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Peninim on the Torah

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Rabbi A. Leib Scheinbaum
Hebrew Academy of Cleveland


Go for yourself from your land, from your relatives, and from your father's house to the land that I will show you. (12:1)

In Luban, Russia, after World War I, there was a young rav who was extremely dedicated to the community. An erudite Torah scholar with an encyclopedic knowledge of Shas and Poskim, the Talmud and Codes of Jewish Law, he was also an individual of great integrity and piety. All of this, however, was overshadowed by his incredible humility. When the Russian government removed the town's shochet from his position, the rav studied ritual slaughtering and became the community shochet. When they closed the mikveh, he found a way to validate a brook that was used for swimming for use as a mikveh. He was able to convince the authorities to allow separate times for men and women to swim. Life was very difficult. Compensation for his rabbinic duties was practically non-existent. The authorities were on his case on a regular basis. He already had one foot in a Siberian labor camp. He had no choice left; he would have to emigrate. Eretz Yisrael was out of the question. The only viable option was the United States.

Horav Moshe Feinstein, zl, came with his young family to these shores in search of a livelihood, in search of a place to teach Torah, in search of the American dream. This dream turned into a nightmare for many Jews. Shabbos was a memory of the past. Kashrus--was not much better. Torah and mitzvos were left behind in Europe. Rav Moshe wanted a place to study and teach Torah. That was his vocation. Instead, he was offered a position as a mashgiach, kosher supervisor. He said he would wait a little longer. Perhaps something would come up. Perhaps he would find work in a Torah-related field.

He was offered the position of Rosh Hayeshivah at Mesifta Tiferes Yerushalayim. The rest is history. Rav Moshe became the posek ha'dor, halachic-decision maker for the generation, a man who contributed to changing the image of Torah in this country. To think that he had almost become a mashgiach. It is incredible to think that the Torah world would have suffered irreparable damage had he not been prepared to wait a little longer.

Rav Moshe once remarked to those closest to him, "Do you know the difference between us and Avraham Avinu?" They were taken aback by the question, but were more surprised with his reply, "Actually, there is no difference between us."

When Rav Moshe noticed the look of incredulity on their faces, he commented, "Avraham Avinu listened to the dvar, word of Hashem. He was told, 'Go for yourself, from your land, from your relatives, from your father's home to the land that I will show you.' He did exactly what Hashem had instructed him to do. I did the same. Not only I, but hundreds of thousands of our brethren picked themselves up, left their homes, their places of birth, and went to a strange land. I am certain that our arrival at these shores was to fulfill a G-d given-mandate. Does the pasuk in Mishlei 20:24, 'A man's steps are from Hashem, but what does a man understand of his way?' not support this idea? In reality, however, there is one difference between us and Avraham. Our Patriarch was fully aware from the first moment that he was carrying out Hashem's will. We think that we are acting in our own behalf, by our own volition, because of our own motivation. It is only afterward, when we look back objectively, that we realize that it has all been part of the Divine Plan."

Rav Moshe applied this thought towards explaining the pasuk in Bamidbar 7:89, "He (Moshe) heard the Voice speaking to him from atop the Cover." Hashem did not speak directly to Moshe. The Almighty "spoke" to Himself, and Moshe listened. This is how life is lived in this world. Hashem speaks to Himself. Some of us listen and are part of the Divine Plan from the ground floor. Others act and, only later on, realize that it was all part of Hashem's plan.

"If people would realize that everything is part of G-d's Divine Plan," Rav Moshe explained, "there would be no such thing as divorce. Chazal teach us that forty days prior to conception, it is decreed from Heaven, 'The daughter of so and so is to wed so and so.' This is Hashem speaking to Himself. Regrettably, we do not 'hear' the Voice. Therefore, the young couple meet, and a relationship blossoms which leads to marriage. Afterwards, it is realized that they are one another's bashert, predetermined mate. This was Hashem's decree from the beginning, but no one listened."

This idea applies to so many areas of human endeavor. Our financial success is determined and announced by the same Voice. Our house, our field, our position, our business - it is all declared by Hashem. If we would only trust in Him initially, then we would not have to undergo much of the anxiety that is part and parcel of every endeavor. Otherwise, we will just have to wait until after the fact to realize that, in any event, He has been in control all of the time.

Go for yourself from your land, from your relatives, and from your father's house to the land that I will show you. (12:1)

It happened at the beginning of World War II that the Brisker Rav, zl, found himself in Warsaw. The city had already been overrun by the Nazi hordes, and his only chance for survival was to escape to Vilna. By the time he reached Vilna, the Soviets had already claimed this Lithuanian city as its own. He now looked towards Eretz Yisrael as a haven for himself and his family. The future certainly presented itself as being rosy in contrast to the present.

