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Peninim on the Torah

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Rabbi A. Leib Scheinbaum
Hebrew Academy of Cleveland


You shall be to Me a kingdom of Priests/Ministers and a holy nation. (19:6)

Horav Zalman Sorotzkin, zl, notes that Hashem wants us to be a kingdom of ministers. It does not say, "You shall be ministers," teachers to the world community, emissaries of G-d, agents that are to disperse throughout the world, for the purpose of dispensing knowledge, wisdom, ethics, morality and sanctity. It would then be our mission to reach out to the nations who have strayed, to those that have distorted the designated image of man, to influence them and imbue them with the knowledge that G-d is their Creator.

This type of arrangement would simply not work. The fact is that the nations of the world rejected the Torah outright from "day one." From the "get go," they said that they had no need for the Torah or the way of life it encouraged. If they rebuffed Hashem, they would certainly repudiate any efforts on our part to reach them. On the contrary, the "reward" for our efforts would be permanent enslavement and annihilation at the hands of these despotic nations.

We were, instead, enjoined to be a "kingdom" of ministers, a holy "nation" unto Hashem. It would be the collective duty of Hashem's "kingdom" of ministers to set an example, to serve as the standard for all kingdoms of the world. Its pure faith in the G-d of Heaven and earth, its just and true laws, its statutes that treat citizen and foreigner alike, would serve as a symbol for the world. As justice would reign in this "kingdom of ministers," it would provide the world with an example, a standard to which to conform.

Why is the word Kohanim used? The Kohen ministers to the spiritual needs of the nation. He serves Hashem in the Bais Hamikdash. The Kohen is meant to be a model for the Jewish People. He is the educator who lives a stellar spiritual life, who leads by example, who shows us how to bring Hashem into our lives. The exposure of the Kohen to spirituality imbues him with a deeper knowledge of spirituality and infuses him with a sense of purpose. The Kohen understands that there is much more to life than what we perceive in the here and now.

Aharon HaKohen was an ohaiv shalom v'rodef shalom. He loved peace and pursued peace. He loved people and sought to reach out to all Jews, regardless of their affiliation. Yet, he and his descendants are forbidden from coming in contact with the deceased. Is there a greater act of chesed, kindness, than chesed shel emes, kindness of truth? No one is there to reimburse the favor, the kindness. The Kohen would love to get involved. It is his "thing." The Torah says that he must never come in contact with the dead. Why?

Death is the ultimate reminder that we are not here forever. We are here today and gone tomorrow. Thus, the concept of death would "encourage" us to live for the here and now, ignore the future and think only of the present. The Kohen, whose mission it is to remind people that life has a higher purpose, a loftier goal, is to avoid contact with death. Kehunah and death do not see "eye to eye." The Kohen is, therefore, mandated to go against his natural proclivity to reach out. Instead, he must desist. He is a Kohen, a minister on a mission.

The Kohen represents the idea that we must think about the future. We are not allowed to wallow in the past. We have suffered greatly as a nation, having undergone cruel and debilitating persecutions that have maimed us both individually and collectively as a nation. Yet, we drive on; we continue living, building, thriving, looking to the future. Every time we are knocked down, we arise, clean ourselves off, and forge on. We do not live for the here and now, because we understand that life has a higher purpose. We do not become consumed by momentary anger which only manages to undermine our drive to go on. We are a mamleches Kohanim, a nation whose goals are consistent with Kehunah. As a kingdom of ministers, we understand that there is much more to life than its physical reality. There is a tomorrow. This is our faith; this is our belief. Tomorrow beckons.

The entire people responded together and said, "Everything that Hashem has spoken we shall do." (19:8)

In the Talmud Shabbos 88a, Chazal say that when the Jewish People made their seminal declaration, Naase, preceding Nishmah, "We will do, and we will listen," a Heavenly voice was heard saying, "Who revealed to My children this raz, secret, which is used (exclusively) by the Ministering Angels?" As it is written (Tehillim 103:20), "Bless Hashem, O His Angels; the strong warriors who do His bidding, to obey the voice of His word." First, they act, then they listen. Chazal's use of the word raz, secret, seems strange. Why did they not simply say: "Who informed My children of this concept/idea?" What "secret" is being "revealed"?

