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Rabbi A. Leib Scheinbaum
Hebrew Academy of Cleveland


If you sell anything to your neighbor, or buy anything from your neighbor, you should not defraud one another. (25:14)

The Talmud Bava Basra 87b details a number of fraudulent practices which were employed by less-than-honest businessmen who would cheat their customers. Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakai hesitated publicizing these practices, explaining that he was confronted with a moral dilemma. If he would lecture, it was quite possible that some of the listeners who were themselves dishonest might learn new methods for defrauding others. On the other hand, if he did not lecture, the cheaters would posit that the scholars were naïve to the ways of the world and unaware of the various ploys for cheating others. One wonders why it was Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakai's responsibility to inform the wise cheaters that the sages were just as aware of their methods of depravity as they were. Who really cares what dishonest people think of us?

In his commentary to the Talmud, the Maharsha explains that it was important for Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakai to relay the message to the cheaters: Yes, we are aware of all of the shtick, the deceit, the lies that can be employed to defraud the unsuspecting, but we would never do it, due to our ethical character. This approach might target some of the cheaters who, as a result of this information, might consider repenting their ways and putting an end to their sordid behavior. No longer could they rationalize their unethical behavior, saying, "We are only doing what everybody else is doing. We are no different than the rest."

When the dishonest dealers realize that, indeed, many people are aware of the numerous ways to take advantage of unknowing and trusting souls - yet, because they value and appreciate the gift of honesty, they will not resort to stealing from others - it will change their attitudes. Many swindlers will change their ways and look for honest work and honest ways in which to earn a living.

This, explains Horav A. Henach Leibowitz, zl, is the power of a Kiddush Hashem, sanctification of Hashem's Name. The force of absolute truth emanating from such an experience can even impact the most deceitful sinner into altering his fraudulent lifestyle. Merely becoming aware of the honest behavior of righteous people can do a world of good and quite possibly change a life.

As always, there is another side to consider. Negative publicity can destroy one's perspective on Judaism. Someone who is riding the fence, not sure if the Orthodox way of life is his cup of tea, will certainly swing to the left when he hears of an impropriety committed by a member of the Orthodox community. This is especially true if the infraction represents a breach of the individual's own personal moral code.

The Rosh Yeshiva extends this idea further, presenting the notion that there is no such thing as an insignificant theft, a white lie, a tiny lie. Hashem's seal is emes, truth. Truth is an absolute. There is no grey area. A statement that deviates one iota from the truth is completely false. A penny taken through deceitful method is an act of theft - regardless of its minute value.

Rav Henach relates a famous story concerning Horav Aharon Kotler, zl, founder and Rosh Yeshivah of Beth Medrash Govohah. He was presented with an artist's rendering of the proposed new structure for the yeshivah building. This drawing was to serve as the backdrop for fundraising purposes and publicity about the yeshivah. The artist had visualized how the edifice, once completed, would appear. It truly was an impressive picture. Rav Aharon studied the picture and found a flaw. He pointed out that there was one extra tree in a place where it did not - nor could ever - exist. Defending the drawing were those who commissioned the artwork. They noted that everything else was true to its image. The yeshivah building was accurate; the surroundings were on target. One tree was out of place - Nu! It had no bearing on the building itself, and, after all, the artist had worked so hard to prepare a flawless graphic. The Rosh Yeshivah was adamant. "It is not the emes!" The drawing was laid to rest. Torah can only be established on a foundation of pure emes. Honesty and integrity may never be compromised - regardless of one's lofty goals.

The land shall not be sold in perpetuity, for the land is Mine; For you are sojourners and residents with Me. (25:23)

One who delves into the mitzvos of Shemittah and Yoveil will infer that their motif is to teach man that he lacks ownership of the land - and, for that matter, of anything. Man is temporary; life is as fleeting as the moment. We are here by the grace of G-d, and we had better live our lives like that. The Torah wants us to acknowledge that L'Hashem ha'aretz u'meloah, teival v'yoshvei vah, "To Hashem (belongs) the earth and its fullness, the inhabited land and those who dwell in it" (Tehillim 24:1). Man walks the earth thinking that it is all his. Hashem sends him subtle reminders, "It is not yours; it is Mine." We make plans, some grandiose, others simple, thinking that their achievement rests in our hands. We forget the famous dictum concerning the "best laid plans of mice and men." There is a famous anecdote, related by Horav Yeruchem Levovitz, zl, which underscores this verity. A din Torah, litigation between two disputants, once took place in Volozhin, and its venerable Av Bais Din, Horav Chaim Volozhiner, zl, presided over the proceedings. The dispute concerned a parcel of land, with each of the men claiming that the land belonged to him. These men were obstinate, refusing to brook any form of compromise. Each one sought complete ownership over the land.