It was the week of Parashas Lech Lecha, and one of his close talmidim, students, came up to his apartment and found the Rav engrossed in thought. He overheard him saying the following, "In the Rambam's commentary to Mishnayos Avos, he counts Avraham's nisayon, challenge, of 'Lech Lecha,' having to uproot himself and wander to a strange land, as the first of his ten trials. Why is this a challenge? It was Hashem Who instructed him to leave. It was Hashem Who promised him that great things would happen as a result of this move. He would become a great nation and serve as a blessing. For what more could a person ask? It is not as if he heard this promise from a prophet or even an angel. He heard it directly from Hashem. Is this to be considered a challenge?"

The Brisker Rav answered his own question with the obvious, "Apparently, this teaches us that galus, exile, is galus. Regardless of the wonderful future in store for a person, having to wander is a difficult and trying challenge."

While the student did not want to be insolent, he nonetheless had a question which he wanted to pose to his rebbe, who was aware of his presence during his "comments." "Rebbe, this hypothesis is correct when one leaves his home at a time of peace and calm, but, if Brisk is under the siege of the Nazis, and in Lithuania we have no idea what tomorrow will bring, it really is no nisayon. We must leave!"

The Brisker Rav replied, "You are mistaken. Do we not find Yirmiyahu Ha'Navi lauding the nascent Klal Yisrael for following Hashem into the wilderness? They were certainly not leaving a resort. They went into the desert after hundreds of years of Egyptian persecution. Yet, they are praised. After all is said and done, it is difficult to leave one's home and one's roots, even if the destination is filled with great promise and hope."

And Avram took his wife, Sarai…and the souls they made in Charan. (12:5)

Targum Onkelos explains v'es ha'nefesh asher asu b'Charan, "and the souls they made in Charan" as, v'yas nafshasa di shabidu l'Oraisa, "and the souls which they committed to Torah." This teaches us, notes Horav Baruch Mordechai Ezrachi, Shlita, that the only commitment of substance, the only obligation that has value and endurance, is a commitment to Torah. "Turning someone on," getting them to enjoy mitzvah observance, attending services in shul, are all wonderful beginnings, but the nefesh has not yet been made, success has not been achieved, until there is a shibud, obligation and commitment, to Torah study. Only then is there hope that the individual who has been "turned on" will not turn around and become "turned off." Torah protects and ensures the success of the transformation. Torah catalyzes the transformation and sustains the momentum.

Furthermore, adds Rav Ezrachi, one cannot have a shibuda l'Oraisa unless it is accompanied with a lech lecha, go for yourself, me'artzecha, from your land, etc. One must leave his original environment; break his ties with the past. He is committed to one thing and one thing only: Torah. When the separation is unequivocal, as it was with Avraham and Sarah, when there is a total severance from the commitments of the past, there can be a total commitment to Torah.

In the Talmud Avodah Zarah 9A, Chazal teach us that the world will endure for six thousand years, of which two thousand will be filled with Torah and two thousand will represent the days of Moshiach. Chazal add that the two thousand years of Torah begin with the "souls they made in Charan," at which point Avraham Avinu was fifty-two years old. This was four hundred and forty-eight years before the Torah was given on Har Sinai. This is a powerful statement, since it implies that the first fifty-two years of Avraham's life, after he had "discovered" Hashem on his own and underwent the miracle at Uhr Kasdim, were all included in the two thousand years of void. Why are the early years of Avraham's life discounted? Are they to be ignored and considered for naught? Furthermore, the "making" of these souls did not just happen overnight. They were not "made" in a vacuum. What was so unique about the nefesh that they made in Charan that initiated the two thousand years of Torah?

This teaches us that it all had to come together, the commitment to Torah in association with leaving his home. At the point of total severance there developed within them a complete commitment to Torah. It was at that specific juncture they became "made"; they were recreated as a nefesh, committed fully to Torah. Moreover, while Avraham and Sarah had achieved incredible personal success, it was only after they had committed others to Torah that they initiated the period of two thousand years of Torah. The void ended when others became committed to Torah. Personal growth is to be measured by how much we do for others. Likewise, growth in Torah is quantified by how much one is able to transmit his Torah to others. Reaching out to others is more than a kiruv, outreach opportunity; it comprises the essence of Torah learning. My Torah grows when I am able to impart it to others. This is the underlying meaning of Toras chesed, a Torah of kindness. There is no greater kindness, no more impressive gift, than sharing the gift of Torah with others.

And he (Avraham) built an altar to Hashem and invoked Hashem by Name. (12:8)

Avraham Avinu preached to the world community about the unity of G-d. He taught the concept of monotheism to a pagan society. Chazal emphasize Avraham's achievements when they say in Pirkei Avos 5:2 that Hashem was very patient with the generations from Adam until Noach. They angered Him increasingly, until Hashem decided to bring the flood to wipe them out. There were also ten generations from Noach until Avraham. They also angered Hashem, until Avraham came and received the reward for them all. During the first set of generations, Hashem's patience finally gave in to the flood which destroyed the sinners. During the second set of generations, Hashem's patience simply waited for Avraham to appear and redeem the world with his good deeds. We wonder what there was about Avraham that outshone every other righteous person that had preceded him. Surely, there were other upstanding human beings who believed in Hashem and stood up for righteousness and justice. Yet, they did not succeed in receiving reward. Why was it Avraham that accomplished what no one before him had been able to achieve? What made him so unusually worthy of distinction?

