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Peninim on the Torah

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Rabbi A. Leib Scheinbaum
Hebrew Academy of Cleveland


Hashem said to Moshe, "Come to Pharaoh, for I have made his heart… stubborn… and so that you may relate in the ears of your son and your son's son that I made a mockery of Egypt. (9:1,2)

Hashem informs Moshe Rabbeinu that He is keeping up the pressure on Pharaoh by threatening and exacting greater punishments. All this is for the purpose of teaching the Jewish People how He toyed with the Egyptians. The idea that Hashem manipulated the Egyptians is novel and begs elucidation. Why play with people who warrant powerful rebuke and punishment? Hashem punishes the wicked with serious punishments - not by toying with them. Imagine a child acting inappropriately at home. His father's response is, "I am going to show you what I can do to you." Obviously, the father is going to support his threat with some form of corporeal punishment. He will certainly not make a joke out of it. Indeed, if the purpose of the makos, plagues, was that Egypt would acknowledge Hashem's Presence, how would this occur if their punishment was a form of ridicule? Making a fool out of someone is hardly a punishment.

Horav Aryeh Leib Bakst, zl, explains that, indeed, derision, mockery, needling and ridicule are methods which may be used to deliver a message of rebuke effectively. This is especially necessary when the sinner has descended to such a nadir that he actually believes what he is doing is appropriate, and even laudatory. Talking to such an individual is a waste of time. He is secure in his belief. On the contrary, it is the individual who tenders the rebuke that needs to be enlightened. He is blind to the "beauty" of the ways of the sinner. He is living in the Dark Ages. If he would get out and have a "life," so to speak, he would understand that the ways of the sinner are consistent with his thought process. One who has sunk to such a level is beyond reason. He will not be moved with words of reproof; chastisement means nothing to him. If anything, it emboldens him to do greater evil.

Such a person might respond to ridicule. When the sinner sees how he is being perceived, when he realizes that people do not take him seriously, that they see him as some kind of mindless fool, his heart, the seat of his emotions, might begin to respond. No one wants to be put down. Everyone wants respect. To be ignored, toyed with, ridiculed, sends home a message: What you are doing is senseless, irresponsible, laughable, and moronic. A person would rather be viewed as evil than as an idiot.

This is the idea behind, "So that you will relate in the ears of your son and son's son…" teach your son that it is possible to descend to such a low level that tochachah, reproach, no longer is an option. The only way to reach such a person is through the hisalalti method, whereby one is made to feel like a joke; his actions are ridiculed, and his beliefs are ignored.

Pharaoh believed in himself to the point that he ascribed divinity to himself. He was a god. He would go to the river at dawn to relieve himself, so that no one would know the truth. It was specifically at this time that Hashem instructed Moshe to meet with Pharaoh. Imagine his shame and embarrassment at being confronted by Moshe. Yet, Hashem sent Moshe at this time specifically for that reason: to show Pharaoh that he was a nothing, a chameleon attempting to cover up his true stripes. This was the only form of tochachah to which he would respond.

And so that you may relate in the ears of your son and your son's son that I made a mockery of Egypt… that you may know that I am Hashem. (9:2)

Every generation has its despots, evil-doers who prey on the weak, the insecure and the unprotected. The Jewish People have had to contend with villains of all stripes: religious demagogues; sociopaths; psychopaths; and felons of all persuasions. Ultimately, they all have gone down in infamy, receiving their due punishment, which Hashem ultimately metes out at his discretion. The question, however, still gnaws at us: Why are so many evildoers permitted to continue their corruption unabated? While this question can only be answered from a spiritual perspective, the following vignette does shed some light on the matter.

Horav Yisrael Salanter, zl, once had occasion to spend the night at an inn that belonged to an observant Jew. While he was there, Rav Yisrael noticed that the innkeeper was actually quite lax in his mitzvah observance. When the innkeeper took note of Rav Yisrael's displeasure, he felt the need to vindicate his slipshod observance: "Rebbe, there is an individual in our community who openly flaunts his disregard for Torah and mitzvos. Yet, nothing happens to him: no punishment; no hint of Divine retribution. Why? It is because he lives with impunity that I have decided, "Why bother?" Rav Yisrael did not respond.

