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Peninim on the Torah

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Rabbi A. Leib Scheinbaum
Hebrew Academy of Cleveland


Hashem said to Moshe, "Why do you cry out to Me?" (14:15)

More than once in his lifetime, a man becomes involved in a situation from which he has no escape. He is up against the wall. Anxiety, fear and trepidation set in. What does he do? To whom does he turn? Horav David Bliacher, zl, one of the preeminent disciples of the Alter m'Novardok, cites this above pasuk in his response to the problems that so many of us face during the course of a lifetime. Klal Yisrael was up against the proverbial wall. In front of them, they face the Red Sea; behind them were the cruel Egyptians, intent on "recovering" their slaves. Their alternatives were truly bleak. They cried out in fear. Hashem criticized Moshe Rabbeinu for the fact that Klal Yisrael cried out to Him. Why? What else should they have done? Horav Bliacher gives an insightful response. Undoubtedly, Klal Yisrael had no other alternative but to turn to the Almighty and supplicate Him with emotion-filled prayer to save them. Had the time for this arrived? They were not yet at the shore. The water was not yet enveloping them. Hashem was saying to Moshe: Why are they crying-now? The situation is not yet hopeless. They still have a few more steps before they arrive at the water. Then they should cry-not before. With this idea in mind, we can understand a difficulty in the parsha of Shemittah. The Torah states in Vayikra 25:20 that the people will ask "Mah no'chal?" "What will we eat?" Chazal consider this to be an admission of a lack of faith on their part. They should have trusted in Hashem to provide for them. When should they have asked this question? Obviously, not during the seventh year, since Hashem has assured us that there will be an increase of grain output during the sixth year that will suffice for the seventh year. We must, therefore, say that the question is to be asked during the beginning of the seven-year cycle, in the first or second year. The critique of the question is that they were bothered by what might or might not happen in the future. One should not worry prematurely There will be enough time to worry about the lack of food when the seventh year arrives..

The lesson is clear and simple. Even during a period of concern some time remains, an avenue of relief and cure is available, Do not despair as long as there is an opportunity for salvation. Hashem has His own timetable for granting us deliverance from misfortune. It does not necessarily coincide with our own.

The water came back and covered the chariots and the horsemen…..there remained not a one of them. (14:28)

The Daas Zekeinim derives from the words "ad echad", "not a one", that one person did survive, namely Pharaoh. Yalkut Shimoni says that Pharaoh repented at the last minute. His teshuvah was accepted, and he eventually became the king of Ninveh. The Alshich Hakadosh writes that Pharaoh was enveloped in a large wave, and as he was about to succumb, he uttered the words "Mi chamocha ba'elim Hashem", "Who is like You, among the Heavenly powers?" He was so weak that the sound was barely heard. Consequently, the "chaf" of "kamocha" is "weak" written without the "dagesh," dot in the consonant, and pronounced, chamocha, instead of kamocha.

We must endeavor to understand this. Pharaoh was the symbol of apostacy and defiance. He held himself to be a god. Nothing could affect him. Indeed, he repented at the very last minute right before he was to follow his soldiers into oblivion. Yet, not only did Hashem accept his teshuvah but, He granted him another royal position as monarch of Ninveh. Is this the way teshuvah is performed and accepted? Is a teshuvah that is offered as a result of fear of death an acceptable form of teshuvah? Apparently, it is. Why?

In the ethical discourses of Yeshivas Bais Shalom Mordechai, it is explained that to concede guilt, to confess a wrong, takes extraordinary courage and strength, for which one is rewarded. Regardless of the timing or the reason, it takes a special person to perform teshuvah. Many have gone to their deaths knowing the error of their ways, refusing to acknowledge their sins. The Navi in Melachim 1 16:34 details how Chiel of the House of Eili built Yericho in defiance of Hashem. He was punished by witnessing all of his sons die during a short period of time. When he made the foundation, he buried his eldest. When he hung the doors, his final act of obstinacy, he buried his youngest. There can be no greater message to convey the verity that Hashem is G-d, and we must listen to Him. Pharaoh was impressed with the truth; Chiel apparently was not. The sons of Korach, as they were being swallowed into the ground, repented. Their teshuvah, albeit long overdue, was accepted. To concede that one has traveled through life on the wrong road is a difficult idea to accept. To change an entire life's "weltanschauung," to recast one's beliefs, takes herculean efforts on the part of a person. Many have failed the test. The ones that have triumphed are, according to Chazal, on a higher spiritual plane than tzaddikim gemurim, those who are wholly righteous.

