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Peninim on the Torah

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Rabbi A. Leib Scheinbaum
Hebrew Academy of Cleveland


When the earth was astonishingly empty, with darkness upon the surface of the deep… G-d said, "Let there be light," and there was light… And G-d separated between the light and the darkness. (1:2,3,4)

Contrary to popular belief, the darkness of which the Torah speaks is not merely the absence of light. It is a specific creation, as it is clearly stated in Yeshayahu 45:7, Yotzeir ohr u'borei choshech - oseh shalom u'borei ra. "(I am the One) Who forms light and creates darkness, Who makes peace and creates evil." The Midrash comments, "Great is peace, for Hashem did not commence His creation of the world with anything other than something which represents peace. What is this? It is light." The Midrash goes on to cite the pasuk in Yeshayahu. We must endeavor to understand what about light evokes the concept of peace. Furthermore, what is the relationship between the creation of light and darkness and peace?

In his Halichos Shlomo, Horav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach, zl, explains that light specifically relates to peace, as it is the perfect symbol for peace. We first must understand the meaning of peace. We are led to believe that a man at peace is one who has vanquished his enemies. No longer does he suffer from those who would cause him to be involved in strife. His enemies fear him as he walks among them with impunity, but they are still his enemies. This is not the definition of peace. Living with enemies all around you, albeit powerless to hurt you, does not define peace. It is controlled enmity.

Shalom, peace, is derived from shleimus, completion, perfection. To be at peace is not to have enemies at all. One gets along with everyone, earning their respect and admiration - even if they do not see eye to eye on various issues. We see this dichotomy between the blessings that the evil Lavan and Besuel gave to Rivkah Imeinu as she was about to become Yitzchak Avinu's wife. "And may your offspring inherit the gates of its foes" (Bereishis 24:60). When Moshe Rabbeinu blessed Asher, he said, "He shall be pleasing to his brothers" (Devarim 33:24). One focuses on vanquishing enemies, while the other sets his sights on friendship and respect. These pose two contrasting perspectives which represent their differences in appreciating the value and meaning of peace.

Concerning all natural phenomena, we note, that by their very nature, they are involved in a sort of competitive relationship whereby one must best the other. Fire and water cannot exist together. It is one or the other. This applies to all phenomena, except light and darkness. They are both creations ex nihilo, yeish mei'ayin, something from nothing. In his commentary to Meseches Tamid 32, the Maharsha writes that we must believe that Hashem created ohr and choshech, light and darkness, equally yeish mei'ayin, even if we have difficulty conceptualizing this. We neither ask what existed before this world was created, nor do we query what will be after. As believing Jews, we do just that: believe in Hashem. Likewise, the Gaon, m'Vilna, writes in his commentary to Sefer Yetzirah, that darkness is not merely an absence of light. It is a powerful entity of darkness created by Hashem. Thus, despite the fact that darkness is a viable entity, a drop of light will push away darkness. Why? Because the darkness yields to the light, accepting its status without complaint or without protest. This is peace at its zenith. For this reason, only light stands alone as the symbol of peace, for its ability to compel darkness to acquiesce to its dominance.

This explains the pasuk's concluding words, u'borei ra, Who creates evil. As Hashem causes darkness to cede to light, creating a viable peace, so, too, will evil be nudged off before good, so that the two will make peace.

Hashem Elokim called out to the man and said to him, "Where are you?"… The woman whom You gave to be with me - she gave me of the tree… The woman said, "The serpent deceived me." (3:9,12,13)

What really was the nature of Adam and Chavah's sin, such that it necessitated their expulsion from Gan Eden? Ostensibly, it is because they ate of the Eitz HaDaas, Tree of Knowledge. This is what, at first glance, is gleaned from the pesukim. Hashem did not, however, banish them until after He had had a dialogue with them. Something in that conversation was the proverbial straw that broke the camel's back. Something ensued from that conversation that made it evident to Hashem that they had to go. Hashem "searched" for Adam and He called out, "Ayeca?" Where are you? Clearly, Hashem knew exactly where Adam was positioned. He simply wanted to start a dialogue. Perhaps Adam would confess his sin and repent.

Adam did not bite. He wasted the opportunity. Instead of explaining to Hashem that he was "hiding" out of shame, because he had committed a grave error, he replied somewhat audaciously to Hashem's query, "Did you eat from the tree which I commanded you not to eat from?", "The woman whom You gave to be with me - she gave me of the tree." When Hashem turned to Chavah and questioned her, she immediately retorted, "It was the serpent's fault. He convinced me to eat."

Both Adam and Chavah passed the buck. They refused to accept blame for their own actions. They refused to accept responsibility for their actions. Can one imagine what would have occurred had they replied, "We did it. We were wrong. We are sorry!" But they did not. Life is much harder for us as a result of their unwillingness to accept responsibility.

