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Peninim on the Torah

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Rabbi A. Leib Scheinbaum
Hebrew Academy of Cleveland


Hashem spoke to Moshe in the wilderness of Sinai. (1:1)

Rashi explains the reason that yet another census is attributed to Hashem's great love for the Jewish People. He counted Klal Yisrael when they left Egypt, after the sin of the Golden Calf, to see how many had survived, and again when He was about to rest His Shechinah among them. Furthermore, in his commentary to Shemos 1:1, Rashi cites the pasuk in Yeshayah 40:26 that likens Klal Yisrael to stars, which Hashem brings in by number and by name. Likewise, Hashem counts and enumerates His children when they come out and again when they are "gathered in." What is the significance of being compared to a legion of stars?

Horav Simchah Wasserman, zl, explains that an army of stars is different from a standard army of soldiers. In an army, the officers and heads of divisions are known and referred to by their names. The simple soldier, however, is known only by a number. The reason for this is that since there are so many soldiers, the individual soldier becomes inconsequential. Only after the entire legion is counted by number do they achieve significance as part of the larger collective group. The officers, however, have singular relevance as leaders and are, thus, referred to by name.

Stars are certainly a mighty legion; the universe is filled with millions of them. For this reason, they are referred to by number. Due to their individual impressiveness, however, each star is a world in itself, the smallest star larger than the entire earth. Thus, they are also referred to by name. This is the meaning of Yeshayah 40:26, "He who takes out their hosts by number; He calls them all by name." Stars have a dual quality: individual and collective significance.

Hashem ensured the Patriarchs that their descendants would be like the stars of the universe. They will be many like the stars, but they will, nonetheless, never lose their individual significance. Every individual Jew is like the stars of the sky: each is an entire world onto himself.

When a person realizes his incredible personal value, when he becomes aware of the esteem in which Hashem holds him, he will think twice before acting foolishly and becoming involved in sinful behavior. The reason most people sin is low self-esteem, which tells them "Who cares what you do?" When a person realizes that, Bishvili nivra ha'olam, "The world was created solely for me," that Hashem is machshiv him, cares about him, he will act with greater dignity. When we think that we are inconsequential, we regrettably act as if there is no consequence to our actions.

Hashem spoke to Moshe in the wilderness of Sinai. (1:1)

The Midrash notes the Torah's emphasis on the place where the Torah was given to Klal Yisrael. Chazal say, "The Torah was given through three media: fire, water and wilderness." What is the significance of these three? Just as these three are accessible and free to everyone, so, too, is the Torah. Furthermore, one must make himself hefker, ownerless, like a wilderness, devoid of all self, in order to acquire Torah. Horav Yehudah Tzedaka, zl, suggests that these three items allude to the criteria through which one will achieve success in Torah study. Fire is a reference to the passion and enthusiasm one must manifest when learning Torah. Water symbolizes humility, since it always flows downward to the lowest area. The wilderness represents the will of Hashem Who gave the Torah and wants that the individual who studies His Torah give up everything - himself and his possessions - in the pursuit of his studies. The lomeid Torah, one who studies Torah, must be satisfied with a simple life, devoid of luxury and excess.

While each of the above qualities deserves particular attention, I would like to focus on the aspect of humility. In a classic exposition of humility, we find Moshe and Aharon exclaiming V'nachnu mah, "For what are we?" This is probably one of the most insightful statements concerning humility. What am I? One must be introspective and ask himself: What am I - really? Take off the mask that others see and view yourself with uncompromising honesty. Are you as you present yourself, or are you someone else - entirely? Are you a giver - or a taker? Do you really care about others, or do you simply put on a facade of concern? This question applies to every area of our daily endeavor, both in our relationship with Hashem and in our relationships with our peers. The difference is that Hashem knows the true you.

While this self-examination is difficult, and for some it might even be painful, nonetheless, one emerges a different person, purged of self-deceit. When one confronts his "real self" he becomes more human and, ultimately, ascends to a higher level on the ladder of spirituality.

