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Peninim on the Torah

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Rabbi A. Leib Scheinbaum
Hebrew Academy of Cleveland


And by all the strong hand and awesome power that Moshe performed before the eyes of all Yisrael. (34:12)

Rashi explains that the "strong hand" is a reference to Moshe Rabbeinu accepting the Luchos from Hashem in his hands. Although the Luchos were of extraordinary weight, Moshe was able to carry them. "Before the eyes of all Yisrael" refers to Moshe's decision to break the Luchos in the presence of the entire nation. Hashem ratified his action, as Chazal say, Yeyasher kochacha she'sheebart, Hashem thanked him for breaking the Luchos. We wonder if it had really been necessary for Moshe to break the Luchos. Why did he not simply put them away until such time that the people performed teshuvah, repent, and once again be worthy of receiving them? Furthermore, how was Moshe able to break them? It is not as if they were constructed of ordinary material. The Luchos were Hashem's handiwork and, as such, should have been unbreakable by man. Last, while we can understand why Hashem did not take issue with Moshe's action, why did He affirm it? Moshe apparently felt that the people were not worthy of the Luchos. Thus, it would be inappropriate to give them to them until they had undergone a complete transformation. Why, then, was Hashem pleased with Moshe's decision? It seems that Moshe sought to impart to Klal Yisrael an important lesson, one with which Hashem concurred.

An old adage, attributed to the Kotzker Rebbe, zl, asserts, "There is nothing so whole as a broken heart." Life is filled with different situations, moments containing joy and happiness; confidence; a sense of excitement; love and healing. There are also moments in life that appear to be shattered, occasions when the rose garden we thought we had seems to be more like a thorn bush. We are confronted with emotional and physical pain, trauma, financial challenges, and a gamut of issues involving our children. We live through the sunshine and the rain, the whole and the fragmented stages of life. They all meld together into the great experience called life.

We have no idea why we must endure the broken moments of life. Hashem, however, considers them to be an essential part of our existence. Chazal teach us that the Shivrei Luchos, broken fragments of the Luchos, were kept in the Aron HaKodesh right next to the whole Luchos. This conveys a powerful message: The broken moments of life are just as significant for our growth as the whole moments. Hashem's Presence abides not only in the complete Luchos, but in the shattered ones, as well. This is why Hashem thanked Moshe for his initiative in breaking the Luchos. Concealing them would not communicate the message of hope to which the broken Luchos allude. A Jew must never give up. Even in adversity, Hashem is ever present. This lesson was Moshe's everlasting and greatest achievement. Many of us, at one time or another, go through trials and tribulations that briefly shatter our lives. The broken Luchos convey the lesson of hope - our leader's enduring legacy to his nation.

Alternatively, we may explain the anomaly of the shattered Luchos after first gaining a deeper insight into the sin of the Golden Calf, which catalyzed this searing response. When we go back to the Torah's recollection of the sin, we are confronted with a number of questions. The Torah begins with a description of the Luchos as being inscribed by the finger of G-d (Shemos 31:18). Hashem then told Moshe to descend from the mountain, since the nation had quickly degenerated, straying by making a golden calf. Hashem wanted to destroy the people. Moshe supplicated, and Hashem listened. Then, as Moshe was about to descend, the Torah adds another aspect to its description of the Luchos: "Moshe turned and descended from the mountain, with the Two Tablets of the Testimony in his hand, Tablets inscribed on both of their surfaces; they were inscribed on one side and on that" (ibid, 32:15). Why does the Torah deem it necessary to reiterate its description of the Luchos, and why does it do so specifically shortly before Moshe broke the Luchos? Indeed, in addition to the fact that they were inscribed by Hashem, the Torah finds it necessary to add that they were inscribed on both of their surfaces. Is there significance to the fact that, miraculously, one could look through the Luchos?

Now that we have presented questions concerning the Luchos, let us understand exactly what the sin concerning the Golden Calf was. Moshe was "late" in returning from the mountain, or so Klal Yisrael thought. They felt that they could not function without Moshe. They needed something or someone palpable, a corporeal intermediary to whom they could relate. They were not yet ready to accept the fact that Hashem is a personal G-d, such that an intermediary is not only unnecessary, but it is categorically wrong. The Jewish People were not prepared to process the spiritual dimension of their lives. Accepting another dimension that was not tangible was unreal for them, and something to which they could not ascribe. Whatever they saw, they viewed through a one-dimensional perspective. Thus, when Moshe did not appear, they demanded a replacement, and the Golden Calf was something they could touch and feel. It seemed real to them.

The Luchos were engraved through and through to convey the message that there is something beyond that which we can see. Something deeper exists beyond the confines of our one-dimensional perception. Through our relationship with the Torah, we developed a sense of trust in Hashem, granting us the ability to see through the ambiguities that, at times, cloud our lives. One must be worthy of receiving such Luchos. Klal Yisrael's choice of a Golden Calf dispelled this fact. They were not ready for such clarity of vision.

