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Peninim on the Torah

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Rabbi A. Leib Scheinbaum
Hebrew Academy of Cleveland


The woman was taken to Pharaoh's house. (12:15) Pharaoh's palace has been recorded in Jewish history as a place of infamy. Sarah Imeinu was taken there. Years later, her great-grandson, Yosef Hatzaddik, was taken there. Moshe Rabbeinu was raised there. This home was a source of much weeping by Jewish leaders. For a kadosh v'tahor, holy and pure individual to be brought into the home of a heathen, a home which was a center of idol worship and immorality, was a tragedy. How do Chazal perceive this experience? Do they view it as negatively as we do?

To respond to this question, let us go back in time to another great Jewish leader, Mordechai HaYehudi, to examine how he reacted to a similar situation. We know that after Haman's diabolical plan to destroy the Jews was thwarted, and he was unmasked, Achashveirosh gave Haman's mansion to Mordechai, who proceeded to move in. It later became a bais hamedrash.

Now, imagine, if you will, the government decides to give away the home of the country's greatest villain, a person whose cruelty is matched only by his evil: Would we expect a gadol hador, Torah giant and preeminent spiritual leader, to accept the offer and move in? The average person would probably spit or throw stones at the house when he walks by, and we expect a gadol to move in? This was a home that was the source of terror and murder against the Jews. How could a tzaddik live there?

Horav Yitzchak Zilberstein, Shlita, asks this question, and consequently, derives from here that apparently the Torah's perspective is different than ours. The Torah teaches us that specifically such a home, which was the source of so much anguish for the Jewish People, should be the place where a tzaddik should now live. The tears that it catalyzed, the pain that it caused, the persecution that it instigated, eventually brought Klal Yisrael closer to Avinu she'ba'Shomayim, our Father in Heaven. It brought home the realization that we have no one to rely on but Hashem. He is our only Savior.

Indeed, Chazal teach us that, Gedolah hasoras tabaas, "Greater is the removal of the ring" -- a reference to the moment Achashveirosh removed his ring and gave it to Haman, signifying his agreement to kill out all the Jews -- "than the admonition of forty-eight prophets," who reproached the Jewish People in an attempt to bring them back to teshuvah, repentance. Yes, Haman's house was a house of evil, but it catalyzed much good. It brought about the return of the Jewish People to Hashem. Pharaoh's palace was the cause for shedding many a tear, but it also was the house that brought Klal Yisrael to look up to Hashem and the consequent Exodus. The Torah looks at the end, the positive results. Perhaps, we should take our cue from the Torah and view life from a different perspective.

And when Avram heard that his kinsman (his brother, Lot) was taken captive, he armed his disciples who had been born in his house. (14:14)

Empathy for another person is a character trait we should learn from Avraham Avinu. As soon as he heard that his nephew, Lot, was taken captive, he immediately assembled a small army and risked his life to save him. From a cursory perspective, it seems like the right thing to do. My nephew is in trouble - I go out to save him. Is that what we do? How often do we find a way to rationalize away our responsibility to our fellow man? Avraham had every reason to turn his back on Lot. It is not as if Lot did not ask for this by moving away from Avraham and seeking the lush, fertile land of Sodom. Lot was greedy; he received what he deserved.

Yet, Avraham did not act this way. He sought every reason to justify Lot's move and to risk his own life to rescue him from captivity. All too often the response to the suffering of another is apathy. Whatever happened to the "Jew" in us, as descendants of Avraham Avinu, who could not tolerate an injustice, even if the person on the receiving end probably "asked" for it? As Jews we are all part of one unit - one people - one nation. When another Jew in any part of the world suffers, we should feel it.

Life goes on. We hear constantly of Jews suffering throughout the world. Whether it is illness or persecution, they are suffering. We respond with some Tehillim, which we at first recite with feeling. After awhile, however, the emotion dissipates, and the feeling becomes less intense.

The Nazis that exterminated six million Kedoshim, martyrs, in the most inhuman manner were, for the most part, considered normal people. They did not look like beasts. For all intents and purposes, they did not act like beasts. They believed that Jews were a subculture and, therefore, a threat to the human race. They were indifferent to the persecution of innocent people, because they did not consider them people. They rationalized away their indifference. Thus, they were able to continue their dirty work without a heavy heart. It begins with rationalization, progresses onto indifference, and ends with downright cruelty. I recently read some poignant, but compelling, remarks made by a German Protestant minister, who, after himself being released from a Nazi concentration camp, said the following:

"In Germany: they first came for the Jews, and I did not speak up, because I was not a Jew. Then they came for the Communists, and I did not speak up, because I was not a Communist. Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak up, because I was not a trade unionist.

