Back to This Week's Parsha

Peninim on the Torah

subscribe.gif (2332 bytes)

Previous issues

Rabbi A. Leib Scheinbaum
Hebrew Academy of Cleveland


And Yisrael encamped there opposite the mountain. (19:2)

Rashi notes that the verb va'yichan is written in the singular. This teaches that the entire nation encamped k'ish echad b'lev echad, "as one person with one heart," so great was their sense of unity. Only when we are united in our commitment to Hashem, each of us maintaining a single, unified desire to serve Him, are we worthy of the name Yisrael. No hatred, no envy, only love and caring - that is how we approached Har Sinai. Horav Mordechai Ilan, zl, explains that this is why, in the well-known Dayeinu segment of the Haggadah, we say, "If He would have (just) brought us near to Har Sinai, and not given us the Torah - Dayeinu; it would have been sufficient." How can this be enough? The purpose of Har Sinai and everything that preceded it, was to receive the Torah. What was to be gained from coming to Har Sinai and leaving without the Torah? Now that we perceive the unprecedented unity that reigned among the Jewish People, to the point that they all felt as one person, we understand the unique "gift" of coming to Har Sinai. It was worth it alone just to achieve such an overwhelming sense of unity.

We may add that when the Angel gave Yaakov Avinu the name Yisrael, he said, ki sarissa im Elokim v'im anashim va'tuchal, "For you have contended with the Divine and with man and prevailed" (Bereishis 32:29). The name Yisrael given to the Patriarch is a name that implies strength, control, balance. As the nation is called Yisrael only when they achieve unity, so, too, is the individual Jew called Yisrael, when his entire essence - every organ including his heart and mind, are all subjugated and focused on one G-d, one mission, one purpose. This merger of oneself, this fusion of one's entire body in perfect harmony to serve Hashem, is what determines a Jew's strength and his worthiness of being called a Yisrael.

Hashem says to the nation, V'Atah im shamoa tishmeu b'Koli u'shemartem es Brisi, v'heyisem Li segulah mikol ha'amim, "And now, if you will earnestly listen to My voice, and will keep My covenant, then you must belong to Me exclusively (segulah), more than all the nations" (Shemos 19:5). Horav S.R. Hirsch, zl, interprets segulah as an exclusive possession to which no one else except its owner is entitled, and which has no relationship to anyone except its owner. Thus, when Hashem applies the word segulah to define our relationship with Him, He is basically saying: "You belong to Me, exclusively and completely with every aspect of our nature, with all our being and with all our aspirations. He asks that we make all of our existence and all of our aspirations dependent upon Him alone, to permit Him to shape them all to allow nothing and no one else to direct our lives or influence our actions. That is the definition of Yisrael. One who has achieved harmony of body and soul, who has gained "Yisrael" status, becomes a segulah to Hashem. This is what took place at Har Sinai - and what we can achieve on a regular basis - if we work at it.

You shall be to Me a kingdom of Priests and a holy nation. These are the words that you shall speak to the Bnei Yisrael. (19:6)

The significance of this pasuk is inspiring. It not only underscores the inherent qualities found within each and every Jew, the amazing potential available to those who seek to maximize it; it also focuses on the future, intimating that our past, regardless how sordid or mediocre, should not hold us back from achieving greatness. In his Sefer Nitzotzos, Horav Yitzchok Herskowitz, Shlita, relates the story of a Kollel fellow, a scholar of note, who would serve as a bochein, tester, in various yeshivos. A few times during the year he would visit various schools and test their students. He was very impressed with one young teenager whose replies to his questions bespoke a penetrating knowledge of the subject matter. The speed and brilliance with which he rendered a response was equally impressive. It thus struck him as unusual when he came in the middle of the year to test the class and discovered that his prize student, Moishe'le, no longer attended the school.

