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Peninim on the Torah

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Rabbi A. Leib Scheinbaum
Hebrew Academy of Cleveland


And these are the names of Bnei Yisrael who were coming to Egypt. (1:1) In the preface to his commentary to Sefer Shemos, the Ramban refers to this sefer as the book of galus and geulah, exile and redemption. This seems enigmatic when we take into consideration that the majority of the sefer deals with geulah, while it only addresses galus in the first two parshios. I once heard that in order to understand the depth of the galus and its effect on the people, one should study the redemption, including its various stages and challenges, as well as the reaction of the people. In that way, he will have a more penetrating analysis of the exile. In other words, how people react during redemption is the true barometer of the effect of the exile.

The Jewish People were in Egypt for two hundred and ten years. When they departed, only one fifth of the national population was left. Chazal explain this in their commentary to Shemos 13:18: Va'chamushim alu mei'eretz Mitzrayim, "And they went up armed from the land of Egypt." The word chamushim, which is translated as "armed," is a derivative of the word chamishah, five. This prompts Chazal to suggest that only one-fifth of the nation left, while the other four-fifths died during the three-days of darkness. Regarding the quality of the one-fifth that left, the Torah relates their arguments and complaints, in addition to the sins of the Golden Calf and the spies. It is clear that, although this is the group that left Egypt, these were spiritually deficient individuals, remnants of an exile that had taken a terrible toll on their emotions and spirituality.

By studying how Klal Yisrael behaved during the geulah, one can understand how devastating the galus really was. Thus, Sefer Shemos occupies itself with relating the story of the redemption and the exile, for in every aspect of the redemption, we perceive a deeper understanding of the exile.

We see this in our own time. Those who survived the Holocaust may have remained alive, but they certainly have also remained traumatized - some emotionally and others spiritually. The reaction of each individual survivor during his redemptive period must be taken in context with the terror and persecution he personally sustained during his exile. We should not judge, because we cannot judge. Clearly, anyone who survived that black era of Jewish history had his own individual experiences that played havoc with his life. For many, liberation was not the end of this torment, but the continuation, as the survivors continue to carry the baggage of their previous exile. We, who were fortunate not to have lived through their dread, can only stand back and look on with reverence and awe at those who continue to survive.

Yosef died, and all his brothers and that entire generation. The Bnei Yisrael were fruitful, teemed, increased and became strong - very, very much so; and the land became filled with them. (1:6, 7)

When we refer to shibud Mitzrayim, the bondage of Egypt, what usually comes to mind is an image of intense physical labor. This is wrong, explains Horav Yaakov Galinsky, Shlita. He cites the Kotzker Rebbe, zl, who interprets the pasuk in Tehillim 128:2: Yegia kapecha ki socheil, ashrecha v'tov lach. "When you eat the labor of your hands, you are praiseworthy, and it is well with you." A person who works with his hands is fortunate and praiseworthy. Rav Galinsky explains that if it is only one's hands that are laboring, regardless of how difficult it may be, he can manage the situation. It is much worse when his head is absorbed with every aspect of his work. Then, he is not as fortunate.

A chasid once came to the Kotzker and complained bitterly that alien thoughts were creeping into his mind during davening. The Rebbe responded, "You call them alien thoughts! They are not alien. They are your real thoughts. It is what you think about all of the time. They represent yourpriority in life. How can you expect to daven properly to Hashem if your mind is suffused with all of your business deals? On the contrary, your Shemoneh Esrai is what is alien to you."

Let us delve deeper into the Kotzker's interpretation. The great tzarah, trouble, of the Egyptian bondage was not the physical labor. It was not the pain Klal Yisrael suffered at the end of the day. Yes, their hands and feet hurt; in fact, probably every limb in their bodies must have been in agony. That, however, was not the real shibud. The physical labor did not catalyze their descent to the forty-ninth level of ritual impurity. It did not give them the status of ovdei avodah zarah, idol worshippers. No, it had to be something else.

Chazal teach us that as long as one of the brothers was alive the Jews did not become enslaved. The shibud began after no one was left. This seems to be the Midrash's commentary to the parshah: The bondage began as soon as the previous generation had passed on. This is not consistent with the Midrash on the next pasuk that attributes the onset of the shibud to the intermingling of the Jews with Egyptian society. They moved out of the Goshen ghetto and purchased villas in the Egyptian suburbs. After all, they had come of age. They wanted to be like everybody else. How are we to understand these contrasting commentaries?