This is my G-d, and I will beautify Him; the G-d of my father, and I will exalt him. (15:2)

Rashi explains that a person's spiritual position is his legacy, transmitted to him from his ancestors: "I am not the genesis of my holiness. Rather, it is bequeathed to me from my forefathers in whom it was firmly entrenched." Rashi's explanation does not seem to coincide with the text. If our spiritual stature has its roots in our forebears, it should have first stated, "the G-d of my father," and then, "my G-d".

Horav Mordechai Gifter, zl, explains that avodas Hashem, serving the Almighty, demands both of these perspectives. To serve Hashem, one must serve as an individual, using his own unique abilities. Only by doing so can he attain true spiritual growth. Yet, we are also blessed with a mesorah, tradition/heritage. We are part of a mesorah, handed down throughout the generations. We may not deviate one iota from this chain of transmission.

From a tangential perspective, it seems that these two vehicles for serving Hashem are conflicting. This is, however, not the case. Mesorah is an intrinsic component in avodas Hashem. It is one of the most basic and vital foundations of our faith. Yet, one who does not incorporate his own abilities within the parameters of mesorah cannot achieve growth. In other words, our avodas Hashem must consist of a synthesis of individualism and mesorah. One must sense that he is serving "my G-d," employing his own uniqueness, his own kochos ha'nefesh, abilities and expertise, in serving Hashem. At the same time, he must remain acutely aware that G-d is "the G-d of our forefathers". His individuality must coincide with the ways of his forebears. We travel on our own road, each individual in accordance with his own path of spiritual ascendancy. We must be extremely vigilant that we are expressing our own individuality and that we do not become carried away forgetting about the G-d of our forefathers. Hashem is "my G-d," and I will serve Him to the best of my abilities. Yet, I must remember that He is the "G-d of my forefathers," and I must continue to serve Him in the manner conveyed to me by my forebears.

Hashem shall reign for all eternity. (15:18)

In the Aleinu prayer, which we recite thrice daily, we implore Hashem "that You may reign over them soon and eternally." The Meshech Chochmah explains the concept of "soon" in regard to Hashem's reign over the world. A person carries out his mind's commands in a form of electrical impulse. The brain decides to act. It sends a message via the heart to the specific organs or limbs involved, and the person acts. This is not the case in the event that the mind sends a command that is contrary to the well-being of the organ. It will not respond immediately. Indeed, it will conjure up every reason for not accepting the command. We ask Hashem that His command should receive an immediate response from us. Nothing should stand in our way to serve Him.

Horav Yitzchak Zilberstein, Shlita, supplements this further. He compares this to an individual who is walking in the street and notices a bag with thousands of dollars in it. He will not need to be prodded or encouraged to stick out his hand to lift this bag. On the other hand, if he is about to take a blood test, his arm will not extend as readily as if it was reaching out to the money. We pray to Hashem that our limbs and organs should respond to His command instantaneously without any hesitation whatsoever . Our limbs and organs should stand in readiness, pre-disposed to carry out Hashem's mitzvos and maasim tovim, good deeds.

One whose limbs and organs are totally devoted to Hashem immediately reacts to sanctify Hashem's Name when the opportunity arises. The following story concerning a baal teshuvah, one who returned to observance, demonstrates this idea. An individual was once asked what catalyzed his return. Was it an incident or an individual? At first, he refused to reveal his "secret." After a while, he shared an incredible story with his friends. One morning, as he was driving to work he had the terrible misfortune of seeing a young, observant Jewish child run in front of his car. It was a serious accident, and the child sustained a grave injury. He was not held responsible for the accident since he had been traveling at the appropriate speed. The child, unfortunately, ran out in front of his car. Yet, the verdict of innocence did not remove the crushing feeling of guilt that continued to haunt him.

The depression that resulted from his part in the accident was overwhelming. He could not eat or sleep. He walked around in total despair. One day, he conjured up the courage to go to the hospital and visit the child and his family. Perhaps, this would serve as some form of penance to give him some peace of mind. He went to the hospital, knocked on the door of the boy's room, and was greeted by the little boy's mother. After exchanging the usual pleasantries, he blurted out to the mother, "what can I do to atone for my sin?" The mother looked at him. Without skipping a beat, she said, "Accept upon yourself to become a shomer Shabbos!" He was shocked. Here, he thought that the mother would give him a bill for the medical expenses and cost of aftercare. No, she was concerned with one thing: his Shabbos observance. She cared only that another Jew was not yet observant. It was as if she was "programmed" that she should seize any opportunity to bring a Jew closer to observance.

This women exemplifies the concept of "v'simloch aleiham meheirah", "that You may reign over them soon." She accepted every chance to sanctify Hashem's Name. There is a postscript to the story. The driver became observant and married a young woman from an observant home. The guests of honor at the wedding were the young boy, who had recuperated from his injuries, and his parents, who had succeeded in changing the life of a Yiddishe neshamah.

