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Peninim on the Torah

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Rabbi A. Leib Scheinbaum
Hebrew Academy of Cleveland


Sarah's lifetime was one hundred years, and twenty years, and seven years; the years of Sarah's life. (23:1)

The simple explanation of the pasuk is that usually one reaches the age of "one hundred," then added on to that are the 'twenty" and the "seven." Rashi, however, views the age progression conversely. At her one-hundred year milestone, Sarah Imeinu was as pure from sin as she was when she was twenty, and her beauty at age twenty was as wholesome as when she was seven. The Torah then reiterates with the phrase, Shnei chayei Sarah, "the years of Sarah's life." What is the purpose in this seemingly redundant statement? Rashi explains that the Torah seeks to emphasize that kulan shavin l'tovah, "they were all equal for goodness." This seems questionable, since Sarah's life was far from comfortable. She suffered through a famine and was taken by Pharaoh and, later, Avimelech, both undesirable human beings; she was barren for most of her life and died under what appeared to be tragic circumstances, when she heard that her only son was about to be slaughtered. How do all of these occurrences fall under the category of tovah, good?

"And you will see My back, but My face may not be seen" (Shemos 33:23). Horav Shlomo Yosef Zevin, zl, quotes the famous pasuk which was Hashem's response to Moshe Rabbeinu's request to behold His Glory. The Almighty replied that no mortal can see His face; they can only see His back. Interpreted in our vernacular, the pasuk is teaching us that man cannot comprehend Hashem's ways. No man can view the "face," Hashem's actions "up front," at the beginning, when they occur. All too often, His decrees appear to be unreasonable, too demanding, and even, at times, overly harsh, but, veritably, "Is it not from the mouth of the most High that evil and good emanate?" (Eichah 3:38). Everything is organized and part of the Divine plan. In the end, one looks back and, with the help of hindsight, perceives that everything was really good. "And you will see My back," at the end you will look back and see the good, "but My face may not be seen." Initially, the human mind cannot understand this. It takes time, and the entire plan has to play itself out. Then it all makes sense. It is all truly good.

Rav Zevin explains that the power of a Jew's belief is so exalted that even when he first enters a challenging situation, he goes into it with the deep-rooted belief that "all that Hashem does is for the good." The Torah teaches that the Jews believed in Hashem and in Moshe, His servant. This sense of trust was immediately followed up with Az yashir, singing the song of praise to Hashem. The Kedushas Levi asserts that this was done even prior to their salvation, when the water was up to their necks. They had not yet been saved; they were not yet in the clear, but they believed in Hashem; they trusted Moshe and, thus, were prepared to offer praise - so real was their belief in salvation.

The Talmud in Sanhedrin 92b relates that King Nevuchadnezar wanted to sing shirah, praise, to Hashem. An angel came and slapped his face. Rav Zevin quotes from a great tzaddik that the angel was not expressing his disdain with the wicked king's shirah. He did not care if Nevuchadnezar sang shirah or not. The angel was hinting to him, "You want to say shirah when you are successful, and the crown representing your power is sitting comfortably on your head. Here is a slap on the face. Now - let me see if you are still prepared to sing praise." Nevuchadnezar is unable to sing shirah after he has received a slap. Only the Jewish nation has the resolution to sing amid pain. Only they can "bless G-d for bad as for good." They see beyond the pain, past the misery, over challenge.

Sarah Imeinu accepted all the adversity which she experienced with a sense of love. She understood that Hashem gives us only good, and, therefore, she trusted that this was good. While at the time of her experience it seemed far from positive, she believed that it was all part of Hashem's plan, and that it was inherently good. Later on, her trust and faith were proven correct. All of her years were kulan shavin l'tovah, "equally good." Thus, the years of her life are counted backwards, to teach that afterwards it was revealed that it was "all good."