Denial that one did something wrong is a natural tendency. How often do we attempt to gloss over our actions, to justify them in any number of ways? This is a great mistake - both in practical life and concerning Torah observance. There is a popular dictum that would be well-placed in front of our eyes at all times as a constant reminder of this folly: "Never defend a mistake." Attempts at justifying what we did wrong often lead to further rationalizations that are viewed as patently false by everyone - but ourselves. This leads to further bending of the truth and other cover-ups. What is worse is that the more we rationalize, the more we begin to believe that it is true. We are innocent. We are victims. Why is everybody picking on me? As a result, teshuvah, repentance from our misdeeds, eludes us. After all, if we did not sin, why should we repent?

We forget that while not taking responsibility may be less demanding, less painful, and less time spent worrying about the unknown, we always pay a price for it. It may be more comfortable - now - but when one does not assume responsibility for his actions, he basically relinquishes his personal power. It will ultimately destroy his self-esteem. When we blame others for the bad things that happen in our lives, we develop a victim mentality, constantly cowering and obsequious. Relationships, ambitions and achievements suffer, as we revert back into our little cocoon of comfort. The hurt will never go away until we take steps to assume responsibility for our lives.

Some have a more serious problem. This refers to the individual who does not even realize what he is doing. We all like to feel important and have others maintain a high opinion of us. Some more than others develop an over-inflated, over-exaggerated opinion of themselves. As a result of these tendencies, they wrap themselves up in what we may call "denial." This creates a false perception of oneself and the inability to accept the truth concerning oneself. It becomes painful to accept that mistakes are possible and they do happen. When they occur, we impulsively point the finger of blame on someone else. We refuse to think objectively and accept any responsibility for our own actions.

What is the cause of this reluctance to accept responsibility? It comes from insecurity. To the simple-minded, accepting responsibility is a sign of weakness, infirmity, or an opportunity to lose the respect of others. Some even feel that they will lose their sense of value and importance. What they do not realize is that accepting responsibility increases one's respectability, elevating him in the eyes of others. We cannot be perfect all of the time. We all make mistakes at one time or another. By owning up to these errors, one establishes his own self-worth and elevates his self-esteem. With this foundation, we are able to build our own self-confidence and, ultimately, learn to conquer our fears.

Thorns and thistles shall it sprout for you. (3:18)

The Chidushei HaRim cited by Sifsei Tzadikim explains that what seems as a curse is actually a blessing in disguise. Hashem had originally warned Adam, "On the day that you eat from the Tree of Knowledge, you will die." Well, Adam ate and did not die. What happened? We must therefore surmise that the "curse," "Thorns and thistles shall it sprout for you," which is a reference to yissurim b'olam hazeh, affliction/troubles in this world, is not really a substantive curse. The alternative to "thorns and thistles" is death. Not a bad trade-off.

The following episode supports this hypothesis, as well as providing us with a much-needed lesson on life. A man, a victim of abject poverty who had wealthy relatives in America, asked his friend to present to the Chidushei HaRim this question: His relatives were prepared to help him get back on his feet. May he accept their charity, or should he be concerned with the money's source? The Rebbe replied in the negative. After a while, the poor man could no longer hold out. He needed the money badly. He could wait no longer. His relatives were his only option. The die was cast.

The man wrote his relatives soliciting their assistance. They immediately forwarded a considerable amount of money to him, but mail in those days was even worse than it is today. It took quite some time for the money to arrive in Poland. In the meantime, the poor man became ill. As his illness progressed, he asked his friend to speak with the Chidushei HaRim and obtain his blessing. The friend went to the Rebbe and petitioned for his blessing. The Rebbe replied, "At times, a decree of death is issued against a person. In its infinite mercy, the Heavenly Tribunal will provide an opportunity for ameliorating the death sentence against the individual by granting him yissurim, troubles, pain and misery, to offset the decree of death. What can I do? Your friend refused to accept the pain. The alternative is regrettably non-negotiable." By the time the friend returned home, the poor man had passed on to his eternal rest.

This is a powerful lesson. We must know what to pray for. We must think long and hard before we ask for something. Who knows - maybe our present state, albeit not pleasant, is our salvation from something much worse.

