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Peninim on the Torah

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Rabbi A. Leib Scheinbaum
Hebrew Academy of Cleveland


He called to Moshe. (1:1)

The summons to Moshe Rabbeinu, Vayikra, is spelled with a diminutive aleph, which allows the word to be read as Vayikar, which means "and he chanced upon." Chazal give the background for the alternate spelling. When Hashem called Moshe, it was not a subtle sound which only he could hear. The sound of Hashem calling Moshe was resounding, traveling all the way from within the Holy of Holies to the outside of the Tent. Yet, no one else heard - not even Aharon HaKohen. It was the same sound that Klal Yisrael heard at Har Sinai when Hashem gave the Torah. This time, however, no one but Moshe heard. Not wanting to call attention to himself, Moshe asked Hashem to use the word, Vayikar, which would indicate subtlety and a chance meeting. Hashem disagreed, since this is the word which the Torah uses to describe His meeting with the evil Bilaam. Moshe begged Hashem to recant, "Please indicate that I found it difficult to write Vayikra and that I obeyed solely because it was Your command." Hashem acquiesced - partially - by having Moshe write Vayikra with a miniature aleph, to imply a dual meaning.

Is this the only place in the Torah in which Hashem called to Moshe? We find earlier, in Sefer Shemos (19:20, 24:116), that Hashem called Moshe during the Revelation at Har Sinai, and the aleph appears to be unaltered. Horav Yitzchak, zl, m'Varkah, explains that, at Har Sinai, all of the Jewish People heard Hashem's voice. When others also heard, and Moshe asked to be humbly diminished - it did not demonstrate humility. On the contrary, when everyone is watching, it reflects subtle arrogance to call attention to one's desire to be minimized. There is a time and place for humility. Misplaced humility suggests subtle arrogance.

In an alternative exposition concerning the diminution of the aleph of Vayikra to create Vayikar, the Likutei Basar Likutei explains that Hashem is constantly calling out to us via the medium of Vayikar, incidents, which should catch our attention. At first, Hashem begins with a simple incident. If we are spiritually cognizant that life has purpose and that absolutely nothing "just happens," we will immediately take the matter to heart and change whatever needs to be corrected in our life. If, however, our spiritual cognition is more on the obtuse level, we will require less subtle and more blatant occurrences to awaken us. The bottom line is that we may not look at any occurrence - regardless of how small - as being a chance incident. A great person takes notes from the most simple Vayikar; he understands that this Vayikar is actually a Vayikra.

The Yalkut Meam Loez, quoted by Horav Shlomo Levinstein, Shlita, offers a powerful analogy that underscores this idea. A group of hunters were successful in surrounding their intended target: a fox. A cunning animal, the fox understood that it was over. He had essentially been caught. His head would soon adorn someone's fireplace. He felt that the only way to avoid certain death was to feign death. The hunters might believe that they had succeeded, so that they would continue on about their business and seek out some other hapless animal.

All was going well until one of the hunters declared that he would like the fox's tail as a souvenir. Hearing this, the fox knew that the process of obtaining his tail would incur excruciating pain, during which the fox could not reveal that he was alive. He suffered immense pain - in silence - as the hunter separated him from his tail. Better to be a tailless fox than a dead fox. Another hunter wanted the fox's tooth as a good-luck souvenir. Removing the tooth without novocaine was difficult for the fox, but he was not going to let the hunters know that he was still alive. He would suffer in silence. Even this was better than death. Little by little, each hunter wanted a "piece" of the fox. Each time, the broken and torn fox kept his silence and feigned death. Finally, one of the hunters said that he wanted the fox's head for his mantle. This was going too far. This meant death.

The fox decided to jump up and frighten the hunters. During the initial moments of fear, he would escape. His plan worked, and he escaped - a broken, blind, limping, bloodied fox - but he was alive. The fox now realized that had he taken the offensive right from the beginning, he might have circumvented all of the pain.

This is the story of life. Hashem sends us subtle messages in the guise of various incidents, which take their toll on us financially, emotionally and physically. If we would wake up early enough and realize that these are not simply isolated occurrences, but rather, messages from Hashem, we would spare ourselves much pain and anguish.

