Peninim is published weekly by Peninim Publications in conjunction with the Hebrew Academy of Cleveland, 1860 S. Taylor Rd. Cleveland, Ohio 44118
©All rights reserved – prepared and edited by Rabbi L. Scheinbaum, copied with permission
אם בחקתי תלכו
If you will follow My decrees. (26:3)
So much has been written concerning the meaning of this pasuk. I would like to submit my understanding. The word teileichu is translated here as “to follow.” It also means to walk/go. Together, these meanings imply that we are to walk/go forward using Hashem’s decrees as our GPS, our moral compass, to provide our sense of direction. In other words, a Jew does not “lead,” he follows – Hashem. Having said that, we might take this idea a bit further; chukim are mitzvos whose reasons defy human rationale. There are reasons for these mitzvos, but these reasons are Divine. Hashem has a purpose and reason for every mitzvah which He commanded. We are not privy to these reasons. Thus, chukim are to be viewed as afkaata d’Malka, a decree from the King – in this case the King of the Universe, Hashem.
Hashem wants us to follow His mitzvos, even when they defy our understanding. Furthermore, he wants us to take this approach to all mitzvos, whether we think we understand them or not. We follow – He leads. At times, we think that we have a better, more advantageous route. This is quite like the new GPS system, which presents alternate routes, but suggests a specific one. It is acutely aware of construction, hazards, accidents and other forms of delays. It gathers all of the information and decides for us what would be the best route to travel.
Life also contains chukim, challenges, trials, travail, which we do not understand. We do not question the Almighty. He has a reason for everything that occurs in our lives. We accept these “life” chukim in stride as part of our faith in the Almighty. This is the meaning of bechukosai teileichu – following Hashem, regardless of what might seem to be bumps in the road.
How does one stay focused on the journey without distraction, without dissipating our energies, becoming restless, questioning every time we hit a bump? The story is told that Horav Yisrael Salanter, zl, once left his town and made an unannounced visit to a theatre in Koenigsburg, Germany, where a rope walker was giving exhibitions. The founder of the mussar, ethical character refinement movement, unassumingly took his seat among the audience and gazed at the amazing feat before him, a talented ropewalker who risked his life four times each day by walking on a rope tightly drawn across the theatre some hundred feet in the air. One false move, one minute distraction, would spell instant death for him.
After the show, Rav Yisrael returned home. It did not take long for word of his trip to spread. It was truly an anomaly that such a great Rav and tzaddik, an individual who probably was the gadol hador, preeminent Torah leader of his generation, “found” the time to leave his Torah study to travel to Koenigsburg to watch a ropewalker do his thing. This feat was primarily performed so that children would stare in amazement, their interest piqued. What was the gadol hador doing there? “For years,” he began, “I found it almost impossible to concentrate for five minutes on my tefillos, prayers. As soon as I stand Shemoneh Esrai or sit down for other prayers, all kinds of things creep into my mind. Yet, here was an ordinary man who, for five rubles a day, risked his life four times daily. The slightest distraction would mean untold suffering and even death, and here I am, at the risk not of physical death, but of eternal life, and I cannot concentrate for a few moments!”
Rav Yisrael asked the man for his key to success. His response was inspiring, “When I am up there,” he said, “I see only one thing before me: the rope. I look at nothing else, because I know that, if my eyes waver from the rope, I am a dead man.” Need we say more? When we serve Hashem, our focus should be on nothing else but following His directive.
Indeed, the first command that Hashem gave Avraham Avinu (which is recorded in the Torah) is Lech Lecha, “Go for yourself.” Later, we find Hashem commanding Avraham to Lech Lecha, go, to Har HaMoriah, to slaughter Yitzchak Avinu. We also find concerning the command of Bris Milah, Hishalech lefanai ve’heyei tamim, “Walk before Me and be perfect.” All of this halicha, going, walking, defines Judaism. He wants us to follow, to walk behind, with, in front of Him – but, from that very first Lech Lecha, it must always be to continue walking. Even when we do not understand how we will make it: the road is filled with potholes; there is danger; it seems very long – Bechukosai teileichu, walk in My statutes. You do not have to always understand “why” – but you must walk, follow, keep on going.
