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Peninim on the Torah

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Rabbi A. Leib Scheinbaum
Hebrew Academy of Cleveland


These are the names of Bnei Yisrael. (1:1)

The Torah repeats the names of the tribes who went down with Yaakov Avinu to Egypt. Chazal consider this mentioning of names as a form of praise. Sforno explains that a man's name carries great significance. It is an indication of his stature, an index to his very essence and character. This is demonstrated by the mere fact that the Torah views him to be worthy of honorable mention. The Torah does not reward just any person. He must be noteworthy, deserving emphasis. The Shivtei Kah were a beacon of light throughout their lifetime to the point that as long as they survived, the people of their generation could not be degraded. After their passing, however, even the righteous among their children were not considered to be equally worthy in the eyes of Hashem and man. Chazal teach us that the names also allude to the redemption from Egypt. How are we to understand this, since the tribes were given their names many years before there was any thought of descending to Egypt?

Horav Mordechai Gifter, zl, explains that apart from the overt qualities and attributes of the tribes, they also possessed hidden abilities and virtues which emerged under necessary circumstances. Their names described their characters, but their characteristics were manifold. When, earlier in Sefer Bereishis, the Torah lists the tribes, they were a free people, living under idyllic circumstances in the vicinity of Yaakov, an atmosphere that resonated with sanctity. Their lives were structured, meaningful and purposeful. Egypt was a totally different world for them. It was a corrupt and immoral society in which debauchery and degeneracy reigned supreme. They did not have Yaakov to guide and protect them. They had to call upon their hidden resources of character and virtue to work overtime, to shield them from this repugnant environment. By naming the tribes once again in this new milieu, the Torah is lauding the individual's ability to adapt to, and to deal with, every situation. They serve as standard bearers and examples of how to live under adverse spiritual conditions and how to confront the pressures of galus, exile.

Rashi remarks that by recounting the names of the tribes after their demise, the Torah indicates Hashem's great love for them. They are like the stars which Hashem brings out and takes in by number and name. He counts and enumerates them when they "come out" and again when they are "gathered in." This statement begs elucidation. If the indication of Hashem's love is the fact that their names are recounted posthumously, why does the Torah first begin by relating their names and then - later, in the sixth pasuk - mention the fact that they had passed on? Should the Torah not have first informed us of their passing before relating their names?

Horav Gifter explains that once we take into consideration their comparison to stars, we will understand why their names are specifically related prior to their deaths. Our ability to view the stars is restricted to nighttime, for when the sun rises, its light blinds us from seeing the stars. The stars continue their illumination; our capacity to see them, however, is impeded. Our inability to see the stars' light does not detract from their function. The same is true of the righteous. Although their passing from this world puts an end to our relationship with them, they are still present. We may not be able to see them, but their impact via their legacy continues to inspire and to guide us.

People count their possessions for two reasons: after a loss, one takes stock of what he no longer possesses; one may also count that which he continues to own, because this item brings him great satisfaction.

If the Torah had related the tribes' names after their deaths, we might be led to think that the Torah was lamenting their loss, mourning over what was no longer. This, however, is not true. The righteous continue to impact the generation, even after they are gone. The Torah is counting what it cherishes and values. Despite our inability to see them physically, they live on.

We may add that this idea does not apply only to gedolei Yisrael, Torah leaders. There have been simple committed Jews throughout the generations whose sterling character and unflagging devotion to Torah and mitzvos have inspired many. Much of the Torah environment we enjoy today is the result of the toil, blood and tears of dedicated laymen, who, together with the Roshei Yeshivah who survived the Holocaust, built Torah on these shores. Their legacy lives on in the thousands upon thousands of committed Torah Jews who are their beneficiaries.

Yosef died, and all his brothers and that entire generation. (1:6)

The Ohr HaChaim HaKadosh explains why the Torah finds it necessary to add that the members of the entire generation, the seventy souls that descended to Egypt with Yaakov Avinu, also died. He says that each and every member of that generation had a certain nobility to himself. As such, they were held in great esteem by the people. As long as they lived there was no slavery, for the Egyptians could not enslave someone whom they respected. Horav Yitzchak Zilberstein, Shlita, notes that as long as one acts in a distinguished manner, if he maintains an elevated sense of self-respect, if his ethical character reflects nobility, he is shielded from falling into the abyss of iniquity. Sin is similar to slavery. In both cases, one is subjugated to a master. In the latter, it is to an earthly master; in the former, it is to the yetzer hora, evil inclination, which takes a chokehold on him.

We find a similar idea expressed by the Sefer HaChinuch in regard to personal hygiene. One who is not clean is more likely to act in a sinful manner. Regarding the prohibition to break a bone of the Korban Pesach, the Sefer HaChinuch remarks that a distinguished person does not act in an undignified manner, such as breaking bones. He does not think thoughts similar to those which fill the mind of a person who is on a lower echelon. Dignity has its demands on a person. Thus, one who appreciates and values his own nobility will not denigrate himself with sin.