When a man among you brings an offering to Hashem. (1:2)

The service of offering Korbanos, sacrifices to Hashem, was given to Klal Yisrael. It is a holy service designated for a holy people. Korbanos, however, are not designated solely for the Jewish People. Anyone - regardless of faith - may bring a korban. Indeed, we read in Parashas Emor (Vayikra 22:18), "Speak to Aharon and his sons and to all of Bnei Yisrael and say to them: Any man of the House of Yisrael and of the geirim, proselytes among Yisrael, who will bring his offering for any of their vows or their free-will offerings that they will bring to Hashem for an elevation offering." The Talmud Menachos 73b derives from the redundancy of the word ish, man (ish ish), which we translate as "any man," that a gentile may also bring a korban to the Bais Hamikdash.

There is, however, a fundamental difference between the korban that a Jew brings and that which a gentile brings: the korban of a non-Jew is locked into the Korban Olah, Burnt-offering/Elevation-offering category. Even if the gentile articulates his clear intention to offer a Korban Shelamim, Peace-offering, it remains an Olah - a korban which is completely burnt. No one partakes of a Korban Olah. The reason for this is that we "say" the gentile's intention was for Hashem; he wanted to contribute a sacrifice totally for Hashem. When a Jew, however, states that the korban is a Shelamim, it will become a Shelamim. This is problematic, since Chazal seem to imply that a gentile's intention is more likely to be for Hashem than that of a Jew, whose intention might be for a Shelamim - which allows him to eat of the korban's flesh. This is inconsistent with a number of statements which Chazal make in which they say that a gentile's intention is not necessarily for Hashem. An ulterior motive seems to underlie their overt intentions l'shem Shomayim, for the sake of Heaven.

Horav Aryeh Leib Bakst, zl, explains the disparity and teaches us an important principle concerning Jewish dogma in contradistinction to that of other religions. Religion and spirituality can certainly be found in the non-Jewish world. In fact, it is one of the non-Jewish world's greatest areas of commerce. A basic principle distinguishes the two: Spirituality and physicality; holy and mundane do not mix - ever! When a gentile is involved in spiritual discourse, he has no room to include anything physical/material. Like water and oil, the two do not mix together. They are opposites; hence, they must each retain their own individuality. To mix the mundane with the sacred is to profane the sacred. Likewise, when they are immersed in their physical dimension - it is all physical, all material - with no room for anything sacred to integrate. They drink for pleasure. Nothing is sacred about drinking; is it any wonder that in all areas of physicality, they can descend to the nadir of depravity to carry out their base desires?

Jewish dogma is in total contradistinction to this line of thinking. Every moment of a Jewish person's life is devoted to Hashem. How is this? Considering our occupation with the worldly, material and physical aspects of life - how can we say that we are always engaged in avodas Hashem, service to the Almighty? It is because we do not believe in a dichotomy between the physical and spiritual. Our entire physical dimension is governed by halachah. From the moment we arise in the morning, until we retire to bed at night, halachah is our spiritual/moral compass. Everything that we do must pass muster in accordance with halachic guidelines. Everything we do is focused on kavod Shomayim, enhancing the glory of Heaven.

Therefore, the concept of a Korban Shelamim, which might be viewed as a spiritual hybrid - with the owner partaking of its flesh, and the Sanctuary receiving its due when the Kohanim consume their portion - suggests that their eating effects atonement from the owner. It is all based on one's intention. With the proper kavanah, intention, one is able to sanctify the mundane, elevate the physical and transform it into a completely different entity. By elevating the mundane objects and activities in life to a higher spiritual purpose, we are sanctifying them.

This is the incredible power of a Jew. We can take something which is chullin, secular, and, through a simple declaration, make it Terumah, Maaser, a korban - something so holy that it is no longer permissible to be eaten by just anyone. When one ponders this awesome power, he should be invested with a feeling of great pride.

In a number of his Maamarim, Horav Yitzchak Hutner, zl, discusses the performance of multiple activities - some secular, some spiritual - and their place in a unified vision of life. The Rosh Yeshivah quotes a question posed to him by a student who felt that his choice of a secular career bespoke that he was living a double life. It seems from the letter that the student, having recently left the walls of the bais hamedrash, was having difficulty reconciling himself with his "new life." Rav Hutner explains that he is against leading a double life, but asserts that a secular life does not, by definition, necessarily imply a dual life. We can consider the concept of a broad life, which is different from a double life.