On the first occasion of Lech Lecha Avraham was standing at the beginning of his career as a Jew: you can make it; fulfillment is within reach; you will be a blessing to the world. There is one criteria to which you must adhere: Lech lecha, you must go and show the way; your task must be achieved, regardless of the challenges, the obstacles and the setbacks. How? – Lech lecha, “Go into yourself.” From within yourself, by introspecting, you will perceive that everything is in order, everything fits perfectly with the other, with remarkable precision. True, at first it does not seem to make sense, but lech lecha, go into yourself, stay focused, do not lose sight of your goals, and you will arrive at your destination. Lech lecha, from yourself. The Jew has nothing to learn from the outside world. We are not a part of the outside world. We have our own world which begins with ourselves. We teach by example. We do not learn from them. We will neither ever be the recipient of their blessings, nor will we need them. We have Hashem, Who blesses us and, in turn, ve’heyei brachah, we are a blessing to the world. Only in faith in lecha/yourself, ourselves, will we find faith in Hashem.
We must, however, continue moving. Even when our personal task appears to have been completed, and we are ready to pass it on, we must do so by “Kach es bincha, take your son, v’lech lecha.” He, too, must keep on going. This is how Klal Yisrael achieves bechukosai teileichu. Our nation has never stopped going forward. We have had setbacks, but we have brushed ourselves off, straightened ourselves up – and forged ahead.
Hashem told Avraham Hishalech lefanai, “Go before Me” – you go before Me in the world: loving Me; emulating Me; glorifying Me; knowing Me; and disseminating Me. Perform the mitzvos; teilechu, go in them; see to it that your children do the same. It may mean sacrifice, hunger, trial and tribulation, but stay focused, and you will get there; you will reach your destination. Indeed, this is the only way that you will achieve your “homecoming.”
אם בחקתי תלכו
If you will follow My decrees. (26:3)
Rashi interprets Im bechukosai teilechu, shetiheyu ameilim baTorah, “That you engage in intensive Torah study.” Ameilus means toil, labor. Success in Torah study is not determined by acumen, but by application. Given the spiritual nature of Torah as a result of its Divine origin, it is not who one is, but how he applies himself to studying and reviewing the Torah. Indeed, the greatest gedolim, Torah leaders, achieved their plateau not simply because of their brilliance, but due to their extreme ameilus. The Raavad writes (Teshuvos 39), “I have relinquished much sleep from my eyes; much food became spoiled because I had no time to eat. I applied my entire physical body to Torah” (free translation).
There is no dearth of stories which describe the extraordinary ameilus evinced by our gedolim. I have selected two stories that perhaps are not as well-known. They are about great people – in the sense that these individuals were unusual in their dedication to Torah. They neither had large yeshivos, nor were they rabbanim with large followings. They were G-d-fearing, Torah observant Jews who viewed Torah as their reason for living.
Horav Daniel Ochayon (Ohr Daniel) relates that he once spent Shabbos in Antwerp, Belgium. He went into one of the batei medrash to daven. Arriving a few moments early, he began to peruse the sefarim in the large bookcase at the back of the shul. Suddenly, he came across a sefer that he had never seen before, which was written by an author with whose name he was unacquainted. The thick sefer, which was comprised of a question on a Mishnah in Meseches Keilim (one of the most difficult mesechtos to master) had one hundred thirty-seven answers rendered by the author. Clearly, this author was an outstanding talmid chacham, Torah scholar.
As Rav Ochayon was standing by the bookcase, perusing the sefer in amazement (he had mastered the question and was able to read one answer), he was approached by a man who was a resident of the community. “I want to introduce myself,” the man began. “I am the nephew of the author of the sefer which you are reading. The author perished in the Holocaust. He was a businessman, a Koznitzer chasid, who was one of Krakow’s (Poland) wealthiest Jews. I was able to salvage some of his manuscripts. This is one of them.” The idea that such a volume of brilliant Torah dialectic was authored by a businessman who did not spend his entire day immersed in Torah, but only salvaged a few hours in the early morning and late evening, was in and of itself an incredible feat. It was the rest of the man’s story that was truly awakening.