A prince of G-d you are among us. (23:6)

Avraham Avinu represented the best there can be in a Jew. While he was the epitome of spirituality, he was also accessible as a human being, revered and admired by all. He had the dignity of royalty; indeed, he was recognized as a prince of G-d - not merely a prince among men. He represented Hashem. He was the embodiment of what a Jew should be. The Torah says in Devarim 28:10, "Then all the peoples of the earth shall see that the Name of Hashem is proclaimed over you, and they will fear/revere you." The fear that people harbor is a reference to awe. A Jew should reflect to the world that he is on a mission, representing the Almighty, and this should engender a feeling of awe and respect in the mind of those with whom he comes in contact. Precisely because this is a Jew's function in the world, it is even more tragic when we act inappropriately, thereby casting a pall over the collective Jewish name, and, by extension, Hashem.

As His representatives, we have a noble mission. Our positive actions will have a like effect. Regrettably, when a Jew acts in a negative manner, the ensuing effect parallels the action. We live in a time when the Jewish name has been smeared and branded ignominiously due to the ignoble behavior of a few. The world out there is certainly not offering plaudits to observant Jewry. They quickly grasp every opportunity that they have to denigrate our beliefs and demeanor. Why should we add fuel to the fire? It is, therefore, incumbent upon us to publicize every instance when a Jew acts like a Nesi Elokim, prince of G-d, a man on a mission for the Almighty.

I had occasion recently to hear a poignant story from my brother-in-law, who directs the Chevra Kaddisha, Jewish Sacred Burial Society, in Chicago. Sadly, the story begins with a tragedy, the sudden passing of a young man in a car accident. Apparently, the deceased worked as a mashgiach in a nearby state and was killed in a head-on collision. When the state troopers called his parents, they, in turn, called my brother-in-law, Rabbi Shaya Abramowitz, who called another one of the volunteers, and they traveled with the parents to identify and retrieve the body.

It took a few hours, and they arrived in a small hamlet far off the beaten path, in the middle of the night. The man who greeted them was the town's doctor, EMT and undertaker. Regrettably, tonight he had served in all three of his varied capacities. He related to my brother-in-law that, as an EMT, he was the first person on the scene. After efforts to administer life-saving aid had failed, he became the undertaker, informing all those at the scene that every drop of blood must be saved and the utmost reverence given to the body. He was acutely aware of the respect paid to the Jewish body after death and was even knowledgeable about some of the laws.

My brother-in-law was dumbfounded. The man was clearly not Jewish. How did he know so much, and why did he manifest such respect? The doctor explained that when he arrived at the scene and saw the tzitzis hanging out from beneath the shirt of the deceased, he immediately knew that the victim was Jewish. He immediately recalled all of his knowledge about Jews and the laws involving death and care of the body. It seems that when he was growing up on a farm in the rural part of the state, his family had a Jewish salesman who would come by and visit. He was especially nice and would often talk about Jewish laws and customs. Among the many interesting bits of information were the laws concerning a Jewish body. The young boy was fascinated, and it remained with him as he grew into adulthood. He remembered, because he respected the Jew that had visited with them - and, many years later, on a sad, winter night, he put his acquired knowledge to good use. All of this because the Jew whom he met was a Nesi Elokim.

A Rosh Yeshivah - or anyone who holds a leadership role in the Jewish spiritual dimension - represents the Nesi Elokim concept, both in stature and spirituality. As a Torah leader, he is viewed as the primary example of gadlus, greatness, both in Torah and in spiritual leadership. One individual whose erudition, bearing, demeanor and mesiras nefesh, devotion and self-sacrifice to Klal Yisrael, exemplified his role as Hashem's emissary to this world was Horav Avraham Kalmanowitz, zl. As the founding Rosh Yeshivah of Mir, New York, in 1941, he was instrumental in saving many members of the Yeshivah community from extermination. Indeed, he played a pivotal role in saving the lives of many European Jews. Joseph J. Schwartz, who was chairman of the European counsel of the Joint Distribution Committee once averred that in the Vaad Hatzala/Relief and Rescue Committee, "there was a rabbi (Kalmanowitz) with a long white beard, who, when he cried, even the State Department listened."

Congressman Emanuel Celler was initially opposed to rescue. It was just not an "American thing." By the time Celler realized that he was part of a government that was unwilling to work to save the Jews of Europe, it was too late. Too many had already died. He had placed too much faith in his President, something that our people often learn - too late.