Horav Yechiel Yaakov Weinberg, zl, distinguishes between raz and sode, which is another word for secret. A sode is a secret in the sense that the one who is aware of it hides it from someone. In reality, however, the secret may quite possibly in its own right be revealed. It is a secret in the sense that the person from whom the information is being withheld is personally unaware of it. He may be unenlightened, but the actual "secret" may not really be a secret. A raz, however, is an idea which by its very nature is concealed from everyone. It is a concept which requires extreme understanding and deduction in order to fathom it. Thus, it remains a secret by virtue of the fact that it is elusive for everyone - even though it was never hidden. It could be in plain sight, but, if no one can figure it out, it remains a secret.

Let us attempt to understand Klal Yisrael's declaration, Naase v'nishma. After all, it makes much more sense to simply say, Nishma v'naase. We will listen, and (when we understand), we will do. That is the natural response. People do not act impulsively. They listen; they think; they act. That is normal! Even Hashem Himself created the world by first looking and contemplating the Torah - then - He created the world. Imagine if it would have been the other way around, when Hashem created the world; first acting, then delving into the Torah!

Rav Weinberg explains that, indeed, a powerful secret is alluded to through this unnatural sequence. If Torah had originated at Sinai, if there had been no Torah in existence until that auspicious moment, then the process of accepting it would have been through the natural sequence of Nishma v'naaseh. First, one must understand: the mitzvos; how they work; what our contributions are; how we benefit; how mitzvah observance makes a difference. Now we know that Torah pre-existed the world; it preceded the creation of man. Torah was a reality, illuminating, inspiring the creation of the world and man. Indeed, man's 248 limbs and organs, together with his 365 veins and arteries, coincide with the mitzvos of the Torah which preceded his creation. Torah is the only reality with which one must contend with in this world. It, thus, makes sense that the natural response to the reality of Torah is naase - we will do. Torah is an accepted reality; it is here to stay: then we will listen and attempt to understand it.

How does one learn Torah? How does one begin to fathom the essence of Torah? It can only be realized through the medium of living a Torah life. This is no different than one who has never heard-- and thus not yet learned to appreciate-- classical music. As far as he is concerned, it is noise - just as any other noise. It is a commotion that disturbs him. After listening to the sounds on a regular basis, he learns to appreciate the sound of the various instruments in the ensemble, until he becomes attuned to the harmony and melody of the diverse sounds blending together to make a delightful symphony of sound. It took time for this man, who had not been accustomed to music, to learn to appreciate the gift of beautiful sound.

It is likewise, concerning the acceptance of the Torah. In order for us to "listen," we must first "do." In trying to reach out to the unaffiliated, we may often talk ourselves blue in the face and wonder why we are not reaching them. We speak well; we have all the right words, the compelling logic, the enthusiasm and emotion. Yet, they smile and say, "Rabbi that was a good talk, very inspirational." Does it change their lives? No! But it does bring them closer to observing Shabbos, putting on Tefillin, keeping kosher, living as a Torah Jew. Once they "do," their hearts and minds eventually open up. They are now ready to "listen."

Klal Yisrael's response, Naase v'nishma, does not seem to coincide with Chazal's depicture of the dialogue that took place during the Revelation. Chazal say that Hashem held the mountain over them like a barrel, and said, "If you accept the Torah - fine, but, if not, there you will be buried." Rabbi Acha Bar Yaakov said, "From here, there is a great rebuttal to the acceptance of the Torah, since it appears that the Torah was accepted under duress. Rava added, "Even so, they again accepted the Torah during the days of Achashveirosh." Naase v'nishma seems to be a pretty firm affirmation of the Torah. What do Chazal mean when they say that Hashem held the mountain over our heads?

Rav Weinberg explains that circumstances and impressions greatly influence a man's decision. The things we hear and see, consequences of our actions, all play an active role in determining our outlook on life. One who sees an incredible display of pomp and royalty keeps this image in his mind for a long time. With this in mind, we are able to grasp the meaning of Klal Yisrael's "coercion" to accept the Torah. They stood there at the foot of Har Sinai: the sky went dark; the sounds that they heard were frightening; the lightning, fire and smoke certainly did wonders for their emotions. Added to this was the unimaginable Revelation of the Shechinah speaking to a mortal who continued to live - despite witnessing this incredible experience. Unquestionably, Klal Yisrael were shaken by this spectacle. Now, after being part of this awesome experience, is there a question concerning Klal Yisrael's response to accepting the Torah? This was truly an offer that they could not refuse! Hashem did not have to hold a mountain over their heads. The actual circumstances surrounding Revelation was, if anything, sufficiently compelling in their own right-- and quite coercive!

