May 28TH 2011
Iyar 24th 5771
WHO CAN WEIGH THE IMPORTANCE OF MITZVOT?
by Rabbi David Hanania Pinto Shlita
In the order of the Torah reading on Shabbat, we always read Parsha Bamidbar before the festival of Sukkot, as the Shulchan Aruch states (Orach Chaim 428:4). We need to understand the reason for this decision by our Sages, for what connection is there between Parsha Bamidbar and Sukkot?
Sefer Bamidbar begins with the verse, “Hashem spoke to Moshe in the desert of Sinai, in the Tent of Meeting, on the first of the second month, in the second year after their exodus from the land of Egypt, saying….” A question naturally arises: Why does the verse specify where and when Hashem spoke to Moshe, which is not the case anywhere else? I would like to explain this according to what Rabbeinu Bechaye says in his introduction to the parsha: “All the deeds of man are weighed, and G-d evaluates all sins, the gravest as well as the lightest, punishing in measure to the gravity of the sin. G-d does not forget, and the judgment belongs to Him. Man cannot know it, for his intelligence is not so great as to understand how Hashem weighs the deeds of the righteous and the wicked.”
Along the same lines, the Rambam writes: “Someone whose sins are more numerous than his merits will die because of his wickedness…. Likewise a country which has a multitude of sins will be destroyed as a result…. Similarly, if the sins of the entire world were more than its merits, it would then become corrupt.... This measuring system does not work on a one-to-one basis, as there are some merits that outweigh many sins…. On the other hand, there are some sins that outweigh many merits…. Only G-d knows how to evaluate sins and merits in this respect” (Hilchot Teshuvah 3:2).
Commensurate with the Effort
There is no man in the world who knows the reward given for observing mitzvot, as the Mishnah teaches: “Be as careful for a minor mitzvah as for a major one, for you do not know the reward given for the mitzvot” (Pirkei Avoth 2:1). There is nobody in the world who can properly weigh mitzvot in regards to sins. Only Hashem can do so. It depends solely on the difficulty that a person experiences when he performs a mitzvah, something that only Hashem knows.
There may be a rich man who gives 1,000 gold coins to tzeddakah, and a poor man who gives but a single penny, and yet the offering of the poor may be more valuable to G-d than that of the rich. How so? It is because the poor man gave with all his heart, whereas the rich man did not. In this regard the Sages have said, “Commensurate with the effort is the reward” (Pirkei Avoth 5:21).
Devoted to the Torah
The Sages have taught, “Rabbi Papa said to Abaye: ‘How is it that miracles were performed for former generations, yet miracles are not performed for us? It cannot be because of their [superiority in] study, for in the days of Rav Yehudah all of their studies were confined to order Nezikin, whereas we study all six orders, and when Rav Yehudah came [to the law] in Uktzin: “If a woman presses vegetables in a pot” (or, according to others, “olives pressed with their leaves are clean”), he used to say: “I see all the difficulties of Rav and Shemuel here.” We have 13 versions of Uktzin, and yet when Rav Yehudah drew off one shoe, rain used to fall, whereas we torment ourselves and cry loudly, and no notice is taken of us!’ He replied, ‘The former generations were prepared to sacrifice their lives for the sanctity of the Name; we do not sacrifice our lives for the sanctity of the Name.’ There was the case of Rav Adda bar Ahava, who saw a heathen woman wearing an [immodest] red head-dress in the street. Thinking that she was a Jewish woman, he arose and tore it from her. It turned out that she was a heathen woman, and they fined him 400 zuz” (Berachot 20a).
From here we learn that although the later generations learned more Torah, yet because they did not study it with complete devotion, the Torah of the previous generations was valued more by Hashem, even if it comprised fewer things.
Before the Giving of the Torah
This is why the Torah goes into detail in Parsha Bamidbar, which as we know is always read before the festival of Sukkot. This teaches us that just as the verse detailed things that it could have summarized with two or three words, every other instance of “vayedaber” in the Torah also comprises many things that are not explicitly stated. Insofar as the performance of the 613 mitzvot is concerned, we must also draw a practical lesson from this: Even if they seem to be easy mitzvot, we must realize that they comprise many things that have not been explained, things that man cannot see with his physical eyes. The Torah revealed this to us before the giving of the Torah, so that man may know that before taking the yoke of the Torah and mitzvot upon himself, there are many rewards for observing mitzvot that he cannot possibly even imagine. Some mitzvot appear easy but their reward is immense, whereas others appear difficult but their reward is less. It does not depend on whether the mitzvah is easy or difficult, for they are not evaluated according to human criteria. Rather, it is Hashem alone Who knows how to weigh mitzvot and sins.