One who rents a room in a hotel, yet owns a house, switching off between both domiciles, leads a double life. One who rents multiple rooms in one hotel, however, is living a broad life. Engaging in various activities does not, in and of itself, indicate a duality. As long as all of the activities are components within one unified vision, the varied elements are consistent in conforming to one direction in life, or approach to life, the person lives a broad - rather than double - life.

Rav Hutner relates that he once witnessed Dr. Wallach, the German immigrant physician who played a leading role in the establishment of Shaarei Tzedek Hospital, shortly before surgery. The doctor asked the patient for his Hebrew name and that of his mother, so that he could recite Tehillim on his behalf. Dr. Wallach was not leading a double life. The human effort of reciting Tehillim and medical intervention are not incongruous with one another. They both allude to the belief that the end result is up to Hashem. They are two varied approaches with one common vision - to achieve a successful outcome for the patient. The sacred sanctifies the secular, if they share one vision united by belief in Divine Providence. Thus, we are able to sanctify the mundane aspects of our lives.

And if a Korban Shelamim is his offering. (3:1)

The Korban Shelamim is defined as a Peace-offering. The word shelamim is derived from shalem, implying a state of completeness, of perfection, when used in connection with a human being. Shalem denotes that the person is in such a state that he does not feel a flaw in any part of his life. He feels complete. He lacks for nothing. Understandably, shalem is a relative concept, since it primarily describes an object in relation to all of its parts, or a person in relation to the circumstances and surroundings in which he lives.

Horav S. R. Hirsch, zl, observes that shalem is that state of affairs in which no component of a person or thing detracts from any of the others, but rather, in which each component is complemented in and through all of the others. Shalom is not merely superficial coexistence, but an organic agreement and interaction among all of the parts of the whole. Therefore, the Korban Shelamim is an offering that emanates from the feelings that one is in a state of peace. I think in Yiddish we would refer to such a person as a tzufridener mench, an individual who has achieved inner joy.

In his inimitable manner, Rav Hirsch so beautifully explains the meaning of a Korban Shelamim as symbolizing an aspect of a person's quest for the nearness of Hashem. This is based on the fact that the individual who makes the offering feels completely at peace. Indeed, he feels that nothing is lacking in his life - other than the nearness of G-d. This is the crowning point in his life. The Korban Shelamim symbolizes the Jewish philosophy of life. The bridge to Hashem is established through joy - not grief. The highest form of service to the Divine is to enjoy one's existence on earth before the countenance of G-d. The shelamim is based on this premise: one seeks out Hashem for no other reason - not even to pay gratitude - just to be in His proximity.

Rav Hirsch applies this principle to explain why one who is in a state of aninus, during the day on which one has lost a close relative (prior to the burial), may not offer korbanos. The Sanctuary is off limits. This law was set forth primarily in connection to a Shelamim, but is applicable across the board to all other korbanos. This is because the Shelamim is to reflect a state of mind in which the person who offers them feels neither hurt nor bereft. One offers the Shelamim when he feels at peace with himself, not when he is in deep mourning. We are taught Shelamim korbano, "His offering shall be a Shelamim": All of the offerings that he brings, he shall bring when he is whole" (Zevachim 99b). One must not cross the threshold of Hashem's Sanctuary while his heart is torn in grief. Only one who is at peace and reconciled with his present lot in life can find his way to Hashem's nearness.

This idea is just one more area in which we, as adherents to the Torah, differ from other religions. The gentile world views it as their greatest triumph if they can use religion as a method for overcoming grief, if their temple of worship can soothe the sorrow, ease the pain, and give comfort to its adherents during their moment of bereavement. Judaism, however, categorically rejects this notion. We are taught that sorrow must be overcome prior to entering the Sanctuary. This is, in fact, a precondition for the impact of the Sanctuary on the Jew. The Sanctuary is not a place where one goes to seek therapy. The purpose of the Bais Hamikdash is not to comfort us in our sorrow, to relieve us of the pain, but rather, to give us the strength and tenacity to serve G-d through practical action, out of a sense of calm, courage, and a willful determination to confront life's vicissitudes. It is this powerful emotion that permeates the halls of the sanctuary. Indeed, Hashem's Sanctuary is His Hall of Justice.