He said, If you will listen diligently to the voice of Hashem, your G-d, and you will do what is just in His eyes, and you will give ear to His commandments and observe all His statutes, then any of the diseases that I have placed upon Egypt, I will not place upon you. (15:27)

Life on this world, albeit temporal, grants one incredible opportunity to achieve immense spiritual reward. Chazal teach us that this world is only a vestibule, a passageway to the real world. If we only begin to realize the tremendous opportunity we have for spiritual accomplishment, we would never waste a moments time. Indeed, a simple act of kindness, a moment of spiritual endeavor performed here during one's lifetime, can never be recaptured after one is gone. All Hashem asks of us is to do, to act, to perform. He will remunerate us beyond our wildest dreams when the appropriate time arrives.

Horav Yitzchak Zilberstein, Shlita, relates a story that occurred which should sensitize us to the power of a mitzvah and its effect. The story is about a mashgiach, kosher supervisor, at a large meat plant in Eretz Yisrael. Everyday he organized a minyan at the factory to daven Minchah. It happened one day that he was missing a "tzenter," tenth man, to complete the required quorum. He went outside looking for a Jew to complete the minyan. After a short while, he met a farmer dressed in short pants and tee-shirt who gave the appearance of being a simple, unschooled Jew. He asked the farmer to join them for a minyan for Minchah. The Jew had no idea what the mashgiach was talking about. After a few moments, however, he succeeded in convincing the farmer of the importance of tefillah b'tzibur, praying with a minyan, and the importance of saying Kaddish in memory of the departed. He emphasized that today he was saying Kaddish in memory of his father, whose yartzheit it was.

The farmer joined the minyan until a few moments later, when another Jew entered, thereby enabling the farmer to leave. The farmer did not remain long enough to daven with the minyan. Ten years passed; the mashgiach had assumed a new position elsewhere and moved to Bnei Brak. One night, as the mashgiach was sleeping, he had a dream. In the dream, the farmer who had completed the minyan appeared to him with a shining countenance. He explained that he had been called from this world during the previous month. He said that the reward that he received for joining the minyan that one time was overwhelming. Furthermore, in recompense for the mitzvah that he performed, he was granted the opportunity to appear to the mashgiach and ask for a favor. It seems that he had a totally non-observant son who lived in Yerushalayim. Could the mashgiach please go to his son's home and implore him to say Kaddish for his late father. The mashgiach took note of the address and went the next day to locate the son. After some persuasion, the son acquiesced to say Kaddish. All of this occurred because a Jew who was himself not observant was willing to be the tenth man in a minyan, so that another Jew could say Kaddish on his father's yartzheit. Can we even begin to imagine the awesome reward awaiting for he who performs mitzvos all of the time?

Vignettes on the Parsha

Because it was near (13:17)

The Baalei Mussar explain that when one seeks the "quick road" to shleimus, perfection, it is a sign that he does not really seek perfection, but is compelled by circumstances that demand that he "exhibit" shleimus.


Speak to Bnei Yisrael and let them turn back and encamp before Pi Hachiros. (14:2)

Horav Moshe m'Kubrin interprets this pasuk in the following manner: Moshe Rabbeinu instructed Klal Yisrael to "return," to repent and perform "v'yashuvu," teshuvah. The medium to achieve this was to "rest" "v'yachanu," the pi, mouth, and not permit the mouth to have too much "cheirus," freedom.

Before Baal-Tzephon (14:2)

This was the only Egyptian idol that remained. Imrei Chein explains that this is the god of gold. Regrettably, this idol is still with us to this very day. People still worship gold.


Pharaoh approached (brought himself near). (14:10)

Minchah Belulah explains that Pharaoh "brought" Klal Yisrael nearer to Hashem. He catalyzed their return to the Almighty.


Then Moshe and the Bnei Yisrael chose to sing……. And (G-d) was salvation for me.

Everyone sang together, says Horav Shlomo Margolis, Shlita, but the feeling of salvation was a personal one. Each individual, according to his own spiritual plateau and perspective, experienced the yeshua, salvation, differently.


They could not drink the waters of Marah because they were bitter. (15:23)

The bitterness was not in the water. The people were bitter; consequently, everything they tasted was bitter.

Take one jar… it…..for a safekeeping for your generations. (16:33)

Why did they leave over the "tzintzenes ha'man," jar, with a small amount of manna in it? This was to serve as a reminder that regardless of the amount of hishtadlus, endeavor, one puts forth, one receives his due - and not more.


Peninim on the Torah is in its 7th year of publication. The first five years have been published in book form.

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