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Peninim on the Torah

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Rabbi A. Leib Scheinbaum
Hebrew Academy of Cleveland


Let each man request of his fellow and each woman from her fellow silver vessels and gold vessels. (11:2)

Klal Yisrael left Egypt with enormous material wealth. Hashem promised Avraham Avinu that his descendants would be subjugated to difficult toil and slavery. When they would be finally liberated, however, they would leave as kings, triumphant in their victory over tyranny and laden with material bounty. On Pesach night, we celebrate the Egyptian exodus by remembering that night of triumph. During the Seder, we recall the slavery, celebrate the liberation and praise the Almighty, Who orchestrated the entire experience. The Korban Pesach, Pascal-offering, was offered together with the Korban Chagigah, Festival-offering. We no longer have the Bais Hamikdash as a place for offering Korbanos. We, therefore, have a zeichar, remembrance, for the korbanos - placed on the Seder plate. A piece of roasted meat and a roasted egg are parts of the ritual of remembrance. Was leaving Egypt with a surfeit of material wealth any less of a celebration? If so, why is there no ritual of recollection, no reminiscence dedicated to this seemingly mundane, but no less significant, realization of Hashem's promise?

In his Ben Ish Chayil, Horav Yosef Chaim, zl, m'Bagdad, explains this by relating an incident that took place in his community. The episode occurred one Erev Pesach, featuring a young married man - a Torah scholar who had earned an enviable reputation prior to his marriage - and his father-in-law. Apparently, prior to the wedding, the young man had been assured of a dowry to the tune of three hundred gold coins. The issue was not whether this was a considerable amount of money or not; the issue was the fulfillment of a promise.

The young man prepared for the festival, purchasing the goods and food necessary to celebrate the festival properly. Being a young couple, they needed dishes, utensils and much more to set up their Pesach kitchen. They purchased everything on credit. The young groom had a fine reputation, and credit was rendered by every merchant with the due date for payment Erev Pesach. After all, that was when his father-in-law had promised to pay him the remainder of his dowry.

The time had come, and the young man was waiting for the "package" from his father-in-law to arrive. Sure enough, by late morning, a messenger arrived from his father-in-law with an envelope - no bag of money, no check, no promissory note - just a note wishing him a Gut Yom Tov, all the best, with blessings for wealth, honor and satisfaction. It was a nice note, but one cannot pay bills with a note. We can imagine that the young man's incredulity soon became a slow burn which was becoming "warmer" with each passing moment. He had been royally exploited.

Not one to waste time, the young man proceeded to his father-in-law's home and presented himself with a strong complaint. "I was waiting for something more than your good wishes for wealth and welfare," he began. The father-in-law was no slouch, and he quickly replied, "I thought I was taking a Torah scholar for my daughter. Your complaining indicates that you have no clue as to the 'value' of my message." The son-in-law retorted, "Apparently, I am unable to perceive your intentions. Perhaps you might enlighten me." "I decided to follow the pattern evinced by our daily tefillah," the father-in-law began. "We say, 'Ribon HaOlamim, You have commanded us to offer the Korban Tamid daily in order that it atone for us. Now [that we are unable to do so since we no longer have the Bais Hamikdash] let the words that emanate from our lips be as significant and acceptable before You as if we [actually] offered the Korban Tamid.' I did the same. Since I do not have the necessary funds to pay you, I instead sent you my blessings and best wishes. May they take the place of the gold and silver I was to give you."

Clearly this father-in-law was not setting the tone for a great relationship. The son-in-law was not na´ve. He understood that his father-in-law was either himself very callow or quite disingenuous. In any event, it behooved him to respond and clear the air once and for all. "Tonight, we will celebrate the festival of Pesach," the son-in-law said. "On the Seder table, there will be remembrances of the Korban Pesach and Korban Chagigah. I wonder why there is no commemoration of the gold and silver which our ancestors removed from Egypt. The answer is simple. We only employ testimonials, and recite, 'Yehi ratzon (May it be the will of Hashem, as we do in the Ribon Ha'Olamim)', if it is with regard to those activities which concern our relationship with Hashem, since we can no longer offer the korbanos of Hashem, because the Bais HaMikdash no longer exists. Concerning those mitzvos that man must personally do, such as donning Tefillin, one may not replace the mitzvah by studying the parshah of Tefillin. If it is a mitzvah that is incumbent upon man, he has no excuse not to carry it out. We must pay our debts. We neither have a Korban Pesach, nor do we have a Korban Chagigah, but we do have material abundance. We may not recuse ourselves with a note expressing our good wishes for wealth. Nothing short of cold cash is accepted."