Rav Chaim asked to see the land in question. The litigants accompanied the Rav to the land that seemed to obsess each of these men. The Rav bent down to the ground, placing his ear directly on it, as if he was listening for something. It must have looked quite strange to see the venerable gadol hador, preeminent Torah leader of the generation, resting his ear on the ground. A few moments went by, and Rav Chaim arose, and said, "Gentlemen, I wanted to hear what the actual ground had to say concerning your disagreement. After all, it supposedly belongs to one of you. Do you know what the ground said concerning your dispute? It said, 'Why are they fighting over me? Who really cares who owns me? What does it really matter? At the end of the day, they will both belong to me.'"

The men took the hint and realized that worldly disputes are foolish. We are here as visitors for the short duration of our mortal lifespan. Nothing is forever. When our time is up - it is final. There are no reprieves. Regrettably, while we acknowledge this, it is a belief that most people fail to incorporate into their lifestyle and weltanschauung. We live as if there will always be a tomorrow, when, in fact, the "tomorrows" decrease with each day.

It all boils down to how we view life. Does it have meaning, or is it nothing more than an aggregate of fragments, bits and pieces, some meaningful, most not, with no connecting thread to bind them together? Living a disjointed life without focus and without purpose will lead us, when we get older and have a few moments to focus, to ask the searing question: What did I do with my life?

While everyone clearly wants to live a meaningful life, we forget the most important aspect of such a life: every minute, every hour, every day is precious. We ignore the constant messages from Above, as we focus on that "great opportunity," that chance of a lifetime, when we will make a difference. It just does not happen that way. To have a successful life, one must make use of every moment, every opportunity - never knowing which one will be "that" moment, "that" opportunity.

We are placed on this world for a purpose: to refine ourselves. This applies to every aspect of one's life - both physical and spiritual. When everything in one's life unites towards attaining that one goal of kavod Shomayim, the glory of Heaven, he has discovered the connecting thread that binds all the moments and opportunities together. By connecting to one's neshamah, soul, focusing on his spiritual dimension and living life with purpose, he adds meaning to his life. The day begins with Modeh Ani, recognizing the Creator and offering our gratitude. It ends with Shema Yisrael, affirming our faith in His Oneness. These are the day's "bookends." Everything in between is the life we "write." We are the authors of our Book of Life. The best writer needs a competent editor. So, too, do we need rebbeim, mentors, to guide us on the path of life, to "edit" our "book," so that it becomes a best seller, a success, describing a wholesome life lived with meaning and purpose. If we live like that, we will no longer worry concerning who owns the land. As part of the bigger picture, that question has very little bearing.

If your brother becomes impoverished and his means falter in your proximity, you shall strengthen him. (25:35)

Tzedakah, which is generally translated as charity, means much more than exhibiting one's generosity towards his fellowman. It is not simply the means for imparting a favor; it is justice, derived from the word tzedek. In other words, "I" have, so, therefore, "you" must also have. The world was created with tzedek, justice, so that all are equal. The fact that some have more than others behooves them to share with others. After all, it is only right. The value which the benefactor accrues far exceeds his contribution, so great is the reward for giving the tzedakah.

Tzedakah does not require kavanah, intention, for the mitzvah. Other mitzvos do require kavanah. Tzedakah is a mitzvah that focuses on the needs of the needy. As long as these needs are addressed, the benefactor has earned his reward. On the other hand, there is no question that the reward is magnified with the proper intention. The finer the kavanah, the greater the mitzvah. Protecting the beneficiary from embarrassment and preserving his self-esteem are factors in the efficacy of this mitzvah.

Sacrifice plays a critical role in the mitzvah of tzedakah. While the primary objective is to support the beneficiary, how much the benefactor sacrifices to do so impacts his reward. Sacrifice is relative. Since personal value systems differs from person to person, sacrifice will be relative. For some, it means foregoing physical pleasure; for others, sacrifice is defined by spiritual renouncement. Helping someone during the time devoted to Torah study is for some people a supreme sacrifice. It all depends on how devoted one is to Torah and mitzvah observance.

One famous story which imparts a number of lessons concerns Horav Mordechai, zl, m'Neshchiz. Rav Mordechai was a poor man who set aside every penny he had so that he could purchase a fine Lulav and Esrog, as the Four Species were rare and, thus, quite expensive. As he was going to purchase the Esrog, he encountered a man who was weeping bitterly. His inquiry revealed that this man made his meager living from hauling things with his wagon. His horse and wagon were his only means of earning a living. His horse had just died. He no longer had a way to earn a living. This was reason enough for him to cry. He was not mourning his horse. He just needed a horse.

