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Peninim on the Torah

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Rabbi A. Leib Scheinbaum
Hebrew Academy of Cleveland


And it came to be when Pharaoh sent out the people that G-d did not lead them by the land of the Plishtim. (13:17)

Developing a relationship/bond with Hashem is a process. It does not just happen. There are ups and downs and challenges to our faith which we must overcome. Some do so successfully; others do not. In an inspirational and informative thesis, Horav Tzadok HaKohen, zl, (Pri Tzaddik) elucidates an insightful comment made by the Zohar HaKadosh concerning the opening pesukim of this parsha.

Parashas Beshalach begins with the word Vayehi, "And it came to be." Chazal teach that this word imparts a fundamental lesson in Biblical exegesis. Whenever the word vayehi appears in the Torah it conveys a message of sorrow. Something is not right. When Klal Yisrael left Egypt after 210 years of brutal slavery, they should have been effusive with expressions of joy. The scene should have been one of incredible celebration. Yet, the Torah writes, vayehi; something was amiss. Klal Yisrael had feelings of sorrow when they left their captivity. Why? The Zohar explains that when the Jews left Egypt, they were broken in spirit, feeling the darkness of death within them.

This is incredible! After suffering oppression for over two centuries, being treated as sub-humans, their children slaughtered, the Jewish People should have been ecstatic. Sorrow should have been the farthest thing from their minds. The Zohar teaches otherwise. The Jews who left Egypt were so sad that, in order to energize and elevate their spirits, Hashem invigorated their souls by allowing them to hear the songs and praises emanating from the Ministering Angels who, together with Hashem, were reveling over the redemption of His People from Egypt. Yet, the people, who should have been filled with joy - were not.

How are we to decipher this enigmatic reaction to freedom at last? Rav Tzadok explains that this reaction is par for the course, a natural adjustment, which is to be expected when one seeks out a relationship with Hashem. There are four stages in this developing relationship. If we follow along closely, we can understand how some people become inspired, but have difficulty following through to the end game.

At the initial phase, Hashem unlocks a person's mind by illuminating his eyes and heart with a great spiritual light and lucidity of vision. Suddenly, he sees with clarity, understands with an acuity that he had never before achieved. In the early stages, this enlightening experience is temporary, and the seeker is elevated to previously unreachable heights. He is beyond his normal capacity to absorb without Hashem's intervention. By doing so, Hashem reveals to the person the reality of His essence, confirming for him that Hashem's sacred light fills the world. Hashem does this so that the person will get a taste of reality, thus empowering himself to personally continue his spiritual ascent to his unmerited enlightenment of Hashem, by sanctifying himself of his own volition and accord.

Phase two reflects the withdrawal of phase one. When an initial experience is unmerited- is a gift which is not based upon achievement-with time, the temporary clarity begins to fade as the radiance diminishes. At this point, without human participation and commitment to ascend the ladder of spirituality, this phase will include increasing darkness and less clarity of vision.

When the "bubble" bursts, because the person did not follow through or because he could not deal with the rising challenges of the temporal nature of his revelation, he becomes deflated, setting into a feeling of morose disconnectedness. Phase three presents a person who begins to doubt the significance and veracity of his initial spiritual awakening. Maybe it had not been real. He becomes disappointed, depressed, without joy, reflecting on earlier periods in his life in which he failed to live up to the demands of sacred living. He remembers his past, so feelings of guilt and shame creep in. This experience can be used constructively, if, as a result of his guilt, he senses a feeling of genuine humility, acknowledging his own inadequacy and spiritual dysfunction.

The seeker is now at a crossroads. Does he permit the guilt to take him down, to bring him to an abyss that quite possibly might be lower than his original self? Or, does he work through his issues, and, with profound humility, prepare it for the fourth phase of establishing a concrete commitment to growth, by forging a faithful and unwavering fidelity to Hashem.

Having said this, Rav Tzadok explains how these four stages played out during the Jews' Exodus experience. The first phase of their spiritual journey occurred on the night of the fifteenth of Nissan, when Hashem slew the Egyptian firstborn and the Jews were privy to unprecedented and unparalleled miracles. They were dazzled by the unquestionable revelation of Hashem, as He intervened in their liberation from the grips of slavery to which they had been subject for 210 years.

