Back to This Week's Parsha

Peninim on the Torah

subscribe.gif (2332 bytes)

Previous issues

Rabbi A. Leib Scheinbaum
Hebrew Academy of Cleveland


I will bless you and make your name great, and you shall be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and him who curses you, I will curse. (12:2)

Avraham HaIvri is the name given to our first Patriarch, the individual who, with his own cognitive ability, was able to understand what had eluded an entire world: there is a Creator; He is One; He is the G-d of Creation and of history. With simple - but penetrating - logic, Avraham reached out to a pagan society and imbued them with faith and conviction in the Almighty. Yet, he was all alone, literally b'eiver echad, on one side - the opposing side of everybody else. Hence, the name Avraham HaIvri. We, his descendants, are heirs to this proud appellation, Ivrim, all of us on the opposite side of world society.

The life of our Patriarch has been an inspiration to all throughout the generations. He stood up against an entire world, without fear and without shame, and declared his belief in Hashem. As unpopular as he must have been, he was still respected. Hashem conferred a remarkable blessing upon him, from which we, his descendants, should take a lesson: Va'avarechecha va'agadlah shemecha veheyei brachah, "I will bless you, and make your name great, and you shall be a blessing." Va'avarcha mevarchecha u'mekaleelcha a'or, "I will bless those who bless you, and him who curses you I will curse."

What an inspiring blessing. The Gaon, zl, m'Vilna, points out a twofold difficulty. First, the syntax of the pasuk does not follow the Biblical pattern. One would expect akaleil, "I will curse," to follow its matching vernacular, umekalelcha. Why is the word a'or used? Second, if those who cursed Avraham would, in turn, be cursed, how could all of the families of the earth be blessed?

The Gaon explains that a'or means to shed light! The brilliance of Avraham's life would illuminate the world with light. All will be beneficiaries of his self-generated sunshine - even those who curse him! Thus, in the end, all of the families of the world will be blessed by him. As his descendants, we must follow his prescription for living, so that we will bring luster to a world overshadowed with the darkness of immorality, hedonism, lack of integrity and modern-day paganism. The curses that plague society can be subverted with our blessings. How appropriate is the maxim: "Instead of cursing the darkness, we should light a candle."

When one thinks about it, Avraham was up against a pervasive, opposing world view, but, for many people the primary issue was ignorance. They had been raised as pagans; thus, their minds could not comprehend monotheism. Once Avraham broke through the barrier, he was able to encourage conversation. True, some were diehards, such as Nimrod, the self-proclaimed god/king, but we must face it: he had a good reason for seeking to quell Avraham's "nonsense"; it was hurting his business.

Many spiritual leaders throughout the generations have been compelled to deal with a much greater and more virulent foe: their own coreligionists who have fallen under the influence of the American dream. Let us go back to America, circa early twentieth century, when the Agudas Kehillos, United Communities, which were really not so united, brought in a Rav Hakolel, Chief Rabbi for New York. Horav Yaakov Yosef, zl, was a Lithuanian Torah scholar from Vilna, who attempted to serve as Rav over the splintered and fractitious European immigrant communities who called New York their home. These people came here, some searching for riches, others hoping to find sustenance. For the most part, however, they were simple, hard-working Jews, who were too farhorevet, literally knocked-out from over-working, to care very much about their religious dimension. They were embittered and distrustful of anyone who would stand in the way of their achieving their dream.

Horav Tzvi Hirsch Rabinowitz, zl, son of the Kovner Rav, was the first one to be offered the position of chief rabbi. He demurred, saying, "A Rav can only be appointed over a Kehillah, congregation of Jews. For a Rav to create Jews, however, is impossible. Only Moshe Rabbeinu could have accomplished such a miracle. In America, we have to create Yidden, and that is something I cannot do."

