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Peninim on the Torah

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Rabbi A. Leib Scheinbaum
Hebrew Academy of Cleveland


The one who said of his father and mother, "I have not favored him." (33:9)

As Moshe Rabbeinu prepares to take leave of his flock, he blesses the members of each tribe. He points out their inherent positive qualities and he underscores those areas of their character which require improvement. To pat a person on the back and not inform him of his shortcomings can be self-defeating. In addressing Shevet Levi, Moshe notes the members' incredible devotion to Hashem, their commitment which was revealed during the chet ha'eigel, sin of the Golden Calf. When everyone else sinned, they refrained from getting involved in the sacrilege. Moshe had then called out, Mi l'Hashem eilai, "Who is for Hashem, should stand by me!" Shevet Levi answered the call and, upon Moshe's order, took their swords and slew members of their own families: a maternal grandfather; a grandson from their daughter; a brother from the same mother. There is no question that they loved their family members; that love, however, was just not as great as the love and allegiance that they maintained for Hashem.

These actions certainly portray the lofty spiritual achievements of the members of Shevet Levi. They were unlike any other tribe in their total devotion to Hashem. This is specifically why it is surprising that Moshe concludes his accolade, "For they (the Leviim) have observed Your word, and Your Covenant they preserved." Is this praiseworthy of such spiritual supermen? After saying that they did not recognize father and mother, is it necessary to add that they were also observant Jews? Observing Hashem's mitzvos, preserving His covenant, is standard fare for every Jew.

In Gevilei Eish, Horav Avraham Zelmens, zl, derives a powerful lesson from here. The spiritual giant who has achieved distinction in his service of Hashem, regardless of his enormous accomplishments, must still be meticulous concerning the "every day," "ordinary" mitzvos which seem to pale in comparison with what he has so far achieved. One should not say: "I carry an entire Jewish world on my shoulders;" "I have very little time or patience for the young couple who needs my guidance;" "Davening is important, but if it stands in the way of a major meeting to help Klal Yisrael, I will just have to cut my davening down a bit." The list goes on. Everyone has the opportunity for accomplishing great things. This is important - all this is why we are here; but no one should do anything at the expense of his basic relationship with Hashem. It may be compared to those individuals who make sure that their heart and brain are in perfect health, while at the same time disregard a minor infection that, because it had been ignored, becomes septic and almost ends his life.

The Rosh Yeshivah adds that we all know ordinary, good, observant Jews who are meticulous in their day-to-day observance, and succeed in overcoming the challenges that often stand before them. When these upstanding members of our community are asked to accept a more demanding position, however, one of leadership, one which is fraught with challenges, they back down. There are also those who thrive on the major issues, who sustain themselves by fighting for Klal Yisrael, for such collective issues as Shabbos, Kashrus, and Torah, but when it comes to the everyday non-challenging mitzvos, they simply cannot deal with them. Mitzvah performance is an ego enhancer for them. They require the klal work; otherwise, they might get bored with Yiddishkeit. The true oseik b'tzarchei tzibbur, one who occupies himself on the spiritual frontlines, working on behalf of Klal Yisrael, does the same for the "little guy": for the abandoned woman whose recalcitrant husband acts with a total lack of impunity; to the boy and girl who are at risk, but do not have the luxury of coming from a pedigreed family; for the many families who just need someone to talk to, someone to hold their hand and guide them. The list goes on. It is a no-brainer to be a klal tuer because that is how one receives accolades. One who has an ego deficiency will invariably trend toward those mitzvos and good deeds which call attention to himself. Shevet Levi personified true greatness. The members of this tribe accepted the challenges, the challenges of rising up against a nation gone mad, engrossed in sinful orgy. They stood up to close family. They protected the moral purity and pristine spiritual essence of our nation. This was, however, not executed at the expense of lesser mitzvos, which preserve the covenant between our people and Hashem. Theirs was a total commitment, to all people, under all circumstances.

Of Naftali he said, "Naftali, satiated with favor, and filled with Hashem's blessing." (33:23)

Interestingly, prior to emphasizing that Naftali is filled with Hashem's blessing, the Torah notes that he is a seva ratzon, satiated with favor, or, as we would probably translate it in Yiddish, A tzufridener mench, a happy person. Why does svias ratzon precede blessing? One who is not a "favorable" person does not appreciate the blessing in his life. Conversely, one who is satiated with favor does not require an abundance of blessing. To him, everything is a blessing from Hashem.

