life of observance after years, even generations, of alienation. The following story may be added to that wonderful collection of inspirational narratives. A number of years ago, Elie Weisel traveled to Saragossa, Spain, a city that was a thriving center of Jewish life during the Middle Ages. This all came to an end during the expulsion of the Jews in 1492. Taking in all of the tourist attractions, he was standing in front of the local cathedral when a man came over and offered to be his guide. Apparently, he took great pride in his community and wanted to show it off. As they became involved in a conversation, Weisel mentioned that he was a Jew and even spoke Hebrew. The man's eyes lit up: "There have been no Jews in Saragossa for almost 500 years, and I have been waiting to meet one so that I could ask for help. Could I impose on you to come to my home? I have something I want to show you." Weisel agreed, and they were off.

As he waited in the third floor apartment for the man to bring out his "treasure," Weisel noticed a number of Christian religious figurines and paintings. This was clearly the home of a devout Christian. The man came out of his study carrying a yellow parchment that had been wrapped in linen cloth. It was the fragment of a testament written some five centuries earlier. With a shaky voice, Weisel read the following: I, Moshe, the son of Avraham, forced to break all ties with my people and my faith, leave these lines to the children of my children and to theirs, in order that on the day when Yisrael will be able to walk again, its head held high under the sun without fear and without remorse, they will know where their roots lie. Written at Saragossa, this ninth of the month of Av in the year of punishment and exile.

Weisel offered to buy the document, but the man demurred, saying that it was a family heirloom that had been passed down through the generations. The man asked Weisel to explain the meaning of the document. In response, Weisel gave the man a lesson in Jewish history, Spain, the Marranos, the expulsion and eventual assimilation. The man begged him to read the document again, and they bid each other goodbye.

A few years later, Weisel was walking down the street in Yerushalayim when a man came over to him and asked, "Do you remember me?" He seemed to look familiar, but Weisel could not place him. He also spoke fluent Hebrew which made it more difficult. Then the man looked him in the eye and with tears rolling down his face, he said, "Saragossa."

Weisel just stood there in shock and disbelief, as he saw the transformation. The man invited him to his home where he saw religious pictures. This time, they depicted Jewish scenes. Right in the middle of the wall in an ornate, beautiful frame was the "document" that had turned around his life. As Weisel got up to leave and bid farewell to his new friend, the man said, "By the way, I never told you my name." He waited a few seconds, smiled, and then said, "My name is Moshe ben Avraham."

Throughout Jewish history, there have been those who have left and those who have returned. Ultimately, all return through one way or another. How much more reason at this time of the year to reach out to someone. It might catalyze their return.

Malchuscha malchus kol olamim
Your kingdom is a kingdom spanning all eternities.

In his Sefer HaIkarim, Horav Yosef Albo, zl, writes that appellations such as gibor, strong and melech, king, in reference to Hashem are not synonymous in any manner with the true concept of gevurah, strength, or malchus, monarchy, as it applies to Hashem. Nonetheless, we employ these terms as a means of relating His awesome strength and unparalleled monarchy to the human mindset. People understand the word "strong" or "king." Therefore, we use these terms. They are only relative to the "real thing," which is indescribable. This is why we previously said, Kavod malchuscha yomeiru, u'gevurascha yedabeiru, "Of the glory of Your kingdom they will speak, and of Your power they will tell."

Why? L'hodia livnei adam gevurosav u'kavod hadar malchuso, "To inform human beings of His mighty deeds, and the glorious splendor of His kingdom."

These terms serve one purpose: Availing human beings the opportunity of having an inkling of Hashem. Veritably, Malchuscha, Your kingdom, is malchus kol olamim. The monarchy that exists throughout the many "worlds" is but an extension of Your Heavenly kingdom.

in loving memory of our
Father and Grandfather
Mr. Alex Shapiro
Eliyahu ben Yaakov z"l
niftar first day of Rosh Hashana 5745
"His life was a symphony of song to Hashem"
Katia and Fred Bolotin & Family
Joy and David Schwartz & Family
Leora and Reuven Mandel

Peninim on the Torah is in its 14th year of publication. The first nine years have been published in book form.

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