In addition, no yeshivos existed to educate the masses, thus allowing for the scourge of assimilation to fester and grow. There were sham rabbis, who, for a few dollars would perform any religious ceremony that one required for convenience sake. The Satmar Rebbe, zl, was wont to say that the reason that so many Jews of that early generation assimilated was their neglect of the "small things." It did not start with blatant chillul Shabbos, desecration of Shabbos; it began with a quick trip to the barber to remove their beard and payos, vestiges of the European shtetl "mentality." Shortly thereafter, their entire Yiddishkeit followed. America was - and continues to be - a free-country. One can dress however he chooses. We have had every type of style grace the public arenas of every major metropolis: hippies, gypsies, artists and carefree folk who have no sense of style other than what enters their mind at any given moment. Hairstyles of every persuasion, from conformist to mohawk to satanist and every eccentricity and derangement in between. No one seems to care - except the Jew, who feels that going in public sporting a beard and payos, black suit and hat, or even a yarmulke - regardless of color, size and material - is offensive.

Indeed, many of these same Americanized Jews, who have no problem with the Amish in their antiquated mode of dress and so many others that have maintained their tribal, cultural, religious garb, cannot tolerate a Jewish brother who looks "different."

A young chassidic man was in a shop in Williamsburg, when an elderly couple entered the store, together with a young, strapping lad of about sixteen. The teenager was bareheaded. The father turned to the chassidic teenager and asked, "Boychik, how much money do you want for your payos?"

The woman was furious with her husband's mockery, "You American, what do you know about Yiddishkeit in the alter heim, old home, Europe?" She suddenly burst into tears, "The Rebbe's einiklach, grandchildren, wore such payos." She then started naming the names of the Komarner Rebbe's children.

"I come from Komarna," the woman began. "As a young girl, I was in the home of the Komarna Rebbe, Horav Yaakov Moshe Safran, zl. His daughter, the Munkatcher Rebbetzin, was my friend. His son Boruch'l, the last Rebbe of Komarna, was killed by the Nazis. Before I left Europe, I received a brachah from the Rebbe." Sadly, now her only son did not look like a Jew.

Avraham Avinu had it hard, but he was not going up against disenchanted brothers. The purpose of the above is not to lay blame, but rather, to encourage and empower. The Jewish People, heralding back to our forefather Avraham, have a history of being on one side against the masses. It goes with the territory of being a Jew. Today's society should not present a greater challenge than the ones over which our parents and grandparents triumphed. Had they not been able to do so, we would not be here.

And he invoked Hashem by Name. (12:8)

Much credit is given to Avraham Avinu - and rightfully so. Using his intellectual skills, he was able to determine that there is a G-d Who created and continues to guide the world. He went about sharing his newly-discovered observation with whomever he met. This, of course, ruffled the feathers of those who were entrenched in paganism, especially someone like Nimrod, the king who claimed divinity for himself. Avraham was to be removed. One cannot have a dissenter who disputes and proves that the life he is living is a sham.

The Patriarch was to be thrown into a fiery cauldron for his seditious claims. Avraham was so sure of his discovery that he was willing to risk his life for his convictions. He emerged unscathed, promptly returning to preaching to the masses. Was he the only one who taught about G-d? Shem, and his grandson, Eivar, had a yeshivah which taught the ethical and moral life values of serving the Almighty. We do not have a record of their success, while Avraham reached out to thousands. The mere fact that Nimrod wanted him removed from the scene is a barometer of his success.

The Raavad distinguishes between Shem and Eivar, who taught those who attended their yeshivah, while Avraham journeyed throughout the land, approaching people, chasing after them, wearing them down, all for one purpose: to teach them about Hashem. Outreach means just that: reaching out. We cannot wait for them to come to us. We must reach out to them.

The King of Sodom said to Avram, "Give me the people and take the possessions for yourself (14:21).

The king of Sodom had no problem with what seems to have been an audacious request. As a victor of the war, Avraham Avinu was entitled to all of the spoils. The king said that he would like his subjects to be returned to him, and Avraham could keep the money. Avraham had no intent in personal gain, especially from a pagan who would certainly claim that he was the source of Avraham's wealth. Avraham conveyed his feelings to the king of Sodom and then returned everything to him - people as well as money. In the Talmud Nedarim 32a, Chazal maintain that, while returning the wealth was praiseworthy, returning the people constituted an error on the part of the Patriarch. By not exposing them to his monotheistic belief, he was subjecting them to a continued life of paganism. The Ran comments, "Had Avraham not given up these people to Sodom, he would have been able to influence them to convert. For this, he was punished, such that his descendants were enslaved in Egypt for 210 years.

