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Peninim on the Torah

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Rabbi A. Leib Scheinbaum
Hebrew Academy of Cleveland


Sarah's lifetime was… (23:1)

Life is a gift, a precious gift from Hashem. In the Talmud Gittin 64a, Chazal teach us the signs for determining a young child's maturity level. If one gives a child a stone and he proceeds to throw it away, but he keeps a nut which he has been given, it indicates that his mind is beginning to develop. If one gives him an object which he is prepared to return to its owner after a while, it is a clear sign that he is mature. In other words, the ability to distinguish between what is a gift and what is not; and the awareness that one must return the gift when it is demanded, are clear indications of a growing mind.

Horav Avraham Pam,zl, explains that life is a gift, a gift which we return after a while. One who does not understand this idea behaves as if he will live forever, not caring that he has no purpose in life, acting like an immature child. On the other hand, even a young person is capable of understanding the transitory nature of life and appreciating the unique gift granted to him by the Almighty. Thus, this young person who values every minute of this precious gift, is, despite his age, a mature person. Furthermore, one who does not value and appreciate the gift of life repudiates his Benefactor.

The Chafetz Chaim, zl, was a person who valued the gift of life. I recently heard that his nephew, Horav Chaim Yitzchak Pupko, zl, who served him for twelve years, once got up his nerve and asked the Chafetz Chaim, "How old is the uncle?" The Chafetz Chaim seemingly ignored the question. A few moments later, the Chafetz Chaim took an envelope of coins and handed it to his nephew. "Here, take this," he said. A moment went by, and the Chafetz Chaim asked, "Are you not going to count what I gave you?" "No," he responded. "It is not proper to count a gift." "You are right," countered the Chafetz Chaim. "Life is a gift from Hashem. It is not proper to count it." What an incredible thought, but that is why he was the Chafetz Chaim.

Life is a gift and must, therefore, be cherished. Every minute is special, every minute an opportunity that should not be wasted. Alas, some people realize this only when they have almost lost it. The following story demonstrates how a person who realized that he had almost died spent the rest of his life with this memory firmly entrenched in his mind. The story is about two very famous brothers, both multi-millionaires, Nathan and Isidore Strauss, considered to be among the greatest philanthropists of their day.

They, together with their wives, took a trip to Europe in 1912. After enjoying all the cultural sights and sounds of the continent, they decided to go to what was then called Palestine. When these two philanthropists arrived in Eretz Yisrael, they were given the royal treatment wherever they went. The holy places, shuls, yeshivos, all received their attention. While Nathan was captivated by the pure holiness of the land, his brother Isidore was getting bored. "How many camels and how many schools and hovels can you see? Once you've seen one, you've seen them all," he complained. "It is time to go." Nathan Strauss and his wife refused to leave. For some reason, he was overcome by the sight of so many people living in abject poverty, yet remaining committed and filled with inner joy. He just could not pull himself away.

The brothers argued. Finally Isidore said, "You are intractable. I am leaving. Stay here if you insist. I am going back to America."

They parted. Nathan stayed in Eretz Yisrael, traveling throughout the length and breadth of the land. Wherever he went, he contributed. He gave money for the creation of a city on the shores of the Mediterranean. Being its major benefactor, the city was named for him. Hence, the city of Netanya, after Nathan, was established.

Isidore did not stay. He rushed and got to his ship just on time. You see, his connection was very important to him. He wanted badly to sail back to the United States on the most famous ship of the day. In fact, it was just taking its maiden voyage. Yes, Isidore and Ida Strauss made the connection in Southampton, England, on the ill-fated Titanic. Five days later, they were among the 1500 who went down with the ship that "would never go down."

Nathan Strauss lived for the rest of his life with the acute awareness that, if not for the grace of the Almighty, he would have been on the Titanic too. He realized that he could have died and that he was saved for a reason: He had a mission to perform. For the rest of his life, he continued to give of his means and his time and energy to promote acts of chesed.

While an encounter with our own mortality is certainly a sobering motivator, we should not wait for the reminder. We are here for a reason. Life is short. Let us live it to its fullest - by making every minute count through serving Hashem.

Sarah's lifetime was… (23:1)

Sarah Imeinu is not the first person to have died. The Torah does, however, devote considerable "space" to her passing - the passing of the first Matriarch, the first Jewish mother. Thus, I feel it appropriate to address the subjects of death, Olam Habah, and Techias HaMeisim, resurrection of the dead.

Horav Shlomo Wolbe, Shlita, writes that one of the most difficult tasks facing people in contemporary times is developing a firm belief in the World to Come. We talk about it, yearn for it, work for it, but do we really believe in it?

