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Peninim on the Torah

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Rabbi A. Leib Scheinbaum
Hebrew Academy of Cleveland


Go forth from your land, your birthplace, and from your father's house. (12:1)

Chazal tell us that Avraham Avinu was miraculously saved in Uhr Kasdim when the evil king Nimrod had him thrown into a fiery furnace. Our Patriarch emerged unscathed. Following this test of Avraham's devotion to the point of self-sacrifice, Hashem instructed him to leave his homeland, his birthplace, and his father's home. One would think that the usual method of testing, in which the testing ascends from the simple task to the more difficult, would be applied here. This does not seem to be the case concerning Avraham, who, after Hashem tested him with his life, then tested him in what appeared to be a milder test. Uhr Kasdim was a test on a grand scale, a test which Avraham passed with flying colors. His mesiras nefesh, self-sacrifice, surely engendered a sense of awe for the Almighty, inspiring the people of that generation to leave their idols to worship the one true G-d. To be commanded afterwards to leave his home seems anti-climactic. What purpose was served by such a test?

Horav Chaim Scheinberg, Shlita, explains that the essence of a test lies in its power to arouse in a man's dormant spirit his hidden potential for greatness and to actualize it. A test is not measured by the method in which it is presented, but rather by its potential to effect change in a person's nature. It certainly took great fortitude and tremendous resolve to choose death rather than idol worship. As supreme as the sacrifice of Uhr Kasdim was, it was an isolated event, rather than part of a process.

The Gaon zl, m'Vilna, is quoted in Even Shleimah, "The primary purpose of a person's life is always to intensify his efforts to change his character. And, if not, why live?" Apparently, change is much more important than we realize. Correcting our character flaws-- refining our character traits-- is a major aspect of our lives. We think that if we do not succeed in doing so, we can still live productive Jewish lives, observe mitzvos, carrying out acts of loving kindness, study Torah and everything else a Jew should do. The Gaon asserts that this is not true. Without growth, life is nothing for us! It is a waste! This idea is the central point of the Gaon's sefer: the entirety of avodas Hashem, serving G-d, is dependent on the rectification of middos, character traits. The changes that we make in our character are the decisive factors upon which our lives revolve. Simply, the success of our lives is measured by how much growth we can effect in ourselves. No changes - no life. It is that simple!

Change goes counter to our personalities. Indeed, the more we become accustomed to doing something, the easier it becomes, until it becomes second nature. When it becomes habit, it is much more difficult to override. In addition to the habits that we have acquired, our G-d-given character traits and disposition, combined with that which we have learned throughout our youth, have, over the years, become a part of our essential personality. Thus, it is clear that change, while it is necessary, remains extremely elusive.

Nonetheless, it can be done. Otherwise, Hashem would not demand it of us. A person can change his nature, providing that his efforts are continual, steady and intensive. We have an obligation to battle continually, with no let-up and with all of our might. This is the meaning of the command of lech lecha.

Hashem first commanded Avraham to leave his country, then forsake his family, and, last, to leave his father's home. This was done by design, with Hashem's commands proceeding from the easier to the more difficult. Leaving a father's home is very difficult. This was Avraham's test - the test of change - the test of divorcing himself from the past and the familiar.

Uhr Kasdim was a unique test. It availed Avraham the "once in a life" opportunity of sacrificing his life to sanctify Hashem's Name. It is not granted to everyone. This is not, however, the only way to demonstrate our fealty to Hashem. There is also the daily test of kiddush ha'chaim, sanctifying life by living in accordance with His commands. Putting aside our desires and inclinations-- our personal concerns and vested interests-- for the sake of a life devoted to Hashem, is no less a sacrifice. Lech lecha represents the test of daily living, the unrelenting test of constant, continual and total commitment to Hashem. Some might argue that the test of self-sacrifice is the epitome of commitment. It is a one-time opportunity, which one either passes or fails. The test of life is constant. It is much greater in its potential for success, but also in the possibility of failure. Avraham was miraculously saved from the fiery furnace of Uhr Kasdim. Now came the test of change. He was now challenged to change and grow completely on his own, without the help of miracles.

Avraham's second test, the test of change, was a gradual test that increased with difficulty as he ascended from level to level. Each milestone of success developed his commitment, as it brought out deeper levels of service to Hashem. Through this test, our Patriarch grew in stature and became a tzaddik.