This seems paradoxical. Avraham devoted his entire life to the dissemination of Hashem's truth to all people. Wherever he went, and whenever the opportunity arose, he would spread the word of Hashem. He had a house open to everyone - regardless of beliefs or character. Yet, because one time he did not fight for these people, thereby allowing them to return to the hedonism that characterized Sodom, he was gravely punished. Certainly, one whose lifelong goal is outreach and who exemplifies its implementation should not be so severely taken to task for a solitary failure in fulfilling this mitzvah.

Twenty-three years ago, in my inaugural edition of Peninim, I quoted the Telshe Rosh Yeshivah, Horav Chaim Mordechai Katz, zl, who derives a critical lesson concerning the awesome responsibility one has to spread the truth of Torah throughout the world, from this pasuk. No parameters limit one's obligation to proclaim and publicize Hashem's Name in this world. Avraham left his father's home and dedicated his life to this goal, and yet - for his one failure- he was punished. This teaches us that our responsibility to reach out to our fellow Jew is to reach out consistently. One failure means that precious souls will be lost. This is an unforgiveable loss.

No subject is more reachable and more critical to reach than Jewish children. They must be our priority as parents, teachers, and members of the Jewish community. We must see to it that every Jewish child receives a bona-fide Jewish education, rendered by teachers who are paradigmatic of the highest Torah standards, in an environment that is replete with these standards and is a welcoming place ready to embrace all Jewish children who are ready to learn - regardless of background, financial ability or pedigree. As of late, a "good" school is judged by how many students it refuses - not by how many it accepts. Since this was the standard of chesed in Sodom, it was probably also its standard of education.

I have taken the liberty to share a few inspiring vignettes from the lives of gedolei hador, Torah giants of the previous generation, as a way of setting the record straight concerning the critical importance of teaching Torah with consistence and dedication:

A Yerushalmi avreich, a young married man, who was himself not a Gerrer Chassid, came to see the Gerrer Rebbe, the Bais Yisrael, during the Rebbe's hours of reception. The Rebbe asked, "I believe you are a cheder rebbe. How did you manage to leave school during 'business hours'?" The young man excused himself, saying, "What can I do? When I finish teaching, the Rebbe's door is closed." The Rebbe told him, "Go back to your students. I will wait for your return." When the young man returned, long after the reception hours were over, he was immediately permitted entrance to the Rebbe.

At the beginning of his sefer, Amalah Shel Torah, the Steipler Gaon, Horav Yisrael Yaakov Kanievsky, zl, extolls the virtue of the ben Torah. Among the many accolades, he includes the following: "Since time immemorial, Yiddishkeit has owed its ongoing survival to the influence and guidance of its Torah sages, the delight of each generation who disseminated Torah to flocks of disciples and took numerous measures to ensure that Torah not be forgotten by the Jewish People. Hashem has shown us tremendous kindness by providing us throughout the generations with yeshivos, multitudes of scholars… all subservient to the might of the Torah sages of every generation.

"We sometimes see a Torah scholar and a tzaddik, righteous person, emerging from a simple home. This is the result of a grandmother who poured out her heart in tearful prayer that she would merit descendants who would be Torah scholars. Even if her prayers did not help her sons, they were efficacious for her grandsons. No prayer goes unanswered."

Shortly after the Six-Day War, an organization bearing the name Moreshes Avos was established to reach out to many seekers of Torah whose neshamos were catalyzed by the many miracles evident in that military victory. The organization's founder asked the Steipler whether it was appropriate to recruit Avreichim studying in Kollel to join him in his efforts. The Steipler replied, "How can one entertain the thought of taking them out of the bais ha'medrash? Why, all of the miracles that took place were only in the merit of their Torah learning!"

"I have lost all my family; I have lost everything - but I have not lost HaKadosh Baruch Hu." These were the words of the indefegatible Klausenberger Rebbe, zl, a Holocaust survivor who managed to triumph over his personal losses and singlehandedly undertook the task of reconstructing Jewish life from amidst the ruins. Torah-study was the only endeavor that soothed his tormented soul. His brilliance was matched by his encyclopedic erudition of Torah. It was only superseded by his love for Torah.