When he asked for his whereabouts and reason for leaving, everyone from the rebbe to the principal hemmed and hawed with evasive answers. Finally, after continuing to push, he was told that Moishe'le was asked to leave the school. Apparently, Moishe'le befriended a boy from a different school, whose adherence to Torah and mitzvos was, at best, lackadaisical. The relationship regrettably grew, whereby the two teenagers were involved in a house break-in on Yom Kippur, at a time when they knew the inhabitants of the house would be attending shul. They were caught red-handed by the police. Due to their young age, and being first-time offenders, they were given probation. Moishele was too embarrassed to return to his original school. The principal cared about Moishe'le and saw to it that he be accepted in a dormitory school a ways from his home, so that he could start over. Everyone deserved a second chance.

The bochein asked for the address of the school and proceeded to draft a letter to Moishe'le. He wrote: "Dear Moishe'le, I visited your school and was dismayed to learn that you no longer attend there. I miss your brilliant replies, your well-thought-out questions and your all-around wonderful demeanor. I hope that you will achieve your potential in your new school. With your superior mind, I am certain that you are destined to become a great Torah scholar. Please write me about your studies, and include a special question, or chiddush, original idea, which you had. I am including one hundred shekalim for you to spend as you wish."

Moishe'le received the letter and upon reading it, immediately burst into tears. If the bochein had such confidence in him, it must be that he was not yet aware of his shame. Someone still believed in him. Someone still cared. He would not let him down. The teenager, who up until this moment had sunk into a state of deep depression, made up his mind to reverse himself and attempt a comeback. So began an exchange of monthly letters between Moishe'le and the bochein. Every letter from the bochein included, as promised, one hundred shekalim in exchange for Moishe'le's chiddush. The teenager grew into a fine talmid chacham, Torah scholar, married and raised a beautiful family. He himself became a pedagogue par excellence, having learned the most important lesson in education: give the student a sense of self-confidence. Tell him he can do it. Give him hope.

Rav Hershkowitz explains that this idea may be derived from the Torah's use of the future tense in enjoining us to become a kingdom of Priests and a holy nation. The Jewish People had just been liberated from a country whose moral turpitude had negatively influenced them, causing them to descend to the forty-ninth level of spiritual impurity. Yet, they were told that they were Hashem's treasure from amongst the nations of the world and admonished to become a kingdom of Priests and a holy nation. This meant they could do it. After all, Hashem believed in them. The past was ignored. Now was the time to look to the future.

This is the Torah way, generating a sense of confidence and hope within a person. This will serve as the catalyst for achieving greatness. One of the preeminent Mashgichim, ethical supervisors, was asked for the key to his incredible success with students. He explained that he believed in his students - and told them so. Every student who entered the yeshivah was special and capable of becoming a Torah luminary. He treated them this way - and it showed.

In order to maintain this wonderful attitude towards each student, the Mashgiach eschewed playing an active role in the enrollment process, refusing to know anything about a potential student's past. He wanted to believe in every student. Negativity was shunned. He would reinforce this feeling in the hearts and minds of his students by focusing on the idea of mamleches Kohanim v'goi kadosh. Every student could aspire to become a Moshe Rabbeinu, an Aharon HaKohen. It was up to them. He raised the bar for each individual student, never settling for mediocrity or even complacency. Everyone had to produce, because everyone could produce. Throwing in the towel was unacceptable. It went against their individual potential. He not only believed in them; he taught them to believe in themselves.

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

When the Kesav Sofer was Rav in Budapest, Hungary, a group of lay people complained concerning a certain Jewish banker who refused to close his bank on Shabbos. They considered this an affront to the entire community. "The Rav must take action," they demanded. The Kesav Sofer was visibly depressed. Such an act of disgracing Hashem could not be countenanced in his community. This man was making a mockery of the Jewish religion and openly insulting the Jewish community. He sent for the banker to appear before him.

The banker had no qualms about coming to visit the Rav - but he refused to change his position vis-à-vis Shabbos. "Rebbe, I am kofer b'ikar, heretic; I deny the very existence of G-d. Why should I bother with Shabbos, of all things?"

"If you will not do it for yourself, at least act on behalf of the achdus, unity, of our nation" the Kesav Sofer pleaded. "Why should you be a poreitz geder, "breach the fence," act outside of the community circle? You are part of the Jewish People. Why disenfranchise yourself from them?"

"I could care less," was the man's retort.

"If this is the case," began the Kesav Sofer, "Clearly your ancestors did not stand at the foot of Har Sinai. They did not experience the Revelation."