And Kayin brought an offering to Hashem of the fruit of the ground. As for Hevel, he also brought of the firstlings of his flock and from their choicest. Hashem turned to Hevel and his offering, but to Kayin and his offering He did not turn. (4:4,5)

The Torah informs us that Kayin brought of the fruit of the ground as an offering to Hashem. From the fact that the Torah underscores that Hevel's sacrifice was derived from the choicest animals, we derive that Kayin's offering was of a mediocre nature. Thus, Hashem turned to Hevel's offering, rather than Kayin's, because Hevel brought from the finest of his animals. This seems a bit difficult to accept. Since when is there a competition among "good," "better," and "best" before Hashem? The Almighty cares only about attitude, not product. The individual's intentions determine the true nature of the sacrifice - not its monetary value. The Torah in Vayikra 2:1 commences stating the laws of the Korban Minchah, Meal-offering, with the statement, V'nefesh ki sakriv Korban Minchah l'Hashem, "When a nefesh/person offers a Meal-offering to Hashem." Rashi notes that nowhere concerning any of the korbanos nedavah, free-willed offerings, does the Torah use the word nefesh, which also means soul. He explains that, given the simplicity of the ingredients which comprise a Korban Minchah, the sacrifice is indicative of the financial status of the individual who brings it. This person is even too poor to afford anything more than these simple ingredients. Because such a person extends himself to bring an offering, despite his current poverty level, the Torah assigns a special value to his deed, considering it as if he actually offered his nefesh, soul, on the Altar.

Kayin seems to have manifested the appropriate intentions behind his offering. It was just deficient in quality. Why did Hashem not turn to it? Horav Bunim, zl, m'Peshischa, explains that the answer is in the motivating factor which inspired the korban. Concerning Kayin, the Torah says that he brought an offering of the fruit of the ground. Only after Kayin "aged" and realized that he was ultimately going to end up in the ground, did he decide to think of Hashem. Hevel, however, brought from the firstborn sheep, the young, healthy animals. This is a reference to when Hevel brought his korban: when he was young and vibrant, filled with life. It was at this point that he decided to share with Hashem.

Are we any different? Do we wait until we can do little else before we start visiting the bais ha'medrash? Clearly, one should go whenever he can, but it is so much more meaningful when one attends the bais ha'medrash when he is filled with the zest of life. Hashem should not have to play second fiddle to everything else in our lives. Our prime time should be devoted to Him.

And Hashem said to Kayin, "Why are you annoyed , and has your countenance fallen? Surely, if you improve yourself, you will be forgiven. But if you do not improve yourself, sin rests at the door." (4:6,7)

The Baal HaTanya, zl, derives an important lesson concerning human nature from this pasuk. We note that the individual outlook of people varies in perspective. There are those who see negativity all of the time. They care about mitzvah observance and seek every opportunity to strengthen it, but at what expense? Everywhere they go, whatever comes into their line of vision, they see sin. Everyone but themselves, of course, is not observing Torah and mitzvos properly: Shabbos observance is not what it should be; people are not learning enough; their manner of dress reflects western society's moral bankruptcy - and the list goes on. They want to help; they want to effect change, but how can they work with a world filled with sinners?

The other type of Jew attempts to look for and, thus, find every redeemable value that a Jew possesses. He sees their good, their acts of kindness, their minimal Torah study due to the taxing burdens of earning a living. He sees that their manner of dress has truly been influenced by the society in which they live and the environment in which they must function. This type of Jew seeks ways to reach out, to bring his fellow closer - not to shoot him full of piercing arrows. He wants to include, rather than ostracize. He understands that everyone has a history, every family has a pathology. Perhaps, by delving into their lives, we might be able to bring them closer.

Why is it that some always look at the dark side, that which is tamei, ritually unclean, while others have their vision set for the ritually pure, the mitzvos that another Jew performs, his positive attributes and actions? The pasuk gives us a profound answer. Im teitiv, "If you will improve yourself," if you will be a repository of Torah and mitzvos, if your life will be one of dedication to you, Hashem and your fellowman, then, s'eis, "You will be forgiven/You will also tolerate the failings of others. If you are good, then you will be patient with others. On the other hand, Im lo teitiv, "If you will not be good/ if your personal life will be checkered with sin, if your life will be replete with moral and ethical failings; if spiritual bankruptcy will define your character, then, l'pesach chata rodeitz, "Sin will rest at the door, "You will see sin at every doorstep. Every step that you take; every person that you meet, you will see only negativity."

A person tends to see others as a mirror image of the individual himself. One sees in others what he is personally. If he is a good person with refined character traits, he will see the same positive image in others. If, regrettably, he is spiritually and morally deficient, he will see himself emulated by others. Before one looks at others, he should take a long, hard look at himself.

Sin rests at the door. Its desire is toward you, yet you can conquer it. (4:7)

Herein lies the folly of man. True, the yetzer hora, evil inclination, is constantly on guard, looking for ways to entice us into sin. Man, however, does not have to succumb to its blandishments. He can prevail - if he so wants to: Im tirtzeh tisgaber alav. In Rashi's immortal words, "If you want, you will prevail over it." It is all up to us. If we want, we will succeed; if our desire for success is lackadaisical, we will fall into its clutches. The following episode gives meaning to the idea that it is all up to us. We can prevail, if we want.