I recently read a thesis on the character trait of humility that focuses on the question: "Who am I?" Moshe Rabbeinu, the anav mikol adam, humblest man on earth, refused to go to Egypt as Klal Yisrael's leader, arguing with the words, "Who am I?" This question has a double connotation. On the one hand, it is an expression of humility: "Who am I to take the Jewish People out of Egypt? I am not distinguished enough for this monumental task. Choose someone else, more worthy than 'I.'" On the other hand, it is a statement that bespeaks pride in being Hashem's creation, His handiwork: "I am not a simple earthly creature. I possess a Divine soul, which grants me incredible potential. I am created in the Divine image, as well as being a descendant of the Avos HaKedoshim, Holy Patriarchs." Yes, the question, "Who am I?" leads to pride, but it is a pride built on self-knowledge and awareness of one's capacity for achieving spiritual success.

Humility is an important character trait that must be managed with great care. It offers one the potential for greatness when he recognizes that he is the repository of wonderful Divine gifts, which he must work at maintaining. He must strive to be worthy of Hashem Who granted him these gifts. When humility obscures one's potential for success, when it becomes a validation for lack of spiritual growth, when it casts doubts on his ability to ascend the spiritual ladder, it becomes a dangerous negative character trait. Rather than being a motivation for positive growth, it becomes a negative factor in his life.

Our gedolei Yisrael, Torah leaders - from Moshe Rabbeinu, the quintessential leader of our People, down to his contemporary spiritual heirs - are clearly cognizant of the qualities they possess, qualities which catalyze their greatness. They realize that these attributes are G-d-given gifts granted to them for a specific purpose. When they asked, "What am I?" it conveyed their inner feeling of inconsequence and nothingness. Yet, it never negated their feeling of self-worth. One must be aware of his strengths and potential, yet not let it totally define him. This is the humility of "What am I." "I know what I am, and this awareness increases my feelings of "'What am I?'" Humility is a character trait necessary to the achievement of true greatness. Misplaced humility, however, can lead to disaster, both personal and collective.

They established their genealogy according to their families, according to their fathers' households. (1:18)

There is a fascinating Yalkut Shimoni on the beginning of the Parshah that gives us a compelling insight into the merit of yichus, distinguished lineage. Chazal teach us that when Klal Yisrael received the Torah, the nations of the world were envious. They complained, "Why did the Jews, more so than any other nation, merit to receive the Torah?" Hashem replied to them, "Bring Me your Sefer Yuchsin, genealogical records, as My children, the Jewish People, did. They were given the Torah in the merit of their distinguished pedigree."

We must endeavor to understand Chazal. Is the Torah to be given only to those who have a distinguished lineage? Why does yichus play such a primary role in receiving the Torah? The Maggid, zl, m'Dubno explains that when Hashem offered the Torah to Klal Yisrael, the people responded with a resounding, Kol asher diber Hashem naas'e, "Everything that Hashem has spoken, we will do" (Shemos 19:8). The Yalkut in Parashas Yisro explains that Klal Yisrael were telling Hashem, "All that You will command us to do in the Torah has already been carried out by our forefathers. Thus, we are especially worthy of receiving the Torah. It is our heritage." It would seem, explains Horav Avraham Pam, zl, cited in the newly translated version of Ateres Avraham by Rabbi Sholom Smith, that the Yalkut's interpretation is based on a play on the word naas'e, "we will do." It should be read as naasa, "it was already done (by our forebears)."

Rav Pam explains the reason for this radical departure from the simple pshat, meaning. There is an obvious question to be asked with regard to Klal Yisrael's unequivocal statement. How can a rational people undertake to do whatever they are commanded? How can they be certain that they will be able to honor this commitment? The response is that since their forefathers had kept the Torah, even under the most difficult circumstances, it rendered it possible for them, the children, to make this commitment. Torah observance was in their blood. They were going to continue the commitment that had already been accepted by their ancestors.