Rav Galinsky feels that the two interpretations are connected; together, they explain the origin of the slavery. As long as the members of the previous generation were alive, the Jews maintained their shtoltz, dignity and class. There was a regal bearing, a sort of nobility to their demeanor, which distinguished them from the common Egyptian. Thus, the tumah, spiritual contamination, that was so much a part of the base Egyptian lifestyle, was distant from them. When they no longer had whom to dignify and look up to in reverence, they began to lose their own sense of aristocracy. Klal Yisrael wanted to be like the Egyptians, because they did not retain the sense of pride that had been generated by their forebears. They began to acculturate, and this led to all- out assimilation. It all began with their loss of nobility, resulting from the passing of the original generation that came down to Egypt with Yaakov Avinu. They lost sight of who they were. When one has no positive self-image, he gravitates to wherever and whoever will accept him.

The Jews became Egyptians because they thought that by commingling with the citizens of their host country, they would themselves become citizens and develop a positive self-image. How wrong they were then, and how wrong have we been ever since that first test of assimilation. We have attempted this endeavor of futility in every country that has been our home, and we have always lost. The Jew is supposed to be distinct, his Jewish pride serving as his only self-image. It happened in Egypt; it happened in Spain; it happened in Germany; and it is happening in America. We are the bearers of a royal pedigree with a mission to be "a kingdom of Priests and a holy nation." Is anything more distinguished than this?

The king of Egypt died, and Bnei Yisrael groaned because of the work, and they cried out. Their outcry because of the work went up to G-d. G-d heard their moaning. (2:23, 24)

The second Sefer of the Torah begins with the terrible galus, exile of Egypt. The Jewish People were subjected to the cruelest and diabolical forms of slavery, as the Egyptians thought of every innovation to break the Jews physically, emotionally and spiritually. If we were to peruse the annals of history, we would find that the only dark period during which the Egyptian taskmasters found their parallel was the Holocaust, when Hitler's monsters also devised new ways to deny the Jew his right to life and liberty.

We are told that Pharaoh died and was replaced by a new ruler. The Midrash, quoted by Rashi, claims that Pharaoh did not actually die; rather, he contracted leprosy. His advisers told him the best therapy for this affliction was to bathe himself twice daily in the blood of one hundred and fifty Jewish babies. Pharaoh authorized the slaughter of three hundred Jewish infants every day. When the Jewish People heard of this new decree against them, they began to wail bitterly to Hashem.

When we take into consideration the absolute brutality of this decree, it makes our blood shudder at the callousness and cruelty to which a human being can descend. Furthermore, it was approved by his populace. There is no record of anybody voicing their protest over this despotism. The Jewish People wept, and no one listened. No one but Hashem. One would think that such a harsh decree would have brought about the Jewish redemption. It did not. A careful reading of the text indicates that something other than Pharaoh's cruelty catalyzed the liberation of the Jewish People. It occurred because "BneiYisrael groaned because of the work, and they cried out." Hashem heard their outcry.

In other words, it was not Pharaoh's savage behavior that prompted the end of the Egyptian slavery. Rather, the heartfelt and sincere prayer of the Jews, motivated by their intense suffering, elicited Hashem's mercy that brought an end to the reign of terror.

Horav Avrohom Pam, zl, in Noam Avrohom, Rabbi Shalom Smith's latest anthology of the Rosh Hayeshivah's shmuessen, ethical discourses, cites the Zechusa D'Avraham, Horav Avraham Chechanover, zl, who notes this and derives from here a fundamental principle in avodas Hashem, serving the Almighty. David HaMelech says in Sefer Tehillim 102:1, Tefillah l'ani ki yaatof v'lifnei Hashem yishpoch sicho, "A prayer of the afflicted man when he faints, and pours forth his supplication before Hashem." The Zohar HaKadosh interprets this to mean that the prayers of an afflicted person manifest a unique quality. A broken-hearted Jew who is engulfed in suffering, beset by tragedy and persecution, pours out his heart to Hashem with sincerity. The desperate situation, in which he finds himself, compels him to pray as he has never prayed before. Indeed, this sincere prayer has the power to elevate other tefillos that just did not contain this degree of integrity.