Horav Eliyahu Lopian, zl, came to visit his good friend from days past, Horav Yechezkel Levinstein, zl, who, at the time, was Mashgiach in Ponevez. Rav Chatzkel was quite happy with the visit, especially since Rav Elya had acquiesced to deliver a shmuess, ethical discourse, to the students of Ponevez. This was a special treat, since Rav Elya was a powerful and prolific orator. Rav Elya began his lecture with an incident that had taken place some thirty years earlier, in a small town in Lithuania. The gentile population's enmity towards the Jewish community was rabid. They would do anything to create a stir, to start a pogrom, to rid themselves of the accursed Jews. They decided upon the usual, proven approach: a blood libel. One of their own murdered a young gentile child and threw his body in the back of the town's shul. Did they need more damaging proof that the Jews were a nation of murderers who preyed on gentile children?

Word spread rapidly throughout both the Jewish and gentile communities. The gentiles were preparing for a mass slaughter, but times had changed. They could no longer decide at will to murder Jews. There were laws and authorities who administered these laws. The gentile mob came before the authorities with the tools of their trade, ready to do their thing, only to discover that the authorities were not going to permit them to carry out wanton murder. They would have to investigate the matter. If the Jews were guilty, the perpetrators would be punished. First, however, they needed conclusive proof that the Jews were behind this brutal slaying.

In those days, their idea of advanced criminal investigative science was the use of a special dog. This dog, the authorities claimed, was very gifted. One whiff of the body of the deceased, and it would immediately proceed to the murderer. This "brilliant" dog was all that they would need to ferret out the murderer. He was as good as behind bars. Since it was already getting dark, they decided to conduct their investigation the next day.

Meanwhile, the entire Jewish community crammed into the shul and began pouring out their hearts to the Almighty. Who knew what this anti-Semitic dog would discover. How could they rely on a dog? What if the dog was mistaken? They prayed throughout the night for Heavenly mercy.

The next morning, the entire town gathered in the town square: the gentiles in anticipation; the Jews in fear and dread. The corpse was brought to the square, after which the dog took a few sniffs and began to walk around the people. It stopped at the feet of one of the town's gentile hooligans, who -- after some "convincing" by the authorities -- confessed to the libel. He was hauled away to jail, and the Jews let out a sigh of relief. They all went to the shul amid laughter and tears, to thank Hashem for saving them.

Rav Elya concluded the story, and, in a nonchalant tone, asked the students, "What kind of Olam Habba, Heavenly reward, did this dog deserve for saving an entire Jewish community? Did he receive a doghouse made of gold with the finest dog food? Clearly not! He received nothing! Why? Because he did nothing! Since he had no bechirah , ability to choose between right and wrong, he was compelled to act truthfully. He acted according to his nature. For that there is no reward!" Suddenly, Rav Elya raised his voice and declared, "Morai v'rabbosai, My friends! Who knows if we are not very much like that dog? Who knows if we are not, in fact, serving Hashem out of complacency, habit, cold, dispassionate, just to fulfill our obligation? Do we really care? How are we going to stand before the Creator? What will we say?"

This is what the pasuk is teaching us. We make choices, and we live with the consequences of our choices. There are those who choose to go through life as floaters, floating from one religious observance to another, never really caring what they say or do. While it is nice that they attend, is that davening? Is that learning? We can either tell the yetzer hora to get off our case, or we can fall prey to its guile. It is all up to us. Are we human beings with common sense, ambition and resolution, or are we weak, no better than a trained dog? Our actions indicate the path we have chosen.

Va'ani Tefillah

Oseh shalom u'borei es ha'kol. He makes peace and creates everything.

Horav Avigdor Miller, zl, notes that peace does not simply indicate a lack of disturbance. Peace is a creation. A person creates peace and harmony. In order for there to be peace, or well-being within a man's life, it is essential that all of his physical and emotional faculties work together in synchronization, with perfect harmony and efficiency. It requires a perfect climate, conducive to maintaining the physical and mental balance, social relations and economic circumstances that make a person happy. All of this must work together, so that the individual can be at peace.

Likewise, when we say that, "Hashem makes peace," this is to be understood in conjunction with, "He creates everything." The world functions in stunning efficiency, despite the contrasting nature and conflicting attributes of its components. This is because, "Hashem makes peace" between these varied and manifold components by "creating everything" in such a manner that they all harmonize with one another, despite their conflicting natures.

One example is the bloodstream which transports all the necessary nutrients for the body's well-being. At the same time, it carries all of the body's waste products. All of these travel together as a mixture through the blood vessels, yet never interfere with one another's functions. Hashem has created peace among them.

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