“Regardless of how it occurred, I had the sad occasion to meet up with my uncle in the Auschwitz concentration camp. We were together for three years. One night, he woke me from a deep, exhausted sleep and said to me, ‘You should know that (because of your youth and good health) you will probably be the only one to live through this purgatory. I have a feeling that tomorrow is my last day on this world. My time has come, and I sense that I will meet my fate in the gas chamber. I ask one favor of you; this will be my final testament, my will, which I ask you to execute. I have been blessed with a prolific memory. As a result, I remember the entire Shas Bavli and Yerushalmi by heart. From the very moment that I entered the accursed gates of Auschwitz, I have not stopped learning. I have a daily (and nightly) seder, routine, during which I review the mesechtos. I figure that by the time they take me in the morning, I will have reached Moed Katan daf zayin. I want you to promise me that you (when Hashem frees you from here) will be mesayeim, complete the meseches for me!’”
Rav Ochayon concludes with a profound, almost frightening thought. Six million lives were brutally snuffed out by the accursed Nazis. They, too, have a dying request from us – the living: “Please, we beg you, complete the mesechtos, the myriad sefarim ha’kedoshim that were destined to be completed – but could not. Do it for us!”
Ameilus ba’Torah translates itself into many facets. It is our inseparable bond with the Torah that motivates and nurtures our ability to maintain intense diligence in Torah study. Interestingly, it does not require that one be an extraordinary Torah scholar in order to appreciate this bond. The ordinary Jew, who senses his attachment to Hashem via the Torah, has demonstrated throughout the generations that this bond is indestructible. Rav Chaim Shapiro, zl, relates the following story in portraying the unusual bond the simple Jew in Europe had with the Torah.
In the city of Lomza, there was a group of stevedores, observant Jews who were very physically fit, thus able to carry large, heavy commodities and materials as part of their daily work. All of these men were unique specimens of brute strength and physical stature. Yet, one of them stood out in his size (well over six feet) and muscular build. He was nicknamed Moshiach due to his unusual physical prowess. Moshiach had eight children – six sons and two daughters. When his youngest son was born, Moshiach told his wife, “This child will become a Rav.” “Yehudele,” as he was called, was a bright, sweet child. His parents hired a special rebbe to tutor him in Torah, because, after all, he was to become a rav. Yehudele was study partners with Rav Chaim Shapiro’s brother, and, as a result, the two youngsters became very close, like brothers. The cheder years flew by quickly, and the two teenagers were accepted into the yeshivah gedolah of Lomza. Moshiach was ecstatic. He shared his good news with everyone. Imagine, his son would become a rav.
One summer day, the wonderful future that Moshiach saw for his son came to a sudden, tragic end. The two fifteen-year-old study partners went canoeing on the river. A sudden wave caused their boat to overturn. They were caught in the strong current. Chaim Shapiro’s brother survived; Yehudele did not. Word of the tragedy spread throughout the small community. People were shell shocked; there were no words to describe the calamity that had struck Moshiach’s family and, by extension, the entire Jewish community.
Yehudele’s chavrusa, study partner, remembered that his late friend had a notebook in which he redacted his rebbe’s lectures. In addition, he included his own novellae which he felt were worthy of recording. He found the notebook, still in its place in Yehudele’s shtender, study lectern, but lacked the courage to bring it to the home of the deceased. He felt that Yehudele’s parents should have this unique memento of their son’s devotion Torah. He personally could not do it. He asked his brother, Chaim, to serve as his messenger.
Rav Chaim walked into the room where the family members were sitting Shiva. He walked over to Moshiach and handed him the notebook, “This is your late son’s chiddushei Torah, novellae.” Moshiach took the notebook in his hands, as one lifts a Sefer Torah scroll, raised it up into the air and exclaimed, “This is our son’s Torah! These are his chiddushei Torah!” He was so excited, holding the notes recorded by his son’s own hand.
At that moment, the Lomza Rosh Yeshivah, Horav Yehoshua Zelig Roch, zl, entered the room. Moshiach looked at the venerable Rosh Yeshivah, and he fell to the floor at his feet. He began to weep; at first, it was quiet weeping accompanied with moaning; then it progressed, becoming more intense, the moaning becoming a wail. In between his wailing, Moshiach cried out to the Rosh Yeshivah, “Rebbe. I am an observant Jew. All my life I have been devoted to serving Hashem to the best of my ability. Why did I not merit to have a son that would become a Rav? Why? Why did Hashem take from me the opportunity to have such nachas?”