While this approach explains why they should not have received the Luchos, why did Moshe have to break them? They could have been concealed until a time when the people would realize their significance. Apparently, Moshe sought to teach the people the meaning of reality. We are used to thinking that if we can touch it, it is real. If it is tangible, it is real. Matters of the spirit are not real. They are supernatural. This was the basis of KlalYisrael's error. It was necessary for them to realize that, without spirituality, nothing is real. It is merely broken shards. The people were taught that Luchos which one can see through from front to back-- and vice versa-- are spiritual in nature, but how? Just because they were inscribed miraculously, they were not necessarily spiritual.

Have we ever wondered how Moshe was able to break Hashem's handiwork? First of all, how does one possibly break something which was made by Hashem? Second, the Luchos were holy and, as such, it would take someone with "big shoulders" to undertake breaking them. How did Moshe do such a thing? The Ramban alludes to this question when he writes that as soon as Moshe brought the Luchos within the perimeter surrounding the Golden Calf, the letters on the Luchos flew off and ascended Heavenward. The Luchos were of such a holy nature that they could not exist together with the spiritual pollution of sinful behavior. We now understand how Moshe took it upon himself to break the Luchos. They were no longer on the same spiritual plane as before he had accepted them. The people were not ready to receive the Torah. Thus, they lost it. When Moshe saw the letters fly off the Luchos, he understood that this nation was no longer worthy of such a holy gift. He was now left with two tablets of stone, because the essence of the Luchos was no longer present. Moshe broke the stone, because the reality was gone. This was his lesson to the people. The reality of an object is its connection to spirituality. Without its spiritual essence, it is not real. The Torah emphasizes the supernatural nature of the Luchos, for this was the area in which the nation went wrong. They thought reality was defined by tangibility. Moshe showed them otherwise. This enduring "lesson" remained side by side with the replacement Luchos, so that the people would never forget the meaning of reality.

Perhaps this is the relationship between the Golden Calf and the Red Heifer. Chazal teach us that the mitzvah of Para Adumah, Red Heifer, was given to us to serve as atonement for the Golden Calf. "Let the Mother (Red Heifer) come and clean up the mess made by its child (Golden Calf)." How are the two related? Certainly, it goes beyond the fact that they are both members of the bovine family.

When we think about it, the laws concerning the Parah Adumah are paradoxical. The mere fact that the Kohen who prepares the ashes of the Parah Adumah with water to be sprinkled on the one who is tamei meis, spiritually defiled from coming in contact with a dead body, becomes himself tamei; while the one who was tamei, is cleansed, is in itself the greatest mystery. The fact that a mixture of ashes and water can cleanse one who is spiritually unclean is not much less of a mystery. The lesson I believe is that mystery is defined by that which we, in our limited minds, cannot grasp. Is it any different than the Jews' definition of reality? They thought that touching and feeling define reality. They were wrong. Parah Adumah teaches us that we must believe in a higher concept of cognition, an understanding that extends beyond that to which our minds can relate. This is where emunah, faith, enters into the equation. A Jew understands what his limited mind can fathom. After that, he relies on faith. Judaism is all about the leap of faith that we must take when our minds no longer understand. This is the "mother's" lesson: A Jew must have faith in the Almighty. Otherwise, life just does not make sense.

And by all the strong hand and awesome power that Moshe performed before the eyes of all Yisrael. (34:12)

This is a nice ending to the Torah that Hashem gave to Klal Yisrael through Moshe Rabbeinu. In fact, this pasuk, describing Moshe's shattering of the Luchos, serves as the quintessential leader's epitaph, his greatest moment, presents his most significant achievement. What about the Jewish People? It is not very comforting to know that the Torah ends with their iniquity. Is it really that important to conclude the Torah with a recap of one of the most serious errors in Jewish history? Horav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach, zl, suggests that, in effect, this conclusion to the Torah is far from a critique of the Jewish People. It is, perhaps, their greatest praise. The Torah ends with the message: Moshe shattered the Luchos when he saw that, in his absence, the Jewish People had embraced the Golden Calf. The response was shattering the Luchos. If Klal Yisrael is not suitable for the Torah, then there is no place for the Torah! This is similar to the idea of the Korban Pesach, when all of those counted for a group become tamei, ritually contaminated. The Korban becomes pasul, invalid. No people, no Torah. That is a fairly distinctive praise.

