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Peninim on the Torah

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Rabbi A. Leib Scheinbaum
Hebrew Academy of Cleveland


Stretch forth your hand towards the Heavens, and there shall be darkness upon the land of Egypt, and the darkness will be tangible. (10:21)

The ninth plague, darkness, was much more than simply an absence of light: it was thick and palpable; it was tangible. During the first three days of this plague, the Egyptians were still able to move around, but they could not see one another. The impenetrable darkness served as a thick barrier between Egyptian brothers. During the next three days, matters became increasingly worse. Now, they could not move from their places. Whoever was standing could not sit, and whoever was sitting could not stand up. They were frozen in position at the onset of this plague. This was truly a severe punishment, but can we say that it was worse than anything that had preceded it? How are we to understand the severity of this plague?

Horav Shabsi Yudelevitz, zl, tells the story of a maggid, preacher, who traveled from town to town lecturing on ethical behavior and mitzvah observance. He once came to a small community, far-off the beaten path, and began to exhort the members of the community with a passionate, fiery speech. His words, which emanated from his heart, entered into the hearts of his listeners, especially when he described the punishment associated with Gehinnom, Purgatory, and the reward of Gan Eden, Paradise. Within a few days, a change was noticed in the community, as mitzvah observance increased and ethical behavior came into vogue. Certainly, everyone wanted to obtain his portion in the World to Come. Well, almost everybody. There was one man who approached the maggid and publicly declared, "Rebbe, I want to go to Gehinnom!" "Gehinnom?" asked the maggid. "Are you sane? Why would you want to go to Gehinnom?"

"Rebbe, listen to me. Let me explain the rationale for my statement," the villager replied. "Let us imagine that after I have lived my 'one hundred and twenty' years, I arrive at my rightful place in Gan Eden. What will I do there in the company of all the righteous, the rabbanim and the tzaddikim? My entire life I have lived among the common folk, the simple Jew. I am comfortable with them, because I can converse with them. What am I going to do in the company of the righteous? With whom will I speak? In Gehinnom, I will feel at home!"

The maggid looked at this simple Jew and said, "My friend, you are greatly mistaken. You think that in the World of Truth you will meet up with your friends? No. When the time comes for your soul to return to its source, you will discover that it is not the way you think. Gan Eden is filled with incredible light. Joy abounds everywhere. Tzaddikim are seated together, all basking in the shine of the Shechinah. They have the opportunity to meet those who have lived a life of righteousness, piety and ethics.

"Conversely, in Gehinnom, darkness prevails. One person neither sees another nor even lifts a hand to him. In Gehinnom, a person is all alone in the darkness. It is solitary confinement at its nadir."

We now return to our original question: What was so severe about the plague of darkness? Unquestionably, the fact that all of Egypt was suffering together made a difference and helped to ease the pain and misery that resulted from each plague. True, it was debilitating, but the individual was not suffering alone. There were others. We are all in this together. This continued for the first eight plagues. Each Egyptian suffered, but he suffered less because he knew that his fellow Egyptian was also suffering. When makas choshech appeared, however, things were no longer the same. Now, each individual was alone. No Egyptian could see, or speak to, or touch his friend. He could not move. He was alone. There was nowhere to go - and no one from whom - to seek comfort. When a person cannot share his plight with a friend, his misery becomes that much more severe. Makas choshech was the Egyptian's preview of Gehinnom.

There are different forms of loneliness. The cure for this unfortunate state of being is to belong. We are made to belong. We belong to Hashem; we belong to each other; we belong to the past, a heritage; and we belong to a future, to a legacy. When we destroy these bonds of "belonging," we impoverish our lives, exposing ourselves to the frustration and abuse that accompanies being alone.