Indeed, despite his numerous projects, especially once he moved to Eretz Yisrael in 1960, the Rebbe viewed his principal vocation as none other than teaching Torah to young talmidim, students. Shortly after his move, he wrote to a friend, "You have surely heard that I have become a teacher; taking some twenty children and several teenagers to my bais ha'medrash where they are under my close personal scrutiny almost all day. I must work diligently and with great toil, being preoccupied with this endeavor to an extent which you cannot imagine… but this is the only thing out of all of my work in which my soul finds pleasure. Would that their numbers double and triple, so that the singsong of pure children's Torah-study reverberates in my bais ha'medrash.

"Naturally, some of our friends feel that it detracts from the dignity of being a Rebbe, arguing that a Rebbe should not engage in such activity and that it is utterly incompatible with the position of Rebbe. In my opinion, we could do with a thousand such Rebbes (who would spend their day teaching Torah). Indeed, it is worthwhile training a single worthy disciple, who in the merit of our holy ancestors and of the Holy Land… will sanctify Hashem's Name by following in the footsteps of our holy ancestors."

The Rebbe was wont to say, "It is worth living one hundred and twenty years solely to train one single worthy disciple and guide him on the Torah's path."

His father-in-law, the Nitra Rav, zl, Horav Shmuel David Unger, was the head of its yeshivah, a position which involved fund-raising as well as spiritual guidance. At one point, the yeshivah was in dire financial straits. A Viennese layman, a former disciple of Rav Unger, proposed that the Rav spend Shabbos in Vienna. If he would agree to do so, the man would agree to cover the yeshivah's entire deficit.

Rav Unger demurred, citing his responsibility to deliver his shiur, Torah lecture, to his students on Thursday night and Friday morning. The man asked, "And what will happen if your honor forgoes giving the shiur?"

"I need money for the yeshivah in order to support Torah-study," Rav Unger replied. "Not the other way around… If it means suspending Torah study, I have no need for money."

He consorted with Hagar and she conceived; and when she saw that she had conceived, her mistress was lowered in her esteem. (16:7)

It happens all of the time: one strikes it rich and suddenly it is all about him; he is the worthy; he is righteous and worthy of blessing. Horav Gamliel Rabinowitz, Shlita, explains that such a person follows in the footsteps of Hagar. As soon as she conceived, she began to boast brazenly, "Since so many years have passed without my mistress having children, she obviously is not as righteous as she seems. I conceived immediately!" Herein is revealed the difference between Jew and gentile. When Hagar saw that Hashem had showered her with His benevolence, her attitude should have been one of humility, with a profound sense of gratitude, but, she reacted to the contrary.

Not so a Jew who is blessed by Hashem. He maintains a sense of humility and responsibility, wondering if he is deserving of Hashem's benevolence. Is he receiving his ultimate reward prematurely in this world? Has he forfeited his Olam Habba, portion in the World to Come?

We must realize that good fortune in this world often comes with strings attached. Likewise, when one's fortune is not as positive as he would like, he should realize that it is for a reason. One who strikes it rich or has incredible siyata diShmaya, Divine assistance, should act reserved, humble and assume that Hashem has granted him a gift beyond his worthiness. Indeed, the more one receives - the more he should be humbled. Conceit is an attribute which Hagar exemplified.

And an Angel of Hashem said to her, "Return to your mistress, and submit yourself to her domination." (16:9)

Rashi quotes the Midrash that, for each and every amirah, communication, Hashem sent another angel to speak with Hagar. There is a dispute among Chazal as to the number, whether there were four or five angels. What is the reason that a new angel was required for every pronouncement? Horav Chaim Zaitchik, zl, explains that a malach, angel, is an omeid, static, does not experience spiritual elevation. He is what he is and remains on that level. Unlike a human being, an angel cannot grow spiritually. His spiritual plateau has a limited parameter to which he adheres. His mission is in accordance with his specific level. Thus, once his shlichus, mission, has concluded, or the spiritual level of his mission has been altered, he is freed from it. Once the mission has been completed, the angel disappears and returns to his place.

A person is a baal aliyah, able to scale spiritual heights. Indeed, with every word, he grows spiritually. One moment is unlike the preceding moment, something which continues throughout one's life. We change - we grow. The spiritual plane which we enjoyed before reciting Shema Yisrael during Shacharis, Morning Prayer service, is altered once we have completed the prayer, applying the intention, feeling and direction that goes with it. One angel does not remain with us throughout our lives. We change almost constantly.