The Midrash teaches us that Pharaoh guilefully ensnared the Jews. He did not immediately force them to work for him. He first offered the Jews the opportunity to work with him, to assist in making bricks. He would pay them a small sum for each and every brick. Their desire to earn money drove them to work hard the first day, preparing many bricks. When Pharaoh saw how many bricks the Jews had made the first day - for money, he placed this number as a tax upon them - without pay. Whoever was not able to produce this quota was whipped and humiliated.

The members of the tribe of Levi refused to compromise themselves for money. They knew that one day they would carry the Aron HaKodesh. Therefore, they declined to sell themselves for money. They prepared excuses: illness; an injured leg; a pain in the arm or shoulder. They maintained their dignity and self-respect, not falling into the Egyptian trap. The Egyptians could not enslave the tribe that put honor above money.

What a powerful lesson for us to digest. A positive self-esteem empowers one to fend off the blandishments of the yetzer hora. It protects him from sin. What about gaavah, arrogance? Should one not fear that self-esteem will lead to the sin of haughtiness? He who understands the definition of self-esteem realizes that it is much different from gaavah. Self-esteem is based upon the realization of one's abilities, his potential. Vanity is the sense that one should be admired and exalted for what he has already done. Self-esteem looks to the future; arrogance rests on the laurels of the past. Great people act based upon what they know they can achieve. Arrogant people only talk about their accomplishments. A person with a healthy self-esteem does not feel compelled to talk - or hear - about himself constantly. Indeed, arrogance is an escape for the individual who has negative feelings about himself, and tries to override his inner feelings of worthlessness. As psychologists have noted, however, the baal gaavah is never satisfied. His feelings of incompetence are delusional and, thus, not prone to responding to therapy. He must raise his self-esteem in order to realize his potential. This will be his ultimate cure for gaavah and his greatest protection from sin.

Rav Zilberstein concludes with a plea for Torah Jews to act in a manner commensurate with the nobility they represent. When one acts in a plebeian manner, he denigrates not only himself, but the Torah that he should reflect. This action results in chillul Hashem, a desecration of Hashem's Name. He relates an incident concerning a young Torah student, who was noticed arguing with a taxi driver over a few pennies. The bachur felt he was overpaying; the driver felt he was justified in his charges. The issue is not who was right and who was wrong. The mere fact that a young Torah scholar would argue with a taxi driver over a few pennies was in itself a chillul Hashem. Ultimately, this was regrettably demonstrated when the driver cursed the young man and all the people "like him."

Was it worth a few pennies? Perhaps to some of us it is a matter of principle. We might ask ourselves: Is it principle or stubbornness? Furthermore, is our principle worth a chillul Hashem?

And Moshe grew up and went out to his brethren and observed their burdens. (2:11)

Moshe Rabbeinu's empathy served as an example for others to emulate. He could have easily closed his eyes to the anguish of his brethren. He was an adopted Egyptian and could thus have separated himself from them. He did not, however, do that. He went out to his brothers and suffered alongside them. Furthermore, when we consider the translation of "vayigdal Moshe," "and Moshe grew up," we note that shouldering responsibility for another Jew, empathizing with his plight, is a vital component in maturity. Growing up means growing out, thinking and caring beyond oneself. Moshe Rabbeinu led the way for so many who took the initiative and followed him. I recently saw a poignant story concerning Horav Elazar M. Shach, zl, Rosh Hayeshivah par excellence, gadol hador, pre-eminent Torah leader of his generation, who took the time and the effort at his advanced age, when he was physically frail and ill, to spend time with a family of little children.

One of his close talmidim, students, arrived at his apartment to speak in learning. As he walked in, the Rosh Hayeshivah said, "It is good that you came. Help me to prepare for an important visit I have to make." Rav Shach immediately rose from his chair, donned his frock and asked the student to bring him a bag of chocolate from the kitchen cupboard. He then proceeded to the door.

They went to another apartment building, and Rav Shach trudged up three floors to knock on the door of an apartment. Immediately the door opened, and three small children screamed, "The Rosh Hayeshivah is here!" The children were standing with cameras flashing, taking pictures of Rav Shach, as their mother stood there watching - with tears streaming down her face. When the children exhausted their film, Rav Shach opened his bag of chocolate, shared it with the children, and bid them good day - until next week, when he would return.

Understandably, the student was in a state of utter disbelief. On their way home he respectfully asked Rav Shach to explain what had transpired and why. The Rosh Hayeshivah explained that one of the siblings, a twelve-year old child, was gravely ill. The parents had to take the child to the United States for treatment. During their stay in America, the mother had given birth to another child, and returned to Eretz Yisrael, leaving the father in the States to oversee their sick child's treatment. Rav Shach explained that since he was privy to the facts in this situation, he felt that it behooved him to do whatever was in his power to ameliorate some of the stress in the home.