I would like to take advantage of my writer's license to elaborate on this subject. It has been noted by leading psychologists and grief experts that there are five stages of grief: denial - refusing to believe what has happened; anger - accusing "others" of allowing it to occur. "How dare you permit this to happen!"; bargaining - asking for a deal. Begging for a little time to get things in order, to celebrate one more milestone event; depression - experiencing feelings of listlessness, a sense of guilt, a lack of interest in living, essentially throwing in the towel; and acceptance - confronting the loss and deciding it is time to move on. Wallowing in depression will only destroy whatever is left. It is best to make closure and look forward to the future.

People grieve differently. No "one size fits all" when it comes to grief. Grieving is a complex process, and each individual makes the journey at his or her own speed. While some take "shortcuts," one thing is for certain - everyone must reach the final stage, acceptance. No matter how one reaches this goal, one needs to accept the situation if he is once again to be a healthy person, mentally, emotionally, physically. Acceptance by no means indicates that one has forgotten the trauma or has erased it from his mind. It means that one remembers the loss, but has reconciled himself with life, and it is now time to move on.

With this in mind, we understand that the Bais Hamikdash represents the opposite of the first four stages. The Sanctuary is a place of hope, a place of holiness, a place of action where we serve the Almighty. We do not go there for therapy. Likewise, the Gemorah is not the place where we drown our sorrows. We must study Torah b'simchah, with joy. It is not a happy pill. Those great Torah leaders who claimed that the Torah they studied had the ability to assuage their grief meant that, prior to studying Torah, they knew that they must put aside whatever issues they had - or they would not be able to learn. In other words, the learning was not their therapy, but they had to be in a proper frame of mind in order to learn.

Horav Nachman Breslover, zl, was wont to say, "Sadness is not a sin, but its effect on the person is much worse than that of any sin." The soul was sent to this world not merely to exist, but to do, to act, to achieve. When one is overcome with sadness, the soul contracts and becomes concealed, essentially reversing the flow of life. While there are times in which sadness is appropriate, such as Tishah B'Av, our national day of mourning, it is a sort of "positive sadness," active form of sadness, without which we could not truly experience joy. One who is always happy and never senses sadness has a disjointed sense of joy. It is a false joy because it lacks balance. The word used by the Breslover to describe sadness is atzvus, which is a derivative of the word matzav, atzav, standing still or mute, blank depression, having no will to live, to fight, simply not caring what happens. This form of depression can be deadly.

If a person will sin: if he accepted a demand for an oath, and he is a witness - either he saw or he knew. (5:1)

I recently came across a story related by a father, telling about a traumatic experience that he and his family had undergone with one of their teenage sons. A young boy, fifteen years old, had slowly begun to drift away from his attachment to Torah. At first, it was gravitation to the frivolities of the outside world. He continued with his usual good middos, character traits, never offending another student, always showing respect for his rebbeim, his good natured smile always manifest on his face. Yet, this was not enough to maintain his tenure in the yeshivah where he was a student. He would either adhere to Torah and mitzvos, or else, regrettably, if he was not prepared to accept these conditions, he would be asked to leave. The latter occurred.

When a yeshivah is compelled to ask a student to go elsewhere, it does not only leave a mark on the boy - it destroys his entire family! The ramifications inherent in such a decision are often devastating; thus, no decent yeshivah takes this decision lightly. Sometimes, however, it must be done. The boy's father could not handle it. He asked himself, "I have taught hundreds of students and have had an influence on many more. Yet, I could not reach my own son!" At one point, he decided that the dereliction of commitment to Torah had gone too far. He asked his son to leave their home. In addition, the father quit his job. How could he serve as an example to others, if, in fact, he had "failed" at home?

This attitude is, of course, the reaction of one who is depressed. The greatest and most successful educators have had issues at home. It does not impugn their integrity as educators. The son had a problem. The father must address it - end of subject. This father, however, could not deal with it. Luckily, his friends and colleagues did not allow him to follow through with his intentions. They convinced him to stay. This did not, however, resolve the conundrum that was eating away at him. "Why me? What did I do to deserve this?" He presented his case to Hashem, praying fervently for an answer: "Hashem! Please, why?"