Every Jew – regardless of his background, level of scholarship, and personal level of religious adherence – has one hope: that his son become a Torah scholar; that he devote himself to studying Torah; that he become a rav. It was this aspiration that burned passionately within the hearts of these Jews, who worked tirelessly to earn the few pennies, so that they could hire the best rebbeim for their sons. Why? Because Yisrael v’Oraisa v’Kudsha Brich Hu chad hu, the Jewish People and the Torah and Hashem are one – that is why!
אם בחקתי תלכו ואת מצותי תשמרו ועשיתם אתם
If you will follow My decrees and observe My Commandments and perform them. (26:3)
A Torah Jew must be the embodiment of emes, truth. Integrity – both moral and spiritual – must be reflected in his every demeanor. The image of a Torah Jew bespeaks emes under all conditions and circumstances. There is no other way. Hashem’s chosam, seal, is emes. Since we are to emulate the Almighty, we must strive to achieve perfection in this character trait. What is this emes? How does one achieve the appellation ish emes, a man of truth?
The roshei teivos, three letters of emes—aleph, mem, tav -- are an acronym for the three yesodos, principles, to which a Jew must adhere and by which he must live: Aleph – emunah, faith (in Hashem) mem, mitzvos; tav, Torah. A Jew who is faithful, studies Torah diligently and performs mitzvos, lives by the rule of emes. He is an ish emes. Indeed, a Jew’s life should revolve around these three principles.
The Melitzer Rebbe, Shlita, comments that, regrettably, some Jews question the need to adhere to all three of these principles. Perhaps one may slack off in one. What if a Jew were to be faithful and mitzvah observant? He is not much of a learner, always finding an excuse to escape being tied down to the bais hamedrash. He leaves the learning to others whom he feels are more competent. There is also the Jew who maintains a strong affiliation with emunah. He is even a learner, spending most of his free time in the bais hamedrash studying Torah. It is just that when it comes to mitzvah observance, he is not that adherent. He is certainly not a sinner. It is just that when opportunities to perform chesed, kindness to others, charity and other wonderful social justice mitzvos appear, he is not to be found.
It is regarding such a Jew who is concerned with the im – aleph, mem; or es – aleph, tav, that the Torah says, Im bechukosai teileichu v’es mitzvosai tishmaru va’asissem osam, Emunah and mitzvos without Torah study leaves a person an ‘im’ Jew, who can only function if the ‘im’ is followed with bechukosai teileichu, ‘Walk in My statutes,’ which Rashi interprets as Shetiheyu ameilim batorah, that you will toil in Torah. One must round off his emunah and mitzvah performance with Torah study. Otherwise, he is not emes; he remains a spiritual cripple.
Likewise, the “es” Jew, who has emunah and studies Torah, but is deficient in his mitzvah observance, he is told, es mitzvosai tishmoru; the “es” Jew must observe mitzvos, or, he, too, will be handicapped in his Jewishness.
We have just addressed the Jew who observes mitzvos and has faith in Hashem; he lacks Torah study. We have also dealt with the Jew who is faithful, studies Torah, but is lax in his mitzvah observance. What about the Jew who lacks faith? He observes mitzvos and studies Torah, but has difficulty maintaining his faith in Hashem. The Torah does not seem to allude to such a Jew. The Rebbe explains that the acronym for mitzvos (observance) and Torah (study) is meis, dead. Such a person is considered spiritually deceased. The only solution is va’asisem osam – aleph, tav, mem; you must add emunah to resuscitate him and bring him back to the world of living.
ואם תלכו עמי קרי ולא תאבו לשמע לי
If you behave casually (happenstance) with Me and refuse to heed Me. (26:21)
The word keri, translated as “happenstance,” is used quite often in the Tochechah, Rebuke. Following the text, we observe that chastisement and further punishment are meted out to Klal Yisrael because they behave toward Hashem with happenstance. Thus, Hashem responds by acting toward us in a like manner. The Rambam defines keri as denying Hashem’s role, His orchestration of events. When we view what takes place in the world in general, and around us in particular, as random occurrences, we are acting with happenstance toward Hashem. The Ramban calls ignoring Hashgachah Pratis, Divine Providence, “A path of cruelty.” Horav Noach Weinberg, zl, explains that it goes without saying that one who ignores Hashem’s messages, attributing them to coincidence, is a heretic. Instead, he is explaining the root of this heresy: cruelty. It takes a very cruel (and crude) person to imagine (and even suggest) that a loving Father would abandon His children to the treacherous whims of fate, allowing them to suffer for no apparent reason. Furthermore, by reducing what are really Hashem’s messages to random occurrences, one deprives himself of the possibility of repenting to correct his ways.
