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Peninim on the Torah

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Rabbi A. Leib Scheinbaum
Hebrew Academy of Cleveland


Noach walked with G-d. (6:9)

Rashi distinguishes between Avraham Avinu's spiritual plateau and that of Noach. Regarding Noach, the Torah says that "Noach walked with G-d," implying that Noach needed Hashem's support for walking with G-d. Avraham Avinu, on the other hand, walked alone before G-d, as the pasuk in Bereishis 17:2, states, "Walk before Me and be perfect." Avraham did not need that extra support to maintain his spiritual status quo. What does this mean? In a homily delivered in the Warsaw Ghetto on Parashas Noach, 1940, the Piazcesner Rebbe, zl, acknowledges the difficulty of maintaining intellectual activity and creative endeavor at a time of overwhelming crisis and tragedy.

He cites a narrative in the Talmud Sanhedrin 104a that describes two Jews who had been taken captive and were being led away as slaves. As they walked along, they exchanged perceptive, insightful remarks. Overhearing the dialogue between them, their captor expressed his chagrin and incredulity at the "am k'shei oref," stiff-necked people, the Jews who imagine themselves capable of wisdom even in defeat. The Rebbe explains that every negative character trait, such as stubbornness, has a positive aspect. The desirable side to the quality of stiff-neckedness/stubbornness is the ability to remain steadfast and resolute, firm in one's faith, even at a time of great personal difficulty.

The Rebbe continues, that to be firm and resolute in matters of Divine service, during a period of crisis and affliction, is in itself no simple matter - but it can be accomplished. It is a special challenge, however, to be able to engage in Torah study, conceptual analysis and dialectic. This is a much greater achievement. Everyone knows from experience that at a time of trouble it is not difficult to put on Tefillin or to perform other mitzvos involving an action, but to study Torah, especially if one is engaged in penetrating analysis, is very difficult. Noach and Avraham both had their detractors and pursuers. The people of Noach's generation sought to kill him at every juncture. Avraham underwent a number of trials, one of which was that he was thrown into a fiery furnace. They were both great tzaddikim, virtuous and pious. The difference between them was evident during the moments of crisis. Noach could not do it alone. He was faithful, but overwhelmed. He needed Hashem's support. Avraham was resolute, reflecting the capacity to maintain his intellectual and physical level of commitment, despite the terrible challenges he was compelled to confront.

We have modern-day Avraham Avinus: people who, despite being subjected to excruciating pain and debilitating emotional torment and challenge, are able to forge on with resolution and fortitude, with pride and conviction. They do not lessen their physical activity on behalf of Torah and mitzvos. Their prayer and mitzvah-observance are exemplary, never waning for even a moment. Above all, however, they continue to excel in the intellectual arena, studying Torah, setting goals and maintaining them.

I have had the privilege recently to get to know one such family. Regrettably, I did not meet them until I traveled to Detroit, Michigan, to be menachem aveil, comfort them, during their period of grief over the tragic loss of their dearly beloved son, Akiva. I was so moved by Akiva's mother's relating of his months in the hospital, his devotion to Torah-study throughout his illness, especially during his last pain-filled days, that I asked her to write about "Kivi," as his father lovingly refers to him. This is but a brief appreciation of Akiva Simcha ben Asher Zelig, zl, written by his mother. Yehi Zichro baruch. May his name be a blessing. Finding a moment to pen this biography has been difficult… Truth be told, I have procrastinated. For, how is it possible to sum up Akiva's life in just a few pages. How can I put my thoughts onto paper and truly describe the impact that one nine-year old boy had on the world? How can I convey how special he was - and how lucky we were to be his parents - in the little space allotted to me?

I can only compare Akiva to a candle; his light illuminated the darkness. His entire life was a lesson in Kiddush Hashem. Physically, Akiva was small for his age. Spiritually, Akiva was a giant. His size was never a limitation. He never used it as an excuse for not doing. Akiva took his stature in stride. "People think I'm younger than I really am," he would say matter-of-factly. Though he was small, he was a leader in his class. The boys were drawn to him. He was bright and clever and had a great sense of humor. The children didn't care about his size. Intrinsically, they knew he was someone they wanted to be around, someone that they wanted to consider their friend. After Akiva was niftar, passed away, one boy cried to his mother, "Other boys picked on me. Akiva was the only boy who was always nice to me."