Guard Your Tongue!
Distance Yourself from an Evil Neighbor
It is forbidden to live in a neighborhood of habitual speakers of Lashon Hara; it is all the more forbidden to sit among them and listen to their conversations. Even if a person does not intend on accepting what they say, the very act of ‘bending his ear to listen’ is forbidden. A person must all the more be careful not to select a seat in synagogue next to someone who speaks Lashon Harah. Besides the fact that the listener will become accustomed to the sin of constantly disparaging others, it will also frequently result in omitting to respond Amen, Yechi Shemei Rabba and Barechu.
– Chafetz Chaim
Concerning the Parsha
The Status of the Levite
It is written, “Behold, I have taken the Levites from among the Children of Israel in place of all the firstborn among the Children of Israel who have opened the womb, and the Levites shall be Mine” (Bamidbar 3:12).
The choice of the Levites, as well as the fact that they were taken from among the Children of Israel to serve Hashem, granted them special status. This status was more sanctified and respected than that of their brothers, the Children of Israel. In the Talmud and the writings of the poskim, we find numerous details concerning the laws that apply in this context.
In the Mishnah we read, “The following rules were laid down in the interests of peace: A kohen is called up first to read the Torah, and after him a Levite, and then an ordinary Jew” (Gittin 59a, Perek hanezikin). The Shulchan Aruch also states, “The kohen reads the Torah first, and after him a Levite, and then an ordinary Jew” (Orach Chaim 135).
The Arrangement No Longer Holds
In the Gemara we learn this order from the verse “the kohanim the sons of Levi” (Devarim 31:9). The Gemara states, “Do we not know that the kohanim are the sons of Levi? What it therefore means is that the kohanim [are first], followed by the Levites” (Gittin 59b). The Gemara also states that if no kohen is present, the arrangement no longer holds.
Three explanations are given to clarify the expression “the arrangement no longer holds.” Rashi states that the Levite does not read the Torah at all, a view also held by the Rambam (Hilchot Tefillah 12:19). The Aruch HaShulchan states that it would seem – since the Torah places a kohen before a Levite, and a Levite before an ordinary Jew – that a Levite should read the Torah before an ordinary Jew. However this is not so, for when does the Torah sanctify a Levite and place him before an ordinary Jew? It is only when a kohen is present. When there is no kohen, being a Levite holds no advantage.
This opinion has its source in the verse, “the kohanim the sons of Levi.” When are they the sons of Levi? When there are kohanim present. Therefore the Levite loses on both counts, and he is not called up to read the Torah.
Another explanation, also cited by Rashi in the name of Rabbi Yitzchak HaLevi, says the following: There is no set order for the reading of the Torah when a kohen is not present, and anyone may be called up. This is because the Torah only sanctifies a Levite when a kohen is present; in the absence of a kohen, a Levite is like an ordinary Jew and the order of the aliyah makes no difference.
The Rosh gives a third explanation: If an ordinary Jew is greater than the Levite, he goes first, followed by the Levite. However if the Levite is the same or greater, he has precedence.
Despite Being a Kohen
In terms of the Halachah, the Shulchan Aruch follows the opinion of Rashi and the Rambam: “If there is no kohen present in synagogue, an ordinary Jew reads in place of the kohen, and the Levite does not ascend after him.” The Rema believes that a Levite may ascend first, and when he is called up we say: “In place of the kohen,” so that people should not make the mistake of thinking that he is a kohen.
If no Levite is present in synagogue, the kohen who read first says the blessing again in place of the Levite. However this must be the same kohen who read first, not another, so that people do not think that this kohen is deficient in some way. Likewise an ordinary Jew does not read in place of the Levite, so that people do not think that the first is not a kohen or that he is deficient in some way, since a Levite was not called after him. It is also to prevent people from erroneously thinking that this ordinary Jew is a Levite. Furthermore, two Levites should not follow one another in the reading of the Torah, so that people do not say that one of them is deficient in some way.