We, too, have latent potential for growth. With every day of life we face the opportunity for growth. The inevitable ordeals of life are tests of "change," tests that are also opportunity. With each test that we successfully master, we grow closer to Hashem and greater in personal spiritual stature. We must remember that when the nature of the test is the ability to change, being satisfied with partial success is tantamount to failure. Change is a complete process. To stop midway and rely on one's past laurels is stagnation, which is counter to change. It is the partner of habit, which produces the result of failure. We are not successful unless we continue to grow.

He proceeded on his journeys from the south to Bais-El. (13:3)

The implication derived from this pasuk is that these non-specific journeys were part of a larger known journey. Avraham Avinu stopped at the same places where he lodged on his original trip. Chazal comment that the Torah is teaching us proper etiquette. One should not change his usual lodging unless he has suffered abuse or humiliation there. Otherwise, he will give the impression that either he is a difficult person to please or that his lodgings had not been satisfactory. This will cause undue harm to the host's personal feelings and reputation. In an alternate exposition, Rashi explains that Avraham stopped at all of these places to pay off the credit that he received from the hosts on his original trip. Apparently, our Patriarch fell on hard times and had to rely on the good hearts of a number of benefactors to grant him a place to lodge. He had no money, and they were kind enough to trust him.

Let us picture in our mind the Avraham that set out on his journey. Nary a penny to his name, Avraham had to rely on finding a place to sleep and eat based on the favor of kind-hearted people. Certainly, his accommodations were not going to win any awards. A poor man that goes from place to place: If he is lucky to find an open door, a welcome bed, a hot meal, it will not be of the same quality and quantity as that of a wealthy person for whom money is no object. If he would find a bench in the back of the shul, a piece of hard bread, anything, he would consider himself fortunate.

On his return trip, Avraham Avinu was world famous, powerful and fabulously wealthy. He certainly could have purchased the entire hotel! Five-star ratings for his lodging needs, and restaurants that cater to the world's effete rich, would be where he would now be expected to stay. Not Avraham. He understood the laws of proper etiquette. He was a mentch, a refined human being, the paradigm of ethical character. His sensitivity to the needs and sentiments of others was his hallmark. He stayed at the same places as he had previously. He ate the same meals with the same people. The fact that he now had money did not alter his obligation to be a mentch.

Chazal say, "Do not change your lodgings." Why? Life is part of a cycle. We have no idea what tomorrow will bring. It is possible that the one who is quite wealthy today will be seeking alms tomorrow. It happens all of the time. The one who is on top of the world, often rubbing his success in everyone's face, is suddenly on the receiving end of the line. He who made a big point about his "giving" must now "take" and be subject to the kindness of others.

Do not forget your roots, or the people that have enabled your success. This applies not only in the area of financial success; it applies equally in every area of successful endeavor, especially in the spiritual realm. How easily we forget our rebbeim who taught us with patience and put up with our tantrums, as well as some of the unreasonable demands of our parents. For those whose return to the faith was a long process, they, too, must acknowledge the many who opened their doors, welcomed them at their Shabbos tables, sat with them in the bais ha'medrash and were always there to answer questions, give support and encourage them further. Avraham Avinu taught us etiquette. This is certainly one of his many lessons that are worth emulating.

Then there came the fugitive and told to Avram, the Ivri. (14:13)

Chazal explain that Avraham Avinu was called Ivri, from the word eivar, the other side. This implies that Avraham stood on one side of the moral and spiritual divide, while the rest of the world was on the other. He was a man isolated from the world in his hashkafah, philosophic perspective, his spiritual demeanor and his moral rectitude. He was alone. He was the Ivri. Horav Eliezer M. Shach, zl, asks a very compelling question on this definition of our Patriarch's name and "position." Chazal also teach us that Avraham distinguished himself from Noach in that he did not need the support of Hashem to maintain his spiritual growth, while Noach could not do it alone. Noach needed Hashem's assistance to keep his head above water, to maintain his resolve in the daily challenges of dealing with a world filled with pagan heresy.