"Kavod haRav; with all due respect," the banker responded in a much softer, subdued tone, "You may humiliate me and speak of me in the most derogatory manner, but this has nothing to do with my ancestors. They were good people who believed in everything which you extol. I will not allow you to defame my forebears - regardless of my sins of faith!"

"I am not slandering your ancestors," the Kesav Sofer began. "I am only reiterating what appears to be an established verity. If such is the case, there is no slander."

"How do you know this? How can you prove that my ancestors were not actively present at the Revelation?" the banker asked.

The Kesav Sofer was not going to give in to this man unless he was prepared to make a commitment. "I will tell you exactly what I mean. I will prove that your ancestors did not declare Naase v'Nishma, "We will do and we will listen"! as did the rest of the Jewish People. But first you must promise to close your bank on Shabbos."

Surprisingly, the banker agreed, promising to shutter his bank the following Shabbos. "Now, the banker demanded, "Give me proof that my ancestors were not at Sinai."

The Kesav Sofer began, "In the Talmud Nedarim 20a, Chazal make the following statement. 'One who does not manifest boshes panim, shyness, inhibition, self-consciousness; it is clear that his ancestors did not stand at Har Sinai.' How can the Talmud make such a strong statement? How can they be so "clear" about it? We must say that included amongst the many Jews who were willing to accept the Torah, were members of the erev rav, mixed multitude. These men were the habitual complainers, malcontents, and heretics, who wanted no part of the Torah. They clearly would have wanted a way out of accepting the Torah. Surely, they would have sown the seeds of disfavor in the hearts and minds of the people - but they could not. Why? Because the Jewish People all answered in unison, "Naase v'Nishma"! Once this took place, those derelicts could not exclude themselves from the group. It just did not speak well for them. Thus, because of their sense of embarrassment, not wanting to be humiliated, they, too, declared, "Naase v'Nishma."

"This indicates that anyone who does not manifest a sense of boshes panim; if he has no qualms about separating himself from the community, then clearly he descends from forebears who did not "attend" the ceremony of the Giving of the Torah. For, otherwise, where is your sense of shame? If you do not have it, apparently you descend from a family that was not at Har Sinai."

Behold! I (Hashem) will come to you (Moshe) in a thick cloud… and also in you they shall believe forever. (19:9)

The seminal event in Jewish history, the experience which transformed us from a tribe of people into a Torah nation, was the Giving of the Torah. Matan Torah. The unparalleled Revelation of the Shechinah which we experienced was much more than a spectacle that we witnessed. Indeed, we were much more than spectators. According to Ramban, every Jew achieved a level of prophecy during this experience. He explains that although Hashem spoke to Moshe Rabbeinu from amidst a thick cloud, the people, having reached a level of prophecy, were able to know prophetically of Hashem's dialogue with Moshe. The people thus had first-hand knowledge of the event which transpired. This led to an unshakeable belief in Hashem and in His relationship with Moshe. Hashem told Moshe that as a result of this unique experience, the nation's belief in Moshe would be so steadfast that if someone would later arise to dispute him, the nation would reject the usurper. The nation had heard with their own ears, and seen with their own eyes, that Moshe had reached a level of closeness with Hashem that was heretofore unprecedented. Indeed, no human being had ever reached the level of prophecy attained by Moshe. This is not conjecture - this is what we believe!

The Ramban's explanation begs elucidation. It may be agreed that the generation that stood at Har Sinai could very well reject any so called "prophet" that challenged Moshe or his teachings. They were there; they saw Moshe in action. There is no way that they would fall prey to the guile of an imposter - no matter how charismatic and convincing he might be. No one ever could be on a par with our quintessential leader. But, can this idea be equally applied to later generations who never had the privilege of knowing, seeing and interacting with Moshe? Can we really say that if a powerful, charismatic orator brilliantly and prolifically articulated a scholarly challenge to Moshe's teachings, that we are confident that we will not be moved by his rhetoric? Perhaps I should rephrase this question: we will adhere to Moshe Rabbeinu's teachings regardless of who would have the insolence to impugn their integrity or validity in our contemporary society. But, why? Why are we so confident in our beliefs?