Avraham Avinu initiated it with his unstinting conviction. At an advanced age, after waiting an entire life for a child, he was prepared to offer Yitzchak as a sacrifice, in response to Hashem's command. This commitment was imbued in Yitzchak Avinu, who demonstrated total obedience as he lay there willing and ready to be the Olah Temimah, perfect sacrifice. Yaakov Avinu was tested a number of times by Hashem, and he emerged triumphant, because mesiras nefesh, dedication to the point of self-sacrifice, ran in his blood. It was his heritage, and it became his legacy.

Thus, the actions of our ancestors throughout the ages, their commitment to Hashem and His Torah, have been the symbols, and ultimately the foundation, of our commitment. It is deeply-rooted in our souls. The gentile world that claimed the Torah did not have such yichus. Therefore, they could not say, "All that Hashem has spoken, we will do!" It was not an intrinsic part of them.

Rav Pam suggests that this concept, this unique heritage which is endemic only to Klal Yisrael, has practical significance in our own time. The baal-teshuvah movement, recent returnees to religious observance, movement is one of the greatest phenomena of our generation. Young men and women, from all walks of life and from various nationalities and cultures, are flocking to special Torah centers to study Torah. They rapidly develop the skills necessary for mastering areas of Torah knowledge that had until now been foreign to them. Many become erudite Torah scholars. What caused this overnight sensation? How do they come from backgrounds in which Torah was compared to ancient hieroglyphics to complete proficiency? The answer is yichus. Jews are endowed with a unique pedigree. As descendants of people who dedicated their lives to Torah and mitzvah observance, their neshamos, souls, are the repositories of long-dormant traits and talents that have come to the fore when the Pintele Yid, that Jewish spark, is awakened within them. This spark is stoked into a brilliant flame, which burns brightly as they go from strength to strength.

There is another aspect to yichus which merits mention. It is important to know from where we originated, who our forebears were, what type of lives they led and their level of commitment to Hashem and His Torah. This catalyzes within us a sense of pride as it empowers us to triumph over adversity and the challenges which confront us. With regard to the laws of Yovel, fifty-year Jubilee, all ancestral plots of land that have been sold between one Jubilee and the next revert to their original owners. The Meshech Chochmah writes, that over time, people disperse throughout the country in search of their livelihood. It is important that families return to their origins and strengthen their bonds. Renewing family ties is important because it strengthens each individual's resolve as he sees the commitment of other members of his own family. In the famous tzavaah, final will, of Rabbeinu Yehudah ben HaRash, he writes about his ancestors, so that his

descendants would never forget their origins. He hopes that when his descendants delve into the achievements of their forebears, they will be ashamed to deviate from their practices and commitments and that this awareness will increase their level of observance. When we realize upon whose shoulders we stand, we are inspired and encouraged. It also obligates us to follow in their footsteps. Generations come and go, but as long as we remain connected to a common source, we continue to survive collectively as a nation.

And the Nasi for Bnei Gad is Eliyasaph ben Re'uel. (2:14)

The name of this Nasi is spelled in two different ways. Here he is called Eliyasaph ben Re'uel, with a raish, while earlier, in 1:14, he is referred to as Eliyasaph ben De'uel, with a daled. What was his real name? The Imrei Noam derives from here an important ethical lesson. When Shevet Dan was selected as the head of the Degel, Banner formation, Shevet Gad, of which Eliyasaph was the Nasi, could have easily complained. After all, just as Dan was Zilpah's bechor, firstborn, Gad was Bilhah's firstborn. Why should Dan precede Gad? Despite his apparent taaneh, justified complaint, Eliyasaph was me'vater, willing to concede and comply. His name was, therefore, changed to ben Re'uel, an acronym for re'a-Keil, friend of Hashem, just like Moshe Rabbeinu. Indeed, Moshe's burial site was located in Gad's portion. One who acquiesces and accepts upon himself Hashem's judgment becomes a friend of Hashem. So great is the reward for one who is me'vater.