Our parshah’s central message is that there is no such thing as coincidence. Whatever occurs is the result of Divine intervention. Hashem has a reason, and if we are privy to the occurrence, it is because He is sending us a message. All too often we are more concerned with either complaining or questioning Hashem’s actions to realize and think about the message He is sending us. Rav Weinberg relates the story of a young man who stopped by Aish HaTorah as part of his world tour. Upon meeting the Rosh Yeshivah, the young man said, “I do not need a yeshivah. You see, G-d and I are quite close. He even performs miracles for me.”
He explained, “Recently, I was riding my bike up a winding mountain road. A large truck swerved into my lane, coming straight at me. With no other choice, I drove off the side of the mountain, falling some fifty feet onto jagged rocks. Immediately before impact, I yelled out, “G-d!” When I hit the ground, I felt G-d’s Hand cushioning my fall. Nothing happened to me – not even a scratch! It was clearly a miracle. You see why I say that G-d and I are very close.”
The Rosh Yeshivah was a wise man, and, with one astute question, he shattered the young man’s self-deluded mindset. “Tell me, my friend, who do you think pushed you off the cliff?” he asked.
The young man no longer had an answer.
“G-d is not superman, waiting for you to stumble off the cliff and then coming the last minute to your rescue. Everything in your life is controlled by G-d: both the problems and the solutions; the challenges and the resolutions. Hashem first sent a truck to run you off the cliff, and then He saved you. You might wonder why G-d would cause you to fall off a cliff only to save you moments later. He wants your attention. He wants to teach you a lesson. What is it? In order to discover the answer to this question, you must work on your relationship with Him. How? By going to yeshivah. There you will discover the answer to all your questions.”
Hashem is constantly speaking to us via the many messages that He sends. The problem is that we are not listening. Listening demands application, lending an ear, caring enough to want to know what is being conveyed to us. In order to have the proper mindset to connect with Hashem, to hear His message, to truly care about its contents and significance, one must acknowledge the fact that Hashem loves us and that everything which takes place in our life is for the good. They are actions of a loving Father Who cares deeply about us. Otherwise, if one’s relationship with Hashem is pervaded with distrust and anger, the message will be misinterpreted, its meaning distorted by the individual’s subjective perspective on life. Our attitude will determine the interpretation and application of Hashem’s message. In other words, when we hear what we want to hear, we do not listen, resulting in a failed message.
ומביא גואל לבני בניהם למען שמו באהבה – And He brings a redeemer to their children’s children with love.
The Haamek Davar distinguishes between the love manifest by Hashem toward the Avos, Patriarchs, and the love He shows to their children, Klal Yisrael. Love is k’mayim panim el panim, like the reflection of one’s face in the water: one sees what one reflects. Likewise, Hashem is to us much like the way we are to Him. As human beings, we are beset with desires, choices, an evil-inclination that is constantly pushing us toward the abyss of evil and freedom of choice which allows us to choose from the many options that are available to us. The descendants of the Patriarchs have great difficulty loving Hashem wholeheartedly, without deviation. There is a vicious battle raging within us between the physical ungodly passions that would do us in and the desire for spiritual ascendancy. Finally, we choose Hashem and serve Him, because we see how vacuous everything else is. Can we say, however, that Hashem was our first and only choice? It was a choice that evolved. Likewise, Hashem chooses us from among the nations, because, although we are not perfect, we are better than the other nations.
Not so the Patriarchs. Their intense yearning for the Almighty was unequivocal. For them, there was only Hashem. Nothing else had any value; nothing else mattered. Hashem responded in kind and loved them as if there were nothing else.
It is for such a reciprocal love that we, their children’s children, strive. We must love Hashem as if there is nothing else – as did the Avos. In that merit, we will warrant the ultimate Redemption.