The custom among Sephardim is to call a kohen after a kohen, or a Levite after a Levite, with an ordinary Jew inserted between the two. When the second one reads, the Chazan says: “Although he is a kohen/Levite.” The Rema believes that we must not call a kohen or a Levite among the seven. Once this number has been reached, however, we may call a kohen or a Levite.
It is written, “Every male according to their heads” (Bamidbar 1:2).
Contrary to the counting of all the tribes of Israel, in which the expression “according to their heads” appears, the counting of the tribe of Levi does not include this expression.
Rabbi Yehonatan Eibeshutz gives a reason for this in his book Tiferet Yehonatan. He states that in the Gemara, there is a discussion regarding a two-headed man as to which head the tefillin must be placed on (Menachot 37a). The Gemara answers by saying that this is not an ordinary question, for such an individual belongs to the category of someone who cannot live for more than 12 months.
Hence in regards to the tribe of Levi, which was counted starting from the age of one month, there may still have been someone with two heads (at least until the age of 12 months). Hence if they had been counted “according to their heads,” two would have been counted instead of one in such a case. The verse therefore does not use this expression, for they were counted according to their bodies.
As for the rest of the Children of Israel, who were counted beginning from the age of 20 years, there was nobody alive of that age with two heads. This is why the expression “according to their heads” is used in their regard.
It is written, “Nadav and Avihu died before Hashem when they offered an alien fire…and they had no children” (Bamidbar 3:4).
The Sages in the Gemara state, “Aaron had several sons who deserved to be burned like Nadav and Avihu…but the merit of their father helped them” (Yoma 87a).
The author of Kol Yaakov asks, “Why did punishment fall upon Nadav and Avihu only, rather than on Elazar and Itamar, Aaron’s other sons?”
He answers by saying that if Elazar and Itamar had been burned – Nadav and Avihu having remained unmarried – Aaron’s descendants would have been cut off. This is why only Nadav and Avihu were punished, and Aaron’s other sons survived.
The verse states, “Nadav and Avihu died.” Why did they die instead of Elazar and Itamar? It is because Nadav and Avihu were unmarried, which is why they were burned. They died so that Aaron’s lineage would survive.
According to their Needs
It is written, “Count the sons of Levi according to their fathers’ household, according to their families” (Bamidbar 3:15).
Commenting on verse 14, the Ramban expresses his surprise: “The tribe of Levi was not like the other tribes, for [despite being counted] from a month old and up, they were still only 22,000, and from 30 years old and up they were all together 8,000. Hence their number…does not even reach half of the smallest of the tribes of Israel! … This is indeed astonishing, that His servants and His pious ones should not be blessed of Hashem, as were the rest of the people!”
Rav Yitzchak Abrabanel answers this by saying, “It seems to me that the number of the Children of Israel was due to Divine Providence, corresponding to a great need. If they had been few in number, they would have been unable to conquer the land and cultivate it, and the wild animals would have overcome them. Hence Divine Providence decreed that they should multiply in a miraculous way, for it was a miracle that during the 210 years they lived in Egypt, they multiplied to such an extent that they could conquer the land and occupy it.
“However since the tribe of Levi was destined to be consecrated to the sacred service, and since their sustenance was derived from tithes (for they had no heritage in the land), Divine wisdom did not multiply them more than the other tribes. If the Levites had been too numerous, they would not have had enough food to eat or places to live, which is why they only increased according to their needs, meaning according to what was allotted to them, not more.”
Out of Respect
It is written, “But they shall not come and look as the holy things are covered” (Bamidbar 4:20).
The book Midrash HaNe’elam explains this verse by stating that just as what covers man is for his honor, likewise Hashem ordered covers to be made for the vessels of the Sanctuary. This was done in order to cover each vessel, so that none of them would be uncovered.
Just as we sometimes show respect to someone because he is wearing special clothing, the same applies to the sacred vessels. This is why Hashem did not want people to see the sacred vessels when they were devoid of their covers, lest those who see them in such a state would ridicule them.
This is the explanation of the verse, “But they shall not come and look as the holy things are covered,” for when the vessels would be devoid of their covers, the masses would treat them without respect.
Ending With a Blessing
It is written, “But they shall not come and look as the holy things are covered, lest they die” (Bamidbar 4:20).