Akiva had an impact on people all over the world. He touched the lives of people he never even had the opportunity to meet. Simchah truly was his middle name. It embodied his entire being and defined his essence. He always had a cheerful smile on his face, a joke to tell. He always had an angle. He sold his own personal recipe for hair tonic in Memorial Sloan Kettering. He posted signs all over the fifth floor, hanging them in strategic positions, such as right next to the elevator, so people would be sure to see them. "Hair tonic in a cancer hospital?" I asked. "It's not for me, for my hair will grow back! It's for all the bald doctors." He always managed to make the best of any situation. He never complained about his treatments. Akiva would always find a way to make his circumstances more enjoyable. He could be seen skating down the hallways of the hospital on his IV pole. He perfected his skateboarding technique by flying down the hill on the way to the playroom. "Look Mommy, no hands!" My heart would beat a little bit faster as he spun in circles, with his IV lines getting tangled on the pole. He would always come prepared to doctor appointments with a riddle with which to stump someone. One might think that a cancer clinic would be a depressing place to spend so many hours each day. Akiva never looked at it that way. He was always smiling. If he wasn't feeling well, everyone noticed. Parents would come up to me and say, "Akiva must be in a lot of pain. We noticed he's not smiling today. He's usually cheering up my child with his antics."

Akiva was very bright and inquisitive. He was an expert when it came to his medical care. He grilled every nurse and doctor: "How much experience do you have? How many times have you done this procedure?" He asked countless questions in order to know what to expect. In this way, he was able to prepare himself psychologically for the treatments. He knew all the medications he was taking, as well as their side effects. He knew his blood counts every day and whenever he needed platelets. He knew if he had forgotten to take a pill and which pills he had already taken. He never forgot to say, "Please" or "Thank you." The nurses used to say, "Akiva, there's no need to thank us when we give you a shot or finger poke." But it was ingrained and automatic. Though he was always b'simchah he took his halachos seriously. Akiva always made sure that his yarmulke was on his head before he made a brachah, blessing. Even in his sleep, he was always touching his head to check that it was still in place. When Akiva's yarmulke would get completely soaked with sweat and had to be put in the dryer, he would insist that his head be covered with a washcloth until his yarmulke was dry. He was always so careful to wash his hands after using the bathroom, so he could say Asher Yotzar. One could argue that it was second nature, done by habit.

There was that one Friday night, however, when he was suffering from tremendous bone pain, he had mouth sores from chemotherapy and a temperature of 103, and he was on a pain drip. He still managed to say Asher Yotzar. When he woke up in the morning, we questioned him about all the empty packets of fresh towelettes scattered around the pillow, ripped with precision. Akiva answered us, "I needed to wash my hands in order to say Asher Yotzar, and it's Shabbos. You know I can't rip the letters."

Such strength of character… this was not just a habit!

Akiva was diagnosed with (ALL) Leukemia on Isru Chag Sukkos, 2000. Within a month, he was in remission. Unfortunately, in February, Akiva relapsed. We needed to decide on a more drastic form of chemotherapy. Our doctors decided that Akiva's only chance for a cure was a bone marrow transplant.

After many trying days of meeting with doctors and doing research, we decided that our best hope for a cure was in Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York City. Making this decision meant that our family would be separated for at least three months, while Akiva and I traveled to New York. My three-month-old baby would stay with my parents, and my husband would watch our other children. It is too difficult to describe our parting. However, everyone rose to the occasion beautifully. Akiva was anxious to get on with the treatment, so he could be back at home with his family. Our other children were extremely understanding, knowing that we were doing the best we could for Akiva and that we would do no less for each of them. In total, we were separated for over five very long months. One would imagine that Akiva and my other children would be walking around depressed, understandably so. This could not be further from the truth. People were amazed when they found out that we were far from home. In Detroit, people would tell me that from looking at my kids, they would never know that anything was wrong. When the girls went to camp, their bunkmates were not even aware that they had a brother in the hospital, let alone how serious the situation was. We all took our cue from Akiva. If he could walk around with a smile in the face of adversity, we could do no less.