The greatest tragedy of the modern-day assimilated Jew is probably that he has severed his relationship with his tradition, causing himself to hang in the air, like a lost kite, knocked around by the changing winds of doctrine. While loneliness is a terrible state of being and one that we should attempt to ameliorate, it is also, for some, a serious affliction. There are individuals who, although surrounded by people, feel terribly alone. How is this possible? When one is so wrapped up in himself that he perceives himself as "all alone," even though he is in the presence of people, he is truly disturbed. Such people will often think that they are better than anyone else, truly a breed unto themselves. This form of loneliness is, in a sense, self-imposed, the by-product of arrogance. This person is alone because he has written off people. Others can no longer help him until he is ready to help himself.

And touch the lintel and the two doorposts with some blood that is in the basinů and He will not permit the destroyer to enter your homes to smiteů you shall observe this matter as a decree for yourself and for your children forever. (12:22,23,24)

What is the meaning of the Torah's enjoinment to "observe this matter as a decree for yourself and for your children forever"? The commandment to smear the blood on the doorposts was in effect only for Pesach Mitzrayim, the first Pesach, which Klal Yisrael observed in Egypt on the night of their liberation. Yechi Yehudah explains this from a mussar, ethical, approach. The battle that we constantly wage with the yetzer hora, evil-inclination, is a difficult one. As in all battles, one can only be successful if he has studied the tactics of his opponents and has found a way to triumph over them. The evil-inclination has a powerful tactic: subtlety. It does not approach a person and say, "Sin." No, the yetzer hora is very crafty. It first convinces the individual to deviate ever so slightly and then adds to that deviation until the person is so distant from his original way of life that idol-worship is no longer remote and inconceivable. Clearly, the more one becomes subjugated to the yetzer hora, the greater and more difficult it is to extricate himself from its hold.

Thus, the most important step one must take in warding off the yetzer hora is to not grant him access into his life. In other words, he should not allow him through the front door. Once the evil-inclination has gotten beyond the "threshold," he has entered, and it is that much more difficult to succeed in battling him. This is what the pasuk is teaching us. How do we win the war against the yetzer hora? How do we succeed over the mashchis, destroyer? We must not allow him past the mezuzah, blocking his entrance through the doorway of our lives. This is an exhortation forever, for every generation: Do not allow the yetzer hora to enter, for it will be that much harder to push him out.

Bnei Yisrael journeyed from Raamses to Succos, about six hundred thousand men on foot, aside from children. (12:37)

The Zohar HaKadosh interprets the kof of k'sheish, about six (hundred thousand), as being a kof ha'dimyon, kof that compares. The dimyon, parallel, in this case is the Heavenly Hosts. In other words, at that point, Klal Yisrael was so spiritually elevated that they were compared to the Angels on High. The Sefas Emes derives a powerful lesson from this pasuk. One day earlier, the Jews had been steeped in the tumah, spiritual contamination, of Egypt. They had sunken down to the forty-ninth level of spiritual impurity and were standing at the edge of the fiftieth level. With one more step, they would be lost to eternity. This situation compelled Hashem to liberate them before it would become too late. Yet, one day later, as soon as they were out of the filth of Egypt and its tentacles, they ascended to the level of the Heavenly Angels! This teaches us the greatness of the Jew. One day, he is under the hold of Egypt and sinking to the depths of depravity. The next moment, after he had divested himself of the defilement of the physical environment in which he had been living, he is able to elevate himself to a previously unrealistic and unattainable spiritual plateau. This is because the Jew is inherently holy and pure. When he falls under the influence of spiritual contamination, it is only an external lining which prevents him from reaching out and returning to his source. When he is removed from this challenging environment, however, he is able to return to his intrinsic spiritual self.