Shortly thereafter, the innkeeper's young daughter returned from a music lesson, proudly displaying the award she had received for playing the violin. Rav Yisrael asked her to play something for him. The girl demurred, instead showing him her award. Her behavior seemed a bit standoffish, so her father explained the reason for his daughter's reluctance to put on a private show of her expertise. She had worked hard and was given an award indicating her proficiency in playing the violin. This should be considered proof of her talent. She would not be expected to play the violin for every guest that visits her father's inn.

Rav Yisrael looked hard and long at the innkeeper: "Do you hear what you just said? Are you paying attention to your own words? Once the award has been granted, it is not necessary to prove one's self daily every time someone wants to hear her play. You wonder why Hashem does not punish that fellow? Do you think that Hashem is obligated to provide miracles for the benefit of every sinner? Hashem proved Himself in Egypt. Every Jew since the Egyptian exodus is acutely aware of the Almighty's powers. He received His "award" in Egypt when He clearly defined who was evil and meted out their punishment.

But against Bnei Yisrael, no dog shall wet its tongue. (11:7)

Simply, this means that Egypt will be engulfed with death and grief. The Jews, however, will enjoy complete respite and tranquility; not even a dog will bark or howl against them. What is the significance of the dogs barking - or not barking? Does it really make a difference? Everything that is recorded in the Torah has a message. What is the message of the dog's restraint from barking? The Bais HaLevi, zl, explains with the following anecdote. A terrible dispute erupted in the city of Brisk. Two groups took sides against one another, with the fires of controversy being fanned throughout the community. As Rav of the city, the Bais HaLevi sought a way to extinguish the flames of hatred and put an end to the machlokes, dispute.

The Rav called in the most influential lay leaders of the community and enjoined them to speak with both sides to put an end to the strife that was rapidly splintering the community. The response was, regrettably, what has become quite common: the leaders refused to get involved, lest it be inferred that they were taking sides. They felt that, by remaining neutral and above board with everyone, they would maintain their standing in the community. By getting involved, they would be portrayed as essentially taking sides - something they could not do.

Rav Yoshe Ber viewed their response as obsequious and servile, literally a "cop-out" from assuming responsibility as communal leaders. He told them, "Your neutral attitude has precedent among the dogs who lived in Egypt during the Exodus. In the Talmud Bava Kamma 60b, Chazal teach that when the Malach HaMaves, Angel of Death, comes to a city, the dogs begin to weep, they whine mournfully in response to the impending death that visits the city. In contrast, when the dogs sense the presence of Eliyahu HaNavi they laugh, their barking emitting a playful sound. Now, in Egypt, on the night of the Redemption, both Eliyahu HaNavi, who heralded the Exodus, and the Angel of Death, who had a function to perform of slaying the Egyptian firstborn, came to town. What is a dog to do? Should he recognize Eliyahu and bark playfully, or give precedence to the Angel of Death and bark mournfully? The dogs decided to keep their collective mouths shut. They remained neutral - not wishing to take a stand by getting involved.

The lay leadership took the hint and immediately addressed the issues, which were soon resolved.

And you shall observe the matzos, for on this very day I brought out your hosts from the land of Egypt. (12:17)

Rashi cites the well-known Midrash which tells us not to read the word as matzos, but as mitzvos (which has a similar spelling). We derive from here that "just as one is not to allow matzoh to become leavened, so, too, may one not cause leavening with regard to any mitzvah; rather, if a mitzvah comes to your hand (it becomes available), perform it immediately." When the opportunity to perform a mitzvah presents itself, one should not push it off. Go for it immediately. Every mitzvah is precious, and every moment is valuable. They may not be squandered.

The need to incorporate zerizus, alacrity, joyful willpower, excitement, into our mitzvah performance is underscored by the fact that the Torah restricts chametz, leavening, from being brought on the Altar as part of various meal-offerings. No chametz was permitted on the Mizbayach. The Sefer HaChinuch explains that this prohibition helps imprint on our psyche the need to acquire the attribute of zerizus in our service of Hashem. Leavening is the natural result of delay in the dough-making process. The Altar is the sight chosen by Hashem as the symbolic place from which korbanos, sacrifices, which represent our personal attitude and willingness to offer ourselves up to Hashem, are burnt. This fire serves as our proxy, our medium of service, and, thus, demonstrates our joyful willingness to serve Him.

