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Peninim on the Torah

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Rabbi A. Leib Scheinbaum
Hebrew Academy of Cleveland


But the seventh day shall be holy for you. (35:2)

Shemiras Shabbos, observing Shabbos Kodesh, is not as difficult as it used to be. One can get a job and not be concerned that his Shabbos observance will be an obstacle. Indeed, Orthodoxy has become an accepted way of life in this country. It has not always been that way. Shemiras Shabbos was often involved with much mesiras nefesh, self-sacrifice. In this country, it was frequently a question of decisions between observing Shabbos and parnassah, earning a livelihood. In Europe, this dichotomy was the product of anti-Semitism. Yet, our forebears triumphed over adversity and overcame the challenges to their faith. The following is an incredible story of mesiras nefesh for Shabbos Kodesh, related by Horav Shlomo Brevde, Shilta.

The Steipler Rav, Horav Yaakov Kanievsky, zl, was a gaon and a tzaddik. His brilliance and encyclopedic knowledge of Torah was only overshadowed by his righteousness and total devotion to serving the Almighty. Prior to his engagement to the sister of the Chazon Ish, he shared an incident that occurred with him in Siberia. He felt it was important that his intended be fully aware of his mesiras nefesh for mitzvos.

As a soldier conscripted into the Czar's army, the Steipler was forced to perform back-breaking labor in the frigid cold of the Siberian winter. Regardless of the overwhelming toil and below-freezing conditions, he continued the difficult work because he knew it was the only way that he could continue to serve the Almighty. The problem was that army dictates demanded that everyone work seven days a week. This created a problem on Shabbos. The Steipler emphatically declared that by no means was he going to work on Shabbos. The Russian official did not need more than one insolent Jew who had the gall to refuse his orders. He predictably flew into a rage, typical of the anti-Semite brute that he was. Suddenly, he stopped screaming, as a diabolical smile crossed his face.

Yes, he would grant the Steipler's request on the condition that the soldier pass a little test. If he could prove himself to be a strong warrior, he would be permitted to observe Shabbos. The test was "simple." The captain ordered his soldiers to form two rows opposite each other, arming themselves with truncheons. The Steipler was to "attempt" to make it from one end of the row to the other as the soldiers beat him mercilessly with their truncheons. If he survived the ordeal, he would be allowed to observe Shabbos.

The Steipler understood the situation. He was probably risking his life, but Shabbos was worth the ordeal. He put his hands over his head as protection, whispered a heartfelt prayer and forged on. The guards began to beat him with all they had: no mercy; no sensitivity; pure brutal malevolence. The pain was intolerable, but the reward of keeping Shabbos was the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. Blood streamed forth from the cuts and gashes. Inch by inch, he trudged forward, blinded by pain and covered with blood. He reached the end of the line and collapsed - with a faint smile on his lips. He had made it! The Shabbos that he cared about so much must have surely protected him. The captain reluctantly gave in to the Steipler's demand to observe Shabbos. The Steipler lay on the ground, a bloodied, broken mass of humanity. Nobody bothered to pick him up, but he did not care. He had triumphed over the cruel officer. He had triumphed over the yetzer hora, evil-inclination. He had won Shabbos Kodesh.

The Steipler concluded the story, looked at his intended and asked, "Are you prepared to join me in a continuous quest of self-sacrifice for Torah and mitzvos? This is the life I plan to lead." The future rebbetzin, the mother of today's pre-eminent gaon, Horav Chaim Kanievsky, Shlita, replied in the affirmative, and they became chassan and kallah.

All the women whose hearts inspired them with wisdom. (35:26)

Shlomo Hamelech says in Mishlei 1:8, "Hear, my child, the discipline of your father, and do not forsake the Torah teaching of your mother." The commentators wonder, what is the "Torah" of the mother? What is the unique lesson that the mother imparts? The Admor m'Nadverna, Shlita, cited by Horav Yitzchok Zilberstein, Shlita, explains that a father's role is to instruct his children to study Torah. He gives his children mussar, ethical lessons, and reprimands in order to keep them on the correct course of study and devotion. There is, however, another component to a child's Torah education without which a child cannot successfully climb the ladder of spiritual development: A Torah environment. The atmosphere in which a child grows - the surroundings that encompass his everyday endeavor - makes the difference in his attitude and demeanor with regard to his studies. This milieu is provided by the mother, the foundation of the home. This is the meaning of Toras imecha, the Torah of your mother. She sweetens the studies, enhances the lessons and gives excitement to their meaning. The child, in turn, loves mitzvos and seeks opportunities to serve Hashem with greater dedication and fervor.