Horav A. Henach Leibowitz, zl, explains that Klal Yisrael has been endowed with another precious legacy. We possess not only the Torah, but the entire experience of the Revelation is ineffaceibly engraved in our consciousness. The Rosh Yeshivah quotes Rabbeinu Bachya in his commentary to Devarim 26:16, that we all have the ability to recapture the Revelation in all its miraculous glory, as if we were there today. This is the idea behind Ramban's statement that Klal Yisrael perceived Moshe's true greatness. Whatever we were able to perceive then is eternally etched in our psyche, so that we feel it now. Therefore, nothing - no person - regardless of his ability - can sway us from our belief in Moshe and the Torah which he transmitted to us.

In Shemos 3:12, the Ramban takes this idea one step further. Concerning our opening pasuk he writes, "And they shall follow you wherever you command them." This implies that not only our people's eternal belief in the Torah which Moshe transmitted is derived from the Revelation, but, also our devotion and commitment to the teachings which he expounded, remain the primary factors which have granted us the fortitude to endure countless trials and tribulations.

The Rosh Yeshivah applies the Ramban's words as a "salve" for those who are distant from the Torah way. Regardless of the reason - whether by previous circumstance beyond their control - or by personal choice - one's present lack of religious affiliation should not serve as an obstacle to prevent return. Every Jew, his distance from Torah not-withstanding, despite his simple demeanor and appearance, is heir to this glorious inheritance which is already a part of him. We may not deny him his heritage - nor should he himself renounce it because he feels that he can never return. A Jew who exploits his potential can achieve the sublime level of being an active part of the nation which is a mamleches Kohanim v'goi kadosh, "Kingdom of Priests and a holy nation."

And the seventh day is Shabbos to G-d, your G-d, on it you shall not perform any kind of (creative) work. (20:10)

Throughout the millennia, when a Jew sought to become more "progressive," to distance himself from "archaic" tradition, the first tennet that went was Shabbos. The student of history is quite aware that this was the area that caved in first. Almost two hundred years ago, the self-styled secular Jew in Germany took a more intellectual approach to doing away first, with Shabbos, and then, with the rest of the Torah, by defining the above pasuk as, "You shall not do any kind of work." This distorted the entire concept of Shabbos and undermined its laws of observance. This was the home of those who denounced their allegiance to Sinai with the claim "bring the law into line with life," rather than follow the path of the Torah Jew who understands that "life must be brought into line with the law." Thus, Shabbos, which forms the basis of all Jewish life, was reinterpreted to conform with the demands of life. Accordingly, the melachah which was prohibited on Shabbos was interpreted simply as work, which was then defined incorrectly as any activity involving physical exertion.

Given this misinterpretation, any work that was in fact creative but not physically exertive, was not prohibited. Light physical activities, or tasks performed for intellectual activity, were not forbidden. After all, they were not work. Thus, their idea of reconciling the law with life was accomplished.

Indeed, melachah has a deeper meaning, one which goes to the very core of defining work and its relationship with Hashem's resting from the act of creating the world. Observance of Shabbos is defined as cessation of all activities classed as "creation", with the desecration of Shabbos being the direct opposite: performance of melachah, or what might be referred to as intelligent labor, creative work.

In his commentary to the Chumash, Horav S. R. Hirsch, zl, notes that the mechallel Shabbos, desecrator of Shabbos, is not one who does not go to the synagogue on Shabbos, but the one who performs a melachah. The mekoshesh eitzim, the first Shabbos desecrator, who gathered brushwood on Shabbos, was sentenced for gathering brushwood. They did not inquire of him if he had already given Shabbos "its due", by attending services or by listening to the rabbi's sermon, as some would have us believe. If the synagogue is too far from one's house, he either moves closer or does not attend. Driving is not a permissible option - regardless of how "non-exerting" it might be.

Rav Hirsch observes that the actual word melachah is not based upon physical exertion. The term, which occurs almost 200 times in the Torah, is never used in conjunction with strenuous activity. Indeed, the slave labor performed by our ancestors in Egypt was called avodah, derived from eved, slave. It was not melachah. The term melachah, as explained by Rav Hirsch, is etymologically connected with malach, angel (same root spelling) which does not indicate activities that involve lesser or greater exertion, but, rather, solely activities connected with the intellect carrying out an intention.