Zerizus is the middah, character trait, which helps us fulfill our dreams. It transitions us from wishful thinking to taking action. It is the middah that defines everything we do. If our attitude concerning mitzvah observance is slothful, it indicates that we are far from excited about serving Hashem. As zerizus becomes a part of our lives, we discover our practical accomplishments, which will ultimately lead us to happier, more meaningful lives. It is all about doing, achieving, while thinking about acting gets us nowhere.

Horav Chaim Friedlander, zl, explains that when the pasuk exhorts us to prevent Pesach matzos from becoming chametz, Chazal derive a lesson concerning the underlying essence of the mitzvah of Matzah. Our sages reveal to us that the secret of the mitzvah of Matzah is concealed within the lesson we must derive from the Jewish People's haste in leaving Egypt. In other words, we are being taught the overriding significance of the middah of zerizus. As Klal Yisrael were unable to achieve freedom without the medium of zerizus, so, too, is it impossible to fulfill the Torah and execute its mitzvos properly without the power of zerizus. The zerizus factor determines whether it is truly a mitzvah.

The mitzvah is meant to teach a lesson: one must be a zariz, enthusiastically diligent, and alacritous in his service of Hashem. Chametz occurs when one does nothing, when nature takes its course. As human beings, we are naturally slothful. To be a zariz is to go against nature. Matzah, like zerizus, is the product of working against the forces of nature. At the end of his treatise on zerizus, the Mesillas Yesharim, writes: "The Scriptures describe the Heavenly angels as having zerizus to carry out the Divine bidding…" The pasuk in Yechezkel 1:14 describes them as acting swiftly as streaks of lightning. While a person is a human being not an angel… his aspiration should be to emulate their zerizus, as David Hamelech says in Sefer Tehillim 119:60, "I was quick, and I did not hesitate in observing Your mitzvos."

What is the Ramchal teaching us? After his thesis on zerizus, he notes that the angels have been lauded for their exemplary alacrity in serving Hashem. We should aspire to be like them. The question is simple: What relationship do we simple humans have with angels? How can we strive to be like them? How can this be expected of us? Zerizus is an attribute ascribed to angels. We are not angels.

Horav Shimshon Pincus, zl, explains that the Heavenly angels are to our example, our standard for defining avodas Hashem, service to the Almighty. Hashem wants us to be as "angel-like" as we can be, to emulate the Angels - not humans - but Heavenly angels! This is a powerful statement and an awesome mission. No one has ever said that to be an observant Jew is a walk in the park. It is an awesome responsibility, which, after one has mastered it, becomes his greatest source of joy.

In "Lights Along the Way," Rabbi A. Twerski explains this concept form a practical perspective. The human being is a composite of a physical body, much like that of any brute beast, subject to physical strivings and desires. He also has a neshamah, a spiritual soul, a Divine spirit, much akin to that of an angel.

An animal cannot be condemned for acting out its cravings and physical temptations. After all, it is only an animal. An angel which is comprised of pure spirit really cannot be lauded for executing Hashem's Will, because he is not "something spiritual", he is pure spirit. The human being consists of both of these qualities: part animal, part angel. A man is considered spiritual when his spiritual magnitude overwhelms and transcends his physical dimension. When man allows the angelic quality of his being to control his physical component, thereby deterring his behavior, he has achieved a significant step towards spirituality.

There is no dearth of stories concerning the middah of zerizus. The following story, however, incorporates the lesson of zerizus into the mitzvah of Matzoh and, by Chazal's inference, to all mitzvos. In his Sefer Nitzotzos, Horav Yitzchak Hershkowitz, Shlita, relates the story of a pious Jew, whom we will call Shaul, growing up in Russia during the beginning of the Communist revolution. Life was difficult for the Jews under the Russian Czars. Indeed, there was hope that, with advent of the new wave, the movement called Communism, their lot would improve. How wrong they were.