The Sefas Emes writes, "Veritably, just as it is necessary to believe in the Almighty, despite our inability to understand His hidden ways, so, too, must we believe in the Jewish People, even when they appear to be soiled and ugly." This is the underlying meaning of Shlomo Ha'Melech's statement in Shir HaShirim 1:5, "Though I am black (with sin); yet comely (with virtue)." Every Jew has an inner beauty, a concealed holiness that penetrates his essence. We must believe that this inner holiness can spark and flare up, instantly transforming the individual into a different person. At the end of the Kovetz Ha'aros the following question is presented. In Shemos 4:27, Hashem refers to Klal Yisrael as B'ni b'chori Yisrael, "My firstborn son is Yisrael." Yet, in Devarim 14:1, the Torah says, " You are children to Hashem." This implies that we are the only ones to be called children of Hashem. How then can we be referred to as His firstborn? The term firstborn indicates that there are other children, while the pasuk in Devarim clearly states that we are the only ones. How can we be the firstborn, if we are the only ones? Horav Elchanan Wasserman, zl, distinguishes between the period preceding Matan Torah, the Giving of the Torah, and the period afterwards, when accepting Hashem's Torah rendering Klal Yisrael His only children.

Horav Avraham Schorr, Shlita, cites the Pri Tzaddik, who explains that the ministering angels are also called Bnei Elokim, sons of G-d. Thus, Klal Yisrael is referred to as the b'chor, firstborn, in comparison to the angels. This reflects our inherent kedushah, which can supersede even that of the Heavenly angels.

The Sefas Emes addresses the multitude of Jews who live in galus, exile, subject to the constant harassment of the gentile host country, with its ensuing persecutions and daily challenges to their spiritual belief. The yetzer hora has a running tirade in his effort to discourage the Jewish heart and mind from maintaining its belief in˙ and commitment to˙ the Almighty. Yes, it is true, that previous generations functioned on a more elevated spiritual plane, and they were still not redeemed from exile. So, to what do we (this was in the 19th century) have to look forward? What are our chances? Every Jew has in himself a powerful source of inner kedushah that can spring forth, radiate and illuminate his life. He should never despair, because as along as that kedushah exists within the Jew, there is always hope. It is the will of Hashem that we continue to remain in exile. The time will come, however, when it will be over. It is our obligation to guard and sustain that latent kedushah from within, so that we will be prepared to respond appropriately when the moment of redemption arrives.

We see the "before" and "after" pictures of many young men and women who have become baalei Teshuvah, returned to an observant lifestyle. One would think that they have been transformed. The Sefas Emes implies that there was nothing more than a superficial transformation, an unveiling of the individual's true essence. The kedushah had been concealed within, hidden beneath an exterior fa?ade of materialism and the effects of contemporary culture and society, masquerading the real ben Torah or bas Yisrael. When the veil was lifted, the real person began to radiate forth.

And it happened when Pharaoh stubbornly refused to send us out, that Hashem killed all the firstborn in the land of Egyptů Therefore, I offer to Hashem all male first issue of the womb, and I shall redeem all the firstborn of my sons. (13:15)

We are taught that Hashem distinguished between the bechorei Yisrael, Jewish firstborn, and the bechorei Mitzrayim, Egyptian firstborn. Since the Jewish firstborn were spared from death while the Egyptian firstborn were killed, the level of kedushah, holiness, of the Jewish firstborn was elevated. They became holier because they were saved. This is enigmatic. While it is understandable that we owe an enormous debt of gratitude to Hashem for sparing the Jewish firstborn, what is the connection between being spared from death and an increase in personal holiness?

Horav Chaim Goldvicht, zl, notes that we find throughout halachah that an act of kinyan, acquisition, imposes kedushah on the object which was acquired. For example, the wife of a Kohen - and even his gentile slave - is permitted to partake of Terumah, which is normally designated only for a Kohen. Yet, since they have a relationship with the Kohen by virtue of a kinyan, either of matrimony or of ownership, they have become elevated in holiness and can now share in his Terumah. Since "belonging" to him creates a shibud, reciprocal obligation, on their part to him, thus their spiritual status is elevated.

When we think about it, we may suggest that herein lies the secret of kedushas Yisrael, the holiness of a Jew. We are kanui, acquired by - and, thus, belong to - Hashem. This reality imbues us with kedushah. We belong to the Almighty!

