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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. (12:1)

In describing Avraham Avinu's home, the Torah seems to focus on how much Avraham was leaving behind him. The objective is clear: the greater the sacrifice, the greater the reward. We find that the Torah expresses a similar idea when Hashem instructs Avraham concerning the Akeidah. At that point, Hashem underscores Avraham's love for his only son. By doing so, he intensifies the extent of the sacrifice, thus increasing the reward. When we consider it, it is a sparse comparison between Yitzchak, Avraham's beloved son, and the city of Uhr Kasdim. It is not as if Avraham would have harbored fond memories of the place where he had been thrown into a fiery cauldron for repudiating idol worship. The city was spiritually bankrupt. Why would Avraham be attached to such an ignominious place?

Horav A. Henoch Leibowitz, zl, explains that, despite Avraham's righteousness, he was still a human being with natural emotions and sensitivities. As a pious, committed Jew, he had learned to channel his feelings in a positive direction and to direct his instincts towards Hashem. As a human being, he still had an innate love for his homeland, his birthplace, land of his family. This love coexisted with his even greater drive to serve Hashem. Likewise, when Avraham was about to slaughter Yitzchak, he did not go about it in a cold, detached - almost ruthless - manner. Chazal say that tears were flowing down his face, as he prepared for the slaughter. He did not suppress his love for Yitzchak. He simply had greater love for Hashem.

Hashem has endowed each and every individual with powerful emotions. They include love for: one's family, parents, siblings and children; one's home; and other natural gifts that define our humanness. We are to cultivate and nurture these feelings, so that we become better people capable, of greater love and sensitivity toward our fellow man and toward Hashem and His Torah. To smother our senses will only achieve a dehumanizing effect on ourselves, which will ultimately harm our relationship with Hashem. He wants sincere, caring, feeling people to serve Him with sincerity, sensitivity and emotion. Otherwise, He would have created us as angels. We must learn to channel our emotions - not tune them out. In this way we will be able to serve the Almighty more completely.

Go for yourself - from your land, from your relatives, and from your father's house. (12:1)

Hashem tells Avraham Avinu to uproot himself from his home and familiar surroundings in order to travel to an unspecified destination. The Torah goes into great detail concerning Avraham's point of departure - his land, his relatives, and his father's house. With regard to his destination, however, it says very little, if anything: "to the land that I will show you." It would seem that one's destination should be expounded upon and detailed, not his point of departure. When we plan a trip, the conversation is solely about where we are going, not from where we are leaving. In the Sifrei Chassidus, this pasuk is used as a paradigm for the personal journey of each Jew, his journey of self-discovery, his journey in search of the Source of his essence.

Every Jew is imbued with a Divine neshamah, soul. Some have lost sight of the Divine spark within themselves, allowing it to become subdued with physicality and materialism which, in effect, distances them from Hashem, the Divine Source of all spirituality. In order to succeed in one's quest, he must take as little baggage as possible. The baggage is his past, his home, his friends, his environment, all pulling him in a different direction than the one prescribed for him and needed by his soul. Thus, his first requirement is to divest himself of his past, so that, even if things do not exactly work out, such that he does not reach his goal, he, at least, will not end up reverting to his old patterns and original way of life.

The key to successful change is not necessarily knowing our destination. Many who have returned had no clue concerning where they were going or what were their goals. They knew one thing, however: they had to divest themselves of the past. The future would play itself out. The key to meaningful change is not to repeat one's old habits, one's old mistakes, not to permit the past to shape the future. This was Hashem's message to Avraham. Leave everything: your land, your relatives, and your father's house. Only then will you be able to journey to the land that I will show you.

This brings us to the concept of teshuvah, popularly mistranslated as repentance, but which really should be defined as return to one's source: Hashem. The baal teshuvah undergoes a transformation, beginning with his struggle to blot out his previous life, and then reconstructing a new life of meaning and values based on Torah and mitzvos. Frequently, teshuvah casts a harsh view of one's past to the point that he shuns every memory, relationship, dream and action, perceiving them as interfering with the future, a distraction that distorts and impugns his new destination. The baal teshuvah often fears returning to his old haunts, renewing his old ties, picking up where he left off, lest they prove burdensome and difficult to overcome.