The commentators explain that Noach needed the support more than Avraham, because Noach was a tzaddik in his own little world. He did not interact with the members of his generation. Thus, he did not influence them in a positive way. Avraham, on the other hand, was an ish ha'chesed, a man who was the paradigm of loving kindness. He reached out to a world that was drowning in moral and spiritual degeneracy. His kindness was nispasheit; it expanded and spread forth, from him to a pagan world. The z'chus, merit, of reaching out sustained and supported Avraham. If this is the case, then how could Avraham be considered a man "alone" in the world? How does one inspire and infuse others with spiritual verities if he remains isolated?

Perhaps, Avraham inspired a world by example. A man who represents the truth must reflect the truth in his every activity. His character and personality - indeed, everything about him-- from his relationship with people, to his discourse with Hashem-- must reflect the paragon of integrity. People are impressed by the truth. Even if they do not come into direct contact with the individual who is the source of their inspiration, his principled character, his authenticity and ingenuous nature, stand out and inspire people. Avraham HaIvri was a man alone against the world, but he represented the truth. Everything about him bespoke the truth. Regardless of how far they are distanced from the path of truth, people know deep down within themselves what it is and where it is. This is how Avraham inspired a world - by being who he was.

Truthfulness is the primary ingredient of Torah. One who lacks integrity lacks in Torah. He will never succeed in imparting Torah to others, because he is missing the ingredient most necessary for its dissemination. It is the power cell that drives the diffusion of Torah to the masses. The Talmud Bava Kama 38b relates that the Romans sent two soldiers to study Torah from the scholars of the Mishnah. After learning the entire Torah, they reported, "We have learned the entire Torah, and it is all correct except for your law that if the cow of a Jew gores the cow belonging to a gentile, he does not pay, but if the cow of a gentile gores the cow of a Jew, he must pay in full." The Yam Shel Shlomo asks why the sages revealed this incriminating piece of information. After all, they did not have to blatantly demonstrate the laws that favor Jew over gentile. He answers by explaining that the Torah cannot be diluted and changed to suit someone's fancy, even under the threat of death. Once it is altered, it is no longer Torah.

Many have wondered why Horav Aharon Kotler, zl, founder of Beth Medrash Govoha, had the z'chus, merit, to establish what was to become the largest Torah center in America. While many of Rav Aharon's incredible qualities come to mind, one factor remains indisputable: his total commitment to the emes, truth. Torah and emes are synonymous; they have a natural tendency to gravitate toward each other. There are many incidents in his life that reflect the Rosh Yeshivah's integrity, but his first speech at a fund-raising affair on behalf of the yeshivah, explaining the yeshiva's raison d'etre, underscores his unfeigned nature.

The Rosh Yeshivah transplanted the concept of limud Torah lishmah, studying Torah for its own sake, to these shores. The American Orthodox perception of Torah study was quite different. A yeshivah was a place that should produce learned lay people, educated pulpit rabbis, yeshivah and day school rebbeim, but they all had a "purpose." Torah learning for its own sake: that was a European ideal popularized by the saintly Horav Chaim Volozhiner, zl. It was not for America. Nonetheless, Rav Aharon declared, "I do not want you to misunderstand me; I do not want to mislead you. There is a need for roshei yeshivah in this country and elsewhere, and Lakewood will produce them. There is a need for effective teachers and for the right kind of rabbis, and Lakewood will produce them. There is a need for baalei batim, lay people, who are talmidei chachamim, Torah scholars, and Lakewood will send them forth. However, the raison d'etre of Lakewood is limud Torah lishmah. It is with this understanding and for this purpose that I am asking for your support."

This might have been a message that the guests neither expected nor appreciated. Nonetheless, if the Rosh Yeshivah were going to build a yeshivah that would serve the needs of Klal Yisrael, it had to be built upon the foundation of emes.

I share another incredible vignette, concerning Horav Yehudah Tzadakah, zl, who was mentor to a number of the most distinguished Sephardic scholars of our generation. He also taught baalei batim. Believing very strongly in educating laymen, he gave a daily shiur from four to five o'clock each morning. One day, the Rosh Yeshivah overslept and came to shul a few minutes before five o'clock. He immediately sat down, opened his sefer and was about to begin teaching. Suddenly, he closed it and instructed the men to study among themselves.

After davening, one of the men queried him, "Is not every moment of Torah learning precious?" Rav Yehudah hesitated a moment and replied, "I was afraid that the worshippers who were coming for the five o'clock Shacharis might think that I had been teaching since four o'clock in the morning. This would be a deception. I could not betray them. So I decided not to teach at all. Torah and emes are one."