In his memoirs, the congressman who later, as a result of the influence of the Rosh Yeshivah, became the prime mover in the successful transfer of the Shanghai Yeshivah after the war, writes the following tribute to Rav Kalmanowitz: "It is difficult to describe the frustration and helplessness which prevailed when streams of letters poured in from constituents asking for aid in saving a family member. There is one day, which is marked out from all others during this period… Into my office came an old rabbi; everything about him, his hat which he did not remove, his long black coat and patriarchal beard, the veined hands clutching a cane, these stand before me, even to this day. Trembling and enfeebled, he had traveled from Brooklyn to Washington to meet with his congressman. Not once did he seem conscious of his tears as he pleaded, 'Don't you see? Can't you see? Won't you see that there are millions - millions being killed? Can't we have some of them? Can't you, Mr. Congressman, do something?'

"I tried explaining, but the rabbi insisted that it was nothing but excuses. I truly believed in my government. Yet, the rabbi kept interrupting me, striking his cane on the office floor, 'If six million cattle had been slaughtered,' he cried, 'there would have been greater interest. A way would have been found. These are people!' he said. 'People.'

This was the impression that a Rosh Yeshivah imparted. It was sincere, it was true; it was real. He was a Nesi Elokim.

Then Lavan and Besuel answered and said, "The matter stemmed from Hashem." (24:50)

The Rashba asserts that, although the statement which affirms that Hashem guides a matrimonial relationship, ordaining two people as mates, originates from Lavan and Besuel, hardly individuals whom we quote in a positive manner, the Torah quotes their comment because it rings true. Mei'Hashem yatza ha'davar is the catchphrase for what we refer to as bashert, predetermined one. We firmly believe that Hashem ordains every match and guides it to fruition. One who approaches a relationship knowing that he is playing a leading role in G-d's plan will have a different set of goals and objectives in mind, as he plays his role in seeing this relationship continue on to matrimony.

I think that we should go one step further. Mei Hashem yatza ha'davar defines how one should relate to his spouse and vice versa. When a person is acutely aware that he is part of G-d's plan, everything that he does is carried out in the most selfless manner. This is my wife because Hashem has designated her to me. How I treat her is part of my avodas Hashem, service to the Almighty. If more of us would adopt this perspective and incorporate it into our relationship, it would engender positive results.

A successful marriage is one in which both parties contribute equally, knowing up front that from now on every decision is about "us", not "me." One who is fixated on satisfying his personal needs is destined to have problems in his relationship. Family life is the primer for refining one's character traits. It is a classroom which provides a constant educational experience.

The very first blessing of the Sheva Berachos, seven-wedding blessings, is shehakol bara lichvodo, "Who has created everything for His Glory." Interestingly, the chosson, groom, is not mentioned. Neither is the kallah, bride. In fact, marriage is not even mentioned. Why then should this blessing be included among the wedding blessings? Indeed, why is it the first one? What connection is there between this brachah and the marriage ceremony?

Rabbi Dr. A. Twerski suggests that this blessing is placed first to underscore the definition of Jewish marriage. When a husband and wife, standing beneath the chupah, marriage canopy, understand the raison d'?tre of marriage upfront, if they realize that marriage is not for self-gratification, but rather, for the glorification of Hashem's Name, the marriage works. It has positive results. One must be aware from the get-go, Shehakol barah lichvodo, "Who has created everything for His Glory." One should not be in a relationship to satisfy himself, but to play a role in glorifying Hashem. When a marriage is good, it brings honor to Heaven, and when a marriage is a disaster, it engenders negative results for Heaven. The determining factor of a good marriage should be: Is it good for Heaven? Does this relationship glorify the Name of Hashem? So many of the issues in a marriage can be resolved when we apply this barometer.

Rabbi Twerski, quoted by Rabbi Yissachar Frand, cites two poignant stories which illustrate this idea. While it is true that both of these stories occurred concerning gedolim, Torah giants, it is something from which we can and should take an example. Furthermore, I think their uncommon selflessness clearly added to their gadlus, distinction. Regrettably, since we live in a time when thinking of oneself is in vogue, and demanding kavod, honor, is part and parcel of the insecure, it is truly refreshing to hear such stories.