In reality, while expunging the past is important - and perhaps even essential - it is extremely difficult. Teshuvah is a process in which one begins with a leap of disengagement, a liberation from the fetters of the past, followed immediately by a lengthy process of amending and constant improving, recalibrating, and reprogramming oneself to adopt a new way of life. With each step forward in the process of rectification, one further breaks with the past, until he is no longer tempted, provoked or seduced by his previous lifestyle.

How long does the process take? It all depends upon the returnee's sense of security in his new identity and his comfort zone with his new way of life. For some, it is a long, drawn-out process, very much like recuperating from a serious illness or surgery. Some of us just have a difficult time accepting change. The fear of the unknown, of acceptance, is so compelling that we often take baby steps when giant leaps are in order. While taking one's time builds up a solid foundation, taking too long can leave one in severe depression, floundering between his past, which is his security blanket, and the future, which remains obscure. All of this is part of the journey of self-discovery, which is a trip that everyone, regardless of background, should take some time in his life.

Go for yourself - from your land, from your relatives, and from your father's house. (12:1)

Rashi interprets lech lecha as "go for yourself" - l'hanaascha u'le'tovasecha, "for your pleasure and for your benefit." Hashem commanded Avraham Avinu to go for his own pleasure, but, according to some commentators, he did not follow instructions. He went simply because Hashem told him to go. Avraham went l'shem Shomayim, for the sake of Heaven. Horav Shimshon Pincus, zl, feels that, although this might be a nice thought and a tribute to our Patriarch, it is not correct. It does not sit right to suggest that Avraham did not follow Hashem's instruction. Indeed, in pasuk 4, the Torah writes, "So Avram went as Hashem had spoken to him." Hashem instructed him to go for his own pleasure and benefit. Avraham certainly did so. What is the Torah teaching us?

Rav Pincus explains that when a person performs an act of kindness, such as giving a dollar to a poor man, two considerations are in play regarding this charitable act. First, he achieved an act of chesed, loving-kindness. He availed a poor person the opportunity to purchase a slice of bread. Second, he elevated his own spiritual persona. He made himself into a baal chesed. Now, we may ask ourselves, which of these two achievements has greater significance: his completing an act of chesed which made the world a better place, or his own spiritual actualization? The pasuk answers our question with: Lech lecha - go for yourself. As far as Hashem is concerned, He wanted Avraham to act for himself. He wanted the Patriarch to refine himself, to elevate his own ishius, humanness. This is what was important to Hashem. Why? Avraham was the pillar of chesed. The Zohar HaKodesh defines true chesed as,ha'mischased im Kono, "One who acts kindly with his Creator." Authentic chesed is the act of kindness one performs for Hashem.

Rav Pincus explains the concept of acting kindly with Hashem in the following manner. Bona fide chesed is the act of providing a service or commodity for someone which they would otherwise not have. On his own, the service entity is unobtainable for him. For example, giving someone a candy when, in fact, he has a candy in his pocket, might be an act of chesed, but it certainly is not the embodiment of chesed. If the individual has no candy - and has no way of obtaining any candy - then the act is the typification of chesed.

Chazal are teaching us that Hashem is the only "One" who lacks one thing, and it is something which He cannot secure without man's cooperation: the perfection that man achieves for himself. When man perfects himself, when he makes himself a better person, he performs a chesed for Hashem. This is the meaning of Lech lecha, "go for yourself." Hashem's wish is that Avraham evolve himself into a better person. Hashem is capable of doing all of the wonderful things that Avraham is doing for the world. He can provide anything. He cannot, however, make Avraham a better person, because to do so would mean that Avraham is now a robot. He did nothing to better himself; Hashem did it for him. Thus, Avraham must personally act kindly towards others, so that, in turn, he becomes a better person. Hashem's focus was on Avraham's lecha, "yourself"/himself. He wanted the Patriarch to act in a manner that would elevate his own personal spiritual stature. Avraham did, in fact, follow instructions.