Sadly, all good things do not always last. The miracles of the Exodus also began to wane, and, as Klal Yisrael prepared to leave Egypt, the Jews felt alone and vulnerable. Where were the miracles? What happened to the remarkable wonders which had turned them on? They yearned to once again experience the revelation, to feel Hashem's closeness. In phase two, they felt sorrow, loneliness; Hashem had concealed himself from them. They were on their own and were not yet prepared for this reality.

Klal Yisrael now realized that Hashem had given them a wonderful gift, of which they were undeserving. Were they worthy of these glorious miracles? Did their past behavior warrant such an outpouring of Hashem's Revelation and intervention? In phase three, they felt ashamed and remorseful over their past iniquitous behavior, their lack of gratitude to the Almighty. They acknowledged that, for the last two centuries, they had been descending increasingly lower into the abyss of assimilation. Had it not been for Hashem's last minute rescue, they would have become a part of the Egyptian landscape, a nation of slaves who were spiritually no different than their cruel masters. The illumination that energized them on that special night was gone. They had to decide in which direction they were going: disconnect or commitment; falling prey to guilt or ascending upon the ladder founded on the grounds of humility. After going through the painstaking process of introspection, the nation decided to take the initiative and reconnect with Hashem on their own, in such a manner that it would represent permanent conviction. After an honest spiritual calculation, they were now ready to accept Hashem's guiding Providence with total loyalty and complete submission, with no strings attached, to move beyond their past shortcomings in order to focus on the future.

This is what is meant by the sorrow that subdued the people as they left Egypt. Once the excitement that was engendered by the initial revelation - which was the result of the miracles - waned, they entered into the stages of concealment followed by disconnect. After the conclusion of the night's miracles, the people felt forgotten, lost, alone. They began to realize that they were unworthy of all that had taken place on their behalf; they were now overwhelmed with feelings of sorrow and regret. Hashem saw that they had reached their low point, resulting from personal remorse. They were now prepared to make the decision to forge their own independently generated relationship with Him. Hashem sought to imbue them with the realization that a meaningful relationship with Him is the result of a process that begins with revelation, then concealment, followed by deliberate steps towards establishing a lasting commitment to the Almighty.

This, of course, explains why some who commence the journey are waylaid and cannot overcome the stages of concealment and disconnect. It takes courage to overcome the obstacles and challenges, and strength to make an enduring commitment. The rewards of achieving the realization of the dream, however, are well worth the difficult journey.

Bnei Yisrael were armed when they went up from Egypt. (13:18)

Rashi defines chamushim as armed. Taking a journey through the wilderness is not like a walk in the park. One can encounter pernicious challenges at almost every step of the way. Additionally, the pagan nations inhabiting Eretz Yisrael would certainly not take kindly to the idea of being displaced by the Jewish People. The fact that G-d promised the Land to the Jews had very little bearing on the pagan mindset. On the other hand, the Jews were not a warrior nation. For the past 210 years, their primary vocation had been slavery. Thus, the people took along weapons as preparation for any contingency.

Having said this, we wonder why, when the people were being pursued by the Egyptians, Hashem resorted to the overt miracle of the Splitting of the Red Sea. Why did He not just simply have them pick up their weapons and fight? True, they were not soldiers, but the miracle of their vanquishing the Egyptians using conventional warfare was definitely less overt than splitting the sea. Why did Hashem have to call such attention to the nation?

The Chasam Sofer derives an important principle concerning our moral behavior. Mi'derech ha'mussar, from the point of ethical correctness, it was inappropriate for the Jewish people who had established residence in Egypt for 210 years to personally raise up their weapons and fight their "benefactors." This is the reason that the Torah instructs us not to hate an Egyptian, for "a well from which one drinks water, he should not throw stones." When one derives benefits from another fellow - regardless of its nature and the benefactor's motivation - he still owes him.