We say in benching and in Sefer Tehillim 145:16, Poseach es Yadecha, u'masbia l'chol chai ratzon, "You open Your hand, and satisfy the desire of every living thing." Horav Zalmen Sorotzkin, zl, observes that the blessing, "You open Your hand," is accompanied with the blessing, svias ratzon. We realize that, unless one is a satisfied, happy person, no blessing will suffice. He will always seek more. Only one who has achieved a sense of satisfaction in life will feel blessed with every gift he receives.

Horav Shlomo Levinstein, zl, offers an anecdotal story which supports this idea. A powerful king became ill with depression. His advisors sought out the most accomplished physicians who specialized in the treatment of depression, to no avail. Every treatment failed. Even those that worked for a short while did just that - worked for a short while. The king ultimately returned to his depressed state. Finally, they met with a top specialist who guaranteed a cure. The king would have to obtain and wear the shirt of a man who was me'ushar, truly fortunate. By wearing the garment, the feeling that this person had would rub off on the king.

The advisors immediately sent out agents throughout the entire land in search of such a person. Certainly, there had to be one person who felt himself to be fortunate. They had no luck in locating such a person. With whomever they met, after a few moments of conversation, they realized that this person was not happy with his life! They met with diplomats, distinguished legislators, powerful leaders, and discovered that not a single one of them was truly happy. Each one had his personal issues and demons that secretly made him miserable. They next met with the wealthiest people in the country. How surprised they were that even these people were obsessed with losing their wealth and were constantly worrying about what the next day would bring, how the market would react to world news, etc. They tried the poor, who were regrettably plagued with envy, who viewed anyone who had more than they did as their mortal enemy. This was too much. Was there no happy person in the entire land?

Finally, word reached them that a man who lived in a small hut by the beach claimed to be very fortunate. He possessed a wonderful disposition and needed nothing. Indeed, he felt that he had it all. This was too good to be true. They would finally be able to cure their beloved king of his illness. They traveled out to the man's "abode" and asked him if he would be so kind as to lend his cloak to the king. They explained that this would cure the king.

The man listened to their request and laughed, "That is specifically the secret of my success. I do not have a shirt! You see, if I would own a shirt, I would need a jacket and a tie. After I had a suit of clothes, I would yearn for a place to go, to show it off. Then I would require a house. Once I had a house, it would not be large enough. After that, would come the decorating, etc. Do you not see that by not having anything - I require nothing? Now I can be happy!"

People are sadly trapped in a lifelong contest whereby they all strive to get more of everything: money, prestige, success, etc. While this attitude has a powerful upside to it: it motivates people to work harder, push higher, strive more - it can be taken too far and become an obsession. We benefit from overachievers, but are they happy people? A steady diet of unquenchable desires, overbearing competitiveness and constant dissatisfaction to the point that one is never happy with success can damage one's mental health. Psychiatrists have pointed out that such people are often a menace to society, because they treat those beneath them with disdain, as inferiors, and those who are above them as objects of envy and jealousy.

One who is sameach b'chelko, happy with his lot, who has svius ratzon, satisfaction, is a person who says, "I have enough." A popular secular writer was once asked concerning a certain billionaire: "How does it feel to know that he (the billionaire) made more money in one day than you (the writer) made in your entire life?" The writer replied, "I have something that he can never have!" What on earth can that be?" the man asked. "I have the knowledge that I have enough."

And Moshe, servant of Hashem, died there, in the land of Moav, by the mouth of Hashem. (34:5)

The underlying profundity of this pasuk is compelling. The greatest accolade that Moshe Rabbeinu earned for himself is eved Hashem, servant of Hashem. As a servant's will is supplanted by the will of his master to the point that a servant does not have his own will, so, too, was it with Moshe. Actually, this should be the paradigm for all Jews to emulate - lived for the ratzon Hashem, the will of G-d. Hashem's will, which was Moshe's will, should also be ours.