Rav Shlomo Zalman adds that this is why the Shivrei Luchos, fragmented Luchos, were placed in the Aron HaKodesh together with the second set of Luchos. We have a rule that Ein kateigor naase saneigor, "A prosecuting attorney cannot become a defense attorney." The Luchos within the Aron HaKodesh symbolized atonement. It was placed inside the Kodshei Kodoshim, Holy of Holies, for that reason. Should the symbol of sinful behavior, characterized by the broken Luchos, be stored there, also? With the above idea in mind, it all makes sense. The Shivrei Luchos symbolize our enduring bond with Hashem. Without the Jewish People, there is no Torah. They will never be exchanged for another nation. What greater saneigor is there than this?

And by all the strong hand and awesome power that Moshe performed before the eyes of all Yisrael. (34:12)

The concluding pasuk of the Torah describes Moshe Rabbeinu's greatest feat as the quintessential leader of Klal Yisrael and its consummate rebbe. His acceptance of the Luchos in his two hands and his subsequent shattering them in the presence of the entire Jewish nation-- because he felt that their sin concerning the Golden Calf negated the message of the Luchos-are considered to be Moshe's pi?ce de r?sistance, his greatest moments, the epitaph for which he is to be remembered. Moshe lived an incredible life of dedication to Hashem and to His nation. He achieved a position of leadership unparalleled, yet, he is remembered for his strength of conviction in zealously taking into his "hands" and breaking the Luchos. Apparently, this was his greatest moment.

I think that we may go one step further. This was Moshe's defining moment. It was the breaking of the Luchos which was not only his greatest act - it was the act of perfection that made the ultimate difference in his life. In other words, despite all that Moshe had done, regardless of his unprecedented and unparalleled achievements, had he not shattered the Luchos - everything that he had accomplished throughout his life would have been for naught. This is how critically important it was that Moshe not give the Luchos to a nation that had embraced the Golden Calf. His entire life of achievement preceding this defining moment was on the line. This decision would characterize and determine his life's achievement. Would it be a life of success, or would this moment place a negative stamp on his life?

How true this is. Many have achieved and accomplished great successes for Torah, only to make a serious mistake at a critical juncture in their lives and, regrettably, be remembered in infamy. Others have lived mediocre lives, basically what we would refer to in a spiritual sense as "hanging in there," but, once, at a time of great significance, they took the initiative and made a positive decision, one that not only transformed their lives, but actually altered their destiny.

Indeed, one act of perfection can define a lifetime. Likewise, one error at a crucial moment can have a negative impact for life. It all boils down to that "one moment," that moment of destiny. In his volume on sports and Torah, "Timeout," Rabbi Dov Lipman tells the story of Don Larsen, a mediocre pitcher for the 1956 New York Yankees, whose contribution to the Yankees' triumphant emergence from the 1956 World Series was the most discussed story of the day, earning him the award as World Series Most Valuable Player.

The Yankees were playing their long-running rival, the Brooklyn Dodgers. Larsen had pitched poorly in Game 2 of the series, and, basically, he was all washed up - or so everyone, including himself, thought. Casey Stengel, legendary manager of the Yankees, shocked everyone when he gave the nod to Larsen for Game 5. He began to pitch with a support team of players and fans, all feeling a sense of trepidation. Clearly, they were not a confident group.

Incredibly, to everyone's shock and disbelief, he threw ball after ball with tremendous control and precision. One after another, the Dodger players came up to bat, only to be retired meticulously by the Yankees's "new" pitcher. Every once in awhile a Dodger player would make contact with the ball, only to have it caught by one of the Yankee players. With each ensuing inning, the Yankee fans thought that, surely, their pitcher would come apart. Sooner or later, his game would unwind, and he would revert to the pitcher they had come to know. However, Larsen kept up the pace. It was the ninth inning. He had three more outs to achieve a perfect game. Three batters went up to the box. Three batters were out! The game was over, and Don Larsen, the mediocre pitcher, had performed the nearly impossible: he had pitched a perfect game. Indeed, the next day, the New York Daily News ran the following headline: "The imperfect man pitched the perfect game."

Don Larsen went on to play for other teams after being traded by the Yankees. While he was never remembered as a pitcher of any consequence in baseball history, his name is recorded for posterity, because, for one day, he performed an extraordinary feat. For one day during the World Series, he was perfect.

Total perfection is impossible, but that should not negate one from striving for periodic perfection, for excellence in a specific mitzvah, spiritual endeavor, or area of Torah study. That one moment can have a serious defining effect on a person. Moshe Rabbeinu worked an entire life to reach the pinnacle of spiritual achievement, but he might have lost it had he allowed the Luchos to be given to a people obsessed with a Golden Calf. Individuals have turned their lives around as the result of one positive action at the right time. Yeish koneh olamo b'shaah achas, "One can acquire his portion in the World to Come in one moment." Regrettably, one can similarly lose it b'shaah achas. The next time an opportunity arises when we feel uninspired, or simply question the significance of performing a specific mitzvah, we should think about the "one moment" of Moshe Rabbeinu. An entire life of achievement might have hinged on his reaction. His decision defined his true conviction. Since we never know when that one moment or one mitzvah will materialize, we should act accordingly all of the time. One never knows.