This is truly a powerful statement. One would think that after 210 years of slavery, the Jews had repaid the Egyptians a thousand fold for being their host country. Apparently, we view hakoras hatov, gratitude, from a different vantage point. We separate the good from the bad. True, the Egyptians were a cruel, abominable and morally bankrupt nation, who treated us in the most reprehensible manner. This allows us even more reason to despise them and to want absolutely nothing to do with them. Jews, however, answer to a different calling. We understand that if someone benefits us, we owe him. Hashem will deal with the rest - his attitude, motivation and ill-treatment. We have to be grateful for their hospitality. Leave the punishment to Hashem. Otherwise, we are no different than the pagans and despots who have cruelly mistreated us throughout the millennia.

Hashem said to Moshe, "Why do you cry out to Me? Speak to Bnei Yisrael and let them journey forth." (14:15)

Hashem told Moshe Rabbeinu that there was a time to pray and a time to move on to take action. Apparently, this was not the time for prayer. The Divrei Chaim renders this pasuk homiletically, lending us an insight into the demands of leadership, and the need for a strong leader to determine the appropriate response to a given situation and how best to rally the people behind him. Moshe Rabbeinu was well known for his unusual humility. Anav mikol adam; "he was the most humble person on the earth." Indeed, the word mah, "what" (as in V'nachnu mah, "And what are we?" which was Moshe and Aharon's reaction to the people's complaints), is considered the standard of consummate humility. Moshe viewed himself in the manner of: "What am I?"

When Klal Yisrael stood at the banks of the Red Sea, they were literally between a "rock and a hard place." No natural way out of their predicament was evident. For all intents and purposes, the one to whom they looked up to for leadership, guidance and salvation out of their serious straits, was Moshe. He was supposed to intervene for them with the Almighty. Moshe, however, viewed himself as unworthy of such distinction. He felt, "Who am I to entreat the Almighty on behalf of the Jewish People? What am I?"

Hashem responded, Mah titzak Eilai, "Why do you cry out to Me?" This is interpreted as: The attribute, mah, which denotes your outstanding humility, is a wonderful quality - only when titzak Elai, "you are crying out to Me", on your own behalf. Now, however, when you represent the Jewish People, Dabeir el Bnei Yisrael v'yisau, "Speak to Bnei Yisrael and let them journey forth." They need you. They look up to you. Instruct them to move on. There is a time and place for everything - even humility.

You stretched out Your right hand - the earth swallowed them. (15:12)

Rashi explains this pasuk as sort of a reward for the Egyptians, because they had acknowledged Hashem's justice, when (ibid 9:27) they proclaimed, Hashem HaTzaddik, "Hashem is righteous." He showed His infinite mercy by allowing them to be buried following their ordeal. This is the meaning of, tivlaeimo aretz, "The earth swallowed them up." A powerful lesson may be derived from here. Regardless of who a person is, his previous negative actions notwithstanding, when he acts appropriately, when he performs a positive act that either serves as a vehicle for glorifying Hashem or assisting a (fellow) Jew - he will be rewarded commensurate with his current actions.

We see that Hashem rewarded the Egyptians with a proper burial, despite their nefarious past. Once they declared, Hashem HaTzaddik, they glorified His Name. For this, they were rewarded. Interestingly, they did not do much. They reacted to the wondrous miracles that were shaking up their country. Such a reaction was, for the most part, inevitable. Yet, Hashem rewarded them, because every good deed deserves to be rewarded.

We observe also that one never knows the effect of a positive action. They said only two words, but these two words had a positive cosmic effect, which was reciprocated with an incredible reward for a people whose negative actions had been beyond contempt. Hashem looks at the benefit engendered by a person's action. If it has had a positive effect on someone else's life, it will certainly generate great reward. The following episode, related by Rabbi Berel Wein and quoted by Horav Moshe Toledano, zl, is a classic example of this concept.