Concerning Moshe's passing from this world "by the mouth of Hashem," the Talmud Moed Katan 28a explains that this means that Moshe died by misas neshikah, death by a kiss from G-d, which means directly through Hashem, without the intercession of the Malach Hamaves, Angel of Death. Alternatively, it means that the soul becomes united with the holiness of the Shechinah, Divine Presence. In the Talmud Brachos 8a, Chazal liken this most desirable form of death as painless, like pulling a hair from milk, that is, the soul leaves the mortal body without resistance.

In Resisei Laylah, Horav Tzadok HaKohen, zl, explains this phenomenon in a practical manner. When a person pursues worldly, physical pleasures, he establishes a bond between himself/his soul and the pleasures of this material/physical world. Thus, a soul that is closely bonded with physical pleasure will find it very difficult to extricate itself from this physical life. Indeed, Chazal describe death for those who have totally attached themselves to physicality as pulling embedded thistles from a sheep's wool. For those tzaddikim, righteous Jews, like Moshe Rabbeinu, Aharon HaKohen and Miriam HaNeviah, whose flawless souls maintained their purity throughout their mortal journey, no effort, no regret and no pain are associated with leaving. After all, their soul is finally being reunited with its Source.

Do we really know who is a tzaddik? Clearly, there are those who have lived a pristine life devoted to Torah, mitzvos and the performance of good deeds. There are others who actively conceal so much of their good; and yet others who are too busy with themselves to notice the selflessness of others. Be that as it may, there are many very good people in the world. Ultimately, the definition of good is left for Heaven to determine. Hashem has the last word. This idea is alluded to by what appears to be an ambiguous passage in the Talmud Moed Katan 25b.

"Rav Ashi said to the sapdan, eulogist, 'On that day (when I will die) what will you say (about me)?' Bar Kippok (who was the eulogist) replied, 'I will say the following: If upon cedar trees a flame has fallen, what shall the hyssops of the wall do? If a Leviathan was lifted from the sea with (nothing more than) a fish hook, what shall the small fish do? If into a rushing stream dryness descended, what shall the stagnant pond waters do?'" Basically, the sapdan was intimating that, if the Angel of Death had power over the high and mighty, if he was able to overcome the flow of righteous deeds coming forth from the tzaddik, what should the common folk say?

Let us now put this passage into perspective. Rav Ashi, together with Ravina, were the redactors of the Talmud. They are the final word concerning Talmudic law. What concern could an individual of such exemplary achievement have regarding what the eulogist would say?

Horav Mordechai Eliyahu, zl, quotes the Talmud Brachos 62a, where Chazal say that people who eulogize the deceased are taught to take great care concerning the plaudits they deliver about the deceased. If they are somewhat complimentary, it is permissible. If, however, they get carried away and overstep their bounds with accolades (that are not realistic or true), they will have to answer to Heaven, and so will the soul of the deceased. It makes sense that they should not exaggerate, and if they do, they should have to answer for it, but why should the soul of the deceased suffer as a result of the eulogist's overactive imagination?

The Rishon LeTzion explains that the words expressed during a eulogy invariably serve as the barometer of the abilities and achievements of the deceased. If mortals say that an individual was incredibly brilliant or consummately diligent in his Torah studies, the question in Heaven will be: If this is "true," how is it that you did not accomplish more and greater things than you did? The esteem in which others hold us can sometimes work to our detriment, if their comments suggest that we were destined for greatness. This is what Rav Ashi, the great Amora, feared. What did the eulogist think of him, so that he could now strive to achieve more? While he was clear about his own abilities, how people related to him was important to him. Did they think that he was greater than he really was? Were they getting carried away in their esteem?

Concerning Moshe Rabbeinu, there was no question. He had reached the apex of spiritual achievement. To do so, he devoted all of himself to Hashem, so that he became the consummate eved, servant, the highest accolade one can earn. His passing was unique in the sense that his holy soul, which had descended to this world to be implanted in his body, was returned untarnished, in its pristine self, as it was originally dispatched by Hashem. This is demonstrated by Moshe meriting misas neshikah, Hashem's affectionate kiss of death.