Then they came for the gypsies, and I did not speak up, because I was not a gypsy.

Then they came for the Catholics, and I did not speak up, because I was not a Catholic. Then they came for me. And by that time, there was no one left to speak up."

Avraham Avinu taught the world, imbuing his descendants that the empathy we have for another person defines our humanness. Lot was Avraham's nephew. Yet, the Torah calls him his brother. When another Jew is in need, we do not dismiss our responsibility. He is our brother, and for a brother there is no rationalization - we just do it.

In an incredible mussar shmuess, ethical discourse, delivered to an audience of elderly rabbis, Horav Yitzchak Aizik Sher, zl, reiterated the theme of kavod ha'briyos, heightened sensitivity to human beings and the importance of empathy. On a visit to America shortly before Rosh Hashanah of 1939, he addressed the august assemblage. He began by posing a question: "What are you worried about? Yom Ha'din, the Day of Judgement? You observe Shabbos and Kashrus; your integrity is impeccable; you do not speak lashon hora, slander, of anyone. So what is it that worries you?"

After a lengthy discourse, Rav Sher arrived at his response, "My friends, you are all fine, upstanding Jews, and you do not sin. Yet, you pick up the New York Times in the morning, read that a man was killed, and you continue to drink your coffee. How can you drink coffee when you read that a woman just became a widow and children lost a father? You should faint in anguish, but you do not. Why? Because you do not care how death affects other people. As long as it is not you or yours, you simply continue with your coffee. Yes. You have something to fear on the Yom Hadin, for the Ribono Shel Olam is stricter with the righteous than with ordinary people. On the Day of Judgment, you all have to be careful."

Rav Sher's message is timeless. Are we any different today? We read the paper; we listen to the news; the korbanos in Eretz Yisrael increase steadily, and to us it is a mere statistic. True, we recite Tehillim, but has our lifestyle been altered in any way? Do we continue with our cup of coffee, rationalizing our lack of empathy with our brethren throughout the world - and at home? When I recently asked this question of an individual, his response was, "Things are so bad, I can no longer read the paper with my breakfast; it is so depressing." This person simply has no clue. Are we any different?

Her mistress was lowered in her esteem. (16:4) Hagar's lack of emunah, belief, in Divine Providence, coupled with her insensitivity to others, resulted in her brazenness. She arrogantly called attention to the fact that she was able to conceive and bear Avraham's child, while Sarah, her mistress, despite having been with Avraham for so many years, still had no success in bearing a child. Obviously, from her perspective, she was more righteous than Sarah. Her first reaction was to claim superiority. Never did she allow herself to entertain the notion that there was a reason for Sarah's barrenness. It certainly could not have been Sarah's lack of virtue.

A similar episode occurred concerning Chana, the mother of Shmuel HaNavi. The Navi relates how she came to pray for a son. Eili, the Kohen Gadol, observed the peculiar manner in which she was praying, and he suspected her of imbibing a bit too much wine. He then proceeded to criticize her for her inappropriate demeanor. Her response was that she was bitter and was praying for a son. Immediately, Eili blessed her and wished her well. The rest is history. Horav Asher Kalman Baron, zl, Rosh Yeshivah in pre-World War II Ponevez, asks a penetrating question. Let us imagine that we witnessed this episode. Chana was praying strangely, acting like she was drunk, while her prayer was actually perfect, to the point that it pierced the Heavens and catalyzed Hashem's favorable response. She, nonetheless, at first glance gave the impression of being drunk. Eli, with all of his Ruach HaKodesh, Divine Inspiration, was taken aback by her prayer. He immediately rebuked her behavior and told her to leave. After she explained herself to Eli, should Chana have renounced him as Kohen Gadol? What kind of Kohen Gadol was he if his Ruach HaKodesh did not give him a "clearer picture" of Chana's prayer? At best, his reaction was certainly unbecoming a man of his stature. Yet, Chana overlooked his error in judgment and accepted his blessing with utmost faith.

Rav Baron derives a very important principle from here. Even though at times we might have a question about a gadol's, Torah leader's, behavior, it does not in any way give us license to renounce him. He does not lose his credibility as the result of a single lapse. Regrettably, this is the case in the eyes of so many simple people. As soon as the gadol acts in a peculiar manner or issues a statement that might be a bit out of character, they immediately pounce on him and make disparaging comments.