The Rebbe asked him how much a new horse would cost. The wagon driver replied with an amount perfectly coinciding with the amount of money the Rebbe had saved for his Esrog. The Rebbe immediately took out his money purse and gave the man his money. "Here, go buy yourself a new horse, with my blessings," the Rebbe said. The man rushed off, overjoyed that he could now continue his livelihood.

As for the Rebbe, he turned his eyes Heavenward and said, "Ribono Shel Olam; Dear G-d, all other Jews will fulfill the mitzvah of the Four species with an Esrog and Lulav. I will do so with a horse!"

A number of tzedakah lessons can be derived from here. I would rather focus on another lesson - one that concerns mitzvah performance. Mitzvos are defined by the attitude manifest by the one who performs the mitzvah. We think that in order to fulfill a mitzvah it is necessary to have all of the hiddurim, beautifications and stringencies. While one should go to all lengths to carry out a mitzvah, this idea has limits. For example, having a beautiful Esrog which costs hundreds of dollars, yet not understanding the essence of the mitzvah; spending oodles of money on oneself while ignoring the plight of the fellow next door; spending thousands to celebrate the Sedarim in some unchartered island escape, yet remaining mute when the shul makes an appeal for Maos Chittim; feeling that the only place to fulfill the mitzvah of Lulav and Esrog is at the Kosel; and the list goes on.

If one's attitude is correct, the mitzvah of Esrog can be fulfilled with a horse. If one's attitude is all about himself with very little place for Hashem, "where", "what" and "how much" will not make a difference.


But if you disdain My decrees. (26:15)

There are forty-nine kelalos, curses, in the Tochechah, Admonition, of Sefer Vayikra. In the Talmud Megillah 31b, Chazal teach that the entire Admonition must be read in one Aliyah. The reading should not be interrupted for an Aliyah break to call another person up to the Torah. The sages derive this from a pasuk in Mishlei 3:11, Mussar Hashem beni al timaas, "Hashem's reproach, my son, do not disdain." In order for one to derive the full benefit of the lesson which is being taught, it is necessary that the lesson not be interrupted. Then the listener can grasp the message in its entirety. To interrupt mussar, reproach, in the middle is to risk losing part of the lesson.

Horav Yisrael Belsky, Shlita, quotes this Chazal and applies it to an episode which took place concerning the Chiddushei HaRim, the first Rebbe of Gur. He was an incredible talmid chacham, Torah scholar, whose focus was primarily on Torah study, a way of life which he preached to his chassidim. His shiurim, lectures, were outstanding, bordering on brilliant. One day, he gave a shiur during which he entered into very deep pilpul, dialectic. One by one, he lost his students, until finally no one was left who was following the Rebbe's thoughts.

Sitting among his students was the Rebbe's own son. At the conclusion of the shiur, the Rebbe approached his son and began to chastise him for not having better prepared the lesson. In order to achieve success in the study of Talmud, one must expend effort, which he felt his son had not done. The Rebbe left disappointed, and it showed.

That evening, the Chiddushei HaRim walked by the bais ha'medrash and was shocked to hear his son brilliantly reviewing his father's shiur. Every nuance, every piece of logic, was clearly explained. There was no doubt that his son had lucidly captured every aspect of the shiur in its entirety. Furthermore, he was able to flawlessly explain it. He presented every detail expertly. There was no question that his son had grasped the shiur. Why had he not said so before his father chastised him?

This question bothered the Chiddushei HaRim. Had his son said something, it would have spared his father disappointment, and the son would have avoided embarrassment. The entire incident was unnecessary. The young man who was to become his father's successor replied that he acted upon a precedent set by the Bnei Gad and Bnei Reuven, in their dialogue with Moshe Rabbeinu regarding their desire to remain in the Trans Jordan.

Displeased with their request, Moshe criticized them, using strong terminology: "Behold! You have arisen in place of your fathers, a collection of sinful men, to add more to the angry fury of Hashem towards Yisrael!" (Bamidbar 32:14). Once Moshe concluded his admonition, they spoke up, saying that they had never intended to weaken the nation's resolve to take the land. On the contrary, they had planned to return to TransJordan after the war to liberate Eretz Yisrael from the pagans.

Why did they wait the duration of Moshe's rebuke to speak up? They could easily have interrupted and said, "Stop! Let us go back to the beginning. We are united with the people. We will support them in all their battles. We just want to live here." Essentially, Moshe's reproach was unnecessary. The lesson to be derived herein is that rebuke is precious. Every word of rebuke should be cherished when it emanates from the sincere mouth of a tzaddik, such as Moshe. It is an indication of pure love. Why would anyone want to cut short a sincere expression of love?