Horav Yisroel Belsky, Shlita, explains that Avraham took the shortcomings of the previous generations, transforming them into opportunities to spread the knowledge of Hashem throughout the world. He cites the Talmud in Eiruvin 6A, which relates that Rav once visited a city in which the inhabitants were lax in their Shabbos observance, making light of the prohibition against carrying on Shabbos. Rav immediately made gedarim, protective safeguards, for eiruvin which became directives to serve the Jewish People for years to come. He taught us an important principle in life: a failing may serve as an opportunity for growth. A deficiency may provide the stimulus for a creative solution that will not only remove the problem, but might revolutionize the entire picture.

This is the approach employed by Avraham. He used the people's deficiencies as a mirror to reflect the truth of the one true G-d. He was able to take the failings of the preceding generations and use them as a medium for teaching positive ethical behavior. Thus, he earned a great reward for turning their inequity into good.

Avraham introduced a new relationship between man and G-d. His teachings have influenced a world in different ways. Yet, from a religious viewpoint, Judaism remains distinct and unique. Gentile religions distinguish between the cleric and the layman. The theologian immerses himself in the theory and ritual of their religion, while the layman leads a secular life, other than the few rituals involved in certain times of devotion, such as holidays. His life does not revolve around religion. His religion is, rather, a part of his life.

Judaism is based on a totally different premise. The obligation to believe, to learn and to practice is applicable to everyone. A rabbi spends more of his time devoted to Torah study and dissemination, but his obligation to study and to observe is no different from that of the layman. We are enjoined to be "a kingdom of priests and a holy nation." This exhortation applies across the board for all Jews alike, regardless of vocation or calling.

Avraham taught us that one can serve Hashem at all times. Every single moment of life affords us the opportunity to serve the Creator. Furthermore, it is the essence of life: to serve Hashem and bring the world into perfection. This is why Avraham received the reward for all those who had preceded him. He saw an opportunity in evil, and perfection where others saw failure. Everyone could serve G-d; everyone could climb out of the abyss and elevate himself. His teachings, albeit not accepted by everyone, have at least influenced a world with a belief in monotheism and a sense of morality, regardless of how much this "sense" has changed over the years.

A Jew's greatest goal is to become an eved, servant, of Hashem. This was Moshe Rabbeinu's greatest appellation. To become an eved, one must subjugate himself entirely to his Master. Every moment, every thought, every focus, everything we do should be directed towards this goal. This can only be achieved through learning. Chazal teach us in Pirkei Avos 2:5, "A boor does not fear sin, and an unschooled man cannot be a saint." Learning is the prerequisite to knowledge, which leads to piety and virtue. Unless one is constantly striving to increase his knowledge of Torah, he cannot achieve his potential; he cannot become a true eved Hashem.

Rav Belsky concludes with a meaningful and profound thought from a young man who was preparing to convert to Judaism. When asked by the supervising Rabbi what it was about our religion that had prompted him to become a Jew, he replied, "Every religion promises a glorious future existence after death. Only Judaism offers true fulfillment here on earth." Only a Torah lifestyle takes every minute and makes it holy. We begin our day with Modeh Ani, thanking Hashem for granting us life, and we end it with Shema Yisrael, accepting the yoke of Heaven upon us. Whenever we partake in this world, we do so with a blessing. Our daily interactions are guided by halachah, Jewish law. Our philosophy of life is based upon the ethical and moral guidance of the Torah. This was Avraham's teaching: B'chol derachecha de'eihu, "In all your ways, know Him." Our lives revolve around Him.

Va'ani Tefillah

u'neshabeichacha, and we will praise You.

While the word shevach is usually translated as praise, it really means, l'hashbiach, to improve something. For example, if a field is underproductive, we are mashbiach, improve it, so that it will produce more and better produce. If this is the case, how should the concept of improving something apply with regard to our relationship with Hashem? Horav Shimon Schwab, zl, gives a penetrating explanation that goes to the heart of how we should relate to Hashem. There are situations in life in which we do not see Hashem with the clarity necessary to understand what and why something is occurring. We are not able to perceive Him as being tov u'meitiv, absolutely good. When one is confronted with a challenging situation, an illness, a tragedy, he must accept that gam zu l'tova, this is for the good. We do not see the good, but our faith in the Almighty inspires us to believe that this, too, is good. The Mishnah requires man to bless Hashem for what seems to be bad, as well as he does when something occurs that is good. This acceptance, this overwhelming sense of commitment and belief despite the challenge to our intellectual and emotional understanding of a situation, is called shevach. Thus, regardless of how the Almighty might deal with us, we nonetheless are mashbiach Him, in a sense "improve" our perception of Him, in all of life's occurrences and under all situations. Good or otherwise - it should always be perceived as good.

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