Such a death is reserved for those who live such a special life as our quintessential teacher and leader. I recently read about the last few hours of Horav Meir Shapiro, zl. It is worth sharing with those who have never heard of it - and to those who have, it is well-worth repeating. The founder of the Daf HaYomi, page a day of Talmud project, passed away shortly after Succos, on the seventh day of Cheshvon. A few hours before his passing, he motioned to his wife to draw closer to his bed. The Rosh Yeshivah could no longer speak. So, with trembling hands, he wrote, "Why are you weeping? Now there will be real joy."

The Rosh Yeshivah then gestured to his talmidim, students, who waited anxiously for some word concerning their Rebbe's deteriorating condition. He wrote once again, "You should all drink a l'chaim (to life)." Immediately, whiskey and cake were brought in and dispersed among all those who merited to be there for this most sublime moment. Brachos, blessings, were recited, and then each student stood before the Rebbe and shook his hand. Rav Meir warmly held each student's hand for a moment, while he looked deeply into each individual student's eyes.

After each student had the opportunity to bid his Rebbe farewell, it became obvious that Rav Meir was struggling to speak. Finally, with great pain, he formed the words, Becha batchu Avoseinu, "Our fathers trusted in You." The students understood that their Rebbe wanted them to begin singing the melody that he had composed to these words.

As the students sang, they began to dance - and they danced as they had never before danced. Tears rolled down their cheeks - their hearts breaking - but, nevertheless, they continued to dance around their Rebbe's bed. While they were dancing, hundreds of other students stood in the next room reciting Tehillim.

With every passing second, the situation worsened. All those in attendance understood that their beloved Rosh Yeshivah was fighting his final battle - and he was losing. In just a few moments, his holy neshamah would be reunited with its Maker. The students were broken; their Rebbe meant so much to them. How could he be taken from them at such a young age?

Perhaps this was the emotion that coursed through the minds of the onlookers. Not so Rav Meir, who upon detecting the student's muffled sobs, motioned for one of them to come closer. Nor mit simchah, "Only with joy," he whispered.

He understood the profundity of the moment - and like Moshe Rabbeinu - he had no regrets. He was ready to serve Hashem - in Heaven. Rav Meir Shapiro died with the words, Nor mit simchah on his lips. These were his last words. For forty-six years, he lived with joy. He died as he had lived - with joy on his lips.

Death is inevitable. How we confront the inevitable depends on how we have lived.

Before the eyes of all Yisrael. (34:12)

The Torah begins with the creation of the world, the creation of mankind, and concludes with death - with the passing of our quintessential leader, Moshe Rabbeinu. The life cycle, from cradle to grave, is exactly that - a cycle. A man is born, lives out his life, and returns sometime later to his source. One ends where the other one starts. A perfect circle is complete in the sense that it unites the beginning with the end. Indeed, there is neither a beginning to a circle, nor is there an end. If one selects a specific point and designates it as the beginning, when he arrives at the end, he will find himself back where he started.

Horav Shlomo Yosef Zevin, zl, observes that V'zos HaBrachah is the only parsha of the Torah that is not read on Shabbos. V'zos HaBrachah is read, instead, on Simchas Torah, because, on this day, we conclude the reading of the Torah, and we dance in a circle by design. This intimates that there is no end to the Torah. Its final words, its closing sentence is, l'einei kol Yisrael, and it immediately begins with Bereishis bara Elokim. Is this really the end? No! Because we now begin with Bereishis. As we dance in a circle on Simchas Torah, we connect the end with the beginning. Thus, the "eyes of all Yisrael" stay focused on the Bereishis bara Elokim. The beginning declares Hashem as the Creator of the world. This is what we look at as we conclude the circle of life - the beginning.

Death is not an end. It is the beginning of a new spiritual odyssey. The soul returns to its source - the end of the circle. It is now time for a new beginning. As this soul returns, another leaves, thus life goes on - in a circle. When the "eyes of all Yisrael" remain transfixed on the beginning, we realize that life does not come to an abrupt end. It is only beginning. A circle does not end. Wherever one stands in the circle of life, when his name is "called" to return, he is not really leaving. He is merely starting over again. After all, life is a circle.