Rav Belsky elaborates upon this theme. A mussar shmuess, discourse, has a specific standard. It is not some haphazard collection of a Rosh Yeshivah's grief concerning his students. It has a beginning, a middle, and an end, with a distinct thread running through the whole talk - connecting it all together. The shmuess is comprised of various facets of expression - some include words of encouragement, and also words of rebuke - in a perfect balance. While, at times, the speaker conveys his message with an angry tone, it is all part of the structure, which become balanced words of love, hope and empowerment. At the end, a complete idea has emerged, and the student receives the full benefit of a complete lesson.

The Rosh Yeshivah applies this explanation to elucidate Chazal in the Talmud Megillah. It is a mistake to stop in the midst of a rebuke, because this interruption might render the rebuke intolerable. This is how we should understand the pasuk in Mishlei, which exhorts us not to disdain Hashem's rebuke. If we do not understand the Heavenly message; if it comes across as incomplete, or bitter-sounding, we ultimately reject the lesson it is there to teach us. We must concentrate on every word, listen to the entire message in its totality, then - and only then - will the significance impact us. Those who listen absorb the message and change their lives. Those who refuse to listen are just not with the program!

Every valuation shall be in the sacred shekel. (27:25)

Voluntary contributions to the Sanctuary were a significant source of funding for the maintenance of the Temple. One would think that the laws concerning such valuations would be placed earlier in Sefer Vayikra, which deals with the Temple offerings. Horav S.R. Hirsh, zl, explains that these gifts were excluded by design, lest one think that his contributions replaced mitzvah performance. Voluntary contributions do not atone for laxity in mitzvah observance.

The above pasuk teaches us that every evaluation is to be measured in Shekel ha'Kodesh, sacred shekel. Horav Moshe Shternbuch, Shlita, renders this pasuk homiletically to teach us a valuable lesson concerning how we are to give tzedakah, charity. Even the most philanthropic Jew must be acutely aware that charity must be given on a scale commensurate with the degree that one spends on himself. In other words, the percentage which he feels he is capable of doling out for his personal needs and pleasures should be balanced by a similar percentage for tzedakah. Likewise, in the same manner that he expects for himself, he should do for others. This does not mean that he must purchase an Armani suit for the indigent and those in need, but there is a vast difference between polyester and Armani: We must factor in the emotional needs of those we help, as well as their financial requirements.

When we contribute to organizations, shuls, yeshivos, etc, we often become incredibly creative with a litany of excuses that would rival some of the most prolific authors of fiction. "My money is tied up"; "I am just not that liquid right now"; "I just took a big hit in my investment portfolio," etc. While these excuses might even be partially true, we would expect this person to exhibit some restraint in his personal spending, as well. This is, of course, not the case. When someone's financial portfolio takes a hit, the first ones to feel the pinch will be those who are beneficiaries of his charitable contributions.

Thus, the Torah teaches us "every valuation" - every penny that you spend on erkecha, your personal needs - shall be determined with the same measuring stick that you apply to the "sacred shekel." When you feel "tight" concerning tzedakah, you should likewise feel the pinch regarding your own needs. If you do not have for one - then you do not have for the other. Interestingly, when people apply this measuring device, they suddenly discover money which they "thought" they did not have. By all means, take that trip; purchase that suit; make that lavish celebration, but please remember those in need. They would also like to celebrate.

Va'ani Tefillah

Shema Yisrael, Hashem Elokeinu… V'ahavta.

Horav Yehudah Assad, zl, explains this as a two-part process. First, one believes b'emunah peshutah, with simple faith, as a result of his upbringing. His father and mother inculcate him with faith in the Almighty. Thus, a child grows up believing in Hashem, as a result of listening to his parents and accepting their teachings. As he grows older and develops greater proficiency in Torah scholarship, he begins to question his beliefs. He is now ready for the dialectic and analytic approach: to ask; listen; and to digest the answer. As a result of his newly-discovered answers, his understanding of Hashem achieves new profundity and broader acceptance within his psyche. This new approach enables him to develop a deep love for Hashem, something which had been unrealistic earlier. Without cognition, one cannot truly love. Blind love, which is not founded in reason, can, under duress, be forgotten. On the other hand, one cannot achieve understanding until after he has had the basic exposure from his parents to emunah peshutah.

This is the meaning of Shema Yisrael: First, one must listen to his parents and imbibe their teachings concerning Hashem. After he has studied Torah and developed a deeper understanding of the Almighty, he will have risen to the level of v'ahavta es Hashem, loving Hashem as a result of a deeper understanding of His ways.

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