The father customarily read from the Sipurei Chasidim, Chassidic Tales, to his younger children, during Seudah Shlishis. He came across an episode related by the Vorkover, Horav Yitzchak, zl. The Rebbe suffered greatly from his wife, who went out of her way to make his life miserable. He suffered in silence. When he saw, however, that he was not the only one who was on the receiving end of his wife's abuse (apparently, the servants were also being traumatized), he reacted. He traveled to his Rebbe, the holy Horav David zl, m'Lelov, and poured out his painful story. The Rebbe listened carefully, then said, "What do you think? Why do you not determine on your own the correct response to this problem?"

The Vorkovar was in a quandary. Apparently, his Rebbe felt that he should arrive at the correct understanding of what was transpiring in his life - on his own. After a while, he came across a commentary which cited the Baal Shem Tov: "One who causes a spiritual blemish in the dimension of action will suffer in his material assets of animals and slaves. One who causes a taint in the dimension of speech will suffer from his wife or other people who will make his life miserable. One who causes a flaw in the dimension of thought will undergo suffering as a result of his children. If one succeeds in correcting the flaws in these three areas: action, speech and thought - everything will transform into good." The Vorkover now understood what his Rebbe meant when he said that it was dependent upon him. He had erred in his service to Hashem. As a result, he was undergoing this form of penance.

This is what is meant by the pasuk cited at the beginning of this thesis: "If a person will sin: if he accepted a demand for an oath." If a man sins - he will hear kol alah, which may loosely be translated as, "The sounds of cursing/imprecation" from his wife. The Vorkover took the hint. The holy Vorkover was not a sinner, but, relative to his exalted spiritual level, he was being called to task.

Getting back to our educator and his challenging son. He now realized that he - the father - was at fault. His son was not the symptom of a disjointed relationship between father and son. No. It had nothing to do with that. It was Hashem's message to the father that something was lacking in his personal behavior. If he would clear it up, his son would be fine. Thus, the father's distancing his son from him was counterproductive. It would produce negative results and hardly serve as a solution to the problem. The father's relationship vis-?-vis his son changed drastically. He pulled him as close as possible - without stifling him. Over a period of time, it worked, as the boy realized that he was loved, he had a place at home, at school, and within the Jewish community.

Interestingly, when the boy saw that his family and the Jewish community still accepted him, when he realized that he was not a pariah, he slowly began to gravitate back. At first, it was a return to his old social relationships. Then, his return became more profound; he began observing Torah and mitzvos - once again. The father realized that the only way to deal with a child that has turned away is with an overabundance of love and understanding, never giving up hope and always keeping the "light on" for him or her to find the way back.

Va'ani Tefillah

V'hayah im shamoa tishmeu el mitzvosai…
Hishamru lachem pen yifteh levavchem v'sartem.
It will be that if you listen to My commandments… Beware for yourselves, lest your head be seduced and you turn astray.

The Torah admonishes the Jew to be on guard lest he defer to his heart's desire and stray from the path which he is instructed to follow. It seems almost unreal that the Torah is making such an admonishment to a person who fulfills v'hayah im shamoa, who listens to the Torah, follows its precepts, and guards its mitzvos. Yet, the Torah is telling us that even such a person can go "off," turn astray and follow the strange winds that ultimately blow him off course. No one is safe. Regardless of a person's spiritual plateau, he can fall off his perch if he is not careful, if he lets his guard down - even for a moment.

The Chiddushei HaRim supports this idea, citing Hashem's warning to Yehoshua, Moshe Rabbeinu's primary student and successor. Rak chazak v'ameitz meod lishmor laasos k'chol haTorah asher tzivcha Moshe avdi - al tassur mimenu yemin u'semol. "O' that you will strengthen yourself and persevere very much in order to observe, to do according to all of the Torah that Moshe, My servant, has commanded you. Do not deviate from it to the right or to the left" (Yehoshua 1:7). Why should someone of Yehoshua's spiritual stature require support, encouragement and strengthening? The Rebbe explains that the greater one's spiritual stature, so, too, is his yetzer hora, evil-inclination. When one has distinguished himself in his spiritual dimension, he must be wary of the slightest deviation of even a hairsbreadth. Likewise, one who has achieved v'hayah im shamoa, who listens to Hashem's mitzvos, must be acutely aware of the possibility of deviation. The higher one is - the greater is his potential fall.

Our parents, grandparents
and great-grandparents

R' Naphtali Michoel ben Nesanel z"l
Maras Sara Riva bas R' Yaakov Meir Hacoehn a"h

The Rothner Family

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