Horav Yitzchak Zilberstein, Shlita relates a fascinating story about a young boy who received a wonderful reward for an act of generosity on his part. It was recently that a young man, a talmid chacham, Torah scholar of note, became engaged to a young woman from a fine family in Bnei Brak. The people of the community who knew this young man from the time he was a teenager marveled at his constant good fortune. He was eminently successful in Torah study. He was lucky to find a wonderful shidduch, match, almost immediately, and the wedding plans seemed to be progressing very smoothly. In short, everything that he touched seemed to be blessed. Everyone wondered at the special z'chus, merit, this young man had in order to catalyze this good fortune.

The rav of the community explained that they had to go back in time, eight years to be exact, to discover the reason for his success. "There were two boys rapidly approaching bar-mitzvah," said the rav, "who were both destined to celebrate their bar-mitzvah on the same Shabbos. One of them had to concede the Shabbos, the Haftorah, and the use of the shul's social hall. I decided that the only way to determine who would have the Shabbos was by goral, a lottery. Both boys drew lots, and our chassan won. He could celebrate his bar-mitzvah in the shul.

"Now what would one expect from a young bar-mitzvah boy? We would expect him to jump for joy and celebrate his triumph. Not our chassan. He was concerned for the other boy. Knowing fully well that his friend would have to travel across the city to locate a shul to celebrate his bar-mitzvah, our chassan made a decision that demonstrated an ethical character far beyond his young years. He was me'vater the Shabbos, giving the rights to the bar-mitzvah in that shul to the other boy. When asked why he was so compliant, he responded, 'I could not sleep that night knowing the hardship my friend would have to sustain as a result of my winning the lot.'

"I can only tell you," said the rav, "that the look of joy on the face of the other boy upon hearing the good news was awesome. By nature a sensitive boy, the other bar-mitzvah boy beamed and was obviously ecstatic that he could celebrate his bar-mitzvah in the community shul. The joy that the boy manifested, however, was nothing compared to the feeling of ecstasy that our chassan enjoyed from the satisfaction he had received from helping another Jew.

"I followed this chassan's life from that day on," said the rav, "and he was met with success after success, becoming the recipient of overwhelming good fortune. It is my feeling that it was all due to his ability to be me'vater, to empathize with the plight of another Jew and concede his own portion in order to help his less fortunate friend."

Va'ani Tefillah

Baruch atah Hashem mekadeish es Shimcha barabim. Blessed are You, Hashem, Who sacrifices His Name among the multitudes.

We recognize that the Jew's resolve to give up his life for his belief is a G-d-given gift. The readiness that a Jew has to be mekadesh Hashem is not only our doing. It is a special Siyata DishMaya, Divine Assistance, that we are granted from the Almighty. Horav Shimon Schwab, zl, says this is analogous to the berachah we make on bread, Ha'motzi lechem min ha'aretz, "Who brings forth bread from the earth." Although it is the farmer who plows, sows, irrigates and harvests the wheat, which is made into flour and then baked, we give credit primarily to Hashem. We realize that it is Hashem who gives the farmer the strength to do all that he does. So, too, with this berachah, we acknowledge that man's mesiras nefesh, self-sacrifice, is an ability that is G-d-given. Now, we might ask, what about all the other religions whose believers also give up their lives for the sake of them, regardless of the integrity of these beliefs? I think the difference lies in the manner of the convictions. They do it as a result of religious emotion or fervor based on emotion. We act intellectually. Our commitment is based upon religious belief - not simple emotion. Ours is a connection based upon intellectual recognition, upon a mesorah, tradition, that goes back thousands of years to a Revelation witnessed by hundreds of thousands. Yes, when we are moseir nefesh, it is with full control of our faculties, with pride and conviction in knowing that we are performing the most exalted mitzvah.

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