Then there came the fugitive and told Avramů (14:13)

Sometimes it takes a powerful example to drive home an idea. Let me explain. Chazal relate the identity of this fugitive. It was none other than Og, king of Bashan, who had survived the flood. In the simple meaning of the pasuk, he is called the fugitive because he had just escaped the battlefield. Chazal add that Og's motives were less than honorable. In fact, they were iniquitous. He had hoped to incite Avraham Avinu to leave the safety of his home and enter into the fray of battle. Anticipating that the Patriarch would be killed and his widow would become available to him, Og put on an air of righteousness, but it was all a sham. Hashem gave Og his due: the reward of longevity for informing Avraham; and death at the hands of the Jewish people in response to his serpentine motives.

Horav Sholom Schwadron, zl, puts this incident into perspective. Imagine seeing a person walking down the street that leads to shul, bedecked in his Tallis and Tefillin and carrying his Korban Mincha Siddur. People in a group of Jews, noticing this sight, remark "There goes so and so. Do you know where he is going? He is on his way to murder someone or commit an act of adultery. This would clearly seem preposterous, given the image of the person wearing his religious garb and walking to shul. Yet, this is what occurred with Og. Here is a man, a survivor from the battlefield, who comes running, screaming, "Help! Help! They are going to kill your nephew, Lot. Come quickly before it is too late!" He appears honorable, but so does the man who is supposedly going to shul to pray, when, in fact, he is on his way to commit a heinous act of perversion.

Rav Sholom cites his rebbe, Rav Leib Chasman, zl, who would explain this anomaly with the following pasuk in Iyov (11:12), "Let one who is (like) a wild donkey be reborn as a man!" This means that one should grab the opportunity to repent while he can. The pasuk is teaching us that when man is born, he is potentially like a wild donkey. If left undisciplined and unrestrained, he will grow up a wild donkey. There is nothing to hold him back. The pera adam, wild man, can be stopped with the nishmas chaim, soul of life, with which Hashem has imbued him. If he studies Torah and works on himself, he can turn around his potentially base character. If he does not, he will simply continue into adulthood with this wild, intemperate nature.

Rav Leib would continue, "I ask you, do you think Og studied mussar, ethics and character refinement? Surely, not. Thus, when we see someone who is uncouth running down the street, regardless of how he presents himself to us, we can safely assume that he is about to do the worst. Nothing is beyond one who is a pera adam!"

Va'ani Tefillah

I who have always had trust in Your loving-kindness, my heart jubilates because of Your salvation; I want to sing to Hashem when He brings His promises to fruition.

The concept of receiving reward from Hashem for our good deeds is a difficult one because everything that we do "for" Hashem is the result of the ability and wherewithal that He grants us. For instance, a man hires a worker to build him a table. The owner supplies the raw materials and hardware. When the worker completes the job, he can hardly say to the man, "I made for you a present." Everything that he had was received from the owner. It certainly cannot be called a gift. Likewise, Hashem says to us: "Who can precede Me with payment? One who builds a railing around his roof fulfills a mitzvah, but who gave him the roof to begin with - if not Hashem?" Likewise, one affixes a Mezuzah to his door, but the door is on the house that Hashem gave him. One buys a Lulav with the money Hashem gave him. One places Tzitzis on the garment that Hashem gave him. In other words, no one ever precedes Hashem.

Nonetheless, Hashem rewards a person as if he initiated the mitzvah. He rewards us as if we really deserve it. Horav Azaryah Figu, zl, interprets this idea into the tefillah, "and I trusted in Your kindness." I knew it would come, but I was acutely aware that this is an act of loving-kindness on Your part. When I receive this chesed I will be delighted, but I will not proclaim my feelings publicly, knowing full well that everything that I receive is a chesed from Hashem. However, when I receive a reward for my mitzvos and good deeds, then "I will sing Your praises publicly," because I realize that despite the fact that You enabled me to fulfill the mitzvah, You still recognize My act as if it had been initiated solely by Me.

l'ilui nishmas
R' Eliezer ben R' Yitzchok Chaim z"l
niftar 12 Cheshvan 5766
Izsak Keller
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