Techias Ha'Meisim is a very remote concept for us. The concept of death in itself sends a sense of shock through us, because a living person adamantly refuses to believe that he will eventually leave this world and that he will no longer be with his body, which is how we conceptualize life. It takes a great deal of cogent thought and spiritual development to internalize the idea that one's soul will continue to exist in a totally spiritual sense, completely divested of its earthly "container." He must then accept the notion that his body will completely disintegrate, leaving not a trace of its previous physical encounter with this world.

I think it is simply a matter of confronting the inevitability of death and the fear of the unknown. Once we begin to accept the inevitable and understand what takes place when the soul leaves its earthly abode, we might easier begin to relate to "what follows." Horav Yechiel Michel Tikuchinsky, zl, in his magnum opus, the Gesher HaChaim, writes a brilliant essay that lends meaning to the essence of life and death. I take the liberty to present the ideas of this essay.

Life is really a bridge, a passageway leading from the womb to the grave. It begins at a point which we refer to as birth, and ends at death. The person that traverses the bridge known as life knows of no other form of life. He imagines this sojourn as being the entirety of life; he has no recollection of his past and has no idea of the nature of his long future. He, consequently, cannot grasp the notion of life before birth and life after death. Likewise, if a fetus could think like an adult, it would ostensibly conclude that the only world is the narrow one it knows. Similarly, to think that our world is the only world of life is equally absurd.

Rav Tikuchinsky expands on this idea with a penetrating analogy. Imagine unborn twins who have never seen the light of day. One believes the tradition that there is life after the womb. The other is "enlightened" much like our "progressive" brethren, who believe only what their limited intelligence can grasp. The believer shared with his brother the vision of a new world, a new life filled with people, creatures that would walk upright in a spacious planet filled with oceans, mountains and planets. Stars would fill the sky; clouds would deliver rain to nourish the soil, etc. The non-believer laughed and derided his brother's naivet?. "One would have to be an utter fool to believe this," he said.

"There is only one end to this world in which we live," the non-believer told his na?ve twin. "When we leave this world, we will fall into a dark abyss from which we will never return. When we leave here - we are gone forever!"

Suddenly, in the midst of this conversation, the mother's birth pains began heralding the beginning of the end of their stay in their little world. The "ground" beneath the believing twin disintegrated -- and in a flash -- he was gone. His brother was broken-hearted over the terrible tragedy that had taken place. His brother, his friend, his only companion in his little world, was tragically stricken. He began to cry and bemoan his brother's fate. "Where have you gone?" he cried. "If only you would have listened to me. In your utter foolishness you believed that there would be a birth, and, therefore, you did not hold on to keep from falling into the abyss. You would not listen, and now you are gone!"

Between the sobs and tears, the remaining brother heard his brother's cries, the cries of a newborn infant. "Woe is me! That must be the final cries of my lost brother!" He did not realize that while he was bemoaning the fate of his "lost" brother, sounds of joy, "Mazel tov, mazel tov!" filled the delivery room.

What a powerful analogy. Truly, everyone understands the message that is being conveyed to us. Just as the nine months of gestation are nothing more than a transitional period, a prelude to a spacious and breathtaking world, so, too, the temporary life in this world is only a bridge to the eternal world of Olam Habah. We seem to have no problem understanding the enormous disparity between the narrow and cramped world of the womb and our wonderful world. Yet, we have great difficulty in accepting the vast difference between our world and the World to Come. Are we that much different than the "non-believing" twin who could not fathom a world beyond his cramped quarters in his mother's womb? Anyone who thinks that his physical body is the only place life can exist -- and who believes that when that body returns to dust life ceases to exist -- is as unknowing and obtuse as the non-believing twin.

When we leave the womb, we are born into the temporary world of Olam Hazeh, this world. When we leave this world in the process called death, we are really going through a metaphysical experience which for the soul is called birth. Pregnancy is the prelude for physical life, while life is the preparation for Heavenly, spiritual life.

Hence, birth, life and death are interwoven. Birth leads to life on this world, which is actually a preparation for our ultimate destination: life in the World to Come. Death is no longer something to fear, unless one has not prepared himself for everlasting life.

Let it be that the maiden to whom I shall say, "Please tip over your jug so I may drink, and who replies, "Drink, and I will even water your camels," her will You have designated for Your servant, for Yitzchak. (24:14)

The Bais HaLevi submits that Eliezer tested Rivkah in two areas. First, he sought to ascertain if she was a gomeles chesed, would perform kindness, by giving drink to someone whom she did not know. Of special interest to Eliezer was the fact that she did not have a cup for him. He would have to drink directly from the pitcher. Who knows if he had germs that would contaminate her pitcher. Would she offer him to drink or not?