Dear Readers,

Completing a cycle of learning is a wonderful achievement. It, however, creates a feeling of ambivalence, since, after all is said and done, one is back at his point of origin after traveling through various stages. Concerning Torah erudition, there is no end, because every end begets a renewed responsibility to begin over again. Torah is endless. Thus, as soon as we complete V'zos HaBrachah, we immediately begin Sefer Bereishis. I really wonder what provides the greater sense of simchah - completing the previous cycle; or the excitement that is generated by the merit of a new beginning. I have this feeling every time I complete a cycle of Peninim. While I am excited and inspired by the achievement, I am equally enthusiastic and humbled with being granted the opportunity to commence another cycle anew. Therefore, as I conclude my twenty-fourth cycle, I celebrate my twenty-fifth beginning. The simchah of a Siyum is not only in the inherent completion, but in the immediate initiation of another cycle. The recognition and acknowledgement that Torah study never ends, that one can never amass enough knowledge, are constant motivators.

During these past twenty-four years, I have had more than my share of siyata diShmaya. I have had the good fortune of seeing Peninim grow exponentially. The merit to be granted the opportunity for such harbotzas Torah is humbling, and I pray that I will continue to warrant this z'chus. While my name is more publicly identified with Peninim, its success is due largely to the individuals who are involved with its weekly preparation. Their efforts are hereby recognized, with overwhelming gratitude and appreciation. I do this annually, and, while it might seem redundant, I think gratitude should never be taken for granted, and appreciation is never superfluous. Indeed, it should be repeated often.

I have the privilege of once again thanking Mrs. Sharon Weimer and Mrs. Tova Scheinerman who prepare the manuscript on a weekly basis. It takes great patience, and, at times, creative ingenuity to read my illegible scrawl and understand what it is I am trying to say - especially when some of the words are missing. Mrs. Marilyn Berger continues to do an amazing job of editing the copy, making it presentable and readable to the wider spectrum of the Jewish community. She often tells me when I veer too much in either direction away from the center. My dear friend, Rabbi Malkiel Hefter, somehow finds the time in his busy schedule to see 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. He later became ill, hindering his ability to continue his avodas ha'kodesh. As his illness progressed, Baruch was compelled to halt his activities, but the z'chus is all his. It was just three years ago, shortly before Rosh Hashanah, when Baruch's pure neshamah returned to its rightful place b'ginzei meromim. May the limud ha'Torah which he initiated be for him an eternal z'chus.

Avi Hershkowitz of Queens, New York, and Asher Groundland of Detroit, Michigan, distribute in their respective communities. Shema Yisrael network provides the electronic edition for the worldwide distribution. A number of years ago, Eliyahu Goldberg of London, England, began a "World" edition. Through his efforts, Peninim has received extensive coverage in England, France, Switzerland, South Africa, Hong Kong, South America, and Australia. Eliyahu goes so far as to Anglicize the text to make it more readable in the United Kingdom. Rabbi Moshe Peleg, Rav of Shaarei Zedek Medical Center, prints and distributes Peninim throughout the English speaking community in Eretz Yisrael. Kudos to Meir Winter of Monsey, New York, and Moshe Davidovici of Antwerp, Belgium, for including Peninim in their internet edition of Divrei Torah. May the mitzvah of harbotzas Torah serve as a z'chus for them to be blessed b'chol mili d'meitav.

My wife, Neny, has been supportive in many ways. Sharing with me all of the agonies and ecstasies of writing, her support and encouragement, as well as her constructive critiques, have been indispensable. She avails me the peace of mind to write, regardless of the time or place - whether convenient or not. Her "early morning" editing has become a weekly ritual in our home. After carefully reading the manuscript, she offers her excellent suggestions, and, with her keen eye, she repairs the poor punctuation. Indeed, she is literally the last word on my manuscript before it is printed. Without her, Peninim, like everything else in our lives, would be incomplete. To this end, and for so many other considerations too numerous to mention, I offer her my heartfelt gratitude. I pray that we: are both blessed with good health; merit that Torah and chesed be the hallmarks of our home; and continue to derive much Torah nachas from our children and grandchildren, kein yirbu.

Rabbi A.L. Scheinbaum

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Peninim on the Torah is in its 20th year of publication. The first fifteen years have been published in book form.

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