The Zohar adds that not every tefillah has the power to pierce through the many spiritual barriers, impediments and kitrugim, indictments, against us. Hashem requires sincerity. For tefillah to be effective, the petitioner must be sincere; he must concentrate and reflect upon before Whom he is standing. The very fact that he has the opportunity to offer his supplication personally to the Almighty King of Kings, and to address Him directly saying, Baruch atah Hashem, "Blessed are You Hashem," is an indicator that he is speaking as a son to a Father. What an awesome privilege we have! Yet, we allow it to slip right through our hands, by failing to fulfill its requirements.

Hashem is known to us as the Shome'a Tefillah, One who listens to prayer. Do we ever contemplate the depth of this appellation? Hashem listens to sincere prayer. Why do we not take advantage of it? Any Jew has the power to address Hashem whenever he pleases. Hashem listens. Yet, we are so pre-occupied with our own lives and our foolish mundane trivialities, that even when we do daven, it is nothing more than lip service. We read the words by rote, usually from memory, because we are too involved to look into a siddur. Plus, the siddur slows us down, because we have to say every word. Yet, we expect Hashem to listen, accept and respond positively to such a prayer.

Now that we have explained why so many of our prayers are not authentic prayers, we understand why a prayer motivated by serious duress, a grave illness, a terrible affliction, or a painful experience has such driving power and effectiveness. It is sincere. It is real. It is expressed with concentration and devotion. We think very carefully about before Whom we are standing and Whom we are addressing. In other words, for once, we are davening the way we should. We cry out to Hashem from the depths of our heart: "Hear us Hashem!" Such a prayer ascends to Heaven unimpeded by the obstacles and detractions that often block our "usual" prayer. As it pierces through the Gates of Mercy, it continues on until it stands before the Heavenly Throne in its pristine nature. Hashem listens, because He is "close to the broken-hearted" (Tehillim 34:19).

The Rosh Hayeshivah adds that such a pure tefillah has the power to vickel arum, envelop or wrap around, yaatof, and elevate the other tefillos, the prayers that he and other people have recited, which-- due to their lack of sincerity-- have been "hanging around," just not strong enough to evoke Hashem's mercy and salvation in order to be accepted in Heaven.

The Zechusa D'Avraham explains that the Jewish People certainly prayed to Hashem for redemption from their bondage, even before Pharaoh issued his terrible decree to slay the three hundred babies every day. However, it was a different tefillah. It was a moan, a groan, in response to their slavery. It was more of a complacent daily krechtz, sigh, from their over-work. However, when they witnessed the daily blood bath, while nobody offered an outcry of protest; when they felt the helplessness of their situation, they finally realized that this was a crisis unlike anything else they had experienced. They had nowhere to turn but upward to Hashem- the only Source of their salvation. This prayer of sincerity and meaning from the bottom of their hearts was able to "wrap together" all of the other prayers that they had issued earlier, but were not good enough. Hashem listened, and He responded.

Rav Pam derives an important lesson from here. One who has sustained a tragic experience-- and whose heart is now broken-- has the advantage that his tefillos can take on a greatly enhanced significance in Heaven, characterized by the ability to envelop other prayers that had been deficient. A person can rise from the depths of personal tragedy and effect salvation for others. He now has the key that will open the Gates of Mercy. He has the ability and the power. What greater chesed is this for others, and what greater z'chus, merit, it is for him!

Hashem said to Moshe, "Stretch out your hand and grasp its tail." He stretched out his hand and grasped it tightly, and it became a staff in his palm. (4:4)

Horav Meir Shapiro, zl, renders this passage homiletically. He views every Jewish child as a mateh, staff of Hashem, in Moshe Rabbeinu's palm. This mateh can sprout and grow as long as the Moshe Rabbeinu's, the rebbeim of every generation, continue to hold on to their students. Every Jewish child can grow miraculously and develop the powers of the Mateh Elokim, if he is nurtured by his rebbe, given the spiritual sustenance that is essential to becoming a talmid chacham, Torah scholar. Regrettably, there are awesome students who "fall to the ground," out of the grasp of their rebbe's hand, and become transformed from a Mateh Elokim into its diabolical counterpart. It deteriorates to such an extent that, vayanas Moshe mipanav, "Moshe fled from it" (ibid 4:3). When the rebbe counters, "What can I do now? He is no longer under my purview. I have no hashpaah, influence, over him"; the answer parallels what Hashem told Moshe when his staff turned into a serpent: Echoz bi'znav, "Stretch out your hand and grab its tail." Take hold of this student a second time and you will see how effective you can now be. At that time the student will revert to being a Mateh Elokim. It is all up to the rebbe. All too often we give up too quickly. Society demands speed, a quick turn-over. This approach is not effective with students. They must be inspired, and inspiration takes time, effort and love - qualities that cannot be rushed. In his many years as Rosh Yeshivah and Av Beis Din, Horav Yaakov Ades, zl, inspired a generation of Sephardic Torah scholars. He had the following two insights concerning educating Torah students: First, one should always seek to maximize a student's potential and creativity. After teaching a topic in the Talmud, rather than give a standardized test, he would ask the boys complicated questions, requiring each one to write his own personal opinion on paper. He once explained the reason for this innovative approach to testing a student. "Learning Talmud is like baking bread. Each woman may begin with the same dough and same oven, but the loaves do not emerge universal." Every student is unique and his individual understanding of the topic is distinct from that of his neighbor. He must be encouraged to develop his own potential.