Many Torah commentators are surprised by this, for how could this week’s parsha end with such a verse? After all, the Sages in the Yerushalmi have said and established the Halachah as follows: “One who wants to live in Torah must begin with a good thing and end with a good thing.”
Numerous explanations have been given for this. Rabbi Yosef Haim of Baghdad wrote in one responsa (Rav Pealim 4:42) that the verse at the end of Parsha Bamidbar does not constitute finishing something with a bad thing. This is because at the end of the parsha, the one summoned for the reading of the Torah recites the blessing on the Torah, which was instituted by the Men of the Great Assembly and which is obligatory. We therefore do not consider Parsha Bamidbar to end with the phrase, “lest they die,” but with the blessing of the Torah that follows it.
In the Path of the Fathers
From the Teachings of the Gaon and Tzaddik Rabbi David Hanania Pinto Shlita
The Torah is Greater than the Priesthood
We are familiar with the statement in the Gemara, “It happened that as a Kohen Gadol came out from the Sanctuary, all the people followed him. Yet when they saw Shemaya and Abtalyon, they forsook him and followed [them]” (Yoma 71b). In regards to tzeddakah we read, “If a mamzer is a Torah scholar and a Kohen Gadol is an ignoramus, the scholarly mamzer has precedence over the ignorant Kohen Gadol” (Horayot 13a). This applies despite the fact that it is a positive Torah mitzvah to respect the kohen, as it is written: “You shall sanctify him” (Vayikra 21:8). The Sages explain this to mean, “In all matters pertaining to holiness: The first to start [reading from the Torah], the first to recite blessing [for meals], and the first to receive a good portion” (Nedarim 62ab). Nevertheless, if the kohen is an ignoramus, a Torah scholar has precedence.
We see that the Torah procures atonement even when neither the priesthood nor sacrifices exist, as the Gemara says: “Whoever occupies himself with the study of Torah, it is as if he offered a burnt-offering, a meal-offering, a sin-offering, and a guilt-offering” (Menachot 110a).
Torah is also greater than kingship. Concerning King David, we find that when he studied before his teacher, he did not sit upon cushions. Instead, he folded his arms and legs and sat on the ground (Moed Katan 16b), for when he studied Torah he humbled himself for it, despite being king.
It is a positive mitzvah for the king to write a Sefer Torah, and to take it with him wherever he goes, as it is written: “He shall read from it all the days of his life, so that he will learn to fear Hashem his G-d, to observe all the words of this Torah” (Devarim 17:19). The Sages have said, “When he goes out to war, he must take it with him. Upon returning, he brings it back with him. When he sits in judgment, it shall be with him, and when he sits down to eat, [it shall be] before him” (Sanhedrin 21b). This is in order for all his deeds to conform to the Torah, which is greater than kingship, and to whose laws the king must completely submit.
My father told me that the tzaddik Rabbi Haim Bevenisti once came to Morocco and paid a visit to Rabbi Yehuda Pinto, the father of Rabbi Haim Pinto, to whom he showed great respect. Upon returning to Jerusalem, Rabbi Haim Bevenisti sent him some money. One day his disciples asked him, “Why do you show such great respect for the tzaddik Rabbi Yehuda Pinto? You also possess the merit of your fathers, so why do you humble yourself so greatly before Rabbi Yehudah Pinto?” The tzaddik replied, “Only one who possesses the merit of the fathers can truly appreciate what this means, and since Rabbi Yehudah Pinto possesses it, I recognize and respect it. That is why I humble myself before him.”
Your Eyes Shall Behold Your Teacher
Rabbi Israel Baal Shem Tov
Rabbi Israel Baal Shem Tov, whose yahrtzeit falls on Shavuot, breathed the light of Chassidut into the souls of numerous Jews. Whoever was fortunate enough to approach the tzaddik could sense the joy of serving Hashem with extreme clarity. Every prayer, every path of Torah, and every mitzvah took on new meaning.
In this brief article, we shall recount a little of what we know about “the service of Hashem, which is prayer,” meaning how the tzaddik prayed, both externally and internally. A number of amazing accounts have been transmitted by the group of disciples who had the merit of being in close contact with him.
