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

Clearly, Hashem's command to Avraham Avinu to uproot himself from his home and travel to a yet undesignated land serves as a metaphor for his descendants. Maaseh Avos siman l'banim, "The deeds of the fathers serve as a sign /portent for their sons/descendants." We must learn to understand Avraham's move and its purpose as a mold for our own need to move on, move up, move out - at the appropriate times.

In his sefer, Nitzotzos, Horav Yitzchak Hershkowitz, Shlita, relates a shmuess, ethical discourse, given by Horav Chizkiyahu Mishkovsky, Shlita, to a gathering of Lev L'Achim volunteers. His words are timely; his lesson is significant. The Rosh Yeshivah shared the following poignant story with the gathering: In one of the mainstream yeshivos in Eretz Yisrael, a young student was studying who unquestionably was destined to achieve great prominence in the Torah world. His life was one long Torah endeavor. He was eating and sleeping his Gemorah. Wherever he went, his Gemorah was with him. Every free minute that he had was spent immersed in Torah study. He literally did not waste a minute from his precious Torah. It went without saying that the regular yeshiva sedorim, study sessions, during which everyone was expected to learn, his personal study was outstanding and consummate, his devotion - absolutely unreal.

In addition, this promising young man stood out in his service of Hashem, his tefillah reflecting a profound sense of commitment and deep understanding of what it means to speak to Hashem. His kavanah, intention/devotion was intense; his fervor passionate and expressed from the inner recesses of his heart. His yiraas shomayim, fear of Heaven, was extraordinary, serving Hashem with both love and awe. In short, this was a primary example of a young gadol baTorah. At this rate, he would one day be an exceptional Torah scholar who would impact the Torah world.

This student's demeanor amazed the hanhalah, administration of the yeshivah, and its entire student body. From where did such a unique student originate? How? What? Why? These were questions that stymied everyone until one day, when the student asked for an appointment to meet with the Rosh Yeshivah. Perhaps, he would reveal his secret.

The Rosh Yeshivah invited the bachur into his office and asked that glasses of tea be placed before them. He was not going to rush this. Let the young man feel as comfortable as possible. It was important that he be relaxed, so that whatever was on his mind could finally surface.

The student began, "I have a question to ask of the Rosh Yeshivah. First, however, I feel that it is incumbent that I relate my life story and what brought me to this moment." The Rosh Yeshivah responded, "By all means. Take your time and feel free to share with me whatever you like."

"I was born in America to parents who were unfortunately irreligious. This is the environment in which I was raised during my formative years. Shortly after I entered public school, my mother heard an inspirational lecture from a powerful speaker. This rabbi underscored the impact a life devoted to Torah would make on a family. These words brought about a transformation within my mother, arousing within her an inner-yearning to return to Hashem's embrace by living a Torah-oriented life.

"Needless to say, this brought about a certain amount of discord within my family. My father was too far removed from Torah Judaism to effect a drastic change. He had no interest in becoming religious, and he said so emphatically. He did agree, however, to allow my mother to practice what she wanted as long as it did not interfere with his lifestyle. Slowly, my mother's relationship with an observant lifestyle increased and strengthened, until she decided her next move: Shabbos. She presented herself before my father with two candles and said, "I am lighting candles tonight as the beginning of Shabbos observance. Will you join me on this journey?" My father's reply was a loud and resounding "no". Basically, this move was the precursor to the end of their marriage, because my father moved out shortly thereafter.

"It was now my mother and I, alone in the world. I left public school and was enrolled in a Hebrew Day School, where I absorbed whatever Torah they had to offer. I thrived in the environment, finally feeling a sense of purpose, a sense of value. I had come home. As my eighth-grade year was rapidly coming to a close, my principal spoke to me concerning opportunities for the future. Where would I go for high school? The principal suggested that, due to my situation, background and great desire for upward movement, I should consider going to a yeshivah in Eretz Yisrael. It would be most conducive to my learning. I was willing. The next hurdle was my mother. How would she react? It would mean leaving her all alone.