Therefore, even if we were not aware of Chazal's definition of work, the mere fact that the Torah chose the word melachah, a word used almost 200 times - and never in connection with pure physical exertion, we would know that, "You shall not perform any kind of work on Shabbos" is a reference to work of creativity - not physical exertion. Clearly, one sees in the Torah what he wants to see, and applies his misinterpretation to suit his personal needs.

And when you will make an Altar of stones for Me, do not build them hewn. (20:22)

Rashi quotes the Mechilta where Rabbi Yishmael says: Every example of im (usually translated as if), in the Torah is referring to something which is optional, except for three times. The first of them is the above pasuk in which the im is not discretionary, but rather, translated as "when" you will build an Altar; the second instance (Shemos 22:4), is concerning lending money, im kessef talveh es ami, "if" you lend money, would be the incorrect translation since one must lend money. Hence, it is read "when" you will lend money. Last, is v'im takriv Minchas Bikurim (Vayikra 2:14); the pasuk cannot mean "if" you will bring a Minchas (meal-offering) of Bikurim, since the Torah is referring to the Minchas Omer which is an obligation. Apparently, these three cases of "im" are not conditional, but rather, absolute, and therefore the interpretation of im is "when". While this is all good and well, why would the Torah employ a word that implies discretionary when, in fact, it is an obligation? Mizbayach, lending money and Minchas HaOmer are obligatory; why use a term that implies conditional?

Horav Zev Weinberg, Shlita, explains that there are many activities which are obligatory in nature, but should nonetheless be carried out in such a manner that it appears that the individual is doing it out of a sense of option and generosity. This is especially true with regard to acts of kindness, which are albeit compulsory, but should be expressed with love and a desire to assist someone in need. When there is an appeal for assistance, and a person writes out his check as if he is about to take some bitter medicine, it takes away from the beauty and spirit of the mitzvah.

Likewise, when one offers his first fruits to Hashem, it should not be brought as something requisite, but out of a feeling of excitement - expressing one's good will and joy in being able to give back and express his gratitude to the Almighty. Similarly, when one builds a Mizbayach upon which he will bring his offerings to Hashem, it should be with a sense of beneficence - not compulsion.

Va'ani Tefillah

V'lo neivosh l'olam va'ed. So that we will not be put to shame for all eternity.

Olam va'ed, for all eternity, is a reference to Olam Habba, the World to Come, where, one day, all human beings will be presented before the Heavenly Tribunal. A Sefer Torah is opened, and the person is asked, "Which (mitzvos) did you observe, and which ones did you not observe?" Therefore, as we entreat Hashem, we express our hope that the manner in which we lived our lives will not put us to shame. Horav Shimon Schwab, zl, quotes Horav S.R. Hirsch, zl, in his commentary to Shemos 15:18, where he interprets olam va'ed, as, olam, hidden, as in ne'elam, and va'ed, as certain. This means that there is no question; there is absolute certainty in our minds that in the future, in a world concealed from us and beyond human comprehension, we will have to give an accounting of our lives. We pray that we will be worthy of Hashem's grace, that we will not stand there in humiliation. As we are about to recite the Shema Yisrael prayer, when we are mekabail ol Malchus Shomayim, accept the yoke of the Heavenly Kingdom, upon ourselves, we declare that we want nothing more than laasos retzonecha, to do Your will.

Sponsored in loving memory
Vivian Stone
Chaya Leah bas Shimon a"h
niftara 18 Shvat 5769
By her children
Birdie and Lenny Frank and Family

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

The Fifteenth volume is available at your local book seller or directly from Rabbi Scheinbaum.

He can be contacted at 216-321-5838 ext. 165 or by fax at 216-321-0588

Discounts are available for bulk orders or Chinuch/Kiruv organizations.


This article is provided as part of Shema Yisrael Torah Network
Permission is granted to redistribute electronically or on paper,
provided that this notice is included intact.
For information on subscriptions, archives, and
other Shema Yisrael Classes,
send mail to
Jerusalem, Israel