Such behavior is to be expected of a Hagar - not a ben Torah! As soon as Hagar saw that she had conceived while her mistress, Sarah, had not yet been blessed, she immediately felt that Sarah's credibility had been impugned. Horav Nosson Wachtfogel, zl, supplements this, noting how people often prejudge an individual's character and religious persuasion by his external appearance and behavior. Rarely do they delve into the individual's atzmius, original and independent character. What they see is what they accept as belief. Let us ask ourselves, how many shidduchim, marriage negotiations, have been ruined because of what one saw and did not like? We have to see beyond what "appears", to observe what "is", before determining the nature of a person.

At the age of eight days every male among you must be circumcised. (17:12) The mitzvah of Bris Milah is a critical mitzvah which inducts the young boy into the Jewish People. Throughout the millennia our people have been willing to sacrifice their lives, so that this mitzvah may be fulfilled properly. Many stories have been recorded detailing the selfless devotion our People have demonstrated to this mitzvah. I recently read a story that poignantly portrays the lengths to which one Jewish mother actualized her perception of the mitzvah of Bris Milah.

It occurred in Soviet Russia at a time when the Communists were in power. Their disdain for any religion was overshadowed by their revulsion of Judaism. They made every attempt to extinguish whatever observance they could. Bris Milah was at the top of their list of mitzvos which they sought to abolish. Fearing for their lives, people adhered to the terrible decree. As usual, however, a few dedicated Jews were moser nefesh, risked their lives, to circumcise their sons clandestinely. The story is about a Jewish mother who, afraid for her life, refrained from circumcising her son. One day, she heard that another woman had a Bris performed for her son. She decided at that point that she, too, would have her son circumcised.

The Bris was performed, and they brought the infant back to the mother. Suddenly, she fainted. After a few minutes, they were able to revive her. The people who had assembled to share in this august experience looked at her incredulously and asked, "Why did you faint now? The Bris is over. If you were going to faint due to anxiety, you should have done so before the Bris." Her response should cause each of us to tremble. She said, "When my son was born, I wanted to hug and kiss him, but I could not. Every time I was about to kiss him, I held myself back, reasoning, 'How can I kiss my baby if I have not yet given my baby a Bris, thereby demonstrating my appreciation to Hashem for giving me this beautiful gift?' It was only after the child was circumcised that I allowed myself to kiss him. The experience was too much to handle, and I fainted."

Can we begin to grasp the depth of this woman's resolution and strength of character? She waited for this child and carried him in her womb for nine months. After she delivered a healthy baby, she did not kiss him until she had shown her appreciation to her Benefactor. This is the type of Jew that lives on, the Jew whom the Russians could not break: the Torah Jew.


Go for yourself. (12:1) 'Go for yourself' suggests that a person should not worry about being someone other than himself. Hashem does not ask us to go beyond our G-d given attributes. We have to perform and act in accordance with our abilities. As Horav Zushia zl, M'Anipole was wont to say, "If they will ask me in the World of Truth, 'Zushia, why were you not like the Baal Shem Tov?' I will not be afraid. For I will readily answer, 'What am I to the Baal Shem Tov? I do not have his ability.' But I fear the moment that they will ultimately ask, 'Why were you not like Zushia?' Why did you not maximize your own potential?"

And him who curses you I will curse. (12:3) It does not say, Umekalelcha akalel, "I will curse," but rather, aaor, which is a different form of curse. Horav Levi Yitzchak, zl, m'Berditshev suggests that the aaor is derived from ohr, light. Hashem knew that anyone who would be insolent enough to curse Avraham Avinu, would have to have had no inkling of his virtue and innovative philosophy. Hashem promised Avrohom that He would give light, illuminate the minds and hearts of those who curse him, so that they will realize their utter foolishness.

Please let there be no strife between me and you…for we are kinsmen. (13:8) Pardes Yosef explains this homiletically. For all external appearances, we have the same appearance. Consequently, the average person does not distinguish between the two of us. Both of us appear to be righteous in their eyes. What will people say when they see two tzaddikim involved in dispute with one another?

And (he) told Avram the Ivri. (14:13) Why are Jews called Ivrim? The Shiniyivar Rav, zl, explains that this is meant to be a symbol to the nations that we view our lives on this world as a maaver, pathway, bridge to the Eternal World. In other words, we are only ovrim, passing through, on the way to a far greater and better world.

So shall your offspring be. (15:5) Klal Yisrael is compared to stars. The Baal Shem Tov explains that stars appear small only from the perspective of this world. In heaven, however, they are very distinguished and great. Likewise, Klal Yisrael appears to be small and inconsequential only in this world. In heaven, however, we are very significant. Alternatively, Hayom Yom suggests that stars illuminate the darkest night, lighting the way for those who need it. So, too, does every Jewish person have within him the ability to illuminate the spiritual darkness around him.

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Rabbi L. Scheinbaum

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