"The principal met with my mother and me, and, after praising me, he made his suggestion. My mother listened carefully and then asked, "Is there no yeshivah in our city, in all of America, where my son could study?" "Yes, there are a number of fine yeshivos," the principal responded. "It is just that I feel he will do better studying in the Holy Land." My mother asked for some time to make a decision. A few days of intense soul-searching elapsed. There were many issues at stake - her being left alone in the world, certainly not one of the least significant. The yetzer hora, evil inclination, played his role in the drama: "Why should he leave for Eretz Yisrael, if he can learn just as well in America? Why should you be left all alone if your son could be here with you? Who can replace a mother's care?"

"Sleepless nights and tearful days went by before my mother decided that no sacrifice was too great when it involves Torah. My success was more important than all of the other issues. Torah was to dominate my life. I was going! Recognizing my mother's sacrifice and always remembering her parting words, I set myself to learning b'hasmadah, with great diligence. I could not waste even one minute. My mother had given up so much for me. Torah study would become my life.

"Just about one year after I arrived in the yeshivah, my mother called with frightening news: she had been diagnosed with a terminal disease. I immediately declared that I was coming home. Her reaction was expressed with her usual strong will: No! No sacrifice is too large for Torah. I am prepared for whatever Hashem sends my way, but I will not bring you home from the yeshivah. It is your learning b'hasmadah that makes it all worth it! You are not interrupting your learning for me! End of conversation.

"The Rosh Yeshivah can imagine what went through my mind. I threw myself with a sense of urgency into my learning. My davening and interpersonal relationships took on a renewed objective, as I realized that my mother badly needed z'chusim, merits. I would provide whatever I could. This went on for a number of months. My weekly calls to my mother were filled with pain, as I sensed her attempt to cover up her loneliness, fear and despair. Each time I begged her, "Can I come home?" Each time the reply was the same, "No! Nothing is too much for Torah. Do all that you can to study and grow in Torah."

"Then the dread phone call came. My mother told me that her disease had metastasized beyond any form of cure. She was declining rapidly. I again begged, insisting on coming home to be with her in her last weeks, days. She refused. Torah was to dominate.

"Rebbe, that was the last phone call. She passed away that week." At that point, the young student broke down in tears. The Rosh Yeshivah waited for him to cry himself out, then he continued: "Rebbe, I have related my life story and my overriding commitment to my mother for her overwhelming sacrifice. From the moment I left home, I have dedicated every part of my body to Hashem, His Torah and mitzvos." He paused and began to weep bitterly as he looked up at the Rosh Yeshivah and asked, "Does the Rosh Yeshivah feel that I am doing enough to carry out my mother's request?"

His penetrating question pierces through the veils of ambiguity and uncertainty. How many of us think that we are "there," that we have made it, we have achieved that which is expected of us? This bachur teaches us the key to spiritual growth: Have we done enough? We are never "there." It is a constant uphill climb. At every milestone, when we think that we have achieved, when we think that we have made it, we must ask ourselves: "Have we done enough?"

It was this question that catalyzed this young man's spiritual growth. He was never complacent. He was never finished. Whatever he did, it was not enough. Time is a compelling and unforgiving taskmaster. We never have enough time. We never know how long our lives will last, when we will be called to task for not doing enough.

Hashem told Avraham, Lech lecha, "Go for yourself, from the land, the artzius, earthliness/materialism represented by the land; mi'moladetecha, from your birthplace, your character which you derive from your birthplace; mi'bais avicha, from your father's home, from your passive reliance on familial support. Go out on your own! Where? To the land which I will show you."

Lech lecha was not a one-time command given to Avraham. It is a never-ending exhortation to each and every Jew to awaken within himself the upward drive to succeed, to move forward, to pursue Torah and mitzvos relentlessly, and to grow in them. Each Jew has a G-d-given mission, a Heavenly mandate. Have we achieved our calling; have we fulfilled our duty; have we done enough? A Jew must be lech lecha, constantly moving. There is no rest. There are no vacations. Rest is stagnation. Status quo is death. Are we ever doing enough? No - we can always do more.

There are times when all avenues have been exhausted. The following vignette teaches us the response of Horav Elazar M. Shach, zl, to a pressing situation. One of Eretz Yisrael's eminent mechanchim, Torah educators, came before Rav Shach one Erev Shabbos in the afternoon. A situation had developed that was rapidly becoming a crisis and could not be ignored. Rav Shach immediately telephoned one of the prominent rabbanim in the Holy Land and asked him to do whatever possible to circumvent the issue. The rav listened, promised to do what he could, but gave no assurances. Rav Shach listened and said goodbye, placed the phone back on the table and began to weep uncontrollably. He raised his hands upward and said, "Ribono shel olam. I did my part. Now, You do Yours."