It is a Pesach feast-offering to Hashem. (12:27)

The above pasuk is used as the response to the wise son in the Haggadah. The highlight of the Seder for many people is the recitation of the section addressing the arba banim, four sons. It allows us to reflect upon the individual natures and proclivities of different people and to analyze "what went wrong." Why does one boy become a chacham, wise man, while another boy in the same class, from a similar family, becomes a rasha? It is in the genes, or is there more to it? I do not think that anyone has a definitive answer to this question. I did see an inspiring story in Rabbi Yechiel Spero's Haggadah, which I present to the reader, along with my personal take on it.

The author of the Haggadah states: K'neged arba banim dibrah Torah, "Concerning four sons does the Torah speak: echad chacham, "one is wise;" echad rasha, "one is wicked;" echad tam, "one is simple;" v'echad she'eino yodea lishol, "and one is unable to ask." The correct grammatical formula would be to say simply that the Torah speaks about four sons: a wise son, a wicked son, a simple son, and a son who is unable to speak. Why is the word echad, one, placed between each son?

The story is told that on Pesach night, Horav Tzvi Elimelech, zl, m'Dinov, commonly known by his brilliant sefer, the Bnei Yissachar, would take time out from conducting his own Seder in order to walk the village streets and observe how the pashute Yidden, simple Jews, were conducting their Sedarim. Going from house to house, he peered into the windows and was satisfied that the Jews of his community were doing it right. Their Sedarim were carried out in accordance with Jewish law and tradition. After his little excursion, he began to make his way home, to conduct his Seder with his family. It was at this point that he saw a strange "ritual" being enacted in the home of Moshe, the tailor.

Moshe was a good Jew, a trusting soul, who, albeit not intellectually inclined, was concerned about how he observed the mitzvos. Tradition was an important part of his life, and he made sure never to veer from the past. This is why the Rebbe was so surprised. Moshe recited the Arba Banim, but, instead of just reading it as is common with most people, he stopped at each echad, stretching out the word and concentrating on every letter, much like one would do concerning the echad of Shema Yisrael. In other words, to observe Moshe at that moment, he was changing Arba Banim into Shema Yisrael!

From a cursory glance by the average person, it seemed that Moshe, the tailor, was making a mistake, mixing up the echad of Hashem's unity - which must be emphasized and vocalized correctly to stress its proper meaning - and the echad, individuality, of each one of the sons. The Bnei Yissachar was thoroughly fascinated. Moshe concluded his "reverie," and the Bnei Yissachar went home to conduct his seder with a new perspective on the arba banim. What was it?

Horav Yehoshua, zl, m'Belz, explained what took place and suggested its practical meaning for us. Every child has his own individual issues and challenges in life. Growing up is not a simple feat. Raising one's children is far from simple, and the "one size fits all" approach does not work. Every child requires tipul meyuchad, his own individualized form of attention. One should expend the same sincerity and effort as he does being mekabail ol malchus Shomayim, accepting the yoke of Heaven upon himself, in raising his own children. Every child is an echad, individual, with specific talents, personality, tendencies and emotions. Each parent and teacher must take care to ensure he or she treats every child in such a manner.

Indeed, when a child realizes his special place in a parent's heart and mind, the reciprocity is incredible: the learning is different; the attitude is changed. In order for this transformation to occur, the parent or teacher must perceive that exclusive quality in the child. While any parent sees the uniqueness of his child - or, at least, should see it - it is quite different in the classroom. A secular writer once said, "Every person is gifted in some areas. We just have to find out what." While this, of course, is the ideal, it does not always happen, resulting in the lack of self-confidence and self-esteem evinced by some people. These people are the victims of adults who did not bother "looking" for that special quality, that unique gift, which each one possessed.

I recently read an anecdote which is quite appropriate for this message. While its ending is funny, it is what I would render a bittere gelechter, sad joke, since it is all-too common for many of us - both as parents and teachers - to ignore each child's distinct quality. A new teacher - young, idealistic, and quite inexperienced - was assigned a teaching position in an inner-city classroom in the middle of the year. Had she been given the job in September, she might have had a chance; January was an entirely different story. A job is a job, however, and she needed the experience and the money. Apparently, the "starting" teacher had left the position midyear because the discipline was an impossible task, as the principal had informed her that this was a class of "special students." Learning was not an essential requirement, as long as the students were kept off the streets and out of trouble.

The young teacher walked in on bedlam: feet were on desks, radios blaring, spitballs flying, the noise in the room deafening. She walked to the front of the room, opened up the attendance book and noted the number next to each name. The numbers ascended from 140 to 160 - quite an impressive lot. No wonder these students were impossible. Their IQ's all bordered on the genius level. As gifted students, they had reason to be high-spirited. They were probably bored by the level of education they were receiving. She called the room to order and began to teach.