At the onset, Communism was the movement that would help the workers. Capitalism was an anathema. All monies would be divided equally. Division of classes among the people would be eliminated. Everyone would prosper. The people soon realized that the movement would enslave them like none other. Everyone began to suffer, but none had it worse than the Jews. After all, Communism was an agnostic belief. There was no place for G-d in their society. While most religions deferred to the pressure, small pockets of Jews remained who stubbornly stood steadfast and resolute, refusing to renege on their beliefs Shaul was one of these pious individuals. A Stoliner chasid, he sought out the Rebbe, Horav Yisrael, zl, for guidance and inspiration. In 1922, when the Rebbe died, his son, Horav Yochanan, became Rebbe. At the time, Shaul lived in Kiev and not only personally observed mitzvos, he saw ways to organize campaigns for Tefillin, Shabbos and Bris Milah. Constantly risking his life, he felt it a privilege to serve the Almighty in this manner.

After a short while, Shaul was caught and sentenced to Siberia as a dissident. His sectarian actions in rallying other Jews were criminal, and he was fortunate not to be executed for his subversion against the ruling government. This punishment did not alter Shaul's avodas Hashem, service to the Almighty. He assembled as many Jews as were willing to concede their heritage, to make a makeshift clandestine shul. He smuggled in with him a few pairs of Tefillin, some Siddurim, and Chumashim. They had a bais ha'medrash. Shaul feared no one - other than Hashem. This is how he lived. Obviously, the Communist government discovered his insurrection and quickly put an end to his religious services.

Shaul was a problem that would not go away. Wherever he went, he attracted other Jews who, albeit alienated, seemed to follow him. The judges decided that the only way to put an end to Shaul's influence was to incarcerate him in a place that was desolate from society, especially Jews. It was decided that Shaul was to be sent up north, just about to Vladivostok, an area that had no Jews and practically no people. This was to them the end of the earth, the climate being far from hospitable. The few people were not much different.

Shaul found himself one Jew among one hundred base farmers, whose entire day revolved around the two meals they were served daily. Shaul's goal was to maintain his Jewishness, both in appearance and action, even in this miserable place. The Communists had taken his Tefillin and whatever few seforim he had. They could not, however, take Hashem away from him.

It was an unusually cold winter, even for Siberia, but Shaul was preoccupied with keeping track of the days, so that he could determine the Yomim Tovim, Festivals. His primary focus was on how to obtain six Matzos for the Pesach Sedarim. One would think that this should be furthest from his mind, but Shaul was an unusual person. Torah was his raison d'?tre. Mitzvos coursed through his veins.

According to his calculations, he had reached the fifteenth of Adar, and Pesach would occur in another month. How was he to fulfill his dream of eating Matzah on Pesach? The Russians had taken his body, enslaved and broken it, but they could not penetrate his noble neshamah, soul. His mind was free to soar in the heavens.

Among the hundred or so inmates incarcerated in this jail was a teenage boy whose name was Vladimir. He kept to himself and did not speak. Indeed, while the other inmates were regaling each other with stories of their previous life, Vladimir said nothing. He, thus, became an outcast - among outcasts. Since Shaul was the only one who never questioned the reason for Vladimir's incarceration, the boy warmed up to him. He related the story of his life to Shaul, and, after a while, he opened up completely to him. Shaul felt that this relationship was a G-d-send, since Vladimir was one of the few prisoners who worked from early morning until late at night in the wheat fields a few miles from their prison. Shaul presented Vladimir with a proposition: If he would daily bring him a few kernels of wheat, he would give him his breakfast. This was an incredible offer, since the little food that the inmates received was certainly insufficient in providing energy for an entire day's toil. An extra portion would certainly go a long way. On the other hand, Shaul was prepared to starve for weeks as long as he would obtain his precious Matzah.