In his preface to the Avi Ezri Hilchos Mada, the Rosh Yeshivah writes: "Hashem's help comes only after man has exhausted all efforts to do what is imposed upon him. Who can say, 'I have done everything. Now, it is up to Hashem.'?" Apparently, when Rav Shach made his statement on that fateful Erev Shabbos, it was after much introspection that led to the conclusion: "I have done enough."

So Avram went…and Lot went with him; Avram was seventy-five years old when he left Charan. (12:4)

Lot was the orphaned nephew of Avraham Avinu's brother, Haran, who had died in the flames of Ur Kasdim, in his support. Our Patriarch felt a filial responsibility for his nephew. Therefore, he took him along when he moved. This explains why the Torah mentions that Avraham took Lot, even though it was not part of Hashem's command. Why, however, does the Torah inform us of Avraham's age at the time of departure? Does it really matter?

Horav Zalman Sorotzkin, zl, distinguishes between ito and imo - two words which are used to imply "with" someone. There is a difference with regard to "with" - in what manner one is going "with" someone. Imo means "with" in the full sense of the word, together physically and for the same purpose. Ito, however, means that two people travel together, but not necessarily for a similar purpose.

When the Torah writes that Lot travelled with Avraham, it says ito, implying that while Lot accompanied Avraham, he did not go for the same purpose. Avraham was going in response to Hashem's command. Lot had another reason for joining his uncle on this journey. He sought Avraham's wealth. After all, his uncle was seventy-five years old; he had no children, no heirs. If he played his cards right, Lot was in line to have it all. He better stick with Avraham so that, when the time comes, he will be in place to inherit his wealth.

Motive is a powerful illuminator, elucidating and defining the true character of an individual. Attendance at a spiritual experience does not determine the real standing of a person, his true feelings concerning the mission statement of the experience. Just being there has very little consequence. The motive and purpose that bring him ascertain his unfeigned essence. The Torah does not want us to perceive Lot as anything other than who he really was: a money-hungry, materialistic opportunist, who was willing to join with the saintly Avraham, as long as a pot of gold was located somewhere in the equation.

And He said, "Gaze, now, toward the Heavens, and count the stars if you able to count them. "And He said to him, "So shall your offspring be!" (15:5)

The Divrei Chaim explains the analogy to stars. Seen from the distance of the earth, stars appear miniscule. Seen in close proximity from above, their true size is remarkable. Likewise, Klal Yisrael might be viewed as being diminutive and inconsequential in comparison to the nations of the world. Upon Heavenly examination, their image changes immensely. Their true size increases as they are viewed through a Heavenly perspective.

Horav Meir Shapiro, zl, offers a practical explanation for our being compared to stars. Hashem instructed Avraham Avinu to gaze upon the Heavens and count the stars - something which is impossible to do. They are too numerous to count. Yet, despite the futility of this endeavor, Avraham made the attempt. Why? Because feasibility, or lack thereof, concerning any endeavor is not the determining factor in its successful completion. A Jew must endeavor, regardless of the fact that success is not within his reach. It is all dependent upon one's ratzon, will, determination. To paraphrase the Lubliner Rav, "We do not measure inclination based upon ability; rather, we measure ability based upon inclination." When a person really wants something with all his heart and soul, he can accomplish great things which, otherwise, have been totally unrealistic.

Ko yiheyeh zaracha, "So shall your offspring be." As you push forward, despite the impracticality of the endeavor, so, too, will your descendants continue in their service of Hashem, even under the most difficult circumstances. They will never allow lack of ability to stand in their way.

Hashem does not demand more of us than we are able to handle. Man has to open that small hole, the size of a pinhead. Hashem will do the rest, granting him Heavenly assistance. There are two primary challenges to upward growth in Torah: emotional/philosophical and physical/acumen/attitude. There are those who have been challenged by problems of faith, situations that weigh down on them emotionally, philosophically and theologically. To put it simply: they have been turned off for some reason. In such an instance, there is very little ratzon, will, desire to succeed. If one can survive the challenge, climb the mountain, triumph over adversity, Hashem will carry him the rest of the way.