At first, the students ignored her, failing to turn in work, with those assignments that were completed done hastily and thoughtlessly. She did not give up, talking to them about their innate gifted qualities, their abilities to succeed, to grow and become wonderful, contributing members of society. "As your teacher, I expect nothing short of excellence from each of you," she said. "You are all quite capable, and to expect less would be demeaning your inherent potential. Therefore, get with the program!" This went on regularly, as she reminded them of their G-d-given talents and added intelligence.

As she kept on encouraging them, they slowly began to respond. Their assignments were well-written; their test scores improved considerably; and their total demeanor was altered for the better. Their work was creative, precise, original - something which they had previously been deemed incapable of achieving. One day, the principal walked by the classroom and saw that the "new" teacher kept the students spellbound. He reveled in the rapt attention they gave her. He later read some of their essays and could not believe that these were the same students who had driven out the last teacher.

The principal called the teacher to his office and asked, "What have you done with your students? Their work has surpassed anything we have ever had from them. You are literally a miracle worker!" he declared.

She looked at him and said, "Well, what do you expect? They are gifted, aren't they?"

"Gifted? This class is comprised of special-needs students - both behaviorally disordered and emotionally challenged. How can you call them gifted?"

"If so," she asked, "why are their IQ's so high?"

"Where did you see their IQ's?" the principal asked.

She showed him the attendance list. The principal smiled and then began to laugh. "Those are not their IQ's! Those are their locker numbers!"

It sounds like a funny story, but, in reality, it is sad. People often view themselves through the mirror of public sentiment. If you call someone a derogatory name long enough, he will begin to believe it. On the other hand, when a parent/teacher expresses praise and positive feeling towards their child/student, it will encourage, empower and inspire his/her living up to our expectations of them. We must remember the significance of echad.

It was on this very day that all the legions of Hashem left the land of Egypt. (12:41)

Yetzias Mitzrayim, the exodus from Egypt, was the seminal event that commenced our journey toward nationhood, with its conclusion at Har Sinai, where we accepted the Torah and became Hashem's People. The Torah is the contract that binds us to the Almighty, but it all started with yetzias Mitzrayim. Had we not been liberated, then we could never have achieved nationhood. Indeed, zechiras Yetzias Mitzrayim, remembering the Exodus, is part and parcel of Jewish tradition. Our national motif is included within the heritage of every Jewish Festival, as a constant reminder that the event we are presently celebrating would not have been possible without the experience of yetzias Mitzrayim. How does one remember that which he did not personally experience? It was our ancestors who were there and who left Mitzrayim. While we believe in the transmission of our heritage throughout the generations, a certain emotion must accompany this belief which, regrettably, for the most part is not present today.

This question has always bothered me. I recently came across a story which I think can be extrapolated in some way to illuminate our dilemma. There are circumstances in which the only way to relate to the "big picture" is through a much smaller picture. If we take an isolated event out from the greater experience, we can somehow relate to the greater experience through it. For instance, many years ago there appeared an op-ed in the New York Times in which the writer wrote that he simply could not relate to the Holocaust. The sheer size of the number six million befuddled his mind. The number was just too great. It is an absolutely overwhelming number - six million Jews slaughtered in one of the most cataclysmic tragedies of all time. How does one even begin to fathom such a magnitude? The author did, however, come across a story which took place during the Holocaust. Through this story, he was able to relate to the much larger systematic murder of six million Jews. He told about a little boy, no more than two and a half years old, who could not climb up the steps to the gas chamber. The guard was "kind" enough to lift him up, so that the child could keep pace with the doomed adults who were walking to their deaths. It was this repulsive act of "kindness" on the part of the Nazi that he was able to apply as a cognate for relating to the mass murder which occurred during the Holocaust. When he thought of this incident, he was able to grasp to some extent the tragedies of the millions more.

I would like to attempt to apply a similar approach towards remembering yetzias Mitzrayim. It is not an "Egypt" story, but it is a remarkable lesson concerning hakoras hatov, gratitude, which I found in Rabbi Yechiel Spero's, Touched by a Seder. A middle-aged fellow, whom we will call Reuven, entered one of the sefarim, book, stores in Meah Shearim. One can easily get lost in the vast array of books, relating to every area of Jewish erudition, to be found in these stores. It is not an experience that one wants to rush through. Reuven selected a volume and began to peruse its contents, to determine whether it was a sefer he wanted to add to his collection at home. Out of the corner of his eye, he noticed a man, whom we will call Shimon, standing at the rear of the store staring at him. Now Shimon was not just staring, his eyes were boring through him. Reuven began to feel uncomfortable. Shimon appeared to be a normal Jew, dressed in average clothes. There seemed to be nothing unusual about him - outside of the fact that he just kept on staring at him.