Rabbi Wein had occasion to daven in a large shul in Yerushalayim in which the worshippers sat by tables one facing another, rather than on rows of benches (back to back). Thus, when one faced the fellow opposite him, he would get a very clear view of his face. At the beginning of davening, a tall man with blonde hair walked in with his three sons, who were also blonde. They all had blue eyes. Rabbi Wein could not help but notice their Aryan looks. While he was used to seeing people from diverse and somewhat "not-mainstream" backgrounds, he was not accustomed to seeing an Aryan countenance in Eretz Yisrael.

It was not simply their unusual appearance (unusual to meet them in a shul), it was the way in which they davened. They prayed with amazing intensity and unusual fervor. The children acted with impeccable manners, taking every word of the prayer service seriously. Rabbi Wein was sufficiently impressed, to the point that he asked his friend about this family. His friend replied that the father was a microbiology professor at Hebrew University. His life story was truly unique, but if Rabbi Wein wanted to hear, who better than the man himself to relate his background.

Rabbi Wein agreed, and his friend called out, "Avraham, I would like to introduce you to Rabbi Berel Wein. He would love to hear your life story."

"Sure, I would be happy to tell you about my background. I am sure it is quite different than anything that you have ever heard before. I was born and raised in Germany; hence my Aryan features. My father was a captain in the dread S.S. They were the worst of the worst. It was their function to exterminate the Jews. He served 'with distinction' throughout the entire war and somehow managed to elude discovery. His sins were reprehensible, but, like so many others, he avoided detection until sometime after the war. My father was finally apprehended, judged and sentenced to only ten years in prison. Apparently, due to his already advanced age, any sentence more than ten years would have been considered a life sentence. In the end, he served only four and a half years.

"My father never spoke about his past. I knew nothing about his evil past and how he spent his war years. I knew that he was a decorated soldier, but was totally ignorant concerning for what it was that he had been decorated. During the trial, the newspapers maintained a running account of his life story. You cannot imagine the shock, hurt and shame that enveloped me when I read what kind of fiend my father was. When the family visited him in prison, he refused to see me. He was ashamed, and he did not want his precious son to see him in a prison uniform. The one good thing that resulted from the ordeal was that - after much study - I realized how cruel the Nazis had been.

"I was now very troubled. If my father had risen to such a lofty position in the hierarchy of the S.S., perhaps I, too, carry that murderous gene within me. Would I, too, become a murderer? Would I view anyone who was not Aryan as a parasite worthy of being stomped to death? I felt the need to study the Nazi mindset, the psyche of a cultured nation that overnight threw away their morals and future to become murderous beasts of the lowest order. I decided to go to Israel to study the people, to get to know them, to discover what it was about this peace-loving nation that invoked so much gentile hatred.

"I began to study Judaism, its laws, philosophy and culture. I was so impressed that I fell in love with the religion, and I decided to remain in Eretz Yisrael. I applied for citizenship. After two years of intense study of Judaism, I was determined to become a ger, to convert to the religion which I had come to love so much. A number of years after I converted, I received my doctorate in microbiology. The next step was to find an appropriate wife whose ideals coincided with mine. I was blessed to meet a wonderful woman who also hailed from Germany, closer to Alsace Lorraine. Like me, she is a giyores, convert, whose love of Judaism parallels mine.

"I am certain that a psychologist would posit that my entire transformation from a German youth, son of a Gestapo officer, was a response to my overwhelming guilt. It is not true. I view my conversion as part of my destiny, as a milestone along my journey to become a devout member of Klal Yisrael. We neither speak - nor think - of our roots. As far as we are concerned, we are a devout, committed Jewish family.

"One year ago, I received a message from Germany that my father, who was already ninety years old, was ailing. The end appeared to be near. My wife felt that this would be an appropriate time to return to Germany and make amends. At first, my response was negative. I feared returning to the country that I had begun to revile so vehemently. Why would I want to return to the country that was responsible for the wholesale murder of six million of my co-religionists? After a while, I realized that I had nothing to fear. I was no longer a part of that world. I was now a member of Klal Yisrael.