The other challenge is acuity. Not everyone has a Gemorah kop, a head for understanding some of the difficult dialogues and logical analysis involved in learning the Talmud. There are those who, although blessed with a sharp mind, are either lazy, have poor study habits, or just want to have a good time. Once they make up their mind, they, too, will grow in Torah.

The following two vignettes reflect these situations and illuminate the attitude one must maintain. One Seder night in one of the concentration camps during World War II, a father and his young son - the only surviving members of their once sizeable family - were sitting together "celebrating" Pesach. Even under the dreadful conditions that marked that period in time, they were able to obtain a Haggadah. They read it together and, when they reached the Mah Nishtanah, at which time the young son was to ask his father the famous Four Questions, the boy stopped. He looked at his father and said, "Tatty, I have six questions to ask you, the usual four and two extra questions. They are: Do you think that I will sit with you next year at the Seder and ask the Four Questions? Also, can you promise me that next year you will sit next to me and reply to my Four Questions? " In other words, the boy sought assurances that he will be around to ask, and that his father would be there to reply.

His father stared at his young son for a few moments and replied, "My son, I have no idea what will be in five minutes. How can I assure you what will be in a year? I do not know if either of us will be alive, or if we will be able or willing to conduct the Seder next year. One thing, however, I can promise you with my whole heart and soul: Next year and every year until Moshiach Tziddkeinu arrives, thousands of Jews will gather around the Seder table on Pesach night, and young children will ask the Four Questions, and fathers will reply. Our nation has been assured by Hashem, ki lo sishkach mi'pi zaro, 'The Torah will never be forgotten from His children.' Regardless of the situation, the troubles notwithstanding, someone, somewhere, will continue learning Torah. We never give up - regardless of the circumstances."

The second episode was related by Horav Baruch Shimon Schneerson, zl, Rosh Yeshivas Tchebin. The Tchebiner Rosh Yeshivah was a child prodigy. Thus, he was accepted in the premier European yeshivah of Chachmei Lublin under the guidance of the Lubliner Rebbe, Horav Meir Shapiro, zl. He was a student there for some time. As a young man, he was selected by the Rosh Yeshivah to be a bochen, tester, for those students who were entering the Yeshivah for the very first time. The bechinah, entrance exam, included a thorough test on the prospective student's knowledge of Shas, his analytical skills, acumen, and a complete appreciation of his observance, yiraas Shomayim, Fear of Heaven, ethical and moral conduct. They sought only the best, and this meant that each student excelled in every aspect of the defining character of a ben Torah.

One day a young man presented himself to the Yeshivah administration seeking to gain entrance into the Yeshivah. It was evident that he was a special student, his yiraas Shomayim and middos, character traits, were outstanding. After being tested by the different Roshei Yeshivah, it was evident that he was not the brightest student. His knowledge and understanding of the material were far from exceptional. His analytical skills were quite lacking. Regrettably, this extraordinary young man was not Chachmei Lublin material. The first group of testers signed off on him with a rejection slip.

When Rav Baruch Shimon's turn to test the prospective student came around, he was visibly impressed with the young man's demeanor, his fear of Heaven and his overwhelming desire to learn Torah. Alas, the other Roshei Yeshivah had already rejected him. Rav Baruch Shimon was very upset. What could he do? Clearly, Chachmei Lublin was founded for the purpose of providing a high standard of Torah education, specifically for such students as this young man. How could they reject him? He was a unique student with incredible potential. True, he had a long, difficult road ahead of him to achieve his goal.

Rav Baruch Shimon could not sleep. He decided to walk to the bais hamedrash and perhaps spend some time learning in its welcoming environment. It was two o'clock in the morning, and no one was in the bais hamedrash - or so he thought. He entered the sanctuary of Torah and heard a commotion. What was the source of the noise? He thought that no one was there. He began to follow the sound of the noise until he worked his way to the back of the building, where, in the corner of the bais hamedrash, he discovered the young man who had that day been rejected, weeping uncontrollably. He was repeating over to himself how much he had wanted to attend this yeshivah, bemoaning his lack of ability, entreating the Almighty to please help him. He wanted so much to learn Torah in Lublin.