This story was related about an individual who never wasted a minute. Every moment was dedicated to Torah and mitzvah fulfillment. Yet, he made time to pose for pictures, because it would make the children happy. This was true gadlus, greatness. Moshe Rabbeinu, the quintessential leader of our people, led the way. He set the standard for empathizing with another Jew. In fact, as the Yalkut Me'am Loez relates, Moshe was the last one to cross the Red Sea. He determined that if he went in front, possibly only those near the front would be saved. He, therefore, remained at the end of the line to make sure that every Jew crossed over safely. A true leader thinks of himself last.

Moshe got up and saved them. (2:17)

Moshe Rabbeinu rescued Tzipporah and her sisters from the Midyanite shepherds who would otherwise have taken advantage of them. Moshe's wife, Tzipporah, later returned the favor, middah k'negged middah, measure for measure, when she circumcised her son, just before the angel would have taken Moshe's life. Every good deed that one performed is paid back to him accordingly. Hashem maintains a meticulous accounting of a person's actions, arranging that remuneration duly occurs. The following story related by Horav Chaim Kreisworth, zl, demonstrates this reality.

Rav Chaim was a student in a yeshivah in pre-World War II Warsaw that was typical of many yeshivos: there existed practically no material essentials in the yeshivah. Even beds were at a premium. In fact, most of the students slept on the cold floor. Rav Chaim was fortunate to have some kind of a bed, since he taught a class in the yeshivah, even though he was only seventeen years old. One day a young man came to study in the yeshivah. He was, unfortunately, blind, and had come to the city for treatments. During his stay, he was told to look up Chaim Kreisworth. He would see to his needs.

There was no place in the community to place him for an extended time, and since the yeshivah surely had no extra beds, Rav Chaim was happy to give up his own bed to this young man. This went on night after night: the young man would have a restful sleep in bed, while the man who was destined to be a Torah leader of exceptional stature, one whose Torah thoughts and directives would be shared with thousands of students, slept fitfully next to him on the floor.

One fateful day, the Nazi beasts entered the yeshivah bais medrash with a list of the students. One by one, they called the students outside and shot them against the wall of the building. It was now Rav Chaim's turn to meet the executioner. His name was called, and a Nazi soldier came to accompany him outside. He now had two minutes to entreat the Almighty for a miracle.

Rav Chaim was a person whose emunah, faith, in Hashem was unequivocal. Regardless of the situation, he believed that there was always hope. He conjured up every bit of emunah and begged the Almighty to spare him. He cried and he prayed, as he walked slowly to what should have been his execution: "Hashem please have mercy on me. Remember the Torah I studied, and if the Torah is not sufficient to save me from death, consider the merit of chesed, the kindness I showed to the young blind student!"

They reached the wall of death where the bodies of the yeshivah students were piled up. The Nazi marksman looked at Rav Chaim, and then he began to stare with piercing eyes at the handsome young Torah scholar. Suddenly, for some inexplicable reason, the Nazi said to him, "Chaim, you are such a handsome young man. It is truly a shame to waste you here against this wall. I have a deal for you. I will make it appear as if I am aiming at you, but, actually, I will swerve the barrel of the rifle a few centimeters to the right, causing me to miss. During those few seconds that I will have to reload, run away as fast as your legs will carry you. By the time anyone realizes what has occurred, you will be saved."

Rav Chaim was saved, and all of Klal Yisrael had the guidance of an exceptional gadol baTorah for many years until his recent petirah, passing. The Nazi's actions were textbook miracle. There is no other way to explain what occurred. Rav Chaim's parting words sheds some light on this miracle: "See what a person can merit through an act of kindness. All of the Torah that I have been privileged to learn (and all of the Torah that he taught for over sixty years) was all due to the merit created by the chesed I performed for the blind young man."

Va'ani Tefillah

L'olam yehei adam yerei Shomayim b'seisar u'vagalui.

Always let a person be G-d fearing privately and publicly.

One's relationship with Hashem should be of a personal and private nature. To seek public accolades for one's yiraas shomayim, fear of Heaven, is a clear indication of both spiritual insecurity and flawed yiraas shomayim. It is an indication of arrogance, which is the antithesis of true fear of Hashem. Horav Shimon Schwab, zl, compares this to a thermos bottle which is warm on the outside - a clear sign that it is cracked internally. When Yaakov Avinu bested Eisav's angel, he was blessed and given the name Yisrael, because "sarisa im Elokimůva'tuchal." Targum Onkelos translates this as: "For you fought before G-dů and emerged victorious." The true challenge is to serve G-d in private - without the support and the fanfare of the public stage.

Rav Schwab uses the Mishkan as a paradigm of our relationship with Hashem. The Torah describes the intricate details of each of the Mishkan's keilim, appurtenances. Everything was beautiful, either of exceptional artistic design or covered with gold. Yet, despite all of this beauty, they were covered with the yerios izim, simple black covers made of goat's hair. Furthermore, the only ones who were permitted to enter the Kodesh, Holy area, were Aharon and his sons. Kedushah remains private and internal, which is intrinsic to our relationship with Hashem.

Peninim on the Torah is in its 14th year of publication. The first nine years have been published in book form.

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