Second, of extreme significance, is what she would do after Eliezer drank from the pitcher. What would she do with her left-over water? Would she spill it out, thereby embarrassing the man to whom she had given water; or would she take the pitcher home and share the water with her family, who might become ill as a result of drinking "contaminated" water?

The optimum for which he could hope was what ultimately occurred. She demonstrated her kindness by extending the pitcher to Eliezer. She also showed common sense when she took the left-over water and poured it for the camels.

The Bais HaLevi alludes to a very important principle, one that we often seem to ignore. Middos tovos, good character traits, such as pursuing chesed, going out of one's way to help another, are all wonderful and essential for one's spiritual development, but they go hand in hand with seichal, common sense. One who has no seichal will accomplish very little with his chesed. Sooner or later, he will do something foolish or hurt the feelings of the person he is trying to help. He means well; he wants to help; he regrettably does not know how. Common sense is a prerequisite for success. Seichal is more than a good idea; without it, one is lost!

Hashem before Whom I have walked, will send His angel with you. (24:40)

Avraham Avinu's expression discusses his relationship with Hashem in terms of one "before Whom I have walked." Rashi, in Parashas Noach (6:9), distinguishes between Avraham and Noach, about whom it is written, "Noach walked with Hashem." Noach walked with Hashem, requiring Hashem's support to uphold him in his righteousness, while Avraham drew strength from within himself and walked in his righteousness by himself. Horav Nosson Wachtfogel, zl, explains the depth of Avraham's "walking by himself" in the following manner.

He cites the pasuk in Yeshayahu 51:1, where the Navi speaks to the righteous Jews, "Listen to me, O pursuers of righteousness, O seekers of Hashem…Look to Avraham your forefather and to Sarah who bore you, for when he was yet alone did I summon him and bless him and made him many." The Navi seems to be implying that Avraham's distinction was in the fact that he was called "echad," one. Furthermore, we note the Talmud Pesachim 118a, which cites Hashem Yisborach saying that He spared Avraham from the kivshan ha'eish, fiery cauldron, because "I am a Yachid, one (individual) in My world, and he (Avraham) is also a yachid, in his world. It is only appropriate that a yachid save a yachid."

Avraham's distinction was in his being a yachid, an individual. Rav Nosson submits that this does not mean that it was Avraham's independence that distinguished him, because independence is not necessarily a virtue. One must be willing to listen, to be inclined to "bend" a little and defer to others who might be more knowledgeable or more experienced. Rather, the advantage of being a yachid lies in one's ability to take the initiative, to take a stand and not always be a follower. Avraham Avinu taught us a significant lesson: one must be prepared to learn, to take his own initiative - when necessary. This does not preclude the importance of following. It is just very important to know whom to follow.


Avraham rose up from the presence of his dead. (23:3)

Minchas Ani notes that it is not entirely uncommon for people to fall from their spiritual plateau after they have sustained a loss or suffered a tragedy. Not so Avraham Avinu. He "rose up," became elevated even more as a result of this tragic experience. ohnhc tc iez ovrctu Avraham was old, well on in years. (24:1)

Horav Meir Shapiro, zl, was appointed Rav of the city of Sunik at the young age of seventeen. It goes without saying that there were certainly some members who frowned on having such a young rabbi - regardless of his apparent brilliance. One day Rav Shapiro met a member of the opposition. "What shortcoming do you find in me?" Rav Shapiro asked the person. "Am I less of a talmid chacham because I am young?"

The man responded, "No, Rabbi. We are very impressed with your erudition. It is just that you are very young."

Rav Shapiro countered, "Such a deficiency improves with time."

Hashem had blessed Avraham with everything. (24:1)

The Chozeh, zl, m'Lublin, interprets the word bakol, with everything, as b'chol, with all, as a reference to the three b'chols, which define the necessary attitude a Jew must have in serving Hashem. They are: b'chol levavcha , with all your heart; b'chol nafshecha, with all your soul; b'chol meodecha, with all your resources. Avraham Avinu was blessed with the special characteristic of b'chol.

I have cleaned the house and place for the camels. (24:3)

Rashi explains that Lavan's "cleaning the house" is a reference to his removal of the idols which proliferated his home. Interestingly, Lavan, the consummate idol worshipper, was prepared to remove his idols to make room for camels! The Alter, zl, m'Novardak comments that Lavan smelled money and profit when he saw Eliezer with his gifts. For money, Lavan gladly rid his house of idols, even if it was only for camels.

Our sister, may you come to be thousands of myriads. (24:60)

What a wonderful blessing from Lavan! Horav Chaim Volozhiner zl, submits that there was something sinister in the back of Lavan's mind. He was well aware of the Rabbinic dictum that most sons are like the mother's brothers. Thus, Lavan blessed his sister to have many sons like him.

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Rabbi L. Scheinbaum

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