Avraham understood what Hashem demanded of Avraham - perfection. Hashem does not need man to build and develop the world. Hashem can do that Himself. He does not need man to support the poor, feed the ill, and care for the needy. Hashem can do that. There is only one thing that man can do which Hashem cannot do and still allow man to continue functioning as a man: perfect himself. In this manner, Avraham viewed every human being with awe and reverence. Each of them is capable of so much. Each could give Hashem what He desires, what He Himself cannot do. This is how Avraham stood in contradistinction to the rest of the world. He valued people. He saw their incredible potential.

This is where the members of secular society have distanced themselves from what Hashem has planned for them. We are able to send a man to the moon, to establish space stations in the distant solar system, but has it had any effect on mankind? Have we become better people? Scientifically, we are light years beyond our primitive ancestors; we are still slaves to lust, greed, and every form of mind-altering narcotics, but we can fly to Mars! We have done nothing to better ourselves. Regrettably, some of the effects of the secular society has crept into our own Torah world, which seems to distinguish between mitzvos that are Heaven-oriented and those that deal with our fellow man.

Rav Pincus emphasizes that an individual's distinction is not measured by the great things that he does, his great acts of charity, his incredible diligence in Torah study and brilliance in Torah erudition. No, it is determined by the little, simple things, the subtle acts of kindness, the innocuous acts of thoughtfulness which no one recognizes - often not even the benefactor, where no plaques are dedicated and no dinners are proffered in his honor. It is the little things that one does which demonstrate the "real" person. These are the actions that serve to elevate him and make him a better person. It is these acts of kindness that are an expression of "acting kindly with Hashem."

Rav Pincus relates three vignettes which are very telling and give us a perspective on the meaning of the "little things." Rav Yosef Liss, zl, a distinguished Torah scholar in Yerushalayim, was a close student of the Brisker Rav, zl, a survivor of the European inferno that killed so many of our brethren. His first wife and children had perished in the flames of the Holocaust. He was no longer a young man when he married a second time in Eretz Yisrael. His wife's first marriage had ended in her widowhood, after she had been married for over a decade without being blessed with children.

Originally, Rav Yosef was wary about remarrying, because he did not have incontrovertible proof that his wife had died. The Brisker Rav, however, urged him to remarry, so he listened to his rebbe. They were married for eight years without bearing children. Then, a miracle occurred, and they were blessed with a boy and a girl, respectively. When Rav Pincus asked him "who" was responsible for this miracle, he replied, "I was. It is because the entire time that I was not blessed with a child, I never once complained or asked the Brisker Rav for a brachah, blessing, lest he think that I held him 'responsible' for convincing me to get married. I did not want to cause my rebbe any grief." True greatness!

Second story: The famous mekubal, mystic, in Yerushalayim, the Baal HaLeshem, zl, was a holy man who was well versed in every area of Torah, both revealed and mystical. He was the author of a variety of treatises on all areas of Torah. His daughter was unable to conceive. When she went to the doctor, he gave her a grim verdict: she would never have children. Understandably, she was heartbroken. When she arrived home, she saw her holy father engrossed in his Torah study, and - not wanting to disturb him - she went outside and sat down in the corner of the alleyway and broke down in uncontrollable weeping.

After awhile, her father decided to go outside for some air. Imagine how he felt when he saw his daughter sitting in a corner weeping bitterly. "Why are you crying?" he asked. "The doctor told me I will never have children." "Why did you not sit in the house and cry? Why in the alley?" he asked. "I did not want to disturb your learning," she answered. "If that is the case, you will be blessed with a child," her father said. Her grandson is the poseik ha'dor, Horav Yosef Sholom Elyashiv, Shlita. Once again, the little things made the difference.

Last story: A Jew living in Yerushalayim was not yet blessed with children. He heard that in Bnei Brak there was a holy chassidishe Rebbe, who was a miracle worker. Apparently, whoever was fortunate to receive Maftir on the first day of Rosh Hashanah, was blessed that year with a child. That Maftir is considered to be a segulah, remedy, for childlessness, since it relates the story of Chanah, Shmuel HaNavi's mother, who for many years been barren.