Man's ability to choose is largely predicated upon the premise that, for the most part, "this world" covers up the truth. If man were able to see Gan Eden; to perceive the awesome reward in store for mitzvah performance; to experience in sight the punishment that awaits one who sins-- would there be a question concerning which path he would choose? Klal Yisrael experienced the beauty of Gan Eden and the darkness of Gehinom when they stood at Har Sinai. Momentarily, the world was stripped of its fa?ade of dissimulation. The truth glared at them. How could they not accept the Torah? What other choice was there?

Over time, the most phenomenal impression moves to the back of the mind. A person's inclination makes every attempt to expunge the effect of external impressions and outside influences. When the soul knows the truth, however, even though it has had an external experience, it plays itself out and ultimately becomes part of the individual's permanent psyche. This is what occurred concerning Klal Yisrael's rendering of "Naase v'nishma." At first, it was a coercive experience to which they were privy, but, over the centuries, the truth willed out, and it became part of their Jewish consciousness. Thus, during the Purim miracle, when push came to shove, Klal Yisrael was firm and resolute in accepting the Torah on their own, willingly, with love, because the truth had become a part of them.

Moshe said to Hashem, "The people cannot ascend Har Sinai, for You have warned us, saying, 'Declare the mountain off-limits, and sanctify it.'" (19:23)

At times, we become so obsessed with a question that we often ignore the simplicity of the answer. I have always been bothered about why people continue along their merry ways, sinning to their hearts' content, despite their participation in classes, lectures, inspirational speeches, literature. Veritably, we all will present great reasons: the evil inclination; habit; it does not mean "me"; the lecture is about someone else. These are all great and profound reasons, but, what is the core truth, the bottom line concerning why one sins? In his inimitable, profound manner, Horav Mordechai Gifter, zl, interprets the above pasuk in its most simple form and derives from there a compelling lesson.

Moshe Rabbeinu told Hashem that lo yuchal, the people were literally unable to ascend the mountain, because Hashem had declared it off-limits. This is seemingly enigmatic, for certainly the people were physically able to ascend the mountain. The only thing preventing them from doing so was Hashem's injunction against doing so. Why does Moshe use the word unable? It is not grammatically correct.

This is where we err in our understanding of Hashem's prohibitions, and, by extension, what our correct attitude should be to sin, in general. To Klal Yisrael, Hashem's commands were not merely words to be kept or disobeyed at one's discretion. They were realities, concrete facts that were unassailable. If Hashem forbade a specific activity, Klal Yisrael truly felt that they were physically incapable, totally powerless, to do what was forbidden. Thus, they were unable to ascend the mountain.

Herein lies the answer to our original question. Sin occurs only if one fails to consider the Torah to be an absolute reality in his life. Torah must be a part of him. Thus, if Torah prohibits an activity, the individual is simply unable to do it.

Six days shall you work and accomplish all your work; but the seventh day is Shabbos to Hashem. (20:9,10)

Horav Zalman Sorotzkin, zl, offers a novel explanation of this pasuk. Only the products of the six days of Creation were designated for this world. Shabbos Kodesh, the holy Shabbos, "belongs to Hashem." What does this mean? The six-work days pass away - never to return, just like our whole life on earth. These six days are referred to as chayei shaah, "momentary life." Once the moment passes, it is no more. It ceases to exist.

Not so, the holy Shabbos. It "belongs to Hashem." Taken from Hashem's treasure house, it is an eternal semblance of the World to Come. Because this special section of time comes to us from Above, we go out every Friday night to greet it, to welcome it into our midst with the words, "Come, my friend, to greet the bride," Lecha dodi likraas kallah, likraas Shabbos malkesa, "Let us go greet the Shabbos Queen."

While it may seem that once Shabbos concludes it is also over, it has also passed from our midst, in reality it endures as a day of total and eternal rest for those who observe it, who remember to keep it holy. There is no other "time" like it. It has no"mate" other than Knesses Yisrael, the Assembly of the Jewish People. Since Klal Yisrael endures forever (Malachi 3:6, "You, the sons of Yaakov, never perish), we are its mate.

It is for the above reason that, concerning the creation of Shabbos/seventh day, the Torah does not write the phrase, Vayehi erev vayehi boker, "It was evening and there was morning." From its very inception, every moment of Shabbos kodesh has been sanctified for eternity.