This kinyan took place as we left Egypt. Avadai heim, "They are My servants - (because) I have taken them out of Egypt" (Vayikra 25:42). This act of liberation was Hashem's kinyan. He redeemed us and, therefore, we are now His. This is why the idea of the Exodus plays such a seminal role in the life of a Jew. We constantly reiterate it in our daily readings and traditions. We understand now that not only do we owe Hashem a debt of gratitude, but we also belong to Him. Our very existence as a free nation is due to Him.

Understandably, the level of kedushah directly correlates with the nature and force of the kinyan. Every added endeavor, every emphasis that is involved in making this act of acquisition more concrete, stronger and more impressive, adds to the level of kedushah created by this relationship. Thus, smiting the Egyptian firstborn, while simultaneously sparing the Jewish firstborn, was clearly a powerful and definitive act of acquisition, which catalyzed a greater level of kedushah. Hence, the Jewish firstborns became holy to Hashem. They received a stronger kinyan and, therefore, a greater level of kedushah than the average Jew. Sparing the Jewish firstborns from death increased their relationship with Hashem, thereby granting them greater kedushah.

Rav Goldvicht underscores this idea with regard to our daily lives. A person who has merited a special salvation from Hashem, who has been privileged to enjoy an unwarranted and unprecedented favor, not only has a profound debt of gratitude to pay, but he also has an enormous obligation. He becomes meshubad, obliged, to Hashem. This idea may be derived from the words of Avraham Avinu, "I am but dust and ashes" (Bereishis 18:27). Chazal explain: Avraham intimated, "Had I been killed by Amrafel, would I not have been dust? And if Nimrod would have succeeded in burning me alive, would I not have been ashes?" In other words, our Patriarch was acutely aware that these two instances of mesiras nefesh, self-sacrifice, and Heavenly salvation established him as a new entity before the Creator. He was not afar v'eifar, dust and ashes. He became sanctified and consecrated to Hashem as a result of his salvation.

Every Jew that is alive today is a descendant of someone who had achieved this zenith. Those who have survived the persecutors that have tormented us throughout history have earned the title of afar v'eifar. We must uphold their legacy in our commitment to Hashem.

Va'ani Tefillah

Dirshu Hashem v'uzo, Bakshu Panav tamid. Seek Hashem and His strength, seek His Presence always.

Horav Zaidel Epstein, Shlita, understands this prayer as a request to merit a specific and critical perspective on life. Indeed such an outlook is the product of work - working on oneself. In order to develop a profound insight into the workings of Hashgachah Pratis, Divine Providence, the individual must understand that each and every aspect of this hashgachah is for his ultimate good fortune. The Name Hashem implies Middas HaRachamim, the Attribute of Mercy, while the word oz (uzo) (His) strength, by its very nature signifies Middas HaDin, the Attribute of Strict Justice. Hashem's benevolence fills the world in general and our lives in particular. This is a reality. Regrettably, we do not always have the ability to penetrate the veil of ambiguity which clouds and often conceals the truth. Even though it may be hidden from us, it is nonetheless a reality in the universe. It is a metzius, an entity, that is real, a bona-fide reality that is an intrinsic component of our faith. David Hamelech entreats Hashem (Tehillim 55:8), "Show us Your kindness, Hashem." We know it is there. We know it exists, but please show it to us, grant us the privilege of perceiving it in a tangible manner. We are, thus, told to seek Hashem/His mercy, even under circumstances that appear as uzo, His strength/Divine Justice. This seeking should continue tamid, always.

l'zchus ul'refuah sheleima
Baruch ben Sara Chasia
b'soch she'or cholei yisroel

Peninim on the Torah is in its 14th year of publication. The first nine years have been published in book form.

The Ninth volume is available at your local book seller or directly from Rabbi Scheinbaum.

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