Vladimir did not understand the purpose of the few kernels of wheat, but he definitely could use another breakfast. Slowly, every day, Shaul, weakened by his daily fast, gathered the kernels, ground them into flour and found a way to bake his Matzos. Pesach night, he sat back and made a Seder. It was not much. He had his Matzos; Marror, bitterness, was certainly not at a premium. Alas, he had no wine. He would subsist on his Matzos. With courage borne of faith and trust in the Almighty, Shaul remained strong until the summer, when the Russians finally allowed him to leave.

Shaul entered his hometown of Kiev on what was, according to his calculations, Erev Rosh Chodesh Elul. We can imagine his shock and disbelief when he was told that it was only Tammuz 29. He was off by a month. He practically fainted on the spot. It had just hit him - he had conducted the Pesach Seder when the rest of the Jewish world was celebrating Purim! Not only had he not celebrated Pesach properly, he had, in fact, eaten chametz on Pesach! Shaul was a broken person. Siberia did not break him, but the thought of eating chametz on Pesach was too much to for him to bear.

Shaul eventually emigrated to the United States. He heard that the Stoliner Rebbe had been spared from the Nazi terror. The Rebbe had been living in Eretz Yisrael, but was coming to America to give comfort and solace to his many chassidim who survived as embers from the flames of the European inferno. Shaul decided that he would join with the throngs of people waiting to greet the Rebbe.

He waited hours until, finally, it came his turn to meet the Rebbe. Shaul entered the room, shook the Rebbe's hand and broke into uncontrollable weeping. After explaining the reason for his excessive emotion, the Rebbe sat back and also wept. Mi k'Amcha Yisrael! "Who is like Your nation, Yisrael!" A man goes through years of suffering at the hands of ruthless creatures; yet, his only complaint was that he had erred and eaten chametz on Pesach!

The Rebbe looked at Shaul and said, "True, you did not fulfill the part of the pasuk that exhorts us to guard the Matzos from becoming chametz, but, you certainly fulfilled the interpretation of U'shemartem es ha'mitzvos!" Hashem does not look at the conclusion. He cares about one's attitude, his fervor and toil, his sacrifice and devotion. Hashem looks at the heart one puts into mitzvah performance. You gave up your daily bread, so that you could partake of Matzah on Pesach. Do you think for one moment that this is not precious in Heaven? You have provided Hashem with a treasure. Do not fret, Shaul. Hashem accepted your Matzah as the most worthy korban, offering!"

Shaul was obviously shaken by these words. He gathered his courage and asked the Rebbe, "Would the Rebbe please write this, so that I can keep it with me?" Paper was brought, and the Rebbe wrote and affixed his signature to the "note." Shaul left a new person.

A number of years passed, and Shaul lay on his deathbed, surrounded by his family. He had lived a difficult life, but Hashem had blessed him with a beautiful family from whom he had derived much satisfaction. Now, it was time to say "good-bye". Shaul turned to his oldest son and asked him to bring him a sealed envelope that lay in his desk drawer. After his son had brought it, and Shaul removed the note that was inside, he said to his son, "Please be sure that this note is placed beneath my head in the grave. It is my passport to Gan Eden."

Va'ani Tefillah

V'kulam mekablim aleihem ol Malchus Shomayim zeh mi'zeh. And all of them accept upon themselves the yoke of the Kingdom of Heaven from each other.

Interestingly, despite their overwhelming desire to praise Hashem, the Malachim do not press forward to hasten their individual praise of Hashem. Horav Avigdor Miller, zl, explains that this "relaxed" attitude is the result of their understanding the significance of their song of praise, which is the study and contemplation of their profound knowledge of Hashem. Thus, they "wait" to receive admonition and exhortation from each other. This is the instruction of caution and inspiration to assume the yoke of responsibility and effort, to search deeply into the profundities of their knowledge of Hashem, so that their perceptions of His Greatness will be more accurate. The fundamental service of Hashem is the yoke of recognizing the Kingdom of Heaven in all phenomena. This is the meaning of kabolas ol Malchus Shomayim. The Angels clearly have a deeper perception than mere mortals do. Nonetheless, we must strive to imbue ourselves with this sense of seeking, to discover the "Hashem factor" in all that exists.

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niftar 18 Shevat 5769
By her children
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Peninim on the Torah is in its 20th year of publication. The first fifteen years have been published in book form.

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