While we were in New York, I was troubled by one thing. I had once heard a story that at the end of a person's life, when they come to the Bais Din Shel Ma'alah, Heavenly Tribunal, they will be farhered, tested, on their "blatt gemara," folio of Talmud, in which they excelled. I worried about Akiva. His class had just begun Mishnayos, and he was alone in New York without a chavrusa, study partner. Who would learn the Mishnayos with him?

My husband was in Detroit attempting to keep the family together and functioning as smoothly as possible. I didn't feel that I was the right person for the job. Not to mention the fact that I was so busy just trying to get through the day with clinic appointments, giving Neupogen shots, administering medication, blood tests, pain pills, insurance claims, keeping a smile on my face, and entertaining Akiva. Who would teach him? This was a constant source of anguish.

I was on the phone with a close friend from Detroit, and I voiced my concerns: "What will happen to Akiva when he gets to Shomayim and Hakodosh Boruch Hu wants to farher him? How will Akiva be able to answer? "My friend got very upset with me, "You can't talk that way. Im Yirtza Hashem, with the help of the Almighty, before you know it, Akiva will be back in school learning, and he will catch up in no time." My reply was, "But what if he doesn't? What if Hashem has another plan? Akiva needs to know the Mishnayos. He needs to be prepared for this most important test."

A few hours later, my friend called back. "Okay, it's arranged. My son, Aryeh Leib (a classmate of Akiva's), will learn with Akiva every night." And so they began, two eight-year-old boys on the telephone almost every night learning Mishnayos, Mesechta Brachos. There were days when Aryeh Leib would call from Detroit, and Akiva was not up to learning or wasn't in the mood, but we encouraged him and he pulled out his Mishnayos and took the phone. There were times when he was in terrible pain and it was difficult for him to speak, but we spurred him on. We told him that all he had to do was listen, we would hold the phone up to his ear and Aryeh Leib would read the Mishnayos. The next thing we knew, Akiva would be sitting up in bed reading and translating in a strong, clear voice.

They were so close to finishing. They were on the last perek, chapter, of Meseches Brachos. For Shavuos, we were fortunate enough to come home to Detroit to spend Yom Tov together as a family. What a beautiful Yom Tov we had, singing zemiros around the table the Shabbos before Shavuos. On Shavuos night, Akiva was in severe pain, and it was difficult for him to walk. The cancer had come back, and Akiva was taking pain medication that made him drowsy. Akiva had made arrangements to learn in the Yeshivah Gedolah with his rebbe. He didn't want to take the pain medication for fear that he would fall asleep. After the meal, Akiva went with my husband and my other son to the Yeshivah to learn. I expected them back within the hour. When I awakened in the morning, I woke my husband for shul. "It's okay, I already davened. The boys wanted to stay in Yeshiva all night learning; it was so beautiful." I was overcome with emotion. I had often wondered what possible tafkid, purpose, could an eight-year-old boy have. What was he put on this earth to teach us? Now I understood. Imagine all the bachurim, yeshivah students, observing this bald little boy learning with such hasmadah, diligence, while in so much pain. How could they not learn harder and push themselves farther? If he could do it, what excuse could they possibly have not to try harder? He was here to teach all of us the importance of learning Torah.

When the end was imminent, I held Akiva in my arms. I told him not to worry, even though he had not finished the Mesechta; he would finish it in Shomayim. He would have the best teachers to answer all his questions and clarify any points. They will make a Siyum, the festive conclusion, of the Mesechta in Shomayim and the Malachim, angels, will sing Shira, a song of praise. The doctors had told me that he had a few hours to live. As soon as I finished telling him what to expect and not to be afraid, however, his neshamah, soul, was returned to Shomayim.. Akiva had just celebrated his ninth Hebrew birthday.