Rav Baruch Shimon could no longer contain himself, and he, too, burst into tears. How could they say "no" to such a ben Torah? He decided that although the hour was late, he was going to the home of one of the Roshei Yeshivah whose decision carried great weight and demand that this bachur be accepted in Lublin. He woke up the Rosh Yeshiva, and, with great emotion, made his pitch, demanding that the Rosh Yeshivah accompany him to the bais hamedrash to see for himself a bachur's yearning for the opportunity to grow in Torah scholarship.

The Rosh Yeshivah went to the bais hamedrash and saw for himself the spectacle that had so captivated Rav Baruch Shimon. His heart melted at the sight of this young man pouring out his heart to Hashem. They very next day, the Roshei Yeshiva convened and elected to accept the student. He did not let them down. Indeed, within a short time, he was counted among the Yeshivah's outstanding students. Nothing stands in the way of ratzon.

And he trusted in Hashem, and He reckoned it to him as righteousness. (15:6)

Rashi notes that concerning Hashem's promise that Avraham Avinu would have offspring, the Patriarch did not question, while regarding the promise of the Land, he questioned Hashem, Bamah eida, "How shall I know?" Horav Yeruchem Levovitz, zl, explains this based upon a deeper understanding of the meaning of emunah, loosely translated as faith in Hashem. I say "loosely translated," because faith and emunah are not identical. Faith is belief without proof, more of a strong hypothesis, while emunah is much more profound. It is experiential. Emunah is derived from the word emes, which means truth. Truth is an absolute - so is emunah. Emunah stands in direct opposition to human logic. Indeed, as Horav Yitzchak Moshe Erlanger, Shlita, explains, it is a deliberate, conscious rejection of logical reasoning. Emunah ranks above and beyond the logical plane; the concept can only be explored and understood on a spiritual level. Emunah, according to the Maharal, is the key to our closeness with Hashem. The Baal Shem Tov likewise said that, "Emunah is deveikus, clinging to Hashem." It is the ultimate link between the Creator and His creations.

Rav Yeruchem views emunah as k'munach b'kufsa, "it is laying in the box." The maamin, believer, views his belief as a fait accompli, already done and carried out. So certain is he of Hashem's taking care of the issues which demand belief - i.e. everything! When Hashem assured Avraham of offspring, he did not question Him. Hashem's promise means that it is a done deal. He is already a father. Mazel tov! Concerning Eretz Yisrael, however, there were external variables, conditions that had to be met. It was conditional on his righteousness and that of his offspring. He feared his own unworthiness and the possibility of his descendants falling into sin, which would make him unworthy to retain the Land. This is why his emunah had a question attached to it. Too many things could go wrong. He sought assurance.

Va'ani Tefillah

Yotzeir ohr u'borei choshech. Oseh shalom u'borei es ha'kol.
He forms light and creates darkness, makes peace and creates everything.

While the brachah speaks of the creation of "everything," it focuses primarily on the creation of light. Horav Avigdor Miller, zl, suggests three reasons for this alteration. Light was the first creation concerning which the words, "It was good," were said. Light is the chief physical kindliness of the Creation, since it is the source of the world's sustenance. Last, Chazal say that the world was created through the vehicle of ten commands. When we peruse the text, we see only nine expressions of Creation. In the Talmud Rosh Hashanah 32a, Chazal say that the words, Bereishis bara Elokim es ha'Shomayim v'es ha'aretz, implying that Hashem's creation of the Heavens and the earth is the tenth and missing command. This is strange, since it is the greatest creation ex nihilo, yeish mei'ayin, something from nothing. It should not be "concealed." Rav Miller explains that Hashem wanted the command, "Let there be light," to be the first command written in the Torah, even though it was actually the second of the Ten Dicta. Hashem was thereby teaching us a practical and valuable lesson: The world, the Creation of Heaven and earth, is valueless without the creation of light. Light is the equivalent of seeing. Without man's ability to see Heaven and earth, reflect and understand that he was created by Hashem, what value does he have? Light enables man to recognize the Creation. This earns it the status of being the first written command in the Torah.

l'ilui nishmas
R' Eliezer ben R' Yitzchak Chaim z"l
niftar 12 Cheshvan 5766
Izsak Keller
Perl & Harry Brown & Family
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