Horav Yaakov Kamenetsky, zl, was at a wedding and needed a ride back to Monsey. A single fellow was asked if he would mind giving the revered Rosh Yeshivah a ride. It was a rhetorical question, because who would not jump at the opportunity to spend an hour or two of quality time with Rav Yaakov? The Rosh Yeshivah, however, asked the young man if he could look over his car. The young man, somewhat in a quandary, escorted Rav Yaakov to his car, who then proceeded to open the back door and sit down in the back seat for a few moments. He then emerged from the car, shut the backdoor, and said, "I will be happy to travel with you to Monsey."

One can imagine what thoughts were coursing through the young man's mind. Clearly, the Rosh Yeshivah's behavior was unusual. Rav Yaakov probably noticed the dumbfounded look on the young man's face, and he explained, "My rebbetzin will be joining us. She will be sitting in the back seat. I had to be certain that she would be comfortable. Therefore, I tried out the seat and deemed it suitable for her." Rav Yaakov was not concerned with the make or status of the car, just if it would provide a comfortable ride for his wife.

The next story presents an even greater expression of selflessness. The Milwaukee Rebbe, Horav Yaakov Yisrael Twerski, zl, passed away shortly after being diagnosed with a dread terminal illness. After the doctor had more or less delivered his death sentence, the Rebbe called in his son, R' Avraham Shia, who is also a medical doctor, to discuss his options for treatment. He said, "They want to give me chemotherapy. It will probably not work and only prolong the inevitable for a very short time. In addition, it will cause me great pain and suffering." His son agreed. "I think since I have very little, if anything, to gain, and so much to lose, that I will not agree to have the therapy." His son felt that this was a wise decision and that they should immediately share this with the doctor.

While this conversation was going on, the Rebbetzin was in the hall talking with the doctor regarding her husband's prognosis and treatment options. She asked if treatment would help prolong his life. The doctor replied that, in his estimation, a few months was a possibility. She said, "If it will give my husband a few months - even if it gives him a few extra days - we want it!"

The Rebbetzin came into the room and notified her husband that the doctor felt that chemotherapy would help for a few months and "I want you to have it." She then proceeded to walk out of the room.

The Rebbe turned to his son and said, "We both know that the therapy will not help. It will not give me the promised two months, and we both know that. As a result, I will be in excruciating pain, but, if I do not take the therapy, your mother will be guilt-ridden for the rest of her life. Therefore, I will take it, so that she will not feel bad." He took the therapy and suffered great pain, all because he wanted to spare his wife the guilt often associated with survivors: "If only I had done more, or insisted on therapy." He taught us the meaning of selflessness.

Yitzchak went out to supplicate in the field towards evening. (24:63)

Chazal tell us that Yitzchak Avinu was mesakein, instituted, Tefillas Minchah, Afternoon prayer. His father, Avraham Avinu, was mesakein Tefillas Shacharis, Morning prayer, and Yaakov Avinu initiated Tefillas Arvis, Evening prayer. Clearly, their respective and individual life struggles had an impact on the tefillah which they ushered in, each tefillah implying an important lesson on life and how to cope with adversity. Horav Shlomo Yosef Zevin, zl, has a practical understanding of the difference between their tefillos, in light of the time of day when they are expressed. There is a powerful lesson to be derived from Tefillas Minchah, which carries enormous significance for the petitioner.

Let us focus on the time of day when each of these prayers is recited. Shacharis takes place in the morning, a time when, for all intents and purposes, one is beginning his day after a restful night's sleep. The day, with its various challenges, has not yet begun. His mind is relaxed. Thus, he is able to pray with complete devotion; nothing is disturbing him; his heart is focused on Hashem. The evening service is recited at day's end. It matters not if it had been a good day or a bad one. The main thing is that it is over. One cannot change what occurred. His successes and failures are behind him. The prayer he recites at this point is communicated with a sort of passivity, calm in knowledge that the day is over. His davening to Hashem can be with the proper kavanah, intention, expressing his emotions with unabashed fervor.