The Baal Shem Tov always shook when he prayed, for he could tangibly feel the presence of the Shechinah all around him. Not only did his sanctified body shake before the Shechinah, the ground around him shook as well, and the water in nearby containers was stirred by the power of his sanctity!
Rav Moshe, the son of Rabbi Yaakov Yukel of Mezritch Zatzal, recounted that when his father brought him to the Beit HaMidrash of the Baal Shem Tov for the first time, they were in the middle of prayer, which the tzaddik himself was leading.
Rabbi Yaakov Yukel took his son’s hand and said, “My son, look around you and remember what you see. Know that there will never be another sight like this in the world until the coming of Mashiach. What you are now seeing is Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai and his friends.”
The pamphlet Mishkenotecha Israel contains an extraordinary account that gives us a small glimpse into the ways of the Baal Shem Tov. It describes his special preparations before prayer, during which time he would praise and glorify the Creator of the world and present his supplications before Him, both for the community and for individuals.
Not far from the city of Mezhibuzh, on the road that leads to the forest, is a spring of water. Today this spring is called, even by the non-Jews of the area, Ravinona Krinitsa, which in Ukrainian means “Spring of the Rabbi.”
This spring is mentioned in the accounts of the past, and today it is still known by many who go to see this ancient wonder with their own eyes. Those who go there discover a small trickle of water flowing in a meadow, whose source cannot be found, just as where it ends cannot be found either. Many have sought to drink this water as a segula, one that has proved itself both materially and spiritually.
The following story reveals the origin of this spring and the significance behind the special holiness attached to it.
One day the Baal Shem Tov invited his great disciple, Rabbi Yaakov Yosef Cohen of Polnoye Zatzal (the author of Toldot Yaakov Yosef), and some other disciples among his sanctified entourage to join him on a journey outside of town. On their way back, since it was late and night was soon approaching, the Baal Shem Tov and his friends came to a forest outside of town to pray Mincha. When the Baal Shem Tov wanted to wash his hands to prepare for prayer, it turned out that there was no more water in the container they had taken with them on their journey. His disciples split up to find a spring of water, but they could not find one. Since they returned empty-handed, having lost hope of finding water, the Baal Shem Tov raised his eyes to heaven, which grew dark above their heads. When he realized that the time for Mincha was going to pass, he turned his back to those accompanying him and went into the forest for himself. Nobody dared move. Only his disciple Rabbi Yaakov Yosef, who at the time was the dayan of Sharigrod, discreetly followed him.
Better that I Should Die than Live!
In the darkness that reigned among the trees, the Baal Shem Tov leaned his staff against a tree, and then he lay down on the ground with his entire body. Rabbi Yaakov Yosef was frightened when he saw this. The Baal Shem Tov extended his arms and legs as he had never seen before, and he forcefully struck the ground. He was literally about to give up his soul! Suddenly, Rabbi Yaakov’s ears heard groaning sounds that broke his heart. It was the voice of the Baal Shem Tov, who was crying out from the depths of his heart.
“Sovereign of the universe” – the words emerged from the mouth of the Baal Shem Tov towards Rabbi Yaakov – “I ask You, I beg of You before the Throne of Glory, in Your great compassion, give me water to wash my hands before Mincha! Otherwise, better that I should die than live! Kill me, I beg of You, Sovereign of the universe, but do not force me to transgress the words of our Sages!”
Frightened, the hairs on Rabbi Yaakov Yosef’s neck stood up and his heart almost stopped. All his limbs were shaking. The Baal Shem Tov got back up, wiped away his tears, took his staff from where he had placed it, and calmly walked back to his friends. There, right behind them, only three steps from where their carriage had stopped, a spring of water was gently flowing.
“They have eyes but do not see!” said the Baal Shem Tov in jest. “Here it is that we have a spring right next to us, and we were looking for it at a distance!”
Everyone looked at each other in amazement. They all washed their hands and prepared to pray. Only Rabbi Yaakov Yosef knew the secret behind the spring’s appearance. He alone witnessed what had happened a few minutes earlier among the trees of the forest.
Such self-sacrifice (“better that I should die than live”) for a minor requirement of the Sages, Rabbi Yaakov Yosef had never seen anything like it in his life. Until his dying day, it never ceased to amaze him. Later on he revealed that this was one of the major reasons why he decided to cleave to the Baal Shem Tov, and it was what had immediately turned him into a chassid.