Second, at a time when corporeal punishment was accepted as a form of discipline, he would frown on such measures. He would cite the pasuk in Bamidbar 31:23, "And everything that does not come in the fire, you shall pass through the water." This pasuk teaches us that utensils that are not heated, but used only with cold foods, do not require purging as a means of kashering them. Immersion in water suffices to bring them back to purity. Likewise, Rav Yaakov said, "When you want to correct someone, do not cart him through the fire. Instead, escort him through the water. Correct him in a soft, soothing manner, and he will return to his original pristine nature."

Nothing is more inspirational or encouraging than a rebbe intimating to his students that he needs their assistance. This elevates a student's self-esteem, inspiring him to move forward and upward. In a poignant exposition, in his book, "Touched By A Story (4), Rabbi Yechiel Spero relates the shmuess, ethical discourse, the mechinah, high school, students heard from the venerable Rosh Hayeshivah of Telshe, Horav Mordechai Gifter, zl. The Rosh HaYeshivah was already aged and weak, yet he felt it was important to give a special shmuess to the younger students at the beginning of Chodesh Elul. The month of Elul is a serious time for all Jews, but for young high school boys taking their first steps in the vast sea of Torah literature, it is a period of awe and trepidation.

Rav Gifter would speak in a somber tone, as befits the month of introspection and teshuvah, repentance. He would recall his youth growing up in Portsmouth, Virginia and explain how he became inculcated in the culture of mesiras nefesh, dedication and self-sacrifice, for Torah study. What was most memorable, however, was his battle cry for the month of Elul. "I am an old man," he would say. "I can no longer do it on my own." The students would look at each other in wonderment. Here was one of the gedolei ha'dor, pre-eminent Torah giants of the generation, and he could not do it on his own. Certainly, he must be toying with them. He could not be serious. So they thought until the Rosh Hayeshivah called out in a manner that only one who studied in Telshe can remember, "Please! Carry me on your shoulders!"

Rav Gifter surely did not need these young yeshivah students to carry him for his sake. It was for their sake. He was teaching them a lesson in achrayos, responsibility. It was their obligation and also their privilege to carry him - and everyone else. When a rebbe empowers a student in such a manner, his learning takes on an entirely new focus. It becomes his mission, his lifelong endeavor, his raison d'etre.

Va'ani Tefillah

Ivdu es Hashem b'simchah. Serve Hashem with joy.

The Chovas Ha'Levavos writes that gratitude is expressed through avodah, service. This service is carried out joyfully, because the beneficiary of Hashem's favor is always burdened with the question: "How can I repay Hashem for all the good that He does for me?" Indeed, David Ha'Melech raises this question in Tehillim 116:12, "What can I repay to Hashem for all that He has bestowed upon me?" Therefore, the individual longs for that opportunity, that moment when he can do something pleasing for the Almighty. Horav Avigdor Miller, zl, adds that an individual who feels this way will rejoice exceedingly when the situation arises, and he can repay Hashem. He will do so for two reasons. First, he feels that in some minor way, he is repaying a debt of gratitude. Second, he is excited that he is able to bring pleasure before the One whom he loves so dearly.

Alternatively, the word ivdu literally means "demonstrate [to Hashem] that you are an eved, servant." Gratitude catalyzes a sense of humility. Thus, all acts of avodah are essentially demonstrations that we are servants of Hashem. Every mitzvah is an opportunity to serve, to demonstrate that we are avadim, servants, to Hashem, and that we serve Him with joy.

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