The man related his unfortunate circumstance to the Rebbe, who suggested that he come to Bnei Brak for Rosh Hashanah, and he would receive Maftir. After Maariv on the first night of Rosh Hashanah, he met a Jew who had come to the Rebbe for the same reason. He was hoping to secure for himself Maftir of the following day, since he had no choice. When the first Jew - who had already been promised Maftir by the Rebbe - heard this, he decided not to daven there the next day, in order not to hurt the chances of the other Jew to get Maftir. He relinquished his right to Maftir and davened elsewhere! That year he was blessed with a daughter. It is the little things that determine one's greatness. Lech lecha, "go for yourself," make yourself a better person.

Avram passed into the land as far as the site of Shechem, until the plain of Moreh. (12:6)

Rashi teaches that Avraham Avinu's stopover in Shechem was intentional, so that he could pray for his descendants, Yaakov Avinu's sons, Shimon and Levi, who would one day battle against Shechem. Sifsei Chachamim questions this statement. It seems apparent that Avraham was aware that he would have offspring. Otherwise, why would he pray for them? If this is the case, what is the meaning of the pasuk later on in the parsha, when Avraham asks Hashem, "What can You give me, seeing that I go childless, and the steward of my house is (the) Damesek Eliezer?" (ibid.15:2). They reply that Avraham was concerned lest he father a child at an advanced age, whereby Eliezer would take his money. It seems far-fetched that this would be Avraham's greatest worry.

The Netziv, zl, explains that Avraham's concern was primarily for the education of his offspring. He wanted to be the one to transmit the mesorah, teachings of "Avraham," to the next generation of Jewish progeny. He feared that by the time he would have children, he would be so old that either he would not be able to impart it properly or the constraint of "time" would be a serious factor in limiting his children's long-term development. Avraham felt that his greatest "possession" was his spiritual dimension, which would be inherited primarily by Eliezer, who was a fine student and a righteous human being, but not his son. Avraham wanted to implant the concept of emunah, faith in Hashem, using his children as the vehicle for dissemination. His prized possession was his spirituality, and this is what he sought to bequeath to his offspring - not to his trusted servant.

Horav Chaim Elazary, zl, derives two powerful lessons from the Netziv's exposition. First, Avraham's tefillos, prayers, to have children were not simply a reflection of his desire to have children. He wanted children whom he could teach and to whom he could transmit the Torah of Hashem. Avraham's raison d'etre in life was to transmit the Torah legacy of Judaism to the world. Indeed, as the Netziv cites from the Midrash Rabbah, Avraham said to Hashem, "If You grant me progeny who will do nothing but anger You, better I should be childless." This was Avraham's lofty concept of fatherhood. He was a man on a mission, and he would do whatever is necessary to realize the goals of that mission.

Second, Avraham himself wanted to be the one who taught his children - not even Eliezer, his faithful servant, who would certainly perform royally with complete fidelity to the Abrahamatic tradition. Avraham felt that he personally should be the rebbe, mentor, to transmit the Torah to them. He had a distinct imprint which he sought to impart. Perhaps it was his understanding of the middah, attribute, of chesed, lovingkindness. Being the one who was considered the amud ha'chesed, pillar of lovingkindness, his insight into this remarkable character trait was unique. Thus, he wanted to teach the Torah with a special focus on chesed.

In addition, at best, a rebbe can model himself after the father, in an effort to teach the Torah in the most optimum manner, but he does not take the father's place. What about a father's teaching distinguishes itself over that of anyone else? We may suggest the following: The Torah in Bereishis 46:28 writes, "He sent Yehudah before him to Yosef, to instruct ahead of him in Goshen." Rashi explains that Yehudah was chosen from among all the brothers to become the first Rosh Yeshivah, as Yaakov sent him to Goshen to establish a bais talmud she'misham teitzei horaah, "a house of study from which instruction will go forth." The commentators are bothered by Yaakov Avinu's choice. Would it not have been more practical to send Yissachar, who was the consummate Torah student, or Levi, who epitomized spirituality? The Tiferes Shlomo explains that while all of this is true, Yehudah had one unique quality which distinguished him from the others, a quality which must be inherent in a Torah teacher, a quality which is intrinsic to Torah leadership: achrayos, responsibility. It was Yehudah who came forward and offered to be the guarantor for Binyamin's safe return. He took the responsibility. He was mekabel achrayos. Yehudah came forward and declared, Anochi e'ervenu, miyadi tevakshenu, "I will guarantee him of my own hand. You can demand him" (ibid.43:11). Torah and spirituality are very important, but - without a sense of responsibility - the educator will not succeed.