The constraints of time wreaked havoc on the Manna which spoiled on the morning after it was picked. The Manna that fell Friday morning for Shabbos neither spoiled nor became infested throughout Friday night and Shabbos. It was guarded in conjunction with the Shabbos from its onset and was not subject to the constraints of time.

Because Shabbos is not bound by the parameters of time, it does not cease to exist when it is over. Shabbos is preserved as a Heavenly reward for those who observe it: "Whoever delights in the Shabbos shall merit a boundless inheritance." We say on Friday night, V'shamru Bnei Yisrael es ha'Shabbos, laasos es ha'Shabbos l'doreosav bris olam. "Bnei Yisrael shall observe the Shabbos, to make the Shabbos an eternal covenant for their generations." This alludes to the enduring status of Shabbos. We say in the Shabbos bentching, She'lo s'hay tzarah, vi'yagon, v'anachah b'yom menuchaseinu, "May there be no sorrow or grief on our day of rest." We do not add this unusual prayer into the weekday Bentching. It is reserved for Shabbos, because Shabbos lives on. Weekdays pass as soon as they are over, together with their sorrow and grief. Shabbos, however, is eternal. It is feared that even the experience of sorrow and grief will impact the eternal nature of Shabbos. We, therefore, add a special prayer that sorrow and grief not be our lot on Shabbos.

Shabbos is a wonderful gift from Hashem, through which we are availed the opportunity to preserve time and not allow it to pass away. Time is Hashem's greatest gift to man, but it is fleeting, gone, before one even realizes that it has slipped through his hands. By observing Shabbos, one can "keep" a little bit of time and deposit it in his eternal bank. Shabbos will be our source of repose in Olam Habba, the World to Come. Horav Yehudah Leib Potashnik, zl, who was Rav in Cincinnati, explained that by keeping Shabbos we preserve "time" for a day that is eternal. By delighting in it, we save it for an everlasting inheritance and repose.

We rarely look at the spiritual nature of Shabbos. It is a day of rest, a day off, a day to catch up on life, but essentially it is Hashem's sanctuary of time, similar to the Bais Hamikdash, the sanctuary of space. Apparently, the sanctuary of time has proven itself to be more durable. Shabbos has always been, and will continue to be, a summons to the ennoblement of life. During the six days of Creation, we often get so carried away and involved that we forget the true source of our power. Shabbos reminds us that everything is derived from Hashem. Shabbos directs the Jew towards Hashem, enabling him to surmount the challenges and vicissitudes of life.

Every Shabbos we renew our covenant with the Almighty and rededicate ourselves to His purposes, thus achieving renewed enlightenment, enthusiasm and strength. Shabbos has always been an intrinsic part of the Jew. Even the early immigrants to these shores, simple Jews who lacked the spiritual stamina to completely triumph over the demands of the American secular way of life, still continued to observe Shabbos in whatever manner that they could. While this thesis is not here to commend, justify or excuse their erroneous-- but not malicious-behavior, it is an attempt to demonstrate how committed Jews were to Shabbos.

The Bostoner Rebbe, zl, muses about the mindset and character of such Jews. It was the early 1950's, and a fellow appeared at the Rebbe's shul to say Kaddish for his father. He was a fine, simple Jew, who succumbed to the challenges of American life, causing him to compromise on his religious commitments. While he might have distanced himself from religious practice, he was not going to renege on saying Kaddish for his father. Coming to shul on a daily basis leaves an impression, and the man slowly gravitated towards religious observance. There was one problem, however: Shabbos. For thirty-years he had been a deliveryman for the local newspaper, dropping off newspapers at the newsstands all over Boston. This six-day a week job did not allow for Shabbos observance. While he knew that what he was doing was wrong, how could he give up his seniority and pension by quitting now? He was not on the level to realize that it was no question.

The man came to the conclusion that he would "satisfy" both his job and Shabbos. He worked all morning, ran home, changed into Shabbos clothes and joined the shul for Mincha. This was his Shabbos observance. Eventually, he became a full-time Shabbos observant Jew. Regrettably, this type of behavior was not an anomaly. Many Jews in the 1930's would attend an early minyan at 6:00 or 7:00a.m., so that they could daven, hear Krias HaTorah, say Kaddish - before taking the streetcar to work. We cannot judge these people, because we have no idea of the challenges they confronted. We can only look at the positive: Shabbos meant so much to them that they would arise early to daven. Their logic was perverted; their reasoning was totally not in line with the Torah, but it shows that, although they deferred to the pressures of the day, they never forgot that Shabbos is Hashem's island in time. Shabbos must in some way remain a part of life. I repeat: they were wrong, but we are not in the position to judge them.