Reuven continued looking at the sefer until, a few moments later, he felt a sharp tug at his sleeve and a hand firmly planted on his shoulder. Shimon had left his perch at the rear of the store, and he was now standing before him. This time, Shimon appeared to be looking straight at him, as he tapped his shoulder and asked, "Sir, are you planning on purchasing this sefer?"

Reuven was taken slightly aback and retorted, "Yes. Do you have a problem with it?"

"Please forgive me," Shimon replied. "I do not mean to be nosey. I am just curious if you are buying this sefer. If you are, I would like to pay for it."

Reuven was blown away. This was a surprise to end all surprises. It was the last thing that he expected to hear from this man, but he noted a sincere ring to his request. He really wanted to help him, but he was not in any serious need of support. He could easily pay for the sefer. He told this to Shimon.

"Please, sir" Shimon began, "I really would like to pay for the sefer. It would mean so much to me if you accept my gift."

Finally, Reuven said, "OK, you may pay for it, but why are you doing this?"

Shimon's stare was now focused elsewhere. He seemed to be looking away, staring into space, as he said, "You see, I am blindů" Hearing these words, Reuven almost keeled over. "I will never be able to see again, to study Torah from the sefarim that had once meant so much to me. This is why I want to pay for the sefer, so that you will learn from it as much as possible. When the time comes, and you become weary and want to close the sefer, think of me, and keep it open a little longer."

Reuven's eyes began to moisten, as tears formed and slowly made their way down his face. The storekeeper confirmed that this was a constant occurrence. Many times a week, Shimon would visit the store and ask to pay for a sefer. This was his manner of learning Torah. Reuven would not put down that sefer- lightly. When he tired, he would regenerate himself and continue learning. He owed it to Shimon. After a while, this attitude spread to his other sefarim. The value of learning from a sefer was now so different.

This idea applies to remembering the Exodus. We must think of where we would be and how we would look had Hashem not taken us out of Egypt. We need only to look at contemporary society and its effect on those of our People who are still in Egypt, who refuse to leave, in order to realize for how much we must be thankful. We cannot remember Egypt because we were not there, but, if we open our eyes, we can see Egypt all around us.

Following the Holocaust, the surviving Jews had choices before them. Would they return to the way of life they had led in their shtetl, to a life of commitment and observance, or would America be different? It was a time to forget the past. Remembering the past brought sadness and pain. Looking forward to the future inspired hope. The past was then - the future is now. This was their motto.

No one can blame anyone who chose to reject his past. We have no idea of the indescribable pain and misery which they endured with the loss of their entire families. Yet, sadly, today, seventy years later, those who are still alive look around at their assimilated families and realize that they lost everything. I recently attended the bar mitzvah of the son of a close student of mine. My student's grandparents were Holocaust survivors who had lost everything. They came to this country and, with unwavering commitment and resolute dedication, persevered scorn from within and without - and prevailed. Four generations later, they are today in Gan Eden reaping their just reward, as they peer down to see their many descendants who are growing in Torah and commitment to Klal Yisrael. They remembered; they refused to forget. They understood the meaning of leaving Mitzrayim, and each day of their lives they kept remembering, by imbuing this memory into the psyche of their family. Just as "Reuven" had developed a new perspective on learning, they acknowledged where they would be now, had they forgotten their past.

Va'ani Tefillah

V'yached levaveinu'le'ahavah u'l'yirah es Shemecha Unite our hearts to love and fear Your Name.

Love and fear are incongruous with one another. One either fears someone, or he loves him. The two do not mesh well together, because they are opposites. Love draws a person closer to something, while fear creates a distance. We ask Hashem to provide us with the "irregular" - a unique relationship with Him, whereby we are allowed both sentiments: our overarching love for Him together with a powerful fear of violating His will. Horav Shimon Schwab, zl, observes that fear of Hashem does not mean constant trembling, as some might believe. Rather, it means that one is afraid to violate His will. This is very much like the fear one has driving through a red light. He does not stop at the light and just sit there trembling. On the contrary, he is very relaxed, but aware of the danger to himself if he crosses the light. This fear creates a safe environment for driving. We ask Hashem to create such an environment within our hearts, whereby we fear violating His will, but are comfortable and relaxed about it, because of our great love for Him. Rav Schwab notes that this "unification of the hearts" occurred during Mattan Torah, the Giving of the Torah, when the people had to be warned to restrain their desire to come too close to the Shechinah as a result of their great love. Thus, they were overcome with love, yet restrained by fear and awe. This is how one should serve Hashem - with the implementation of both sentiments.

l'ilui nishmas
Aidel bas R' Yaakov Shimon a"h
niftar 13 Shevat 5767
Idu Keller
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