Rav Zaitchik focuses on Hagar's spiritual level when she conversed with the angel for the first time. She was suffering abuse and pain that she felt was unwarranted. She was a depressed, broken woman, alone in the wilderness, without protection. The angel began the conversation, "The maidservant of Sarah, from where did you come?" She replied, "I am fleeing from my mistress, Sarah." The angel referred to her as a shifchah, maidservant, and she responded that it was true; she was running from her mistress. Most people fail to concede that they are slaves. Hagar had no problem with her position. Why? Normally, one does not like talking about a past that was miserable and filled with demeaning servitude. Why did Hagar respond to the angel with a sort of "pride" - "Yes, I am Sarah's maidservant?" Furthermore, why did the angel commence his questioning by referring to Hagar as a maidservant?

Rav Zaitchik explains that the dialogue between the angel and Hagar indicates a much deeper meaning than what appears on the surface. The angel's reference to Hagar's position had a dual implication. First, she was a slave, which was clearly not a prestigious position in life. Second, was the flipside. While her vocation was not something that warranted bragging rights, she was, at least, working for Sarah Imeinu. To be exposed to such an elevated spiritual source, to have the opportunity to be in the proximity of such a righteous and pure person, to imbibe from her fountain of inspiration, is truly fortuitous.

Hagar responded, in turn, with fierce pride. "Yes, I am a maidservant, but I am no ordinary maidservant; I am Sarah's maidservant. This grants me exposure to an unprecedented source of inspiration." Once Hagar responded with such depth of vision, she demonstrated that she was truly no ordinary maidservant. This warranted another angel, due to her elevated spiritual standing. The next step was the new angel instructing her to return to Sarah, which, when she complied, once again raised her degree, necessitating yet another angel. As the conversation progressed, Hagar's acquiescence with faith and conviction added to her spiritual account.

A similar lesson is to be inferred from the commentary of the Zohar HaKadosh to the angel's declaration to Avraham Avinu following the Akeidah. "And the angel called to him from Heaven. He said, "'Avraham, Avraham!'" The Zohar comments, "There is a psik taama, grammatical interruption, between the two 'Avraham's,' because the second Avraham is unlike the first." The Avraham that had entered into the Akeidah was not on the same spiritual standing as was the Avraham that emerged from the Akeidah. Thus, the second address required a new angel, which is indicated by the interruption.

The lesson to be derived from the above is simple and practical: we must strive for continued growth, because, with every rung of the spiritual ladder which we scale, we are accorded greater and more profound spiritual exposure.

Va'ani Tefillah

V'shinantam levanecha v'dibarta bam. And teach them thoroughly to your children and speak of them.

The command to teach Torah to our children is the direct result of our love of Torah. When one loves something and considers it precious, he wants to share it with his children. One wants to bestow good on his children, and there is no greater good than Torah. By means of constant teaching, we demonstrate to our children the esteem in which we hold divrei Torah, thus bringing them to also love Torah and the One Who commanded it.

V'shinantam can have two meanings: v'shinantam - the words of Torah shall be sharp in your mouth; Shinun also means repetition. We have sharpness and repetition. Horav Avigdor Miller, zl, posits that both of these meanings are connected. The sharpness of arrows and knives is achieved by repeated application to the whetstone. Likewise, sharpness of acumen is realized by constant repetition and diligent study. This is imperative in the exhortation lilmod u'lelameid, lishmor, "To learn and to teach, to guard." To guard means to review constantly: 1) in order not to forget; 2) and not to permit the impression on the mind to wane.

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

Peninim on the Torah is in its 20th year of publication. The first fifteen years have been published in book form.

The Fifteenth volume is available at your local book seller or directly from Rabbi Scheinbaum.

He can be contacted at 216-321-5838 ext. 165 or by fax at 216-321-0588

Discounts are available for bulk orders or Chinuch/Kiruv organizations.


This article is provided as part of Shema Yisrael Torah Network
Permission is granted to redistribute electronically or on paper,
provided that this notice is included intact.
For information on subscriptions, archives, and
other Shema Yisrael Classes,
send mail to
Jerusalem, Israel