I could not pass up the following vignette. Stephen Klein was more than an observant Jewish philanthropist. He saw to it that his money inspired Jewish observance, Jewish spiritual growth, Jewish idealism. Klal Yisrael was as much a part of him as every organ in his body. At a time when Shabbos observance was a rarity, he would close his stores in Manhattan on Erev Shabbos in the late afternoon. This was more than strange; it was ludicrous. Yet, he acted according to his convictions and inspired thousands of Jews with his courage and resolution. He would take out full-page ads in the New York Times before the Yamim Tovim and teach the masses of assimilated Jews about their noble heritage and the Festivals that celebrated this heritage.

His son, George Klein, who in his own right has had a distinguished career of serving Klal Yisrael, related the following incident. As one of the individuals who spearheaded the construction of the U.S. Holocaust Museum in N.Y., George Klein delivered a major address at the dedication ceremonies. Following his speech, he was approached by an elderly couple who asked to speak to him. When he acquiesced, they took out what appeared to be family pictures of two separate families: "These are our children and grandchildren. As you can see, they are leading devoutly religious lives." Mr. Klein was impressed, but could not understand why they would make a point of sharing this information with him.

"We are here because of your dear father. We remember one Friday afternoon, walking down the streets of Manhattan with our young children, when we chanced upon one of your father's stores that was shuttered for Shabbos. We could not believe that in a main street in America, in one of the most populated areas, someone could close his store on Shabbos, which is one of the busiest business days of the week. We were so impressed that we decided to raise our children as observant Jews, sending them both to religious schools. These pictures represent the fruits of our decision. We just wanted to say thank you."

In 1974, someone approached Stephen Klein and said, "Imagine if the New York Times listed the weekly z'man, time for lighting Shabbos candles. The awareness of-- and pride in-- Judaism that would occur as a result of this endeavor would be incredible. Mr. Klein was sold on this idea. It cost him almost $2,000 per week, which was a considerable amount of money 35 years ago. For the next five years, each Friday, Jews around the world would see: "Jewish women: Shabbat candle lighting time is: ______."

In June 1999, the notices stopped appearing in the paper. In never appeared again - except for once - and that is what I would like to share with the reading audience.

On January 1, 2000, the N.Y. Times ran a millennium edition. It was a special issue that featured three full pages. One had the news of January 1, 1900; the second was the actual news of January 1, 2000. The third page was fictional. It projected the future news of January 1, 2100. In addition to the many articles, there was one added feature. Down on the bottom of the year 2100 front page was the candle lighting time for New York on January 1, 2100. No one had paid for this ad. It was placed there gratis by the N.Y. Times.

When the production manager of the N.Y. Times, an Irish Catholic, was queried about the ad, he answered, "We have no idea what will happen in the year 2100. It is impossible to predict the future. One thing you can be certain, however, is that in the year 2100, Jewish women will be lighting candles.

Va'ani Tefillah

Sus v'rochvo ramah ba'yam. A horse and his rider He cast in the sea.

Interestingly, no mention is made thus far of the multitude of miracles which occurred at the sea. All that is mentioned here is: Hashem was elevated because He drowned the enemy. This might be impressive in its own right, but, in comparison to the myriad acts of directing an entire universe, this seems to be small praise. Horav Avigdor Miller, zl, derives an important principle from here: One additional grain of true knowledge, something that one sees and experiences with his own two eyes, outweighs a mountain of vaguely-possessed knowledge. The Navi Yeshayah (40:26) declares, "Lift up your eyes on high and see Who created these." The marvels that are near to us -- which we see and feel-- are much more effective in awakening one's mind to recognizing the Creator. Furthermore, when these marvels also include our personal deliverance from immediate great peril, then the enthusiasm of the joy inherent in sudden salvation becomes more intense and engenders within us a greater recognition of Hashem. While drowning the Egyptians might not be that significant in comparison to a tsunami, a volcanic eruption, or an earthquake, its suddenness occurring in front of their very eyes, catalyzed a colossal awareness of Hashem.

In memory of
Meir Bedziner
R' Meir ben Betzalel HaLevi z"l
niftar 24 Shevat 5764

Reb Meir loved people and was beloved by all.
His sterling character and pleasant demeanor were the hallmarks of his personality.
He sought every opportunity to increase the study of Torah and that it be accessible to all.
yehi zichru baruch

The Bedziner and Meltzer Families

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