Tefillas Minchah is different. It is recited right in the middle of the day, often in middle of work, requiring time off from a meeting, an important phone call, or a tense project. The individual steals himself away from what presently occupies him, to collect his thoughts and focus on Hashem, as he supplicates His favor. Minchah is often rendered amid turmoil, at times in a makeshift shul, an office, a dining room, a field. How difficult it is to maintain proper kavanah for Tefillas Minchah. This is why Chazal in Meseches Berachos 6b say, "One should expend great care with Tefillas Minchah." It is the tefillah for which it is most difficult to retain proper kavanah.

The symbol of life's endeavor in the arena of materialism is the field. Working in the field is the expression that conveys the message emanating involvement in matters pertaining to olam hazeh, this physical world. In historic times, man's endeavor revolved around plowing, planting, digging, weeding, harvesting, grinding the wheat, etc. Life's focus was the field. It was the primary source of one's parnassah, livelihood. Yitzchak instituted Minchah in the field, in the middle of his "work," to underscore the need for clearing out the cobwebs in one's mind in order to focus properly on the prayer at hand.

Perhaps we may add to this idea. The Torah records the end of the life of Moshe Rabbeinu, his final few hours, as Vayeilach Moshe, "Moshe went" (Devarim 31:1). The genesis of the Jewish "movement" begins with Hashem's command to Avraham Avinu, Lech Lecha, "Go for yourself" (Bereishis 12:1). The Torah begins with Lech lecha and ends with Vayeilech. It almost seems as if Avraham began with forward movement, and Moshe ended with moving/going forward. Moshe continued where Avraham left off - and continued "going" until his heart ceased to pulsate. "Going" is a Jewish concept. The Torah demands halichah, movement, as an end in itself - not merely a means of getting someplace. We are commanded to move - not to arrive. The results of our forward/upward movement, the consequences of our endeavors, should not be the focus of our thoughts. Our function is in doing - Hashem will arrange the results. We are holeich bidrachav, go in his His ways. We are rewarded for the toil which we expend - not the achievement.

We often ask, or we are asked: "How are you doing?" The truth of the matter is that "how" we are doing is unimportant. What is important is that we "are" doing. Sitting around passively is sinful. A Jew must constantly move forward and keep on "doing." Shacharis is the prayer one recites before he begins "doing"; Maariv is recited at the end of the day when one has paused to rest from his "doing," Minchah is recited right in the thick of things, when the Jew is being a holeich, "going." In the midst of his endeavoring he pauses to pray - so that he may continue moving forward. Minchah pays gratitude to Hashem for having been allowed to reach this point, and, at the same time, supplicates Him for the ability to continue moving forward. It is the tefillah that underscores the Jew's halichah.

Va'ani Tefillah

HaNosein sheleg katzamer, kefor ka'eifer yefazer, mashlich karcho chefitim.
He places the snow as wool; He spreads the frost like ashes; He throws down His ice like little pieces.

Many of us determine a blessing, a gift, in accordance with how it initially affects us. Most often, we do not take time to think, to rationalize if perhaps that which appears to our limited minds as something injurious is actually of great benefit - both physically and spiritually. What a blessing we have in snow. Imagine if the frozen water vapor within the clouds were to descend all at once. It would destroy everything in sight. Hashem is kind to us by breaking the ice into little particles known as snow, ice and rain. Some of us sadly endure different forms of adversity, often with no letup or reprieve between one another. We wonder why. Why so much? Why so often? When we think about it, if Hashem would have sent it all at one time, we would be devastated. It would be almost impossible to handle. The manner in which Hashem sends what appears on the surface to be serious punishment is in itself a chesed, act of kindness. What seems to be harmful is actually the greatest benefit.

Horav Avigdor Miller, zl, notes that the cold of winter allows for the soil to regenerate itself during the time that it lies fallow. In addition, the winter deprives many of the opportunity for extensive travel and work and play outdoors. This is essentially for our spiritual welfare. Now that we are deprived of the great outdoors, we have more time to study Torah - alone and with our children. Winter really is not so "bad" after all. It all depends on one's perspective.

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