Rav Zilberstein shares an incredible story about the enduring value of a mother's educational endeavor. A newly-married Russian immigrant was brought to him with a question: He knows that he is a Jew, but is not aware whether he is a Kohen, Levi or Yisrael. How should the rabbanim view his status? After a lengthy discussion with the man about life in Russia, Rav Zilberstein asked him if there was anything about his home life, specifically something unique that his mother did, that came to mind.

Suddenly, the man's eyes twinkled as he smiled glowingly. "Yes, there was something my mother did every Erev Yom Tov," he said. "She would buy an new pair of socks for my father. It became a big thing in my house, as all the children would wait enthusiastically for my father's Yom Tov gift."

The rabbanim immediately ascertained that the immigrant was a Kohen. Since his father would Duchen, bless the congregation on the Festival, standing before them in his stocking feet, his mother, out of her love and appreciation of the mitzvah, would purchase a new pair of socks for her husband. The immigrant remembered this episode in his life, because it was a prime example of Toras imecha, his mother's Torah. Her ability to inspire him through action inculculated within him a love for the Festival. She set the tone in the home, an appreciation of Yiddishkeit, that her son remembered many years later.

The Keruvim were with wings spread upwards. (37:9)

The Keruvim resembled little children. Their wings spread out upward/Heavenward may be an analogy to a young child's aspirations for spiritual greatness. Indeed, many young children have great aspirations for distinction in Torah. To the eyes of the average observer, they appear to be innocent children, but, in reality, they are Porsei kenafaim l'maaleh, spreading their wings Heavenward. It is up to parents and educators to encourage their children's ambitions, providing them with various opportunities for spiritual advancement.

Horav Meir Shapiro, zl, the Lubliner Rosh Hayeshivah, and founder of the Daf Hayomi would relate that even as a young child, he thought about instituting the Daf Hayomi concept. Regrettably, those with whom he shared the notion viewed it as the unrealistic dream of a young child. Many years later, when that young child became the famous Lubliner Rosh Hayeshivah with the distinction that this title carried, he returned to the city of his youth and met those men who had mocked him as a youth. He reminded them, "Do you realize that your derision almost convinced me? I was about to give up on my idea and Klal Yisrael would have lost out on a wealth of Torah study."

Horav Yitzchak Zilberstein, Shlita, cites the Chazon Ish who asserts, "Every ben Torah in our generation may be considered as being a possible future gadol hador. Every child has the potential of achieving the apex of distinction in Torah erudition. It is up to the parents to encourage and enhance this spiritual growth."


These are the accountings of the Mishkan. (38:21)

Horav Moshe Feinstein, zl, derives a compelling lesson from the pikudei, accountings, of the Mishkan. A person has to make an accounting of everything that Hashem grants him: his life, his wealth, his abilities. There is a purpose in Hashem's gifts. The ways in which we use what He gives us determine whether we have fulfilled that purpose. We are granted life. Do we use it wisely? Do we use it for the right purpose? Do we take what Hashem has given us for granted, only to wake up when it is almost taken away?

How did we use the wealth which He has bestowed on us? Did we give tzedakah, charity, or did we live ostentatiously and give a few 'kopeks' to the poor? Hashem blessed us with abilities, with strengths, with acumen. How did we make use of these gifts? Did we use them to advance our knowledge of Torah, or did we employ them for trivial pursuits?

The Torah demands that one not waste even a penny of his material possessions. It is Hashem's gift, and if He did not want us to use it wisely, He would not have given it to us. The same idea applies to everything that He bestows on us. When Moshe Rabbeinu completed the Mishkan, he gave an accounting of everything that he used for its construction. One day, The Heavenly Tribunal will call upon us to give our accounting. Are we going to be prepared with the correct responses?

These are the accountings of the Mishkan, the Mishkan of the Testimony. (38:21)

Rashi notes that the word Mishkan is stated twice. He explains that it is an allusion to the Bais HaMikdash which was nishmashkein, taken as collateral - twice, during its two destructions, for the sins of Klal Yisrael. Furthermore, it is called Mishkan Haeidus, because it serves as testimony for Klal Yisrael that Hashem overlooked the incident of the Golden Calf for them, since He rested His Shechinah among them in the Mishkan. What is Rashi telling us? Are we to view the destruction of the Bais HaMikdash as a way to collect collateral? Second, how is the Mishkan an indication that Hashem disregarded the sin of the Golden Calf?