"I took a one-year sabbatical from the university, and, together with my family, flew to Germany. We traveled to Darmstadt, my hometown, to the nursing home where my father was now a patient. It was an image to remember: a Jewish father and mother together with their three sons, the boys bedecked in conservative clothes, long payos and large velvet yarmulkes. Obviously, the blond hair and blue eyes were dead giveaways. Indeed, as we walked through the nursing home, through this bastion of German culture, we stood out - with pride and dignity.

"When my father first saw us, he looked away. He could not bring himself to embrace or kiss any of his grandsons - or his son, for that matter. Something was bothering me. My father lived a very evil life; yet, he lived to be over ninety years old, a very ripe old age, even by contemporary standards. He merited to see three grandsons who became bnei Torah, fully committed Jews, a nachas to their parents and community. How did he merit such good fortune?

"I explained to my father that, as Jews, we believe that nothing just happens without rhyme or reason. Everything comes from the Almighty for a specific reason. Therefore, if you merited long life and such grandchildren, you must have done something special during your life to have warranted such reward.

"My father slowly replied, 'I cannot think of anything that I did in my life that might be considered of a positive nature. I was no different than most of my compatriots. We thought we were the best, the Aryan race, and everyone else was a parasite not worthy of living. Perhaps, however, there was one thing that I did which might be worthy of consideration. We were in Frankfurt rounding up Jews, when I had the singular opportunity to spare three little Jewish children who were hiding in a Catholic orphanage. For some reason which, until today, I did not understand, I allowed them to escape. I have no idea whatever happened to them, whether they survived the war or not. I just know that I let them live'.

"I thought a moment about my father's 'good deed' and I said, 'You know, had you saved four children, quite possibly you would have had four grandchildren sitting here today.'"

The story is intriguing. Imagine the seed of an accursed Nazi converting to Yiddishkeit, who today is a devout contributing member of his community. His children - like the man and his wife- are deeply committed Jews, whose life revolves around Torah, avodah, mitzvos and good deeds. Why? Because the grandfather, a man who was a member of the most cruel, despotic collection of human refuse - a Nazi who murdered Jews - saved three children. He merited to have three vibrant, staunchly observant, Jewish grandchildren.

One never knows how much he achieves with every single positive endeavor: a visit to the hospital to encourage someone; giving assistance to the elderly - not only by helping them up the stairs, but by asking them about their lives, learning with them, making them feel relevant. We conjure up every excuse known to mankind just to get out of doing the little things that are not always so geshmak, pleasant, and do not garner much attention for us. Hashem does not view them as little, because those who are affected by them do not consider them to be little. Indeed, those "little things" can be life-altering.

Va'ani Tefillah

V'yashar vneeman. And right and trustworthy.

The next two appellations which describe the depth of truth with which we accept the Kingdom of Heaven are: yashar, right; and neeman, trustworthy. Horav Avigdor Miller, zl, explains the difference between these two terms. A man who is a yashar is one who follows the straight line of truth and does not deviate from this path by following the enticements of his desires. Likewise, he triumphs over the provocations of revenge, envy, greed, and similar emotions that motivate the individual to veer from the path of truth. Thus, we declare "this matter" to be yashar, right/straight - for it is all true and righteous without any selfish motivation.

We believe that all that Moshe Rabbeinu told us in the Name of Hashem was solely for the sake of truthfulness and righteousness, without any vestige of distortion as a result of personal desire. This is a verity which cannot be said concerning the words of any other nations/cultures/religions, since it is quite evident that their sole purpose is to enhance their glory and prestige. Nothing concerning them is yashar. Everything has been tainted in some way by their burning desire for power and vindictiveness. They present themselves as a religion of love and righteousness - until someone disagrees with their self-generated dogma.

V'neeman, trustworthy, is the result of yashrus, straight- forwardness, without distortion by negative character traits. While it is true that every yashar is a neeman, in this sense we are describing "this matter" itself. Since "trustworthy" is the result of yashar, we are thus proclaiming that since all of the Torah's teachings are right, and free of human distortion and subjectivity, their results are trustworthy and bestow upon us the greatest happiness.

l'ilui nishmas
Aidel bas R' Yaakov Shimon a"h
niftar 13 Shevat
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