The day of his kevura, burial, was the eighth day after his birthday and would have been the day of his Bris. Akiva was born on a Tuesday, and he died on a Tuesday. That is a nechamah, consolation, to our family, for in Beraishis, "Ki Tov," "it was good" is written twice on Tuesday. Akiva's life was truly good.

I have taken the liberty to include "Akiva's story" in this week's Peninim with the hope that it will inspire and instill within us a sense of pride in our People. "Mi K'Amcha Yisrael?" "Who is like Your Nation, Yisrael?" To suffer with courage, to continue studying Torah with joy - despite being subject to extreme pain - takes incredible love for, and faith and trust in, Hashem. Akiva was special. May his family know no more pain, and may their lives be filled with joy and nachas.

And Shem and Yafes took a garment, laid it upon their shoulders… and covered their father's nakedness. (9:23)

When they saw their father in his disgrace, Shem and Yafes took a garment and covered him. Rashi observes that the word "vayikach," "and (he) (they) took," is written in the singular, while the actual act of covering is written in the plural form (va'yasimu). Rashi cites Chazal who say that it was Shem who took the initiative, and afterwards Yafes joined him in this act of respect for their father. We wonder if taking the initiative should be considered as important as if he was the only one involved in the deed. Furthermore, what makes this more perplexing is the fact that Shem's descendants were rewarded with the mitzvah of Tzitzis, while Yafes' descendants were rewarded with burial in Eretz Yisrael. It would seem that there is a large discrepancy between these two rewards. There is reason to suggest that Yafes, who did not take the initiative, was the beneficiary of a greater reward than Shem.

Horav Zalmen Sorotzkin, zl, explains that they both were rewarded midah k'neged midah, measure for measure. They both covered their father; consequently, they were both rewarded with a covering for themselves. Shem was given the mitzvah of Tzitzis, which implies with it that he will have garments upon which to put on the Tzitzis. Yafes was given the assurance of burial - a covering for his mortal remains. There is a significant difference between their rewards. Shem's reward can be enjoyed during his lifetime, while Yafes' reward is only after he has passed on. Furthermore, Shem's descendants received their reward when they accepted the Torah at Har Sinai, while Yafes' reward will not be attained until the "end of the days." Apparently, the initiative taken by Shem paid off handsomely. Should such a seemingly small deed make such a great difference?

Horav Yaakov Beifus, Shlita, explains that it is the "little things," the extra few moments of learning, the few minutes that one arises before davening, that extra effort when doing a mitzvah, the smile when one performs an act of kindness, that make a major difference. In fact, they create the difference between ultimate success and mediocrity. As Horav Beifus point out, Koresh/Cyrus, the Persian king who helped build the second Bais Hamikdash, was a descendant of Yafes. The Shechinah did not repose there. The first Bais Hamikdash, which was built by Shlomo HaMelech, a descendant of Shem, was worthy of the Shechinah's repose. All of this is the result of Shem's extra effort. Trying harder is more than a slogan; it defines the mitzvah and its consequent success.

Questions and Answers

1. What is the definition of the word "Mabul"?

2. In which year after Creation did the Mabul occur?

3. How long did the entire period of the Flood last - until Noach and his family were able to leave the Ark?

4. Which living creature did not perish in the Flood?

5. What food became permissible for human consumption only after the Flood?


1. The word "mabul" refers to any catastrophic event that causes a sudden and widespread disaster. In this particular instance, Hashem used water as the medium for destruction. Thus, when Hashem promises never again to send a "mabul" to destroy the earth, it is an all-inclusive statement, not only through a flood, but through any medium (Sforno).

2.1656 years (Rashi)

3. 365 days (Rashi)

4. Fish - since the decree was only for all living creatures on dry land (Rashi).

5. Prior to the Flood, Adam HaRishon and his descendants were permitted to eat only vegetables and fruits. After the flood, the animals owed their entire existence to Noach. For this reason, they became permissible for human consumption. Although this reason does not apply to fish, the Torah does not distinguish between fish and animals, so as not to cause jealousy and discord among the world's creatures. (Ramban, Meshech Chochmah)

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Peninim on the Torah is in its 7th year of publication. The first five years have been published in book form.

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