Va'ani Tefillah

Nosein l'beheimah lachmah, livnei oreiv asher yikrau.
He gives the animal its food and to the young of the raven for which they cry out.

Hashem provides sustenance for all of His creations. An example of this is the raven, whose mother birds usually abandon their young at a very young age. The verdant mountains, which have been blessed by Hashem, provide the necessary food even for these raven offspring. A similar pasuk is found in Sefer Tehillim 104:21, "The young lions roar after prey and to seek their food also from G-d." Horav Simcha Zissel Broide, zl, explains that the nature of these creatures is to cry out when they are hungry. Their cry is in essence a supplication, a form of prayer that Hashem grant them sustenance. They do not have to utter any "words," they simply cry out.

The nature of the world is that when an infant cries, its mother immediately knows that her child wants food. Thus, concerning creatures, their kol, voice, alone without any form of articulation, is accepted and heard like a prayer. Likewise, when an infant who does not understand anything cries, he receives an immediate response from his mother. The supplication of a human being, who has cognitive abilities, is the result of a profound understanding of what Hashem expects of him and a yearning to fulfill Hashem's will to perfection. Our desire to elevate and increase kavod Shomayim, the honor of Heaven, in this world, is in itself an expression of prayers. In short, prayer does not necessarily mean articulating our feelings, but rather the ability to convey through our actions that we want to glorify Hashem. Hashem knows what we want. We must make sure that it coincides with His will.

Dear Readers,
Nineteen years is a considerable amount of time. It was nineteen years ago that Peninim came into existence as an idea whose time had come. A synopsis of Torah thought on the parsha, culled from sources both traditional and contemporary, woven together into a mosaic with practical relevance is as important today as it was then. I am gratified and humbled by the tremendous siyata d'Shmaya which has been accorded me in order to prepare and disseminate Peninim to a responsive and appreciative audience. I pray that I will continue to merit the Almighty's constant favor, and that He will continue to guide me in every endeavor.

I have made it a point in the previous issues of V'Zos Habrachah to thank those who play a crucial role in seeing to it that Peninim are produced from concept to reality. The nineteenth issue is no different. True, it might seem redundant, but it is something I enjoy repeating, because of my deep gratitude to them. I have the privilege of once again thanking: Mrs. Sharon Weimer and Mrs. Tova Scheinerman, who prepare the manuscript on a weekly basis; Mrs. Marilyn Berger, who continues to edit the copy in an effort to make it presentable and readable to the wider spectrum of the Jewish community; Rabbi Malkiel Hefter, who sees to it that the final copy is completed, printed and distributed in a timely and orderly fashion.

Over the years, Peninim has developed its own network of distribution. While the constraints of space do not permit me to mention each and every person who sees to it that Peninim is distributed in his or her individual community, I will highlight a few. It was Baruch Berger of Brooklyn, New York, who came to me originally, requesting that he be able to distribute Peninim in his community. At the time, Baruch became ill and sought a zchus. As his illness progressed, Baruch was compelled to halt his activities, but the zchus is all his. May Hashem grant him a refuah shleimah b'soch shaar cholei Yisrael. Avi Hershkowitz of Queens, New York, and Asher Groundland of Detroit, Michigan, distribute in their respective communities. For years, Meir Bedziner distributed Peninim throughout the Baltimore, Maryland area. He was niftar six years ago. His wife continues the labor of love to disseminate Torah in her community. Shema Yisrael network provides the electronic edition for worldwide distribution. A number of years ago, Eliyahu Goldberg of London, England, began a European edition. Through his efforts and those of Menachem Hommel of London and Pinchas Brandeis of Manchester, Peninim receives extensive coverage in England, France, Switzerland, South Africa, as well as in Eretz Yisrael. May the mitzvah of harbotzas Torah serve as a zchus for them to be blessed b'chol mili d'meitav.

My wife, Neny, has supported me in more ways than I can enumerate. Peninim is no different. She avails me the opportunity and peace of mind to write, regardless of the time and place, whether convenient or not; and her weekly "early morning" last word editing of the manuscript prior to its printing is the final word. She has been-and always is-there. To this end, and for so many other favors too numerous to mention, I offer her my heartfelt gratitude. I pray that: we are both blessed with good health; we merit that Torah and chesed continue to be the hallmarks of our home; and we continue to derive much nachas from our children and grandchildren.

Rabbi A. Leib Scheinbaum
Hebrew Academy of Cleveland

l'os hakaras hatov
v'l'chvod mishpachas
HaRav Avraham Leib Scheinbaum v're'oso sheyichyu

me'es mishpachas
Meir Tzvi v'Perel Braun

Peninim on the Torah is in its 18th year of publication. The first fourteen years have been published in book form.

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