This is the quality that a parent has - or, at least, should have. Responsibility is synonymous with parenthood. One who is irresponsible simply cannot be a good parent. Parenting means taking responsibility - regardless of one's position or other responsibilities. Children come first.

Rashi cites Chazal at the end of Sefer Bamidbar to explain this idea. In the beginning of Parashas Masei, the Torah recounts Klal Yisrael's various encampments. Forty-two "stops" are enumerated, places which serve as allusions to the occurrences, both positive and negative, which took place there. Rashi quotes a Midrash which compares this detail to a king whose son had been taken ill. The king took the prince to a distant city to seek medical attention. The prince was cured, and his father, on the return trip, recounts all of the stops they took as well as what they did at each place: "Here, we slept; here, it was cold; here, it was very hot; etc." Likewise, as Klal Yisrael nears the end of their forty-year journey, Hashem reminisces with them concerning the various places in which they encamped and what occurred in each place. The commentators question why the story presented a king who travelled with his son. Would the analogy be different if it had been a simple father who had taken a long trip with his son? Does the fact that the father was the king have any bearing on the story?

The commentators explain that Chazal emphasize melech, king, as a way of underscoring the idea that, regardless of who the father is, he must set aside time for his children, not only for study, but even for simple conversation, such as reminiscing about a recent trip. Everything matters, and every incident plays an important role in a child's development. That is a father's and mother's responsibility.

Nothing stands in the way of educating one's own children. The greatest Torah leaders would set aside the most important meetings and lectures if it would infringe upon the time designated for their children. The Skverer Rebbe, Horav Yaakov Twersky, zl, was a world leader, whose every waking moment was devoted to Klal Yisrael and to his own avodas ha'kodesh, service of Hashem. He was an individual more spiritual than physical, his entire life a symphony of holiness and purity. Yet, when he was living in Bucharest, Romania, following World War II, he felt that the "street" culture was not conducive to a Jewish girl's religious development. His daughters had to play, and he felt there were no other girls with whom they could play constructively. So, what did this great tzadik, righteous person, do? He set aside time to play with them! He even knitted with them! Indeed, he was involved in every aspect of their development. He understood the responsibility that rests upon every Jewish parent.

Va'ani Tefillah

Rotzeh Hashem es yireiav es ha'meyachalim l'chasdo
Hashem takes delight in those who fear Him, those who wait (hope) for His loving kindness.

Horav Avigdor Miller, zl, notes that the word "and" is not used to connect what seems to be two categories of people: G-d-fearing Jews, and those who trust in Him, awaiting His kindness. The connection is not used because they are one and the same. Just as there is no true sense of bitachon, trust, in Hashem without yiraas Shomayim, fear of Heaven, so, too, is there no fear of Hashem unless one sincerely believes that He desires to do good, to act benevolently with us. The individual who fears Hashem - but does not recognize and acknowledge that Hashem desires kindliness - is no different than one who ascribes corporeality to Hashem, limiting His abilities. Both of these beliefs are categorically false. One who truly is boteach b'Hashem, trusts in the Almighty, is a G-d-fearing Jew, who has a keen awareness of Hashem and lives by His every precept. Indeed, when we think about it and just take a moment to look around us, we will understand that the greatest kindness that Hashem can bestow upon us is that we succeed in attaining a true fear of Heaven, because that defines the perfection of man.

l'ilui nishmas
R' Eliezer ben R' Yitzchok Chaim z"l
niftar 12 Cheshvan 5766
Izsak Keller
Perl & Harry Brown & Family
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Peninim on the Torah is in its 18th year of publication. The first fourteen years have been published in book form.

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