Horav Yaakov Kamenetzky, zl, explains that if one were to become bankrupt, he would sell off those possessions that are luxuries, that he no longer needs. Those belongings that are essential, without which he cannot live, he would not sell; he would only give them up as collateral to be returned later when he has the funds to redeem them. When we take into account the gold and silver that the Jews possessed at the time that they were asked to contribute toward the Mishkan, it is noteworthy that they gave freely for the Mishkan. One would think, in light of the upcoming wars with Eretz Yisrael's thirty-one kings, they would want to save their money for a "rainy" day. Could they not have made a Mishkan of copper where the Shechinah could repose? The mere fact that they readily gave of their gold and silver to the Mishkan suggests that Klal Yisrael viewed the Mishkan as essential to their spiritual survival.

We now understand why the Bais HaMikdash was taken as collateral. The Jews were acutely aware that they must have the Bais HaMikdash in their midst. To have it removed permanently was inconceivable. It could only be taken away on a temporary basis, sort of a collateral, to be returned when we were worthy.

This is also the idea behind the vittur, overlooking, of the sin of the Golden Calf. The primary cause of the sin was that they thought Moshe Rabbeinu had perished and that they had been left bereft of their beloved leader. This overwhelming fear catalyzed the sin. When they were able to demonstrate their extraordinary trust and conviction, Hashem disregarded, overlooked, their sin. The Mishkan attested to this fact.

On the day of the first new moon, on the first day of the month, you shall erect the Mishkan, the Ohel Moed. (40:2)

The Midrash relates that when Hashem commanded Klal Yisrael to make the Mishkan, they asked, "Will You remember the sin of the Eigal, Golden Calf?" Hashem replied, "No, I will forget that sin." They continued asking, "Will You also forget that we accepted the Torah at Har Sinai with a resounding Na'ase v'Nishma! We will do and we will listen?" Hashem answered, "No, I will remember that." The Berditchever Rebbe, zl, asks a compelling question about this Midrash. Certainly, Hashem does not forget. He remembers everything. Apparently, the concept of forgetting in relation to Hashem implies that Hashem has overlooked something by design. If this is the case, for what reason would Hashem consider "forgetting" such a momentous experience as our acceptance of the Torah with an overwhelming and determined acquiescence to perform its mandate without question and without rationale?

Rav Levi Yitzchak explains that with our fall to the nadir of depravity when we sinned with the Golden Calf, our previous acceptance of the Torah became greater and more crucial. Had we not sinned, one could venture to downplay our acceptance of the Torah by attributing it to the emunah, faith and conviction, which we inherited from our Patriarchs. It was not an indication of our own belief, but rather something that was integral to our national character. Once we sinned, however, we demonstrated retroactively that our initial response to the Torah was pure, and above all, our own sentiment. When we accepted the Torah, we did so with full faith and integrity. Regrettably, when we sinned with the Golden Calf, it was an indication of our spiritual descent.

We now understand the meaning of the Midrash. Klal Yisrael asks Hashem, "If You will forget the actual sin of the Golden Calf, will You concomitantly also forget the 'favorable' message that our malevolent actions imparted about our earlier acceptance of the Torah?" Hashem replied, "I will remember the good, but not the bad."

Va'ani Tefillah

Birchos HaTorah

One should make a blessing prior to performing a mitzvah. Limud HaTorah is no different. The Aruch HaShulchan comments that when one does not understand what he learns, his learning is to no avail. The same result applies if he has no intention to derive joy from his learning. Thus, one should entreat Hashem that He help him to understand and know the Torah and also to be filled with joy at the opportunity to learn.

The Chafetz Chaim explains that when one studies Torah, the inherent kedushah, holiness, of the letters satisfy him. This is no different than one who takes a piece of skin/parchment and says he is writing on it l'shem Hashem, for the sake of Hashem. He, thereby, sanctifies the parchment with the letters he writes. Likewise, one who recites a blessing prior to studying Torah allows for his mind to become consecrated through the Torah study.

The Levush says that by reciting a blessing prior to learning, he is demonstrating his appreciation of, and esteem for, the Torah. One blesses before he partakes of something that he enjoys in this world. Torah should be no different. He goes so far as to declare that one who does not recite the blessing prior to learning Torah will not merit to have a son that is a talmid chacham, Torah scholar. This is his punishment middah k'neged middah, measure for measure. One who does not make the blessing shows that he neither cares for, nor benefits from, the Torah. For this individual, Torah study is nothing more than an intellectual exercise.

Yaakov and Karen Nisenbaum
and Family
Martin Nisenbaum

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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